- National Journal: Top senators optimistic on Iran sanctions progress
- Palestinian reconciliation rumors trigger fears of peace process backsliding
- Saudi doubles down on criticism of U.S.-Iran negotiations
- Attack on Hezbollah position deepens fears of Syria spillover
What we’re watching today:
- National Journal this evening reported that progress is being made on advancing bipartisan Senate legislation that would impose sanctions on Iran if the Islamic republic fails to dismantle its nuclear program during an upcoming negotiation period. The outlet specifically quoted Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) evaluating that he and others seeking to pass such legislation are "in pretty good shape" on the issue. Kirk indicated that he is working closely with fellow senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who has also in recent months expressed pointed concerns over Iran's nuclear drive and the efficacy of current negotiations. Lawmakers from both parties are known to be concerned that U.S. concessions made in the context of the recent Geneva agreement extend beyond the $7 billion price tag that the administration has publicly acknowledged, and that a variety of factors from simple undercounting to the stabilization of market expectations has substantially eroded Western leverage heading into negotiations over a comprehensive agreement.
- Palestinian media outlet Ma'an reported this morning that Hamas is close to creating a single Palestinian government with its rival Fatah faction, laying the groundwork for upcoming West Bank and Gaza Strip elections that would see a unified leadership elected to govern both territories. If confirmed the move may reignite worries that mainstream Palestinian entities with which Israel has for years negotiated - and to which Jerusalem has made functionally irreversible diplomatic and territorial concessions - may be preparing to vitiate assurances and concessions. The Palestinian Authority is publicly committed to seeking a two-state solution with Israel, while Hamas remains committed to the Jewish state's destruction. The two positions have proved difficult to reconcile, and previous reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah have floundered over among other things that difficulty. Ra'fat Murra, Hamas's representative in Lebanon, this morning again emphasized that Hamas is unwilling to give up its claims to territory it reserves for a Palestinian state, including the entirety of Israel. Measuring broader Palestinian sentiment on this issue is notoriously difficult, though Ma'an reported this morning on a new poll indicating that a majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip oppose continued negotiations with Israel.
- Washington is seeking to downplay tensions with Riyadh over the West's recent diplomacy with Iran, after Saudi Arabian Prince Turki al-Faisal was quoted by the Wall Street Journal this weekend highlighting deep skepticism inside Kingdom and within other Gulf countries regarding a deal announced last month between the P5+1 global powers and Tehran over the latter's nuclear program. Faisal had according to the Journal "echoed concerns raised by Israel and members of the U.S. Congress that the interim nuclear accord with Iran didn’t go far enough' and had 'accused the White House of blindsiding Riyadh with its overtures to Iran." The Washington Times yesterday quoted Marie Harf, the State Department’s deputy spokesman, responding to Faisal's statements by emphasizing that "the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have a long and close strategic partnership" and that "one of the hallmarks of a good partnership is the ability to have quite frank conversations." Harf also pointed out that Faisal is "not even a government official." This morning Mohammed bin Nawwaf bin Abdulaziz, the current Saudi Ambassador to Britain, published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, headlined "Saudi Arabia Will Go It Alone," in which he declared that Riyadh "believe[s] that many of the West's policies on both Iran and Syria risk the stability and security of the Middle East."
- A car bomb detonated early this morning near a Hezbollah base in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley has deepened concerns that sectarian tensions generated by the Iran-backed terror group's participation in Syria's nearly three-year-old conflict are spilling over into Lebanon. Shiite Hezbollah has provided critical support to the Bashar al-Assad regime, allowing it to steadily erode grains made over previous months and years by the largely Sunni opposition, but triggering a wave of blowback that has seen Sunni fighters from within and beyond the region target Lebanese territory in retaliation. This morning's car bomb targeted a Hezbollah position and, according to early reports broadcast by Lebanon's state-run National News Agency, injured both Hezbollah members and civilians. Hezbollah's Al Manar station reported that the targeted post was - per reports conveyed by The New York Times - "a rotation point for Hezbollah fighters coming and going from Syria." The steady stream of Syria-linked violence targeting Hezbollah inside Lebanon has substantially eroded the group's image as a group seeking to protect Lebanese territory from Israel, and has instead triggered criticism across the Arab world that Hezbollah is willing to endanger Lebanese stability in order to promote Iranian interests. Analysts now fear that the group may attempt to bolster its old brand by provoking an incident with Jerusalem that would provide it with a pretext to battle the Jewish state.
Controversy swirls in Congress as House moves to reframe Iran agreement, Senate delays sanctions legislation
- Controversy swirls in Congress as House moves to reframe Iran agreement, Senate delays sanctions legislation
- European Union audit blasts Palestinian funding, demands overhaul of program elements
- Amid controversy over negotiations, investigators confirm chemical weapons use in Syria
- NYT: Suez attack latest in "string of car bombs and suicide attacks" in Egypt, as government moves toward vote on new constitution
What we’re watching today:
- The Washington Free Beacon late on Wednesday published details of measures emerging from the House of Representatives seeking to - per the outlet - "reset the terms of a controversial nuclear accord reached between Iran and Western nations several weeks ago in Geneva." Language that emerged Thursday evening from the office of Rep. Peter Roskan (R-IL) sought to circumscribe a future deal between global powers and the Islamic republic, and received bipartisan backing from Reps. Michael McCaul (R-TX), Gene Green (D-TX), and Dan Lipinski (D-IL). It insisted that any comprehensive agreement between Iran and the international community should demand that the Islamic republic "completely dismantle all enrichment facilities and cease all centrifuge production" and "completely dismantle its heavy-water plutonium reactor at Arak." The language is in line with half a dozen United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions calling on Tehran to suspend its nuclear program. It comes amid developments in both the House and Senate which conceded to demands from the Obama administration to take no action to increase pressure on the Islamic republic for at a minimum months. In the Senate Bob Corker (R-TN) explained that the White House had prevailed upon lawmakers, via what The Hill described as a "full-scale effect," to put off new sanctions against Iran. In the House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer withdrew previously announced support for motions that would impose conditions on negotiations.
- The Wall Street Journal yesterday noted that few programs funded by the European Union are marked by as much controversy as "EU assistance to the Palestinian Authority," with the bloc having provided more than five and a half billion Euros to the Palestinians since the peace process began in the mid 1990s. The Journal described funding as having "long been the target of a string of claims and counter-claims," and described criticism as having pinpointed not just graft - which has long been a target of internal and external Palestinian Authority (PA) critics - but more specifically the diversion of funds to the pockets of Palestinian terrorists and their families. Evaluation of EU's Pegase plan, according to an audit released this week, indicated that "a number of aspects of the current approach are increasingly in need of overhaul." The Times of Israel late on Thursday conveyed frustration from EU officials and quoted Hans Gustaf Wessberg, the Swedish head of the auditors’ team, saying that "when people who do not work are being paid, this goes against the agreement with Pegase." The robustness of Palestinian economic institutions has been a central pivot point in debates over whether a sustainable Palestinian state is achievable in the short or medium terms. Analysts have expressed doubts over whether an independent state could sustain itself in the absence of international funding, and regarding whether international donors would be willing to continue funding such an entity in the absence of checks on among other things corruption.
- The United Nations late on Thursday confirmed that chemical weapons had been used in the almost three year Syrian conflict, with experts investigating more than half a dozen alleged uses of proscribed weapons and - in what CNN described as "the case that was most clear" - documenting an August incident near Damascus. CNN also described "graphic video footage showed rows of bodies without apparent injury, as well as people suffering convulsions or apparently struggling to breathe." The report comes amid deepening controversy over the context and scope of upcoming Geneva II talks designed to facilitate a resolution to the conflict, with news emerging that over 30 countries, among them Iran and Saudi Arabia, invited to attend. The two states are respectively the key backers of the Bashar al-Assad regime and of elements of the opposition seeking the regime's overthrow. Riyadh has been accused, less so than Turkey and Qatar but more so than the West, of providing support to extremist elements at the expense of more moderate Western-backed forced. The consistent erosion of U.S.-backed fighters became particular pointed this week, with a top commander of the Free Syrian Army being forced out of the country as Islamists overran the positions of the Free Syrian army (FSA). Reuters reported today that the relative power dynamics inside Syria had forced the opposition to seek the protection of Al Qaeda-linked groups.
- The New York Times reported late on Thursday that a bomb had exploded near Egypt's Suez Canal, with one person being killed and dozens being wounded. The NYT contextualized the bombing as one of a "string of car bombs and suicide attacks" that have occurred since the Egyptian military on July 3 deposed the country's Muslim Brotherhood then-president Mohammed Morsi. The violence came shortly after an announcement by the country's military-backed government that a draft constitution designed to facilitate a democratic transition would be put to a national vote in a matter of weeks. English-language Egyptian media outlets wrote that an article in the new constitution dealing with civil liberties "could be seen as an improvement on the equivalent articles from the 1971 and 2012 constitutions as it limits the types of cases for which a civilian could stand trial before a military court," though a different article in the same outlet documented criticism by activists regarding "the potential for future labour action under the provisions of the draft charter." The Israel-oriented Algemeiner outlet noted on Thursday that the draft constitution deemphasized Islamic law, though the outlet acknowledged that the new version had not completely removed mentions to Sharia.
Reports: After blasting critics over skepticism, U.S. officials admit Iran sanctions relief more than double public estimates
- Reports: After blasting critics over skepticism, U.S. officials admit Iran sanctions relief more than double public estimates
- Politico: "rare display of House unity" in rejecting Kerry assurances on Iran
- Hamas official declares ties with Iran have "resumed" after Syria-driven chill
- Congress looks to derail Turkey's plan to purchase, integrate Chinese missile systems
What we’re watching today:
- Israel's left-leaning Haaretz revealed this evening that U.S. officials have privately conceded to Israeli counterparts that the Obama administration "greatly underestimated the economic benefits Tehran would reap" from the recently signed Geneva accord between the P5+1 global powers and Iran, and that the Islamic republic stands to receive a windfall totaling roughly $20 billion from international concessions, rather than the $6 to $7 billion that administration officials had repeatedly quoted to lawmakers, allies, and journalists. Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), had pegged Geneva concessions as totaling roughly $20 billion even before the deal was announced. Dubowitz and Jonathan Schanzer, the latter being FDD's vice president for research, more recently outlined how the White House had failed to take into account the "the total impact" that suspending automobile sanctions would have on the Iranian economy, and that U.S. officials had specifically neglected the value of "cars produced for the domestic market, wages paid, and other economic activity." Israeli assessments had similarly far exceeded the administration's public estimates. White House figures and their supporters had belittled such concerns, declaring that the assessments of U.S. analysts and Israeli diplomats were based on incomplete knowledge, and at one point going so far as to tell senators to ignore Israeli estimations. It is not yet clear to what degree the dual dynamic - admitting that sanctions relief will come in at over twice their estimates, after having blasted critics who predicted as much for grossly exaggerating - will erodge the credibility of administration assurances regarding Iran.
- Politico reports that testimony given today by Secretary of State John Kerry to the House Foreign Affairs Committee fell far short of convincing lawmakers to adopt the administration's perspective on Iran, with Kerry not only stumbling in answering questions regarding the consistency of the White House's read on Iranian calculations - administration officials have sought to simultaneously insist that sanctions coerced Iran into coming to the table and that new sanctions will push Tehran away - but failing more broadly to convince lawmakers that Iran's nuclear program can be checked with the leverage that the U.S. currently has at its disposal. The outlet described "a rare display of House unity" with "all the members of the committee who questioned Kerry essentially [telling] him no." A string of administration officials have recently been dispatched to the Hill as part of a campaign to persuade lawmakers to forgo passing new sanctions legislation. Javad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister, this week threatened that any new sanctions legislation - up to and especially the type being considered in the Senate, which would impose new financial pressure only if the six months of upcoming negotiations failed - would cause Iran to abandon talks. Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), assessed today that Zarif is essentially bluffing, and that "Tehran needs relief from the toughest U.S. financial and energy sanctions" lest it face "continued stagnation or a renewed recession."
- Reuters today reported on declarations from a top Hamas figure asserting that the Palestinian terror group had "resumed" its relations with Iran, after several months in which the organization was estranged from its long-time sponsor in Tehran due to sectarian tensions generated by the almost three-year Syrian conflict. The statements, made by Mahmud al-Zahar, included the assertion that there had never been a complete "cut" in ties between Iran and Hamas. Zahar has long been prominent as a key figure in efforts to keep Hamas within Iran's camp, and his statements have been read by some analysts as designed to facilitate the reestablishment of ties rather than as actually assessing that those ties had been reestablished. Nonetheless, Zahar's declarations align with multiple similar indications in recent months. In August Iranian diplomats leaked that Hamas was seeking rapprochement, and in September top Hamas officials announced that they had reestablished an "axis of resistance" with Iran and its Lebanese terror proxy Hezbollah.
- Foreign Policy Magazine's The Complex today outlined legislative efforts, written by Congress into the upcoming National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), to respond to Turkey's controversial decision to purchase missile defense assets from a Chinese company blacklisted by Washington. A top NATO official had in October described the Turkish move - which would require linking the Chinese system to existing NATO assets already stationed in Turkey - as one which would functionally implant a "virus" into NATO's command and control infrastructure. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded to criticism over the deal - which came not only from the U.S. and its NATO allies but also from Turkey's opposition - by lashing out and accusing critics of infringing on Turkish "independence." The Complex reported on a range of measures in the NDAA "clearly aimed at short-circuiting Turkey's plan," including a flat ban on "the use of U.S. funding to integrate Chinese missile defense systems with U.S. or NATO systems." The upshot is that it would be "effectively... impossible" for Turkey to link the Chinese assets with U.S. and NATO systems. Murad Bayar, head of Turkey's Undersecretariat for the Defense Industry, confirmed late last week that Turkey is still leaning toward making its purchase from China.
- State Department: Interim deal with Iran allows continued construction on Iran plutonium facility
- State Department: Interim deal with Iran not final, Iran currently allowed to continue nuclear activity
- Amid Hezbollah diplomatic offensive, British sources reveal secret indirect U.S.-Hezbollah talks
- Reports: Iran talks pushing Saudi Arabia to acquire nuclear weapons
What we’re watching today:
- The State Department acknowledged today that the recently announced agreement widely described as freezing Iran's nuclear program in fact permits Tehran to continue construction at its Arak complex, after overnight statements by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif committed the Islamic republic to bolstering the plutonium facility during the agreement's six-month interim period. Arak contains multiple facilities, including a heavy water production facility and a facility for a heavy water reactor that, once activated, would produce sufficient plutonium for between one and two nuclear bombs per year. A fact sheet published last weekend by the White House touting the Geneva deal insisted that "Iran has committed to no further advances of its activities at Arak and to halt progress on its plutonium track," and Reuters this morning noted that Zarif's declaration came "despite an agreement with Western powers to halt activity." State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki subsequently clarified that the agreement actually permits certain categories of construction to continue. Her clarification came two days after Reuters conveyed expert analysis describing a "loophole" in the agreement, this one permitting Iran to build components for the Arak's nuclear reactor as long as those components weren't being physically made at the Arak facility itself. The clarification plus the "loophole" means that Iran would be permitted over the next six months to make progress both on its plutonium facility and on creating the parts that would eventually go into its plutonium reactor. The scenario may be difficult to reconcile with Western claims that the Geneva negotiations achieved a freeze in Iran's nuclear progress.
- The State Department acknowledged yesterday that Iran currently has a window of time during which it is allowed to continue its nuclear activity unrestrained by an interim agreement announced last week in Geneva, with State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki telling reporters that the six-month period during which the administration is precluding new sanctions had not yet begun. Psaki explained that "the next step here is a continuation of technical discussions at a working level so that we can essentially tee up the implementation of the agreement," which she clarified further "would involve the P5+1 – a commission of the P5+1 experts working with the Iranians and the IAEA." She added that "once... those technical discussions are worked through," then "I guess the clock would start." She noted however that she did not "have a specific timeline" for how long that process would take, which is to say how long Iran would continue to be immune from new sanctions but permitted to continue advancing what is widely believed to be its clandestine nuclear weapons program. The Times of Israel tersely noted that Psaki's comments "created confusion as to whether the much-touted interim deal, supposedly reached by P5+1 powers and Iran in Geneva in the early hours of Sunday morning, had actually been completed as claimed." Linking to a Fox News article echoing that sentiment, Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-MI) suggested that the confusion accounts for the "chilly bi-partisan response" that the White House has received to the agreement.
- The Jerusalem Post, conveying a report from the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai, today described statements by senior British diplomatic sources revealing that London has been facilitating secret indirect talks between the Obama administration and Hezbollah, a group that is designated as a terrorist organization under U.S. law. Recent months have seen Hezbollah's diplomatic position and regional influence slip. The European Union earlier this year partially designated the Iran-backed group as a terror entity, while Sunni states - which hold the organization responsible for bolstering Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime in that country's two-and-a-half-year conflict - have moved to economically suffocate it. Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors are known to be seeking to break the group out of its diplomatic isolation. The Al-Rai report described a recent phone call between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and British Prime Minister David Cameron in which Rouhani linked Hezbollah's position to negotiations between Iran and the West. Meanwhile Lebanon's Daily Star described "ongoing communication" between the European Union and Hezbollah, with Hezbollah figures leaking that Europe is 'laying the groundwork to reverse' its decision to partially declare that the group is a terrorist organization.
- TIME reports that Saudi Arabia is considering acquiring nuclear weapons - almost certain to be purchased off the shelf from Pakistan, the nuclear program of which Riyadh sponsored - in response to fears that the international community is positioning Iran to complete what is widely believed to be its drive toward producing its own nuclear weapons. TIME describes "an almost palpable sense of frustration, betrayal and impotence as Saudi Arabia watched" Iran secure an interim deal with the international community that, it is now known, will allow Iran to stockpile enriched uranium converted to uranium oxide and continue construction on its plutonium facility at Arak. The agreement also seems to concede that Iran will be allowed to continue enriching in the context of a comprehensive agreement, and analysts have emphasized that it also risks a downward spiral that endangers the international sanctions regime. Washington has sought to reassure its traditional Saudi allies that the arrangement is in fact a good one, with uneven success. Meanwhile Raytheon late last week announced that it was preparing to finalize the sale of missile defense systems to several Gulf countries, with Aviation Week quoting 'U.S. industry executives' sardonically noting that "Gulf nations have not signaled any declining interest in beefing up their missile defense capabilities despite recent U.S. talks with Iran."
Observers worry over another "sucker's deal" as foreign ministers rush to Geneva for likely Iran deal
- Observers worry over another "sucker's deal" as foreign ministers rush to Geneva for likely Iran deal
- Saudi Arabia: U.S. Middle East allies have "no confidence in the Obama administration doing the right thing with Iran"
- Advanced Hamas surveillance techniques stoke worries of spectacular terror campaign
- Talk of widening Israeli governing coalition after opposition Labor party elects new leader
What we’re watching today:
- The State Department announced late Friday that Secretary of State John Kerry would be traveling to Geneva overnight to attend talks between the global powers and Iran, adding about an hour later that Kerry would be pursuing "the goal of continuing to help narrow the differences and move closer to an agreement" over Tehran's nuclear program. News quickly followed that the other P5+1 foreign ministers not already in Geneva were also en route. Washington Institute Executive Director Robert Satloff noted that the flurry of activity means an interim deal - widely expected to be for a six-month period - is overwhelmingly likely to be secured in this round of talks. Observers will be watching for changes from a previous draft agreement that was almost agreed to two weeks ago, and which the French blasted as a "sucker's deal." That deal had reportedly allowed Iran to continue making progress on developing its Arak plutonium-breeding facility, which once activated will be able to produce between one and two bombs' worth of nuclear material per year. Reports had the West conceding to continued development of the facility in exchange for an Iranian promise not to activate the facility's nuclear reactor for six months - something Iran had already announced it did not intend to do anyway. Regarding Iran's uranium track, analysts will especially focus on whether Tehran will be permitted to continue constructing centrifuges. Such a concession would give Iran the option of installing those centrifuges at the end of the six-month interim period, increasing its enrichment capacity and quickly swamping whatever material had been ceded under the initial deal. Weeks ago David Albright, director of the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), had already explained that a deal that dealt only with Iran's existing stock of 20% enriched uranium would be “nowhere near enough” since Iran would “emerge if the deal fell apart with several thousand IR-1s and IR-2Ms to be deployed rapidly in Natanz, and possibly even a third centrifuge plant.”
- Iran's neighbors throughout the region have "no confidence in the Obama administration doing the right thing with Iran," according to Saudi Arabia's Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, with "Israel, Saudi Arabia, [and] the Middle East countries" being among the traditional U.S. allies who believe that Washington is being woefully outflanked by Iranian negotiators. Bloomberg View columnist Jeffrey Goldberg interviewed bin Talal and described him as believing that "Iran, in its ongoing negotiations with the world’s major powers, will pocket whatever sanctions relief it gets without committing to ending its nuclear program." Goldberg specifically quoted the Saudi prince as advocating that the U.S. "keep the [sanctions] pressure on" inasmuch as "sanctions are what brought about the negotiations to begin with." Bin Talal's analysis echoes that of Patrick Clawson and Mehdi Khalaji, respectively the director of research and a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, who recently warned that "Khamenei has been laying the groundwork to walk away from any deal by warning that the West is untrustworthy and will not deliver on its promises." Under this scenario Iran would use the billions of dollars it received to stabilize its economy, bolster its nuclear program, and fund its global terror infrastructure - and would hope that the initial erosion of the sanctions regime would trigger a downward spiral as global powers sought to preempt each other by rushing into the newly reopened Iranian market. Brookings Institute fellow Michael Doran today pointed to evidence that such a downward spiral was already beginning, with Paris looking to reopen a trade-related attache office in Tehran next year.
A senior Israeli army officer yesterday told [Hebrew] the country's Channel 2 that Hamas had developed new surveillance infrastructure - including cameras mounted to balloons - for collecting intelligence deep inside of Israel. The statements are likely to fuel already growing fears that Hamas - having seen both its regional and domestic
position erode after a series of geopolitical missteps - is looking to restore its stature via spectacular attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers. The group is known to have attempted spectacular terror attacks in the West Bank, and it was recently caught having constructed attack tunnels underneath the border between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, of the kind but more advanced than those used in previous operations. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has suggested that the West and its allies have a narrow window - while Hamas is still struggling to regain its balance - in which it can take financial action to strike a death blow to the terror organization.
- Veteran Israeli lawmaker Isaac Herzog was yesterday elected the new leader of Israel's Labor Party, currently the country's main opposition party, wining a landslide 58.5% to 41.5% victory over previous leader Shelly Yachimovich and setting the stage for a potential re-configuring of Israel's governing coalition. Israeli outlet Yediot Aharonot pointedly noted that while Herzog used his acceptance speech to attack the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - especially in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process - he had also regularly criticized Yachimovich for staying out of that government during her two-year tenure. Herzog also used his speech to flatly declare that "fates are now being sealed" regarding the trajectory of Iran and its nuclear program. The Associated Press tersely evaluated that Herzog's victory could make Labor "more amenable to joining Netanyahu’s coalition should nascent peace talks with the Palestinians gather steam."
Amid bipartisan commitment to moving forward sanctions, Senate Majority Leader comes out in favor of pressure and promises December vote
- Amid bipartisan commitment to moving forward sanctions, Senate Majority Leader comes out in favor of pressure and promises December vote
- Khamenei plasters Internet with posters calling Israel "sinister, unclean rabid dog," underscoring diverging French and U.S. stances
- Azerbaijan arrests Iranian suspected of plotting terror attack on Israeli embassy, being Quds Force operative
- TIME: After stock "plummeted in the past year," Hamas now "keen to cozy back up to Iran"
What we’re watching today:
- Efforts by U.S. lawmakers to impose new financial pressure on Iran picked up momentum today, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid committing to having the Senate vote to boost sanctions after the body's Thanksgiving recess, and 14 other senators, hailing from both parties, declaring that they would cooperate to push through such legislation. Reid's office published floor remarks made by the Nevada Democrat declaring himself to be a "strong supporter of [the] sanctions regime" and committing not only to "mov[ing] forward with a new bipartisan Iran sanctions bill" but more specifically to "support[ing] a bill that would broaden the scope of our current petroleum sanctions; place limitations on trade with strategic sectors of the Iranian economy that support its nuclear ambitions, as well as pursue those who divert goods to Iran." Amid controversial comments being leveled by some administration officials and by Hezbollah - in which sanctions proponents are being accused of seeking to derail negotiations and drag America into war - Reid stated that while he "support[s] the Admiration’s diplomatic efforts" he is committed to keeping the U.S.'s "legislative options open." Meanwhile more than a dozen U.S. senators published a bipartisan statement promising to "work together to reconcile Democratic and Republican proposals over the coming weeks and to pass bipartisan Iran sanctions legislation as soon as possible."
- Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last night doubled down on a controversial Wednesday speech in which he branded Israel a "rabid dog" - part of a diatribe in which he also declared that Israeli leaders "cannot be called humans" but "are like animals" - by posting images to Twitter and Facebook with the line "Israel is the sinister, unclean rabid dog of the region." Commenting on the controversy, the Wall Street Journal described how the "French government quickly... [called Khamenei's] speech 'unacceptable,' while the Obama administration offered a much milder response." A senior Obama administration official, who spoke to reporters during a background briefing in Geneva, had in fact pointedly declined to condemn Khamenei not only for his attack on Israel but also for his insinuation that the U.S. had launched a nuclear attack on Japan after the country had functionally surrendered. Instead the administration official noted while they "don't ever like it" when people speak about the United States in such terms, America for its part has "had many people... say difficult things about Iran and Iranians, and not always necessarily [drawing] a difference between governmental decisions and culture and people and - this is a very difficult terrain." Amid widespread international disbelief at the U.S. stance, administration officials today issued what the Jerusalem Post described as "belated condemnation."
- Israel's Channel 10 reported yesterday that an Iranian national was arrested two weeks ago in Azerbaijan after authorities observed him walking through the Israeli embassy displaying "suspicious behavior," and after a raid of his house revealed plans and photographs indicating he intended to attack the building. If it is confirmed that 31-year-old Hasan Faraji was planning to launch a terror attack against the Israeli installation, the incident would become the latest of almost a dozen recent terror plots linked to the Islamic republic and staged not just repeatedly in Azerbaijan but also in Bulgaria, Cyprus, Thailand, Georgia, India, Nigeria, Singapore, Nepal, Turkey, and even Israel. The Channel 10 broadcast described Faraji as a member of the Iranian Quds Forces, the branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guard responsible for conducting overseas terror operations. A State Department report published this summer noted that "Iran and Hezbollah’s terrorist activity has reached a tempo unseen since the 1990s," echoing a report published this year by the Washington Institute’s Matthew Levitt concluding that Iran’s global terror operations had "climbed back up the list of immediate threats facing the United States and its allies."
- A collapse of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and a series of geopolitical missteps have led to the isolation of the Gaza Strip and the Hamas terror group that controls it, such that not only has Hamas's "stock... plummeted in the past year" but "time is not on the [terror group's] side," according to an extensive write-up published today by TIME. The Palestinian organization went all-in last year on an emerging Sunni extremist axis in the Middle East anchored by Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood, and in many contexts including Qatar. The decision saw Hamas distance itself from the two other solidifying camps in the region: the Iranian camp that includes Syria and Hezbollah - and that had included Hamas - and the more moderate Arab Sunni camp of traditional U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Subsequent months saw severe declines in the foreign policy influence of both Turkey and Qatar, while the leadership of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood was largely decapitated by that country's military. The result, according to TIME, is that Hamas is now "keen to cozy back up to Iran." TIME's analysis is in line with multiple statements not just by Hamas leaders, but also top figures from Hezbollah and Iran. Tehran's diplomats have not been shy in letting it be known that their former Palestinian terror proxies are now seeking rapprochement.
- U.S. lawmakers: No sanctions relief for Iran pressure without uranium and plutonium suspension
- Suicide bombings rock Iranian embassy in Beirut, deepening fears Hezbollah-driven Syria blowback may engulf Lebanon
- Analysts double down on minimum requirements for robust interim deal with Iran
- Yemen violence underscores insurgency concerns
What we’re watching today:
- United States lawmakers today doubled down on support for imposing new sanctions on Iran, of the type that the Obama administration has very publicly insisted are behind the decision by Iran to negotiate over what is widely believed to be its clandestine nuclear weaponization program. The Hill reported late today that House and Senate lawmakers dispatched bipartisan letters to the President "object[ing] to a proposal that would loosen sanctions in exchange for Iran freezing the most advanced aspects of its program," which analysts have pointed out would nonetheless allow Iran to move closer to producing both uranium- and plutonium-based nuclear bombs than it is today. The Senate letter in particular emphasized that, in exchange for sanctions relief, Iran must be forced to "suspend all uranium reprocessing, heavy water-related and enrichment-related activities and halt ongoing construction of any uranium-enrichment, reprocessing, or heavy water-related facilities."
- Coordinated suicide bombings on the Iranian embassy in Beirut today are pouring fuel on concerns that the Islamic republic and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah are dragging Lebanon into the two-and-a-half-year Syrian conflict, while Tehran's response to the attack is generating fears that the incident may be used as a pretext to inflame tensions with Israel. The bombings came a day after a top Lebanese political figure warned that [French] Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian military's systematic march toward the city of Aleppo risked "catastrophic catastrophic repercussions in Lebanon," and after several previous incidents of blowback from the terror group's involvement in Syria. The Al Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility for the bombing, prompting CNN to tersely note in its headline that the "blasts [were] linked to Syrian civil war." Iran for its part both blamed Israel and threatened to retaliate for the attack beyond Lebanon's borders.
- On the eve of talks between Iran and the P5+1 global powers, analysts are underlining what minimum requirements an interim deal with Iran must meet if it is to successfully move Tehran further from being able to construct a nuclear weapon, rather than - as some critics have charged a previous proposed deal permitted - allowing Iran to spend a six-month negotiation period advancing toward nuclear weapons acquisition. Orde Kittrie - a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a tenured professor of law at Arizona State University's Law School - today outlined how any interim deal with Iran must "include stronger provisions relating to enrichment, Iran’s heavy water reactor at Arak, and Iran’s research into nuclear weapons design" if it is to meet President Obama's objective of at the very least ensuring that the Iranians do not advance their nuclear program while negotiations progress from the interim deal to a final agreement. Regarding Iran's uranium track, Kittrie emphasized that among several other things Iran must be prevented "from manufacturing additional centrifuges," a criterium also set out by the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security. Regarding Iran's plutonium track, Kittrie bluntly stated that Iran must "verifiably halt all construction, as [it] is already required to do by several UN Security Council resolutions," in order to guarantee that it is not making progress toward a nuclear weapon.
- An air strike in Yemen today killed three suspected Al Qaeda-linked militants, according to tribal leaders in the area. Instability has been risked becoming endemic in the country since the fall of Yemen's dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh nearly two years ago. A transition sponsored and supported by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has been halting. The country's political situation is complicated by at last two insurgencies. In the south there has been an ongoing terror campaign by Al Qaeda targeting government and military institutions. In the north the Iran-backed Houthi separatist movement, which also opposes Yemen's central government, has been fighting. Iran's interference in Yemen's affairs has brought rebukes from Yemen's highest echelons. Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qibri, both during a speech before the United Nations General Assembly in September and more recently in an interview, blasted foreign interference. Earlier this month USA Today conveyed reports that Iran's Lebanese terror proxy Hezbollah was also involved in destabilizing the country.
AP diplomatic correspondent: Obama administration outreach to Senate might have been "coup de grace for Iran talks"
- AP diplomatic correspondent: Obama administration outreach to Senate might have been "coup de grace for Iran talks"
- Analysts: Israel "right to be wary," has "good reason to worry" over Iran deal terms
- Israeli soldier stabbed to death by Palestinian terrorist amid Hamas terror rebuilding, Fatah incitement spike
- Palestinian peace process team resigns amid growing questions of political readiness
What we’re watching today:
- Obama administration officials dispatched to the Hill today to explain the White House's approach to Iran negotiations largely failed to reassure senators, with the Associated Press's Matthew Lee summing up a Banking Committee meeting that included Secretary of State John Kerry and Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman as perhaps a "coup de grace for Iran talks." Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) walked out of the meeting and blasted administration officials in general and Sherman in particular, accusing the White House of taking a "Chamberlain"-style approach to negotiations and of promoting "anti-Israel" statements in response to Israeli assessments that the deal recently offered to Iran would only "set back the [Iranian nuclear] program about 24 days." Meanwhile the administration is facing the possibility that it is courting political controversy by accusing lawmakers who are pushing for sanctions of placing the U.S. on a "march to war" with Iran. Former Democratic Nevada Congresswoman Shelley Berkley went public with her concerns over the deal today and called for new pressure until a final settlement is achieved. Berkley, who is a member of the Board of Directors of The Israel Project, took to the pages of the Las Vegas Review Journal and bluntly stated that "now is the time to increase the pressure, not withdraw it."
- Analysts continue to debate the details of the failed deal proposed last weekend between the international community and Iran, discussing both the substantive concerns of skeptics and the political consequences of what was very early on described by critics as over-eagerness by the Obama administration to cut a deal at any cost. An extensive analysis published on Monday by TIME World had already assessed that "experts say Israel is right to be wary" of the contours of the deal, which would have allowed Iran to continue bolstering the elements that it needs for constructing both uranium and plutonium-based nuclear bombs. TIME describes a series of conference calls hosted by The Israel Project (TIP) in which experts outlined the mechanics of Iran's nuclear program and what would constitute an Iranian drive for a nuclear weapon. Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director of the United Nation's International Atomic Energy Agency, had explained on a TIP call how Iran's stockpile of 3 percent enriched uranium was "something like 60 percent" of the way toward weapons-grade levels, while David Albright, the head of the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security, had assessed on another TIP call how Iran could go nuclear in "as little as a month." Yesterday Patrick Clawson and Mehdi Khalaji, respectively the director of research and a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, published an opinion piece in the Washington Post outlining fears that "Khamenei has been laying the groundwork to walk away from any deal by warning that the West is untrustworthy and will not deliver on its promises," and that "Israel has good reason to worry" that Tehran will pocket whatever concessions the West offers and then violate signed agreements.
- A 19-year-old Israeli soldier was stabbed to death this morning on an Israeli bus by a 16-year-old Palestinian terrorist, sustaining several wounds to his neck and chest and eventually succumbing to his injuries after being admitted to to a hospital. In what one Twitter commenter described as "affirmation," the Twitter channel of Hamas's al-Qassam Brigades posted a childhood picture of the murdered Israeli teenager. The attack comes amid both concentrated efforts by Hamas to rebuild its terror infrastructure in the West Bank - the Palestinian terror group has been largely stymied in the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, and so may be shifting its focus to the territory - and a wave of incitement by Hamas's rival, the Palestinian Fatah faction. The Jerusalem Post today published assessments from Israeli intelligence officials describing "an elevated risk of armed terror attacks" in the West Bank town of Hebron. Israeli soldiers last week seized a large cache of ammunition and arrested two Palestinians on security charges in the area. An unnamed intelligence officer told the Post that the cache represented only "a small drop in the bucket" of arms flowing through the Hebron region.
- Reuters late Wednesday conveyed reports that the Palestinian delegation charged with negotiating opposite Israel had resigned and cited for its resignation Israeli construction within communities beyond the Jewish state's 1948 armistice lines. The move comes despite both the cancellation of previously announced massive building plans by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the brute fact that until a few years ago Palestinian negotiators had for decades conducted talks while Israel bolstered such communities. For their part the Israelis have recently released two batches of Palestinian prisoners convicted of murder as goodwill gestures designed to jump-start and maintain negotiations. The most recent was done despite a wave of Palestinian incitement and in the absence of reciprocal Palestinian gestures, and was particularly politically controversial. The Israel Project yesterday hosted a conference call with Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in which he described systemic problems - with endemic Palestinian Authority (PA) corruption being among the most trenchant - that have undercut efforts to create robust and sustainable institutions in the West Bank. The audio for the call is here.
Failed Iran talks refocus debate on Iranian plutonium activity, risks of "ruse" that would activate reactor
- Failed Iran talks refocus debate on Iranian plutonium activity, risks of "ruse" that would activate reactor
- Unknown political fallout after White House implies sanctions votes would put U.S. on "march to war" with Iran
- Analysts: One year after Israeli military campaign, Hamas in "one of its worst positions since its founding"
- Reuters expose describes "massive financial empire" built by Iranian Supreme Leader
What we’re watching today:
- Various theories on why last weekend's negotiations with Iran failed to bridge differences between Tehran and the international community continued to swirl today, with some new reports pointing to Iranian demands that the West acknowledge that it has a right to enrich uranium - it doesn't - and others emphasizing French concerns over Iran's demand it be allowed to continue bolstering its plutonium facility at Arak. The Arak complex has a heavy water production facility and a heavy water reactor, and once the reactor goes "hot" it can't be destroyed but will produce two bombs worth of plutonium per year. Writing in the Huffington Post yesterday, Foundation for Defense of Democracies scholar Michael Ledeen emphasized that while "France wants a deal with Iran," Paris has a decade-long history of rejecting deals that it is convinced are "destined to fail." French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was reported as having rejected a planned deal with Iran as a "sucker’s deal" due to terms related to Arak, which would have allowed Iran to continue developing Arak as long as they didn't activate the reactor. But Tehran had already acknowledged that it wasn't going to activate the reactor until mid-to-late 2014. Even more dangerously, Iran would have been allowed to run tests during the interim period, amid analyst concerns - based on bizarre Iranian descriptions of how the tests would be conducted - that the trial runs will be a ruse to turn the reactor on. Dr. Bruno Tertrais, senior Research Fellow at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique (FRS), advised observers on Saturday to understand the French position by starting with “the Strange Tale of Dummy Fuel Assemblies and Light Water Testing.”
- Politico late tonight published analysis describing various Senate views on legislation that would "slap an immediate new round of sanctions on Iran," a day before Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew are set to brief senators on last weekend's failed negotiations in Geneva and hours after White House Press Secretary Jay Carney implied - according to the Los Angeles Times - that lawmakers pushing for new sanctions against Iran were putting Washington on "a march to war." Carney also declared, again per the Los Angeles Times, that American citizens may "turn their anger on lawmakers" who seek to increase the kind of financial pressure on the Islamic republic that the administration until recently was emphasizing had coerced Iranian leaders into seeking compromise. Iranian state media picked up and rebroadcast Carney's statements both in print and on television, stating that Carney had "warned Congress, which is currently mulling tougher sanctions on Iran... that opposing a deal with Tehran could lead to war." It is not known whether any of the 178 House Democrats who voted in July to increase sanctions on Iran were briefed beforehand about the White House stance.
- Analysts and diplomats used the one-year anniversary of Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense - which was launched against terror groups in the Gaza Strip after months in which Palestinian groups had escalated both the amount and the sophistication of weapons fired at Israel - to unpack a marked deterioration in Hamas's position since the campaign. The week-long operation last November has been described by observers as a clinic in how to wage modern urban warfare, with Israel substantially degrading the Palestinian terror group's command and control infrastructure. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today toured the Israeli Defense Force's Gaza Division and noted that rocket attacks from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip had dropped 98 percent in the last year, totaling to just 35 instances, most of which had "been ineffective." David Barnett, a research associate at Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), yesterday published an extended analysis of Hamas's position a year after Pillar of Defense. Barnett assessed that "a year later, Hamas is in one of its worst positions since its founding in 1987" and that Israeli statements asserting that Jerusalem had established a deterrent against attacks from Gaza have "been largely true." Hamas is nonetheless known to be positioning itself for an upsurge in violence, and FDD Vice President of Research Jonathan Schanzer has called for the U.S. and its allies to strike a financial death blow to the organization before it can reconsolidate.
- Reuters is in the midst of publishing a three-part investigative expose on the "massive financial empire" created by Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei, who among other things guided an organization ostensibly dedicated to assisting the poor into amassing tens of billions of dollars and inserting itself into "nearly every sector" of Iran's economy including "finance, oil, telecommunications, the production of birth-control pills and even ostrich farming." The first part of the series details how property seizures conducted by Setad Ejraiye Farmane Hazrate Emam – Headquarters for Executing the Order of the Imam - enabled the organization to "become one of the most powerful organizations in Iran" and to acquire holdings across Iran's economy. Setad was allowed by Khamenei to confiscate and then leverage the real estate of thousands of properties owned by religious minorities and Iranians living abroad, until today it "holds a court-ordered monopoly on taking property in the name of the supreme leader, and regularly sells the seized properties at auction or seeks to extract payments from the original owners." The second part of the series details how Setad's diversification across the Iranian economy - a chart developed by the organization and leaked to Reuters is posted here - has "provide[d] an independent source of revenue and patronage for Supreme Leader Khamenei" despite Western efforts to squeeze the Iranian economy.
- Kerry to brief Senate on Iran talks amid widespread criticism of Iran diplomacy
- Four Hezbollah fighters killed in Syria as analysts worry group expanding to "entire Middle East"
- Hamas blames rival Palestinian Fatah faction for Gaza Strip fuel shortages, power outages
- Egypt to let curfew expire, permit Muslim Brotherhood-linked group to participate politically
What we’re watching today:
- Efforts by the international community to secure an interim agreement with Iran regarding Tehran's nuclear program floundered this weekend after Iran reportedly refused to yield on demands that global powers recognize its "right" to enrich uranium, a claim consistently rejected by analysts, U.S. lawmakers, and journalists. The collapse of the talks triggered worries that Iran was not ready to realistically address international concerns regarding its program, as well as calls for further financial pressure to change the regime's calculus. Reports late in the day indicated that the Senate will wait for a Wednesday briefing by Secretary of State John Kerry before advancing sanctions legislation. The State Department's approach to the talks has come under withering criticism in the last 48 hours, with analysts and lawmakers insisting that U.S. diplomats gave away too much too easily. Calculations conducted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) estimated that the offer being given to Iran would have restored roughly $20 billion to Tehran. Iran would have been allowed to continue enriching uranium and building centrifuges - which could have been activated at the end of the interim period, swamping whatever concessions Iran made in the meantime - and bolstering its plutonium complex at Arak. The Daily Beast had revealed earlier in the week that the Obama administration had been quietly easing financial pressure since the election of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. The result, according to Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, was that the administration ended up getting badly outmaneuvered. Critics particularly focused on overeager signals sent by Washington. The Telegraph had already described a White House meeting that "ended with officials admitting that a 'bad deal is better than no deal.'" Michael Doran, a senior fellow at Brookings, over the weekend blasted Kerry for "rush[ing] to Geneva when a deal wasn't ready" and making the U.S. "consistently look too eager." The Iranians may have been able to leverage U.S. eagerness. The Jerusalem Post reported on Saturday that the U.S. actually got pushed off the plan with which it came into the talks.
- Four Hezbollah members were recently killed in Syria "while carrying out their sacred Jihadist duty," according to claims posted Saturday to a website aligned with the Iran-backed terror group. The declarations come amid reports that Hezbollah is taking the lead in organizing what is expected to be a massive campaign on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime to secure Qalamoun, a strategic corridor between Damascus and Lebanon. Hezbollah fighters have in recent months been critical in allowing the regime to steadily erode nearly two years of rebel gains, and more specifically in enabling the regime to wrest control of what had been the rebel stronghold of Qusayr. USA Today late last week published analysis outlining how Hezbollah is "expanding networks and deployment of fighters from Lebanon to the entire Middle East as part of its deepening alliance with Iran," and how that expansion is being done for sectarian reasons and justified in sectarian terms. The BBC over the weekend quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif warning that sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites "probably the most serious threat to world security."
- The Associated Press reported over the weekend that widespread power outages throughout the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip were the result of "political infighting" between rival Palestinian groups, which had in turn led to a fuel shortage, which had in turn negatively impacted the territory's only power plant. A Hamas spokesman specifically blamed the Palestinian Fatah faction that controls the West Bank for imposing new taxes on fuel it provides, echoing claims that Hamas made weeks ago at the beginning of the crisis. Analysts at the time had rolled their eyes at the accusations, calling them "insane" and noting that the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority "pays for [the fuel] with donor funds, Hamas bills Gazans for it, and then pockets the cash." Instead Hamas is being accused of repeating a tactic the group used in 2008 and deliberately attempting to manufacture a humanitarian crisis by blacking out the Gaza Strip. There have been intermittent media attempts to frame whatever fuel shortage might exist as the fault of Israeli policies, though those have proven difficult to sustain inasmuch as Israel continues to supply electricity to the Gaza Strip.
- Egyptian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim announced today that Cairo will allow a three-month curfew to expire as scheduled this Thursday, the latest in a series of gestures from the country's army-backed interim government that observers hope mark a trend toward expanding civil liberties. Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy revealed last Friday that the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, would be allowed to take part in upcoming parliamentary elections. The curfew had been one of several security measures imposed as security officials tried to contain the spike in violence that followed the army's moves against Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-linked former president Mohammed Morsi. The government had meanwhile in parallel sought to decapitate the Brotherhood's leadership hierarchy and uproot the group from Egyptian institutions.