Israel puts off prisoner release after Palestinian President rules out U.S.-backed peace concessions
- Israel puts off prisoner release after Palestinian President rules out U.S.-backed peace concessions
- As Obama visits Saudi Arabia, White House faces scrutiny for statements brushing off Arab allies' concerns
Palestinian officials today threatened to suspend negotiations with Israel after Jerusalem declined to release 26 Palestinian prisoners in the coming days, with the Palestinians insisting that the releases had been promised to them and top Israeli politicians dismissing those claims as simply false. Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who had run in the last election on a peace platform and has continued to prominently press for Israel to make concessions, nonetheless was explicit that Jerusalem had not made any "automatic commitment to release prisoners unrelated to making progress in negotiations." Progress in those negotiations had been uneven for months, with Ramallah rejecting U.S. bridging proposals calling for mutual recognition of Jewish and Palestinian states, a definitive stance ending refugee claims against Israel, and an Israeli security presence along the border with Jordan. Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas told the Arab League on Tuesday that he now rejects "even holding a discussion" over Israel's long-standing and U.S.-backed requirement that any comprehensive peace deal include a formal Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Former Israeli national security advisor Yaakov Amidror on Thursday gauged the situation as one in which the Palestinians "have not moved one inch" in their negotiating position. The Israelis had already conducted three previous rounds of releases as good-will gestures in the context of on-going peace talks. Top PA figures, up to and Abbas, had for their part had ostentatiously celebrated the freed terrorists and murderers as heroes,badly undermining Israeli politicians who sought to push through a fourth round of releases.
The erosion in the international sanctions regime against Iran has generated what the Wall Street Journal on Thursday described as "a steady flow of Western executives" - a signal that the outlet read as suggesting that "economic detente with the rest of the world may be on the horizon" - generating renewed concerns among journalists and analysts that the Obama administration may have been over-optimistic when it repeatedly insisted that the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) would not leave Iran open for business. Emanuele Ottolenghi and Benjamin Weinthal, respectively a senior and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, had on Tuesday published an extensive description of Swiss economic activity with the Islamic Republic under the headline "Switzerland Is Open To Iranian Business." The reports came alongside others noting that Iran is on track to exceed its permitted oil exports for the fifth straight month and that it is now in position to become the largest gas storage facility holder in the region. Analysts reacting early to the JPA had explicitly warned that reducing sanctions risked triggering a downward spiral as companies scrambled to access reopened Iranian markets - the dynamic has since been described variously as a feeding frenzy and a gold rush – and they had called for the administration to firmly signal to Tehran that failure to dismantle its nuclear program would be met in the future with crippling financial restrictions. Those concerns were derided as "fanciful" by analysts linked to the administration, and the White House subsequently expended significant political capital to block Congressional legislation that would have imposed future sanctions if nuclear negotiations failed.
President Barack Obama on Friday traveled to Saudi Arabia for what had long been anticipated as a fence-mending visit, after months of increasingly public disagreements between the US and its traditional Gulf allies over Washington's posture towards Shiite expansionism, on the one hand, and political Islamists within the Sunni world, on the other. The Saudis have been openly furious with the White House over what they consider to be weakness toward Iran and disregard for the dangers posed to Arab regimes by the Muslim Brotherhood. The BBC explained that "the Saudis have yet to forgive [President Obama] for turning his back on Egypt's former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011" - a controversy that was followed by further disagreements over how to approach Egypt's subsequent Muslim Brotherhood-linked government and, a year later, the Egyptian army's overthrow of that government - and that "the Sunni royals feel encircled by Shia Iran and its allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain, and are worried the US is indifferent to the anxiety this causes." The outlet bluntly stated that "the Saudis may not be entirely wrong." The Telegraph described Washington and Riyadh as "at loggerheads over every burning issue in the Middle East." The Hill described the administration as "at odds with all" of America’s key Middle Eastern allies. A New York Times article from last December had already quoted former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal blasting the administration for inaction against Iranian clients in Syria, describing President Obama's red lines against the use of chemical weapons by the Bashar al-Assad regime as having become "pinkish as time grew, and eventually... completely white." Comments from administration officials on the eve of the visit however downplayed reports that the President would seek to substantially ease Riyadh's concerns. The Daily Caller conveyed comments from White House foreign policy chief Ben Rhodes brushing off suggestions that President Obama would agree to take a tougher line with Iran or change his stance regarding the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Reports of the visit will be closely scrutinized as signals regarding Washington's broader approach to the region. Recent years have seen the emergence and hardening of three regional blocs in the Middle East, with Washington's Arab and Israeli allies aligned opposite Iran and its clients, and both aligned opposite a radical Sunni camp composed of Turkey, Qatar, the Brotherhood, and their allies. Observers have at various times expressed frustration over what they insist is Washington's refusal to decisively side with its traditional allies.
The Palestinian Hamas faction is reportedly making something of a comeback in territories long dominated by its rival Fatah - staging rallies in the West Bank and in the Jerusalem campus of the Palestinian Al-Quds university - after a series of bad geopolitical gambles had left the terror group economically and politically isolated in the Gaza Strip. The Times of Israel on Friday described Hamas's West Bank leader as leading a funeral procession in the West Bank town of Jenin that "was almost an exact reenactment of the first days of the Second Intifada, when [Sheikh Hassan Yousef] stood at the head of the organization’s gatherings and called for revenge." The outlet quoted Yousef insisting that "the rallies and processions we have seen in recent months, in which most of the participants were Hamas supporters, show the clear support for the organization," opposite claims that support for Hamas is dropping. The funeral came a day before a separate Hamas rally on the Jerusalem campus of Al-Quds University in which "demonstrators were seen with black ski masks and carrying replicas of rockets." The Fatah-linked president of the university, Sari Nusseibeh, announced three days later that he was stepping down from his post. Tensions between Hamas and Fatah have long been cited as among at least four structural barriers threatening the viability of any future Palestinian state. Analysts have recently and particularly emphasized the dynamic as a threat to state cohesion - Fatah rules the West Bank, Hamas rules Gaza, and any state with territory divided between rival governments is by definition a failed state - but the rivalry also risks generating security-based problems. It is not at all clear that Fatah security forces, left to their own devices, would be capable of preventing Hamas from seizing control of the West Bank as Hamas did in the Gaza Strip.
Al-Monitor on Thursday reported that top House lawmakers are in the early stages of drafting terror-related sanctions - the outlet described any legislation as "a work in progress" - that would target Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors due to the group's global terror activities and its fighting on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Al-Monitor that Iran could not be allowed to "blackmail" the United States via terrorist proxies, even and especially amid ongoing negotiations being conducted over Tehran's nuclear program. The outlet contextualized the effort as at least partially a response to the Obama administration, after the White House conducted a publicly controversial but nonetheless successful campaign to prevent lawmakers from moving forward on legislation that would have potentially imposed nuclear-related sanctions on Iran in the future should current negotiations fail. Mark Dubowitz, the executive director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, had assessed in late February that lawmakers would continue to investigate how to impose pressure on Iran, and that there would also be "strong momentum behind another push" should the six-month interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) expire without a comprehensive agreement for putting Iran's atomic program beyond use for weaponization. A report published earlier this month in Congressional Quarterly assessed that "groups on opposite sides of the Iran debate" were converging on the need for a strong congressional role in shaping Washington's diplomacy with Iran.
National Journal on Wednesday conveyed details of what the outlet described as an "explosive" hearing held that day by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which saw senators from both parties "eviscerate" Obama administration officials over what Sen. Bob Corker described as a "delusional" understanding of the Syrian conflict. Corker leveled the characterization at Tom Countryman, State's Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, after Countryman suggested that the Bashar al-Assad regime has sustained "actual losses" due to a deal in which the regime committed to giving up its chemical weapons arsenal. Statements made this week by Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, indicated that Syria will miss the deadline set by the deal for dismantling its arsenal. An exchange between Corker and Anne Patterson - the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs - also grew heated, after Patterson insisted that the Obama administration had a secret plan to deal with the Syrian crisis but that she wouldn't tell the committee about it during that session. Senators broadly criticized the administration for having objectively propped up the Assad regime by inking the chemical weapons deal, a concern that had been made early by skeptics of the White House's diplomacy but that had been brushed off. The hearing came amid the release of a U.N. report that assessed that "massive and indiscriminate use of violence" on the part of the Assad regime was the “single most important factor” impeding Syrian civilians from receiving access to humanitarian relief workers. Syrian troops and Hezbollah fighters continued to make advances near the Lebanese border on Thursday, the latest in a series of campaigns that have seen the regime consolidating control along the Syria-Lebanon border and restrict the flow of materials to opposition forces.
Ars Technica on Thursday reported on an "administrative measure" implemented by Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) shutting down access to YouTube, which the tech-oriented outlet noted was done in an attempt "to stem a flood of leaked audio recordings of government officials before elections this Sunday." The platform had been used by anonymous uploaders to post what seem to be leaked conversations between AKP elites, ranging from discussions of how to hide vast sums of money to ones outlining potential military measures against Syria. The restrictions on YouTube come roughly a week after a globally ridiculed, largely failed, and legally overturned decree banning access to Twitter, and Ars noted that it appears that Turkey's telecommunications authority had initially implemented both bans similarly, by changing the Domain Name Service listings for the targeted sites. Ankara had subsequently escalated how it prevented access to Twitter - specifically by instituting a block to the microblogging platform’s IP addresses - and Ars suggested that the Turkish government will eventually get around to similarly restricting YouTube. Hurriyet Daily News conveyed statements from U.S. and European Union officials condemning the new restrictions. The State Department called on Turkey to stop blocking both YouTube and Twitter, while Neelie Kroes - one of several vice-presidents of the European Commission, and bloc's European Commissioner for Digital Agenda - blasted what she described as "another desperate and depressing move" from Ankara.
"Killing sprees" in Iran and Iraq were responsible for a global rise in capital punishment in 2013, according to a new Amnesty International report described Thursday by a range of outlets. The Guardian prominently quoted Amnesty's secretary general declaring that "the killing sprees we saw in countries like Iran and Iraq were shameful," and noted that Tehran and Baghdad were responsible for at least 538 out of the 778 documented state-sanctioned executions last year. Tehran publicly admitted to executing at least 369 people in 2013 - roughly 15 percent more than in the previous year - but is widely suspected of having conducted another 250 or so executions in secret. The U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran has repeatedly emphasized - most recently last week - that there has been no fundamental change in the Islamic Republic's human rights approach since the inauguration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and he has more specifically declared that its capital punishment policies "contraven[e] universally accepted human rights principles and norms." The assessments are in line with statements made by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Uzra Zeya, the State Department’s acting assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Zeya expanded on the point, noting that the U.S. has “seen little meaningful improvement in human rights in Iran under the new government, including torture, political imprisonment, [and] harassment of religious and ethnic minorities.”
A top Iranian official reiterated on Wednesday that Tehran will refuse to discuss its ballistic missile program in the context of comprehensive negotiations over its nuclear program with the international community, the latest in a long line of statements underlining that the Islamic republic views the issue as a red line. The dispute has the potential to impact the domestic policy debate in the United States both substantively and politically. Substantively, the issue is tangled up in a broader debate over the degree to which Iran will be forced to account for or roll back suspected military dimensions of its atomic program. Iranian negotiators had this week sought already to delay discussions wholesale of all such dimensions, which range from warhead development to the involvement of the Iranian military in uranium production. Politically an outright Iranian refusal is likely to erode confidence in the Obama administration's diplomatic nimbleness. Iranian negotiators had managed to exclude mention of Iran's missile program from the interim Joint Action Plan (JPA), an omission that White House figures justified to lawmakers and journalists as justified for the sake of building momentum. Lead U.S. diplomacy, including lead negotiator Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, instead insisted that Iran's ballistic missile program would be addressed in comprehensive negotiations.
British media late on Wednesday conveyed statements by Prime Minister David Cameron condemning a Palestinian rocket barrage against Israeli civilians as "barbaric," after Palestinian fighters launched at least 60 rockets and missiles from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip at Israeli population centers. The Telegraph contextualized the statement against the backdrop of statements made by Cameron earlier in the day, in which the British leader committed to providing "rock solid" support to the Jewish state in defending itself, especially and specifically against "despicable" moves by Iran to provide anti-Israel terror groups with advanced weapons. The State Department issued its own statement condemning the attack "in the strongest terms" and particularly emphasizing that "Israel, like any nation, has a right to defend itself." The Israeli Air Force (IAF) subsequently launched what Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Spokesman Peter Lerner described as "precise [and] prompt" targeting of terrorist infrastructure in the Gaza Strip, reporting that the IAF struck "29 targets that serve those that attack Israel and its civilians."
The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday conveyed assessments from top financial experts describing Iran as "Turkey with oil" and outlining "a growing consensus that the withdrawal of sanctions on [Iran]... would be a huge boon for the country, the region and for investors who get in early." Brushing aside objections from U.S. officials that Iran is not open for business - a talking point that has been prominent in White House defenses of the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA), and that the Journal cited U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker as having recently reemphasized - the outlet noted that investors see "the scale of Iran’s potential is hard to ignore." At stake is the degree to which the initial erosion in sanctions under the JPA may lead to an international gold rush that would substantially erode the rest of the sanctions regime, enabling Iranian leaders to walk away from talks aimed at putting the Islamic republic's atomic program beyond use for weaponization. Skeptics had predicted a gold rush-style downward spiral, in which nations and companies scrambled not to get left behind as Iranian markets were reopened to the world. The Obama administration and analysts linked to the administration had derided those scenarios are among other things "fanciful." Recent months have seen empirical evidence pile up on the side of the critics. Evidence that the Obama administration misjudged the dynamics surrounding Iranian diplomacy are likely to fuel calls, already supported by lopsided majorities of Americans, for a stronger Congressional voice in determining the path of negotiations.
Veteran Jordan-based journalist Osama Al Sharif assessed on Tuesday that Jordan was unlikely to follow the lead of Egypt and some Gulf states in branding the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, not because the Islamist group is supported by Amman - Sharif noted that Jordan's current ruler King Abdullah II is even "less sympathetic to [the Brotherhood's cause] than his father" - but because top Brotherhood figures have recently gone out of their way to emphasize that they support the current regime. Sharif specifically quoted Abdel Latif Arabiyyat, a top figure of the Jordanian Brotherhood's political arm, empathizing that there is "a historic relationship between the regime and the Brotherhood in Jordan... and differences between them are marginal, which could be resolved through dialogue." As recently as a year ago the Jordanian Brotherhood seemed to be on the same upward trajectory as allied organizations in countries such as Egypt, and there had been active speculation that the group was setting itself up to severely test the legitimacy of the monarchy. Brotherhood protests were seen as having crossed a kind of Rubicon in openly criticizing the King, and one activist infamously lit a picture of Abdullah on fire. The developments have in retrospect been seen as a bad miscalculation. The activist issued an abject public apology, insisting that his actions were driven by "very bad living conditions which affected [him] negatively," calling on lawmakers "to be tough against whoever may ride roughshod over this country and its resources," and supporting "his majesty’s vision in [that] regard because Jordan is the priority." Protests by the Brotherhood subsequently became muted as well. Other Brotherhood offshoots have declined even more precipitously, most pointedly in Egypt.
Iranian officials accuse Americans, Zionists, and Hollywood of producing Iranian arms ship carrying advanced missiles
- Iranian officials accuse Americans, Zionists, and Hollywood of producing Iranian arms ship carrying advanced missiles
- Hamas official brags that group will blanket Israel with advanced missiles in next war
- US, Israeli officials float possibility of expanding Israeli missile shield to protect U.S. Arab allies
- U.S.-UAE relations in crisis after State Dept. blasts Abu Dhabi for suppressing terror-linked political party
- · Iranian officials have become more vocal and more explicit in airing conspiracy theories regarding last week's Israeli interdiction of the Klos-C, a Panamanian-flagged Iranian arms ship bound for the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, with one military figure suggesting that "the Americans and the Zionists probably ordered (from) Hollywood the production of a movie with the scenario of a cargo ship carrying Iranian weapons to Gaza in Palestine." UPI quoted Iranian Brig. Gen. Massoud Jazzayeri making the accusation as part of a longer story detailing the weapons on board the ship, which included 40 M302 rockets with ranges capable of blanketing much of Israel, as well as "180 12mm mortar shells and about 400,000 7.62mm bullets." Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had previously taken to Twitter to question the timing of the vessel’s interception, linking it to the annual AIPAC policy conference and describing the incident as the "same failed lies." Zarif is considered by some foreign policy analysts to be a key moderate figure in the Iranian regime, and a Reuters story on his nomination by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had declared that Rouhani "could hardly do better" than to pick him as a "signal [of] his determination to rebuild relations with the United States." It is not clear to what degree Zarif's public conspiracy theories can be aligned with that image, and observers may instead contextualize his comments within recently published analysis - based on his recently-available autobiography - assessing him "to be every bit as religiously ideological as the radicalized student activist he was in the late 1970s."
- A Hamas official reportedly told Agence France-Presse (AFP) over the weekend that any future war between Israel and the Iran-backed terror group will see Hamas launching missiles at Israeli civilians far in the country's north, a boast bound to deepen increasingly open concerns within Israel's military and political establishments that Hamas is stockpiling an arsenal capable of the sustained saturation bombing of Israeli civilian centers. The comments were occasioned by a Hamas ceremony unveiling a life-sized statue honoring M75 rockets, which Hamas had used in its 2012 war with Israel to reach cities in central Israel. AFP conveyed other boasts from the ceremony, including one by a masked figure who bragged that "Hamas managed to take the battle to the heart of the Zionist entity (Israel) after developing its rocket system." Israel last week intercepted a Gaza-bound arms ship dispatched by Iran and carrying missiles capable of putting roughly five million Israelis under fire. The nature and substance of Hamas's threats, especially coupled with the Palestinian faction’s ongoing efforts to stockpile advanced missiles, are likely to solidify Israeli skepticism toward calls from some corners of the international community that Jerusalem lift its blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
- Reuters on Monday conveyed statements from U.S. Brigadier-General John Shapland, the chief American defense attache Israel, suggesting that Israel could expand its anti-missile umbrella to protect Jordan and Egypt, with the outlet also noting that the head of Israeli Missile Defence Organisation (IMDO) "cautiously welcomed the idea." Shapland, who was speaking at a security conference convened by Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, sketched out "a regional defense capability in, say, Jordan, that... could easily defend Israel, Jordan and even Egypt.” Commenting on the proposal - which Shapland took pains to emphasize was "just one idea to consider" - IMDO head Yair Ramati noted that "the policy of the (Israeli) Defence Ministry is always to cooperate with the countries of the region, including the countries cited." Regionally, any such moves would be seen as evidence of increasingly open cooperation between Jerusalem and the U.S.'s traditional Arab allies. Globally, the suggestion is likely to be read alongside growing international interest - going back to mid-2013 in the case of South Korea, and as recently as last week in the case of India - in acquiring Israeli missile defense assets.
- The Daily Beast assessed on Monday that the alliance between the United States and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was "straining after a rare outburst from the UAE," which Abu Dhabi unleashed after an annual State Department human rights report criticized the Gulf nation for blocking the formation of a political party that the UAE insists is tied to terrorism. The outlet described the UAE as "angry that the State Department's human rights report makes it appear that the founder of the Ummah Party, Hassan al-Diqqi, is just a regular democratic organizer," while leaving out evidence that al-Diqqi is currently running a jihadist training camp in Syria. Gulf states have taken to expressing open anger at the Obama administration’s Middle East policy, which they accuse of promoting destabilizing Islamist parties at the expense of Washington's traditional allies. Arab leaders expressed open frustration at what they characterized as the White House’s haste to abandon the Egypt’s regime of Hosni Mubarak, and they vented with something close to disbelief at U.S. policies punishing the interim Egyptian government that formed after Mohammed Morsi's subsequent Muslim Brotherhood-linked government was overthrown. The anger extended to the top reaches of the UAE, and the Daily Beast noted that the "UAE’s rulers have quietly seethed at how President Obama has managed affairs in the Middle East and particularly his support for the toppling of America’s former client in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak."
Crimea crisis seen eroding confidence in Obama foreign policy wisdom, amid renewed calls for congressional voice in negotiations
- Crimea crisis seen eroding confidence in Obama foreign policy wisdom, amid renewed calls for congressional voice in negotiations
- Egypt court outlaws Hamas activities, in latest blow to reeling Palestinian terror group
- Netanyahu AIPAC speech calls on Palestinians to "stand with Israel and the United States" in forging peace, regional benefits of Israeli-Palestinian deal
- WSJ: Initiatives to boost Palestinian economy "slow to show" benefits
- · Analysts, journalists, and lawmakers on Tuesday continued to unpack the geopolitical consequences of Russia's invasion of Ukraine - both in general and specifically in the context of Middle East crises the White House is scrambling to contain - with evaluations building on assessments that the impending U.S.-Russia chill will badly complicate the Obama administration's strategy of relying on Russia to help resolve diplomatic deadlocks with Syria and Iran. The New York Times reported that President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed Ukraine in their Monday Oval Office meeting, while David Rieff - a foreign policy voice not known for sympathy toward robust U.S. interventionism - tersely evaluated public debate over the Crimean conflagration as one in which "those who believe that Iran will never relinquish its nuclear weapons program... look at American impotence in Ukraine and worry it’s a harbinger of the future." Walter Russell Mead went further, declaring that "Putin’s Crimean adventure... shakes the foundations of the President’s world strategy," and specifically asking "if [Obama] could be this blind and misguided about [Russian President] Vladimir Putin, how smart is he about the Ayatollah Khamenei, a much more difficult figure to read?" Mead suggested that the White House's near-total failure to predict Russia's behavior - U.S. intelligence got its prediction of the Crimean invasion exactly backwards - will undermine Obama's efforts to convince Middle East allies, most especially Israel, that Washington can be trusted in evaluating those allies' security needs. The erosion in the president's foreign policy credibility seems set to fuel renewed calls, supported by lopsided majorities of Americans, for stricter Congressional oversight over negotiations with Iran.
- An Egyptian court on Tuesday outlawed all activities by the Palestinian Hamas faction inside the country, the latest move in a campaign to isolate the terror group, which has been waged by Egypt's army - and later by the country's army-backed government - since well before the July 2013 overthrow of the country's then-President Mohammed Morsi. The ruling comes months after senior Hamas officials had already begun publicly bemoaning how Egypt's army-backed government had left them politically and economically "sentenced to death." The inauguration of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Morsi had been seen as a boon for Hamas, which describes itself as the Brotherhood's Palestinian wing. The Egyptian army, which blames Hamas for facilitating the movement of jihadist equipment and personnel into the Egypt-controlled Sinai Peninsula, soon launched a media campaign to consolidate public sentiment against Hamas and began acting against the group while sidelining Morsi. The army's campaign to target Hamas's smuggling tunnels, which link the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip to the Sinai, quickly picked up pace after Morsi's ouster, alongside efforts by Egypt's subsequent army-backed government to decapitate the Brotherhood's leadership hierarchy. By last January senior Egyptian security officials were telling Reuters that they were ready to focus more of their resources on targeting the Gaza Strip. The reemergence of an Egyptian government sympathetic to Hamas currently seems unlikely. Egyptian army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi signaled on Tuesday that he will compete in upcoming presidential elections, in which he is widely expected to glide to victory.
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on Tuesday to the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, calling on Palestinian leaders to "stand with Israel and the United States on the right side of the moral divide, the side of peace, reconciliation and hope." Israel's left-leaning Ha'aretz headlined its coverage of the speech "Netanyahu: Israel prepared to make peace, but Abbas must recognize Jewish state," sub-headlined the story with "millions in the Arab world could benefit from Israeli technology and innovation, prime minister tells AIPAC conference," and quoted the prime minister declaring he was "prepared to make historic peace with our Palestinian neighbors." The outlet's evaluation was echoed by the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin, who noted that Netanyahu "dwelled at length on the peace process" and "gave a new rationale for Israel’s desire for a peace deal – the promise of improved and robust relations with Arab states." For their part top Palestinian officials declared that Netanyahu's speech was unacceptable to the point that it amounted to "an official announcement of a unilateral end to negotiations."
- The Wall Street Journal assessed on Monday that a series of initiatives designed to bolster the Palestinian economy had - per the outlet's archly written headline - been "slow to show" any benefits, with half a year having passed since "Secretary of State John Kerry announced an ambitious economic plan to channel $4 billion into Palestinian business sectors." The Journal described "promised investments" as having remained "as hazy as the sandstorm that enveloped... Jericho’s Intercontinental Hotel" during a recent investment conference. February had seen a wave of analysis linking halting economic progress to endemic Palestinian corruption stretching back literally decades, and Palestinian journalist and activist Daoud Kuttab wrote on Monday that efforts have recently renewed in the Palestinian Legislative Council to pass transparency laws. Palestinian economic dysfunction has traditionally been identified as one of at least four structural barriers hampering the emergence of anything that might pass for a viable Palestinian state. Analysts and scholars have also focused on Ramallah's lack of political legitimacy - Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas is in the ninth year of a four-year term - as well as on the persistence of rival Palestinian governments and the existence of multiple armed Palestinian factions. A territorial split between rival governments, with Fatah ruling the West Bank and Hamas ruling the Gaza Strip, or the absence of a monopoly on violence would by definition render a Palestinian state a failed one.
- Iran FM: Islamic Republic is "open for business"
- Calls grow for Turkey PM's resignation after bombshell audio tapes leaked
- Hezbollah recruited European radicals to fight in Syria
- Damage control efforts deepen after Reuters details Iraq-Iran arms deal contracts
- Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif on Sunday declared that ongoing sanctions relief has created a "safe, stable business environment" in Iran and that the country is now "open for business," a direct response to statements maintaining that the Islamic republic is "not open for business" from among others Treasury Department Under Secretary David Cohen, State Department Under Secretary Wendy Sherman, and various anonymous administration officials. Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama have both explicitly echoed those statements. At stake are a broad range of criticisms worrying that the administration mishandled interim negotiations with Iran, in this context by underestimating the degree to which an initial erosion in the sanctions regime would trigger a downward spiral, with Iran’s markets and as companies rushing not to be left. Skeptics had immediately predicted that the psychology of fear which kept sanctions in place would give way to a feeding frenzy, while analysts linked to the White House dismissed their concerns as "fanciful." Evidence has piled up on the side of the skeptics. On Tuesday Reuters reported that India is preparing to pay $1.5 billion for Iranian oil, while the Washington Free Beacon disclosed that Pentagon contractors are exploring over $100 billion in deals with Iran.
- Ongoing political warfare in Turkey - which has pitted the country's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) against rival Islamists linked to U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen - has generated renewed calls for the resignation of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after the publication of audio recordings that seemed to document Erodgan and his son Bilal discussing how to hide immense sums of money. The conversations were allegedly held the eve of a corruption scandal that would eventually engulf several AKP elites, and Bilal himself was at one point brought in for questioning in relation to the sweeping graft probe. AKP leaders for their part have purged thousands of judges, prosecutors, and police figures, and - as evidence of corruption piled up – have sought to scapegoat Jews and foreign lobbies. The latest iteration of the scandal saw the release of five recordings - seemingly wiretapped phone conversations - in which Erdogan and his son discussed how to shield vast amounts of cash from police scrutiny. Erdogan on Tuesday forcefully denounced the recordings as forgeries, and meanwhile reportedly blamed the "robot lobby" for seeking to undermine AKP rule via Twitter. The Turkish leader has repeatedly lashed out against the microblogging platform.
- Hezbollah has recruited Shiite radicals from inside Europe to travel to Syria and fight on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime, according to reports published in Lebanese media earlier this week and conveyed Monday by the Jerusalem Post. Lebanon's Daily Star had quoted a source describing an Eastern European intelligence assessment detailing how “most of these fighters have professional military experience and have fought in Chechnya." If confirmed the development has the potential to affect a range of policy debates and calculations. Inside the European Union, there is a long-standing and ongoing reluctance to designating Hezbollah as a terrorist entity. The Iran-backed organization was definitively linked to a terrorist attack in Bulgaria, on E.U. soil, that killed five Israelis and a Bulgarian, the latter being an E.U. citizen. Even under those conditions - and after months of contentious diplomacy - the E.U. limited itself to labeling Hezbollah's military wing a terrorist entity and sparing the group’s political wing, despite explicit statements from top Hezbollah leaders deriding the notion that there is a distinction between the two wings. Regarding Syria, Western capitals have expressed pitched concerns over the possibility that Sunni fighters from Europe are traveling to participate in the country's nearly four year war, and that they may eventually return further radicalized and battle-hardened. The controversy has been mobilized to highlight the dangers posed by jihadists, and even to suggest that the West and the regime’s backers have a shared interest in battling terror groups. Evidence that the Assad regime is availing itself of European fighters risks complicating that position.
- Both Washington and Baghdad continued to scramble on Tuesday in the wake of a Reuters expose documenting a $195 million security deal, spread across eight different contracts, which would see Iraq purchasing weapons from Iran. The move would be violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions prohibiting trading arms with the Islamic Republic. The Obama administration, which has been criticized for allowing Iraq to slip into Iran's orbit even as the U.S. continued supplying Baghdad with Hellfire missiles and small arms, assured journalists that American officials were pressing for answers at the highest levels. The Iraqis for their part admitted that Iranian companies bid on ammunition contracts, but denied that any such deals had been signed with Iran. A full list of the contracts - detailing dollar amounts and the types of weapons to be delivered - is here. The documents seen by Reuters reportedly described the agreements as having been inked last November.
Weekly Standard: White House scrambling to address evidence of Iranian economic boom, sanctions deterioration
- Weekly Standard: White House scrambling to address evidence of Iranian economic boom, sanctions deterioration
- New report identifies Turkey as global terrorist financing hub, calls for White House pressure to address illicit finance
- Reuters: Iran boosting military support to Assad, thousands of elite and volunteer Iranian personnel in Syria
Analysts: Palestinian state collapse "liable to become a subversive and hostile entity and develop into a grave security threat to Israel"
- The upcoming edition of The Weekly Standard will evaluate how the White House is positioning itself in relation to growing evidence that the Iranian economy is improving much faster than it should be given previous White House assurances about the limited scope of sanctions relief provided by the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA). The White House had been blasted by skeptics for misjudging the benefits of the JPA, and more specifically for miscalculating at least two dynamics. Administration economists were criticized for straightforwardly undercounting the value of the eased sanctions, making an array of undergraduate-level and easily identifiable math errors, while administration diplomats were said to have far too glibly dismissed the possibility that even a mild easing in sanctions would trigger a feeding frenzy that further eroded the international sanctions regime. Empirical evidence has piled up in recent weeks indicating that skeptics were correct and the Obama administration was wrong. Writing in the Standard, Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Lee Smith, noting among other things that White House economists were unlikely to have made undergraduate-level calculating errors, asserts that "the plan rather was to get Iranian president Hassan Rouhani lots of cash, the more the better," on the hope that it would become "in his interest to petition Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for more concessions on the nuclear file." He quotes Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), assessing that relief beyond what was publicly disclosed was "key to [the administration's] whole economic strategy of giving Iran's economy a lift to incentivize Rouhani to deliver more on the nuclear file." Dubowitz predicts in the piece that the administration will soon openly claim that the excessive relief "was their strategy all along."
- Turkey has become a key global hub of illicit and terrorist financing - undermining U.S. counter-terrorism efforts against Sunni jihadists and playing a key role in busting Washington's sanctions against Iran - according to a new report [PDF] published on Friday by Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). The report cites at least eight distinct schemes involving Iran, Al Qaeda, jihadists in Syria, Hamas, the recently raided Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), China, and huge swaths of the international banking world. The National Journal had already reported earlier in February that Turkey ignored U.S. calls made from "the highest levels" to assist in tracking terrorists availing themselves of Turkish soil and resources. ABC News covered the new FDD report, conveying a call from Schanzer urging the Obama administration to exert pressure on Ankara regarding illicit finance, opposite what the outlet described as "a clear hands-off message" sent last month by Secretary of State John Kerry in a press conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. The Washington Free Beacon also highlighted portions of the report evaluating the White House's position, specifically citing a passage that worried that the White House "has remained on the sidelines... electing not to mention terrorism finance issues publicly." Schanzer's report comes a day after over 80 top foreign policy figures from across the political spectrum dispatched a letter to President Barack Obama calling for elevated pressure on Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to halt an ongoing assault on democratic liberties.
- Reuters on Friday conveyed reports from what the outlet described as multiple "sources with knowledge of military movements" assessing that Iran has boosted the logistical and material support it provides to Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime, dispatching elite intelligence-gathering teams and training personnel alongside the battlefield support provided by Iran's Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. More specifically, Damascus has recently been provided with hundreds of additional Iranian military specialists, including many drawn from Iran's Quds Force, who are in turn "backed up by thousands of Iranian paramilitary Basij volunteer fighters as well as Arabic speakers including Shi'ites from Iraq." A Turkish official cited by the outlet noted that the tempo of Iranian personnel operating in Syria has increased in recent months, and Reuters noted that many of them stream in from across the Turkish and Iraqi borders. Reuters also cited risk consultant Torbjorn Soltvedt describing Iran's role in Syria as "constitut[ing] a lifeline for the regime," and noting that "the involvement of Iranian Revolutionary Guard personnel and Shiite militias such as Hezbollah remains crucial to the Syrian regime's war effort." The White House for its part has long maintained that Iran can be coaxed to play a positive role in dampening the violence in Syria, with Secretary of State John Kerry seeking to integrate Tehran into the recent round of peace talks and President Barack Obama describing "work" on Iran and Russia as "our best chance of seeing a decent outcome" in Syria.
- A report published on Thursday by the Israel-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) moved to unpack what Senior Research Fellow Kobi Michael described as the "4-level game" that will determine whether the current round of U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks successfully yield a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. Michael emphasized that in addition to "the military element" - which thus far has been the focus of the U.S.'s security-related efforts - negotiators must also account for the elements of "Palestinian governance... of regional cooperation... [and] of international legitimacy." He worried that "a Palestinian state that falls into the pattern of a failed state is liable to become a subversive and hostile entity and develop into a grave security threat to Israel," pointing out that "a viable Palestinian state that takes governmental responsibility and exercises a monopoly on the use of force is an essential condition for ensuring stability and security." Whatever elements are mobilized to bolster its viability, analysts have long identified at least four critical dynamics that would have to be addressed to prevent a Palestinian state from collapsing into a failed state: the absence of political legitimacy, the absence of economic stability, the absence of a monopoly on the use of force, and the existence of rival governments in some of the territories that Palestinians reserve for a future state. Despite the peace process, it is difficult to find evaluations citing progress along these four dimensions. Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas is currently in the ninth year of his four-year term, Palestinians are scrambling to avoid an economic collapse due to donor fatigue, there is a growing jihadist presence throughout territories controlled by Palestinian governments, and efforts to unite the Fatah-controlled West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip have again stalled. The latter factor has often been left unaddressed in peace talks, but a single state under two governments is almost by definition a failed state.
U.K. NGO, already embroiled in anti-Israel scandal, accused of funding Palestinian terror affiliates
- U.K. NGO, already embroiled in anti-Israel scandal, accused of funding Palestinian terror affiliates
- Iran doubles down on strict limits to nuke talks, refusal to negotiate over ballistic missiles
- Over 80 U.S. foreign policy figures call on Obama to confront Turkey over democratic downward spiral
Iranian officials ban reformist newspaper, send managing editor to notorious torture prison
- The Oxfam International aid group has been partnering with at least two subsidiaries of an internationally designated terrorist organization, and has been providing them with financial assistance and "additional forms of material support," according to a letter from The Israel Law Center sent to Oxfam and conveyed Thursday by the Washington Free Beacon. The letter called on the Oxford-based NGO to sever its ties with the Union of Health Workers Committees (UHWC) and the Union of Agricultural Workers Committees (UAWC), two Palestinian groups that center described respectively as the "health organization" and the "agricultural organization" of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The PFLP, in turn, has long been designated as a terrorist entity by the United States and European Union, due to terror attacks stretching back to the early 1970s. The letter cites a range of evidence linking both of the subsidiary groups to their alleged parent organization, and bluntly notes both that the groups are "instrumentalities" of the PFLP and that "Oxfam readily acknowledges it works very closely with" them. Oxfam has spent recent weeks mired in controversy after former goodwill ambassador Scarlett Johannson resigned her position due to Oxfam’s public position that Israeli communities beyond the country's 1949 armistice lines should be economically boycotted and isolated. The advocacy has been blasted by critics as an anti-Semitic call to wage economic warfare against Israeli Jews. Revelations that Oxfam has been supporting groups waging literal war against Israel are likely to deepen skepticism regarding the group's motives regarding the Jewish state.
- Iranian officials and media outlets on Thursday continued to press their recent and repeated position that the scope of comprehensive nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 global powers will be limited to topics addressed in the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA), risking a scenario in which the Obama administration may appear as having been badly out-maneuvered by Iranian negotiators. The claim was made earlier this week by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who repeated it on Thursday in Geneva. Iranian media trumpeted both sets of comments, specifically emphasizing that the stance precludes discussions of Iran's ballistic missile program. The Iranian position threatens to deflate the Obama administration's air of confident diplomacy in multiple ways. White House officials had justified precluding certain topics from the JPA - up to and including the development of Iranian missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons - by insisting the interim agreement was designed to be limited, and that the momentum it provided would create opportunities for discussing broader issues later on. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman subsequently went further, explicitly assuring lawmakers that Iran's ballistic missile program would be a subject for final nuclear talks. Evidence that the administration has badly mismanaged the agenda of comprehensive talks is likely to fuel growing calls for strict Congressional oversight of administration moves as the diplomatic processes unfolds.
- The Daily Beast on Thursday conveyed the contents of a letter signed by what the outlet described as "more than 80 top foreign policy figures from across the political spectrum," calling on President Barack Obama to confront Turkey over Ankara's ongoing crackdown against civil liberties, human rights, and the rule of law. The letter came after a week in which analysts and journalists across at least three continents publicly worried that Turkey had de facto ceased to be a functioning democracy. The letter was organized by the center-right Foreign Policy Initiative and the center-left Center for American Progress, along with the Bipartisan Policy Center and Freedom House. A summary of the text is here and the full letter is here [PDF]. It assessed that that "[Turkish] Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is increasingly undermining... Turkey’s growing democracy," thereby threatening "a central pillar of the decades-long, strategic U.S.-Turkish partnership." Declaring that "silence will only encourage... Erdogan to diminish the rule of law in the country even further," the letter's signatories urged the President to "make clear to the Turkish public America’s concern about Turkey’s current path." Coverage in Turkish outlet Today's Zaman specifically picked out portions of the letter that described how Erdogan had last December lashed out against U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone, accusing Ricciardone of seeking to undermine the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and implying that he could be expelled from the country.
- Iranian officials on Thursday raided a reformist newspaper just days after its launch, banning the outlet and arresting its managing editor over published comments that described Islam's eye-for-an-eye vengeance doctrines as "inhumane." Abbas Bozorgmehr had already been forced to walk back his statements - the editor had declared to Iranian media that the description was an "unintentional mistake" - but he was nonetheless arrested and dispatched to Iran's notorious Evin prison. Reporting on the incident has been tangled, with outlets arguably seeking to reconcile the substance of the story with months of generous media coverage hailing the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as a sign of impending reforms. Describing the controversy, the Associated Press made a point of emphasizing that while "Iran has banned newspapers and jailed journalists in the past... such measures haven't happened since moderate President Hassan Rouhani took office in August." In addition to appearing wrong - Iran's reformist Bahar daily was banned by authorities last August, and the reformist Hamihan was shuttered shortly thereafter - it is also difficult to align the statement with the rest of the article.
Iranian media boasts that talks "off to a good start," as Iranian diplomats draw red lines against even minimal concessions on range of key issues
- Iranian media boasts that talks "off to a good start," as Iranian diplomats draw red lines against even minimal concessions on range of key issues
- Beirut car bombings target Iran-linked center, after Hezbollah chief doubles down on Syria fighting
- Analysts, journalists now openly worrying about functional end of Turkish democracy
- Palestinian unity talks break down again, as Hamas recommits to destroying Israel
- Iranian media trumpeted on Tuesday that comprehensive talks between the P5+1 global powers and Iran had gotten "off to a good start," quoting Iranian officials declaring that any discussions aimed at "halting Iran’s (nuclear) program and dismantling Iran’s nuclear facilities" were off-limits. Western assessments in contrast were pessimistic, both in general and specifically regarding the prospects for an agreement that would verifiably put Iran's atomic program beyond use for weaponization. Top Iranian figures have in recent weeks consistently foreclosed any concessions that would see Tehran dismantling uranium enrichment equipment, downgrading Tehran’s plutonium-producing Arak reactor, or limiting the country’s ballistic missile development. Western experts and diplomats have for their part repeatedly insisted that any robust deal with Iran would require concessions across all of those dimensions. Analysts at the U.S.-based Institute of Science and International Security (ISIS) had recently calculated that Iran would be required to dismantle some 15,000 centrifuges and convert its heavy water Arak reactor, while Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman earlier this month explicitly assured lawmakers that Iran's ballistic missile program would be a subject for final nuclear talks. The Iranians have repeatedly pushed back against Sherman's claim. Most recently, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif gave Iranian media the impression that the country’s negotiators had out-maneuvered Western diplomats, and that comprehensive discussions would be limited to topics outlined by the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA). The JPA did not include any restrictions on ballistic missile development. U.S. officials had, when pressed on the issue at the time, insisted that they had cleverly limited the scope of the agreement in order to secure an interim deal that would provide momentum for broader talks.
- A pair of car bombs detonated on Wednesday in front of the Iranian Cultural Center in Beirut killed at least eight people and wounded more than one hundred, the latest in a string of jihadist attacks declared to be retaliation for Hezbollah's critical role in bolstering Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime. The Associated Press described the aftermath as one marked by "panic," and noted that blast walls recently erected to shield the building had failed to prevent the outer façade from suffering significant damage. Lebanon's Daily Star conveyed a claim of responsibility from the Al Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which described the attack as a retaliatory "raid" against Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors. The statement also reportedly declared that Hezbollah will not "enjoy security in Lebanon until the people of Syria feel secure," a reference to the group’s long-standing demand that Hezbollah withdraw its troops from Syria. The Wednesday morning blasts - the detonation occurred around 9:25am, during rush hour - came just days after a speech by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah in which the leader of the Shiite terror group doubled down on Hezbollah's commitment to continue battling the largely Sunni rebel groups in Syria. Nasrallah also seemed to lay the groundwork for provoking Israel into a conflict over underwater energy resources, a move that analysts linked to Hezbollah's efforts to rebuild its shattered brand as a Lebanese organization protecting Lebanon from Israel.
- Arabic, American, and Israeli outlets have all in recent days published pointed analysis questioning the degree to which Turkey can still be called a genuine democracy, as the country's government moved to consolidate recently-passed measures that severely censor Internet use and empower Ankara to conduct broad online surveillance. Writing in Al-Arabiya, Istanbul-based journalist Mahir Zeynalov blasted the "authoritarian rule" of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, citing among other things a "storm of blatant lies" targeting Erdogan's political opponents and efforts by the Islamist leader to "speed up the process of burying Turkey’s hard-won democracy." Zeynalov specifically unpacked the dynamics of a recent anti-corruption sweep that entangled the party's elites, to which the AKP responded by purging literally thousands of judicial figures. Alp Aslandogan, the President of the Alliance for Shared Values, also unloaded on Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), describing its reactions to the probe as having "led to [the] collapse of rule of law” and having “significantly undermined the foundations of Turkish democracy." Last week Mieczyslaw Boduszynski and Kristin Fabbe - respectively professors at Pomona and Claremont McKenna Colleges - worried in the Christian Science Monitor that democracy in Turkey had been derailed, citing among other things Ankara's "scapegoating" of NGOs as causes of domestic unrest. The Jerusalem Post ran its story on Wednesday under the headline "is another Mideast democratic experiment over?" and further described last summer's crackdown on anti-government protestors, which drew heated condemnations from Europe, and a recent finding by Reporters Without Borders that ranked Turkey 154th out of 180 countries in press freedom. The same report ranked Russia 148th.
- Unity talks between the Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions have reportedly stalled amid Fatah demands - and Hamas refusals - that new elections be held to provide Palestinian lawmakers with a mandate to rule over some of the areas that they claim for a future Palestinian state. The deadlock is a symptom of a fundamental dynamic that has consistently blocked reconciliation efforts: Hamas controls the Gaza Strip and Fatah controls portions of the West Bank, and elections that unified the two territories would by definition require one faction to yield its power. Meanwhile Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh reiterated the terror group's commitment to the eradication of Israel, with a Hamas outlet conveying further comments from him declaring that 'the Palestinian people have elements of strength including faith, fortitude and weaponry.' Hamas's stance toward the Jewish state has created a kind of double-bind in the context of Palestinian unity and the peace process. On one hand, analysts have long emphasized that the Gaza Strip and the West Bank must be brought under a single government, lest a Palestinian state be born as a failed state with sovereign territories ruled by competing factions. On the other hand, any Palestinian government is bound by treaty obligations made to Jerusalem that acknowledge Israel's existence. Abrogating those commitments would all but confirm fears - long voiced both in the West and inside Israel - that the Palestinians intend to pocket irreversible Israeli territorial concessions and then backslide on symbolic concessions involving coexistence. It is difficult to imagine how any Israeli leader could responsibly continue pursuing negotiations after such Palestinian moves.
- Pessimism marks Iran talks launch, as Khamenei declares they will "not lead anywhere"
- Hezbollah chief's speech reignites concerns Iran-backed group manufacturing conflict with Israel over underwater energy resources
- WH pressed over evidence that Iran economy stabilizing amid oil export spike
- Egypt terror attacks comes as White House faces renewed questions over wisdom of security aid cut
- The first day of coverage regarding comprehensive talks between Iran and the P5+1 global powers revolved around pessimism from all sides regarding the prospect that talks would succeed, amid declarations by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that negotiations would "not lead anywhere" and statements by U.S. officials that the initial six-month negotiation period - during which Iran is thought to enjoy immunity from additional moves against its nuclear program - would extend at least a year. The concession by Obama administration officials drew criticism from skeptics who have repeatedly pressed the White House on the asymmetric structure of the interim Joint Plan of Action, which provides irreversible concessions to Iran in the form of cash injections while leaving open the possibility that Tehran will pocket the concessions and walk away from further talks. Khamenei's speech, meanwhile, is likely to deepen concerns - long voiced by analysts - that expressions of distrust by the Iranian ruler have precisely been leveraged as pretexts to abandon negotiations. For their part, Reuters described his statements as "his strongest sign of support for moderate President Hassan Rouhani's push to resolve the conflict peacefully," in a story headlined "Iran's Khamenei backs nuclear talks but not optimistic." The developments are already fueling increasingly emphatic calls for Congressional input into the administration's diplomacy. Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) was quoted by USA Today demanding that any negotiation process preclude Khamenei's ability "to wake up one day, kick out inspectors and race to the bomb." Kirk called for any final agreement to ensure that Iran halts all uranium enrichment activity.
- A Sunday speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is fueling concerns that the Iran-backed terror group intends to use Lebanon's off-shore energy resources to provoke a conflict with Israel, with the terror group chief reportedly insisting at least three times that Israel is engaged in a plot to plunder Lebanese oil. Lebanese media noted that Nasrallah began his extended speech by invoking Israel as a threat to Lebanon, quoting him as boasting that Hezbollah was ready "to confront the Israeli enemy." Foreign Policy Magazine Middle East Editor David Kenner described parts of the speech as "hitting on energy, sovereignty, and the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." There are long-standing concerns that Hezbollah is attempting to manufacture a conflict with Israel by pushing Lebanese officials to create a crisis over disputed underwater energy resources. The Journal of Diplomacy's Ziad Achkar noted, in the context of Nasrallah's speech, that the energy issue is attractive for Hezbollah because it allows the Iran-backed terror group to "comeoff as Hero of Lebanon, defending resources where government can't," in the process creating a pretext for holding on to advanced weapons that the militia uses to maintain a state-within-a-state in Lebanon. Achkar read the strategy as a "flashback to 2006, provoking Israeli war to regain public support that was dwindling." Hezbollah's brand as a Lebanese organization defending Lebanese interests has been shattered by its involvement, at the behest of Iran, in Syria's nearly three-year conflict.
- The Washington Free Beacon on Tuesday morning conveyed statements from White House officials brushing off concerns regarding a January spike in Iran's oil exports, which was widely read against the backdrop of a stabilization in Iran's economy, prompting Foreign Policy to say that it had "raised concerns" over the veracity of White House statements describing sanctions relief to Iran under the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) as relatively limited. The Obama administration has long faced criticism that it had both vastly undercounted the value of direct relief due to a range of fairly basic and easily identifiable errors, and that it had underestimated the likelihood that an international feeding frenzy would take hold that would further weaken the sanctions regime. Critics accused the White House not just of bungling the substance of the talks but of misleading the public over its assessments. The Free Beacon conveyed statements from White House officials insisting that while it appears as if Iran is gaining relief far ahead of the pace estimated by the White House, things would balance out over the coming months. The outlet specifically quoted National Security Council (NSC) spokesman Caitlin Hayden declaring that "month-to-month variability is normal in oil markets, but we expect Iran’s total exports will average out over the six-month period."
- The Al Qaeda-linked jihadist group Ansar Jerusalem has claimed responsibility for the Sunday bombing of a tourist bus in the Sinai Peninsula, boasting - per the Foundation for Defense of Democracies' Long War Journal blog - that "one of its heroes" carried out the attack, as part of the "economic war" against Egypt's army-backed interim government. The Wall Street Journal reported that at least four people were killed and fourteen were wounded. Ansar Jerusalem has reportedly been behind a string of recent attacks, and recently downed an Egyptian military helicopter with an anti-aircraft missile. Its Sunday assault on the South Korean tourist bus claimed the lives of at least three travelers and their Egyptian bus driver. The attack comes amid renewed scrutiny of several White House moves that have chilled Washington's relationship with Cairo, most prominently a decision made last October to partially freeze aid to Egypt's army-backed government. The administration insisted at the time that assets used by Egypt for its Sinai counter-terror operations would be exempt from new restrictions, a claim described as untenable by analysts and one that seemed difficult to sustain given the types of weapons - most prominently Apache helicopters - that were withheld. The White House's move has largely been reversed by recent Congressional allocations.