White House claims regarding "good will" clouded by provocations from Iranian president, foreign minister
- White House claims regarding "good will" clouded by provocations from Iranian president, foreign minister
- House Democratic whip blasts White House for smear campaign against Iran sanctions supporters
- Fiery speech by Palestinian president kindles fears of broad incitement, deep-seated intransigence
- Reuters: Egyptian army pivots from Muslim Brotherhood to Hamas
What we’re watching today:
- A central White House argument against Senate legislation that would impose future sanctions on Iran should negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program fail - that any bill doing so would drain bilateral good will necessary for diplomacy to succeed - may now face deepening skepticism after top Iranian government officials engaged in what were broadly considered to be anti-American and anti-Western provocations early this week. On Monday Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif generated a firestorm of controversy by laying a wreath at the grave of Imad Mughniyah, a Hezbollah arch-terrorist who was assassinated in 2008 after having spent literally decades killing Americans and others. The Obama administration scrambled to condemn Zarif's pilgrimage. On Tuesday Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took to Twitter to declare that the nuclear deal between Iran and the global P5+1 powers had seen the West surrendering to the "Iranian nation's will." In contrast to the administration's condemnation of Zarif, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that the Obama administration would mostly ignore Rouhani's boasts. Carney described the taunts as "expected" and geared toward a "domestic audience." It is not clear that the White House's position is politically or diplomatically sustainable. Politically, Iranian provocations threaten to heighten criticism that has the Obama administration walking on eggshells while the Iranians indulge in anti-American extremism. Diplomatically, writing off the incitement of foreign leaders as mere domestic maneuvering has historically had uneven success. Nearly identical rationalizations were made in reference to years of statements by former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and the consensus is now that Arafat's rhetoric - at a minimum - conditioned the Palestinian public toward intransigence. An analogous dynamic may take hold in Iran. Boasts of victory now may raise expectations to such an extent that Iranian leaders would be precluded from successfully selling concessions later. In any case, the administration may find it difficult to insist that pressure on Iran should be foreclosed in order to maintain good will.
- House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer blasted the White House on Tuesday for accusing U.S. lawmakers who favor pressuring Iran of seeking to drag America into a war, emphasizing that "nobody believes, as far as I know, that going to war with Iran is anything but a dangerous objective." At stake is a debate over the risks and rewards of signaling to Iran that it should make concessions in the context of comprehensive negotiations over its nuclear program, which is widely believed to include clandestine weaponization components. The White House has insisted that it has sufficient leverage to extract significant concessions in the context of comprehensive negotiations, and that Senate moves to lock in future sanctions should negotiations fail will undermine talks. Regarding the latter claim, analysts have pushed back with calculations suggesting that Iran literally can't afford to walk away from negotiations. Regarding assessments of leverage, administration officials up to and including Secretary of State John Kerry have openly acknowledged that Western negotiators currently lack the means to force Iran to meet its international obligations, codified in half a dozen United Nations Security Council resolutions, to fully dismantle its nuclear program. The initial erosion of sanctions promised to Iran by the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), meanwhile, threatens to further erode the international sanctions regime that the White House is leaning on for leverage. The Obama administration's move to brand those outlining such concerns as warmongers - a move that Hoyer described as "absolutely untrue, [an] irresponsible assertion, and [one that] ought to be clarified and retracted" - has in some quarters come off as shrill.
- A recent speech by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas - in which the Palestinian leader declared that "there will be no peace" unless several contentious Palestinian demands were fully met, and several Israeli red lines were definitively crossed - has triggered concerns that the current Palestinian leadership may be either unable or unwilling to make peace. Abbas's speech, delivered last Friday, included declarations that Israel will have to cede the entirety of East Jerusalem and that the Jewish state will have to accept the so-called "right of return," a policy that would have Israel permitting millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to flood into Israel. The result would be an all-but-certain eradication of Israel as a Jewish homeland. Abbas implicitly brushed off exactly that concern, declaring that in any case the Palestinians would not accept Israel as a Jewish state. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly voiced concerns over Abbas's speech, worrying that the Palestinian leader's rhetoric might mean he "wasn't ready to make tough decisions." Abbas's rhetoric is bound to draw comparisons to moves made by former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who for decades claimed that he was ready to make peace until - when presented with functionally maximal Israeli concessions - he declined. The incident is likely to heighten concerns, already engendered by recent Palestinian incitement and expressions of anti-Israel conspiracy theories, that Palestinian civil and political society is not yet sufficiently robust for sustaining an emerging state alongside Israel.
- Reuters today conveyed statements from "senior Egyptian security officials" declaring that the country's military - having largely suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood within Egypt's borders - will now shift to eroding the Brotherhood's Palestinian offshoot Hamas. The Egyptian military has been at odds with the Palestinian terror group for the better part of a year. The Egyptians blame Hamas for facilitating the movement of materials and personnel used by jihadists to launch attacks in the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip, and have moved to economically and politically suffocate the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in response. Hamas officials for their part have attempted to stem the diplomatic damage, but have acknowledged that Cairo's campaign has been largely successful in degrading the group's capabilities. The Reuters report will also be read against a sharply divided policy discussion in Washington whether Cairo's subsequent army-backed efforts to suppress the Brotherhood, launched after the July 2013 removal of Egypt's Brotherhood-linked government, could successfully decapitate the group. Some academics and analysts argued that the Brotherhood would - per one CNN-published analysis - remain a "force to be reckoned with... [which would] most likely weather" the political turbulence that followed the removal of then-President Mohammed Morsi. Other analysts - and Washington Institute fellow Eric Trager was prominent here - suggested a range of scenarios that would see the Muslim Brotherhood more or less decapitated, in no small part due to the organization's rigid hierarchical structure. That the Egyptian military has shifted its focus from the Brotherhood suggests that empirical evidence may end up favoring the latter analysis.
- Reports: Iran sanctions bill crosses veto-proof threshold in Senate
- Reuters: Newly revealed Russia-Iran oil deal "would enable Iran to lift oil exports substantially, undermining Western sanctions"
- Top Israeli military official: Hamas's West Bank terror campaign being directed via Turkey
- Arrest sweeps may complicate Palestinian reconciliation effort
What we’re watching today:
- BuzzFeed reported today that the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act - Senate legislation that would impose sanctions on Tehran should negotiations over its nuclear program fail - had secured a veto-proof majority and was in fact "well above 67 [votes]," per a Senate aide who spoke to the outlet. CNN's Jim Sciutto had earlier cited a Senate source pegging the number of supporters at 77, a figure just one less than the number of known Republican supporters plus the number of reported Democratic supporters (forty four and thirty four, respectively). The Washington Post noted however that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) does not seem to have plans "to allow a vote on any proposal in the near future." On Friday Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) - the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the authors of the legislation - described the bill as a "diplomatic insurance policy." Menendez cataloged Iranian behavior since the announcement of the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), which was designed to freeze Iran's program: continued Iranian progress on its plutonium production facility, continued Iranian progress on its next-generation uranium enrichment centrifuges, and continued Iranian progress on its ballistic missile program. Menendez also noted that Iranian negotiators had already once walked out of negotiations since the JPA was announced. Addressing administration assurances that sanctions could be quickly be reimposed on Iran if necessary, the New Jersey Democratic emphasized that the legislative process is cumbersome and unwieldy, and that short-term legislation was necessary to codify potential future sanctions.
- Empirical evidence is emerging on what had long been a central theoretical disagreement in the debate over the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), with multiple data points suggesting that the Obama administration has been over-optimistic in assuming that sanctions against Iran would largely hold in the aftermath of the JPA's limited sanctions relief. Analysts had immediately raised concerns that the limited relief provided by the agreement would trigger a feeding frenzy, as countries and companies scrambled to avoid being left behind in the rush back into Iran. The scenario was dismissed as "fanciful" by analysts with links to the White House, and administration officials repeatedly emphasized that no one should treat Iran as open for business. Nonetheless several countries, including Russia and China, are indeed scrambling to secure access to Iran's energy resources. Reuters today revealed that Tehran and Moscow are close to inking an oil-for-goods deal "that would enable Iran to lift oil exports substantially, undermining Western sanctions." The news comes after similar stories that had the UAE rushing to launch new energy co-development projects with Iran and had China pursuing a deal that would boost its imports from the Islamic republic "to levels not seen since tough Western sanctions were imposed in 2012. Meanwhile a recent analysis by Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, demonstrated that "even before the Geneva interim agreement comes into effect, Iran’s economy is now on a more positive trajectory" than in 2012 or 2013. The policy stakes are relatively straightforward: the administration claims that sanctions remain sufficiently robust for the West to successfully pressure Iran into making substantial concessions on its atomic program, while a majority of lawmakers in both chambers of Congress support new sanctions to strengthen Western negotiators' positions. Evidence that the international sanctions regime is crumbling is in tension with the administration's position.
- Israel Hayom today published an interview with Israeli General Tamir Yadai, the commander of the Israeli military's West Bank forces, in which the general confirms that Hamas's terror attempts have increased in tempo and that the group's campaign is being "directed from Gaza via Turkey." Both dynamics had long been suspected, and to a great extent documented, but the blunt assessment may carry with it diplomatic consequences. Hamas's domestic and regional credibility has been in freefall, and the terror group is widely suspected of trying to use a spectacular terror attack to rebuild its credibility. Israeli and Egyptian measures have largely prevented attacks from the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, leaving the West Bank as the only viable location from which to launch terror operations. Hamas's increasingly reckless gambits may fuel growing calls for the U.S. to impose potentially terminal pressure on the faction. Regarding the link to Turkey, Jonathan Schanzer - vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies - had already last September extensively outlined how Saleh al-Arouri, the founder of Hamas's armed wing in the West Bank, was helping to direct operations while living in Turkey. Combined with recent revelations that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan may have assisted a suspected Al Qaeda financier in moving through the country, it may become difficult for Western countries - including the United States - to treat Ankara as a reliable counter-terrorism partner.
- Efforts to achieve reconciliation between the two largest Palestinian factions, which had been accelerating in recent days, may again be at risk of faltering. Hamas had made a series of goodwill gestures toward its Fatah rivals in recent days, and Fatah officials had announced that they would be traveling to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip for reconciliation talks. Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces in the Fatah-controlled West Bank subsequently arrested scores of Hamas members in the Fatah-controlled West Bank, causing Hamas to cancel planned celebrations in the area. It is unclear how the incident will effect unity efforts, which Hamas is widely thought to badly need. The two factions have been openly at odds since at least 2007, when Hamas fighters violently seized Gaza's government institutions from Fatah officials, expelling and killing many Fatah-linked figures in the process. Rapprochement talks since then have consistently failed, in no small part because of ongoing enmity and distrust between members on both sides. Unity efforts have also been complicated by Hamas's continued commitment to the eradication of Israel, which has made reconciliation into a kind of catch-22 for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. On one hand, a single Fatah-Hamas unity government is widely viewed as a prerequisite for the creation of a successful Palestinian state: Palestinians claim both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank for a future state, and a single state ruled by rival governments is almost by definition a failed one. On the other hand, the Palestinian government - into which Hamas would be reintegrated under a unity deal - is committed by treaty to the recognition of Israel, an acknowledgement that Hamas refuses to make. Should the Palestinian Authority abandon its treaty commitments in order to placate Hamas, the move would be taken as confirming the fundamental skeptical concern regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process: that the Palestinians will abandon the largely symbolic concessions they're expected to make, such as recognition of Israel, while pocketing Israel's functionally irreversible territorial concessions.
Senate push for delayed Iran sanctions racks up majority support, reportedly with dozens of Democratic Senators in support
- Senate push for delayed Iran sanctions racks up majority support, reportedly with dozens of Democratic Senators in support
- Khamenei: nuclear talks expose "enmity" of U.S. "Satan"
- Syrian rebel alliance targets Al Qaeda, expels group from key city
- Hamas brags about reinvigorated alliance with Iran
What we’re watching today:
- Senate legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran if Tehran refused to dismantle its atomic program at the end of negotiations inched today toward a "near-filibuster-proof majority," with Foreign Policy outlining that 58 Senators now support the proposed bill. Meanwhile William Daroff, the Senior Vice President for Public Policy at The Jewish Federations of North America, revealed information from a "very reliable source" counting 34 Democratic Senators in support of the push. Provided that Iran does not cheat on its obligations while negotiations are ongoing, the legislation would put off any new measures until the end of talks and give the President the flexibility to delay those measures as talks are extended. The White House has nonetheless threatened to veto the bill, and has heavily pressured Senators to oppose it. Foreign Policy unpacked the White House's current legislative strategy, which now involves heavily pressuring Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid not to permit a vote on the potential law. A Senate staffer who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon estimated that Reid would be forced to buck White House pressure if the bill gets "60 cosponsors and more than 67 votes on the whip count." The Obama administration insists that the legislation would derail talks with Iran, but supporters counter that it merely codifies the White House's own repeated promise to ratchet sanctions up if negotiations fail. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, for instance, insisted to 60 Minutes last month that "we will ensure that the pressure is reimposed" if Tehran is caught violating agreements to first freeze its program and then put it beyond use for weaponization.
- Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei lashed out against the United States on Thursday, declaring that "we would negotiate with the Satan (the United States) to deter its evil... [but] the nuclear talks showed the enmity of America against Iran, Iranians, Islam and Muslims." The statements came amid growing concerns - including from largely sympathetic outlets corners - that Iranian president Hassan Rouhani lacks the will or ability to substantially change Iranian domestic and foreign policy. By law and assisted by raw political power, the Supreme Leader controls among other things Iran's foreign policy. For his part Rouhani used to be openly acknowledged as close to Khamenei - a Reuters article from 2008 is to the point, and the characterization seems straightforwardly accurate - but since his election he has been framed by Western media outlets as a moderate opponent of the regime. It is not yet clear to what extent the White House will condemn Khamenei's remarks. The administration was markedly slow in condemning past inflamatory statements by Khamenei.
- An alliance of Syrian opposition fighters has seized parts of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo that had been controlled the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an Al Qaeda-linked group operating across the region, dealing what McClatchy assess as "an enormous setback" to the international terrorist organization. The forces that targeted Al Qaeda in Aleppo drew from a wide range of groups, ranging from secularists to unaffiliated hard-line Islamists. ISIS forces executed dozens of imprisoned opponents as they retreated, and The Times conveyed opposition estimates that "as many as 50 prisoners... had been slaughtered in cold blood at the group's hospital headquarters before the militants fled for the northeastern province of Raqqa." The episode is the latest in what has become regular fighting between Al Qaeda and more moderate, or at least not Al Qaeda-linked, rebels. ISIS leaders have called on their followers to target and kill fighters from those more moderate groups, including from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA). The internecine fighting has direct diplomatic stakes beyond Syria's borders. Analysts are becoming increasingly vocal in criticizing the United States and its Western allies for de facto siding with Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime, and with the regime's Iranian sponsors, due to fears that Al Qaeda might otherwise consolidate territorial gains. The administration's current policy has it giving weapons to Iraq - which the Washington Post's David Ignatius describes as a "virtual client of Tehran - so that Baghdad can fight Al Qaeda in Iran. Meanwhile Washington has partially frozen assistance to rebel groups who are battling Al Qaeda in Syria. The tension between the two positions may prove increasingly difficult to justify.
- The Guardian today conveyed statements from multiple Hamas figures indicating that the Palestinian terror group has rebuilt warm relations with its long-time sponsor Iran, overcoming a temporary break in relations that had some analysts declaring that there was an opening for Western engagement. The outlet quoted Taher al-Nounou, an aide to Hamas's Gaza-based prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, assessing that bilateral relations were "almost back to how they were before" divisions over the Syrian war caused a strain in ties, and that Hamas "believe[s] we will soon be back" to pre-Syrian war levels. Much had been made by analysts and journalists of the distance between Hamas and Iran TIME took it as evidence against what it described as "Israeli p.r." that "likes to portray Hamas as a satellite of Tehran," speculating that Hamas had put itself in a position it to prosper in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. The National Interest suggested that the shift should cause the United States to engage Hamas and integrate it into peace efforts. Hamas's time outside the Iranian orbit was short-lived. Reports emerged as early as July 2012 that representatives from the group were secretly meeting with Iranian figures to rebuild ties. By August there were multiple signals that reconciliation was being pursued and by September Hamas was again publicly positioning itself as part of an "Axis of Resistance" anchored by Iran. In early December Hamas senior member Mahmud al-Zahar was ready to declare that "relations between Hamas and Iran have resumed," and by the end of that month Hamas sources were confirming that "warm relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran have been restored." The rapid restoration of ties suggests that Hamas's relationship with Iran may be more robust than some analysts had been willing to grant.
New evidence of sanctions-busting Iran-Turkey cooperation complicates White House sanctions position
- New evidence of sanctions-busting Iran-Turkey cooperation complicates White House sanctions position
- Analysts pile on concerns that Iran nuke deal will collapse sanctions regime without further action
- Journalists press State Dept. over silence in response to anti-Israel incitement by chief Palestinian negotiator
- Explosion at Palestinian embassy prompts accusations of gun running, violating international norms
What we’re watching today:
- The Commerce Department scrambled today to issue what Reuters described as "a rare emergency order" designed to block a Turkish-based company from illegally passing along two U.S.-build commercial jet engines to Iran's Pouya airline. The broad order - which names multiple companies and would impose crippling consequences for any violations - comes amid deepening concern that extensive cooperation between Ankara and Tehran has allowed the Islamic republic to skirt international sanctions designed to force Iran to change its stance on its nuclear program. The Daily Beast assessed in late December that the open political warfare shaking Turkey - which has pitted elites in the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) Party against followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen - "could destabilize [President Barack] Obama's nuclear deal and threaten the government of Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan." Judiciary figures linked to Gulen are pursuing a corruption probe that has already ensnared AKP elites, and that unearthed an oil-for-cash scheme between Tehran and Ankara that - per the Daily Beast - "may only be start of more uncomfortable disclosures about Iranian dealings in Turkey." Fully one-sixth of companies that began investing in Turkey in 2013 were backed by Iranian money, and Turkish outlet Zaman outlined over the weekend how Turkey and Iran building mechanisms to further boost their cooperation in the coming weeks and months. The domestic political stakes in the United States are fairly straightforward. A bipartisan group of senators recently introduced legislation that would boost U.S. leverage in negotiations with Iran by codifying future sanctions should Iran either cheat during an upcoming six-month negotiation period or, after negotiations conclude, refuse to put its nuclear program verifiably beyond use for weaponization. The Obama administration has fiercely fought the legislation, insisting that the remaining sanctions against Iran are sufficient and holding. Evidence that Iran is able to successfully maneuver around international sanctions is likely to deepen skepticism toward the White House's position.
- The Jerusalem Post described over the weekend how the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) announced in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 global powers has "opened the investment floodgates for Western companies seeking to capitalize on a new business environment in Iran," the latest in what has become a stream of analysis suggesting that the financial relief provided to Iran under the JPA has triggered a feeding frenzy of entities seeking to be the first - or at the very least, not the last - to re-enter Iran's markets. Analysis published last week in Der Spiegel noted that "although none of the sanctions have been lifted, droves of Western business people are already flocking to Tehran." A week before that the Washington Post reported that the U.A.E. was scrambling to co-develop energy resources with Iran. Earlier in December Patrick Blain, president of the International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers, predicted that "international investors are expected to re-enter Iran’s market soon." For its part the Jerusalem Post quoted Bar-Ilan University professor Gerald M. Steinberg assessing that "the gold rush is on to resume business as usual" and Brookings Institute senior Michael Doran explaining that the Western position "has sent a clear message that doing business with Iran is now legitimate... creat[ing] an influential economic lobby in the West dedicated to ensuring that the Americans and Iranians remain on that path." The Post also quoted Tommy Steiner, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, emphasizing that the dynamic "undercuts the negotiating posture of the US and the EU in the next round of negotiations." Concerns over the extent to which the U.S. will have leverage in upcoming negotiations have direct political stakes in Washington, with the House and a bipartisan group of senators insisting that new legislation must be passed to bolster the sanctions regime should Iran refuse to meet its international obligations to dismantle its nuclear program.
- Comments made last Friday by chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat - in which Erekat accused Israel of poisoning former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and expressed concerns that Jerusalem would similarly kill sitting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - became fodder for a tense exchange at today's State Department briefing, with journalists pressing Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf on Washington's stance regarding Palestinian incitement. A spike in Palestinian terrorism against Israeli civilians has deepened Jerusalem's concerns regarding statements and actions made by top Palestinian figures that demonize Israel and celebrate violence. Abbas, for instance, has embraced Palestinian terrorists freed in both December and October as "heroes." Israel's cabinet this weekend blasted what Israeli officials described as the Palestinian "culture of hate," and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had declared the previous week that "true peace cannot exist without stopping the incitement against Israel and educating for peace." At today's briefing, journalists questioned Harf over the State Department's refusal to publicly condemn Erekat's Friday comments, asking among other things why Foggy Bottom refused to be forthright in declaring that the obviously false conspiracy theory regarding Arafat's death was not just false but also "certainly not the kind of thing that prepares or helps prepare the Palestinian people for... an eventual peace deal." Harf responded by delineating between public and private conversations, prompting journalists to ask whether Washington, as a declared "honest broker," had "an obligation to speak out when someone says something that is not honest, when something is dishonest." Harf eventually said that she had not yet seen Erekat's comments and would examine them further. By the end of the afternoon Associated Press reporter Matthew Lee noted that that State Department was continuing to resist taking a public position on the incident specifically or more broadly on Israeli complaints regarding Palestinian incitement.
- Last week's strange episode in the Palestinian embassy in the Prague, in which the Palestinian ambassador to the Czech Republic was killed by an explosion inside the building, escalated over the weekend into a potential scandal as reports emerged that Palestinians may be using the country as a transit point for European weapons smuggling. Jamal al-Jamal was killed last week when materials that were being kept in an embassy safe exploded, fatally injuring the Palestinian official. Conflicting details about the incident almost instantly emerged, with Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki saying the safe had not been used for decades and Palestinian Embassy spokesman Nabil El-Fahel insisting on Czech radio that it "was used on a daily basis... and was opened and closed almost every day." On Saturday a Czech media outlet published statements by the country's former chief-of-staff Jiri Sedivy describing the weapons storage as a "blatant violation of diplomatic norms and habits" and speculating that "maybe the affair in question involves a well organised weapons and explosives distribution network." The statements came amid reports that Czech officials had found roughly 70 unregistered weapons in the embassy. Suspicions that the Palestinians severely breached international norms are likely to deepen concerns that the Palestinian Authority lacks sufficiently robust political institutions to declare and sustain an independent Palestinian state.
Top Iranian military figure boasts about destroying Israel, after former presidential adviser says Obama forced to take nuke deal to avoid annihilation of Israel
- Top Iranian military figure boasts about destroying Israel, after former presidential adviser says Obama forced to take nuke deal to avoid annihilation of Israel
- Lebanese army fires on Syrian aircraft, risking potential international and domestic escalation
- Rocket volley slams into Israel from Lebanon, deepening worries that blow-back from Syria may destabilize Israeli-Lebanese border
- In effort to boost U.S.-backed peace talks, Israel conducts third release of convicted Palestinian terrorists
What we’re watching today:
- Iranian media on Monday conveyed statements from Iranian Brigadier General Masoud Jazayeri - the deputy chief of staff of Iran's armed forces - boasting that the Islamic republic is prepared to "destroy US and Israeli" interests in the Middle East, and adding that "the ominous Zionist regime dreads such capabilities day and night" and that "the entire expanse of the Zionist regime (of Israel)" is within range of Iranian weapons. Top Iranian leaders have regularly threatened to target Israeli population centers for bombardment. Jazayeri's statements come a few weeks after the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) - a nonprofit that monitors Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Pashto, and Turkish media reports - released a translated video in which Iranian political analyst Sadeq Al-Hosseini boasted that U.S. President Barack Obama accepted a diplomatic loss in exchange for Iran agreeing to the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) worked out in Geneva. Al-Hosseini, who was a top advisor to former Mohammad Khatami, insisted that Obama would have otherwise been forced to beg Iranian leaders - the exact phrase was that the President would have had to "kiss the hands of [Hezbollah chief] Hassan Nasrallah and [Iranian Supreme Leader] Imam Khamenei" - to prevent them from annihilating Israel.
- The Lebanese military announced today that it had fired on Syrian aircraft violating Beirut's airspace, a move that analysts speculated was designed in part as a public response to efforts - driven by both sides of the almost three-year Syrian conflict - to expand that war into Lebanese territory. Local officials from areas targeted by Syria pointedly told Lebanese media that they hoped the anti-aircraft fire 'would pave the way for the army to act as the sole defender of Lebanese land and sovereignty against any assaults.' Damascus has on more than one occasion launched attacks against targets inside Lebanon's borders allegedly linked to rebels fighting inside Syria to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad regime. For their part opposition elements inside Syria, reacting to the critical role that Hezbollah has played in enabling the Assad regime to claw its way back to controlling as much as 80% of Syria, have sought to retaliate against the Iran-backed terror group's Lebanese strongholds. Internationally, clashes between Lebanese and Syrian forces have the potential to open another front in the increasingly open proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran: Lebanon's President Michel Suleiman revealed this weeekend that the Saudis have pledged $3 billion in military assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces. Domestically, the dynamic has the potential to further corrode Hezbollah's position in the country. The organization had claimed for decades that it was a Lebanese organization fighting for Lebanese sovereignty, rather than - as critics charged - an Iranian proxy promoting Iranian interests, if necessary at Lebanon's expense. Hezbollah had already seen that brand shattered as its participation in the Syrian conflict, widely understood to be done at Tehran's behest, generated blow-back and violence inside Lebanon. Sustained clashes between the LAF and Syrian forces would position Hezbollah on the side of a nation actively in conflict with Lebanese state and military institutions.
- Elements inside Lebanon on Sunday fired a volley of rockets into Israel, drawing Israeli artillery fire reportedly targeting the launch site. The attack comes a few weeks after a cross-border sniper attack in which a Lebanese soldier targeted and killed an Israeli soldier driving to base. That attack caused analysts to focus on elements in the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) sympathetic to Hezbollah, which had days before vowed to strike the Jewish state. Observers are speculating that this weekend's rocket attack, in contrast, was launched not by Hezbollah but by one of the Sunni jihadist groups that have infiltrated recently Lebanon - that infiltration, in turn, being blow-back generated by Hezbollah's critical role in helping Syria's Shiite-backed Bashar al-Assad regime roll back the largely Sunni opposition. Hezbollah has ignored ultimatums from Sunni groups to untangle itself from the conflict, with the result being a wave of blow-back targeting Lebanon. Speaking to reporters on a conference call organized by The Israel Project, veteran Israeli intelligence analyst Aviv Oreg speculated that, based on the location from which the rockets were launched, the attack may have originated with jihadist groups hoping to draw Israel into a confrontation with Hezbollah. Destabilization along Israel's borders - the Jewish state is now facing deteriorating security conditions along its borders with Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza, and within the West Bank - may negatively impact Jerusalem's ability to make diplomatic and territorial concessions to adversaries. Speaking to reporters in part about the rocket attacks from Lebanon, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon emphasized Monday that he would accept a "European boycott" if it was the only alternative to "rockets from Nablus, Ramallah and Jenin [falling] onto Ben-Gurion Airport." The reference is to European threats to degrade relations with Israel if it does not make concessions acceptable the Palestinians.
- Israel overnight Tuesday released 26 Palestinian prisoners convicted of terror-related crimes, the third of four such gestures designed to boost U.S.-backed peace talks. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had been explicit with Secretary of State John Kerry last spring that the Palestinians would not sit down for peace talks without a broad prisoner release, with Palestinian media describing the position as one in which Abbas 'insisted that 107 Palestinians detained before the Oslo agreement must be released before the PLO will return to negotiations with Israel.' Subsequent requests to Israeli leaders to meet the demand proved controversial for Kerry, though the releases were eventually agreed to by Israel's cabinet. Domestic controversy inside Israel has escalated with each round of releases. Critics worry that Palestinian leaders are gearing up to pocket the four releases and then incite a wave of violence against Israel, hoping to extract further concessions away from the negotiating table. Continued Palestinian threats to walk away from the talks, coupled with ongoing incitement, have deepened such concerns.
Experts: Turkey corruption earthquake sheds light on Obama administration commitment to Iran sanctions enforcement
- Experts: Turkey corruption earthquake sheds light on Obama administration commitment to Iran sanctions enforcement
- Iran announces development of next-generation centrifuges, deepening concerns over 'freeze' agreement details
- Critics slam EU response after top Lebanese Hezbollah foe murdered in Beirut massive car bombing
- Egypt pressing allies for counter-terror support after designation of Muslim Brotherhood as terror group
What we’re watching today:
- The domestic upheaval rocking Turkey - which has now slipped into open political warfare between the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the powerful Islamist movement led by US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, and which is threatening to bring down Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan - seems set to directly impact policy discussions over the robustness of international sanctions against Iran and the degree to which the Obama administration has balanced sanctions enforcement with diplomatic outreach. At the broadest levels, a Turkish corruption probe led largely by Gulen-linked police and judiciary officials has ensnared AKP elites, and AKP leaders up to and including Erdogan have responded by purging hundreds of police officers and prosecutors. More specifically, according to Mark Dubowitz and Jonathan Schanzer - respectively the executive director and vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) - a so-called "gas-for-gold" scheme in which a bank linked to the Turkish government helped Iran circumvent international sanctions is figuring prominently in the corruption scandal. Dubowitz and Schanzer describe police moves against Suleyman Aslan, the CEO of state-owned Halkbank, and Reza Zarrab, an Iranian businessman heavily involved in the gold trade. Officers have reportedly found shoe-boxes containing $4.5 million in Aslan's home, and Zarrab has been arrested on corruption-related charges. Halkbank is being accused of among other things having permitted Iran to access billions of dollars in escrow accounts to purchase and move gold into Iran, allowing the Islamic republic to bolster its increasingly inaccessible foreign reserves. The mechanism Halkbank used, per Dubowitz and Schanzer, was a "golden loophole" that allowed "the transfer of billions of dollars of gold to so-called "private" entities in Iran," during a period of time when the Obama administration didn't blacklist all gold transfers to Iran and delayed congressional efforts to do so by six months. Dubowitz and Schanzer suggest that the White House's calculations were driven in part by a desire to "coax Iran into signing a nuclear deal." The dynamic has the potential to directly impact policy debates over how to approach negotiations with Iran. The administration is locked in a pitched battle with a bipartisan group of dozens of Senators who are seeking to move forward legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran in the future under certain conditions. New restrictions would be placed should Tehran either violate its commitments under the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) during an upcoming six month negotiation period or, at the end of that period, refuse to verifiably put its nuclear program beyond use for weaponization. The administration has argued that such legislation is unnecessary because so-called core sanctions on Iran remain in place even after the financial relief provided by the JPA, and the administration is committed to enforcing those. Evidence that the White House declined in the past to enforce sanctions as an olive branch to Tehran may undermine Congressional confidence in those assurances.
- Iran is constructing what the Associated Press describes as 'a new generation of centrifuges' able to enrich uranium at a faster pace, potentially shortening the amount of time it would take Tehran to convert its enriched nuclear stockpile to weapons-grade purity, per statements made by Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi and conveyed by the wire. The AP assessed that 'Salehi's comments appeared aimed at showing the country is moving ahead with its nuclear program [in] order to fend off criticism by Iranian hard-liners' over the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) announced weeks ago in Geneva. Skeptics have countered that Iran is moving ahead with its nuclear program because the country's leaders want to move ahead with its nuclear program. The latter interpretation would be in line with statements from both Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani committing to pushing ahead with Iran's atomic activities in the context of international negotiations designed to curb that work, which is widely suspected of including clandestine weaponization dimensions. The AP also noted that the JPA 'does not stop [Iran] from developing centrifuges.' The agreement additionally permits Tehran unlimited enrichment of uranium to 3.5% purity - arguably the most difficult hurdle to clear on the path to creating weapons-grade material - as long as that material is stored in an oxide form unsuitable for further enrichment. It would take Iran only weeks, however, to convert that oxide into material that can be enriched further. Salehi's announcement, if confirmed, would position the Irnians to use the deal's six month negotiation period to increase their stockpile of enriched uranium and to increase the technology they have on hand to quickly enrich that stockpile further.
- A top Lebanese leader prominent for his opposition to Iranian interference in Lebanon - and more specifically to attempts by Hezbollah and Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime to dominate the country - was murdered this morning by a massive car bomb that ripped through central Beirut, killing him and at least five other people. Mohamad Chatah was a former ambassador to the United States and a close adviser to top figures in the anti-Syrian March 14 movement. His final tweet blasted Hezbollah for an ongoing political crisis that has paralyzed Lebanon, describing the Iran-backed terror group as "pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security [and] foreign policy matters that Syria exercised" during a 15 year period when Beirut legitimized Damascus's military occupation of Lebanon and gave the Syrians broad control over the country's defense policies. Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri quickly identified Hezbollah as behind the assassination. The murder will likely be read against deepening sectarian violence spilling into the region from inside Syria, where the Iran-backed Assad regime has been fighting a nearly three year war against largely Sunni rebel groups. An upcoming conference in Geneva designed to dampen the violence has been severely criticized for potentially maneuvering Syrian Sunnis into accommodating the regime, and the international reaction to Chatah's assassination has fueled similar criticism. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton reacted to the attack by calling on "Lebanon's political leaders and the Lebanese people to put aside all differences and join forces... to restore security in the country." Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), characterized Ashton's statement as one that urged "Lebanese leaders being killed by Hezbollah to join Hezbollah to restore security," also declaring that it "mirrors the premise" behind the Geneva talks where he implies the Syrian opposition will be asked to "join with their killers." Brookings Institute senior fellow Michael Doran was similarly acerbic, describing Ashton's call as one that urged "Lebanese murdered by Assad and Hezbollah to let bygones be bygones."
- Egyptian authorities are intensifying their most recent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood - this morning's Reuters headline tersely noted "Egypt arrests more Brotherhood supporters, more protests anticipated" - days after the country's army-backed interim government designated the Islamist group as a terrorist organization. At least 32 figures linked to the Brotherhood have been arrested in the aftermath of the Wednesday designation, which came amid an escalation in terror attacks that saw Islamist violence, which had largely been limited to the Sinai Peninsula, spread across Egypt. The move will enable Cairo to shutter Brotherhood-linked institutions and freeze the group's assets. It also has the potential to affect regional and global diplomacy, with various actors being called upon to position themselves in response to the designation. The Egyptians have already announced [Arabic] that they will press Arab countries to make good on signed counter-terror obligations and cooperate against the Brotherhood. The Palestinian Fatah faction called on the Brotherhood-linked Hamas faction to untangle itself from the organization for the sake of advancing Palestinian interests. Egyptian media reported yesterday on statements supporting the designation from liberal political groups that had last summer demanded the resignation of the country's then-Brotherhood linked government. The United States for its part has expressed reservations over Egypt's moves against the Brotherhood - State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki conveyed to reporters the details of a call between Secretary of State John Kerry and Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Nabil Fahmy in which Kerry expressed as much - and is reportedly not considering following Cairo's lead in designating the group.
- Turkey leaders blame Jews, foreign conspiracies as political warfare rocks country
- Washington Post: Egypt designation of Muslim Brotherhood as terrorist group "a stunning blow"
- "20 Threats Iranian Leaders Made Against Israel" list generates commentary on Iranian diplomatic, nuclear hypocrisy
- New forensic report confirms Arafat died of natural causes, after media feeding frenzy heightened anti-Israel conspiracy theories
What we’re watching today:
- Open political warfare between two powerful Turkish Islamist camps is shaking the country's political institutions and will likely erode Ankara's international posture, as the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) scrambles to uproot followers of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen who are in turn scattered throughout the country's state and non-state institutions. Over 500 Turkish police and security officers have been purged, and many have been replaced by AKP-sympathetic figures. Officials linked to Gulen have for their part widened a corruption probe that had already ensnared top AKP figures, and investigations have been initiated against the sons of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's, Burak and Bilal. Turkey expert Michael Koplow outlined today how the resulting dynamic - with the newly appointed police officials refusing to carry out the orders of prosecutors, many of them Gulenists - is harming Turkish institutions "in ways that will take years to overcome." The upshot according to Koplow is that "Turkish democracy is as hollow as it has been since the military was openly running things." It is unclear whether Erdogan will be able to politically survive the crisis. The Council on Foreign Relations quoted former Turkish minister Erdogan Bayraktar declaring that "to soothe the nation, I believe that the prime minister should resign," and the Christian Science Monitor today assessed that Erdogan's allies are deserting him. Erdogan's spiraling domestic position has seen the Islamist prime minister revert to what Koplow describes as "full-blown populism mode," with potential impacts for Turkey's foreign standing. Erdogan and his AKP allies have during previous crises sought to link domestic unrest to foreign conspiracies. Their scapegoating has at times been explicitly anti-Semitic, at other times has targeted the United States, and occasionally has implied that Jews are driving anti-Turkish American policies. Earlier this week Truman National Security Project fellow Joshua Walker noted that the AKP has already blamed Jews, gays, and others for the chaos around the corruption probe, and in recent days Erdogan ally and then-EU Minister Egemen Bagis reportedly declared that "the people won't give up on Erdogan because Zionism is past its expiration date." AKP figures have also already also blasted the US in the context of the corruption probe.
- Egypt's army-backed interim government yesterday designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, a day after a massive bomb destroyed an Egyptian police station and killed at least 15 people. Another bomb this morning exploded in a busy Cairo intersection this morning, wounding five, with the attack being described by Century Foundation senior fellow Michael Hanna as a "worrying signal that Egypt's militants [are] no longer content" with launching terrorist attacks in the Sinai Peninsula but were expanding their operations throughout the rest of Egypt. The Washington Post characterized the designation as "a stunning blow" to the Brotherhood. Until recently the Islamist organization was described by many Western analysts and diplomats as being not only on the ascendancy, but as a group that the US and its allies would have to learn to "deal with" at least partly on its own terms. Describing a mid-2011 decision by the Obama administration to resume contact with the Brotherhood, Politico described the US position as assessing that 'the Brotherhood's rise in political prominence... [made] the American contact necessary.'
- The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs took to Buzzfeed on Tuesday to outline what the article's headline described as "20 Threats Iranian Leaders Made Against Israel in 2013," with the subsequent story conveying an array of statements documenting that "Iranian leaders are consistent in their anti-Israel rhetoric, clear about their hostile intentions, and certain of their apocalyptic beliefs." Topping the list were remarks from Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who threatened to "raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground," and President Hassan Rouhani, who declared that the Iranian government must prepare for "the day the occupying Zionist regime is no longer in the region." Statements from commander of the Basij Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naqdi, who said that Iran will fight "until the annihilation of Israel," and Gen. Mohammad Hejazi Deputy Chief of Staff, who said that "if Israel acts foolishly, Tel Aviv and Haifa will be annihilated," respectively took the fifth and fourth slots. The article concluded with animated video from Iranian state television envisioning missile strikes on Israeli civilians and soldiers. Orde Kittrie – a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a tenured professor of law at Arizona State - commented that the documented statements were in tension with "the spirit of Geneva." The phrase is a gesture toward declarations made by Iranian leaders, and backed by some U.S. analysts, complaining that while Congressional legislation imposing sanctions on Iran six months from now does not technically violate the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) announced in Geneva, such legislation should be put off anyway because it violates the "spirit" of the agreement. Skeptics have suggested that it seems churlish for Iran to stake out such a position. Not only do the Islamic republic's top leaders celebrate actual and threatened conventional warfighting - the Iranian Revolutionary Guard this week tweeted that "the easiest way to send infidels to hell is through 'barrel of death'," a reference to shrapnel-packed Syrian barrel bombs that have killed and maimed thousands - but Iranian scientists have continued to enrich uranium and advance their plutonium program while final details of the JPA are being worked out.
- Another forensic investigation regarding the death of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat - this time conducted by a Russian lab with access to the deceased terrorist's remains - has concluded that he died of natural causes and not, as some conspiracy theorists have suggested, of polonium poisoning. Vladimir Uiba, the head of Russia's Federal Medical and Biological Agency, was quoted evaluating that Arafat's 2004 death was "natural and not caused by radiation." The findings are in line with those published by a French lab, but in tension with how a third investigation - this one Swiss - was reported by domestic and international media outlets. There are mathematically exactly zero plausible scenarios under which a deadly dose of polonium administered to Arafat in 2004 could have been detected by recent tests, but nonetheless the explicitly inconclusive Swiss results were credulously reported as evidence that Arafat may have been poisoned by the Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times, CNN, ABC News, CBS News, the BBC, the Telegraph, Salon, and others. The reports provided fodder for conspiracy theories blaming Israel for Arafat's death, and the Guardian declared that "suspicion points strongly" at the Jewish state for poisoning Arafat.
White House sanctions position questioned as currency stabilization boosts Iran economy, countries scramble to co-develop energy
- White House sanctions position questioned as currency stabilization boosts Iran economy, countries scramble to co-develop energy
- Nearly 500 dead in Syrian regime's "barrel bomb assault" on Aleppo
- Deadly sniper shooting latest attack in Palestinian terror spike
- WSJ reveals Pentagon probing defense firm for Iran sanctions violations, setting up potential enforcement controversy
What we’re watching today:
- News reports from yesterday have deepened concerns that both of the Obama administration's central claims about sanctions relief provided to Iran under the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) - specifically, that the relief would be worth only $7 billion and that so-called "core sanctions" would still be effective - may prove difficult to sustain. Skeptics have long questioned both claims, arguing that the actual value of the relief is much higher and that the sanctions regime will be substantially eroded as companies and states scramble to rush back into Iranian markets. Regarding the $7 billion figure, reports indicate that U.S. officials have already acknowledged that $20 billion worth of relief - a number originally worked out by Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) - is closer to the correct value. In calculating its $7 billion figure, the Obama administration appears to have neglected basic economic considerations, including multiplier effects and the benefits of currency stabilization. The Washington Post yesterday published analysis describing renewed UAE-Iranian trade ties, noting that 'a rebound in the value of Iran’s currency, the rial, is returning the flow of goods to pre-sanctions levels' and that a 15% increase in the rial since Rouhani's election has 'return[ed] some of the spending power of Iranian consumers that had been decimated by the weakened currency.' Regarding the robustness of the overall sanctions regime, skeptics had almost immediately worried that eroding the psychology of sanctions - under which corporations and states stayed on the sidelines to steer clear of sanctions violations - would trigger a feeding frenzy during which no one would want to be the last to reenter Iran. Reuters yesterday revealed that Qatar is positioning itself to help Iran advance its energy sector 'amid signs that western sanctions might ease after [Iran] signed a deal in November.' Evaluating the story, Dubowitz commented that the "[m]arket is shifting from fear to greed."
- The Syrian army's ongoing assault on Aleppo - which over the course of a week has killed nearly 500 people, among them scores of children - has drawn attention to a relatively new and cheap improvised explosive device being deployed by forces loyal to the Bashar al-Assad regime. The Telegraph described the campaign as the "Syrian regime's barrel bomb assault on Aleppo," and quoted one activist describing the last nine days of sustained fighting as "the most violent in the whole of the Syrian revolution." Journalists and doctors first began documenting the Syrian air force's use of so-called barrel bombs - drums packed with explosives and shrapnel, and literally rolled out of helicopters onto people and buildings - in August 2012. Since then the weapons have been refined, until now the Syrian air force is able to use a single bomb to level entire buildings. The shrapnel packed inside the devices leaves those who aren't killed maimed and disabled. CNN spoke to Dr. Ammar Zakaria, who described himself as having "lost count of the amputations" necessary to save many of the bombing victims. The outlet described images taken by the doctor as showing 'a mangled ambulance stopped in its path and doctors operating in pools of blood, watching children cling to their last breath through a breathing tube.' U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced yesterday that preparations for the January 22 Geneva II conference, in which the Assad regime and its backers will attempt to present terms for an end to the bloodshed, are "on track." Brookings Institute senior fellow Michael Doran yesterday echoed concerns that the talks - which will be attended by pro- and anti-Assad groups and by international parties - are "more about Assad-Western reconciliation than Assad-Syrian opposition negotiation."
- The Associated Press this morning reported on what the outlet described as "the latest in a string of Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets in recent days," after a Palestinian sniper shot and killed an Israeli Bedouin defense contractor who was working on the border fence separating Israel from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The shooting occurred Tuesday morning. On Monday a Palestinian terrorist stabbed an Israeli policeman in the West Bank. On Sunday another Palestinian terrorist left a pipe bomb on an Israeli bus near Tel Aviv. Last month another Palestinian terrorist stabbed to death an Israeli soldier who was sleeping on a bus. The wave of violence has been linked to among other things the reemergence of regular incitement by top Palestinian officials in both the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared after the shooting that Jerusalem will not tolerate a "drizzle" of terror attacks from the Gaza Strip. The Israeli military deployed assets from its air force, Armored Corps, and infantry to strike six Gaza Strip targets, among them training sites, weapons manufacturing facilities, and a concealed rocket launcher. The Jerusalem Post reported this evening that, despite the recent spike in terror attacks, Israel is still expected to release a group of convicted Palestinian terrorists - the third of four such groups - in an effort to boost U.S.-backed peace talks.
- The Wall Street Journal this morning reported that that the Pentagon's criminal investigation arm is probing allegations that Anham FZCO, a Dubai- and Virginia-based company awarded an estimated $8.1 billion contract to supply troops inside Afghanistan, has been moving some of its supplies through Iran. The investigation was triggered by a previous Journal article, published in September, which revealed that the company had 'used Iran's Bandar Abbas seaport last year to land equipment and building materials that were then transported across Iran.' The company's actions, per Obama administration officials cited in this morning's Journal scoop, 'may have violated strict U.S. sanctions laws that prohibit American entities from conducting trade with Iran or Iranian companies by moving materials through the country.' The possible violations are likely to be read against ongoing policy debates regarding the costs and benefits of Senate legislation revealed last week by a bipartisan group of twenty-six lawmakers. The bill would impose new sanctions on Iran should the Islamic republic either violate the terms of the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) during an upcoming six-month negotiation period or refuse, at the end of that period, to put its nuclear program beyond use for weaponization. The White House has threatened to veto the legislation, insisting that new sanctions are unnecessary, partly because it committed to enforcing existing sanctions. The administration will likely be pressured to meet those commitments should Anham be found to have violated U.S. restrictions.
Senators double down on new sanctions legislation as questions mount over inconsistencies in White House posture
- Senators double down on new sanctions legislation as questions mount over inconsistencies in White House posture
- Turkish corruption probe spills over into U.S.-Turkey relationship, as government-linked campaign targets U.S. ambassador
- Reports: Kerry to present Israeli-Palestinian framework agreement, after Palestinians rejected bridging proposals
- Massive bomb targets Egyptian police station amid sweeping anti-terror campaign
What we’re watching today:
- The Hill reported mid-Sunday that leading Senate Democrats are doubling down on a bipartisan push to impose sanctions on Iran should the Islamic republic either cheat on the terms of the Joint Plan of Action during an upcoming six-month negotiating period or, at the end of that period, refuse to verifiably put its nuclear program beyond use for weaponization. A bipartisan group of 26 senators last week unveiled the legislation, which provides the president the flexibility to put off the sanctions for a year as negotiations progress. Responding to explicit accusations that the sitting U.S. senators were trying to drag America into war, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) explained that "there are many of us, Democrats and Republicans in this Senate, who believe the best way to avoid war and get Iran to give up nuclear weapons is by ratcheting up sanctions, not by reducing them." Schumer went on to gesture toward a long-simmering controversy regarding tensions in the Obama administration's position on Iran sanctions: The White House insists that while past sanctions successfully coerced the Iranians into negotiating against their will, future sanctions will derail negotiations by draining good will. The Wall Street Journal this weekend also commented on the tension, noting that "Mr. Obama keeps saying that previous sanctions... are what brought Iran to the bargaining table... this [legislation] sharpens the incentive for Iran to dismantle its illegal nuclear facilities." The Journal noted that "the bill would do nothing to undermine the talks unless Iran isn't serious" and flatly evaluated that, by threatening to veto the legislation as a threat to negotiations, "the President is siding with Iran against a bipartisan majority in the US Congress."
- An escalating political struggle between two dominant Islamist camps inside Turkey - which in recent days has rocked the country and now threatens to destabilize the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) government - has spilled over into the U.S.-Turkey relationship and generated a sharp rebuke from Washington regarding "continued false and slanderous attacks" targeting U.S. officials. A corruption probe conducted largely by figures linked to the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose followers have broad sway inside Turkey's state and non-state institutions, has in recent days ensnared top figures in the AKP hierarchy on a range of charges. AKP figures, up to and including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have spoken darkly of a "dirty operation" and moved to purge Gulen-linked figures from police and security services. Another 25 police chiefs were dismissed this weekend. Erdogan has also declared that "some foreign envoys" were helping to coordinate the moves against the AKP. Ilhan Tanir, the Washington correspondent for Turkey's Vatan outlet, today blogged that the lines are thinly veiled references to U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone, and that Ricciardone has also been the target of attacks from multiple pro-AKP newspapers. Tanir conveyed State Department statements pushing back against the attacks, with a U.S. official condemning "the continued false and slanderous attacks by some elements of the Turkish media against our Ambassador, other senior U.S. officials, international media representatives, and private American citizens and groups." Critically, U..S officials are calling on Ankara to "disavow and condemn such attacks."
- Reports emerged on Sunday that Secretary of State John Kerry is set to present a framework agreement to Israeli and Palestinian negotiators designed to balance Palestinian demands for sovereignty with Israeli security requirements, amid revelations that direct peace talks were suspended after Palestinians rejected previous U.S. proposals for security arrangements along the Jordanian border. Jerusalem has emphasized for years that it must be permitted to maintain a security presence in the Jordan Valley to prevent destabilization and terrorist infiltration, a view reportedly endorsed by Jordan and codified in a recent bridging proposal presented by Kerry to Israeli and Palestinian diplomats. The Palestinians publicly rejected Kerry's proposal - describing it as marking the "total failure" of peace talks - and on Sunday chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat revealed that direct negotiations with Israel have been frozen. Erekat also told journalists that a framework agreement, rather than a final deal, is the best that can be hoped for by the end of the current nine-month period set for the talks.
- Suspected jihadists detonated a massive bomb early Tuesday morning local time outside a police headquarters in Egypt's increasingly restive Nile Delta region, collapsing the five-story building, killing at least 11 people, and deepening concerns that Islamist fighters are mobilizing to disrupt a January 14th constitutional referendum designed to transition the country to a democratically elected government. The car bombing of the Daqahliya security headquarters came a day after an Al Qaeda-linked group demanded that Egyptian security forces desert their posts lest they be targeted as infidels for supporting the current military-backed, relatively secular interim government. The army is locked in a pitched battle with jihadists. Islamist fighters have in recent months steadily escalated a terror campaign that coalesced after the army this summer deposed the country's Muslim Brotherhood-linked then-president Mohammed Morsi. Earlier today military spokesman Ahmed Mohammed Ali described Cairo's progress in uprooting the jihadist infrastructure in the northern Sinai Peninsula, outlining that 184 terrorists had been killed and over 800 arrested. The Obama administration controversially froze parts of Egypt's security assistance basket earlier this year in response to Cairo's moves against the Muslim Brotherhood. The White House at the time explicitly attempted to insulate Egypt's anti-terror operations from the freeze, but analysts expressed skepticism that such efforts were "actually feasible."
- France throws doubt on whether Iran committed to genuine nuclear concessions
- Turkey PM lashes out against critics as corruption scandal shakes government
- Experts: Iran government will hijack banking sector sanctions relief
- Former Egyptian president to stand trial on terrorism-related charges
What we’re watching today:
- The Wall Street Journal this evening published comments made by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in which the Paris official expressed skepticism that Iran is willing to verifiably dismantle its nuclear program, quoting Fabius emphasizing that "it is unclear if the Iranians will accept to definitively abandon any capacity of getting a weapon or only agree to interrupt the nuclear program." Talks aimed at disabling the Iranian nuclear program - which half a dozen United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions have demanded be suspended - are due to take place during a six-month interim period following the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) worked out in Geneva. The State Department conceded under reporter questioning weeks ago that the JPA's six-month clock has not begun ticking since Iran has not agreed on how the deal should be implemented. Talks to clarify implementation were suspended by Tehran in recent days. Lawmakers and analysts have expressed increasingly pointed concerns that Iran may be preparing to extract as many concessions as it can from the JPA and then walk away from talks on the basis of some pretext, thereby pocketing the West's JPA concessions without slowing Iran's nuclear program.
- Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan today lashed out against a corruption probe that he described as a "dirty operation" designed to smear him and his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) administration, a day after more than 50 people - drawn from the families of politicians and businessmen close to Erdogan - were detained by police forces. The detentions were met with steps that The New York Times described as "perceived as a striking back," with dozens of senior officers - including and especially many involved with battling corruption - being expelled from their posts. Turkey expert Dr. Michael Koplow commented that "it's incredible that Erdogan doesn't see that sacking all of these police officials is going to make things so much, much worse." Meanwhile the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a report today documenting that, for the second year in a row, Turkey has jailed more journalists than any other country. CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon declared in a statement issued with the report that "jailing journalists for their work is the hallmark of an intolerant, repressive society." Coupled with the corruption crisis, the criticism is likely to deepen concerns that the AKP's decade-long control over Turkey's top political institutions has deepened corruption and eroded human rights.
- Criticism continues to mount regarding the scope and likely effects of financial relief granted to Iran as part of the recently announced Geneva interim agreement, with concerns being raised not just about the value of unfrozen assets but more broadly about how the so-called Joint Plan of Action (JPA) is likely to impact the international sanctions regime. Emanuele Ottolenghi and Saeed Ghasseminejad - respectively a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a Ph.D. candidate in finance at City University of New York - yesterday published an assessment outlining how the JPA's banking provisions are likely "to undermine the existing sanctions' architecture." International restrictions had substantially circumscribed Iran's access to financial markets, both cutting off resources that Tehran was using to advance its nuclear program and preventing the Islamic republic from shoring up its economy. The JPA unfreezes a banking channel that Iran is supposed to use to facilitate the purchase of humanitarian assistance, and Western diplomats have expressed confidence that the relaxation will only benefit undesignated entities. The assurances have been met with skepticism by financial analysts, and Ottolenghi and Ghasseminejad emphasize that "Iranian banking institutions are hardly private, independent or able to withstand regime manipulation." They worry that Iranian entities including the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps will be able to siphon significant funds from the transactions. Meanwhile Turkish outlet Zaman today revealed that Iranian-Azeri businessman Reza Zerrab has been swept up in an anti-corruption probe, and that he "is accused of being involved in irregular money transactions, mostly from Iran, that total some 87 billion euros."
- Egyptian officials announced today that the country's Muslim Brotherhood-linked former president Mohammed Morsi will stand trial on terrorism-related charges, declaring that he and 35 other Brotherhood figures will face charges for among other things conspiring with Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to sow instability within and beyond Egypt's borders. More specifically, prosecutors accuse the defendants of "collaborating with foreign organisations to commit terrorist acts in Egypt, revealing defence secrets to a foreign country, funding terrorists and military training to achieve the purposes of the international organisation of the Brotherhood." The Associated Press evaluated the new charges as representing "a new level" in ongoing tussles between the Brotherhood and the army-backed interim government that replaced Morsi after he was deposed by the Egyptian military, and quoted the prosecution announcing that the trial would target "the biggest case of conspiracy in Egypt." The coming weeks will also see Egyptians vote in a referendum on a new constitution, designed to replace the a previous document that Islamists had controversially drafted and rushed into passage during Morsi's tenure.