- Syrian opposition attacks Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite forces in Damascus
- Iran disappears seventeen after raid on "network of homosexuals and Satanists"
- Murder of Israeli retired colonel is third murder, fourth terror attack by Palestinians in recent days
- Israeli military conducts long-range flight exercises as Iran brushes off U.S. "no enrichment" condition
What we’re watching today:
- Opposition forces battling to overthrow Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime launched an attack Thursday on regime-allied forces - drawn from Iraq and Syria, and fortified near a Shiite shrine in Damascus - underscoring the regional and sectarian dimensions of what Reuters described as "an increasingly internationalized conflict." Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite forces stationed in the Saida Zainab suburb of Damascus were attacked with mortar and gunfire, as rebel leaders struggled to launch a counter-attack in response to the loss of several Damascus suburbs over recent days. Hezbollah's role in the Syrian conflict has also come under heightened scrutiny in recent days. A video posted online appeared to show Hezbollah soldiers pulling severely wounded Syrian rebels out of vans and executing them, possibly during the Iran-backed terror group's fighting in Qusayr, where Hezbollah support was critical in the regime's successful efforts to seize control. Blowback from Hezbollah's entanglement - which has included both opposition strikes on Hezbollah positions and jihadist attacks on Hezbollah-dominated Shiite neighborhoods - has shattered Hezbollah's image as an indigenous Lebanese party promoting Lebanese interests. The group is rumored to be partially withdrawing from Lebanon, though sources who spoke to Lebanon's Daily Star yesterday were explicit and adamant that the group is remaining inside Syria.
- A Tuesday night raid at a birthday celebration in Iran resulted in the arrest of what regime officials described as "a network of homosexuals and Satanists," according to an announcement issued Thursday by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. The arrested Iranians - among whom were people "who had tattoos, make-up, or were wearing rainbow bracelets," - were blindfolded and taken to an unknown location. LGBT outlet Queerty covered the story and noted that "in Iran, anyone suspected or confirmed of being gay, or being associated with homosexuality in any way, can be punished," including by death, and that the "arrests have prompted more alarm over the treatment of LGBT people in the Islamic republic." The arrests underscore systematic human rights abuses routinely conducted by the regime. Anti-regime activists have blasted Iranian president Hassan Rouhani for a wave of executions that have occurred since his election, and Green movement figures have called attention to the ongoing imprisonment of political prisoners. Observers are unsure whether Rouhani is able or willing to moderate Iran's human rights abuses. The revolutionary-era cleric has in the past called for the mass incarceration and execution of political dissidents.
- A retired Israeli colonel was bludgeoned to death overnight by two Palestinians wielding iron bars and axes, the latest in a string of deadly terror attacks that have generated fears that a spike in violence against Israelis is being deliberately driven both by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its rival Hamas. Recent weeks have also seen two other Israelis killed by Palestinians, and a nine-year-old girl was shot last week by attackers who approached her family's home. Top-ranking PA officials, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, have among other things paid tribute to convicted terrorists, praised them on social media, and called on terrorists to launch attacks on Israelis. Meanwhile, in a statement on Wednesday, senior Hamas leader Husam Badran also called for renewed violence against Israelis. Analysts have linked what Jerusalem Post National Security reporter Yaakov Lappin describes as an "unmistakable increase" in attacks to Hamas's efforts to rebuild its terror infrastructure in the West Bank. Those efforts, according to U.S.-based counterterrorism specialists and Hamas's own material, are being orchestrated out of Turkey.
- The Israeli military on Thursday made a point of highlighting a "special long-range flight exercise," posting footage of the drill online and allowing journalists to draw their own conclusions as Iran prepares to offer a basket of concessions that fall far short of what analysts have said would be required to put nuclear weapons out of the regime's reach. Jerusalem has consistently said that it will act alone if necessary to prevent nuclear weapons acquisition by Iran, a country whose top leaders have repeatedly called for the Jewish state's annihilation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave interviews yesterday and today to a series of European outlets, warning of the dangers of offering a "bad deal," which the prime minister described as "a partial agreement which lifts sanctions off Iran and leaves them with the ability to enrich uranium or to continue work on their heavy water plutonium." Meeting with Netanyahu last month, President Barack Obama reaffirmed that that the U.S. was keeping all options on the table in order to force Iran to meet its international obligations, while National Security Advisor Susan Rice clarified that the U.S. would not accept any deal that allowed Iran to continue enriching uranium. Iranian officials have repeatedly brushed off the U.S. condition, emphasizing what they describe as an "absolute right" to enrich uranium.
- White House decision to reduce Egypt assistance blasted by Middle East allies, Congress
- Top Lebanon leader: Hezbollah trying to spark "another front with Israel" by generating maritime drilling crisis
- Iran dissident group: Iran moving nuke infrastructure to secure locations
Iran telecom chief doubles down on social media ban, after Foreign Minister laughs off hypocrisy charges
What we’re watching today:
- White House officials announced Wednesday night that the Obama administration will substantially curtail assistance to Egypt - among other things by withholding delivery on high-priority military items such as F-16 fighter jets, Apache helicopters, M1 tanks, and Harpoon missiles - but that they aspired, according to the Washington Post, "to maintain a robust military and diplomatic partnership with Egypt." Analysts and diplomats are divided on the degree to which Washington would be able to limit be able to contain the political and diplomatic fallout from the decision, which CNN described as "a dramatic shift toward a major Arab ally." The Wall Street Journal described frustration and anger across the Arab world, both within Egypt - where officials noted that the U.S.'s critical, preferential access to the Suez Canal may have to be "adjusted" - and more broadly among the U.S.'s Arab allies. A diplomat "from an Arab country closely allied with Washington" was described a new regional reality in which "more and more voices which say America is no longer someone you can rely on, or someone who really counts in the Middle East." Arab concerns that the U.S. was endangering its relationship with a critical ally, and that Washington was more generally withdrawing from the Middle East, were echoed by Israeli officials. The New York Times quoted one official as worrying that the move will be seen "as the United States dropping a friend." The National Journal chronicled a range of broad, bipartisan anger in the United States under the headline "Congress slams Obama team on Egypt aid decision." Washington Institute fellow and Egypt expert Eric Trager described the decision, which came after months of White House discomfort at the Egyptian army's move to remove the country's former Muslim Brotherhood-linked president Mohammed Morsi from power, as based on "a fundamental misunderstanding of what transpired in Egypt this past summer."
- A top Lebanese leader today slammed Hezbollah for trying to create "another front with Israel" by escalating tensions revolving around underwater energy resources near the country's coast. Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea blasted the Iran-backed terror group for using the "oil portfolio... to give a legal justification to the existence of [its] illegal weapons." Caretaker Energy Minister Gebran Bassil, a politician from the Hezbollah-allied Free Patriotic Movement, has pushed to allow energy companies to bid on exploring contested maritime 'blocks' near the Israeli-Lebanese border. The move is a de facto claim of sovereignty over the contested territory, and - per the Israeli daily financial newspaper Globes - "international law experts say that Israeli is liable to lose territory if it does not object to the Lebanese acts in court, or even militarily." Observers in Lebanon fear that Hezbollah is seeking to provoke a violent confrontation with Israel so as to restore its brand as a "resistance" organization battling the Jewish state. That image of Hezbollah - which was echoed for decades by Tehran and in certain corners of the Western foreign policy community - has been shattered by the group's fighting on behalf of Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Hezbollah seems to be setting up a narrative, in the context of off-shore drilling, that would allow it to claim it is defending Lebanese territory against the Jewish state's intrusions. Today it warned that Lebanon's oil and gas sector was "becoming vulnerable to Israeli piracy" by the "deliberate obstruction of issuing licenses."
- An Iranian dissident group is accusing Tehran of moving nuclear infrastructure to new facilities in order to avoid detection, just days before Tehran is scheduled to meet with Western powers in a bid to resolve a decades-long crisis over the opacity of its nuclear program. The Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which Reuters describes as having "exposed Iran's uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and a heavy water [plutonium] facility at Arak," said that infrastructure from a nuclear weaponization research and planning center that it dubs SPND are being moved to nearby defense ministry complex. The accusation will refocus attention on what both the American intelligence community and the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog believe to be perhaps more than a dozen undisclosed nuclear facilities scattered around Iran. The amount and sophistication of centrifuges at Tehran's disposal are critical variables in debates over what concessions Iran must make in order to meet the half-dozen United Nations Security Council resolutions calling on the country to verifiably halt its nuclear weapons program. U.S. lawmakers and analysts have called on Iran to among other things halt all uranium enrichment and plutonium-related activity, and to export all enriched material oversees. Iran is expected to arrive at the upcoming October 15 talks in Geneva with a basket of concessions that would allow the regime to continue enriching material up to 3.5%, and to remove known material already enriched to 20% from the country. Analysts have consistently outlined, however, that permitting Iran to retain 3.5% enriched material would still allow it to dash across the nuclear finish line. These scenarios would require Iran to use only existing, known facilities. That Iran is broadly suspected of possessing additional unknown facilities further complicates any deal that would allow Tehran to retain any enriched material or enrichment capacity. Top State Department officials have repeatedly said in the context of Iran negotiations that "no deal is better than a bad deal."
- AFP reports that Iran's Telecommunications Minister Mahmoud Vaezi rejected this week "any official plans to legalise Facebook and Twitter," and - when asked why some Iranian officials maintain accounts on the social media networks - tersely responded that "you should ask them." Vaezi's statement came just weeks after what Iranian authorities described as a technical "glitch" briefly gave Iranian citizens access to banned sites, and which was hailed by Western journalists as potentially "the start of a more tolerant attitude towards social media by the government" and "Iran’s Berlin Wall of internet censorship crumbling down." The ban was reimposed within a day. Last month Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif – who maintains a verified Twitter account as well as a Facebook page – laughed off David Keyes, executive director of Advancing Human Rights, when Keyes pushed him on whether he thought it was ironic that he enjoys posting on Facebook while his government bans the website in Iran. Writing in the Daily Beast, Keyes describes Zarif as responding "Ha! Ha!... That’s life."
- WSJ reveals Iran negotiation offer that falls well short of clear U.S. demands
- Amid broad criticism of Egypt aid cut-off, White House scrambles to deny report it is zeroing out assistance
- Turkey PM and FM meet for three hours with top Hamas figures, including West Bank terror chief
- Iran FM claims fabricated quotes from hardliners put him in the hospital
What we’re watching today:
- The Wall Street Journal reports that Iran is preparing a package of proposals that it will offer the West at upcoming talks that falls short of demands explicitly laid out by the White House and the State Department in recent weeks. The Iranian offer will reportedly offer, among other concessions, to remove 20% enriched uranium from the country's borders while continuing to enrich to 3.5% purity. Regarding ongoing enrichment, National Security Adviser Susan Rice had been explicit that the administration would not accept any deal under which Iran would be allowed to "enrich its own uranium." Moreover, Iran's demand that it continue to possess 3.5% enriched uranium would leave the regime with the option of dashing across the nuclear finish line before the West could intervene; because of advanced enrichment technology that Iran has installed in recent years, Iranian scientists can enrich to weapons-grade levels starting from 3.5% in the same time it once would have taken to enrich from 20%. Instead, U.S. lawmakers have consistently insisted that Iran must fulfill its obligations to the international community to fully dismantle its nuclear program - requirements codified in half a dozen United Nations Security Council resolutions - before sanctions are diluted. Meeting those obligations would require Iran to export all enriched material out the country, cease uranium enrichment and plutonium-related activity, and boost transparency around suspected weaponization work. Top State Department figures, including Secretary of State John Kerry, have repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. will opt for no deal rather than a bad deal with Iran.
- The White House last night scrambled to deny reports aired on CNN asserting that the administration was moving toward zeroing out military aid toward Egypt. As they did last month when the same policy suggestion was floated, analysts questioned the logic behind such a decision. An August New York Times article had already outlined critical ways in which the U.S. leverages U.S.-Egyptian ties, including by gaining "near-automatic approval for military overflights" and being allowed "to cut to the front of the line through the Suez Canal in times of crisis." Council on Foreign Relations Fellow Steven Cook noted last night that cutting aid would not "make Egypt more democratic and less violent," while Robert Satloff - the executive director of the Washington Institute - described a cut-off as a "terrible mistake" that would confirm perceptions that the U.S. was pro-Muslim Brotherhood. Satloff's worry echoed increasing fears in the region that the U.S. is distancing itself from a solidifying Israeli/Arab bloc made up of the U.S.'s Mediterranean and Gulf allies, which aligned opposite to two other emerging Middle East camps: a Shiite one led by Iran and a Sunni extremist one that includes the Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy recently worried that relations between Cairo and Washington had grown "troubled." Saudi Arabia this week reaffirmed its support for Cairo's army-backed interim government.
- Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met yesterday with top officials drawn from what Hamas describes as its political and military operations, with a Hamas statement confirming the attendance of among others Khaled Mashaal and Ankara-based Saleh al-Arouri. The Doha-based Mashaal and Ankara-based Arouri are respectively the terror group's political bureau head and the founder of Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, its armed wing, in the West Bank. The three-hour session included other top Turkish figures, including Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. U.S.-based analysts and counterterror specialists read the meeting against a percipitous decline in Mashaal's standing within Hamas, and more specifically against rumors that he might be seeking to relocate to Ankara. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, suggested that giving Mashaal shelter would be "particularly risky" for Turkey, given that it is already under scrutiny for allowing Arouri to operate on Turkish soil even as the Hamas figure is suspected of orchestrating a Hamas terror resurgence in the West Bank. The freedom that Turkey permits Arouri may, according to Schanzer, qualify Ankara as a state sponsor of terrorism.
- Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif briefly checked himself into a hospital yesterday, citing physical pain caused by what he insists were fabricated statements - attributed to him by a hardline Iranian newspaper - in which Zarif was quoted walking back diplomatic overtures to the U.S. made by himself and by Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. Specifically, Zarif was quoted by the Kayhan daily describing two moves - a phone call between Rouhani and President Barack Obama as well as a meeting between Zarif and Secretary of State John Kerry - as "missteps." Untangling what exactly happened is difficult. Rouhani's phone call was criticized by Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as "not appropriate," and Zarif may have been forced into a humiliating apology, which he subsequently denied. It would not be the first time since Rouhani's election that Iranian officials have engaged in a two-step regarding Western engagement, reaping the global publicity benefits of seeming moderate while acting and talking differently inside Iran. Western media outlets have in recent weeks optimistically conveyed: a post from a Twitter account linked to Rouhani wishing Jews a happy New Year, the temporary lifting of Internet restrictions on Iranian citizens, and an offer by Iran to close its underground enrichment military bunker at Fordow. Each of those was quickly walked back. Rouhani's office denied he was linked to the tweet, Internet restrictions were quickly reimposed, and the offer regarding Fordow was officially quashed. Zarif's outreach and denial may belong on this list. Alternatively, the quotes attributed to Zarif may indeed have been completely fabricated by the hardline Iranian newspaper. In that case, it's difficult to see how Zarif is going to stand up to the hardline Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) when antics by newspapers give him the vapors. The head of the IRGC said Monday that Rouhani should have refused to take the September phone call from Obama.
Iranian FM doubles down on "absolute right" to enrich uranium, walks back diplomatic outreach to U.S. because of Khamenei criticism
- Iranian FM doubles down on "absolute right" to enrich uranium, walks back diplomatic outreach to U.S. because of Khamenei criticism
- Hamas in political disarray as pro-Iran figure seeks to oust political bureau head
- Israeli Home Front Defense Minister: Hezbollah has "over 200,000 missiles capable of hitting any house in Israel"
- North Korea saber-rattling underscores concerns over Iran diplomatic strategy
What we’re watching today:
- Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Monday doubled down on what Tehran is calling its "absolute right" to enrich uranium, potentially putting Iran on a collision course with U.S. diplomats as the two sides prepare for next week's multilateral P5+1 nuclear talks in Geneva. National Security Adviser Susan Rice had already said last week that the administration would not accept any deal that permitted Iran to continue enriching uranium, and the State Department subsequently stated multiple times that it considers no deal better than a deal that falls short of U.S. demands. Zarif this week also walked back diplomatic steps that had been taken in New York between Iranian figures and their U.S. counterparts. More specifically, Zarif had met with Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had spoken on the phone with President Barack Obama. The overtures were criticized by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and Zarif declared - explicitly on the basis of those criticisms - that he and Rouhani had exceeded their mandate for diplomacy. The admission is likely to deepen fears that Rouhani may have overstated the case when he told NBC News in a September interview that he had "complete authority" from Khamenei to conduct diplomacy with the West. The Supreme Leader controls Iran's nuclear policy, and has clarified that whatever authority he has given Rouhani to negotiate, it does not include anything that would impede the "advancement and realization of the Islamic Revolution and System."
- Top Hamas officials are expressing deep dissatisfaction with Khaled Meshaal, the head of the terror group's political bureau, for bungling the group's relationship with Iran and for thereby contributing to the worst crisis the organization has faced in decades. Veteran Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar yesterday night published remarkable quotes from Hamas figures blasting Meshaal for living in Qatar rather than in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, a proxy for overall dissatisfaction with his leadership. Recent years had seen the solidification of three regional camps: a Sunni extremist bloc made up of the Muslim Brotherhood/Turkey/Qatar, an Israel-Arab bloc aligned with the United States, and an Iran-led Shiite bloc that included Syria and Hezbollah. Meshaal had sought to align Hamas with the Sunni extremist camp, a gamble that failed to pay off as the Muslim Brotherhood collpased in Egypt and Qatar's regional position weakened. Inside Gaza a rival camp has emerged led by Mahmoud al-Zahar, who is pro-Iran to such a degree that he had already become persona non grata in Egypt before the Muslim Brotherhood was removed from power. It is unclear whether even reconciliation with Iran - which is already underway - can quickly restore Hamas's stature. Analysis published today by Orit Perlov, a research fellow at the Israel-based Institute for National Security Studies, puts the group on the brink of all-out collapse. Perlov's analysis echoes that of Washington Institute Fellow Ehud Yaari, who in July argued that diplomatic missteps and economic dislocation had triggered "one of its most testing crises ever" for Hamas. Officials from the group have themselves been forced to acknowledge that "the situation is not good and of course we are under pressure." Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has called on U.S. policymakers to deliver a deathblow to the now-weakened terror group.
- Hezbollah reportedly has more than "200,000 missiles capable of hitting any house in Israel," according to statements made on Tuesday by the country's Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan. Speaking at a conference at Bar-Ilan University, Erdan sketched out a "worst-case scenario" under which Hezbollah would saturation bomb Israel's densely packed population centers with "thousands of rockets that could last three weeks." Matthew Levitt, the director of the Washington Institute's Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, noted that Erdan's 200,000 figure - if confirmed - would constitute "a sharp increase" over assets Hezbollah had previously been thought to possess. Erdan's statements came just days after a Lebanese report suggested that Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime had successfully transferred to Hezbollah long-range weapons capable of carrying chemical warheads. Khaled Zaher, of the anti-Hezbollah movement Future, told a Saudi newspaper that a significant number of such missiles been transferred from Syria to Lebanon with the assistance of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
- North Korea announced today that it was placing its military on high alert, warning the United States of "disastrous consequences" and an "unexpected horrible disaster" after the U.S. moved naval assets, including an aircraft carrier, into a South Korean port. The vessels are in the area for a trilateral search and rescue drill with the South Korea and Japanese navies. Pyongyang's regional posture and its nuclear program have received renewed attention in recent weeks, with analysts highlighting similarities between Iran's current diplomatic strategy and the playbook that North Korea used to stall for time while it dashed across the nuclear finish line. Yesterday Claudia Rosett, a journalist-in-residence at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, extensively documented the parallels, noting that "[n]ot only does North Korea offer terror-sponsoring Iran a model of how to get away with going nuclear, but the two have plenty of direct dealings." Iran has extensively funded North Korea's military program, to the point where the Washington Post suggested last March that Pyongyang may have used Iranian materials for a nuclear bomb it detonated in February. Ties between the two rogue regimes go beyond military cooperation, and a recent meeting of labor ministers from the two countries sought to deepen their alliance across the board.
- West Bank attack on Israeli nine year old shifts focus to Palestinian incitement
- "Brazen attacks" on Egyptian security forces follow weekend of violence between Morsi supporters, opponents
- Fears of Palestinian scorched earth campaign deepen after UNESCO targets Israel
- Israeli analysts: new Iran diplomacy gambit may be "the last opportunity" before force required
What we’re watching today:
- A nine year old Israeli girl was shot and wounded this weekend by attackers she described as masked gunmen who approached her family's house in the Israeli community of Psagot. The incident comes a week after Palestinians killed two Israelis in two separate incidents, deepening fears - already aired in the aftermath of those murders - that incitement by official Palestinian organs was driving a spike of violence in the West Bank. Jerusalem Post national security reporter Yaakov Lappin described the environment as marked by "an unmistakable increase in violent attacks" by Palestinians against Israelis. Following the Saturday evening attack in Psagot, the Facebook page of the Palestinian Fatah faction praised the shooter, declaring that "the sniper of Palestine was here... he left a signature of [real] men." The incitement echoed other recent statements from the organization and its top officials, including statements glorifying convicted terrorists, calls for further attacks against Israelis, and claims that Jews are endangering Muslim holy sites.
- At least eight Egyptian security officials were killed today in what the New York Times described as "three brazen attacks," a day after at least 53 people killed in clashes between supporters of opponents of Egypt's former Muslim Brotherhood-linked president Mohammed Morsi. Six soldiers were killed in a drive-by shooting near Cairo just hours after car bomb exploded Monday at a Southern Sinai security headquarter, and multiple grenades also hit a compound on the outskirts of Cairo that houses Egypt’s telecommunications center. Cairo's army-backed government is struggling to curtail a wave of attacks against civilian and military institutions conducted both by Brotherhood members and by Al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups which have taken root in the Sinai Peninsula. U.S. military assistance has proven critical in those efforts.
- Fears that Palestinian officials have politicized a once-credible United Nations organization deepened last Friday, after the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) passed no less than six anti-Israel resolutions. Nimrod Barkan, Israel’s envoy to the body, called the resolutions part of UNESCO's recent "obsession" with Israel. The Palestinians ascended to UNESCO in 2011 over U.S. objections, triggering U.S. sanctions that financially crippled the organization. Palestinian diplomats almost immediately moved to orient UNESCO in an anti-Israel direction, launching an initiative revolving around the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem that also drew broad condemnation. The combination is part of what observers increasingly worry is a diplomatic scorched-earth style campaign being conducted by Palestinians diplomats: hijacking international forums to promote anti-Israel diplomacy at the expense of those forums' viability and credibility. A largely symbolic Palestinian push last year to gain non-member statehood status via the United Nations General Assembly (UNHRC) was criticized by U.S. lawmakers for politicizing the body. The campaign was also conducted in defiance of the United States and endangered critical U.S. funding.Even more pointedly, anti-Israel diplomacy conducted by rogue regimes inside the United Nations Human Rights Council has made that body a diplomatic punchline. Brett Schaefer, a fellow at the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, has already outlined how the Palestinians have tried to mirror their moves in the UNGA and the UNHRC inside the International Criminal Court (ICC).
- Israeli analysts are warning that a series of expected upcoming nuclear talks between Iran and the West may be "the last opportunity" for the parties to reach a nuclear deal "before Israel concludes that time has run out, that Iran has gotten too close to creating its first atomic bombs, and that the time for a military strike has arrived." The next round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 are schedule for next week in Geneva. An ongoing charm offensive by Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has been praised for changing Iran's tone toward the West, but criticized for offering zero new concessions that might move negotiations forward. Questions continue to swirl regarding whether Rouhani is willing or able to fundamentally change Tehran's stance on its nuclear program. Recent days have seen renewed focus on an interview with Rouhani, filmed earlier this year, in which the revolutionary-era cleric bragged that Iran was able to leverage negotiations he conducted in the 2000's to develop Iran's nuclear infrastructure. Tehran's stance on its nuclear program is in any case set by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has clarified that whatever room for negotiations he has given Rouhani, it stops short of anything that would prevent Iran from "advancement and realization of the Islamic Revolution and System."
Israel's intelligence service, the Shabak, just published its monthly report on terrorism. There were 133 terror attacks. 2 soldiers were murdered - one was kidnapped and killed by his Palestinian co-worker and a second was killed by a sniper while he was protecting Jewish worshipers. Palestinian officials refused to condemn the killings. Click on the infographic below to see the full image, in TIP’s Flickr gallery.
U.S. lawmakers: Softening Iran sanctions a "European appeasement policy," "no optimism" in upcoming talks
- U.S. lawmakers: Softening Iran sanctions a "European appeasement policy," "no optimism" in upcoming talks
- Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood gears up for Sunday protests by comparing military to Hitler, Nero
- Iran crisis driving Israeli-Arab talks, prompting talk of deepening Middle East blocs
- Turkey "highly likely" to go through on China arms deal despite U.S. and NATO criticism
What we’re watching today:
- Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) on Wednesday blasted any moves to soften sanctions on Iran as a "European appeasement policy" that would boost Tehran even as "the world's leading sponsor of terrorism races toward a nuclear weapons capability." Buzzfeed notes that several other lawmakers today also expressed "skepticism" toward calls to delay new sanctions until after the next round of nuclear talks between the West and Iran, currently scheduled to begin October 15th in Geneva. Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman today testified in front of Congress and advocated such a delay, prompting Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons to acerbically note that "this charm offensive so far to me is not charming" and Idaho Republican Jim Risch to express "no optimism" regarding the Geneva talks. Speaking Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reemphasized that Iranian uranium enrichment - per the Associated Press - was 'not up for discussion.' The declaration renewed fears that the revolutionary-era cleric was unwilling or unable to change Iran's long-standing positions on its nuclear program. There has been confused reporting about the degree to which Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has empowered Rouhani to alter those positions. Rouhani has told Western audience he is "fully empowered" to negotiate a deal, and Khamenei has spoken of Iran embracing "heroic flexibility" in talks. Khamenei's office subsequently explained that "heroic flexibility" meant "advancement and realization of the Islamic Revolution and System," and Khamenei himself emphasized that Rouhani would not be allowed to make fundamental concessions.
- Israeli officials have been holding meetings with top Gulf and Arab leaders, according to a Times of Israel report that describes the consultations as aimed at creating "a new alliance capable of blocking Iran’s drive toward nuclear weapons." The news aligns with recent analysis pointing to the development of three overarching blocs in the Middle East: an Iranian-led bloc that includes Syria and Hezbollah, an extremist Turkey/Muslim Brotherhood bloc with which Qatar often aligns, and a U.S.-allied bloc that includes Israel and moderate Arab states. Several Gulf states, most prominently and openly Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., have long called for military action aimed at halting what is widely believed to be an Iranian drive to acquire nuclear weapons. Those states fear that Iranian nuclear acquisition will allow the Islamic republic to press its territorial claims in the region - Iran insists that several Arab-controlled islands and the entire nation of Bahrain are Iranian - and to provide immunity to a range of Iran-backed insurgent groups seeking to destabilize Arab governments.
- Ankara is “highly likely” to sign a multi-billion dollar missile defense contract with a Chinese firm currently under U.S. sanctions, according to Turkish defense official Murad Bayar. The $3.4 billion deal with the China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corp (CPMIEC) - which has been under sanctions since February for violations of the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act - could be finalized in the next six months. The purchase has generated controversy since it was announced months ago, inflaming debates about Turkey's alignment specifically with NATO and generally with the West. In July a NATO senior diplomat declared that the deal "would certainly leave many of us speechless," and this week the Turkish opposition blasted the government for risking a "rupture" with NATO by pursuing the contract. Earlier this week the U.S. let it be known that it had expressed "serious concerns" to Ankara on the controversy.
- Observers are expressing worries that rallies planned by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood for this Sunday may turn violent, after the group issued statements on Thursday that the Associated Press described as flat-out vilifying the Egyptian army. A teenager was already killed in clashes Wednesday between Morsi supporters and opponents. The Brotherhood statement compared the military's actions to those of Adolf Hilter and the Roman emperor Nero, and was aimed at mobilizing protesters for marches in favor of Egypt's Brotherhood-linked former President Mohammed Morsi. The army-backed government, for its part, has been pressing a decapitation campaign which the Washington Post today described as having "crippled" the Brotherhood's leadership. Washington Institute fellow Eric Trager recently outlined three scenarios that are likely to unfold as the military continues its campaign against the Brotherhood. All three resulted in the functional eradication of the Brotherhood as a coherent organization operating inside Egypt's borders.
- Condoleezza Rice on Iran overtures: "you absolutely cannot trust them"
- Israeli media praises Netanyahu speech for frankness, accuracy, tactical sophistication
- Amnesty International: Turkey protester crackdown included "gross human rights" violations, including live fire use
- Western-aligned Lebanon faction: Hezbollah's arsenal driving refugees abroad
What we’re watching today:
- CBS News describes moves inside Congress to couple outreach to Iran with deepened economic pressure, as officials from both parties lined up to explain why overtures from Iranian president Hassan Rouhani are being met with skepticism by lawmakers. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke to CBS This Morning on Wednesday and outlined how Iranian officials "have done everything to make certain that you can't trust them," going on to say "They hid their nuclear program for decades. They have given the international Atomic Energy Agency the runaround." She concluded that "you absolutely cannot trust them." The piece quotes Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) backing engagement but emphasizing that it "cannot be used to buy time, avoid sanctions and continue the march toward nuclear weapons capability" and Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) calling for new economic measures "until Iran stops its nuclear drive." The Wall Street Journal yesterday published an opinion by British journalist and author Con Coughlin worrying over intensifying Iranian efforts to avoid sanctions, many of them undertaken in recent months, and pointing to a gap between Rouhani's rhetoric and recent appointments made by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Speaking on Sunday, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi heaped skepticism on suggestions that recent moves made by Rouhani have bridged the gaps between the U.S. and Iran.
- Domestic Israeli coverage of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to the United Nations General Assembly was broadly positive, with multiple articles and editorials in Israel's largest dailies praising the speech for frankness, accuracy, and tactical sophistication. The editorial Yedioth Aharonot, the traditional market-leading newspaper in Israel, argued that Netanyahu was "convincing in every word... [and] trustworthy," and that the speech itself was "good because it was well based." The editorial in Israel HaYom, which has traded off with Yedioth for the top slot in Israel's market, struck a similar note, concluding that Netanyahu's speech had "loudly renewed the military option" as a potential last-ditch resort to halt what is widely believed to be Iran's drive to acquire nuclear weapons. Boaz Bismuth, Israel HaYom’s Foreign News Editor, hailed the address as "the speech the world needed to hear." Veteran Israeli journalist Dan Margalit, writing in the same paper, noted a “hidden sophistication” in Netanyahu’s Iranian demands. The left-leaning Israeli paper Ha'aretz printed an opinion piece by American legal scholar Alan Dershowitz describing Netanyahu's speech as "rational and compelling." Another piece in the paper, by senior correspondent and editorial board member Ari Shavit, concluded that Netanyahu had made it clear that Israel was all-in on stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Netanyahu's speech came less than a week after polling revealed that 78 percent of Israelis distrust recent Iranian overtures to the West. Analysis of Israeli reactions to Netanyahu's speech has been tangled. The BBC, for instance, asserted that "Israeli media [was] unconvinced by PM Netanyahu's UN speech" and then linked to an article in which Israeli media outlets were quoted expressing doubts that the international community would be convinced by Netanyahu's speech. The BBC may have ran out of space before it could draw the distinction between the praise that Israeli media expressed for the content of Netanyahu's speech, and its doubts about the resoluteness of the international community.
- The Turkish government committed "gross human rights" violations last June in violently putting down anti-government protests against the Islamist administration of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to a report published today by Amnesty International. A Turkey expert from the human rights organization described a "wholesale denial of the right to peaceful assembly" and blasted Ankara for violating protections against torture. Turkish security forces met demonstrators with heavy-handed responses, including according to coverage of the Amnesty report, "live ammunition, tear gas, water cannon, plastic bullets and beatings." Ankara has also been criticized for fumbling the aftermath of the protests, which saw broad criticism from traditional Turkish allies including the U.S. and Ankara's European NATO partners. Erodgan responded by lashing against critics in general and against Germany in particular. The crisis has in retrospect emerged as an inflection point in a percipitous geo-strategic decline that has left Turkey and its leaders, according to Reuters, "sidelined" and "increasingly lonely."
- Lebanon's Future bloc - the largest faction of the country's Western-aligned March 14 Alliance - is blasting Hezbollah for maintaining a vast weapons arsenal that is destabilizing the country and driving asylum seekers to flee. The group's statement comes after a boat carrying Lebanese asylum seekers capsized en route to Australia, leaving at least 29 people missing. Hezbollah has long been criticized for creating inside Lebanon what is effectively a state-within-a-state, where the Iran-backed terror group's power and weaponry functionally eclipse Beirut's sovereignty. Hezbollah has also been critical in allowing the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria to extend that country's two-and-a-half year conflict, violence from which has spilled over into Lebanon and generated calls for Hezbollah to untangle itself from the war. The two dynamics are among several that have led some analysts to openly ridicule the suggestion - aired in corners of the foreign policy community - that Hezbollah is a stabilizing force inside Lebanon, let alone that sanctioning the group and undermining its global activities would introduce instability.
- Analysts: Keep sanctions on Iran until program "fully dismantled"
- After Obama White House meeting, Netanyahu blasts Iran president as "loyal servant of the regime"
- Captured Iran spy targeted U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, "followed playbooks of most advanced intel agencies"
- Syria peace negotiations in danger after Assad nixes talks with Western-backed opposition
What we’re watching today:
- The New York Times reports that Western sanctions against Iran have put the country on the brink of economic collapse, with restrictions on financial transactions in particular having created severe hard currency shortages.Iran's expulsion from the Swift global banking network has compounded the country's difficulties and forced the regime to physically transport money into and out of Iran. International sanctions are being credited by some analysts with having forced the Iranian regime to at least make overtures to the West, even as the country's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has in recent months banned meaningful concessions to the West and insisted that negotiations must not include any Iranian "retreat." Commenting on the efficacy of sanctions, Brookings Institute senior fellow Michael Doran this afternoon emphasized that they must be kept up and lifted only when Iran's nuclear program is "fully dismantled." An opinion piece in The Economist, which was generally favorable to the prospect of dialogue between the United States and Iran, also noted that sanctions were "crucial" in pushing Iranian leadership to the negotiating table. The Economistcalled for President Barack Obama to approach any negotiations in a "clear and tough" manner, and to pursue a comprehensive strategy that addressed Tehran's uranium enrichment work, its plutonium-related activity, and its existing stockpiles of enriched nuclear material. Iranian negotiators are set to meet with the P5+1 countries - the U.S., Russia, China, the U.K, France, and Germany - in mid-October.
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke this afternoon to the United Nations General Assembly, questioning the assurances being voiced in some corners of the foreign policy community that newly inaugurated Iranian president Hassan Rouhani is willing or able to alter what is widely believed to be an Iranian drive to acquire nuclear weapons. Netanyahu described Rouhani as a "loyal servant of the regime," echoing statements made by Rouhani committing himself to following the dictats of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Rouhani served for decades as Khamenei's personal representative to Iran's Supreme National Security Council, in which capacity he played a key role in planning a wave of global terror attacks. Netanyahu's speech came a day after a Monday meeting in Washington with President Barack Obama, during which Obama reaffirmed that that the U.S. was keeping all options "including military options" on the table in its efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Writing in Foreign Policy on the eve of the meeting, veteran diplomat Aaron David Miller dismissed suggestions that there was daylight between Jerusalem and Washington, declaring that the West would strike a deal that satisfied both the U.S. and Israel "or there will be no deal at all." The West has called on Iran to meet the multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions calling on Tehran to dismantle its nuclear program. Iran will be expected at a minimum to cease uranium enrichment and plutonium-related work, to ship already enriched uranium overseas, and to open up military facilities like its Parchin installation, where Tehran is widely suspected of having conducted work relevant to nuclear detonations. National Security Adviser Susan Rice emphasized on Sunday that Iran would not be permitted to continue enriching uranium under any potential deal with the West.
- Israeli officials over the weekend released details regarding the arrest of an Iranian-Belgian citizen accused of conducting extensive espionage against Israeli and American targets inside the Jewish state, deepening concerns regarding the scope of Iranian terror networks and the sophistication of Iranian tradecraft. Ali Mansouri was captured with photographs of, among other things, Israel's Ben Gurion airport and the U.S. embassy. Veteran Israeli military correspondent Yoav Limor unpacked six lessons to be drawn from the incident, beginning with the observation that "Iran followed the playbooks of the most advanced intelligence agencies in the world" and had recruited "a quality asset" who had undergone "prolonged training (more than a year) that included various methods of intelligence gathering, with an emphasis on photography." Limor also noted that "Mansouri was sent by the Quds Force... [which] operates terror networks and orchestrates attacks," and so "it stands to reason that when the Quds Force sends a spy on a mission, the intelligence gathered will ultimately be used to perpetrate a terror attack." Washington Institute senior fellow Matt Levitt has become increasingly vocal in calling attention to what he last April termed a "return to tradecraft" by Iran and the Iran-backed terror group Hezbollah. Levitt had previously described efforts by the Quds force to engage in "large-scale campaigns... to carry out acts of violence targeting not only Israel but also U.S. and other Western interests." A State Department report published in June described Iranian-backed terrorism as having reached a tempo unseen since the 1990s.
- Damascus has ruled out talks with a bulk of the opposition forces battling to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, excluding among others the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and calling into question the viability of peace talks scheduled to take place between various factions in November. Speaking to Italian press, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad said he would not negotiate with Al Qaeda-linked opposition elements, and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem ruled out talks with the SNC on the basis of the group’s support for Western strikes on Syria. The statement was not the first time that Damascus has sought to exclude opponents based on their expressions of opposition, a standard that some have suggested may permanently stymie diplomacy. Earlier this year Syria's Foreign Ministry lashed out at the U.N.'s Middle East peace envoy for "flagrant bias" after Lakhdar Brahimi told a BBC interviewer that Assad was resisting the aspirations of the Syrian people. Russian officials today publicly suggested that the troubled talks would not take place as scheduled, and accused the West for being unable to deliver opposition forces to the table.
- U.S. National Security Adviser: Deal with Iran will prohibit uranium enrichment
- U.S. Gulf allies: Iran overtures "honey trap that could ensnare the United States"
- Iran hacking U.S. navy computers, issued order to attack U.S. embassy in Baghdad
- WSJ: "happy to accept" apology from CNN over Rouhani "Holocaust" mistranslation pushback
What we’re watching today:
- National Security Adviser Susan Rice has made clear that Iran would not be permitted to continue enriching uranium under any potential deal with the West, a day before President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met to discussion regional security issues. Rice emphasized that while Iran would be allowed to use enriched uranium delivered from overseas sources, but that Tehran would not be allowed to use its own infrastructure to enrich nuclear material. Iran has been locking in advanced uranium enrichment technology that would allow it to dash across the nuclear finish line, and the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security estimates that Tehran will be able to conduct a so-called undetectable breakout by the middle of 2014. As far as the material needed for enrichment goes, Israeli sources estimated over the weekend that Iran will soon have enough uranium for a bomb within 2 months. At his meeting today with Netanyahu, Obama emphasized that the U.S. would be "enter[ing] into these negotiations very clear eyed."
Israel's left-leaning Ha'aretz
describes a "sense of anxiety," being conveyed to the White House by Jerusalem and by the U.S.'s chief allies in the Arab world, regarding American diplomacy related to Iran and the Iranian regime's nuclear program. Adel al-Jubeir - who is Saudi Arabia's ambassador in Washington and who was two years ago himself the target of an Iranian assassination plot - has reportedly held several "tense" talks with U.S. officials in recent days on the issue. Secretary of State John Kerry also took meetings this week with counterparts from UAE, Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait, with each official warning that Iranian overtures were "a kind of Iranian honey trap that could ensnare the United States." The dynamic was also outlined over the weekend in a New York Times article headlined "Israel and others in Mideast view overtures of U.S. and Iran with suspicion." The copy elaborated that by "others" the Times was referencing among others the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, "the other Sunni-dominated gulf countries," and prominent journalists and analysts across the region.
- The Wall Street Journal revealed late last week that Iran has been hacking U.S. Navy computers in recent weeks, a disclosure that the paper suggests "show[s] the depth and complexity of long-standing tensions between Washington and Tehran." The news came only weeks after another Journal scoop describing Iranian activity against the U.S., this one involving an Iranian order to forces it backs in Iraq ordering them to attack the U.S.'s Baghdad embassy and other American interests should Washington act militarily against Syria. The revelations, alongside a domestic wave in executions, have generated concerns that newly inaugurated president Hassan Rouhani is either unable or unwilling to substantially change Iranian behavior. Washington Institute senior fellow Matthew Levitt had already, last June, urged analysts and diplomats to temper their expectations regarding "just how much moderation should be expected from a 'moderate' Iranian president," emphasizing that previous Iranian presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami, both described as moderates or reformers, had not dampened Iran's adventurism.
- The Wall Street Journal declared last Friday that it would "be happy to accept" an apology from CNN, after the cable network's Christiane Amanpour declared on Twitter that the Journal had "jump[ed] into bed" with the "Iranian extremist mouthpiece" Fars news agency. Both the Journal and Fars criticized CNN for mistranslating an interview between Amanpour and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, where the mistranslation had Rouhani condemning the "Holocaust" and declaring that "whatever criminality they [the Nazis] committed against the Jews, we condemn." The mistranslation was widely reported, explicitly cited, and broadly described - including by Amanpour herself - as an indication of Iranian moderation. Top Rouhani adviser Mohammad Reza Sadeq has also clarified that Rouhani "did not at all used the word Holocaust even a single time all throughout his five day visit to New York." Iranian media continued to criticize CNN over the weekend, and some of the country's officials are now calling for legal action against CNN for "the distortion of the statements by the president of our country." It is unclear whether CNN intends to issue an apology either to the Journal or to the office of the Iranian president.