Posted by Albert Gersh - February 18, 2014
- Pessimism marks Iran talks launch, as Khamenei declares they will "not lead anywhere"
- Hezbollah chief's speech reignites concerns Iran-backed group manufacturing conflict with Israel over underwater energy resources
- WH pressed over evidence that Iran economy stabilizing amid oil export spike
- Egypt terror attacks comes as White House faces renewed questions over wisdom of security aid cut
- The first day of coverage regarding comprehensive talks between Iran and the P5+1 global powers revolved around pessimism from all sides regarding the prospect that talks would succeed, amid declarations by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that negotiations would "not lead anywhere" and statements by U.S. officials that the initial six-month negotiation period - during which Iran is thought to enjoy immunity from additional moves against its nuclear program - would extend at least a year. The concession by Obama administration officials drew criticism from skeptics who have repeatedly pressed the White House on the asymmetric structure of the interim Joint Plan of Action, which provides irreversible concessions to Iran in the form of cash injections while leaving open the possibility that Tehran will pocket the concessions and walk away from further talks. Khamenei's speech, meanwhile, is likely to deepen concerns - long voiced by analysts - that expressions of distrust by the Iranian ruler have precisely been leveraged as pretexts to abandon negotiations. For their part, Reuters described his statements as "his strongest sign of support for moderate President Hassan Rouhani's push to resolve the conflict peacefully," in a story headlined "Iran's Khamenei backs nuclear talks but not optimistic." The developments are already fueling increasingly emphatic calls for Congressional input into the administration's diplomacy. Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) was quoted by USA Today demanding that any negotiation process preclude Khamenei's ability "to wake up one day, kick out inspectors and race to the bomb." Kirk called for any final agreement to ensure that Iran halts all uranium enrichment activity.
- A Sunday speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is fueling concerns that the Iran-backed terror group intends to use Lebanon's off-shore energy resources to provoke a conflict with Israel, with the terror group chief reportedly insisting at least three times that Israel is engaged in a plot to plunder Lebanese oil. Lebanese media noted that Nasrallah began his extended speech by invoking Israel as a threat to Lebanon, quoting him as boasting that Hezbollah was ready "to confront the Israeli enemy." Foreign Policy Magazine Middle East Editor David Kenner described parts of the speech as "hitting on energy, sovereignty, and the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." There are long-standing concerns that Hezbollah is attempting to manufacture a conflict with Israel by pushing Lebanese officials to create a crisis over disputed underwater energy resources. The Journal of Diplomacy's Ziad Achkar noted, in the context of Nasrallah's speech, that the energy issue is attractive for Hezbollah because it allows the Iran-backed terror group to "comeoff as Hero of Lebanon, defending resources where government can't," in the process creating a pretext for holding on to advanced weapons that the militia uses to maintain a state-within-a-state in Lebanon. Achkar read the strategy as a "flashback to 2006, provoking Israeli war to regain public support that was dwindling." Hezbollah's brand as a Lebanese organization defending Lebanese interests has been shattered by its involvement, at the behest of Iran, in Syria's nearly three-year conflict.
- The Washington Free Beacon on Tuesday morning conveyed statements from White House officials brushing off concerns regarding a January spike in Iran's oil exports, which was widely read against the backdrop of a stabilization in Iran's economy, prompting Foreign Policy to say that it had "raised concerns" over the veracity of White House statements describing sanctions relief to Iran under the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) as relatively limited. The Obama administration has long faced criticism that it had both vastly undercounted the value of direct relief due to a range of fairly basic and easily identifiable errors, and that it had underestimated the likelihood that an international feeding frenzy would take hold that would further weaken the sanctions regime. Critics accused the White House not just of bungling the substance of the talks but of misleading the public over its assessments. The Free Beacon conveyed statements from White House officials insisting that while it appears as if Iran is gaining relief far ahead of the pace estimated by the White House, things would balance out over the coming months. The outlet specifically quoted National Security Council (NSC) spokesman Caitlin Hayden declaring that "month-to-month variability is normal in oil markets, but we expect Iran’s total exports will average out over the six-month period."
- The Al Qaeda-linked jihadist group Ansar Jerusalem has claimed responsibility for the Sunday bombing of a tourist bus in the Sinai Peninsula, boasting - per the Foundation for Defense of Democracies' Long War Journal blog - that "one of its heroes" carried out the attack, as part of the "economic war" against Egypt's army-backed interim government. The Wall Street Journal reported that at least four people were killed and fourteen were wounded. Ansar Jerusalem has reportedly been behind a string of recent attacks, and recently downed an Egyptian military helicopter with an anti-aircraft missile. Its Sunday assault on the South Korean tourist bus claimed the lives of at least three travelers and their Egyptian bus driver. The attack comes amid renewed scrutiny of several White House moves that have chilled Washington's relationship with Cairo, most prominently a decision made last October to partially freeze aid to Egypt's army-backed government. The administration insisted at the time that assets used by Egypt for its Sinai counter-terror operations would be exempt from new restrictions, a claim described as untenable by analysts and one that seemed difficult to sustain given the types of weapons - most prominently Apache helicopters - that were withheld. The White House's move has largely been reversed by recent Congressional allocations.
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