- Iranian Supreme Leader lashes out against "Satan and the satanic front," deepening concerns over Tehran's negotiating posture
- Hezbollah opponents demand Iran-backed group "Lebanonize," cease undermining political and security stability
- New figures peg Syrian death toll at 162,000 as White House critics demand robust action in wake of presidential speech
A series of recent statements from top Iranian military and political figures - up to and including a fiery speech by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that included denunciations of "Satan and the satanic front" - has generated concerns among analysts that Tehran may refuse to make further concessions in the context of negotiations over its atomic program. Brig. Gen. Esmail Ghaani - a deputy commander in the Revolutionary Guards Corps' Quds Force - last week predicted that Washington would soon manufacture an open confrontation, after fear of Iranian power had kept U.S. troops cowering in their tanks in Iraq and Afghanistan. Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naghdi - the head of Iran's Basij Organization - had boasted that United States had been broken in Syria, and that the dynamic was evidence of the power of jihad. Iranian media on Monday conveyed statements by Armed Forces Chief of Staff Major General Hassan Firouzabadi denigrating U.S. efforts to help opposition forces, described by PressTV as heretic "Takfiri groups." For his part Khamenei recently declared, per the insidery Night Watch intelligence bulletin, that Iran would continue bolstering its armed forces. He particularly lashed out against "those who seek to promote concession-making," accusing critics of Iranian bellicosity - the exact language was aimed at those who "accuse the Islamic establishment of warmongering" - of being traitors. Night Watch particularly took note of Khamenei's declaration that "jihad is never-ending because the Satan and the satanic front will exist eternally," describing that language as a description the U.S. and its allies among the P5+1 global powers negotiating over Iran's nuclear program. The bulletin assessed that "Khamenei's remarks indicate that Iran will make no more substantive concessions."
Lebanon's Daily Star on Wednesday conveyed a statement from the anti-Hezbollah March 14th coalition blasting the organization's chief Hassan Nasrallah over a recent speech in which he had among other things doubled down on Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian conflict, with the statement describing Nasrallah's remarks as "political triumphalism, based on the illusion of victory in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon." The outlet archly headlined the controversy with "March 14 urges Hezbollah to Lebanonize," a reference to the Iran-backed terror group's long-emphasized claim - echoed by more than a few Western foreign policy analysts - that, while Hezbollah may have begun as an Iranian proxy, it had undergone "Lebanonization" and become an indigenous militia. Hezbollah's involvement in Syria had shattered that brand, and a top official from the group was killed fighting on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime this week. Fawzi Ayoub had been on the FBI's most-wanted list for attempts to bomb Israel. The speech had linked Hezbollah's continued commitment to the eradication of Israel to a refusal to "allow the US to impose its ideas on us," though it had also accused the British of having "created the Israeli entity" as part of a plot to deepen their "power in our Arabic and Islamic region." Nasrallah also demanded that any future Lebanese president support his organization (Hezbollah has in recent weeks politically maneuvered to deny a quorum to Lebanese parliamentary sessions seeking to elect a new president, creating a vacuum in the institution).
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported Wednesday on the arrest of reformist journalist Saba Azarpeik - The Guardian cited "numerous sources" describing her as having been detained by regime security forces - just weeks after a new report published on World Press Freedom Day established Iran as the global leader in incarcerating members of the press. Vice News had more broadly in early May outlined how "Iran's horrifying prison conditions are used by authorities as a threat to intimidate journalists." Domestic Iranian repression, especially in the context of press freedom, has been been broadly treated as a proxy for the influence and intentions of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Iranian journalists have been publicly urging Rouhani for at least half of his tenure to reopen various press organs and to scale back state controls over reporters, editors, and outlets. Ilan Berman, the vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, recently took to National Review Online to emphasize that "it would be a real tragedy if, in their push for détente with Tehran, Washington and European capitals glossed over domestic developments there, and thereby helped to consign the Iranian people to a deepening republic of fear." Analysts who are wary of engaging the regime have pointed to a range of indicators, from the shuttering of multiple newspapers to a spike in executions, as evidence that Rouhani is either unable or unwilling to moderate Iran's hardline government. Observers who advocate making concessions to Tehran have countered that the manifest influence of hardliners should not undermine Western outreach to moderates, a stance that skeptics have questioned. It is not clear - for instance - that negotiating with relatively friendly Iranian diplomats who wield little domestic control can robustly advance Western interests.
The death toll in Syrian conflict has risen to roughly 162,000 people - which The New York Times noted is "an increase of more than 10,000 in less than two months" - amid hints from White House officials and from President Barack Obama himself that Washington may be contemplating taking firmer action to influence the direction of the over three-year conflict. The Times cited the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which broke down the numbers as including almost 54,000 civilians, among them 8,607 children. Exact casualty figures are difficult to come by, and the United Nations many months ago formally gave up trying to tally victims of the carnage. SOHR's calculations are nonetheless broadly treated as credible, and come against the backdrop of what is widely being taken as a systematic campaign being conducted by the Bashar al-Assad regime to deploy chlorine-based chemical weapons against rebel-heavy areas. TIME Magazine’s chief foreign affairs correspondent Michael Crowley last Friday assessed that the situation is shaping up into a test of the administration's - and, more broadly, the United States's - credibility. President Obama on Wednesday promised to supply more robust aid to Syrian opposition groups, after literally years of often withering criticism from administration opponents - as well as from veteran journalists - over what they described as a rudderless policy in the region. The Washington Post's editorial board found the speech less than satisfying, criticizing it for having "marshaled a virtual corps of straw men" in discussing the president's foreign policy vision, and casting doubt on his Syria-specific commitments by saying, "he made the same promise last year and failed to follow through."
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