- 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.