- Associated Press: "United" Senate passes legislation barring Iran UN ambassador over terror ties, links to hostage-taking group
The Senate Monday night voted to deny entry to the United States to persons who had engaged in espionage or terrorism against the U.S., a move aimed at barring of Hamid Aboutalebi - Iran's pick for United Nations ambassador - from acquiring a visa to take up his post. Aboutalebi was a member of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line in 1979, when the group seized Washington's Tehran embassy and held scores of Americans hostage for 444 days. His appointment had quickly generated pushback from U.S. lawmakers, amid assessments that allowing Aboutalebi to serve in New York on Iran’s behalf would be seen by U.S. allies as evidence that the Obama administration was "willing to ignore Iranian misbehavior in our pursuit of a nuclear accord." The Associated Press noted that Monday night's voice vote saw "Republicans and Democrats united behind the legislation," which had been sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) issued a statement emphasizing bipartisan backing for the law and declaring that "it may be a case of strange bedfellows, but I'm glad Sen. Cruz and I were able to work out a bill that would prevent this terrorist from stepping foot on American soil." Parallel legislation in the House, which must be approved before the bill goes to President Barack Obama for his signature, has already been introduced. The controversy over Aboutalebi has emerged as a proxy for criticism over the administration's approach to Iran in general. Officials and analysts linked to the White House have leaned heavily on the argument that Congress cannot impose new pressure on Iran lest it spoil a "spirit of Geneva" necessary for continued nuclear talks, Geneva being where the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) was inked. Tehran's move to nominate Aboutalebi has been read as a signal that the Iranians are not inclined to be as circumspect in maintaining a positive atmosphere.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah boasted in an interview published Monday that Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime was no longer in danger of being overthrown by opposition elements - and that the country itself has even "passed the danger of fragmentation" - as U.S. lawmakers moved to target the Iran-backed terror group over its critical support for Damascus. The point was echoed by Assad himself, who reportedly bragged in a meeting with former Russian prime minister Sergei Stepashin that he was different from recently deposed Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych and that he "[would] not go." Assad had more explicitly told Stepashin that "[w]ithin this year the active phase of military action in Syria will be over." Steady gains by Hezbollah-backed regime forces have in recent weeks and days triggered responses from Western capitals in general, and from Washington in particular. Multiple outlets issued reports on Monday that lawmakers in Congress were advancing the Hezbollah International Financial Prevention Act, which a statement issued by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs described as the beginning of a "comprehensive approach to addressing the threat posed by Hezbollah by imposing severe new sanctions on Hezbollah’s fundraising channels and restricting its ability to use its funds to support global terrorist activities." Reuters had reported on Friday that Washington was also finalizing a plan that to provide "modest" supplies to anti-Assad elements. The outlet noted, however, that the limited scope of the plan was "raising questions over the impact in a civil war that has killed an estimated 136,000 people, produced nine million refugees and threatens to destabilize the region."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday revealed that extensive efforts to extend Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were in progress when Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas announced - in what the Associated Press described as a "hastily convened" press conference - that he would be turning to the United Nations and seeking to ascend to 15 international treaties as the "State of Palestine." Observers have since speculated that the gambit was a rushed effort to ward off rivals seeking to exploit popular discontent against Abbas, who is currently serving the tenth year of an original four year elected term and had years ago maneuvered out the top Palestinian technocrat charged with bolstering the West Bank economy. Abbas has subsequently brushed off U.S. calls to reverse his decision to turn to international institutions, which - by pocketing three rounds of Israeli prisoner releases and then reneging on promises to avoid diplomatic warfare - was seen as confirming fundamental fears that the Palestinians could consistently exploit asymmetries built into the peace process, under which Jerusalem is expected to offer tangible concessions such as prisoners or territory in exchange for intangible diplomatic commitments. Veteran U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross on Monday gestured toward the dynamic in a talk held at the Washington Institute, noting that the U.S.-backed framework had "reflected a pattern often seen in past negotiations: Israel is asked to take steps it sees as very difficult, and what the Palestinians will do in turn it sees as insufficient, and so Washington steps in to offer compensation that the Palestinians cannot." Top Israeli officials are nonetheless continuing to call for renewed talks. Israeli Justice Minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni on Monday declared that negotiations should continue, and suggested alternative formats and structures that might keep them afloat. For his part, top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat reportedly declared over the weekend that, that as far as Abbas his Fatah faction are concerned, "Hamas is a Palestinian movement and is not and never was a terrorist group."
The terrorist who in July 2012 blew up an Israeli tourist bus in the Black Sea resort town of Burgas was an Algerian who trained in southern Lebanese camps, according to security sources quoted by the Bulgarian daily Presa and conveyed on Monday by Lebanon's Daily Star. Reports began to emerge last week that investigators had discovered new information about the July 2012 attack - which had killed five Israelis and a Bulgarian, and which Sofia had long ago linked to Hezbollah - when Bulgarian chief prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov formally transferred investigation of the attack to local authorities in Burgas. Tsatsarov noted at the time that officials had among other things clinched the identity of the bomber, though he declined to provide details. The two other suspects involved in the bombing had already been identified as Lebanese, and the new Presa report alleges that the third suspect - the bomber - had studied with them at a Beirut university. Presa had previously reported in early March that Bulgarian authorities had recovered DNA from Hassan El Hajj Hassan, one of the other two suspects and the one thought to have managed logistics for the attack. Lebanese outlet Ya Libnan suggested that the evidence - which was recovered from a towel used by Hassan - had been left behind in Hassan's "haste to leave the hotel as soon as possible." If so, the slip would constitute one of just a few oversights in an operation that Washington Institute fellow Matthew Levitt has assessed was marked by "improved tradecraft" when compared to previous Hezbollah operations. The increased tempo and sophistication of the terror group's activities in Europe - another summer 2012 plot, this one in Cyprus, was disrupted - eventually led the European Union (E.U.) to designate what the E.U. described as Hezbollah's “armed wing” as a terrorist organization, leaving its “political wing” undesignated. Hezbollah officials and U.S. counterterrorism specialists have rejected suggestions that there is any organizational distinction between those two.