Washington Post: Kerry must abandon "one of Washington's hoariest bad ideas... issuance of a detailed U.S. plan for Palestinian statehood"
- Washington Post: Kerry must abandon "one of Washington's hoariest bad ideas... issuance of a detailed U.S. plan for Palestinian statehood"
- Renewed focus on "possible military dimensions" of Iran atomic program, as Tehran denies inspectors access to suspected warhead-related test site
Outlets and journalists over the weekend and into Monday continued to unpack what the Washington Post bluntly described as the "failure" of Secretary of State John Kerry's recent Israeli-Palestinian peace push, which had formally expired on April 29 but had functionally been suspended since the declaration of a unity agreement between the rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions. State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki had repeatedly emphasized that among other things Israel could not "be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist." The Washington Post, for its part, on Sunday reminded readers that "the numerous 'unity' plans announced in the past have foundered because of Hamas’s refusal to recognize Israel or renounce terrorism," and declared that the aftermath of the talks' collapse had left "plenty of bad options" that U.S. diplomats would have to head off. The Post specifically worried that Kerry may make good on past hints of "embracing one of Washington's hoariest bad ideas, the issuance of a detailed U.S. plan for Palestinian statehood... [which] would satisfy some partisans but lead nowhere." Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg called on U.S. diplomats to draw lessons from what he described as a series of Israeli gambits aimed at creating space for a Palestinian state stretching back "even before there was an Israel." Goldberg noted that Palestinian leaders and their regional backers had "rejected each previous attempt to bring about [a two-state] solution." Political and even legislative fallout from the end of the talks has been steadily building. A tense exchange between Psaki and veteran Associated Press diplomatic writer Matthew Lee in late April had already seen Lee declare "I remember you saying... they made progress on all the issues... I don't understand how you can even make that claim, frankly, with a straight face, because...the situation on both sides is demonstrably worse today than it was back last July when this process began." There had before and have since been a range of proposals on the Hill to slash U.S. assistance to the Palestinians.
Tehran is reportedly continuing to deny international nuclear inspectors access to the country’s Parchin military base, a site that Western diplomats and U.N. inspectors have long emphasized - per a 2011 report by the the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - shows "strong indicators" of having been used for explosives tests related to "possible nuclear weapon development." Iran's Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI) on Saturday asserted that the inspectors, who are in the country for a two-day visit, were not legally entitled to visit the Parchin base because it is not directly linked to Iran's nuclear program. The assertion has the potential to be taken as too clever by half. Demands for access to the military facility are grounded in among other things United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 1929, which calls on Tehran to clarify so-called "possible military dimensions [PMDs] of the Iranian nuclear programme." Non-compliance with the resolution has been cited in congressional legislation as a central justification for imposing pressure on the Islamic regime. Western negotiators hammering out the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) had deliberately put off addressing PMDs, and U.S. officials had subsequently assured journalists and lawmakers that the issues would be addressed in the context of comprehensive talks. Iranian negotiators, for their part, have recently taken to suggesting that they prefer to put off such discussions until some time in the future, and to deal with other issues first. Observers have suggested that Tehran may be trying to maneuver the West into a position where Iranian negotiators will ultimately decline to address PMD-related issues, and instead functionally dare P5+1 diplomats to scuttle a final deal over the Iranian military's entanglement in the country's atomic program.
A top Hamas official declared over the weekend that the possibility of disarming the Iran-backed terror group never came up during unity discussions between it and the rival Fatah faction, a boast that seems set to widen concerns that the agreement - which among other things envisions a single Palestinian government eventually taking control of both the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and of Fatah-ruled parts of the West Bank - may be insufficiently robust to overcome fundamental obstacles to the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Hamas Political Bureau Deputy Chief Moussa Abu Marzouk told reporters on Saturday that not only had disarming Hamas never been discussed, despite the almost definitional need for Ramallah to maintain a monopoly on the use of force, but that the organization would also refuse to recognize Israel. Renouncing violence and acknowledging Jerusalem's right to exist are two of three so-called Quartet conditions - abiding by past Palestinian Authority (PA) agreements is the third - that the international community has long demanded any Palestinian government fulfill. PA President Mahmoud Abbas has insisted in recent days that the envisioned unity government will meet those conditions, claims that earned him an explicit rebuke for lying by former Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud Al-Zahar. The news came amid indicators that the deal was nonetheless providing a lifeline to the group, which until very recently had widely been seen as locked in a political and economic downward spiral. Traditional Hamas allies such as Turkey and Qatar immediately hailed the deal, and the Qataris reportedly pledged to deliver $5 million to the Gaza government in support of Hamas-Fatah reconciliation in response to an explicit request made by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Meanwhile Palestinian media reported on Monday that Abbas had held a meeting with Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal in Doha aimed at overcoming remaining obstacles.
South African security site DefenceWeb on Monday rounded up developments surrounding last week's announcement by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) that he would block additional security assistance to the Egyptian army as a result of his "growing dismay" at Cairo's heavy-handed tactics against the Muslim Brotherhood, a move that came after the Obama administration had publicly committed to partially unfreezing its own halt in aid, which had in turn been widely blasted for risking bilateral relations while having little chance of affecting Egyptian calculations. Close military ties between Washington and Cairo had for decades granted American forces a range of preferential arrangements seen as crucial to enhancing American air and naval operations in the region. Analysts from across political and ideological lines had criticized the administration for creating a vacuum that could be filled in by other powers or, more worryingly, by geopolitical rivals. Tom Nichols and John R. Schindler, foreign policy scholars who by their own descriptions agree on almost nothing, described the freeze as undermining "nearly seven decades" of bipartisan American efforts aimed at "limiting Moscow’s influence" in the Middle East. Yiftah Shapir, Zvi Magen, and Gal Perel - researchers from Israel's Institute for National Security Studies - last week described a recently announced a deal under which Egypt would purchase Russian Mig-29s as "an alarm for decision makers in Washington" regarding a potential Egyptian pivot toward Moscow. Gulf countries meanwhile seen intent on taking the sting out of any aid cuts, and Reuters on Monday revealed that Gulf oil producers have in less than a year provided Egypt with roughly $6 billion worth of free fuel.
Iran angrily rejects U.S. report singling it out for global terror campaigns, complains about Washington ignoring "Zionist crimes"
- Iran angrily rejects U.S. report singling it out for global terror campaigns, complains about Washington ignoring "Zionist crimes"
- Daily Beast: Western analysts suspect Assad has secret chemical and biological weapons program, know-how to "rebuild a larger-scale, higher-grade" arsenal
Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Thursday conveyed angry remarks from Iranian officials in reaction to this week's publication of the State Department's annual country-by-country terrorism roundup - which veteran Associated Press diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee had characterized as "singl[ing] out Iran as a major state sponsor of terrorism that continues to defy demands it prove its atomic ambitions are peaceful" - with Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham complaining that the U.S. was "turning of a blind eye to Zionist [Israeli] crimes." English-language Iranian media translated the same passage as "atrocious acts of the Zionists." The report had also indicated that Iran was facilitating the transfer of both Shiite and radical Sunni fighters into Syria, essentially funding both sides of that country's more than three-year-long conflict in targeting moderate Sunni rebel groups. Other passages revealed that Iran "trained, funded, and provided guidance to Iraqi Shia militant groups," which - it was pointedly noted - had been done "despite [Iran's] pledge to support Iraq’s stabilization." Tehran's activities in arming Hezbollah in Lebanon were described as being as blackletter "violation[s]" of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 and were linked to Tehran's efforts to provide critical support to Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime. More broadly, the report catalogued Iran-backed terror activity in more than a dozen countries. State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf had already addressed some of the Iranian pushback in a Thursday press briefing, telling journalists that if the Iranians didn't want to be accused of supporting terrorism "they should stop supporting terrorism." Meanwhile Iranian Major General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, a former commander of the country's Revolutionary Guards Corps, was reported by Iranian media outlets as bragging that the Islamic Republic has managed to expand its sphere of influence to the Mediterranean Sea. Rahim-Safavi reportedly emphasized that 'Iran's defense perimeter has been extended... above the borders of Israel.'
The Daily Beast on Thursday cited a range of Western intelligence analysts converging on the assessment that Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime not only has a secret cache of undeclared chemical weapons - which the outlet said included "crude chlorine-filled bombs, secret stockpiles of sophisticated nerve gasses or their components" - but also the stored institutional knowledge to "rebuild a larger-scale, higher-grade chemical weapons effort" once the international community has turned its attention away from Syria. The outlet noted that widely broadcast reports regarding the eradication of Assad's chemical arsenal only take into account "the chemical arsenal Assad admitted he had" as part of a deal under which Damascus agreed to turn over its chemical weapons in exchange for the West suspending what appeared to be imminent airstrikes. The Daily Beast however conveyed that there there is "mounting concern that the Syrian regime may have a second unconventional weapons program—one Assad never told the international community about." That program is thought by Western intelligence analysts to include biological weapons, undeclared chemical materials, and chemical weapons such as chlorine that are not outright banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The news comes amid deepening worries among Western diplomats that Syrian forces have embarked on a campaign of using chlorine bombs to target civilians and fighters in rebel-heavy areas, a development that Foreign Policy had flatly stated if confirmed would "cast a dark cloud" over last September's deal. Meanwhile questions are also mounting about the regime's willingness to turn over even its declared CWC-proscribed arsenal. Reports have been piling up that Assad is dragging his feet on the obligation - the question came up on Friday at a Department of Defense press briefing - and Reuters reported the same day that rebel forces have in the meantime closed in on the last known stockpile of Syrian chemical weapons.
Emerging worries that a unity agreement between the rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions would provide the latter with a badly needed lifeline seemed set to deepen on Friday, with multiple reports being published indicating that the Iran-backed terror group was surging in the Fatah-controlled West Bank. Hamas was reported as making inroads into Ramallah - from which Fatah governs its West Bank territories - as measured by "the amount of Hamas flags that are being waved in PA controlled areas." The Times of Israel also reported on the use of Hamas flags at Palestinian events, conveying Hebrew-language reports of a Palestinian wedding procession in Jerusalem in which participants "displayed the flags of Hezbollah, Hamas and al-Qaeda." The news comes a few days after reports emerged that Hamas had held a large-scale demonstration in the West Bank, which Israeli outlets described as a "massive show of force." That rally had already reinforced suspicions - outlined at length on Monday by veteran Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff - that Hamas was maneuvering to use the unity agreement to boost its status. Hamas's command and control infrastructure, as well as huge swaths of its advanced arsenal, had been severely degraded during an eight-day Israeli air campaign in November 2012 that came in response to a sharp escalation in the amount and sophistication of projectiles that the group was using to target Israeli civilians and soldiers. Less than a year later, in the aftermath of the ouster of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-linked then-president Mohammed Morsi, the Egyptian army undertook a systematic campaign to destroy the smuggling tunnels that linked the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip to the Sinai Peninsula and which served as Hamas's economic channel to the outside world. By October of last year, Hamas officials were publicly bemoaning that they had been "sentenced to death," and by February 2014 analysts were predicting that Hamas was facing "a very bad year." Subsequent months seemed in line with those assessments, with Hamas diplomatically isolated and seemingly caught in a downward economic spiral.
Lebanon's NOW media outlet on Friday published a series of interviews and updates from the besieged Lebanese town of Tfail, which has been targeted by what NOW described as a "campaign of aerial bombardment against... civilians" by Hezbollah-backed forces loyal to Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime. The attacks have recently escalated to include barrel bombs, air-deployed shrapnel-packed IEDs that can level entire buildings with a single detonation. Tfail is technically in Lebanese territory but is accessible only via roads that run through Syria, and regime forces months ago set up roadblocks and began to choke off the town in an effort to prevent the transit of opposition elements across the Syria-Lebanon border. News of the attacks had been trickling out of Tfail for weeks, with reports emerging in late April that the Syrian army had launched a series of artillery strikes that had sent thousands of civilians - both Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees - scrambling to seek shelter in the surrounding hills. Beirut subsequently managed to send a relief caravan to the town, which by then had according to reports been "without supplies of food, electricity, shelter, or aid for four months." Friday's report by NOW indicated that attacks have resumed and that at least two Lebanese civilians have been killed, and one resident was quoted by the news outlet accusing Beirut of having only come "one day and then left us all alone to deal with the Syrian regime attacks." NOW also confirmed that Syrian forces targeted the center of Tfail with sustained tank fire for at least three hours, in addition to the air strikes. The Syrian campaign has come alongside several other cross-border attacks. The dynamic, under which Hezbollah-backed forces have been shelling Lebanese civilians and territory, has been devastating to the Iran-backed terror group's long insistence that it is an indigenous Lebanese organization protecting Lebanese sovereignty from outside interference. It is not clear, however, that the collapse of Hezbollah's decades-long pretense - which had occassionally been echoed in corners of the Western foreign policy community - will materially affect its ability to dominate Lebanon militarily and therefore politically. The group has publicly declared, for instance, that it will not accept a president who is not a "friend" to Hezbollah. An effort by the Lebanese parliament to pick a new president this week failed.
- News leaks: Palestinian unity agreement will install Hamas within PLO, allow terror group to keep munitions
- Reports: Palestinian negotiators repeatedly rejected Israeli efforts to craft compromise peace process language
The State Department on Wednesday published [PDF] its annual country-by-country terrorism roundup, a 318-page document that veteran Associated Press diplomatic writer Matt Lee nonetheless described as "singl[ing] out Iran as a major state sponsor of terrorism that continues to defy demands it prove its atomic ambitions are peaceful." The report described Iran as funding both Sunni and Shiite fighters, both across the region and globally. Specific sections of the report took harsh tones not often found in diplomatic assessments, at one point emphasizing that "[d]espite its pledge to support Iraq’s stabilization, Iran trained, funded, and provided guidance to Iraqi Shia militant groups." Another paragraph blasted Iran for facilitating the movement of Al Qaeda members across the Middle East, describing the operations of a "core facilitation pipeline through Iran" that "enabl[ed] AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and also to Syria." The final allegation has sometimes been controversial in the intelligence community. Iran has been unequivocal in its support for the Bashar al-Assad regime - Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made a point of underlining Tehran's commitment to the Assad regime in the immediate aftermath of his election - and some analysts and diplomats doubted that the Iranians would also allow Sunni jihadists battling the regime to transit through Iranian territory. Other observers emphasized that Iran had every interest in using both Shiite and Sunni fighters to crowd out the moderate opposition facing Assad, which would allow Damascus to characterize the country's bloody war as an anti-terror struggle. The Treasury Department last February announced that it had evidence that - per Lebanon's Daily Star- "Iran is assisting key Al-Qaeda figures to transfer Sunni fighters into Syria." The State Department report's broad criticism of Iran came up during Thursday's daily State Department press briefing, with a journalist telling Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf that "Iran was not pleased about being kept on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism" and noting "[t]hey reacted quite angrily this morning to it." Harf responded that if the Iranians did not want to be listed as state sponsors of terrorism "they should stop supporting terrorism."
Al-Monitor on Wednesday published a translated English-language version of an article by Gaza-based Palestinian journalist Hazem Balousha, in which Balousha revealed a range of previously unknown details regarding a recent unity agreement between the rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions, including news that Hamas had secured a commitment enabling its personnel to take up posts inside the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The PLO is one of the parties with which Israel officially conducts peace negotiations, and is - in theory - bound to core obligations including the renunciation of violence and the recognition of Israel. Top Hamas figures have in recent days been unequivocal in emphasizing that any unity deal would see them maintaining their commitment to the eradication of the Jewish state. Balousha noted in Al-Monitor that Hamas's demand for a voice inside the body "had long been an obstacle to the implementation of all the previous agreements" but that "Abbas has seemingly made a concession" on the issue, with Hamas - in return - agreeing to yield any significant participation in the near-term Palestinian government that would guide the West Bank and Gaza Strip toward elections. Another aspect of the agreement would reportedly allow Hamas to "keep controlling the security forces in Gaza without any change or amendment," establishing a situation in which the terror group was allowed access to Palestinian institutions long backed by the West without having to yield - for instance - what are suspected to be tens of thousands of Iranian-supplied missiles and rockets. If confirmed, the description of the unity agreement is likely to reinforce growing analyst concerns that the unity deal amounts to a life-line thrown to the otherwise spiraling Hamas by the Western-backed Fatah faction.
The Times of Israel on Wednesday conveyed leaks from Israeli negotiators revealing that Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas had repeatedly rebuffed a series of Israeli proposals aimed at bridging the gaps regarding Jerusalem's long-standing condition that the Palestinians acknowledge Israel as a "Jewish state," describing the Palestinian leader and his negotiators as being "adamant in refusing to consider" a range of wordings that "would have described the Jewish people's and the Palestinian people's right to self-determination in precisely equivalent terms, and would have also included phrases to guarantee the rights of Israel’s Arab minority." The Times of Israel went on to describe the Israeli formula as one in which "both the Jewish people and the Palestinian people [would] mutually recognize each other's rights to sovereignty in the framework of an agreement that would end all remaining claims," noting that there would be a clause that "explicitly state[d] that a recognition of the Jewish state does not in any way impact on the status of non-Jewish Israelis, and does not coerce the Palestinians into accepting Israel’s historical narrative." The story, which is likely to deepen skepticism regarding Abbas's willingness to seal a comprehensive peace agreement, aligns with months of previous reporting. Abbas had been explicit in late March that he opposed "even holding a discussion" on Israel's demand, which was and is considered a proxy for the Palestinians' willingness to genuinely renounce claims against the Jewish state. The Palestinian leader had publicly underlined his stance as recently as April 26th, bluntly telling the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Central Council that Palestinian negotiators would never acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state. Agence France-Presse (AFP) secured a quote about Abbas's speech from Bassem Naim, an adviser to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Naim told the wire that "[t]he speech had mostly positive points, and we cannot but support it on topics such as Jerusalem, reconciliation and not recognizing (Israel as) the Jewish state, in addition to the failure of (peace) negotiations."
Turkey has fallen into the "not free" category of countries ranked by Freedom House's annual "Freedom of the Press" survey, with the NGO watchdog citing a steady decline in how Ankara treats journalists - the "largest numerical change" in the region - while noting that "Turkey remained the world's leading jailer of journalists in 2013, with 40 behind bars as of December 1." The country has maintained its status as the world's top jailer of journalists for several years, and journalists who are not behind bars have been expelled from the country for criticizing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development (AKP) party. A wave of expulsions last February took place amid a broader crackdown on free speech, triggering fears that a systematic sweep was underway. Multiple Turkish outlets covered the news revolving around Freedom House's ranking. Hurriyet Daily News wrote up its story under the headline "Turkey no longer even 'partly free,' according to press freedom report," and specifically cited portions of the NGO's report that discussed how "journalists were harassed while covering the Gezi Park protests and dozens were fired or forced to resign due to their coverage of sensitive issues." Zaman covered the same passages, and also described "several high-profile dismissals" of critics at top papers. Israel, meanwhile, was ranked by Freedom House as "free," marking the Jewish state as the only Mideast country with no significant media restrictions.
- Reports: Turkey opens gates to Iran banks "in light of the US and the UN Security Council loosening economic sanctions"
- Human rights activists accuse Syrian regime of deliberately targeting civilians as wave of barrel bomb attacks kills scores
A meeting of top Israeli political leaders on Thursday, called in order to chart Jerusalem's response to a Wednesday announcement by Palestinian leaders that the rival Fatah and Hamas factions had agreed to a deal that would see the formation of a unity government with members from both groups, concluded with a decision to suspend peace talks until the composition of that government was solidified. The Israeli move was not unexpected. Top figures from Hamas had already declared that the unity government would not see the group accepting the Palestinian Authority's obligations toward Israel, including the recognition of its right to exist and a renunciation of violence. State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Wednesday emphasized to reporters no fewer than four times that Israel could not "be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist," and the Israelis for their part had declared that the Palestinian Authority (PA) would have to choose between ongoing peace talks and an embrace of Hamas. Al Monitor assessed Wednesday that the agreement had been "the last straw for Congress" regarding perceptions of PA President Mahmoud Abbas in general, and more specifically regarding the degree to which the United States should continue extending assistance to an Abbas-led PA. The piece quoted Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) - who had authored the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which conditioned aid to any Palestinian government on the absence of terrorists in leadership positions - declaring that "the Administration must halt aid to the Palestinian Authority and condition any future assistance as leverage to force Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] to abandon this reconciliation with Hamas and to implement real reforms within the PA." It also quoted Ros-Lehtinen's Democratic counterpart on the House Foreign Affairs panel on the Middle East, Ted Deutch (D-FL), emphasizing that observers should "[b]e certain that the Palestinian Authority will face significant consequences if a unity government is formed that includes terrorist members of Hamas." Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, tersely stated that Abbas's reconciliation move "jeopardizes US assistance." Al Monitor also conveyed details of a conference call held Wednesday by The Israel Project (TIP) in which Hillel Frisch, a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, had explained to reporters that a Palestinian unity government was in fact a vital prerequisite to the creation of a viable Palestinian state, but that it could not come at the expense of the Palestinians meeting their past obligations to recognize Israel and renounce violence. The alternative would be tantamount to Palestinian negotiators having spent decades extracting functionally irreversible concessions from Israel at the negotiating table, before pocketing those concessions and then abrogating the commitments.
Turkish outlet Today's Zaman on Tuesday described a rush by Iranian banks to open and expand branches in Turkey in the aftermath of "growth restrictions" being lifted, a decision that the outlet explained was made by the country's Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency (BDDK) "in light of the US and the UN Security Council loosening economic sanctions after headway was made in negotiations regarding the curbing of Iran's nuclear program." Bank Mellat - which had been contracting due to sanctions-linked restrictions starting in 2012 - was cleared for expansion, a development that was followed by applications from two other Iranian banks that intend to open up in Turkey. The applications were approved. A report published in February by Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), identified Turkey as a key global hub of illicit and terrorist financing, and the country has long been criticized for providing Iran both direct resources and financial channels with which to circumvent Western sanctions placed on the Islamic republic. Top officials from the Treasury Department rushed to Ankara in the aftermath of the implementation of the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) - which eroded sanctions against Iran - to warn the Turks that "Iran is not open for business" and that "[b]usinesses interested in engaging in Iran really should hold off." Turkish outlet The Daily Sabah reported this week that, according to Iranian Ambassador to Turkey Alireza Bigdeli, Tehran and Ankara are now set to establish a free trade zone.
CNN on Thursday reported that forces loyal to Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime had, as part of an ongoing attack on the country's largest city, Aleppo, dropped barrel bombs out of helicopters on a vegetable market, killing at least 24 people. Activists and human rights workers distributed video of what Agence France-Presse (AFP) described as "scenes of chaos, with bodies lying amid mounds of grey rubble in what was clearly a market" including an image of "a man attending to a boy whose leg had been ripped off." The wire clarified that "it was unclear whether the child was alive or dead," and also conveyed the assessment of an Aleppo-based activist who explained that "the area that was struck today is a market area, that's why there were so many civilians killed... the regime is hitting back against the civilians who support the revolt." The news comes just days after reports of a similar Monday attack that killed at least 29 people in a single Aleppo neighborhood. The regime's use of the mass-casualty shrapnel-packed IEDs - which can quite literally level entire buildings with a single hit - has consistently been emphasized by analysts and lawmakers as a particularly compelling justification for more robust Western intervention on behalf of opposition elements. Syrian forces also launched airstrikes on Atareb, injuring dozens, and on the nearby village of Tal Rifaat. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Wednesday that, alongside the violence, almost 3.5 million civilians have little to no access to humanitarian aid.
Palestinian fighters on Thursday detonated a bomb along the northern border of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and launched a mortar shell at an IDF unit operating along the southern border of the territory, developments that the Jerusalem Post contextualized alongside new figures that show that there has been a "major upsurge in projectile attacks" against Israeli soldiers and civilians during 2014. Palestinian media outlets noted that the device was "apparently targeting patrolling Israeli soldiers." Thursday also saw the discovery of two additional bombs that had been planted along the territory's southern border with Israel. The incidents came a day after the Israelis had targeted what Reuters - conveying Israeli military reports - described as "a militant riding on a motorcycle in northern Gaza, from where rockets are often shot at Israel." Missiles and rockets had also been directed at Israeli troops and population centers on Monday, drawing both retaliatory and suppression fire that reportedly wounded four Hamas members. Those barrages, in turn, had been preceded by an attack on Sunday in which Palestinians detonated a bomb near an Israeli patrol and launched at least seven rockets into Israel. The Washington Post read the escalation against the backdrop of a more general uptick in rocket and missile fire, noting that "Gaza militants fired the heaviest barrages" in March since Israel's November 2012 Pillar of Defense campaign, during which Israeli forces decimated much of Hamas's advanced arsenal and its command and control infrastructure.
- Lebanon government scrambles to evacuate residents as Hezbollah-backed Syrian troops isolate, bombard town
- President Obama signs legislation forbidding Iranian diplomat linked to 1979 hostage-takers from entering U.S. for U.N. post
Iranian media on Friday boasted that sanctions relief provided under the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) has allowed the country's crude oil exports to "soar," carrying remarks by Iranian Deputy Oil Minister Mansour Moazzami revealing that "the volume of crude oil and gas condensate exports has doubled." The PressTV report gestured toward figures recently released by the International Energy Agency (IEA), which calculated that Iran's February oil exports had hit a 20-month high and were far in excess of the levels set by the JPA's "sanctions cap." Meanwhile a separate PressTV article bragged that private Indian refiner Essar Oil - which it described as "Iran’s top Indian client" - had "imported six times more crude oil from the Islamic Republic in March 2014 compared to March 2013." The outlet noted that the amount was "the highest monthly shipment since at least January 2011." Reuters had already reported by the end of March that Iran was expected to exceed the sanctions cap for the fifth straight month. The White House has insisted that it would continue to enforce remaining sanctions on Iran in order to preserve Western leverage in the context of ongoing nuclear talks. Administration officials have brushed off Tehran's sanctions-busting energy exports by declaring that they expect the flow of Iranian oil to dramatically decrease in the coming months, such that by the end of the JPA's six-month period the average amount of exported oil will have fallen within permitted levels. It is not clear what the administration will do if Iran continues behaving exactly as it is behaving. February - the fourth month in a row that Iran had busted through the sanctions limits - had already seen analysts calling for the administration to take action on the issue. Nat Kern, head of the Washington-based energy consulting firm Foreign Reports, had told the Washington Post that the pattern of oil exports "should be a red flag for the administration." He went on to emphasize that U.S. options would be severely constrained - "the horse would be out of the barn" - if "at the end of May... Iran has punched such a deep hole through the core sanctions on oil."
Israeli and Arabic outlets on Friday published reports, first printed the day before by journalists in Thailand, revealing that authorities had disrupted a Hezbollah terror plot targeting Israeli tourists traveling through the country during the Passover holiday season. Bangkok Post carried descriptions of the suspects, Lebanese-French national Daoud Farhat and Lebanese-Filipino national Youssef Ayad. Both men were traveling on non-Lebanese passports, and records seem to indicate that the current trip to Thailand was Ayad's 17th visit to the country. The data points will likely reinforce analyst concerns that Hezbollah has invested heavily in the development of tradecraft, especially in the context of the Iran-backed terror group's multiple plots against Israeli tourists. A source told the Bangkok Post that Thai authorities believe there are at least nine other Hezbollah terrorists inside Thailand, and that efforts to track them down were ongoing. Lebanon's Daily Star specifically cited both elements - the evidence of extensive preparation and the nine still-uncaptured Hezbollah operatives - in a short write-up about the incident. TIME contextualized the plot alongside a previous Iranian-driven terror attack planned for Bangkok, and in turn contextualized that plot alongside others "against Israeli targets in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and India... [and others that] were thwarted in Kenya, South Africa, Cyprus and Bulgaria – and Texas."
Lebanon's Daily Star reported early Friday morning that the Syrian army had launched what the outlet described as "a series of artillery strikes" on the Lebanese town of Tfail, sending Lebanese residents and Syrian refugees who have taken shelter in the town "flee[ing] into the surrounding hills." A Hezbollah-backed offensive on Syrian territory had driven refugees across the border and into the town, and reports indicate that the shelling caused many to flee back across the border and into the surrounding hills for shelter. An aid worker reported that "the village was bombarded throughout Tuesday." Tfail is technically a Lebanese territory with Lebanese citizens, but the only reliable roads connecting it to the outside world run through Syria. Those roads have been closed off by Hezbollah forces in an attempt to stem the transit of rebel elements back and forth across the Lebanon-Syria border. Lebanese Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk was quoted Friday by the pan-Arab Ash-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper declaring that Beirut was coordinating with Hezbollah to allow residents to flee the town. Syrian forces also attacked the Lebanese city of Arsal on Thursday, dispatching a helicopter to conduct at least two air raids. Hezbollah has been heavily criticized by a range of Lebanese figures for entangling the country in Syria's three-year-long conflict, but regime attacks on Lebanese territory are particularly problematic for the organization. The Iran-backed terror group justifies its existence - and more specifically, the massively armed state-within-a-state that it maintains inside Lebanon - as necessary to protect Lebanese sovereignty and prevent attacks on Lebanese territory. Attacks on Lebanese towns by the Assad regime, to which it has provided critical assistance, are in tension with those claims.
President Barack Obama on Friday signed into law legislation - previously passed unanimously by both the House and the Senate - that would among other things prohibit Iran's pick for its next U.N. ambassador from entering the United States. Hamid Aboutalebi was a member of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line in 1979 when the group seized scores of Americans inside the U.S.'s Tehran embassy, and the revelation that he had been appointed by Tehran prompted quick action in Congress to bar him. Politico opened its article on today's developments by observing that "the president noted he still considers the law 'advisory'" but that the legislation "was a rare moment of consensus in D.C." The issue is politically and diplomatically complicated for the White House. Domestically, administration officials fighting against Congressionally imposed pressure on Iran have leaned heavily on the argument that it is critical for the U.S. to maintain a positive diplomatic atmosphere to avoid hampering ongoing nuclear talks. Appointing a figure linked to the embassy hostage crisis to a U.S.-based post has been taken as a sign that the Iranians do not perceive themselves as similarly constrained. Internationally - per Washington Institute Managing Director Michael Singh - accepting the perceived Iranian slight and allowing Aboutalebi to take up his post would "reinforce the impression among regional allies that Washington is willing to ignore Iranian misbehavior in [the] pursuit of a nuclear accord." Iran has indicated that it will not consider any alternatives to Aboutalebi, and earlier this week it requested that the U.N.'s Committee on Relations with the Host Country meet to address the issue.
- Palestinian president's office scrambles to deny reports he condemned deadly terrorist attack on Israeli family
- Reports: U.S. and European defense firms urging Turkish counterparts to block China-Turkey missile defense deal
Iran's ambassador to Russia, Mehdi Sanaei, on Wednesday announced on Facebook that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will visit Russia next week to participate in a conference on Caspian energy and that the country's president, Hassan Rouhani, would follow in September for a similarly themed meeting with counterparts. The Times of Israel read the announcement against the backdrop of warming Iranian-Russian ties, noting that Tehran and Moscow are "close allies" and are supporting Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime and cooperating on the development of Iran's atomic program. The developments are also likely to be read alongside deepening concerns that tensions between the Kremlin and the West are likely to undermine international talks between Iran and the P5+1 global powers, a group in which Russia is a member. Slate international affairs writer Joshua Keating wrote yesterday that a range of geostrategic and diplomatic dynamics - from European energy considerations to straightforward retaliation by the Russians - may see the Ukraine crisis boosting Iran's prospects. Top Russian diplomats have threatened to "raise the stakes" of the crisis by shifting their stance on Iran talks, and Moscow has very publicly declared that it is in any case forging ahead with a $20 billion sanctions-busting scheme that would see Iran barter oil for goods. The Obama administration has thus far brushed off concerns that Russian calculations may see their diplomats undermining the West's approach to Iran, insisting instead that the Kremlin would "compartmentalize" various processes. At stake is the degree to which Washington and its European allies have sufficient leverage to convince the Iranians to verifiably put their atomic program beyond use for weaponization. Quantitative economic indicators, summed up this week in a new IMF report, indicate that Iran's economy has stabilized and is primed for growth "even if sanctions relief under [the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA)] deal proves short-lived." Iranian officials on Wednesday seized on an anticipated U.N. report, which will document that Tehran is meeting its JPA obligations to dilute the most highly enriched portions of its uranium stockpile, to demand the next tranche of money promised by the JPA. Arms control expert Mark Hibbs, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's nuclear policy program, has estimated that it would take Iran roughly one to two weeks to reverse the dilution process. It is unlikely that, should Iranian lawmakers choose to do so, they would return the money.
The office of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday rushed to deny reports - given to media outlets by a delegation of opposition Israeli lawmakers who had just returned from Ramallah - that the Palestinian leader had condemned a deadly Monday terrorist attack on an Israeli family, a day after Abbas's silence on the matter had been blasted by Jerusalem as deeply complicating efforts to sustain flagging peace talks. Terrorists had riddled the family's car with bullets, killing the male driver and wounding his wife and child. Abbas and other figures from his Fatah faction had through the week remained conspicuously silent on the matter, amid celebrations of the murder by other groups, triggering a harsh condemnation from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Multiple members of Israel's Knesset parliament visited Abbas today and came back telling journalists that "it didn't take much convincing" for him to specifically condemn the Passover eve attack, to offer assistance in "the investigation of the attack," to commit "to bring[ing] those accountable to justice," and to express "his disgust from bloodshed and terrorism." Members of the Israeli delegation criticized Netanyahu for among other things failing to acknowledge that "there is a Palestinian partner in Ramallah." Abbas's office remembered the conversation differently, with spokesman Nabil Abu Ruaineh insisting that Abbas condemned violence in general but did not speak out against the attack. Israeli and American lawmakers have long expressed concerns that Palestinian leaders, up to and including Abbas, stoke violence both by failing to dampen it and at times by explicitly glorifying it. Peace talks originally scheduled for Wednesday were pushed back at the request of the United States.
Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News disclosed on Wednesday that figures from European and U.S. defense firms have been heavily lobbying their counterparts in Turkey's defense industry for help in blocking a controversial move by Ankara - announced last September, only to be met with immediate pushback by the West - to purchase a missile defense system from a Chinese company blacklisted by Washington for violating anti-proliferation measures. The FD-2000 system, made by China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation (CPMIEC), would have to be integrated with Turkey's existing defense assets. One top NATO official has described the dynamic as being equivalent to implanting a Chinese computer virus inside NATO's command and control infrastructure, and then-NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen had been quite explicit that he expected the Turks to reverse their position. Last December Congress considered legislative responses to Turkey's moves, amid something of a lash-out by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Hurriyet reported that officials from Western defense firms are emphasizing to top Turkish officials that it will become impossible for them to establish or maintain partnerships "in certain fields" should Ankara go through with the purchase. The Turkish Foreign Ministry announced on Wednesday that it would this week host the third "Joint Working Group" between Turkish and Chinese officials, focusing on "bilateral relations... as well as the current developments in the region and internationally." Other Turkish media outlets assessed that while no details had been disclosed regarding the various meetings, "the Turkish acquisition of Chinese long-range air and missile defense system has remained one of the most important issues between the countries" and that "talks between Turkey and China on the missile tender are expected to be concluded by the end of April."
Palestinian media outlet Ma'an conveyed comments yesterday by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh declaring that the kidnap of Israeli soldiers was a "top priority" for the Iran-backed terror group, statements that are bound to deepen already widespread concerns that Hamas is looking to halt a precipitous slide in its power and popularity via a spectacular operation against the Jewish state. The Ma'an report was covered by both Israeli and U.S. media outlets, which contextualized the statements in light of the 2006 abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Hamas used an underground tunnel to infiltrate Israel and seize Shalit, triggering Israel's Operation Summer Rains and setting the stage for 2008's Operation Cast Lead. The beginning of Israel's 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense saw the Israeli Air Force eliminate Ahmed Jabari, Hamas's "chief of staff" and the mastermind behind the operation to seize and hold Shalit. Israeli security forces have in recent months uncovered multiple similar tunnels - including elaborate structures stretching miles into Israel and costing millions of dollars - designed to facilitate new kidnapping campaigns against Israel. Last October Hamas went so far as to both claim a particularly extensive tunnel, the third discovered that year by Israeli forces, and to boast that it had been intended for use in an attack on Israel. The Jerusalem Post editorialized that the discovery was "a reminder of Hamas’s intentions" and suggested that within "the warped internal logic of Palestinian politics, a successful terror attack or a kidnapping of an Israeli soldier or civilian would succeed in strengthening Hamas’s popularity."
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday boasted that the international sanctions regime against Iran was "already unraveling" and would be "shattering in the coming months," echoing a theme that he has been consistently emphasizing since the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) - which provided Tehran with badly-needed financial relief - was signed in November. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had as recently as late February bragged that Iran was "open for business," a gesture toward explicit Obama administration statements - made by among others Treasury Department Under Secretary David Cohen, State Department Under Secretary Wendy Sherman, and various anonymous administration officials - insisting that the Islamic republic was "not open for business." Reuters noted at the bottom of its article on Rouhani's speech that "Iran exported oil at levels higher than allowed under the sanctions for a fourth straight month in February," noting that Washington lawmakers may decide a crackdown is in order if "economic pressure is being relaxed too quickly." Figures from recent days indicate that Iran successful extended its sanctions-busting streak into a fifth straight month in March. The degree to which Rouhani genuinely believes that sanctions are crumbling is unclear. International reintegration and economic improvement were critical campaign themes for the revolutionary-era cleric, and some theories hold that he has been touting the collapse of sanctions as the fulfillment of campaign pledges. Skeptics have pointed out that overpromising sanctions relief to Iranian audiences dramatically increases the leverage that Western diplomats have in facing down Iranian negotiators: a halt or reversal in the relief would subsequently take place within a domestic environment of heightened expectations. It is not certain that Rouhani would have the will or political ability to raise the stakes for the Iranians in ongoing nuclear talks.
Gaza-based Palestinian groups on Tuesday celebrated the West Bank terror attack that the day before had killed one Israeli and injured two more, while other Palestinian organizations - including the internationally-backed Fatah faction that controls the Palestinian Authority (PA) - generated controversy by pointedly declining to condemn the atrocity. A statement issued by Palestinian Islamic Jihad described the shooting - which saw the family's car riddled with bullets, killing a father of five and injuring his wife and child - as a "natural" reaction to Israeli actions. Meanwhile Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh hailed the murders as having "brought back life to the path of resistance," declaring that "the West Bank will be the future point of our struggle with the enemy." Israeli officials have expressed increasingly pitched concerns that Hamas - having been bottled up in the Gaza Strip by an Israeli naval blockade and a persistent Egyptian campaign to destroy underground smuggling tunnels - may launch a dramatic terror attack in the West Bank to bolster its sagging stature . The PA for its part choose not to denounce the attack, a move which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu linked to ongoing incitement by Palestinian officials that had already generated other acts of violence against Israelis. Palestinian media reported on Sunday that a PLO committee had been dispatched to the Gaza Strip to facilitate reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. The two factions have been at odds at least as far back as 2006, when Hamas emerged ahead in Palestinian legislative elections.
An relatively unusual incident in Jordan - in which an angry protester on Monday hurled a pair of shoes at the country's Prime Minister Abdullah Nsur - has refocused analyst attention on potentially widening rifts inside the monarchy, which as recently as last year was thought to be on the brink of following Egypt down a path of Muslim Brotherhood-driven destabilization. Analysis since then has somewhat shifted, after the Brotherhood seemed to badly overreach in its criticism of King Abdullah II. One particular incident had an activist setting a picture of Abdullah on fire. The activist was arrested and shortly afterward issued a public apology that among other things declared his support for "his majesty's vision" and called on lawmakers “to be tough against whoever may ride roughshod over this country and its resources." The Brotherhood in March made formal and informal moves to bolster its relationship with Abdullah. Analysts will watch the aftermath of the Monday shoe throwing incident to see if it follows a similar pattern. Police detained the 65 year old protester, claiming that it was "for his own protection because some of the attendees threatened to take action against him." The incident occurred against the backdrop of wider protests and strikes, which erupted in the aftermath of fuel price hikes overseen by the Nsur government. The Obama administration has declared Jordanian stability to be a key American interest, and has in recent years actively funneled troops and financial assistance to Amman.
A top United Nations human rights investigator on Monday demanded that Iran call off what is thought to be the impending execution of 26 year old Reyhaneh Jabbari, who had been convicted of killing an employee of Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security under circumstances that international watchdog groups insist constituted self-defense. Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, noted that "reliable sources" had established that the stabbing of Morteza Abdolali Sarbandi happened after he sexually assaulted the then-19 year old Jabbari. The controversy comes against the backdrop of a spike in Iranian executions since the summer election and inauguration of President Hassan Rouhani. Shaheed has repeatedly called attention to that surge, and has more broadly sought to emphasize that Iran's human rights situation has not improved under Rouhani's government. Last October heassessed that there had been no fundamental improvements in Iran’s human rights between administrations, and then last January theNew York Times quoted him reiterating that "the more moderate tone adopted on human rights since... Rouhani's election last year has yet to yield any moderation in the country’s punitive practices." Last March he went further, insisting that despite "rhetoric and modest steps" I ran had yet to institute the reforms necessary to address "the human rights concerns raised by the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council, the UN Secretary-General, Treaty Bodies, all Special Procedures, human rights defenders and international organizations." Some analysts have suggested that Rouhani is actually trying really hard to reform Iran, but that hardliners are ordering executions to smear him. The theory has fallen short of winning broad assent. Skeptics have pointed out that Rouhani himself appointed Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi - a hardliner hated by reformers for having overseen the executions of literally tens of thousands of jailed dissidents in the years immediately following Iran's 1979 revolution - to oversee the country's Justice Ministry. Rouhani's own history as a revolutionary-era cleric who subsequently called for the mass roundup of political dissidents has also, in this context, not gone unnoticed.
IMF confirms Iran's economy has stabilized after months of sanctions-busting oil exports, as concerns deepen over spiraling Western leverage
- IMF confirms Iran's economy has stabilized after months of sanctions-busting oil exports, as concerns deepen over spiraling Western leverage
- WSJ: "no signs" that Iranian leaders preparing public for concessions, as top atomic official makes case for weapons-grade uranium and thousands of new centrifuges
- Passover terror attack on Israeli family leaves at least one dead, after negotiators seek new ways to push forward peace hopes
Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Monday outlined the details of a new International Monetary Fund report concluding - pre the outlet – that "Iran's economy is stabilizing" and will grow in 2014 "even if sanctions relief under [the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA)] deal proves short-lived." The assessment details a wide range of already-known macroeconomic indicators converging on the conclusion that Tehran is managing to mitigate the economic pressure that Western negotiators have said is critical to securing nuclear concessions. Xinhua's coverage the report, published under the headline "UAE seeks more trade ties with Iran after IMF's positive outlook," linked the economic improvements to long-standing fears that the JPA's partial sanctions relief would trigger a kind of gold rush in which no entity wanted to be the last to access Iran's newly reopened markets. Bloomberg had already reported over the weekend that Tehran is engaged in extensive discussions with European and Asian businesses over future economic initiatives. The New York Times today published an article that, at the bottom of the piece, gestured toward the IMF report and conveyed assessments from a range of experts evaluating the significance of Iran's ongoing, five month streak of surging past its permitted levels of oil exports. The Times quoted Mark D. Wallace, chief executive of United Against Nuclear Iran, declaring that the Obama administration’s insistence on the robustness of the sanctions regime was being "wholly contradicted by reality." It also quoted Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, noting that the dynamic "enhances Iranian nuclear negotiating leverage and makes it more difficult to conclude a diplomatic deal" that would see the Islamic republic meeting its international obligations. The top of the Times article, meanwhile, was devoted to evidence suggesting that ''the Iranians have seen little in the way of a boost from the sanctions relief they had been expecting." This is the second such article published in as many weeks by a top U.S.-based media outlet. It is not clear how to reconcile such assertions - which presume that Tehran has yet to see relief from a sanctions regime so crippling that it coerced hardline mullahs into conducting negotiations - with the broad range of quantative economic indicators indicating that Iran's economy has stabilized. Suggestions that the Iranians just got really lucky seem unlikely to rise to the level of social scientific rigor that analysts would find persuasive. Some observers have also made the point that Iranian economic improvement erodes Western leverage regardless of its cause, a risk that diplomats and lawmakers have urged Congress to offset by passing legislation locking in future pressure should negotiations fail.
Top Iranian cleric Ayatollah Imami Kashani declared in a nationally televised sermon on Friday that Tehran would continue pushing forward with its nuclear program despite the intentions of the country's "enemies," prompting the Wall Street Journal - which read the boast against the backdrop of similar remarks recently aired by other senior figures - to assess that Iranian leaders "show no signs of preparing [the] public for concessions to [the] West." Top officials from the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, up to and including Rouahni himself, have repeatedly and explicitly ruled out concessions on uranium enrichment, plutonium production, and ballistic missile development which U.S. analysts consider to be absolute minimums for putting a nuclear bomb beyond Tehran's reach. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last week barred Iranian negotiators from trading away what he described as the country’s "nuclear achievements." This weekend Iran's atomic energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi went further, insisting, first, that Tehran has a right to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels of purity and, second, that Iran will need 30,000 additional centrifuges to meet its energy needs. U.S. experts - including prominent supporters of the Obama administration's diplomacy with the Islamic republic - have calculated that any deal putting Iran's atomic program beyond use for weaponization would have to include prohibitions on the creation of highly enriched uranium and require Iranian scientists to dismantle thousands of already-existing centrifuges. Evaluating red lines set by Iranian officials, CNN host Fareed Zakaria had already last January worried that the P5+1 global powers and the Islamic Republic were headed towards a "diplomatic trainwreck" and that he was not "even quite sure what they’re going to talk about if these are the opening positions." Zakaria noted at the time that "it’s very hard to walk back” the absolutist positions taken by Iranian leaders. Obama administration officials have sought to answer skeptics by suggesting that hardline Iranian declarations are just bargaining positions, while skeptics have countered by pointing out that - even as bargaining positions - the widely broadcast statements may raise Iranian public expectations and close off necessary compromises.
A suspected terrorist attack on an Israeli family driving in the West Bank - assailants riddled the family's car with bullets as it was en route to Passover dinner on Monday - has reportedly claimed the life of one man, left his wife and child injured, and thrown into doubt efforts to put Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track. Israeli officials late last week had already provided grim predictions regarding the possibility that the two sides might ink a final status agreement before the April 29th deadline of a nine-month U.S. peace push spearheaded by Secretary of State John Kerry. A subsequent three hour Sunday night meeting ended without reports of progress. Nonetheless officials on both sides - and analysts in the West - had in recent days taken to emphasizing that the parties might substantively advance the prospects for peace outside of the Kerry framework, either in concert with each other or via uncoordinated unilateral steps. The bilateral Sunday night meeting between the parties had already been held without the presence of Washington's mediator Martin Indyk, who in any case had seen his position complicated in recent days by reports that he was driving a media campaign to scapegoat Israel for the collapse of the Kerry initiative. Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl on Sunday made the case that "[a]lmost every positive development in Israeli-Palestinian relations has happened outside the 'peace process,'" and that the U.S. has played a positive role when it backed up and bolstered pragmatic leaders from the two sides. Diehl blasted the Obama administration for instead "chos[ing] to embrace the ever-failing peace process," a move that he insisted "not only has foundered, but it also has partly reversed the more organic change that was underway." Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas had in recent weeks abandoned the high-stakes negotiations and instead resumed a campaign of diplomatic warfare against Israel, submitting applications to 15 international treaties. The gambit put the Palestinians on the wrong side of core Oslo Accord commitments, stretching back decades, under which they committed to abstaining from diplomatic moves that would upgrade the status of disputed territories. It risked confirming fundamental worries that Ramallah will eventually exploit a structural asymmetry in peace talks - Jerusalem is expected make irreversible territorial and security concessions, while the Palestinians are asked to reciprocate with reversible agreements - by pocketing Israeli concessions and then abandon talks anyway. It remains unclear whether Palestinian diplomats will be able to walk back Abbas's turn to international legal instruments, after Switzerland confirmed late last week that it had accepted the Palestinian request to accede to the Geneva Conventions.
Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News on Saturday summarized a weekend speech given by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as one in which the Turkish leader "lashe[d] out at all his 'foes'," outlining that Erdogan "maintained his angry criticism of the Constitutional Court, the Gezi Park protesters, Twitter and the Gulen movement." Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have sought to ban Twitter since the eve of recent nationwide local elections, in a move widely seen as aimed at limiting discussions of a graft scandal that had ensnared top AKP elites including Erdogan and his family. That corruption investigation had in turn been driven by elements in the police and judiciary linked to the Islamist movement of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. For its part the Constitutional Court had ordered the government to remove the Twitter blackout, prompting ongoing and angry denunciations by Erdogan and other government officials. Agence France-Presse (AFP) documented comments from Erdogan's Saturday speech branding Twitter a "tax evader" and promising to "go after" the popular microblogging platform. Reuters read the controversy as one of many in which Twitter's nature "as a public, broadcast medium and its viral network model" had led to it being "viewed as a particularly destabilizing force by some governments," including by Iran. Meanwhile Hurriyet reported that skirmishes between Erdogan and the Constitutional Court are widening, after the Court partially overturned a judicial bill that would have shifted power to the justice minister. The outlet noted that the legislation had been "drafted by the government amid the graft allegations."
Associated Press: "United" Senate passes legislation barring Iran UN ambassador over terror ties, links to hostage-taking group
- Associated Press: "United" Senate passes legislation barring Iran UN ambassador over terror ties, links to hostage-taking group
The Senate Monday night voted to deny entry to the United States to persons who had engaged in espionage or terrorism against the U.S., a move aimed at barring of Hamid Aboutalebi - Iran's pick for United Nations ambassador - from acquiring a visa to take up his post. Aboutalebi was a member of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line in 1979, when the group seized Washington's Tehran embassy and held scores of Americans hostage for 444 days. His appointment had quickly generated pushback from U.S. lawmakers, amid assessments that allowing Aboutalebi to serve in New York on Iran’s behalf would be seen by U.S. allies as evidence that the Obama administration was "willing to ignore Iranian misbehavior in our pursuit of a nuclear accord." The Associated Press noted that Monday night's voice vote saw "Republicans and Democrats united behind the legislation," which had been sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) issued a statement emphasizing bipartisan backing for the law and declaring that "it may be a case of strange bedfellows, but I'm glad Sen. Cruz and I were able to work out a bill that would prevent this terrorist from stepping foot on American soil." Parallel legislation in the House, which must be approved before the bill goes to President Barack Obama for his signature, has already been introduced. The controversy over Aboutalebi has emerged as a proxy for criticism over the administration's approach to Iran in general. Officials and analysts linked to the White House have leaned heavily on the argument that Congress cannot impose new pressure on Iran lest it spoil a "spirit of Geneva" necessary for continued nuclear talks, Geneva being where the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) was inked. Tehran's move to nominate Aboutalebi has been read as a signal that the Iranians are not inclined to be as circumspect in maintaining a positive atmosphere.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah boasted in an interview published Monday that Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime was no longer in danger of being overthrown by opposition elements - and that the country itself has even "passed the danger of fragmentation" - as U.S. lawmakers moved to target the Iran-backed terror group over its critical support for Damascus. The point was echoed by Assad himself, who reportedly bragged in a meeting with former Russian prime minister Sergei Stepashin that he was different from recently deposed Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych and that he "[would] not go." Assad had more explicitly told Stepashin that "[w]ithin this year the active phase of military action in Syria will be over." Steady gains by Hezbollah-backed regime forces have in recent weeks and days triggered responses from Western capitals in general, and from Washington in particular. Multiple outlets issued reports on Monday that lawmakers in Congress were advancing the Hezbollah International Financial Prevention Act, which a statement issued by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs described as the beginning of a "comprehensive approach to addressing the threat posed by Hezbollah by imposing severe new sanctions on Hezbollah’s fundraising channels and restricting its ability to use its funds to support global terrorist activities." Reuters had reported on Friday that Washington was also finalizing a plan that to provide "modest" supplies to anti-Assad elements. The outlet noted, however, that the limited scope of the plan was "raising questions over the impact in a civil war that has killed an estimated 136,000 people, produced nine million refugees and threatens to destabilize the region."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday revealed that extensive efforts to extend Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were in progress when Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas announced - in what the Associated Press described as a "hastily convened" press conference - that he would be turning to the United Nations and seeking to ascend to 15 international treaties as the "State of Palestine." Observers have since speculated that the gambit was a rushed effort to ward off rivals seeking to exploit popular discontent against Abbas, who is currently serving the tenth year of an original four year elected term and had years ago maneuvered out the top Palestinian technocrat charged with bolstering the West Bank economy. Abbas has subsequently brushed off U.S. calls to reverse his decision to turn to international institutions, which - by pocketing three rounds of Israeli prisoner releases and then reneging on promises to avoid diplomatic warfare - was seen as confirming fundamental fears that the Palestinians could consistently exploit asymmetries built into the peace process, under which Jerusalem is expected to offer tangible concessions such as prisoners or territory in exchange for intangible diplomatic commitments. Veteran U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross on Monday gestured toward the dynamic in a talk held at the Washington Institute, noting that the U.S.-backed framework had "reflected a pattern often seen in past negotiations: Israel is asked to take steps it sees as very difficult, and what the Palestinians will do in turn it sees as insufficient, and so Washington steps in to offer compensation that the Palestinians cannot." Top Israeli officials are nonetheless continuing to call for renewed talks. Israeli Justice Minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni on Monday declared that negotiations should continue, and suggested alternative formats and structures that might keep them afloat. For his part, top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat reportedly declared over the weekend that, that as far as Abbas his Fatah faction are concerned, "Hamas is a Palestinian movement and is not and never was a terrorist group."
The terrorist who in July 2012 blew up an Israeli tourist bus in the Black Sea resort town of Burgas was an Algerian who trained in southern Lebanese camps, according to security sources quoted by the Bulgarian daily Presa and conveyed on Monday by Lebanon's Daily Star. Reports began to emerge last week that investigators had discovered new information about the July 2012 attack - which had killed five Israelis and a Bulgarian, and which Sofia had long ago linked to Hezbollah - when Bulgarian chief prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov formally transferred investigation of the attack to local authorities in Burgas. Tsatsarov noted at the time that officials had among other things clinched the identity of the bomber, though he declined to provide details. The two other suspects involved in the bombing had already been identified as Lebanese, and the new Presa report alleges that the third suspect - the bomber - had studied with them at a Beirut university. Presa had previously reported in early March that Bulgarian authorities had recovered DNA from Hassan El Hajj Hassan, one of the other two suspects and the one thought to have managed logistics for the attack. Lebanese outlet Ya Libnan suggested that the evidence - which was recovered from a towel used by Hassan - had been left behind in Hassan's "haste to leave the hotel as soon as possible." If so, the slip would constitute one of just a few oversights in an operation that Washington Institute fellow Matthew Levitt has assessed was marked by "improved tradecraft" when compared to previous Hezbollah operations. The increased tempo and sophistication of the terror group's activities in Europe - another summer 2012 plot, this one in Cyprus, was disrupted - eventually led the European Union (E.U.) to designate what the E.U. described as Hezbollah's “armed wing” as a terrorist organization, leaving its “political wing” undesignated. Hezbollah officials and U.S. counterterrorism specialists have rejected suggestions that there is any organizational distinction between those two.
Bloomberg: "dilemma" for President Obama as Iran appoints diplomat linked to 1979 hostage crisis to top UN post
- Bloomberg: "dilemma" for President Obama as Iran appoints diplomat linked to 1979 hostage crisis to top UN post
Businessweek on Monday assessed that Iran's appointment of Hamid Aboutalebi to be Tehran's new ambassador to the United Nations may become "a dilemma" for President Barack Obama, just days after the outlet originally revealed that the Iranian diplomat - who had belonged to the group that captured and held 52 Americans hostage in 1979 - was having trouble acquiring a visa to enter the United States. Aboutalebi has reportedly been waiting to enter the U.S., and there are fears that the situation could escalate diplomatically. Washington Institute Managing Director Michael Singh told Bloomberg that granting Aboutalebi a visa now would "reinforce the impression among regional allies that Washington is willing to ignore Iranian misbehavior in our pursuit of a nuclear accord." The President had already last week reportedly received a chilly reception in Saudi Arabia due to Washington's diplomacy toward Iran. The incident itself may damage the White House’s credibility in reading Iranian intentions. The administration has for months leaned heavily on the Iranian claim that any Congressional move against Iran would shatter the delicate "spirit of Geneva" needed for negotiations to succeed, Geneva being the site where the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) had been hammered out. The theme may be difficult to reconcile with what critics of the President were quick to characterize as a poke in his eye. Bipartisan lawmakers from both chambers of Congress have lately again begun calling for a broader Congressional role in negotiations.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry returned to Israel late Monday as reports emerged that Jerusalem had presented Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas with a draft proposal designed to extend U.S.-brokered negotiations beyond their originally scheduled April 29 deadline. Palestinian diplomats threatened last week to abandon talks should the Israelis refuse to release a fourth batch of prisoners, after Jerusalem had previously released three other groups to entice the Palestinians to join and then stay at the negotiating table. Israeli leaders - including Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who has consistently pushed for talks from within the government - emphasized that Israel would not release dozens of murderers after the Palestinians had spent the last several months flatly rejecting a U.S.-backed peace framework. Palestinian leaders, up to and including Abbas, had also repeatedly threatened to renew diplomatic warfare against the Jewish state, and Reuters had reported last January that Ramallah had a list of "international bodies from which they could harass Israel - including the International Criminal Court." Palestinian boasts aired last week, which cited potential long-term campaigns in international bodies, deepened concerns that they will pocket functionally irreversible Israeli concessions and walk away anyway. Abbas and other top PA figures had also soured the Israeli public on additional releases by ostentatiously celebrating previously freed terrorists and murderers as heroes.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened on Sunday that he will "enter the lair" of his rivals and force them to "pay for" having leveled accusations of corruption against him and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), after local elections held across Turkey saw the AKP securing a plurality of the national vote. At least six people were killed in clashes during the polling. A range of graft scandals, which eventually ensnared AKP elites including Erdogan and his family, last year plunged Turkey into open political warfare. The AKP initially moved to purge thousands of judiciary and police officials, and in recent days had also sought to dampen the tempo of public criticism by banning Twitter and YouTube, generating by turns international condemnation and widespread ridicule. Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News on Monday published an interview with Sabanci University professor Ahmet Evin, in which Evin linked what he described as a "deliberate effort" to stifle free speech inside Turkey to a broader collapse in Ankara's regional stature. Erdogan had nonetheless long been expected by analysts to ride a superior political infrastructure and his enthusiastic political base to continued electoral success. The post-election dynamics seem set to reignite long-standing criticisms of Erdogan as a majoritarian ruler who - per a June 2013 write-up in The Economist on his ideology - "holds that electoral might always makes you right."
Yemen's President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi on Monday blasted Iran for seeking to destabilize the country “through its support” for a range of separatists and rebels, a repeat of accusations that he has consistently and explicitly been leveling against Tehran for quite literally years. In February 2013 Sana'a announced that it had intercepted an Iranian vessel trying to smuggle explosives and surface-to-air missiles into Yemen, prompting Hadi to accuse the Iranians of trying to directly assist Shiite rebels fighting in the country's north. The charges have been widely echoed by other Gulf countries. In March of that year Saudi Arabia announced that it had arrested 18 people on charges of spying on behalf of Iran. In May Bahrain blasted the Islamic Republic for "flagrant interference" in its affairs. The renewed expressions of concern come amid increasing analyst recognition that the region has fractured and hardened into three regional blocs, with an Iranian-led camp aligned opposite a group comprised of the U.S.'s traditional regional allies, and both aligned opposite a radical Sunni alliance anchored at various times by Turkey, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Turks, for their part, have also within the last week accused Iran of having infiltrated the Turkish government. One English-language Turkish outlet bluntly opened its coverage of the incident by conveying comments from Ali Fuat Yilmazer, a former chief of the Istanbul Police Department's intelligence unit, claiming that the 'Iran-linked notorious terrorist organization Tawhid-Salam has penetrated deep into the Turkish government in what amounts to international espionage.'