Iranian and Russian media outlets, French officials highlight erosion of international sanctions regime against Iran
- Iranian and Russian media outlets, French officials highlight erosion of international sanctions regime against Iran
- Hezbollah Dep. Sec. declares group will battle, defeat Sunni ‘takfiri’ in Lebanon
- Reports: Hamas at ease with moves by Fatah rivals to boost ties with Iran
- State Dept. blasts Turkey over new internet regulations locking in censorship and surveillance
- Russian and Iranian media boasted this week about impending trade deals that may see Iran shrug off international sanctions, amid predictions from French figures that a trade deal between Paris and Tehran may be sealed within weeks. The Tehran Times today conveyed details from a Swiss-Iranian trade meeting, and quoted Gholam Hossein Shafe'ee - the head of Iran's Chamber of Commerce, Industries, Mines and Agriculture - describing Iran as particularly eager to leverage the stability of Switzerland's economy. Bern's scramble to suspend trade bans and relax reporting regulations relating to Iranian trade had weeks ago already been cited as evidence of an emerging "gold rush" mentality taking hold internationally as Iranian markets were reopened to the global community. Meanwhile Voice of Russia published analysis, datelined Saturday, assessing that "Russia and Iran are getting ready for a new stage in their economic cooperation" as "Western sanctions relief opens doors for an array of huge opportunities in a range of sectors, primarily energy and oil industries." Earlier this week Francois Nicoullaud, who served as France's ambassador to Iran from 2001 to 2005, predicted to Bloomberg that "initial agreements" between Paris and Tehran would be reached "if not in coming days then maybe within the next few weeks." Obama administration officials have rushed to triage what increasingly appears to be a feeding frenzy of countries and companies rushing back into Iran, warning off both France and Turkey in recent days and yesterday targeting a range of businesses across Europe and the Middle East for violating U.S. sanctions.
- Statements recently made a top Hezbollah figure and published today by Hezbollah's Al-Manar media outlet risk accelerating a wave of sectarian strife that, having been largely imported from the nearly three-year conflict in neighboring Syria, has increasingly generated open fighting between various factions and a wave of car bombs targeting Hezbollah in retaliation for its critical role in ensuring the survival of Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime. Al-Manar conveyed statements from Naim Qassem, Hezbollah Deputy Secretary General, declaring that the Iran-backed terror group will 'continue its war against the takfiri plot and will defeat it,' and 'noting that the achievements in this context are to appear soon.' Al-Manar also described Qassem as asserting that 'the suicide bombings [against Hezbollah] are planned and executed by multinational takfiri criminals.' The gesture toward 'takfiri' is an accusation of apostasy, and is used by Hezbollah and its Shiite allies to describe not just Sunni jihadists but also moderate Sunnis battling the Assad regime and Sunni Muslims in general. It has been repeatedly used by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah to justify warfighting inside Syria. Its increasing prevalence in Hezbollah’s rhetoric regarding Lebanese violence will deepen fears that hardened sectarianism, which has complicated efforts to dampen Syrian violence, will take hold in Lebanon.
- The Palestinian Hamas faction is content to let its rivals in the Fatah faction reach out to Iran - despite a decades-old proxy relationship between Hamas and its Iranian sponsors - according to a report published yesterday by Al Monitor. Hamas officials who spoke to the outlet emphasized that any rapprochement between the two sides should be seen as Fatah altering its long-held stance opposing Iranian influence, and that in any case "the road to a true rapprochement between Ramallah and Tehran is still long." Evidence began to emerge last month of active moves by Fatah officials to deepen their ties with Iran, after years in which conventional wisdom held that relations between the Palestinian group and the Islamic republic were somewhere between chilly and functionally nonexistent. The assessments were not without their problems - in early 2013 Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas thanked Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for Iran's stance on Palestinian issues - but the ongoing rivalry between Fatah and Hamas placed limits on the degree to which Fatah and Iran could or would cooperate. Fatah officials regularly blasted Iran for interfering in Palestinian affairs via its sponsorship of Hamas. Hamas's domestic and regional position has all but crashed in recent months, and efforts by Hamas to bolster its stature via spectacular terror attacks have repeatedly been disrupted. The new geopolitical configuration may have created an incentive for Iran to diversify its investment in Palestinian groups, but it may even be pushing Hamas to countenance closer coordination between Fatah and Iran as a way of bringing Fatah around to Iranian positions.
- The State Department on Thursday condemned new Turkish legislation passed this week that places sharp limits on internet use and freedom, with State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki describing the new measures as "not compatible with international standards on freedom of expression" and worrying that they would "significantly impact free expression, investigative journalism, the protection of journalist sources, political discourse, and access to information over the internet." Turkey's move to crack down on the internet comes as the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) - which has controlled the country for over a decade - faces arguably the most significant challenge to the rule of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan since he took power in 2003. Followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who are scattered throughout Turkey's state and non-state institutions, have been locked in open political warfare with the AKP. Gulenist figures have launched sweeping anti-corruption and anti-terror campaigns that have ensnared top AKP elites, and the AKP has responded with a wave of purges ejecting Gulenists from their positions and jobs. The AKP has also pursued further legislation limiting free expression. Erdogan had already last summer begun mobilizing populist opposition to the use of internet technologies - including and especially social media - when mass anti-government riots broke out over perceptions of government overreach. The new internet regulations, which still have to be approved by Turkey's president, provide broad mechanisms for blocking websites and dramatically expand the ability of government officials to monitor internet activity. The Australian Times reported Friday that the legislation is being viewed as an attempt by the AKP "to suppress corruption allegations and silence dissent. The New York Times described how websites with details of AKP corruption - including the popular sound-sharing website SoundCloud, where audio was posted of Erdogan seemingly trading zoning favors in exchange for two villas - have been blocked. Turkey's top business group, the Turkish Industry and Business Association, had already blasted the new internet regulations as a violation of "the individual’s fundamental rights and freedoms,” and the European Union had similarly expressed concerns.
- Top Iran officials underline refusal to dismantle uranium or plutonium infrastructure
- Iranian Foreign Ministry swats down suggestions Tehran would recognize Israel under peace deal
- Mass casualty barrel bombs attacks renew debates over Western intervention
- Reports: Hezbollah vetoes new cabinet, leaving Lebanon government in limbo
- Top Iranian officials this week reemphasized Tehran's stance - articulated recently by among others President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and former top nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian - that the Islamic republic refuses to dismantle even minimal elements of its nuclear infrastructure in the context of a comprehensive nuclear agreement between the country and the international community. Zarif on Wednesday again rejected Western demands that Iran take apart uranium enrichment and plutonium producing equipment, declaring that "Iran's nuclear technology is non-negotiable and comments about Iran's nuclear facilities are worthless and there is no need to negotiate or hold talks about them." The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization had earlier this week made a series of similar comments to Iran's PressTV, boasting that Iran has not dismantled anything under the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA). He emphasized that "[t]he entire nuclear activity of Iran is going on” and that “[c]entrifuges that were used for the production of 20 percent, they will be used now for producing 5 percent enriched uranium." The boasts are likely to generate both specific and general concerns regarding the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran. Substantively, Salehi's boasts regarding the ongoing development of advanced centrifuges – an element of the JPA that David Albright, head of the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), identified this week as a gaping "loophole" - are likely to prove particularly controversial. More broadly, White House and State Department officials seem to have settled on talking points suggesting that "dismantlement of significant portions of [Iran's] nuclear infrastructure" will be a topic for some time in the future, and that in the meantime journalists should focus on the JPA's implementation. The administration has been pressed its logic, wherein statements trumpeting Iranian intransigence are brushed off as domestic chatter while statements signaling moderation are taken as reliable indices to regime intentions.
- Iran's foreign ministry this week "categorically denied" widely-broadcast reports which had Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hinting to German TV that Tehran might be willing to recognize Israel should the Jewish state secure a peace agreement with Palestinians. A foreign ministry official declared instead that Zarif had been misquoted and the top Iranian diplomatic "completely rejected the remarks attributed to him." The incident is not the first time since the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in which optimistic media coverage touting Iranian moderation was met with explicit denials from Iranian officials. Widely conveyed reports published months ago had Iran had halting enrichment of its uranium to 20% purity, prompting a quick clarification by Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi stating the opposite. Last September a Twitter account linked to Rouhani generated what the Washington Post described at the time as a "frenzied response" when it was used to wish Jews a happy Jewish New Year. Rouhani’s officedenied any linksto the tweet. Iranian citizens were, days later, able to directly access social media networks for the first time in years, generating speculation from Western journalists that "Iran’s Berlin Wall of internet censorship crumbling." The ban was imposed a day later. In September a German paper published rumors that Rouhani was prepared to shut down Iran's underground enrichment bunker at Fordow, a suggestion that the regime immediately rejected and continues to explicitly reject. The degree to which Iranian officials are deliberately promoting misreporting by often sympathetic Western journalists is unclear.
- Secretary of State John Kerry this week condemned the use of so-called barrel bombs by Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime, blasting Damascus for the repeated use of the shrapnel packed IEDs against Syrian civilians. The attacks, in which the bombs are dropped out of helicopters, have in recent days generateda wave of new casualties. Policy debates surrounding the regime's use of barrel bombs are not straightforward. The insidery NightWatch intelligence bulletin, which has been pointedly unsympathetic to advocates of Western intervention into Syria, noted that Kerry's statements "imply that opposition forces are too feeble to shoot down helicopters dropping 50 gallon drums packed with explosives." The implicit implication, perNightWatch’sassessment, is that Assad is more stable - and more difficult to dislodge - than some pro-intervention analysts suggest. The Washington Post in contrast editorialized late on Wednesday in favor ofwhat it described as "a number of options for action in Syria that would be more robust than the current policy," outlining a range of potential diplomatic and security assistance policies. The Post concluded its editorial by suggesting that the paucity of good choices was a function of "U.S. inaction over the past three years." Western nations had earlier this month promised to renew pressure on Assad in the aftermath of failed peace talks.
- Beirut-based news site NOW Lebanon yesterday conveyed reports from Al-Hayat indicating that Hezbollah has rejected a proposed new government in which the finance and foreign ministries would have gone to Hezbollah allies while cabinet portfolios related to security - specifically the defense and interior ministries - would have gone to the anti-Hezbollah March 14th movement. The current caretaker cabinet took control of Lebanon in April 2013, after the stability of repeated governments was undermined by Hezbollah and its allies. Hezbollah's veto over the proposed new cabinet composition, which came despite statements from March 14 figures signaling expanded willingness to make concessions, leaves efforts to restore political stability in limbo. The move is likely to reinforce analysis suggesting that Hezbollah has a stranglehold over Lebanese political institutions. Hudson Institute senior fellow Lee Smith outlined last month how the group is able to operate with impunity throughout the country, and NOW Lebanon recently described a speech by "firebrand Sunni Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir" in which Assir called on Sunnis to speak out against the "crimes Hezbollah committed against them," including and particularly via the group's "tools, especially the Lebanese army."
European scramble into Iran threatens to undermine White House credibility, heighten calls for Congressional oversight over final deal
- European scramble into Iran threatens to undermine White House credibility, heighten calls for Congressional oversight over final deal
- Kerry tells U.S. lawmakers that Obama administration Syria policy has failed, says time to arm rebels: reports
- Turkish media: Final details being settled in Israel-Turkey reconciliation deal
Hamas reportedly pulls back anti-rocket force from Gaza border, heightens risk of escalation with Israel
- European companies are scrambling to rush back into Iran's newly reopened markets despite Obama administration statements insisting that the Islamic republic "is not open for business," threatening to undermine confidence in the White House's management of the diplomatic battlefield as the West and Tehran head into comprehensive nuclear negotiations scheduled for mid-February. Benjamin Weinthal, a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, last week described the dynamic as one in which Germany's "European rivals are scrambling to catch up" to the "over 100 German companies... currently doing business in Iran," with the new capital flooding into Iran worth as much as $20 billion. The Financial Times yesterday described "a delegation of more than 100 French companies" that visited Iran on Monday for a three-day visit that the outlet described as "the biggest demonstration of western business interest in Iran for more than a decade." English-language news distributor Al Bawaba today published an assessment focusing on Iran's energy markets and headlined "Europe muscling for investments with Tehran." The potential for a feeding frenzy specifically in the energy sector has been a persistent concern of observers. In mid-January, foreign policy and energy analyst Aaron Menenberg outlined fears that the relief provided by the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) could trigger a downward spiral in which "how [sanctions] are removed is almost irrelevant in the long-run... no company wants to be the first one in, but none want to be the last." The White House has staked its credibility on predictions that the core sanctions regime against Iran would hold amid the limited relief provided by the JPA, opposite skeptics who predicted the downward spiral that evidence indicates may be occurring. Evidence that the administration had miscalculated the JPA's effects or misled lawmakers about its likely outcome may heighten already emerging calls for close Congressional scrutiny of a comprehensive deal with Iran.
- Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday told a group of 15 U.S. congressmen that the Obama administration's policy toward Syria had failed - and that Washington must rush to arm relatively moderate rebel elements as to offset both Al Qaeda-linked radicals and the Iran-backed Bashar al-Assad regime - according to Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). The Daily Beast's Josh Rogin and Bloomberg's Jeffrey Goldberg both had early Monday morning articles about the leaked meeting, with the former characterizing the remarks as evidence that Kerry "has lost faith in his own administration’s Syria policy" and the latter framing the remarks as calling for "a new, more assertive, Syria policy" that may include "more dramatic arming of moderate Syrian rebel factions." The Washington Post's Fred Hiatt, who had also been briefed by Graham on the meeting, dryly opened his article on the incident by noting that "it is no secret that the Obama administration’s Syria policy, to the extent that one exists, is failing." The reports that Damascus has turned over less than 5% of its chemical weapons (CW) arsenal and that Assad was - per a Times of London article - stockpiling WMDs as "an insurance policy." They also came a day after White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough flat out declared on Face the Nation that the deal regarding CWs - which had seen the West forgo attacking the regime after it crossed an Obama administration red line against the use of such weapons - was "not falling apart." Recent days have seen a cascade of grim reports describing carnage inside besieged Syrian cities. A Saturday raid on Aleppo reportedly killed at least 85 people and another 26 people were reportedly killed in attacks on the city today. U.N. World Food Program chief executive Ertharin Cousin on Monday declared that the agency was having trouble accessing besieged areas inhabited by millions of civilians. The Syrian conflict's death toll as of the end of January, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, topped 136,000.
- Turkish media outlet Hurriyet Daily News described early on Monday the final compensation figure that Israel will provide to Turkey as part of a reconciliation deal between the two countries, years after Ankara largely froze bilateral relations in the aftermath of a U.N. report that confirmed Jerusalem's legal interpretation of a 2010 commando raid on a Turkish vessel. The Mavi Marmara was attempting to break Israel's blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Passengers aboard the vessel - who were largely drawn from the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), a group that Turkish law enforcement recently raided over terror ties - attacked Israeli forces who boarded the ship, and nine passengers were killed in the ensuing fighting. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and officials from his Justice and Development Party (AKP) pressed for an international investigation into the incident, but were disappointed when a U.N. commission confirmed that Israel's interdiction of the vessel was legal. Turkey had been steadily eroding its ties with the Jewish state - Erodgan famously stormed off a Davos stage in 2009 rather than continue to share it with Israeli President Shimon Peres - and Ankara responded to the report's publication by putting relations into a deep freeze. Erdogan was widely perceived, including by Turkish media, as trying to leverage anti-Israel diplomacy in order to regionally boost Turkey's position and his personal popularity, but the AKP's foreign policy subsequently all but collapsed in ensuing years after a series of failed geopolitical gambles. By 2013 President Barack Obama was able to maneuver Erdogan into accepting a reconciliation deal with Israel largely on Jerusalem's terms, though Turkish backsliding - driven in part by AKP efforts to placate hardline criticism over having folded on previous red lines - hampered negotiations on the agreement. Turkish reports published early this morning - which come amid renewed analysis describing Ankara's foreign policy as being in disarray - indicate that a final $20 million figure for compensation has been agreed to.
- Hamas security sources this weekend told Agence France Presse on Sunday that the Iran-backed terror group was withdrawing roughly 600 fighters from the border between Israel and Gaza, where they had been recently been stationed and tasked with preventing smaller terrorist groups from launching rockets and missiles at Israeli civilians and soldiers. Regular security forces, according to the anonymous source, would remain in place. Escalating rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip had in November 2012 triggered an Israeli offensive that severely degraded Hamas's command and control infrastructure and its arsenal, and was followed by a near-total cessation in projective fire directed at Israel. A recent uptick in attacks from the Gaza Strip had generated blunt warnings that Israel would act to reestablish its deterrent should the escalation continue. Israeli outlet Walla tersely assessed, per a characterization of Walla's report in Ma'an, that 'Hamas' move gives other Palestinian factions a green light to fire rockets at Israeli targets across the border.' Hamas is battling to overcome what is inarguably the worst credibility crisis that it has faced since it violently seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, and analysts fear that it is trying to rebuild its stature by provoking a confrontation with Israel.
Analysts: Syria retains 95% of chemical arsenal, can likely produce bio-weapons, and has restored missile production to pre-war levels
- Analysts: Syria retains 95% of chemical arsenal, can likely produce bio-weapons, and has restored missile production to pre-war levels
- Fears of Iran "gold rush" deepen as Tehran moves to bolster European and Asian financial ties, Switzerland drops range of restrictions
- Top Israeli military officials: Hezbollah has installed "thousands" of military bases in civilian buildings, set to use vast network of human shields in future conflict
- Palestinian Fatah official declares hope for boost in Iran ties
- Syria retains the vast majority of its chemical arsenal, can likely weaponize biological agents, and has restored the pace of its missile production to pre-war levels, according to a stream of analysis and reporting published on Tuesday and Wednesday. A written statement by James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, disclosed that U.S. intelligence analysts "judge that some elements of Syria’s biological warfare programme might have advanced beyond the research and development stage and might be capable of limited agent production." Reporting on Clapper's disclosure, The Telegraph noted that Syria's program is sufficiently advanced that Syrian scientists may be able to create biological weapons even out of existing viruses, including out of strains of small pox. Meanwhile the Times of Israel conveyed assessments from Jane's Defence Weekly describing Syria's success in reconstituting its missile and rocket program, after Iran, North Korea, and Belarus provided assistance in circumventing international restrictions. The Jane's report indicates that the Bashar al-Assad regime has boosted production to address both its own and Hezbollah's need for projectiles. Regarding chemical weapons, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons revealed today that less than five percent of Assad's chemical arsenal has been removed from Syria.
- Israel's air force chief Major-General Amir Eshel today described "thousands" of military installations created by Hezbollah in residential buildings across Lebanon, declaring that Israeli forces would be forced to "deal aggressively" with the Iran-backed terror group’s infrastructure during any future conflict. Eshel gestured toward what has traditionally been described as Hezbollah's double war crime - using Lebanese civilians as cover for rocket and missile attacks on Israeli civilians - and blasted the group for systematically creating a network of behind human shields. Hezbollah is thought to possess more 100,000 projectiles, including what Israeli Military Intelligence Chief Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi today described as "hundreds of different kinds of advanced antitank missiles, advanced mortar shells." Hezbollah leaders have threatened to saturation bomb Israeli cities should another conflict with Jerusalem break out, and a senior Iranian military commander recently bragged to Iranian media that the group's arsenal can "pinpoint" targets anywhere in Israel. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah late last year explicitly called for the destruction of the Jewish state, stating that it was "a cancerous presence" and that "the only solution when it comes to cancer is to eradicate it."
- The Swiss government today fully suspended some trade bans on Iran and relaxed mandatory reporting requirements across a range of additional sectors, a day after news emerged that Iran intends to use banks in Japan, South Korea, and Switzerland to reestablish ties to the international financial system. Agence France-Presse reported on Tuesday that Tehran had settled on the banks it seeks to use as sanctions relief mandated by the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) takes hold, after years in which American and European restrictions "had effectively shut Iran out of the international banking system, making all foreign trade difficult." Today Switzerland's Federal Council announced that the country was suspending its ban on the trade of precious metals with Iran, relaxing mandatory reporting requirements on sectors associated with the trade of Iranian petroleum, and increasing tenfold the threshold for declaring money transfers to the Islamic Republic. The suspensions are set to remain in effect at least through August 2014. The developments come as Obama administration officials scramble - most recently and publicly in Turkey - to convince countries and companies that Iran is not yet "open for business" despite the JPA-driven erosion in the international sanctions regime. Washington's success in conveying the sentiment has been uneven, and empirical evidence is growing of a global race to reenter Iranian markets. Meanwhile Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan today hailed the rebirth of Turkey-Iran ties, and a group of British lawmakers revealed that a delegation of Iranian parliamentarians would soon visit Britain. Tehran’s moves to shrug off its economic and political isolation came as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reported today to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that Iran "has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons."
- A top official from the Palestinian Fatah faction declared on Wednesday that his organization may move to bolster ties with Iran, after years in which Tehran had largely eschewed backing Fatah and had opted instead to provide military, financial, and diplomatic support to the more radical Hamas faction. Fatah negotiators are currently engaged in peace talks with Israeli counterparts, while Iran and Hamas remain committed to the destruction of the Jewish state. Jibril Rajoub, a top Palestinian official considered by Western diplomats to be a relatively moderate voice inside Palestinian polity, told a Lebanese outlet that the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) was "willing to consider a renewal of Palestinian-Iranian ties." Iranian state media boasted that Rajoub had 'praised the important role of the Islamic Republic in supporting the Palestinians and their cause and said Fatah and other Palestinian groups consider Iran as a main and influential player in the Middle East.' Rajoub's comments may prove particularly controversial if read alongside statements made by the Palestinian official last May, in which he reportedly declared "in the name of Allah, if we [the Palestinians] had nuclear weapons, we’d be using them." Iran is widely assumed to be pursuing a nuclear weapon, and top global intelligence officials have long feared - per a 2012 Telegraph story on the issue - that "a nuclear-armed Iran would increase the chances of terrorists using a 'dirty bomb' in the future."
WSJ: After fiery comments, renewed concerns that Iran president lacks "ability to deliver" nuke deal
- WSJ: After fiery comments, renewed concerns that Iran president lacks "ability to deliver" nuke deal
- Egyptian military promotes army chief Sisi, sets stage for presidential ascension
- Focus on Israeli red lines, Russian arms shipments after mysterious Syria explosion
- Jihadists release tape showing successful missile strike on Egyptian helicopter
- Reuters today conveyed statements from State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf confirming that the first round of comprehensive nuclear negotiations with Iran will begin in New York in mid-February, amid both news and analysis reflecting unease over the willingness and ability of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani to offer meaningful concessions. The Wall Street Journal this morning evaluated interviews recently given to CNN by Rouhani and by Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, dryly noting that their intransigent tone and positions had "rekindled concerns in Washington and Europe about [Rouhani's] ability to deliver" a robust agreement. Zarif had explicitly accused the Obama administration of lying about Iranian commitments to dismantle nuclear centrifuges in the context of the current interim agreement, while Rouhani had ruled out dismantling centrifuges during any future agreement. The stance was quickly echoed, as Iranian media pointed out last Friday, by a senior Iranian cleric who cited statements from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A report published last week by the U.S.-based Institute of Science and International Security (ISIS) had calculated [PDF] that Iran would minimally need to dismantle 15,000 centrifuges to verifiably put its atomic program beyond use for weaponization. Obama administration efforts to contain the fallout from the Iranian statements, which saw White House officials describing the CNN interviews as geared for domestic consumption, were literally, openly mocked by members of the White House press corps. The Associated Press had already assessed last week that the Rouhani and Zarif's statements were set to "renew criticism that Iran is stalling and energize the push in Congress for tougher sanctions," while Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg noted that if Rouhani's statement is sincere then "there is no possibility of a nuclear deal between Iran and the six powers."
- Egyptian army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi was today cleared to run for president by the country's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), setting the stage for what is widely expected to be an easy glide into the presidency by the broadly popular and seemingly teflon military figure. SCAF also promoted Sisi to the rank of Field Marshal, part of what is being read as an all-but-explicit endorsement of his ascension by Egypt's military hierarchy. Sisi emerged as Egypt's most popular figure after the army's July 2013 ouster of then-president Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-linked government, which came amid mass protest calling for Morsi's resignation and early elections. Egypt's English-language Ahram Online this weekend described Sisi as "the Brotherhood's arch-foe" and assessed that the Islamist organization is "more outcast than ever." The description is in line with an Agence France-Presse report from last week describing the Brotherhood as "in complete disarray." It follows arguments stretching back months by Washington Institute fellow Eric Trager evaluating that the Brotherhood's rigid, hierarchical structure made it vulnerable to disruption and decapitation. A presidential win by Sisi, especially if it is read as a firm popular rebuke of the Islamist organization, may complicate bilateral relations between Washington and Cairo. Last August the then-general expressed open anger at the Obama administration for what he described as America "[turning its] back on the Egyptians" as they battled Islamists. A diplomatic snub this week by the State Department risked further diplomatic deterioration.
- An overnight explosion reported in Syria's Mediterranean port city of Latakia, which Syrian opposition sources linked to action by the Israeli Air Force (IAF), has refocused attention not just on Jerusalem's oft-reiterated commitment to stem the flow of advanced weapons through Syria but on Russia's increasingly open efforts to arm the Bashar al-Assad regime. Reuters had reported on Friday that in recent weeks Moscow has "stepped up supplies of military gear to Syria," part of a campaign by the Russians to "raise [their] diplomatic and economic influence in the Middle East." The opposition sources that described this week's incident in Latakia suggested that the target was a shipment of Russian S-300 missile launchers, anti-aircraft assets that the Israelis have emphasized for years they would seek to interdict should Syria move to acquire them. Lebanese sources had earlier in the day reported unusually intensive IAF overflights in Lebanese airspace, potentially en route to Syria. The Israelis are thought to have taken action more than half a dozen times to enforce Jerusalem's "red line" against Syrian acquisition or transfer of advanced weapons. That said, details of this incident are murky - and as usual the Israelis have refused to confirm or deny an attack - and veteran Israeli defense correspondent Alon Ben-David this morning flatly ruled out [Hebrew] reports linking the IAF to the explosion.
- Islamists over the weekend released a tape showing fighters from the Al Qaeda-aligned Ansar Jerusalem jihadist group using a surface-to-air missile (SAM) to down an Egyptian helicopter operating in the northern Sinai Peninsula, the first time the group has demonstrated the capability to successfully deploy SAMs. David Barnett, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, described the video and read the attack alongside a late 2013 declaration by Ansar Jerusalem to wage a protracted war against Egyptian forces. For its part, TIME’s Karl Vick contextualized the strike as one of several recent incidents in which sophisticated weapons have been deployed by jihadists near Israel's borders. Vick outlined how "[t]he flight approach to [Israel's] Eilat airport comes uncomfortably close to Sinai foothills on the Egyptian side of the border," the upshot being that terrorists could use SAMs to down Israeli commercial aircraft. Vick outlined a number of scenarios that would mitigate such risk, the most straightforward being Egyptian move to secure the territory. Egyptian security officials have for months sought to do exactly that, albeit with uneven success. Moves by the Obama administration to freeze military aid to Cairo due to the army's ouster of the country's former president Mohammed Morsi were criticized for potentially interfering with Egypt's efforts to uproot the jihadist infrastructure in the Sinai.
CNN host describes diplomatic "train wreck" as Iran president rules out dismantling nuclear centrifuges
- CNN host describes diplomatic "train wreck" as Iran president rules out dismantling nuclear centrifuges
- Growth of Al Qaeda in West Bank seen as reinforcing Israeli security concerns
- Analysts, journalists: "very essence of Turkish democracy" threatened as government launches "biggest purge of the judiciary in the country's history"
- Likely presidential run by Egyptian army chief receives prime minister’s backing
- A CNN interview to be aired on Sunday will have Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declaring to CNN host Fareed Zakaria that Iran "will not accept any limitations" on its "nuclear technology" in the context of a comprehensive agreement between Tehran and the West, and that the Iranians will "not under any circumstances" agree to destroy any uranium enrichment centrifuges. Zakaria described Rouhani's statement as a diplomatic "train wreck," observing that "the Iranian conception of what the deal is going to look like and the American conception now look like they are miles apart." The preview of Rouhani's statements came a day after CNN aired footage of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif asserting in an interview that Iran is not obligated to dismantle centrifuges, and that White House statements to the contrary - and there have been several such statements - were mischaracterizations. A report published this week [PDF] by the U.S.-based Institute of Science and International Security (ISIS) had outlined the minimum requirements that Iran would be obligated to take under any agreement that robustly imposed limits on Tehran's ability to produce nuclear weapons. The Wall Street Journal pointedly observed that the report's prescriptions "aren’t viewed as particularly harsh or hard-line," and ISIS head David Albright emphasized that they had been produced after 'extensive discussions in recent months with Obama administration officials working on the Iran file.' The ISIS reported calculated that any agreement would have to require the Iranians to dismantle 15,000 centrifuges, and that some of the dismantled equipment should actually "be taken out of Iran."
- Counterterrorism officials are continuing to unpack the significance of yesterday's announcement by Israel's Shin Bet security service that Israeli officials had captured three Al Qaeda-linked Palestinians plotting mass-casualty terror attacks in Israel, with Israeli CT expert Aviv Oreg telling USA Today that the plot indicated "that hard-core al-Qaeda elements are involved within Israel" for the first time in years. Fox News read the incident against "growing evidence” from over recent months that “Al Qaeda and other Sunni Jihadists [are] gaining a foothold in the West Bank and Gaza Strip." The Jerusalem Post today cited sources indicating that the Gaza-based operative who recruited the three men had "received his orders directly from the head of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri." Israel's head of military intelligence had already last summer worried that the chaos in Syria would provide a local foothold for jihadist, while the growth of Al Qaeda to Israel's south in the Sinai Peninsula has been extensively documented. Al Qaeda’s expanding strength along Israel's borders and inside the West Bank is likely to have straightforward diplomatic consequences. The Israelis have been insisting that any final peace agreement with the Palestinians must include provisions allowing Israel to maintain a security and counterterror presence along the border with Jordan. The Palestinians have flatly rejected the position. Evidence of fresh Al Qaeda efforts seems set to reinforce Jerusalem's position.
- The Telegraph yesterday described the Turkish government as having launched "the biggest purge of the judiciary in the country's history," with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) "firing and reassigning senior judges and prosecutors," in what has escalated into a near-existential struggle between the AKP and figures embedded in a range of Turkish institutions who are tied to U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. At issue are a series of widening anti-corruption and anti-terror probes - launched weeks ago by judiciary figures - that have ensnared AKP elites. The AKP has responded by sacking or transferring literally hundreds of police officers and judges. The purges have intensified since last December - when the Wall Street Journal evaluated that Erdogan was suffering "setbacks in [his] attempt to rein in [the] corruption investigation" - though the AKP had already by then removed dozens of police chiefs. Turkey watchers are now converging on assessments that have Erdogan emerging successful from the political bloodbath. Council on Foreign Relations fellow Steven Cook wrote today that "Erdogan is not going anywhere" and that he "may even be the prime minister again." Turkey expert Michael Koplow echoed Cook. The controversy is nonetheless increasingly seen as having taken its toll on Turkish civil society. Firat Demir, an associate professor in economics at the University of Oklahoma who has published extensively on Turkish civil society, described Turkey observers as being "worried that Erdogan's actions threaten the very essence of Turkish democracy." Demir more bluntly assessed that "Turkey threatens to become just like many others in its neighborhood: a hybrid regime ruled by a strong man who does not even try to give his rule the pretense of a democracy."
- Egypt's interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawy today announced that he would back Egyptian military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for president should the latter run, a day after Egyptian outlet Al-Hayat reported that the army chief would indeed soon quit his post to pursue the presidency. Sisi is considered an overwhelming favorite to win upcoming presidential elections, and has developed a reputation as a Teflon politician immune from attacks. The Christian Science Monitor assessed in July that "adoration of [Sisi] and deep hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood" were dampening outrage over the deaths of Muslim Brotherhood protesters, describing how the army figure had been "elevat[ed] of General Sisi to almost legendary status." Months later the Associated Press conveyed a strange incident in which a tape was leaked of Sisi talking about dreams he had experienced in which he seemed destined to be Egypt's leader. The AP noted that while the tape was "apparently leaked by opponents to embarrass the general," its effect for most Egyptians was to deepen Sisi's image "as a spiritual man, in touch with the nation's traditions." The AP described the political mood of Sisi's supporters as one in which "he seems unable to do wrong."
Iran FM: White House misleading Americans over interim deal implementation, Iran "did not agree to dismantle anything"
- Iran FM: White House misleading Americans over interim deal implementation, Iran "did not agree to dismantle anything"
- U.S. condemns Syrian "inflammatory rhetoric" as Geneva 2 peace talks open
- West Bank terror growth risks peace process complications
- Sanctions reduction triggers Iran "gold rush" -- analysts, journalists, business leaders
- Controversy is likely to deepen in the coming days regarding the Obama administration's refusal to publicly release the text describing how the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) is to be implemented, after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told CNN late on Wednesday that the White House's public description "both underplays [Western] concessions and overplays Iranian commitment." Zarif's statements mark at least the second time that a top Iranian official has explicitly claimed that the administration is misleading journalists and the public regarding the details of the implementation agreement, which among other things clarifies when Iran is required to take a range of actions and to forgo so-called non-actions. Chief Iranian negotiator Abbas Araqchi declared last week that Iran won more latitude regarding ongoing nuclear work than the White House was publicly conceding, and that "no facility will be closed; enrichment will continue, and qualitative and nuclear research will be expanded." Zarif today went arguably further, flat out declaring that Iran "did not agree to dismantle anything," in contrast to how "the White House tries to portray [the agreement] as a basically a 'dismantling' of Iran's nuclear program." Zarif's language is a gesture toward administration positions consistently maintained in fact sheets and briefings in which officials described Iran as committing to dismantling and disconnecting various parts of its enrichment infrastructure. CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer described Zarif's remarks as "stunning and truly provocative," and noted that the foreign minister's comments will "give ammunition" to calls for Congress to advance Senate legislation that would increase pressure on the Islamic republic by signaling the imposition of future sanctions should Tehran refuse to put its nuclear program beyond use for the production of nuclear weapons.
- The BBC this afternoon provided an overview of today's Geneva 2 opening session - being held in Montreux, Switzerland, with the aim of dampening the violence in Syria's almost three-year war - describing "extraordinarily ill-tempered scenes and some very direct language." Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoabi emphasized to journalists at the conference that Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad would refuse to cede power, opposite calls by the U.S. for Assad to do exactly that. Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem lashed out at among others Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, rejecting Kerry's call for Assad to step down and openly dismissing Ban's entreaties to leave the podium once his 10-minute speaking time had elapsed. The United States almost immediately condemned Muallem for "inflammatory rhetoric." Meanwhile observers are expressing deepening concerns over the degree to which the U.S. has positioned itself to secure Assad's exit. Washington's interpretation of the previous Geneva I understanding has the deal calling for Assad's removal, but the interpretation is rejected by Damascus and Moscow. Meanwhile Marwan Kabalan, a former dean of the faculty of international relations at the University of Kalamoon in Damascus, told RFE/RL that the Assad regime believes it has "succeeded in changing the whole focus of the international community from democratic transition in the country into fighting terrorism." The assessment comes weeks after Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, outlined how the Obama administration has begun acting as if it viewed Assad as a partner in stemming extremists in the Syrian opposition.
- Israel's Shin Bet security service appears to have confirmed that Israeli officials captured three Al Qaeda-linked Palestinian terrorists plotting a mass-casualty terrorist attack against the American embassy in Israel. A gag order lifted late Wednesday allowed journalists to disclose details of the arrest. The Jerusalem Post carried extensive details of the plot, and described the goal as one of carrying out "massive bombings." Three Gaza-based operatives were allegedly recruited and directed via Internet platforms, including Skype and Facebook. The terrorists' targets appear to have included - in addition to the American embassy - a major bus line and the Jerusalem Convention Center. There also appear to have been plans to launch coordinated attacks, which would have included targeting first responders as they arrived on the scene. The news comes shortly after revelations that the Shin Bet arrested a separate terrorist cell in the West Bank directed by the Palestinian Hamas faction. Evidence of steadily increasing West Bank terror infrastructure is likely to have diplomatic consequences, and to strengthen Israeli arguments that a robust Israeli security presence is required in sensitive areas of the territory in the context of a comprehensive peace agreement.
- Multiple outlets and analysts are assessing that the West's reduction of sanctions on Iran, implemented on Monday per the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) agreed to by the P5+1 global powers and Tehran, has triggered a "gold rush" into the Islamic republic as companies and nations scramble not to be left behind as the country's markets are reopened to the world. The phrase is an explicit echo of statements made by Vienna-based Iranian business consultant Bijan Khajehpour and conveyed by Reuters, in which Khajehpour described a "gold rush" mood in Tehran that has Russia and China rushing to lock in oil-based barter deals before Western companies penetrate the Iranian energy sector. The Wall Street Journal contrasted assurances from the Obama administration emphasizing that sanctions relief was limited with evidence that a "growing number of European governments and businesses [are] moving to cash in on the opening created by the interim agreement." Specifically, the Journal piled on examples indicating that "Tehran's trading partners have lifted sanctions, sent delegations, agreed to export deals and signaled their readiness to expand ties across nearly every major industry." Mark Dubowitz and Emanuele Ottolenghi - respectively the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a senior fellow at the foundation - noted in Politico today that the "gold rush" is partly a function of a psychological change that has seen "greed... overcome fear," with the improved economic climate already generating "some illegitimate deals as companies test the waters." Reuters reported today that Iranian oil sales rose in January for the third consecutive month, and tomorrow Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is to address global business leaders and urge them to pursue further energy co-development deals. The Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency meanwhile announced yesterday that it will resume trade with Iran, cracking open a market that had in the past seen robust trade in auto exports and energy. The degree to which Iran benefited economically from the JPA has both diplomatic and policy stakes. Diplomatically, the loss of U.S. leverage will make it difficult to pressure Iran into verifiably putting its nuclear program beyond use for nuclearization. Politically, evidence of such a loss is likely to deepen calls for Congress to pass legislation imposing new sanctions on Iran should negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program fail, a move that proponents insist would boost the bargaining position of U.S. negotiators.
Iran nuclear agency chief: "Iceberg of sanctions is melting while our centrifuges are... still working"
- Iran nuclear agency chief: "Iceberg of sanctions is melting while our centrifuges are... still working"
- New report details Iranian concessions necessary for final deal
- Risks of Gaza Strip deterioration deepen as Palestinian rocket fire increases
- Geneva 2 roll-out marred by diplomatic chaos, deepening Lebanon spillover
- The World Bank's recently released Global Economic Prospects report shows that Iran's economy is expected to steadily grow in the coming years, the latest analysis reinforcing what Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, described yesterday as "broad agreement that Iran’s economy is showing signs of recovery and stabilization," with one implication being that "American leverage... is weakening" in the context of comprehensive negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program. Analysts fear that U.S. leverage will continue to bleed as data is compiled on the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), which as of Monday saw the West lifting sanctions on a range of sectors and irreversibly releasing restricted Iranian funds. The Los Angeles Times yesterday conveyed statements by Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran's nuclear agency, declaring on state television that "the iceberg of sanctions is melting while our centrifuges are also still working." The Obama administration had claimed that the overall value of the relief would be modest - roughly $7 billion - and that the rest of the international sanctions regime would hold. Skeptics challenged both claims, calculating that the relief would be worth at least $20 billion and predicting that a feeding frenzy would take hold as sanctions were modestly eroded, with nations and companies scrambling to avoid getting left behind in the rush back into Iran's markets. Such concerns were derided as "fanciful" by analysts linked to the administration. The Financial Times reported this weekend that Iranian economists are estimating the value of sanctions relief to be $15 billion. RFE/RL yesterday assessed that "the easing of sanctions on Tehran that has just taken effect is sending Western companies rushing to seek new business opportunities in Iran" and that keeping some sanctions in place has been insufficient to prevent "huge business interest on both sides." The outlet described among other things delegations of French executives and energy-based business interests from quite literally across the world.
- Analysts at the U.S.-based Institute of Science and International Security (ISIS) yesterday published a report [PDF] describing what steps Iran would be obligated to take under a comprehensive nuclear agreement, should that agreement robustly impose barriers on the Islamic republic's ability to produce nuclear weapons. The Wall Street Journal noted that the "prescriptions aren't viewed as particularly harsh or hard-line" and quoted ISIS head David Alright explaining that "the study was developed by independent research and through extensive discussions in recent months with Obama administration officials working on the Iran file." It evaluates a controversial scenario under which Iran would be permitted to continue enriching uranium, despite half a dozen binding United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding otherwise and fears that U.S. allies who have forgone enrichment at Washington's behest will end up marginalized. Tehran would be minimally expected, instead, to remove 15,000 centrifuges, shut down its uranium enriching underground military bunker at Fordow, downgrade the reactor at its plutonium-production facility at Arak, and agree to a 20-year inspection regime. The recommendations are designed to ensure that Iran would require between six months to a year should it, sometime in the future after the deal is implemented, decide to break off cooperation with the West and with international nuclear inspectors.
- Observers fear that escalating Palestinian rocket fire will trigger deterioration along Israel's border with the Gaza Strip, months after assessments began to harden that the Palestinian Hamas faction was seeking to escalate violence in order to boost its precipitously deteriorating regional and domestic positions. On Monday rocket fire forced school closures in the Israeli city of Ashdod and on Tuesday a rocket slammed into an area outside of the Israeli resort city of Eilat. Monday also saw Palestinian fighters detonate an explosive near the Israel-Gaza border, along a road patrolled by the Israeli military. The Israelis have linked cells from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) to the barrages, and have held Hamas responsible for permitting fire out of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Thus far Israel's efforts at disrupting the attacks have largely involved actions aimed at the two former groups, and the Israeli Air Force struck PIJ and PFLP targets on Sunday and this evening respectively. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated today, however, that Israel's efforts will expand to include Hamas if rocket and missile fire directed at Israeli communities continues.
- The rollout to the Geneva 2 conference stumbled over the weekend and into today, marked by a series of diplomatic missteps regarding the conference's composition and violence in Lebanon that underscored the degree to which instability in the region may deepen regardless of the talks' outcome. A car bomb detonated this morning inside Hezbollah's southern Beirut stronghold - which the Associated Press dryly noted was "apparently in retaliation for Hezbollah['s] support" of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria - killed four people. It was the latest in a string of such bombings by jihadist elements, which hold Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons responsible for providing critical assistance to Syria against largely Sunni opposition groups. Iran's central role in propping up the Assad regime has also generated diplomatic complications for Geneva 2. The conference is designed to dampen the nearly three-year Syrian conflict, but efforts aimed at assembling parties committed to reducing the violence have been uneven. Rebel groups have opposed including Iran, citing Tehran's control over Hezbollah and support for Assad. Syria and its backers, including Russia, have taken the opposite position. This weekend UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon first invited Iran to participate - apparently, per his office, in consultation with the U.S. - before withdrawing the invitation. The withdrawal was also done, per extensive reporting, under U.S. pressure.
- Top Iran negotiator: Iranian nuke concessions reversible in one day
- Moves to block bipartisan Senate legislation celebrated by Iranian media and pro-Iran lobbies, blasted by Senate sources
- Observers worry over Hamas campaign amid uptick in Gaza and West Bank operations
- International tribunal's launch focuses attention on Hezbollah violence, impunity
- The Daily Beast today conveyed statements by Abbas Araqchi, Iran's deputy foreign minister and its top nuclear negotiator, boasting that the concessions Iran has committed to making under the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) - and more specifically, its commitments regarding its stockpile of 20% uranium - can be reversed in one day. Iran has committed to halting enrichment to 20%, diluting half of its existing 20% stockpile to 5% levels, and converting the other half to an oxide form in which it can't be further enriched. Over the weekend Araqchi told Iranian television that "we can return again to 20 percent enrichment in less than one day and we can convert the [nuclear] material again." Substantively, the comments will draw attention to fundamental asymmetries in the JPA. The West's sanctions concessions are straightforwardly irreversible because Iran will get to pocket the billions in financial relief it receives, and it will be difficult - many analysts, backed by a steady stream of new evidence have suggested that it will in fact be functionally impossible - to restore the structure of the international sanctions regime. Diplomatically, Araqchi's boasts are likely to deepen concerns that the Iranians will exploit the JPA's asymmetries and walk away from negotiations. Patrick Clawson and Mehdi Khalaji - respectively the director of research and a senior fellow at the Washington Institute - had published an opinion piece in mid-November suggesting that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was laying the groundwork to pocket Western concessions under an interim deal and walk away from further negotiations. An anti-U.S. lash-out by Khamenei later that month deepened those fears. Araqchi's statements will be read within that debate, and may fuel concerns that Western negotiators lack sufficient leverage to force Iran to make robust concessions regarding its nuclear program. The worry is the basis for a Congressional push to pass legislation that would signal now that - should Iran abandon talks later - crippling sanctions would immediately be reposed. The White House has sought to halt momentum for the bill, in part by accusing its advocates of warmongering.
- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) this week signaled that he will not permit the Senate to vote on bipartisan legislation - formally co-sponsored by 59 senators and reportedly supported by a veto-proof majority of 77 - that would impose sanctions on Iran should negotiations over the Islamic republic's nuclear program fail. The Hill noted that the decision came "[a]mid intense pressure from President Obama and the White House," elements of which included accusations of warmongering leveled at Democrats by administration supporters. Iranian state outlet PressTV positively covered Reid's efforts to block a vote in the face of what the station described as "the Israeli lobby's efforts" - the second of at least two such articles that PressTV published this week about the Senate leader - and also conveyed reports of animated personal lobbying by President Barack Obama himself. The Nation noted that the legislation is also opposed by the National Iranian Council, by which the magazine likely meant the National Iranian American Council, which is a lobby that has been accused by members of Congress of pushing pro-regime "propaganda" amid efforts by lawmakers to pressure Iran into making meaningful concessions that would defuse the international crisis over Tehran's nuclear program. The tone inside the Senate differed, with a senior aide expressing frustration at Reid for "blocking a majority of senators who want to stop Iran from going nuclear."
- Observers are expressing deepening concerns regarding efforts by Palestinian groups to destabilize Israel's border with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, amid months of foiled attempts by the Iran-backed faction to launch spectacular terror attacks that would bolster its precipitously sliding domestic and regional stature. As many as eight rockets were fired overnight from the Gaza Strip at the Israeli city of Ashkelon, with five being intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome defense system. The barrage followed another one from earlier this week, when two rockets were fired after the funeral of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Upwards of twenty rockets have been fired at Israel this year, as compared with roughly forty in all of 2013, and Hamas is known to be qualitatively and quantatively bolstering its missile arsenal. Meanwhile reports are emerging that the group is engaging in, and boosting its capacity for, suicide bombings and similar terror operations. David Barnett, a Palestinian affairs expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, yesterday outlined a series of recent Hamas terror plots uncovered by Israeli authorities operating in the West Bank. The Times of Israel also reported yesterday that the second year of Gaza's so-called "Pioneers of Liberation" program, which involves training high school-age students to engage in combat and emulate "suicide martyrs," had just concluded. Approximately 18,000 teenagers have reportedly been through the paramilitary programs, with boys and girls - per Hamas's broader educational policies - taught separately.
- Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri today hailed the opening of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) at The Hague as the "first page of true justice" in response to the assassination of his father, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, as the STL launched its first trial into Hariri's February 2005 murder. The U.N.-backed court has indicted and seeks to try five members of Hezbollah for various roles in the attack. Four of the defendants are accused of direct involvement: Mustafa Badr Al Deen, believed to be the mastermind behind the operation, Salim Ayyash, accused of being in charge of the technical operational details, Hussain Anaissi, and Assad Sabra, both of whom are accused of preparing a propaganda video to claim false responsibility after the attack. Hezbollah has repeatedly interfered in the tribunal's work and refused to turn over the suspects, going so far as to threaten to attack anyone who attempts to apprehend them. The Iran-backed terror group's stance has been blasted - and was again criticized by Hariri at the STL's opening - for putting the organization and its members beyond legal authority. Hudson Institute senior fellow Lee Smith has outlined how Hezbollah mobilizes organized violence - most recently via the car bombing and murder of former Ambassador to the U.S. Mohamad Chatah - to reinforce perceptions of exactly such immunity. The STL will be the first international tribunal to try suspects in absentia since Nuremberg.
- Critics: White House Middle East approach torn between inaction and de facto Iran alignment
- Turkish political warfare expands with anti-terror raids targeting Erdogan-linked group
- Voters signal overwhelming support for new, relatively secular Egyptian constitution
- WaPo: Syria on brink of humanitarian catastrophe, pictures show starving children and elderly people
What we’re watching today:
- The erosion of American influence in the Middle East has created power vacuums which are being filled by geopolitical rivals from across the region, forcing Washington’s allies to "take matters into their own hands," according to analysis published Wednesday in the New York Times. Michael Doran and Max Boot - senior fellows at the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations respectively - described Sunni-Shiite polarization in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq as a function of the U.S. "refraining from countering Iranian machinations" in those countries. Fighting from Syria's nearly three year old conflict has spilled over into the neighboring two countries, with Sunni elements - ranging from secularists to Salafists - aligning themselves against Iran and its proxies. Lebanon in particular has been destabilized by Hezbollah's participation in the Syrian conflict, which has in turn generated blowback in the form of jihadist retaliation on Lebanese soil. The Iran-backed terror group has also been central in preventing the formation of a Lebanese cabinet, leaving the country to be run by a weakened interim government. Meanwhile critics of the Obama administration's approach to the region have also been growing more vocal in characterizing the White House's approach - when it does orient itself robustly - as one of de facto alignment with Iran. Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, last week blasted the administration for what he described as "increasingly obvious" partnership with Tehran and Hezbollah. Badran outlined a messaging campaign being conducted by the Iranians designed to "isolate Riyadh while playing up the emerging US alignment with Iran across the region," and worried that the "proposition... seems to enjoy support in the US media and policy circles."
- A now-familiar pattern of judiciary action followed by anti-judiciary purges - which has in recent weeks marked the open political warfare being waged by rival Islamist camps inside Turkey - expanded this week as police forces raided the headquarters of the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), a group with close ties to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The moves were the latest in a series of attacks and counterattacks, pitting figures linked to U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen on one side and the AKP and its supporters on the other. Last December Gulenist officials inside Turkey's judiciary launched and then widened a series of anti-corruption probes targeting AKP elites, and the AKP subsequently responded with mass purges of police officers involved in those probes. Turkish media reported that, true to form, two anti-terror police unit chiefs involved in this week's anti-terror raids on the IHH and on the Al Qaeda-linked groups were dismissed in the raids' aftermath. The incident is, however, already being read beyond the political battles between the AKP and the Gulenist movement. The IHH’s close ties to Ankara’s AKP government have the potential to deepen growing concerns that AKP figures are permitting Turkish territory and even assets to be used to promote terrorism. The IHH, which has been designated as a terrorist entity by Amsterdam and Berlin, was the central player in the 2010 naval "flotilla" effort to break Israel's naval blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Israeli commandos intercepted a vessel sailed by IHH members and were attacked by those on board. Nine people died in the ensuing fighting, which escalated into an international incident and largely collapsed already-fraying Israeli-Turkish ties. The Israelis claimed that the IHH is entangled in terror activities, and that the flotilla was not meant to be peaceful. Turkish officials and some analysts abroad argued the opposite.
- A referendum asking Egyptians to approve the country's new constitution has passed overwhelmingly, with Reuters reporting late on Wednesday that official figures had roughly ninety percent of voters pulling the lever in favor. Though exact figures regarding the turnout and the integrity of the balloting were disputed, the vote was widely seen as Egypt's latest step along a path that seeks to eventually have the country returned to democratic governance. In July 2013 the Egyptian military responded to massive anti-government protests by removing from power the Muslim Brotherhood linked government of then-president Mohammed Morsi, and a subsequent army-backed interim government has been ruling since. Morsi's Brotherhood-linked government had during its one-year tenure secured the drafting and passage of a controversial constitution that was criticized both domestically and internationally for prioritizing Islamic law at the expense of protections for women, religious minorities, and others. English-language Egyptian media outlet Al Arabiya pointedly quoted a Coptic Christian contrasting Brotherhood rule, which had the Islamist organization seeking to "divide" Egyptians, with the new post-Brotherhood constitution, which "clearly states that Christians and Muslims are equal, and so are men and women." The Brotherhood officially boycotted this week’s referendum and outbreaks of violence - including what appeared to be the systematic intimidation of Christians - undermined turnout.
- The Washington Post reported earlier this week that images smuggled out of a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria show "disturbing images of emaciated children and elderly people" and indicate that there are thousands of residents in the Yarmouk camp at risk of starvation, the result of a siege being maintained by Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime and its Iranian backers. The Post outlined sieges being conducted against "numerous rebel-held neighborhoods, notably in the suburbs of Damascus," with forces loyal to the regime - drawn from the Syrian army, from Iran, and from Iran’s Lebanese terror proxy Hezbollah – refusing to allow food or medicine to reach residents. The tactic is also being used elsewhere in the country against areas controlled by regime opponents. Last week, dozens of men attempting to break the siege of Homs were attacked and killed. The United Nations had already reported weeks ago that it has literally stopped trying to count how many people have died in the nearly three year conflict, though the organization's secretary general Ban Ki-moon added this week that an estimated 9.3 million people - half of Syria's population - are in immediate need of humanitarian assistance. The Geneva II peace talks scheduled to start in Switzerland on January 22nd will seek to at least dampen the violence, though efforts to secure a lull in the fighting as the conference approaches have had little effect. Fighting between the government and the rebels are ongoing, as is fighting between various opposition factions. Earlier this month fighting between rebel groups killed roughly 500 people in one week.