- Iranian media boasts that talks "off to a good start," as Iranian diplomats draw red lines against even minimal concessions on range of key issues
- Beirut car bombings target Iran-linked center, after Hezbollah chief doubles down on Syria fighting
- Analysts, journalists now openly worrying about functional end of Turkish democracy
- Palestinian unity talks break down again, as Hamas recommits to destroying Israel
- Iranian media trumpeted on Tuesday that comprehensive talks between the P5+1 global powers and Iran had gotten "off to a good start," quoting Iranian officials declaring that any discussions aimed at "halting Iran’s (nuclear) program and dismantling Iran’s nuclear facilities" were off-limits. Western assessments in contrast were pessimistic, both in general and specifically regarding the prospects for an agreement that would verifiably put Iran's atomic program beyond use for weaponization. Top Iranian figures have in recent weeks consistently foreclosed any concessions that would see Tehran dismantling uranium enrichment equipment, downgrading Tehran’s plutonium-producing Arak reactor, or limiting the country’s ballistic missile development. Western experts and diplomats have for their part repeatedly insisted that any robust deal with Iran would require concessions across all of those dimensions. Analysts at the U.S.-based Institute of Science and International Security (ISIS) had recently calculated that Iran would be required to dismantle some 15,000 centrifuges and convert its heavy water Arak reactor, while Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman earlier this month explicitly assured lawmakers that Iran's ballistic missile program would be a subject for final nuclear talks. The Iranians have repeatedly pushed back against Sherman's claim. Most recently, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif gave Iranian media the impression that the country’s negotiators had out-maneuvered Western diplomats, and that comprehensive discussions would be limited to topics outlined by the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA). The JPA did not include any restrictions on ballistic missile development. U.S. officials had, when pressed on the issue at the time, insisted that they had cleverly limited the scope of the agreement in order to secure an interim deal that would provide momentum for broader talks.
- A pair of car bombs detonated on Wednesday in front of the Iranian Cultural Center in Beirut killed at least eight people and wounded more than one hundred, the latest in a string of jihadist attacks declared to be retaliation for Hezbollah's critical role in bolstering Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime. The Associated Press described the aftermath as one marked by "panic," and noted that blast walls recently erected to shield the building had failed to prevent the outer façade from suffering significant damage. Lebanon's Daily Star conveyed a claim of responsibility from the Al Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which described the attack as a retaliatory "raid" against Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors. The statement also reportedly declared that Hezbollah will not "enjoy security in Lebanon until the people of Syria feel secure," a reference to the group’s long-standing demand that Hezbollah withdraw its troops from Syria. The Wednesday morning blasts - the detonation occurred around 9:25am, during rush hour - came just days after a speech by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah in which the leader of the Shiite terror group doubled down on Hezbollah's commitment to continue battling the largely Sunni rebel groups in Syria. Nasrallah also seemed to lay the groundwork for provoking Israel into a conflict over underwater energy resources, a move that analysts linked to Hezbollah's efforts to rebuild its shattered brand as a Lebanese organization protecting Lebanon from Israel.
- Arabic, American, and Israeli outlets have all in recent days published pointed analysis questioning the degree to which Turkey can still be called a genuine democracy, as the country's government moved to consolidate recently-passed measures that severely censor Internet use and empower Ankara to conduct broad online surveillance. Writing in Al-Arabiya, Istanbul-based journalist Mahir Zeynalov blasted the "authoritarian rule" of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, citing among other things a "storm of blatant lies" targeting Erdogan's political opponents and efforts by the Islamist leader to "speed up the process of burying Turkey’s hard-won democracy." Zeynalov specifically unpacked the dynamics of a recent anti-corruption sweep that entangled the party's elites, to which the AKP responded by purging literally thousands of judicial figures. Alp Aslandogan, the President of the Alliance for Shared Values, also unloaded on Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), describing its reactions to the probe as having "led to [the] collapse of rule of law” and having “significantly undermined the foundations of Turkish democracy." Last week Mieczyslaw Boduszynski and Kristin Fabbe - respectively professors at Pomona and Claremont McKenna Colleges - worried in the Christian Science Monitor that democracy in Turkey had been derailed, citing among other things Ankara's "scapegoating" of NGOs as causes of domestic unrest. The Jerusalem Post ran its story on Wednesday under the headline "is another Mideast democratic experiment over?" and further described last summer's crackdown on anti-government protestors, which drew heated condemnations from Europe, and a recent finding by Reporters Without Borders that ranked Turkey 154th out of 180 countries in press freedom. The same report ranked Russia 148th.
- Unity talks between the Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions have reportedly stalled amid Fatah demands - and Hamas refusals - that new elections be held to provide Palestinian lawmakers with a mandate to rule over some of the areas that they claim for a future Palestinian state. The deadlock is a symptom of a fundamental dynamic that has consistently blocked reconciliation efforts: Hamas controls the Gaza Strip and Fatah controls portions of the West Bank, and elections that unified the two territories would by definition require one faction to yield its power. Meanwhile Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh reiterated the terror group's commitment to the eradication of Israel, with a Hamas outlet conveying further comments from him declaring that 'the Palestinian people have elements of strength including faith, fortitude and weaponry.' Hamas's stance toward the Jewish state has created a kind of double-bind in the context of Palestinian unity and the peace process. On one hand, analysts have long emphasized that the Gaza Strip and the West Bank must be brought under a single government, lest a Palestinian state be born as a failed state with sovereign territories ruled by competing factions. On the other hand, any Palestinian government is bound by treaty obligations made to Jerusalem that acknowledge Israel's existence. Abrogating those commitments would all but confirm fears - long voiced both in the West and inside Israel - that the Palestinians intend to pocket irreversible Israeli territorial concessions and then backslide on symbolic concessions involving coexistence. It is difficult to imagine how any Israeli leader could responsibly continue pursuing negotiations after such Palestinian moves.
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