Posted by Albert Gersh - November 15, 2013
- Israeli PM urges France to resist pressure, hold to conditions on Iran's uranium and plutonium progress
- Journalists press State Department on tensions within Israel, Iran policies
- Washington Post: after U.S. aid freeze, Egypt moving "further away from its traditional place within the U.S. sphere of influence"
- Syrian army takes strategic towns, now positioned to advance toward country's largest city
What we’re watching today:
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today urged France to maintain its position on the terms for an acceptable interim agreement on between Iran and the P5+1 global powers Tehran's nuclear program, a week after Paris's objections to what it described as a "sucker's deal" reportedly contributed to blocking a deal that would have swapped relief from international sanctions for limited Iranian concessions. Patrick Maisonnave, France's ambassador to Israel, had earlier in the week outlined the main guarantees that France was demanding. Regarding Iranian progress toward a uranium-based bomb, Maisonnave outlined Paris's demands for more robust enrichment restrictions, and he rejected Iran's claim that it has a right to enrich nuclear material on its soil. France's position on continued Iranian enrichment echoes that of former nuclear inspectors and experts, who have estimated that allowing Iran to narrow the already-short window it needs to rush across the nuclear finish line. The rejection of enrichment rights tracks with analysis from legal experts, think tank scholars, and U.S. lawmakers: not only does Iran simply not have a right under international law to enrich uranium, but accepting its position otherwise - according to a 2006 analysis by Robert Zarate, now the policy director at the Foreign Policy Initiative - would endanger the global non-proliferation regime. Regarding Iran's progress toward a plutonium-based bomb, Maisonnave emphasized the French demand that work cease at Iran's Arak facility, which houses a heavy-water production facility and a reactor. Once the reactor goes "hot" it becomes functionally impervious to military attack due to expected fallout, and it produces two bombs' worth of plutonium per year. Iranian negotiators were said to have worked out language that would have allowed Iranian scientists to continue bolstering the facility as long as Tehran committed to not turning on the reactor for six months, something that Tehran had already declared it wasn't going to do anyway. This aspect of the agreement in particular led to comments by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius describing a "fool's game" at the talks.
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today took to Twitter today with an post and info-graphic blasting the likely contours of an understanding being pursued by major global powers and Iran on the latter's nuclear weapons program, concluding that "Iran is getting everything and giving nothing!" The post - which garnered international coverage and made its way to the top of the State Department's daily press Q&A - urged Western powers not to "rush into a bad deal with Iran." At the briefing multiple reporters pushed spokesperson Jen Psaki on the degree to which the United States was managing to assure the Israelis that an agreement being pursued with Iran would not endanger the security interests of our allies. Journalists challenged Psaki to justify the administration's repeated and controversial statements implying that advocates of new sanctions on Iran were putting the U.S. on a path to war with the Islamic republic. Among those who have in recent months supported sanctions are the 178 House Democrats who last July voted for new sanctions and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) who yesterday rejected White House calls to delay new financial pressure. It is not known if any of these elected U.S. lawmakers have been briefed specifically on the administration's strange regarding their position. Thursday's briefing had already at times generated confusion, with the State Department simultaneously claiming that U.S. diplomats were closely coordinating with the Israelis over the details of a proposed deal and that the Israelis - who were publicly critical of the negotiations' course - didn't know the details of a proposed deal.
- Egypt yesterday hosted a delegation of top Russian diplomatic and military figures, including Moscow's foreign and defense ministers, in what the Washington Post described as a sign that Cairo was edging "further away from its traditional place within the U.S. sphere of influence." The Obama administration has in recent months distanced itself from Egypt's army-backed interim government, among other things by freezing parts of Washington's aid package to the Egyptian military. The White House has justified its moves as a response to the army's July overthrow of then-president Mohammed Morsi, which came after a week of unprecedented anti-government protests by millions of Egyptians who called for the removal Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-linked government. Washington's decision had been blasted by analysts as not only unlikely to secure substantive results - Egypt's generals view their struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood as an existential one, and it is difficult to imagine how they could reverse their ongoing decapitation campaign against the Islamist group's leadership - but as geopolitically unwise. In a narrow sense the U.S. had in the past few decades enjoyed enormous benefits from close military-to-military ties with Cairo, which provided U.S. forces with preferential overflight rights and preferential access to the Suez Canal. More broadly, ties between the U.S. and Egypt had prevented geopolitical rivals from encroaching on the U.S.'s interests in the region. Earlier in November Tom Nichols and John R. Schindler, foreign policy scholars who emphasized that they rarely agree on foreign policy prescriptions, bluntly criticized the Obama administration for undermining “nearly seven decades” of bipartisan American efforts aimed at “limiting Moscow’s influence” in the Middle East.
- Rebels sources report that forces loyal to the Bashar al-Assad regime have seized five towns near Damascus over the last 10 days, strengthening the regime's position in advance of upcoming peace talks, as Syrian state television meanwhile announced that the army had captured three towns around Aleppo and were preparing to continue onto the city itself. Aleppo is Syria's largest city and observers have feared since last summer that Syrian forces, backed on the ground by Iranian fighters and fighters drawn from Iran's Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, would move to expel opposition forces which have controlled parts of the city since at least 2012. Rami Abdelrahman, an expert from the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, predicted that that "it's a matter of time before the army has full control of Tel Hasel," a reference to a contested town 6 miles south-east of Aleppo. A Syrian air strike on Aleppo earlier this week killed a top opposition commander. Reuters described the death as "a setback to rebels defending the city against a loyalist attack."
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