- Focus Shifts to Iran's willingness to make concessions, as Obama and Rouhani speak by phone
- Russia, Syria boast of victory as UNSC prepare to pass chemical weapons resolution
- European, global leaders call for E.U. to reverse itself on Israeli settlement restrictions
- Daily Beast: "global slaughter of Christians" must be addressed
What we’re watching today:
- President Barack Obama announced today that he had spoken by phone to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, becoming the first U.S. president to speak to his Iranian counterpart since Iranian revolutionaries stormed the U.S. embassy in Iran and seized fifty two American hostages. The New York Times notes that Rouhani, himself a revolutionary-era cleric who subsequently spent decades as a consummate regime insider, had just days ago "declined to attend a lunch at the United Nations where American officials hoped the two presidents might shake hands." The Times also suggested that the "telephone call on Friday reinforced optimism at the White House" that Rouhani might be able and willing to change Iran's foreign policy and its posture on nuclear weapons, after Secretary of State John Kerry had already suggested that Iran and the U.S. could close a deal even sooner than the three to six month timetable floated by Rouhani. International arms control officials quoted by Bloomberg this morning expressed strong skepticism regarding the possibility that a deal could be cut in the short term. Evaluating Rouhani's Tuesday speech to the United Nations, Reuters yesterday emphasized that Rouhani had "offered no new concessions" on Iran's nuclear program. David Kenner, the Middle East editor of Foreign Policy Magazine, echoed the point in the context of Syria, noting that a speech given by Rouhani today ended without "offering the slightest prospect of a policy change." The White House briefing on today's phone call was kept on background, and so it is unclear whether Rouhani suggested a willingness to make any concessions.
- The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) seemed set Friday night to adopt a resolution aimed at dismantling Syria's vast arsenal of chemical weapons, after the United States, Britain, and France were maneuvered into dropping their original demand that the measure include some means of automatic enforcement if Syria fails to comply. The result is that any future action against Damascus would require the UNSC to pass another resolution, which would in turn be subject to a Russian or Chinese veto. Moscow's insistence on limiting the scope of any mandate for current action against Syria had been a persistent sticking point in negotiations, and Reuters notes that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov declared victory today and boasted on Voice of Russia radio that "no concessions have been made." Syrian lawmaker Issam Khalil echoed the contention, telling the Associated Press that the U.S. failed to "impose its will" in pursuing a so-called Chapter 7 mandate that would have provided the U.N. the authority to enforce the resolution. Analysts have expressed concerns that Syria's 1,000 metric tons of chemical agents and precursors cannot be located, seized, moved, and dismantled under the current lawless conditions that reign in parts of war-torn Syria. President Barack Obama today hailed a draft of the resolution as a "potentially huge victory for the international community."
- The Jerusalem Post reports that a group of European and global leaders - drawn from political, military, intellectual, and activist circles - are calling on European Union foreign ministers to reevaluate recently passed guidelines cutting off cooperation between European institutions and Israeli establishments beyond Israel's 1948 armistice lines. The letter, which was sent out last Monday, is signed by among others Jose Maria Aznar, former Prime Minister of Spain, Lord David Trimble, former First Minister of Northern Ireland and a Nobel Peace Price laurette, and Alejandro Toledo, the former President of Peru. The letter blasts the current E.U. policy as "discriminatory" and criticizes it for "prejudging the question of Israel’s borders, and in doing so... undermining the delicate negotiations that are currently transpiring." The latter critique echoes evaluations made when the measures were first passed, to the effect that the E.U. policy undermined the current U.S.-backed peace initiative between Israel and the Palestinians. The measures have also triggered strain between Israel and Europe, and European programs in Israel have suffered as a result.
- At least 78 people were killed in a bombing outside of a Pakistani church Sunday, calling renewed attention to what the Daily Beast today labeled a "global slaughter of Christians." Anti-Christian violence across the Middle East and Africa has intensified in recent months, most prominently in Egypt where Islamist supporters of the country's deposed former President Mohammed Morsi have engaged in the country's worst organized anti-Copt violence in 700 years. Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R.301 by a vote of 402-22. The bill provides "for the establishment of the Special Envoy to Promote Religious Freedom of Religious Minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia," which Christians United for Israel Executive Director David Brog described as "an important first step" to addressing religiously-driven persecution in those regions. The legislation now moves to the Senate, where it is expected to face pushback from officials who argue that the legislation would limit the U.S.'s diplomatic flexibility.
- CNN engulfed by mistranslation scandal, network accused of fabricating Rouhani "Holocaust" remarks
- State Dept. issues global travel advisory, runs down Al Qaeda and Hezbollah terrorism
- Bloomberg: Five reasons "to doubt the sincerity of Iran's protestations" on nuclear negotiations
- Former Iranian president calls on regime to release imprisoned political dissidents
What we’re watching today:
- CNN struggled today to address ongoing accusations that it had mistranslated an interview between the station's Christiane Amanpour and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in order to make Rouhani seem more moderate than the revolutionary-era cleric actually is, or is willing to be. CNN's voiceover of the interview quoted Rouhani condemning the "Holocaust" and declaring that "whatever criminality they [the Nazis] committed against the Jews, we condemn." The remarks were widely reported, specifically cited, and broadly hailed - including by Amanpour herself - as a signal of Iranian moderation. Iran's state-controlled Fars news agency quickly published an accurate translation of the interview, pointing out that Rouhani actually said neither of those things and accusing CNN of having "fabricated the remarks" in ways that "totally change what President Rouhani has said." Amanpour dismissed the charges as "piffle," a clarification that did not go far in mollifying critics. The Wall Street Journal independently verified the translation, flatly concluding that the "words attributed to Mr. Rouhani are not what he said" and that CNN "made Mr. Rouhani seem so much more conciliatory than he was." The Daily Beast went further, noting that repeated caveats inserted by Rouhani questioning the scope of Nazi crimes against Jews - "the old Holocaust deniers tricks of 'questioning' the death toll, averring that many others groups were also victims, and claiming that a well-established historical fact requires further examination" - disqualify others from tenably characterizing him as having condemned the Holocaust. CNN subsequently published a full transcript of the interview, which still had Rouhani condemning the "Holocaust" and declaring that "whatever criminality they [the Nazis] committed against the Jews, we condemn." A transcript published by Rouhani's office - in contrast, and translated by Al-Monitor Iran Pulse editor Arash Karami - "matches what Rouhani said" and does not include the passages.
- The State Department yesterday issued a global travel alert covering Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and warning of potential terror attacks - including possible "suicide operations, assassinations, kidnappings, hijackings and bombings" - by Al Qaeda, "its affiliated organizations, and other terrorist groups." The warning cites credible information to the effect that terror groups "seek to continue attacks against U.S. interests in the Middle East and North Africa," and reviews attacks launched by both Sunni jihadists and the Iran-backed Shiite terror group Hezbollah. The warning follows another from earlier this summer, based in part on intelligence gathered from an intercepted Al Qaeda conference, which also saw the closure of U.S. embassies across several continents. It comes less than a week after at least 67 people were killed in a days-long siege at an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabaab terror group was reportedly behind that attack.
- Analysts are adding to skepticism already expressed by U.S. lawmakers regarding claims being aired by Iranian officials, including by newly inaugurated Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, suggesting that Iran is willing to resolve its dispute with the West in the near term. Rouhani yesterday suggested that negotiations may conclude successfully within three to six months. On Tuesday Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg had already outlined five reasons "to doubt the sincerity of Iran's protestations," among them the geopolitical calculations that Tehran is suspected of embracing as well as Rouhani's own stance that suspending uranium enrichment is a non-starter. Goldberg also suggests that the Iranians believe that, should they become a nuclear power, the international sanctions regime will gradually wither. Based on the most recent report from the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security estimates that Iran will reach so-called "critical capability" - the ability to rush across the nuclear finish line before the West can detect and intervene - by mid-2014.
- Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami is calling on Tehran to release all the country’s political prisoners, two months after anti-regime activists blasted the regime for "spreading lies and disinformation about the existence of political prisoners as they are simultaneously imprisoning hundreds for exercising their legal rights." Iranian officials have consistently denied even the existence of political prisoners. According to the State Department, Iran's High Council for Human Rights Javad Larijani sophistically insisted last year that there are no political prisoners in Iran, because political prisoners are people who have been unjustly imprisoned - and everyone imprisoned in Iran is in jail justly. Tehran has nonetheless been consistently blasted by human rights groups for the mass systematic imprisonment, torture, and rape of political prisoners. Khatami published his comments on his official website following an announcement Monday from Tehran that the government would free 80 prisoners arrested in political crackdowns. Since the June election of President Hassan Rouhani, Iran has executed more than 170 political prisoners and continues to imprison nearly 800 more. Among those still jailed is U.S. citizen Amir Hekmati, a former Marine who was arrested more than two years ago while on a trip to visit a relative and whose father on Wednesday forwarded a letter to Rouhani pleading with him to free his son. Analysts have raised doubts about Rouhani's ability and willingness to substantially reform Iran's prison system. The revolutionary-era cleric has repeatedly called for the imprisonment of dissidents, and his justice minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi is a former intelligence minister who was a key figure on a three-person panel that oversaw the torture and execution of literally thousands of Iranian prisoners.
- Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps statement deepens controversy over U.S.-Iran negotiations
- Iran Parades Advanced Missiles, Boasts It Can "Destroy" U.S. Naval Assets
- Palestinian officials blamed for incitement after two Israeli soldiers murdered
- Israel sends personnel to help end Kenya terror crisis
What we’re watching today:
- Top officials from Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) warned Iranian diplomats over the weekend that they were courting danger by diplomatically engaging the United States. A statement issued by the IRGC stated that "those who favor interaction" must "skeptically monitor the behavior of White House officials so that the righteous demands of our nation are recognized and respected." Newly inaugurated Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is traveling this week to the United States for what is expected to be a diplomatic whirlwind, while analysts are struggling to untangle the degree to which he has the freedom - let alone the intention - of negotiating with the West in a fruitful manner. Iran's foreign policy is set by the country's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has been very explicit and precise that he will permit Rouhani to negotiate with the West, but not if such negotiations approach making fundamental concessions. Earlier this year Khamenei explicitly forbade the eventual winner of Iran’s June presidential election from making concessions to the West. Ali Akbar Velayati, a top advisor to Khamenei on nuclear issues, told the Associated Press that – because Khamenei is ultimately in charge of Iran’s nuclear policy – Rouhani’s government would follow "the same trend strategically as the former government" and that Iran would "have to talk with a different language" and pursue the "same purposes but a different language." Last week a senior Iranian official ruled out the possibility that Tehran would curb its enrichment program.
- Iran on Sunday paraded through Tehran dozens of advanced missiles with ranges of up to 2,000 km, with Iranian media conveying boasts from Iranian military officials that they "have the necessary equipment to destroy American aircraft carries [sic] and warplanes in the Gulf." The military display, which coincided both with the anniversary of the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war and with what has been touted as an irenic trip to New York by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, involved 30 Ghadr and Sejil missiles, solid-fueled ballistic missiles. Iranian media outlets also carried boasts to the effect that such rockets had transformed Iran into a global power. A Pentagon report released earlier this year estimated that that Tehran could test an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015, especially given assistance it is widely suspected of receiving from rogue regimes.
- Two Israeli soldiers were killed by Palestinians in recent days, rattling U.S.-backed peace negotiations and renewing criticism of Palestinian leaders accused of inciting violence and failing to prepare the Palestinian public for co-existence with the Jewish state. A 20-year-old soldier was kidnapped and murdered by a Palestinian co-worker on Friday and a second soldier was killed by a sniper on Sunday while protecting Jewish worshipers celebrating the holiday of Sukkot in the town of Hebron. Palestinian Authority (PA) leaders pointedly declined to condemn the murders, with PA President Mahmoud Abbas's office going so far as to declare itself unaware of any condemnations that may or may not have been issued by Palestinian officials. Another Palestinian official, Fatah central committee member Abbas Zaki, actually blamed Israel for the sniper attack. Observers have, for decades, expressed concerns that the glorification of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish terrorism - which has been conducted at the highest levels of the Palestinian political echelon - would endanger the prospects for a final negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israeli personnel joined the efforts of Kenyan officials seeking throughout the day to end a bloody three-day jihadist assault on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi. Early news reports described everything from active Israeli involvement in the fighting to Israeli assistance in helping the Nigerians formulate a "negotiating strategy," and by the end of the day Kenya's Interior Ministry announced that its forces were "in control" of the mall. Dozens in the mall have already been identified as killed. The attack on the reportedly Israeli-owned mall was widely blamed on Al-Shabaab, an Al Qaeda offshoot, but late-breaking reports describe Kenyan officials as blaming Al Qaeda and not Al-Shabaab proper. The Somalia-based Al-Shabaab has in recent years threatened to directly attack the Jewish state and its interests. For its part Al Qaeda is widely suspected of being involved in several terror attacks against Israeli targets in Kenya, including the 2002 bombing of an Israeli-owned Mombasa hotel that killed 15 people and was timed to coincide with the failed downing of an Israeli holiday jet carrying 261 passengers. Al-Shabaab condemned Israel for seeking to help Kenyan officials end the crisis.
- Rouhani interview stops short in probing root causes of Middle East instability
- New estimates, political maneuvers call into question viability of Syria chemical weapons deal
- Al Qaeda blamed for Yemen attacks that kill 40
- Turkish court sentences world-famous pianist, government critic to jail for blasphemy
What we’re watching today:
- Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is blaming Israel for - per Iran's Fars news agency - being the "main cause of regional insecurity" across the Middle East. The recently inaugurated revolutionary-era cleric made the comments in an interview aired Thursday with NBC's Ann Curry, blasting the Jewish state for bringing "instability to the region with its war-mongering policies." Rouhani sits atop a country that has been repeatedly blasted by the U.S.'s Gulf allies for fomenting "sedition" throughout the region and for "interference" in their internal affairs, including by working to overthrow Bahrain's government, pressing territorial claims against the UAE, endangering Kuwait via unsafe nuclear practices, conducting extensive espionage in Saudi Arabia, and bringing the entire Middle East to the brink of a spiraling nuclear arms race. Egypt has similarly blasted Tehran for interfering in the African country's internal affairs. In Iraq, Iranian-backed Shiite militias are on one side of what increasingly risks becoming another full-blown sectarian civil war. Iran has provided logistical aid to terrorists in Yemen, and has been linked to Al Qaeda elements inside that country. Iran also sponsors the Palestinian terror group Hamas and the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, both of which have within the last decade triggered hot wars by attacking and kidnapping Israelis. As for Lebanon domestically, Hezbollah has been described by analysts as the single greatest force working to destabilize the country's security, institutions, and political system. And of course, Iranian support has been the key element in ensuring the survival of Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime, with Tehran channeling troops and supplies from across the Middle East and enabling Assad's forces to continue waging a war that has cost over 100,000 lives and seen the gassing of thousands of Syrian civilians. That conflict has spilled over into Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq, and has critically undermined the stability of the Jordanian monarchy. Curry ran out of time before she could follow up with Rouhani about the contrast between the scope of Iran's regional activities and his assertion that Israel is the root cause of Middle East insecurity.
- Intelligence officials and world leaders are expressing renewed doubts about the potential for Syria's chemical arsenal to be safely secured and destroyed, amid newly published figures describing Syria's stockpile and political maneuvering by actors involved in the crisis. The Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international community's chemical weapons watchdog, today again postponed meeting to discuss the recently inked Kerry-Lavrov plan to destroy the arsenal. The announcement came after Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed doubts over whether all of Syria's chemical weapons assets would be seized, a statement widely read as a bait-and-switch maneuver under which the Bashar al-Assad would be allowed to keep some of his stockpile. Western diplomats have at times demanded that any deal preserve the option to use force against Damascus, a requirement that Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad on Wednesday predicted would fail to pass in the United Nations. A declassified French intelligence report indicated that Syria has over 1,000 tons of chemical agents, and Assad this week estimated that removing them would take at least a year and cost one billion dollars. He suggested that the U.S. should foot the bill.
- Simultaneous attacks on Yemeni army targets killed at least 40 people early Friday, underscoring the challenges that Sana'a faces as it attempts to weaken Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Security and military officials in Yemen told The New York Times they believe AQAP was behind the series of attacks in the country’s south, which included two car bombs and saw a gunmen opening fire on a group of soldiers. The Washington Post reported last month that Al Qaeda was shifting its footprint inside Yemen, moving from the southern province of Abyan - which had been targeted by a 2012 army offensive - to the eastern province of Hadramaut. The province is Yemen's largest and borders Saudi Arabia. The dynamic is likely to renew calls for U.S. support to critical Gulf allies threatened by jihadist activities.
- A world-renowned Turkish pianist has been sentenced to 10 months in prison for blasphemy, following a retrial over a series of social media posts he made criticizing Islam. Fazil Say – a noted critic of the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – was previously tried and convicted in April on charges of denigrating the religion. Weeks after his first trial, millions of Turkish citizens participated in mass anti-government protests. Ankara violently put down the unrest, killing dozens and injuring thousands, and generating sharp criticism from both the U.S. and the European Union. Say's conviction will deepen skepticism regarding the possibility, long advocated in some corners of the foreign policy community, that Erdogan seeks to blend Islamism with recognizably modern civil liberties. The human rights watchdog Freedom House recently criticized the Erdogan government for "jail[ing] hundreds of journalists, academics, opposition party officials, and military officers in a series of prosecutions aimed at alleged conspiracies against the state and Kurdish organizations."
- Thailand convicts Hezbollah-linked operative on bomb materials charges
- Iranian media boasts over naval power projection, Sudanese port docking
- Reuters: Turkey PM's pro-Islamist diplomacy has left Ankara isolated, "sidelined," "increasingly lonely"
- Washington Post: "No significant dent in the pace" of Iraq attacks despite government counter-insurgency campaign
What we’re watching today:
- A Thai court today convicted a Lebanese national allegedly linked to Hezbollah for possessing bomb-making materials, a month after a different Thai court sentenced two Iranians to lengthy jail sentences for their roles in the attempted February 2012 attack on Israeli diplomats. Atris Hussein was sentenced to less than three years in jail for possessing a substance banned under the country’s Weapons Act. Iran and Hezbollah have been linked to terror plots staged in Bulgaria, Cyprus, Thailand, Georgia, India, Azerbaijan, Nigeria, Singapore, and Turkey. A report published this year by the Washington Institute’s Matthew Levitt concluded that Iran’s global terror operations have “climbed back up the list of immediate threats facing the United States and its allies," and a State Department report published this spring noted that "Iran and Hezbollah’s terrorist activity has reached a tempo unseen since the 1990s."
- English-language Iranian media reports on the docking of what the country is calling its 27th fleet - the helicopter carrier Khark (also spelled Kharg) and frigate Sabalan - at Port Sudan along the Red Sea. PressTV used the event to boast that "in recent years, Iran’s Navy has been increasing its presence in international waters." The Khark has been in the theater before, and in 2011 continued through the Suez Canal to Syria. Iranian military officials earlier this year announced that Tehran would deepen cooperation with the Sudanese navy, part of a broad effort by Tehran to project power beyond the Persian Gulf. Those efforts have generated calls by U.S. Gulf allies for Washington to deepen its commitment to the region amid budget-driven cuts in the U.S. naval presence. Gulf countries have become increasingly vocal in criticizing Iran for seeking to foment instability across region and for pressing territorial claims against its Arab neighbors.
- Reuters describes converging analysis from a range of foreign policy analysts to the effect that Turkish diplomats in general, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in particular, have been left "sidelined" and "increasingly lonely" in the Middle East. The piece heavily emphasizes Erdogan's support for Islamist actors throughout the region, and echoes points recently made by Georgetown Turkey expert Michael Koplow to the effect that Erdogan has "been raging on a daily basis against the Egyptian army" to the detriment of Egyptian-Turkey relations. Reuters notes that Erdogan's support for the Muslim Brotherhood has also generated friction with the U.S.'s Gulf allies, endangering "investment [which] has helped Turkey to prosper over the past decade." Ankara's isolation, according to Standard Bank economist Timothy Ash, now risks "the erosion of benefits from the enormous strides made over the past decade in terms of the development of trade and investment flows."
- A series of car bombs Tuesday in Iraq killed over 30 people and injured more than 100, followed by more car bombs today that took the lives of at least six more. The attacks are the latest in a five-month wave of Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence that has swept through the nation and left more than 4,000 dead. On Sunday nearly 60 people were killed by a dozen attacks conducted in mostly Shiite-majority cities. The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently launched a counter-insurgency operation, dubbed "Revenge for the Martyrs," that has thus far mainly targeted Sunni areas and groups. The Washington Post this morning bluntly stated that despite the campaign, "there has been no significant dent in the pace of attacks." Analysts have expressed concerns that the country may be sliding into “the scale [of] sectarian slaughter” of 2006 and 2007.
- WSJ: "Difficult, if not impossible" to implement Syria chemical weapons inspections
- Analysts: Claims that Iran significantly slashed 20 percent-enriched uranium at odds with UN report, physical capabilities
- Egyptian army seizes Islamist-controlled town after Christians appeal for protection
- Iran president: Middle East and North Africa unrest part of Western conspiracy to boost Israel
What we’re watching today:
- The Wall Street Journal unpacks four scenarios under which the Syrian chemical weapons deal struck by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov may fall apart. The article puts particular emphasis on the difficulties presented by the country's two and a half year civil war, which "will make it difficult, if not impossible, for international inspectors to do their work." Analysts are not confident that international monitors could safely transport what weapons they are able to reach, and Foreign Policy had already explained last week that "completing the job" of destroying the Syrian regime's chemical arsenal would require putting U.S. boots on the ground. USA Today quoted Gregory Koblentz, a professor at George Mason University, bluntly stating that "there has never been an effort to disarm an entire country of its chemical weapons during a civil war."
- Analysts from the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) are pushing back against statements made last week by Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, to the effect that Iran has reduced its stock of 20 percent-enriched uranium from 240 kilograms to 140 kg by converting it into fuel. Journalistic accounts of Salehi's statements flatly described Iran as making "deep cuts" and as having "significantly reduced" its stock. ISIS analysts David Albright and Christina Walrond published a report [PDF] last Friday noting that the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog had as recently as August 2013 estimated that only around 30 kg of Iran's near 20 percent-enriched uranium has been converted into fuel assemblies. They also noted that the reactor which would use and irradiate the fuel rods, making it difficult for Iranian scientists to reconvert the material to uranium hexafluoride suitable for further enrichment, is simply not big enough to irradiate the amount of fuel that Salehi implied had been rendered useless.
- The Egyptian army today seized an Islamist-held town in central Egypt, deploying helicopter-backed military and police forces to dislodge loyalists of former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi. Supporters of the Islamist official had rampaged through the town of Dalga - looting and torching Christian buildings - after Morsi was removed from power amid mass protests demanding his resignation. The riots were part of a wave of anti-Christian attacks that observers described as the worst organized violence against Copts in 700 years. Christian leaders in Dalga had recently appealed to the army-backed interim government for protection from Islamist "thugs" who they said were still harassing them and preventing them from praying safely.
- Iran's recently-inaugurated president Hassan Rouhani asserted today that Western moves to act against Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime are part of a larger globe-spanning conspiracy to solidify Zionist power, according to Iranian and Western media sources. Iran's state-controlled Fars news agency quoted the revolutionary-era cleric, who has been characterized as a relative pragmatist within the Iranian establishment, describing events in "Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Syria" as part of a plot to strengthen Israel. AFP quoted him as describing unrest in all of those countries as "chains of a single plot with one goal." Rouhani has reportedly and explicitly vowed to support Assad and Iran's Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, which has provided critical support for the Syrian regime. President Obama acknowledged this weekend that he has exchanged letters with Rouhani.
- Leaked U.N. Report Piles on Evidence Assad Regime Conducted Mass Chemical Weapons Attack
- Amid Renewed Threats From Hezbollah, Israel Reemphasizes Chemical Weapons Transfer “Red Line”
- Greek Ambassador Blasts Turkey for Vetoing NATO-Israeli Cooperation
- Palestinian Gunmen Open Fire on Soldiers Protecting Worshippers After Fatah Officials Call for Attacks
What we’re watching today:
- A leaked United Nations report, likely set for publication on Monday, piles on evidence linking the Bashar al-Assad regime to the August 21 mass chemical attack on opposition-controlled Damascus suburbs. While the report will not explicitly implicate the regime, diplomats indicate that it will offer a "wealth" of evidence implicating Assad's forces. Analysts had already identified what kind of evidence might tie the Syrian army to the attack, and had emphasized that the detection of chemical stabilizers and dispersal agents would signal sophistication unavailable to other parties fighting in Syria's more than two-year war. Secretary of State John Kerry met Thursday with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, as well as a large team of arms control specialists, to begin exploring a Russian plan to defuse the crisis by placing Syria's chemical weapons arsenal under external control. Analysts have broadly - and increasingly - expressed skepticism regarding the workability of any such international effort. Also today, Syria announced that it had formally asked to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which would require Damascus to give up its weapons. By means of clarification however, Assad indicated that Damascus would not implement the treaty's requirements in the absence of U.S. guarantees that it would not attack Syria.
- Israeli officials reemphasized today that Jerusalem would enforce its long-established "red line" against any Syrian efforts to transfer advanced weapons, including portions of Damascus's chemical weapons arsenal, to the Bashar al-Assad regime's Hezbollah allies. Hezbollah leaders have in recent days repeatedly and explicitly threatened to attack the Jewish state, doubling down on rhetoric and threats that had already heightened over the summer. Hezbollah has also in recent days moved to redeploy troops into locations near to Israel's border. Meanwhile on Thursday, several mortar shells fired from Syria landed in Israel’s Golan Heights near the Israeli-Syrian border, increasing concerns that spillover from the war will threaten stability along Israel’s borders.
- Turkey continues to veto "even the most innocent" cooperation between Israel and NATO - extending a policy that stretches back years and which diplomats had hoped would cease amid a U.S.-backed reconciliation effort - according to Greek Ambassador Spiros Lampridis. The Jerusalem Post notes that the programs Turkey has nixed include 'joint exercises, intelligence exchanges, and research and technological development programs.' Turkey's efforts to undermine ties between Israel and NATO had been blasted for damaging interoperability between Israeli and Western forces, undermining among other things America's power projection capabilities in the region. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had explicitly bragged about his government's repeated successes in cutting off Israel from NATO initiatives, but a rapprochement facilitated by President Barack Obama was to see Ankara suspend efforts to diplomatically and militarily isolate Jerusalem. Lampridis lauded Israel for making a series of gestures designed to facilitate reconciliation, and - addressing increasingly vocal accusations that Erdogan is driven by anti-Jewish animus - declared that the Islamist Turkish prime minister "can do it privately if he wants... [but shouldn't] do it openly and expose a whole country."
- Officials linked to the Palestinian Fatah faction declared yesterday that Friday will be the "first day of popular resistance" against Israel, and have called for attacks against Jewish Israelis and the Jewish state. The statement by the Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade was followed today by clashes that broke out after Palestinians opened fire on Israeli soldiers protecting some 1,400 worshippers at the Jewish holy site of Joseph's Tomb. Israeli soldiers returned fire, injuring one of the gunmen and eventually capturing another. The Palestinian government-linked media outlet Wafa earlier this week published an article blasting the rabbi of "Jewish fanatics" for asserting that Judaism's ancient Second Temple was built in Jerusalem. Palestinian officials - including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - have repeatedly and specifically sought to deny the existence of an ancient Jewish temple in Jerusalem, and to vitiate the Jewish connection to Israel's capital. The position has been widely criticized as incitement, and is difficult to reconcile with public Palestinian pronouncements regarding the PLO's willingness to make concessions in the interest of a negotiated final settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
- Analysts, diplomats raise doubts over Moscow-facilitated Syria chemical weapons bargain
- Rouhani: Iran "will not give up one iota" of nuclear rights
- Day of sectarian violence rocks Iraq amid government efforts to stem Sunni insurgent violence
- WSJ: Movement to draft Egypt general as president highlights popular backing for military
What we’re watching today:
- Confusion swirled throughout the day as to the nature and scope of a series of Russian-facilitated deals designed to defuse the international crisis triggered by what is widely suspected to be the use of chemical weapons by the Bashar al-Assad regime. NBC News reported that by day's end Damascus "appeared poised to accept the Russian proposal for Syria to hand over chemical weapons" and to join the Chemical Weapons Convention. In what Washington Post foreign affairs writer Jackson Diehl called a flat-out trap, Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded that any Syrian proposal be accompanied by a U.S. commitment not to use force against the Assad regime, with which Moscow is allied. It is unclear whether Washington would be willing to issue such a guarantee. Foreign Policy noted that Assad has dozens of movable facilities, and that "the U.S. intelligence community would have a hard time knowing where more than a fraction of the sites were at any one time. Reuters emphasized that in addition to the normal problems that inspectors face when confronting dictatorial regimes - the Iraqis, for instance, "lied through their teeth" according to non-proliferation expert Amy Smithson - it "would be difficult" to protect arms inspectors. Moreover fears that negotiations could be used by the regime to stall for time have been broadly aired, including by officials from the Syrian opposition, Gulf states, and Israel. Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled Al-Khalifa instead called on the United Nations to take what he referred to as "necessary deterrent measures" against the regime, echoing calls made on Monday by Saudi officials urging the international community to "assume its humanitarian responsibility to rescue the Syrian people."
- Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared Tuesday that Tehran "will not give up one iota" of its nuclear rights, deploying rhetoric that AFP described as "echoing his hardline predecessor" Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The statements come a day after the chief of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog (IAEA) emphasized that it was "essential and urgent" for Tehran to address international concerns surrounding its atomic program. A recent IAEA report called specific attention to Iran's efforts to lock in advanced uranium enrichment technology, to bring online its plutonium reactor, and to destroy evidence of work possibly related to the development of nuclear weapons. Rouhani's response to the IAEA's call for greater transparency is in line with a similar statements made by an advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last month, to the effect that the revolutionary-era cleric's government will follow "the same trend strategically as the former government" of Ahmadinejad. It comes alongside Rouhanis's vocal support for Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime, and may heighten skepticism regarding the new president's self-described moderation.
- A series of bombings and shootings in Iraq killed at least 24 people today, deepening fears that ongoing government efforts to stymie Sunni terror groups had failed - per the Associated Press - "to have dented the insurgents' ability to stage attacks at a high place." At least seven police officers were among today's victims. The deadliest attack took place south of Baghdad when gunmen shot and killed six people preparing the body of a Sunni man ahead of his funeral. Coordinated car bombs targeted multiple Shiite-majority areas, prompting suspicions that Al Qaeda forces were behind the bombings. More than 4,000 people have been killed in Iraq since summer began and approximately 800 Iraqis were killed in August alone. Analysts have expressed explicit concerns that Iraq may slide into "the scale sectarian slaughter" of 2006-07.
- A grenade attack on a military checkpoint in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula Monday left one soldier dead and two others injured, as insurgents sought to push back against an ongoing, widespread campaign by the army to uproot jihadist infrastructure in the increasingly anarchic territory. Scores of security officials have been killed in recent clashes across Egypt, with jihadists targeting both the army and institutions of the interim army-backed government. Leaders of the mass movement that called for the removal of Egypt's former president Mohammed Morsi have been targeted for assassination, as have government officials. The military's efforts to dampen the violence have long enjoyed widespread popular backing, and a Wall Street Journal article published this morning outlined that "a movement to nominate Gen. Abdel Fattah Al Sisi as Egypt's next president is gaining pace" as a signal of "Egyptians' yearning for stability and order."
- Senate committee votes 10-7-1 to authorize strikes on Syria
- Israel prepares contingency plans as Egypt deepens efforts to uproot Sinai Peninsula jihadists
- Syria threatens to lash out against Israel, Jordan, and Turkey should U.S. take action after chemical weapons attack
- As reconciliation talks deadlock, Turkey analysts worry Ankara's anti-Jewish bias has "overwhelmed pragmatism"
What we’re watching today:
- The Senate Foreign Relations Committee today approved a resolution authorizing President Barack Obama to use military force against Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime, in response to what is widely considered to have been mass chemical weapons use by the Syrian army against opposition-controlled Damascus suburbs. The approved wording limits military action to 60 days with a potential 30-day extension, and includes language describing the policy of the United States as one of "chang[ing] the momentum on the battlefield in Syria." The committee vote was 10-7-1 and the resolution will now require a vote in the full Senate. Meanwhile the House Foreign Affairs Committee heard testimony today from Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel as the administration's team pressed the case for strikes. The White House has been signaling confidence that Congress will authorize the President's request for the use of force, and Reuters had already noted this morning that the administration has won "backing for Syria strike from key figures in Congress." Republican House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor both pledged their support for military action.
- Israel has prepared contingency plans for a security collapse in the Sinai Peninsula, amid deepening fears that the Egyptian army is straining in its ongoing campaign to root out jihadists in the increasingly restive territory. Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman, who oversees Israel's Southern Command, explained to Israel Hayom that both Gaza-based terrorists and global jihadists were active in the Sinai. The groups are seeking to undermine Cairo's ability to control the territory, to directly attack Egyptian infrastructure and personnel, and to launch terror attacks against Israel. IDF data reflects that some 300 terror attacks have been launched against Egyptian security forces in recent weeks. A single attack saw 25 Egyptian police officers reportedly slain in "execution-style" killings. Cairo has recently expanded its campaign to dampen and contain violence in the Sinai, and has implemented what Israeli media outlet Ha'aretz describes as “zero tolerance toward any political or military activity of radical organizations” in Egypt.
- Iranian and Syrian officials have threatened to lash out against the West - both the U.S. and France were explicitly named - should Western powers take military action against the Bashar al-Assad regime. Gen. Hossein Salami, acting commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, said on Tuesday that an attack against Damascus would spread the "spirit of jihad." Assad himself - speaking to Le Figaro - threatened “repercussions” against Paris and its interests. His comments were echoed by Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad Tuesday, who reportedly told the Wall Street Journal that Syria would lash out not only against Israel and the U.S. but also - should they participate - against Jordan, and Turkey.
- Turkish analysts and academics are increasingly concerned that deep-seated conspiracy theories dominating the Turkish public sphere are subverting efforts to stabilize Turkey's domestic and foreign policies. Two weeks ago Georgetown University Turkey expert Michael Koplow described the "paranoia" of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as being at "an all-time high." Koplow worried that anti-Jewish theories floated by Erdogan blaming Israel for the Egyptian army's moves against the country's deposed Muslim Brotherhood-linked government were signs of a "continuing crackup." He also gestured toward a precipitous decline in Turkey's regional position: Ankara has seen its relations plummet with Egypt, Israel, the Sunni bloc centered in the Gulf, and the Shiite bloc dominated by Iran. Last week Turkish political scientist Doğu Ergil echoed Koplow's concerns, fretting that the Turkish establishment's anti-Jewish bias "has often overwhelmed pragmatism." The latest analysis follows reports that reconciliation talks between Jerusalem and Ankara have become deadlocked amid what Israel considers to be unprecedented Turkish demands for compensation related to the 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in which nine people died fighting Israeli commandos while trying to breach Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Talks have been ongoing for month, following a political gambit by President Barack Obama that saw Erdogan outmaneuvered on several key long-standing demands related to rapprochement.
- As Hezbollah mobilizes, Syrian official declares group will attack U.S. warships on Syria's behalf
- White House lines up bipartisan support for Syria strikes resolution
- As Syria ups threats, Israel carries out anti-missile test
- Egypt deepens anti-jihadist campaign in Sinai, claims major arrest
What we’re watching today:
- Hezbollah is mobilizing troops in southern Lebanon, redeploying fighters from the group's coastal and Bekaa valley strongholds into what the Hezbollah-linked Arabic daily Al-Akhbar describes as "their positions." Al-Akhbar also reported that the Iran-backed terror group had established a joint "operations room" with the Bashar al-Assad regime in order to coordinate funding, ahead of possible Western strikes against the regime. A senior Syrian official went further, telling the Wall Street Journal that Hezbollah and the Syrian armed forces "are now one body," and that Damascus would in part rely on the group to conduct "operations targeting warships in the Mediterranean." Hezbollah has an extensive record of targeting U.S. assets and interests. The organization maintains an extensive terror networ in the United States and has sought to facilitate [PDF] attacks on U.S. airports. A recent article by Matthew Levitt described how "the Hezbollah-Qods Force threat has sometimes eclipsed that of al-Qaeda."
- The Senate Foreign Relations Committee today held hearings on President Barack Obama's request for authorization to use military force against Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime, after a day in which the administration worked to line up bipartisan support for proposed action.After Monday meetings between the president and Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, McCain declared that a failed Congressional resolution to strike Syria would be “catastrophic.” On the House side, both House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi publicly expressed backing for the president regarding proposed strikes. In the afternoon Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey pushed the administration's case in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Congress will formally come back from recess on September 9th.
- Israel’s Defense Ministry confirmed this morning that Jerusalem had carried out a successful anti-missile exercise over the Mediterranean, amid renewed threats of attack from the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and the reported defection of a top Syrian official associated with the country's chemical weapons program. The test was reportedly conducted as a joint exercise with the United States, and the missiles were detected by Russian early-warning radars. The Associated Press described the launch as being done with an eye on Syria, and it came within hours of declarations issued by Assad to the effect that Western military action against the regime would escalate into a regional conflict. Reports were also aired on Syrian television threatening to attack Israel and the United States with chemical weapons. Meanwhile, reports began to emerge that Dr. Abdel Tawwab Shahrour, the defecting chief of the Syrian regime's Chemical Warfare Medical Committee in the Aleppo district, was ready to present classified documents demonstrating the use of chemical weapons by Syria. The recent use of such weapons against rebel-controlled suburbs of Damascus has brought Western navies streaming into the Eastern Mediterranean in response. Russia - which supports the regime - has also mobilized its assets. Click here to see an illustrated situation analysis published by The Israel Project outlining the deployments, current as of 12 p.m. local time Monday.
An Egyptian air force raid near the border with Israel has left at least 15 Islamists dead, one of several moves that the country's military is making as it widens an ongoing campaign to root out jihadist networks in the restive Sinai Peninsula. Egyptian security forces also reportedly arrested a top jihadist linked to the shooting deaths of 25 Egyptian police officers in the northern Sinai last month who were reported as having been slain in "execution-style" killings. Scores of Egyptian military personnel have been killed in a wave of violence as Islamists deepened and consolidated terror networks in the Sinai after the army’s July 3 removal of the country's former Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohammed Morsi.