UN demand for detonator information shifts focus to Iranian foot-dragging on transparency obligations
- UN demand for detonator information shifts focus to Iranian foot-dragging on transparency obligations
Officials from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear watchdog disclosed on Friday that they had demanded more information from Iranian officials regarding tests on detonators - specifically, on Exploding Bridge Wire (EBW) detonators - suspected of having been conducted with the aim of creating nuclear warheads, the latest development in an emerging controversy over Tehran's willingness to disclose a range of widely suspected "possible military dimensions" (PMD). The Islamic republic is obligated to provide transparency into PMD-related activities by United Nations Security Council resolution 1929, and non-compliance with those obligations has been cited by U.S. lawmakers as a central justification for maintaining pressure on Tehran. President Barack Obama had as early as 2009 declared that Iran would have to "come clean" in disclosing all past nuclear activities, language that was explicitly echoed by Secretary of State John Kerry on the eve of announcing the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA), under which Iran received sanctions relief in exchange for slowing down its nuclear progress. The JPA however did not include any requirement that Iran meet its PMD obligations, and was criticized on precisely that account by among others Washington Institute Executive Director Robert Satloff and by Mark Dubowitz and Orde Kittrie, respectively the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a senior fellow at the foundation.. Top administration officials pushed back by insisting that the JPA had only been meant to facilitate negotiations, and that Iran would be forced to meet its PMD obligations in the context of a final agreement. Observers have become increasingly concerned in recent weeks that a range of Iranian moves appear aimed at delaying discussion of PMD activities until after most other issues have been resolved, at which point Iranian negotiators would refuse to meet their transparency obligations and functionally dare the West to scuttle an emerging deal over what they would characterize as past work. There are now suggestions floating in corners of the foreign policy community "that in the enthusiasm for a comprehensive agreement, the P5+1 could ignore the PMD aspect if all other conditions are met... if Iran’s break-out capability is indefinitely delayed and the technology available to it is severely limited, in addition to greater transparency and IAEA access to its facilities, the PMD question may not have to be directly dealt with at all." Analysts nonetheless have been emphatic that the success of any deal, and especially any agreement that would lean heavily on verification mechanisms, would require extensive disclosure in the context of untangling the Iranian military from the country's atomic program. Washington Institute Managing Director Michael Singh explained months ago that "[w]ithout insight into the full extent of Iran’s clandestine nuclear activities, no amount of monitoring and inspection can provide true confidence that Iran lacks a parallel program beyond inspectors' view."
Reuters on Friday published a wide-ranging analysis - headlined "Egypt's [Abdel-Fattah El-]Sisi turns Islam on the Islamists" - documenting a range of moves and statements being made by the country's presumptive next president suggesting that while Sisi "may turn out to be the most outwardly pious of any of the military men to have governed Egypt since the republic" he does not seem likely to "inject more Islam into the government" and is instead positioning himself as "a religious reformer." The wire assessed that the former defense minister's near-certain victory in upcoming presidential elections "could bring a sustained effort to reinforce state-backed, apolitical Islam, providing clerical cover for destroying his Islamist foes." Reuters pointedly noted consistent statements from Sisi flat-out rejecting the concept of a "religious state" and blasting "religious discourse" for preventing Egyptian growth. His first televised interview as a candidate saw him bemoaning the degree to which "hardline religious rhetoric" had undercut Egypt's critical tourism sector. Commenting on that interview - and evaluating other statements that Sisi made about the Brotherhood - the insidery security bulletin KGS Nightwatch had tersely evaluated that "outside interests that advocate on behalf of the Brotherhood are out of step with the political turn Egypt has taken." The Associated Press (AP) reported Thursday that the Obama administration had formally picked Ambassador Stephen Beecroft to take the helm at the U.S.'s Cairo embassy, which has had a vacancy at the ambassador level for nine months. The AP described the declaration as "a routine but necessary step [by the White House] toward smoothing its stormy relationship with Cairo." The Obama administration had steadily degraded bilateral ties after the Egyptian army - led at the time by Sisi - last summer overthrew Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-linked then-president Mohammed Morsi.
Turkish officials throughout the week and into Friday scrambled to respond to last week's "Freedom of the Press" report - published annually by the Washington-based Freedom House watchdog group - which had downgraded Turkey from "Partly Free" to "Not Free" and had explained that "constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press and expression are only partially upheld in practice, undermined by restrictive provisions in the criminal code and the Anti-Terrorism Act." The report also noted that "Turkey remained the world's leading jailer of journalists in 2013, with 40 behind bars as of Dec. 1." Responding to the ensuing controversy, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu declared on Friday that the report was "an insult" and that the real problem was that journalists remain uninformed about Turkey. Davutoglu had previously declared that Turkey was in fact more free than even "Partly Free" countries, part of a statement in which he emphasized that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) expected Turkish journalists "to reject" the Freedom House report. Ankara has had trouble settling on talking points describing its jailing of journalists in general, and more specifically on the number of journalists that the Turks are willing to admit are behind bars. Davutoglu's Friday statements insisted that "there are only five imprisoned journalists with press cards," opposite a list of 44. Responding to the same list, a statement released by Turkey's Justice Ministry earlier this week had held that only 29 journalists were in jail. Government officials had in April cited a statement from the the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) - one that CPJ insists Ankara invented out of thin air - pegging the number at 15.
Firefights between Yemeni army forces and Al Qaeda fighters killed at least seven people on Friday in the country's capital of Sana'a, as violence spread to Yemen's presidential palace on the same day as an assassination attempt almost claimed the life of its defense minister, Major General Muhammad Nasir Ahmad. Reuters described Sana'a as being "in lockdown" in the aftermath of the violence - checkpoints were erected across all of the city's main entrances - and assessed that the attack on Ahmad was done "in apparent reprisal for the army's biggest push against militants in nearly two years." Recent days had seen Yemeni troops storm a major compound operated by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a key goal in the ongoing military campaign. Fears of reprisals to the offensive had led the United States to suspend operations at its Sana'a embassy, and the missions of other Western countries at least limited their operations. Yemeni officials have struggled to put down at least two insurgencies, one in the country's south driven by AQAP and another involving Shiite secessionists stationed largely out of the north. The central government and Western officials have linked Iran to both. Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in late March blasted Tehran for providing assistance to Shiite separatists, after security officials captured a weapons-filled boat bound for the Sunni country loaded with Katyusha rockets, anti-aircraft missiles, RPG launchers and Iranian-made night-vision goggles. Links between Iran and AQAP, meanwhile, have been publicly known for years. Suspicions grounded in a now-notorious cable from bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, thanking Iran for its "vision" in infiltrating Yemen, were subsequently deepened in 2009 when reports emerged that Zawahiri had a channel to Iranian Qods Force commander Qassem Suleimani. Gulf leaders have since at least 2012 been open in condemning a range of Iranian efforts they insist are aimed at destabilizing Arab states. Wikileaks cables published years ago had already disclosed that the Saudis urged the U.S. in 2008 to launch attacks against Iranian nuclear infrastructure, and in July 2010 the UAE's ambassador to Washington publicly made the case that "a cost-benefit analysis" argued in favor of military action against Iran.
Iranian nuclear officials seek to push plutonium deal that would permit steady accumulation of nuclear bomb material
- Iranian nuclear officials seek to push plutonium deal that would permit steady accumulation of nuclear bomb material
- Turkey ruling party appoints committee, dominated by Turkey ruling party, to investigate corruption charges against Turkey ruling party
Reuters reported on Monday that a delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - the U.N.'s atomic watchdog - would be holding talks until Tuesday on among other things "how the U.N. agency would monitor a planned heavy-water reactor near the town of Arak," which the West has long demanded Tehran either fully dismantle or at a minimum downgrade to a light water version. The discovery in early 2013 that Iran had resumed progress on the Arak facility, which contains a heavy water production facility and the reactor, was described at the time as the Islamic republic's "Plan B" for acquiring a nuclear weapon. The current IR-40 reactor would allow Iran to produce at least one bomb's worth of plutonium per year. Top Western diplomats and analysts, including those [PDF] linked to the U.S. government and the IAEA, have for years rejected Iranian pretexts for operating any heavy water reactor, and have emphasized instead that Tehran could replace the IR-40 with "a significantly more proliferation-resistant light water research reactor" with no losses. Inadequate interim concessions regarding Arak were reportedly what prevented the P5+1 global powers and Iran from coming to a interim agreement in mid-November, in a session before the current interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) agreement was agreed upon. Iranian officials have been publicly unequivocal in repeatedly drawing red lines against downgrading the Arak reactor, and Behrouz Kamalvandi - a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) - reiterated the stance last Friday. Kamalvandi went on to declare that Iran would refuse to "shut down or change any facility." Some Western analysts and journalists have nonetheless found grounds for optimism in Iranian declarations that the P5+1 was coming around to a counter-offer, under which Tehran would keep the Arak reactor unmodified but would reduce the amount of power it produced by half or even three-fourths. AEOI head Ali Akbar Salehi in recent days doubled down on that position, declaring that the Islamic republic would not fundamentally alter the reactor, but would arrange for it to produce less plutonium. Israeli security officials have rejected the proposal, with Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz suggesting that there's little to be gained by enabling the Iranians to "create one [bomb] every two years" rather than "a bomb every year." More pointedly, once the reactor is activated there would be no functional way for it to be destroyed militarily, and nothing to stop the Iranians from simply reverting to processes that produce higher yields of plutonium.
A Hezbollah-linked member of Lebanon's parliament took to Voice of Lebanon radio to declare that lawmakers from his Loyalty to the Resistance bloc would exercise what he described as their "constitutional right not to enter parliament," setting up a deadlock in what will be that body's third attempt to elect a president on Wednesday. The March 8 alliance, which Hezbollah anchors, had previously been blasted by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman for boycotting such sessions, thereby "obstructing the election process through not providing a quorum." MP Kamel Rifai nonetheless told the radio station that he and allied MPs would again decline to participate in the parliamentary procedures, emphasizing that they had no obligation to do so because they do not have a candidate. The trick has not gone unnoticed by Hezbollah's opponents. The Future bloc on Tuesday issued a statement calling on March 8 to select "a candidate for the upcoming parliamentary session in order to prevent void in the president’s seat." The statement was blunt in linking Hezbollah's refusal to do so to Iranian machinations, blasting a recent statement by a top aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as "reveal[ing] the true purposes behind Iran’s relation with Hezbollah, and the missions that Iran gives to [this] party." Yahya Rahim Safavi had described southern Lebanon as Iran's "frontmost line of defense" and boasted that Iran's "strategic depth has now stretched to the Mediterranean coasts and just to the north of Israel." Hezbollah's moves to keep Beirut politically paralyzed, the Future bloc statement insisted, called into question whether "Hezbollah [is] a party specialized in defending Lebanon against Israel and its aggressions, or is it a party specialized in defending Iran and its regime." The organization had long leveraged its now-shattered brand as an indigenous Lebanese organization protecting Lebanese territory against outside interference, using the pretext to amass a massive arsenal and insulate a state-within-a-state across swaths of Lebanon. It's position had for many years been echoed by segments of the Western foreign policy establishment.
Hurriyet Daily News on Tuesday reported that Turkey's parliament, which is controlled by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), had established what the outlet described as a "single inquiry commission... dominated by the [AKP] itself," to investigate graft charges against four former AKP ministers from the government of AKP Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The session that established the inquiry, which will be chaired by an AKP deputy, was described as "tense." At stake are allegations that stem from an extended bout of open political warfare, stretching back to late 2013, in which judiciary and police figures linked to the Islamist movement of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen launched a series of corruption investigations that eventually ensnared a range of AKP elites, including Erdogan and members of his family. Erdogan and his allies responded by purging literally thousands of judges and police officers. Late last week the head of Turkey's Financial Crime Investigation Board was dismissed in what Hurriyet described "as part of the whirlwind of purges in the Finance Ministry," part of a broader "war with bureaucrats suspected of having ties [to Gulen]" and being linked to the "graft investigation that charged four ministers, their sons and dozens of pro-government businessmen and bureaucrats." At least two other top figures from the Finance Ministry were also removed. Meanwhile Ankara's chief prosecutor's office announced that it was launching a probe of Gulen himself for attempting to overthrow the government. News subsequently emerged that Erdogan had reached the decision, after a five-hour session of top AKP figures, that he would run in Turkey's direct presidential election, currently scheduled for August.
An interview with Abdel Fattah al-Sisi aired Monday - the first televised sit-down that the presumptive future president has done during the current campaign - saw Sisi declaring that the Muslim Brotherhood would not be allowed to operate as a national movement under his administration, accusing the Islamist movement of having fomented national instability both directly and by proxy. Reuters characterized the key exchange as Sisi being asked whether the Brotherhood would no longer exist if he was elected, and him responding "Yes. Just like that." Egyptian security forces have systematically moved to decapitate the Brotherhood's leadership structure since a government led by the movement's then-president Mohammed Morsi was overthrown by the military in mid-2013 amid mass protests calling for Morsi's resignation. Morsi's government had brought the country to the brink of outright state failure, and observers at the time feared that Egypt was caught in a downward spiral in which a lack of foreign currency drove instability, and instability prevented foreign currency from flowing in. Last weekend Sisi went so far as to blame "hardline religious rhetoric" for having undermined Egypt's critical tourism sector, publishing a video to YouTube in which he promised to restore tourism and "allow people to earn." The highly influential NightWatch intelligence bulletin on Monday assessed that "outside interests that advocate on behalf of the Brotherhood are out of step with the political turn Egypt has taken.."
- News leaks: Palestinian unity agreement will install Hamas within PLO, allow terror group to keep munitions
- Reports: Palestinian negotiators repeatedly rejected Israeli efforts to craft compromise peace process language
The State Department on Wednesday published [PDF] its annual country-by-country terrorism roundup, a 318-page document that veteran Associated Press diplomatic writer Matt Lee nonetheless described as "singl[ing] out Iran as a major state sponsor of terrorism that continues to defy demands it prove its atomic ambitions are peaceful." The report described Iran as funding both Sunni and Shiite fighters, both across the region and globally. Specific sections of the report took harsh tones not often found in diplomatic assessments, at one point emphasizing that "[d]espite its pledge to support Iraq’s stabilization, Iran trained, funded, and provided guidance to Iraqi Shia militant groups." Another paragraph blasted Iran for facilitating the movement of Al Qaeda members across the Middle East, describing the operations of a "core facilitation pipeline through Iran" that "enabl[ed] AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and also to Syria." The final allegation has sometimes been controversial in the intelligence community. Iran has been unequivocal in its support for the Bashar al-Assad regime - Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made a point of underlining Tehran's commitment to the Assad regime in the immediate aftermath of his election - and some analysts and diplomats doubted that the Iranians would also allow Sunni jihadists battling the regime to transit through Iranian territory. Other observers emphasized that Iran had every interest in using both Shiite and Sunni fighters to crowd out the moderate opposition facing Assad, which would allow Damascus to characterize the country's bloody war as an anti-terror struggle. The Treasury Department last February announced that it had evidence that - per Lebanon's Daily Star- "Iran is assisting key Al-Qaeda figures to transfer Sunni fighters into Syria." The State Department report's broad criticism of Iran came up during Thursday's daily State Department press briefing, with a journalist telling Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf that "Iran was not pleased about being kept on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism" and noting "[t]hey reacted quite angrily this morning to it." Harf responded that if the Iranians did not want to be listed as state sponsors of terrorism "they should stop supporting terrorism."
Al-Monitor on Wednesday published a translated English-language version of an article by Gaza-based Palestinian journalist Hazem Balousha, in which Balousha revealed a range of previously unknown details regarding a recent unity agreement between the rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions, including news that Hamas had secured a commitment enabling its personnel to take up posts inside the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The PLO is one of the parties with which Israel officially conducts peace negotiations, and is - in theory - bound to core obligations including the renunciation of violence and the recognition of Israel. Top Hamas figures have in recent days been unequivocal in emphasizing that any unity deal would see them maintaining their commitment to the eradication of the Jewish state. Balousha noted in Al-Monitor that Hamas's demand for a voice inside the body "had long been an obstacle to the implementation of all the previous agreements" but that "Abbas has seemingly made a concession" on the issue, with Hamas - in return - agreeing to yield any significant participation in the near-term Palestinian government that would guide the West Bank and Gaza Strip toward elections. Another aspect of the agreement would reportedly allow Hamas to "keep controlling the security forces in Gaza without any change or amendment," establishing a situation in which the terror group was allowed access to Palestinian institutions long backed by the West without having to yield - for instance - what are suspected to be tens of thousands of Iranian-supplied missiles and rockets. If confirmed, the description of the unity agreement is likely to reinforce growing analyst concerns that the unity deal amounts to a life-line thrown to the otherwise spiraling Hamas by the Western-backed Fatah faction.
The Times of Israel on Wednesday conveyed leaks from Israeli negotiators revealing that Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas had repeatedly rebuffed a series of Israeli proposals aimed at bridging the gaps regarding Jerusalem's long-standing condition that the Palestinians acknowledge Israel as a "Jewish state," describing the Palestinian leader and his negotiators as being "adamant in refusing to consider" a range of wordings that "would have described the Jewish people's and the Palestinian people's right to self-determination in precisely equivalent terms, and would have also included phrases to guarantee the rights of Israel’s Arab minority." The Times of Israel went on to describe the Israeli formula as one in which "both the Jewish people and the Palestinian people [would] mutually recognize each other's rights to sovereignty in the framework of an agreement that would end all remaining claims," noting that there would be a clause that "explicitly state[d] that a recognition of the Jewish state does not in any way impact on the status of non-Jewish Israelis, and does not coerce the Palestinians into accepting Israel’s historical narrative." The story, which is likely to deepen skepticism regarding Abbas's willingness to seal a comprehensive peace agreement, aligns with months of previous reporting. Abbas had been explicit in late March that he opposed "even holding a discussion" on Israel's demand, which was and is considered a proxy for the Palestinians' willingness to genuinely renounce claims against the Jewish state. The Palestinian leader had publicly underlined his stance as recently as April 26th, bluntly telling the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Central Council that Palestinian negotiators would never acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state. Agence France-Presse (AFP) secured a quote about Abbas's speech from Bassem Naim, an adviser to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Naim told the wire that "[t]he speech had mostly positive points, and we cannot but support it on topics such as Jerusalem, reconciliation and not recognizing (Israel as) the Jewish state, in addition to the failure of (peace) negotiations."
Turkey has fallen into the "not free" category of countries ranked by Freedom House's annual "Freedom of the Press" survey, with the NGO watchdog citing a steady decline in how Ankara treats journalists - the "largest numerical change" in the region - while noting that "Turkey remained the world's leading jailer of journalists in 2013, with 40 behind bars as of December 1." The country has maintained its status as the world's top jailer of journalists for several years, and journalists who are not behind bars have been expelled from the country for criticizing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development (AKP) party. A wave of expulsions last February took place amid a broader crackdown on free speech, triggering fears that a systematic sweep was underway. Multiple Turkish outlets covered the news revolving around Freedom House's ranking. Hurriyet Daily News wrote up its story under the headline "Turkey no longer even 'partly free,' according to press freedom report," and specifically cited portions of the NGO's report that discussed how "journalists were harassed while covering the Gezi Park protests and dozens were fired or forced to resign due to their coverage of sensitive issues." Zaman covered the same passages, and also described "several high-profile dismissals" of critics at top papers. Israel, meanwhile, was ranked by Freedom House as "free," marking the Jewish state as the only Mideast country with no significant media restrictions.
Top Hamas figure: Palestinian president "is not telling them the truth" in assuring West over Palestinian unity government
- Top Hamas figure: Palestinian president "is not telling them the truth" in assuring West over Palestinian unity government
Reuters on Tuesday conveyed remarks made by Mahmoud Al-Zahar - a former Hamas foreign minister who the outlet described as one of the terror group's "most influential voices" - emphasizing that Hamas would maintain its commitment to the eradication of Israel in the aftermath of a recently revealed unity agreement with the rival Palestinian Fatah faction, and that the Palestinian government envisioned by the agreement would follow that rejectionist stance. Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas had earlier in the week declared that the unity cabinet would remain under his political and ideological control, and that he would ensure that it recognized Israel, fulfilled binding Palestinian treaty obligations, and renounced violence. The announcements - aimed at meeting international demands stretching back almost a decade that any such government accept those three Quartet conditions - were widely carried by international, Arab, and Israeli media outlets. The remarks prompted some diplomats to criticize the Israelis for having misread the situation, amid moves by Jerusalem to suspend talks pending the actual formation of the new Palestinian cabinet. Zahar belittled Abbas's assertions, telling Reuters that "Abbas is not telling them the truth [when he] says 'this is my government'... it is not his government" and that the Fatah leader's statements about the new cabinet accepting Israel were hollow. Zahar suggested that the promises were efforts "to minimize the pressure" that Abbas is feeling from the West and to "guarantee that U.S. financial support will continue." Meanwhile lawmakers on Tuesday advanced legislation that would cut off aid to the PA in the aftermath of the unity announcement, absent assurances that the PA had met a host of conditions including the Quartet conditions. The new bills advanced language that has existed in one form or another in U.S. law since at least 2006.
Iran is reportedly set to bust through oil sale caps set by the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) for the sixth straight month, according to a report published late Tuesday by Reuters assessing that the Islamic republic will have managed to send abroad an average of 1.1 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude exports in April. The JPA permits Iran only 1 million bpd's, a level that Tehran has thus far exceeded every single month since the announcement of the deal. Reuters wrote up the April numbers under the headline "Iran's oil exports fall in April, closer to Western limits," a gesture toward administration assurances that Iranian energy exports will very shortly crash to such a degree that - by the end of the JPA's six-month negotiating period - the average figure for exports will indeed converge on Iran's permitted limits. Observers have expressed skepticism that the White House will have robust diplomatic options should those predictions prove over-optimistic, and have worried that in the meantime Western negotiating leverage is steadily eroding as Iran's economy improves and it reestablishes trade channels to outside markets. The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that Russia was seeking to create and then shore up exactly such channels, and that Moscow and Tehran had that weekend held talks aimed at making progress on "over $10 billion worth in electricity deals." The New York Times described the development as the "second significant economic collaboration under negotiation between the two countries that could undercut the efficacy of the sanctions on Iran," the first being a sanctions-busting $20 billion oil-for-goods deal. The news came on the heels of revelations that Iran and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq had just locked in an agreement under which they would trade natural gas for crude oil, and which would see the construction of at least two pipelines.
Human Rights Watch on Tuesday called on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to impose "an arms embargo on Syria’s government, as well as on any groups implicated in widespread or systematic human rights abuses," generally citing a surge in the deployment of so-called "barrel bombs" by the Bashar al-Assad regime and specifically describing two such attacks "on clearly marked official hospitals." The use of the helicopter-deployed IEDs - which are packed with explosives and shrapnel, and can level entire buildings with a single hit - had long ago been condemned as "barbaric" by Secretary of State John Kerry and as a "war crime" by British Foreign Secretary William Hague. The Syrian regime's Iranian backers, for their part, have celebrated the effectiveness of the weapons, and last December a Twitter account associated with Iran's Revolutionary Guards reportedly posted that "the easiest way to send infidels to hell is through [the] 'barrel of death'." Activists had in recent days sought to call attention to an increase in the tempo of barrel bomb attacks. Syrian forces had killed hundreds in the country's third largest city of Homs - where rebels were said to be making a "last desperate stand" - and in its largest population center, Aleppo. Reports that emerged regarding the Aleppo attacks, which included a strike on what Agence France-Presse (AFP) described as "clearly a market" filled with civilians, conveyed "scenes of chaos, with bodies lying amid mounds of grey rubble." Tuesday separately saw at least 60 people killed in attacks across Homs and Damascus.
A recent announcement from a top Turkish official - in which Science, Industry, and Technology Minister Fikri Isik declared that Ankara will begin indigenously producing weapons in order to circumvent potential import restrictions from supplier countries - has left "Western diplomats and military officials... puzzled" over Turkey's intentions, according to a report on the speech by Hurriyet Daily News. Isik had given a speech in which he outlined a plan by Turkey to create a "national" factory that will produce "warheads, airplane bombs[,] and [600 tons of] plastic explosives," with the initiative supposed to be completed within the year. The impetus for the new facility, Isik explained, came from Turkish concerns that the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) - which imposes import and export conditions on certain materials, and to which Ankara has been a party since 1997 - makes it more difficult for the Turks to build the weapons that they want. A NATO defense attache based in Ankara told Hurriyet that "the minister's statement is not clear for many reasons" and emphasized that "if Turkey is planning to bypass the MTCR... that would be worrying.” A Brussels-based NATO ambassador worried that "we are not sure what kind of ammunition Turkey intends to produce at this new factory, and why it hopes to bypass the MTCR." Hurriyet also spoke with a Turkey specialist who noted that Isik's remarks "can be interpreted in a way that Turkey may be targeting to exceed the limits specified in the treaty." Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have increasingly found themselves at odds with counterparts in fellow NATO countries. Plans to purchase missile defense assets from a Chinese company - the integration of which has been described as the equivalent of introducing a hostile virus into NATO's command and control infrastructure - have progressed despite vociferous criticism from top NATO officials. AKP officials have been unreceptive to Western calls to put off the deal, and last October Erdogan lashed out at critics of the sale. Top executives from European and U.S. defense firms this month traveled to lobby Turkish firms against the move, explaining that it would severely constrain future security cooperation.
State Dept.: Palestinian threats to disband government would have "grave implications," force reevaluation of bilateral ties
- State Dept.: Palestinian threats to disband government would have "grave implications," force reevaluation of bilateral ties
- Credibility of Syria chemical weapons deal in jeopardy, as U.S. and French officials describe "indications" of new regime attacks
- "Possible military dimensions" of Iran atomic program under scrutiny, as confusion swirls over intentions
Top U.S. and Israeli officials on Monday reacted coldly to threats by Palestinian Authority (PA) leaders that they might disband the Palestinian government and transfer control of their territory to either Israel or the United Nations, with State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki emphasizing that the move would force Washington to reevaluate its relationship with Ramallah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declaring with resignation that "when [the Palestinians] want peace, they should let us know." Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Executive Committee member Hanna Amerah reportedly told Palestinian media over the weekend that the failure of the peace process "could lead to the disbandment" of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), the Palestinian body that controls Palestinian areas of the West Bank, which would impose new costs on either Jerusalem or the international community as they filled in. Agence France-Presse separately quoted an anonymous Palestinian official saying that similar threats had been conveyed to Martin Indyk, the Obama administration's special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas himself had apparently told Israeli lawmakers last week that a prolonged stalemate in the peace process would lead to the Palestinians handing over the "keys" to the West Bank. Speaking from the State Department podium on Monday, spokeswoman Jen Psaki warned Abbas against making any such moves, tersely assessing that "those kinds of extreme measures would have grave implications" on Washington's "relationship and our assistance." Palestinian officials emerged from their meetings with Indyk declaring that the U.S. was not presenting any new proposals to move forward a U.S.-backed peace initiative launched roughly nine months ago by Secretary of State John Kerry. Abbas has repeatedly rejected a range of U.S. bridging proposals designed to bring the two sides closer to an agreement.
State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki revealed Monday that the U.S. had "indications" that a "toxic industrial chemical" had recently been used on the battlefield in Syria, and that Washington was examining the source of the attack, amid deepening suspicions that the Bashar al-Assad regime recently launched another chemical weapons attack against opposition elements seeking its overthrow. State's assessment tracks closely with remarks made on Sunday by French President Francois Hollande suggesting that Paris had "information" but not "proof" that the regime had launched another nonconventional attack, and it precisely echoes recent language about "indications" used by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. The deployment of weaponized chlorine by Syrian forces would present both diplomatic and political challenges for the Obama administration. The White House has battled for months against criticism that it was diplomatically outmaneuvered last September, when Washington dropped a threat of impending military action in exchange for a commitment by Assad to turn over his chemical weapons arsenal for destruction. The Syrians and their Russian backers took public victory laps as the agreement was hammered out by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), and the administration was subsequently criticized for among other things becoming de facto invested in keeping the regime stable enough to carry out its obligations. U.S. officials have in response circulated figures - including ones published this morning - suggesting that Assad may be steadily exporting portions of his arsenal. Chlorine, however, is not a substance that is outright prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention. Its use in battle is forbidden, but nations are allowed to possess it due to its industrial uses, and it was not listed among the key chemicals that Assad committed to exporting. Foreign Policy suggested today that evidence of chlorine use against Syrian rebels or civilians will "cast a dark cloud over" the UNSC agreement. The regime has sought to blame rebel groups for the attack, a claim that analysts have dismissed inasmuch as video evidence indicates that the chlorine-filled shells were dropped from helicopters, and rebel groups do not possess helicopters.
Reuters on Monday conveyed statements from Iranian officials describing efforts by the regime to prepare a document that would comprehensively lay out the development of the country's weapons program, a statement that the outlet read alongside long-standing and explicit demands from the West that Tehran must account for possible military dimensions (PMD) of its atomic program. The wire noted, however, that the statements - made to Iranian press by Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran's atomic energy agency - "made no mention" of "Western demands for greater transparency." Iranian diplomats had suggested in March that they might just wait until the very end of negotiations to address PMD-related issues, generating concerns that they intend to maneuver Western negotiators into a position where the Iranians would functionally dare the West to scuttle a mostly written deal over Iranian intransigence on those issues. The West wants Iran to account for activities ranging from what are widely believed to have been tests related to the development of nuclear warheads - in 2011 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) accused Tehran of work at its Parchin military facility that provided "strong indicators of possible nuclear weapon development" - to Iranian military participation in the development of the country's uranium stockpile. Iran is obligated under United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 1929 to address among other things "the possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear programme," and non-compliance with the resolution has been cited in Congressional legislation as a central justification for imposing pressure on the Islamic regime. A minor controversy occurred in late February when reports emerged that the IAEA had withheld a report documenting further PMDs for which Iran would have had to account. At stake are not just past activities, but the degree to which the Iranian military is tangled in - and must be untangled from - the Islamic republic's ongoing nuclear work.
Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News over the weekend characterized the country's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as having broken new legal ground - the exact language, per a statement by the head of the Union of Turkish Bar Associations (TBB), was that a lawsuit filed by Erdogan was the "first of its kind" - after the Turkish leader applied for damages from the Turkish state as part of an ongoing controversy related to Twitter. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) had banned access to both Twitter and YouTube on the eve of recent nationwide elections, a move that was widely seen as aimed at dampening discussions of a massive graft scandal that had ensnared top AKP elites including Erdogan and his family. The bans drew global ridicule and triggered a diplomatic crisis with Europe, and were promptly overturned by Turkish courts on free speech grounds (the government restored access to Twitter but YouTube has remained unreachable). Erdogan's lawsuit appears to claim that the Turkish state allowed Twitter to continue being accessible, and Twitter violated his privacy rights by linking to purported recordings of him discussing how to hide vast sums of money, and so the Turkish state violated his privacy rights and owes him damages. Legal scholars interviewed by various Turkish outlets expressed skepticism regarding the soundness of the legal theory. Nonetheless two anonymous Twitter accounts that posted links to the conversations were apparently suspended in the immediate aftermath of Erdogan's court application.
Iran DM rules out negotiations over ballistic missiles, declares they have "nothing to do" with nuclear program
- Iran DM rules out negotiations over ballistic missiles, declares they have "nothing to do" with nuclear program
- NGO funding organization under fire after Arab-Israeli activist arrested over visit to Lebanon, potential Hezbollah contacts
The Associated Press on Wednesday conveyed remarks from Iran's defense minister doubling down on a long-standing Iranian red line ruling out any discussions of the country's ballistic missile program in the context of ongoing nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 global powers and Tehran. Gen. Hossein Dehghan had told Fars News that the missile program had "nothing to do" with the talks over the Islamic republic's atomic program. The assertion - which has been consistently underlined by top Iranian diplomats for months - is, in a strict sense, false. Multiple binding United Nations Security Council resolutions link Iran's ballistic missile program to its nuclear activities, and UNSC Resolution 1929 has language deciding that "Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology." The Iranian posture may prove to be politically as well as substantively problematic for the Obama administration. The interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) with Iran - providing Tehran with billions in sanctions relief - did not place any restrictions on the country's ballistic missile program. Pushed on the controversy by senators last February, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman assured the lawmakers that the program would be addressed in any comprehensive deal signed between the parties.
The Associated Press late Thursday conveyed a statement from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) announcing that an agreement had been reached between its members, a deal that the wire described as "a possible first step toward bridging deep rifts among its six energy-rich Arab states," while Arabic media outlets quoted Oman's Foreign Affairs Minister Yusuf bin Alawi declaring that the relationship between the countries was "all clear." The talks had seen Kuwait and Oman seek to dampen tensions between Qatar, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain on the other. The three Gulf countries recently withdrew their ambassadors from Doha to protest what they described as interference in their internal affairs, a not particularly veiled gesture toward Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar and the Brotherhood had in recent years aligned regionally with Turkey, opposite a de facto camp composed of huge swaths of the Arab world plus Israel. Those two blocs had in recent years competed not just with each other but also against a third camp anchored by Iran. Qatar's geopolitical gambles on Turkish and Brotherhood ascendency failed to pay off, and the country found its regional position slipping badly. This week's GCC conference was held to provide the Qataris with a way to come back into the Gulf fold. It is not clear how much was substantively achieved at the meeting, however, and in any case it is unlikely that broader regional realignments will occur in the short term. The insidery Intelbrief, published by The Soufan Group, assessed Thursday that "Saudi Arabia and Turkey are maneuvering to position themselves as the leader of the Sunni Islamic world," with both deploying resources to "oppose Iranian expansion in the region" but differing in their posture toward the Muslim Brotherhood. The write-up emphasized, by way of caveat, that "even when it comes to their common regional foe Iran, the two agree on some principles but not the details," with Saudi Arabia strongly opposing engagement with the Islamic republic in contrast to Turkey's "extensive ties with Iran." The Obama administration has been blasted by domestic analysts and foreign diplomats for what those critics insist is insufficient support for the bloc composed of Washington's Arab allies. Agence France-Presse (AFP) today published leaks blaming the recent replacement of Saudi Arabia's spy chief on U.S. pressure, after Prince Bandar bin Sultan angrily criticized Washington on the issue in front of Western diplomats.
The Turkish parliament on Thursday approved what both international and Turkish media described as a "controversial" new law widening the powers of the country's National Intelligence Agency (MIT), a move that was widely read against the backdrop of ongoing efforts by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to blunt public discussion of a graft scandal that has ensnared top AKP elites, including members of Erdogan's family. UPI carried criticism from opposition parties and rights groups, accusing the Turkish leader of seeking to transform Turkey into a surveillance state and seeking to deploy MIT for his personal use. Hurriyet Daily News explained that control over Ankara's sprawling security apparatus "is at the heart of a feud between Erdogan and Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen." Erdogan and his allies blame Gulen-linked figures in the judiciary and police for the graft scandal, and have purged literally thousands of judges and police officers in response to revelations of deep-seated corruption. The heavy-handed tactics have taken a toll on perceptions of Turkey as an Islamist democracy. Analysts and journalists had for months been describing the AKP's campaign - which, after the initial purges, escalated into shutting down social media platforms - as a threat to Turkish civil and human rights. In February over 80 top U.S. foreign policy figures called on President Barack Obama to check what they described as a downward spiral of "authoritarian impulses." Last week a meeting between Turkish and European officials aimed at integrated Turkey into the Continent had to be pushed off, with an E.U. diplomat explaining that "there would [have been] too much bashing of Turkey around."
The arrest of an Arab-Israeli human rights activist on suspicion of being recruited by Hezbollah threatened on Thursday to expand into a broader scandal over the role of a controversial U.S.-based non-profit that has been criticized for funneling money to anti-Israel organizations and activists, including to those that support waging economic warfare against Israel. Majd Kayyal was arrested as he returned to Israel from a trip to Lebanon, with Israel's Shin Bet security agency accusing him of illegally traveling to an enemy country and contacting Hezbollah. Details of his detainment were released and published on Thursday, including a statement from his lawyer acknowledging that Kayyal knew he was breaking the law by traveling to Lebanon. Kayyal is the editor of the website for Adalah, an organization that recently became prominent for spearheading eventually violent protests against a plan by the Israeli government to drive billions of dollars into underdeveloped areas of Israel's southern Negev region. As critics quickly pointed out Thursday afternoon, Adalah in turn receives funds from the New Israel Fund, a New York-based organization that has been widely criticized for acting as a clearinghouse for funds delivered to anti-Israel causes. The group's vice president of public affairs recently published an article supportive of partial boycotts against Israel, a version of economic warfare against the Jewish state that has been identified by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center as grounded in anti-Semitism stretching back decades.
IMF confirms Iran's economy has stabilized after months of sanctions-busting oil exports, as concerns deepen over spiraling Western leverage
- IMF confirms Iran's economy has stabilized after months of sanctions-busting oil exports, as concerns deepen over spiraling Western leverage
- WSJ: "no signs" that Iranian leaders preparing public for concessions, as top atomic official makes case for weapons-grade uranium and thousands of new centrifuges
- Passover terror attack on Israeli family leaves at least one dead, after negotiators seek new ways to push forward peace hopes
Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Monday outlined the details of a new International Monetary Fund report concluding - pre the outlet – that "Iran's economy is stabilizing" and will grow in 2014 "even if sanctions relief under [the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA)] deal proves short-lived." The assessment details a wide range of already-known macroeconomic indicators converging on the conclusion that Tehran is managing to mitigate the economic pressure that Western negotiators have said is critical to securing nuclear concessions. Xinhua's coverage the report, published under the headline "UAE seeks more trade ties with Iran after IMF's positive outlook," linked the economic improvements to long-standing fears that the JPA's partial sanctions relief would trigger a kind of gold rush in which no entity wanted to be the last to access Iran's newly reopened markets. Bloomberg had already reported over the weekend that Tehran is engaged in extensive discussions with European and Asian businesses over future economic initiatives. The New York Times today published an article that, at the bottom of the piece, gestured toward the IMF report and conveyed assessments from a range of experts evaluating the significance of Iran's ongoing, five month streak of surging past its permitted levels of oil exports. The Times quoted Mark D. Wallace, chief executive of United Against Nuclear Iran, declaring that the Obama administration’s insistence on the robustness of the sanctions regime was being "wholly contradicted by reality." It also quoted Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, noting that the dynamic "enhances Iranian nuclear negotiating leverage and makes it more difficult to conclude a diplomatic deal" that would see the Islamic republic meeting its international obligations. The top of the Times article, meanwhile, was devoted to evidence suggesting that ''the Iranians have seen little in the way of a boost from the sanctions relief they had been expecting." This is the second such article published in as many weeks by a top U.S.-based media outlet. It is not clear how to reconcile such assertions - which presume that Tehran has yet to see relief from a sanctions regime so crippling that it coerced hardline mullahs into conducting negotiations - with the broad range of quantative economic indicators indicating that Iran's economy has stabilized. Suggestions that the Iranians just got really lucky seem unlikely to rise to the level of social scientific rigor that analysts would find persuasive. Some observers have also made the point that Iranian economic improvement erodes Western leverage regardless of its cause, a risk that diplomats and lawmakers have urged Congress to offset by passing legislation locking in future pressure should negotiations fail.
Top Iranian cleric Ayatollah Imami Kashani declared in a nationally televised sermon on Friday that Tehran would continue pushing forward with its nuclear program despite the intentions of the country's "enemies," prompting the Wall Street Journal - which read the boast against the backdrop of similar remarks recently aired by other senior figures - to assess that Iranian leaders "show no signs of preparing [the] public for concessions to [the] West." Top officials from the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, up to and including Rouahni himself, have repeatedly and explicitly ruled out concessions on uranium enrichment, plutonium production, and ballistic missile development which U.S. analysts consider to be absolute minimums for putting a nuclear bomb beyond Tehran's reach. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last week barred Iranian negotiators from trading away what he described as the country’s "nuclear achievements." This weekend Iran's atomic energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi went further, insisting, first, that Tehran has a right to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels of purity and, second, that Iran will need 30,000 additional centrifuges to meet its energy needs. U.S. experts - including prominent supporters of the Obama administration's diplomacy with the Islamic republic - have calculated that any deal putting Iran's atomic program beyond use for weaponization would have to include prohibitions on the creation of highly enriched uranium and require Iranian scientists to dismantle thousands of already-existing centrifuges. Evaluating red lines set by Iranian officials, CNN host Fareed Zakaria had already last January worried that the P5+1 global powers and the Islamic Republic were headed towards a "diplomatic trainwreck" and that he was not "even quite sure what they’re going to talk about if these are the opening positions." Zakaria noted at the time that "it’s very hard to walk back” the absolutist positions taken by Iranian leaders. Obama administration officials have sought to answer skeptics by suggesting that hardline Iranian declarations are just bargaining positions, while skeptics have countered by pointing out that - even as bargaining positions - the widely broadcast statements may raise Iranian public expectations and close off necessary compromises.
A suspected terrorist attack on an Israeli family driving in the West Bank - assailants riddled the family's car with bullets as it was en route to Passover dinner on Monday - has reportedly claimed the life of one man, left his wife and child injured, and thrown into doubt efforts to put Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track. Israeli officials late last week had already provided grim predictions regarding the possibility that the two sides might ink a final status agreement before the April 29th deadline of a nine-month U.S. peace push spearheaded by Secretary of State John Kerry. A subsequent three hour Sunday night meeting ended without reports of progress. Nonetheless officials on both sides - and analysts in the West - had in recent days taken to emphasizing that the parties might substantively advance the prospects for peace outside of the Kerry framework, either in concert with each other or via uncoordinated unilateral steps. The bilateral Sunday night meeting between the parties had already been held without the presence of Washington's mediator Martin Indyk, who in any case had seen his position complicated in recent days by reports that he was driving a media campaign to scapegoat Israel for the collapse of the Kerry initiative. Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl on Sunday made the case that "[a]lmost every positive development in Israeli-Palestinian relations has happened outside the 'peace process,'" and that the U.S. has played a positive role when it backed up and bolstered pragmatic leaders from the two sides. Diehl blasted the Obama administration for instead "chos[ing] to embrace the ever-failing peace process," a move that he insisted "not only has foundered, but it also has partly reversed the more organic change that was underway." Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas had in recent weeks abandoned the high-stakes negotiations and instead resumed a campaign of diplomatic warfare against Israel, submitting applications to 15 international treaties. The gambit put the Palestinians on the wrong side of core Oslo Accord commitments, stretching back decades, under which they committed to abstaining from diplomatic moves that would upgrade the status of disputed territories. It risked confirming fundamental worries that Ramallah will eventually exploit a structural asymmetry in peace talks - Jerusalem is expected make irreversible territorial and security concessions, while the Palestinians are asked to reciprocate with reversible agreements - by pocketing Israeli concessions and then abandon talks anyway. It remains unclear whether Palestinian diplomats will be able to walk back Abbas's turn to international legal instruments, after Switzerland confirmed late last week that it had accepted the Palestinian request to accede to the Geneva Conventions.
Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News on Saturday summarized a weekend speech given by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as one in which the Turkish leader "lashe[d] out at all his 'foes'," outlining that Erdogan "maintained his angry criticism of the Constitutional Court, the Gezi Park protesters, Twitter and the Gulen movement." Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have sought to ban Twitter since the eve of recent nationwide local elections, in a move widely seen as aimed at limiting discussions of a graft scandal that had ensnared top AKP elites including Erdogan and his family. That corruption investigation had in turn been driven by elements in the police and judiciary linked to the Islamist movement of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. For its part the Constitutional Court had ordered the government to remove the Twitter blackout, prompting ongoing and angry denunciations by Erdogan and other government officials. Agence France-Presse (AFP) documented comments from Erdogan's Saturday speech branding Twitter a "tax evader" and promising to "go after" the popular microblogging platform. Reuters read the controversy as one of many in which Twitter's nature "as a public, broadcast medium and its viral network model" had led to it being "viewed as a particularly destabilizing force by some governments," including by Iran. Meanwhile Hurriyet reported that skirmishes between Erdogan and the Constitutional Court are widening, after the Court partially overturned a judicial bill that would have shifted power to the justice minister. The outlet noted that the legislation had been "drafted by the government amid the graft allegations."
Reports: Sanctions-busting Iran-Russia oil deal would open door for "bomber-killing missile," "sanctioned nuclear equipment," "military hardware"
- Reports: Sanctions-busting Iran-Russia oil deal would open door for "bomber-killing missile," "sanctioned nuclear equipment," "military hardware"
- State Dept. scrambles to correct Kerry testimony coverage, emphasizes Israeli PM's "courageous decisions" on peace process
Analysts and journalists continued on Tuesday to unpack the potential implications of a planned oil-for-goods program between Iran and Russia, after the $20 billion sanctions-busting barter agreement reemerged last week as a controversy in the wake of a Reuters report. Reuters had outlined some details of the deal last January, assessing that it "would enable Iran to lift oil exports substantially, undermining Western sanctions" and quoting Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) declaring that the "reckless and irresponsible move raises serious questions about Russia's commitment to ending Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons." Both concerns – regarding the robustness of international restrictions on Iran and the potential for Moscow to undermine negotiations - have since then deepened. Iran has for five straight months exceeded the amount of oil it is allowed to export under the terms of the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), and on Monday Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) sent a letter [PDF] to President Barack Obama arguing that further moves by the Islamic Republic to "violate the terms of oil sanctions relief provided for in the JPA" should prompt Washington to act by "re-instating... and sanctioning any violations" of crude oil sanctions. Meanwhile fears have been building that White House assurances regarding Russia’s willingness to "compartmentalize" the crisis in Ukraine - that is, to insulate the spike in Western-Russian tensions from Iran talks - may have been over-optimistic. The Daily Beast on Tuesday assessed that "if the pressure mounts on Moscow, then the West may end up paying the price for punishing Russia, at the bargaining table with Iran," and that the Kremlin may use the oil-for-goods scheme not just to undermine sanctions in general but more specifically to provide Iran with "super-sophisticated, bomber-killing” S-300 missiles "that could defend its centrifuges and reactors from allied air strikes." The Washington Free Beacon on Tuesday also reported on potential weapons-related implications of the deal, quoting Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), noting that it could open a "channel for the transfer of sanctioned nuclear equipment or military hardware to Iran, not to mention other illicit financial transactions."
The State Department went on offense late Tuesday to correct what spokeswoman Jen Psaki underlined was wrongheaded media coverage of Congressional testimony given earlier in the day by Secretary of State John Kerry, in which statements by Kerry were widely described as having blamed Israel for the breakdown in peace talks between Jerusalem and the Palestinians. Psaki quickly took to Twitter to emphasize that Kerry had been "crystal clear" in not blaming one side over the other, and that he had "even singled out by name Prime Minister Netanyahu for having made courageous decisions throughout [the] process." A more formal statement provided to reporters by the State Department repeated those tweets almost verbatim. Initial media coverage had largely echoed the descriptions provided by a quickly published article in Israel's left-leaning Haaretz, which stated that Kerry had placed the blame for failed peace talks on Israel (Haaretz subsequently changed the subhead of that article to gesture toward criticism of its coverage, shifting from "Secretary of state says Israel did not release prisoners on time, approved construction in Jerusalem and 'poof' we found ourselves where we are" to "U.S. officials later try to play down Kerry's comments, saying he did not engage in a blame game and that both sides took 'unhelpful steps'"). Any timeline that holds Israel responsible for the breakdown in talks would be taken in many quarters as strained. Conveying Kerry's Congressional statements, for instance, the Los Angeles Times tersely noted that "the announcement on the housing units came as the Palestinians were refusing to agree to continue the peace talks." The permits themselves were not new tenders, but were part of a reissued call for the construction of homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. Construction in that part of Jerusalem has often vexed analysts, journalists, and diplomats trying to grasp the dynamics of the peace process. Columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, who at the time was advocating that the Obama administration "talk to Israel" about settlements in the West Bank, attempted to shed light on the issue back in 2009, explaining that "[t]he building of apartments in Gilo is irrelevant to eventual disposition of Jerusalem because everyone - the Americans, the Palestinians and the Israelis - knows that Gilo... will undoubtedly end up in Israel as part of a negotiated solution... [i]t doesn't matter, then, if the Israelis build 900 housing units in Gilo or 900 skyscrapers: Gilo will be kept by Israel in exchange for a one-to-one land swap with Palestine."
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday declared that his Justice and Development Party's (AKP) recent electoral victory in nationwide local elections had, per Reuters, "given him a mandate to 'liquidate' the enemies" who he accuses of being behind a still-spiraling graft scandal that has ensnared top AKP elites and plunged the country into open political warfare. Erdogan had used his victory speech following those elections to announce that he would make his rivals "pay" for having opposed him. The threat, along with efforts to shut down access to Twitter and YouTube on the eve of the polling, was subsequently cited as the source of potentially irreparable tensions between Turkey and the European Union. Turkish courts subsequently ordered those restrictions lifted, but those decisions have either been reversed or are being fought by the government. Ankara for instance fought a court order to lift its ban on YouTube, and a later ruling by a different court granted the government's request. Google, which owns YouTube, is now fighting to appeal the blackout. The order to reinstate access to Twitter, meanwhile, has been blasted by top Turkish officials - including by Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc on Monday and by Erdogan himself on Tuesday – who continue to call for its reversal. Washington's Ambassador to Turkey Francis J. Ricciardone denounced the restrictions in an interview published earlier this week by Turkey's Hurriyet daily, declaring that "Americans simply cannot understand how" Ankara could "flat-out ban on Twitter and YouTube," and that "the damage from the campaign is something that is still playing out in Turkey’s international standing."
Iranian officials continued through the weekend and on Tuesday to lash out against a recent European Parliament (EP) resolution that criticized Iran over its human rights record, with Tehran's top diplomat threatening to ban EP delegations and Iranian lawmakers crafting a range of responses and resolutions. The EP's April 3 resolution had among other things criticized Iran for limiting "freedom of information, freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, academic freedom, freedom of education and freedom of movement." It also called for parliamentary delegations to Iran to "be committed to meeting members of the political opposition and civil society activists, and to having access to political prisoners." The language came after months of statements by top United Nations officials, including by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, declaring that the Islamic Republic's human rights abuses had not significantly abated under the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham responded to the EP resolution by blasting it as "discriminatory and racist." Iranian media conveyed a statement by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif banning EP delegations who would seek to implement the resolution's call for interactions with dissidents and political prisoners. A prominent Iranian parliamentarian lashed out at the European Union for "meddling in Iran’s domestic affairs," and a statement signed by 258 Iranian parliamentarians echoed the charge. Iranian media outlets for their part went so far as to host guests insisting that - actually – it is "the EU and the West" that contribute to undermining human rights.
15 new treaties signed by Abbas - including multiple treaties Palestinians are currently violating - blasted for endangering negotiations
- 15 new treaties signed by Abbas - including multiple treaties Palestinians are currently violating - blasted for endangering negotiations
- Congress launches pushback against Iran's appointment of UN ambassador linked to 1979 hostage takers
- Turkish opposition shows photographs of vote count irregularities, amid swirling charges of election tampering
Palestinian officials on Wednesday issued a release listing 15 international treaties to which they will now seek to join as the "State of Palestine," adding detail to a Tuesday gambit by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas under which Ramallah renewed its campaign to upgrade the Palestinians' status in international institutions. The move was widely seen as violating the terms of U.S.-backed peace initiative pushed by Secretary of State John Kerry, which had among other things been explicitly premised on Palestinian commitments to abstain from such maneuvers. Abbas gave a speech declaring that abrogating those commitments should not be interpreted as a repudiation of the U.S. initiative, but interpretation may have fallen short of being persuasive. A meeting between the Palestinian leader and Kerry, originally scheduled for Wednesday, was promptly canceled. The Palestinians subsequently revealed the list of treaties to which they intend to ascend, with Abbas signing and Palestinian diplomats on Wednesday submitting papers codifying those intentions. The list appears to be a hodge-podge of international agreements, with some having to do with minority rights, others having to do with the trappings of statehood, and still others seemingly chosen as PR bludgeons against Israel. Analysts quickly raised concerns regarding the Palestinians' willingness or abilities to enforce those various treaties. Bar Ilan University Professor Gerald Steinberg, who also heads the watchdog group NGO Monitor, openly ridiculed the suggestion that Abbas - who sits atop of a Palestinian political infrastructure marked by endemic corruption, and who himself is serving a ninth year in his originally four year President term - would enforce the United Nations Convention against Corruption. It is unclear whether the Fatah-controlled PA will be able to enforce treaties such as The Convention on the Rights of the Child in the Gaza Strip, which Palestinian officials consider part of the "State of Palestine" but in which Hamas routinely trains thousands of child soldiers. There were several treaties signed by Abbas on Wednesday which the Palestinians appear to be in straightforward violation of. Northwestern University School of Law professor Eugene Kontorovich had early on Wednesday gestured toward a deep tension between the Palestinians joining The International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid while working towards a state from which Jewish settlers would be expelled. He might have added that Palestinian law currently bars West Bank Arabs selling their homes or properties to Jews on pain of execution.
Reuters reported Wednesday afternoon that Russia and Iran were advancing on a scheme that would see the Iranians bartering roughly 500,000 barrels of oil a day in exchange for Russian goods, a plan that the outlet said would "enable Tehran to boost vital energy exports in defiance of Western sanctions" and which the White house had previously gone so far as to identify as the source of "serious concerns." Iranian officials reportedly estimate that the oil-for-goods deal would be worth $20 billion to the Islamic Republic, gifting Tehran with revenue far beyond what was envisioned by the partial sanctions relief provided by the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA). Diplomatically, the move would be read as in tension with State Department talking points - shared with lawmakers and journalists - insisting that Russia would "compartmentalize" tensions over Crimea and continue to back Western efforts to secure Iranian nuclear concessions. Substantively, the deal would deepen increasingly trenchant concerns that Washington had lost control of the partial sanctions relief provided by JPA, and that the patchwork of restrictions is in danger of coming undone. Both issues directly implicate renewed moves on the Hill to reassert a Congressional voice in negotiations with Iran. Bipartisan majorities of lawmakers in both parties have long sought to pass legislation that would impose financial pressure on Iran in the future should negotiations fail to convince Tehran to verifiably put its atomic program beyond use for weaponization. The White House fought something of a political war against those efforts, arguing that new legislation would cause divisions between the West and Russia, and that in any case no new pressure was needed because the sanctions regime was holding. A scenario under which Russia split from the West to bust the sanctions regime would likely complicate the administration's arguments.
Lawmakers in both chambers of Congress are moving to enact legislation that would prevent Iran from securing a visa for its newly appointed ambassador to the United Nations, just a day after Businessweek had already described the choice of Hamid Aboutalebi as creating a "dilemma" for President Barack Obama's diplomacy toward the Islamic Republic. Aboutalebi was a member of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line when the group in 1979 seized scores of Americans inside the U.S.'s Iran embassy and subsequently held them for 444 days. Analysts had quickly assessed that allowing Aboutalebi to serve in New York on Iran's behalf would be seen by U.S. allies as evidence that "Washington is willing to ignore Iranian misbehavior in our pursuit of a nuclear accord." The Hill reported Tuesday that Senators were urging President Obama to act against the Aboutalebi appointed, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) introduced legislation that would empower the president to deny a visa to any U.N. representative considered a terrorist. The legislation was reported as having bipartisan support - it garnered positive quotes from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) - and on Wednesday parallel legislation was introduced in the House by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO). The administration has sought to remain largely circumspect on the issue, with State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf describing visa procurement procedures as "obviously confidential." It is unclear how long such a stance can be maintained. Skeptics of the White House's engagement with Iran - which administration officials have sought to insulate from interference by insisting that a positive "spirit of Geneva" must be maintained - have portrayed the pick as a deliberate provocation.
An official from Turkey's main opposition party on Tuesday showed journalists a photograph of a top figure from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) standing next to a police chief and an election official as votes were counted in Antalya during the country's March 30 local elections, the latest in a series of alleged irregularities that have generated protests throughout the country. Devrim Kok, the head of the Republican People’s Party (CJP)'s Antalya office, expressed outrage over "a minister who comes to the courthouse and stands over the votes during counting." The controversy comes amid several others related to last weekend's polling, with AKP opponents calling attention to everything from discarded ballots marked for opposition candidates to mysterious blackouts in opposition-heavy areas. Turkey’s blackouts had initially been blamed on a cat said to have wandered into local electrical infrastructure, but subsequent investigation suggested that the NATO country’s electricity infrastructure has probably been hardened beyond the reach of stray felines, and that the blackouts seemed to correlate with areas supplied by pro-government electricity firms. Turkey has recently made a series of moves aimed at dampening criticism of the AKP government, with the most controversial being a series of internationally criticized bans on access to Twitter and Facebook instituted on the eve of the recent elections. The country's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Tuesday lashed out at the European Union over such criticism, declaring that EU diplomats should consult with Ankara before criticizing Ankara.
Reports: "Surprise move" by Palestinians to renew UN diplomatic warfare endangers peace process, U.S. interests
- Reports: "Surprise move" by Palestinians to renew UN diplomatic warfare endangers peace process, U.S. interests
- New figures estimate over 150,000 dead in Syria, as analysts warn Hezbollah involvement "could fan flames into a wider regional conflict"
The Associated Press reported late Tuesday on what the outlet described as a "surprise move" by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas to go to a range of United Nations bodies requesting membership for the "State of Palestine." The AP noted that the declaration came "despite a promise to suspend such efforts during nine months of negotiations with Israel," and that it risked collapsing the delicate U.S.-backed effort to push forward a framework peace agreement. Israel had in recent days made an offer to extend talks, and had even reportedly teed up another prisoner release aimed at securing further negotiations. The Israelis had undertaken three previous rounds of releases to bring the Palestinians to the table and keep them there. The Israeli offer to extend talks was rejected, and the Palestinian announcement that they were turning to the UN came within days. Abbas said that he would like to continue pursuing negotiations with the Israelis despite the Palestinian gambit. The position is likely to come off as too clever by half. The entire basis of the nine month-long U.S.-backed peace initiative was that the Palestinians would abstain from seeking membership in UN institutions. Kerry almost immediately canceled a planned trip to Ramallah, which had been scheduled for Wednesday, in light of Abbas's decision. Any Palestinian success would immediately trigger black-letter U.S. laws that cut off funds to UN bodies that give the Palestinians membership. U.S. diplomats, hoping to avoid such confrontations, have long opposed unilateral moves by the Palestinians to gain membership in UN institutions. A Heritage Foundation report co-authored by Brett D. Schaefer and James Phillips a few years ago went even further, bluntly identifying past unilateral moves as "threaten[ing] United States and Israeli interests" and "undermin[ing] all internationally accepted frameworks for peace." Palestinian gambits at the UN have more pointedly been seen as corroding the basic framework of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The land-for-peace formula requires the Israelis to give up tangible, functionally irreversible concessions in exchange for Palestinian commitments. The fear has always been that the Palestinians will negotiate only as long as they can extract territory or prisoners, and that they will then pocket what they've gained and walk away. Abbas’s moves seem set to confirm those fears.
Iran's Fars News outlet reported on Tuesday that Tehran is aggressively courting foreign investors, conveying among other things statements made by Valiollah Afkhamirad, the head of Iran’s Trade Development Organization, declaring that the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) inked last November in Geneva had created "a suitable atmosphere... [for] investors in Iran and they have become highly interested in business" with the Islamic Republic. The article more specifically discussed a call made on Monday by Mahmoud Vaezi, Iran's Minister of Communications and Information Technology, emphasizing that "Iran has invited world countries to invest and collaborate in projects to establish partnerships for ultra broadband corridors" across the country. The calls echo a February boast by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif announcing that the sanctions relief outlined by the JPA had transformed Iran into a place that was "open for business." They came alongside other reports describing a "steady flow of Western executives" into Iran. Meanwhile British financial reporter Matt Lynn assessed on MarketWatch that Iran seems primed to become "one of the hottest investment opportunities of the next two decades." The Iranian strategy seems primed to deepen a very particular worry regarding the possibility that the JPA's partial erosion of the international sanctions regime will prevent financial pressure from being reimposed on Iran: Foreign entities that become invested in Iranian markets are likely to mobilize political pressure to prevent any moves to close those markets back off. Brookings fellow Michael Doran had already in January speculated that the JPA "has created an influential economic lobby in the West dedicated to ensuring" that sanctions are not tightened again. Such concerns have become more pitched in recent months, as Iran has moved in to encourage foreign investment across a range of industries.
Turkish security officials on Tuesday turned water cannons on protestors marching in reaction to widespread allegations that this weekend's local elections - which saw the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan secure a plurality of the votes - were marked by fraud, intimidation, and mysterious power outages in opposition-heavy districts. Residents of the Turkey’s Duzici district, where the AKP candidate beat his nearest opponent by 440 votes, reported finding discarded ballots marked for an opposition party in at least six area polling stations. Reports of power outages were brushed off by municipal authorities as mostly the result of bad weather or - in one case - a rogue feline. Ankara, where the AKP candidate defeated the next opponent by less than a percentage point, was one of several cities in which protestors demanded recounts. The election had already been marked by irregularities, most prominently a government ban against Twitter and YouTube that had generated global ridicule and international condemnation. The new controversies, to say nothing of the government's response to those controversies, are unlikely to dampen growing criticism that Turkey has more or less ceased to be a functioning liberal democracy. In late February over 80 top U.S. foreign policy figures called on President Barack Obama to take action to halt "Turkey’s current path," and declared that "silence will only encourage Prime Minister Erdogan to diminish the rule of law in the country even further."
Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Tuesday conveyed recent figures from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) assessing that more than 150,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, amid another string of prominently reported gains by forces fighting on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Exact figures have been notoriously difficult to come by - the United Nations has quite literally stopped trying to tally the deaths - but SOHR calculated that the numbers include over 7,900 children. On Monday Al Arabiya reported that pro-regime forces had "recaptured on Monday a key position in the coastal province of Latakia," a victory that came shortly after "government forces, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters... triumphed against the opposition along the border area with Lebanon." The victories were seen as critical to Hezbollah's effort to stop the transit of Sunni jihadists across the Lebanon-Syria border, and triggered what local media described as "an atmosphere of contentment" in areas of Lebanon controlled by the Iran-backed terror group. Washington Institute Senior Fellow Andrew Tabler on Tuesday nonetheless emphasized that Hezbollah's activities in Syria were hardening sectarian divisions in Lebanon, with the result being "increased suicide car bombings, Sunni-Shiite tension, and armed clashes." The resulting political instability, according to Tabler, "could fan the flames into a wider regional conflict that Hezbollah and Iran cannot put out and cannot afford."