- Lebanon government scrambles to evacuate residents as Hezbollah-backed Syrian troops isolate, bombard town
- President Obama signs legislation forbidding Iranian diplomat linked to 1979 hostage-takers from entering U.S. for U.N. post
Iranian media on Friday boasted that sanctions relief provided under the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) has allowed the country's crude oil exports to "soar," carrying remarks by Iranian Deputy Oil Minister Mansour Moazzami revealing that "the volume of crude oil and gas condensate exports has doubled." The PressTV report gestured toward figures recently released by the International Energy Agency (IEA), which calculated that Iran's February oil exports had hit a 20-month high and were far in excess of the levels set by the JPA's "sanctions cap." Meanwhile a separate PressTV article bragged that private Indian refiner Essar Oil - which it described as "Iran’s top Indian client" - had "imported six times more crude oil from the Islamic Republic in March 2014 compared to March 2013." The outlet noted that the amount was "the highest monthly shipment since at least January 2011." Reuters had already reported by the end of March that Iran was expected to exceed the sanctions cap for the fifth straight month. The White House has insisted that it would continue to enforce remaining sanctions on Iran in order to preserve Western leverage in the context of ongoing nuclear talks. Administration officials have brushed off Tehran's sanctions-busting energy exports by declaring that they expect the flow of Iranian oil to dramatically decrease in the coming months, such that by the end of the JPA's six-month period the average amount of exported oil will have fallen within permitted levels. It is not clear what the administration will do if Iran continues behaving exactly as it is behaving. February - the fourth month in a row that Iran had busted through the sanctions limits - had already seen analysts calling for the administration to take action on the issue. Nat Kern, head of the Washington-based energy consulting firm Foreign Reports, had told the Washington Post that the pattern of oil exports "should be a red flag for the administration." He went on to emphasize that U.S. options would be severely constrained - "the horse would be out of the barn" - if "at the end of May... Iran has punched such a deep hole through the core sanctions on oil."
Israeli and Arabic outlets on Friday published reports, first printed the day before by journalists in Thailand, revealing that authorities had disrupted a Hezbollah terror plot targeting Israeli tourists traveling through the country during the Passover holiday season. Bangkok Post carried descriptions of the suspects, Lebanese-French national Daoud Farhat and Lebanese-Filipino national Youssef Ayad. Both men were traveling on non-Lebanese passports, and records seem to indicate that the current trip to Thailand was Ayad's 17th visit to the country. The data points will likely reinforce analyst concerns that Hezbollah has invested heavily in the development of tradecraft, especially in the context of the Iran-backed terror group's multiple plots against Israeli tourists. A source told the Bangkok Post that Thai authorities believe there are at least nine other Hezbollah terrorists inside Thailand, and that efforts to track them down were ongoing. Lebanon's Daily Star specifically cited both elements - the evidence of extensive preparation and the nine still-uncaptured Hezbollah operatives - in a short write-up about the incident. TIME contextualized the plot alongside a previous Iranian-driven terror attack planned for Bangkok, and in turn contextualized that plot alongside others "against Israeli targets in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and India... [and others that] were thwarted in Kenya, South Africa, Cyprus and Bulgaria – and Texas."
Lebanon's Daily Star reported early Friday morning that the Syrian army had launched what the outlet described as "a series of artillery strikes" on the Lebanese town of Tfail, sending Lebanese residents and Syrian refugees who have taken shelter in the town "flee[ing] into the surrounding hills." A Hezbollah-backed offensive on Syrian territory had driven refugees across the border and into the town, and reports indicate that the shelling caused many to flee back across the border and into the surrounding hills for shelter. An aid worker reported that "the village was bombarded throughout Tuesday." Tfail is technically a Lebanese territory with Lebanese citizens, but the only reliable roads connecting it to the outside world run through Syria. Those roads have been closed off by Hezbollah forces in an attempt to stem the transit of rebel elements back and forth across the Lebanon-Syria border. Lebanese Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk was quoted Friday by the pan-Arab Ash-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper declaring that Beirut was coordinating with Hezbollah to allow residents to flee the town. Syrian forces also attacked the Lebanese city of Arsal on Thursday, dispatching a helicopter to conduct at least two air raids. Hezbollah has been heavily criticized by a range of Lebanese figures for entangling the country in Syria's three-year-long conflict, but regime attacks on Lebanese territory are particularly problematic for the organization. The Iran-backed terror group justifies its existence - and more specifically, the massively armed state-within-a-state that it maintains inside Lebanon - as necessary to protect Lebanese sovereignty and prevent attacks on Lebanese territory. Attacks on Lebanese towns by the Assad regime, to which it has provided critical assistance, are in tension with those claims.
President Barack Obama on Friday signed into law legislation - previously passed unanimously by both the House and the Senate - that would among other things prohibit Iran's pick for its next U.N. ambassador from entering the United States. Hamid Aboutalebi was a member of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line in 1979 when the group seized scores of Americans inside the U.S.'s Tehran embassy, and the revelation that he had been appointed by Tehran prompted quick action in Congress to bar him. Politico opened its article on today's developments by observing that "the president noted he still considers the law 'advisory'" but that the legislation "was a rare moment of consensus in D.C." The issue is politically and diplomatically complicated for the White House. Domestically, administration officials fighting against Congressionally imposed pressure on Iran have leaned heavily on the argument that it is critical for the U.S. to maintain a positive diplomatic atmosphere to avoid hampering ongoing nuclear talks. Appointing a figure linked to the embassy hostage crisis to a U.S.-based post has been taken as a sign that the Iranians do not perceive themselves as similarly constrained. Internationally - per Washington Institute Managing Director Michael Singh - accepting the perceived Iranian slight and allowing Aboutalebi to take up his post would "reinforce the impression among regional allies that Washington is willing to ignore Iranian misbehavior in [the] pursuit of a nuclear accord." Iran has indicated that it will not consider any alternatives to Aboutalebi, and earlier this week it requested that the U.N.'s Committee on Relations with the Host Country meet to address the issue.