- New estimates: Iran transparency gestures "have inherent limits and cannot address fully the risk" of nuclear breakout
- "Mystifying" lack of U.S. coordination with Arab allies blasted
- Egypt intel officials: Turkey supplying Sinai Peninsula jihadists with weapons
- U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Iran reports no fundamental change, calls attention to post-election executions
What we’re watching today:
- Updated analysis published today [PDF] by the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) estimates that Iran could achieve critical capability - the ability to create sufficient weapons-grade uranium (WGU) for a nuclear weapon quickly enough to evade international detection - by mid-2014. The report calls attention to Iran's "dramatically increased centrifuge capability" - which Tehran has locked in over the last year by increasing the amount and sophistication of its installed centrifuges - and the size of Iran's low-enriched uranium (LEU) stocks, which "exceeds any realistic assessment of Iran’s need for reactor fuel in the short and near-term." The analysis comes in the aftermath of leaks describing an Iranian offer that would accept more intrusive inspections in exchange for Western acceptance of ongoing Iranian enrichment activity. The ISIS report models several scenarios under which Iran could conduct "a rapid dash to one significant quantity of WGU," and outlines several steps to lengthen Iran's breakout window that are "achievable and reasonable if Iran is committed to convincing the world that its nuclear program is indeed peaceful." Several of the modeled scenarios, based on known Iranian nuclear facilities with roughly known capabilities, indicate that accepting the Iranian offer - which would maintain Iran's access to its enriched material and allow it to continue enriching - would allow the regime to sprint across the nuclear finish line within weeks. Moreover, the transparency provided by inspections "by themselves have inherent limits and cannot address fully the risk posed by short breakout times." Instead the ISIS authors emphasize that limits must be placed both on Iran's centrifuge infrastructure and its access to enriched material. Meanwhile the White House today held a briefing for senior Congressional committee staff on Iran, reportedly to press them to delay new measures that might pressure Iran. Buzzfeed yesterday already published quotes from skeptics in Congress that were simply brutal. For his part Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, speaking at a recent Cabinet session, boasted that, due to his charm offensive and focus on negotiations, Tehran was "consolidating its nuclear rights step by step, and removing hurdles from the path of the nation's progress."
- Washington Post associate editor David Ignatius expressed surprise yesterday at what he described as "the White House’s inability to convey [to Saudi Arabia]... desired reassurances" regarding U.S. policy in the Middle East, declaring that the Obama administration's "lack of communication with the Saudis and other Arab allies is mystifying." He conveys mostly private concerns - aired by diplomats from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel - worrying that the U.S. influence in the region has been "shredded" by administration policies too indulgent of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, too indecisive on Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime, and insufficiently skeptical of Iranian intentions. Ignatius's assessment comes shortly after a Wall Street Journal scoop describing Saudi moves to scale back cooperation between Riyadh and Washington. On Tuesday, former Saudi spy chief Prince Turki al-Faisal specifically criticized the Russian plan for disposing of Syrian chemical weapons, accepted by U.S. diplomats, as a "charade" that the U.S. was using as a pretext to back down. In a move that received broad praise from its regional Arab allies, Riyadh last week rejected a seat on the 15-member United Nations Security Council, with Saudi officials declaring that they were frustrated with the body's inaction in the Middle East and Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud reportedly telling diplomats that the decision "was a message for the U.S., not the U.N."
- Egyptian media outlets are conveying leaks from Egyptian intelligence officials accusing Turkey of arming jihadists in the Egypt-controlled Sinai Peninsula, a charge that - confirmed or not - will be taken as further evidence of crashing Egyptian-Turkish ties amid deepening Turkish regional isolation. Turkish shipments to Al Qaeda-linked anti-government elements are not unheard of, and Yemen has reportedly intercepted at least five arms shipments this year. Turkey has aligned itself with Sunni extremists throughout the region, anchoring one of three emerging Middle East camps, opposite a Iranian/Syrian/Hezbollah bloc and a bloc made up of the U.S.'s traditional Arab allies and Israel. The Turkish foreign ministry on Wednesday announced that it had sent $850,000 to provide energy to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, providing the weakened terror group with desperately needed breathing room amid calls by U.S. analysts to deal it a death blow. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other top officials also took a meeting with top figures from Hamas in recent weeks. Alternatively, Egyptian intelligence may be trying to damage Turkish popularity and credibility by asserting that Ankara is assisting fighters inside the country, amid a spike in violence that included a Tuesday bus attack in the northern Sinai Peninsula. Recent reports that Erdogan is blocking reconciliation between the Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions were also traced to Egyptian officials. It's not impossible that Egyptian officials, angry over Ankara's increasingly shrill support for the Muslim Brotherhood, are partially leveraging Egyptian media outlets to signal that anger.
- The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Iran has told the U.N. General Assembly that there have been no fundamental improvements in Iran's human rights situation despite token but welcome gestures undertaken since the election of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. Ahmed Shaheed's non-exhaustive 20-page "overview of the prevailing human rights situation" in Iran describes an array [PDF] of "cruel and inhuman punishment[s]" including "limb amputation for the crime of theft... [and flogging] for such crimes as 'sedition', 'acts incompatible with chastity', drinking alcohol, 'illicit' relationships and non-penetrative homosexual acts." It found "no sign of improvement" from previous reports and drew particular attention to "the spate of executions observed in the weeks following the 2013 elections, during which 38 officially announced and at least 44 unofficially announced executions reportedly took place." Hopes that Rouhani would be willing or able to improve Iran's human rights conditions were dampened early when he nominated Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, a revolutionary-era figure directly involved in the murder of an estimated 30,000 dissidents, to be his justice minister. Rouhani, himself a revolutionary-era cleric, has called for mass roundups of anti-regime protesters.
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