- Reports: Sanctions-busting Iran-Russia oil deal would open door for "bomber-killing missile," "sanctioned nuclear equipment," "military hardware"
- State Dept. scrambles to correct Kerry testimony coverage, emphasizes Israeli PM's "courageous decisions" on peace process
Analysts and journalists continued on Tuesday to unpack the potential implications of a planned oil-for-goods program between Iran and Russia, after the $20 billion sanctions-busting barter agreement reemerged last week as a controversy in the wake of a Reuters report. Reuters had outlined some details of the deal last January, assessing that it "would enable Iran to lift oil exports substantially, undermining Western sanctions" and quoting Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) declaring that the "reckless and irresponsible move raises serious questions about Russia's commitment to ending Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons." Both concerns – regarding the robustness of international restrictions on Iran and the potential for Moscow to undermine negotiations - have since then deepened. Iran has for five straight months exceeded the amount of oil it is allowed to export under the terms of the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), and on Monday Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) sent a letter [PDF] to President Barack Obama arguing that further moves by the Islamic Republic to "violate the terms of oil sanctions relief provided for in the JPA" should prompt Washington to act by "re-instating... and sanctioning any violations" of crude oil sanctions. Meanwhile fears have been building that White House assurances regarding Russia’s willingness to "compartmentalize" the crisis in Ukraine - that is, to insulate the spike in Western-Russian tensions from Iran talks - may have been over-optimistic. The Daily Beast on Tuesday assessed that "if the pressure mounts on Moscow, then the West may end up paying the price for punishing Russia, at the bargaining table with Iran," and that the Kremlin may use the oil-for-goods scheme not just to undermine sanctions in general but more specifically to provide Iran with "super-sophisticated, bomber-killing” S-300 missiles "that could defend its centrifuges and reactors from allied air strikes." The Washington Free Beacon on Tuesday also reported on potential weapons-related implications of the deal, quoting Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), noting that it could open a "channel for the transfer of sanctioned nuclear equipment or military hardware to Iran, not to mention other illicit financial transactions."
The State Department went on offense late Tuesday to correct what spokeswoman Jen Psaki underlined was wrongheaded media coverage of Congressional testimony given earlier in the day by Secretary of State John Kerry, in which statements by Kerry were widely described as having blamed Israel for the breakdown in peace talks between Jerusalem and the Palestinians. Psaki quickly took to Twitter to emphasize that Kerry had been "crystal clear" in not blaming one side over the other, and that he had "even singled out by name Prime Minister Netanyahu for having made courageous decisions throughout [the] process." A more formal statement provided to reporters by the State Department repeated those tweets almost verbatim. Initial media coverage had largely echoed the descriptions provided by a quickly published article in Israel's left-leaning Haaretz, which stated that Kerry had placed the blame for failed peace talks on Israel (Haaretz subsequently changed the subhead of that article to gesture toward criticism of its coverage, shifting from "Secretary of state says Israel did not release prisoners on time, approved construction in Jerusalem and 'poof' we found ourselves where we are" to "U.S. officials later try to play down Kerry's comments, saying he did not engage in a blame game and that both sides took 'unhelpful steps'"). Any timeline that holds Israel responsible for the breakdown in talks would be taken in many quarters as strained. Conveying Kerry's Congressional statements, for instance, the Los Angeles Times tersely noted that "the announcement on the housing units came as the Palestinians were refusing to agree to continue the peace talks." The permits themselves were not new tenders, but were part of a reissued call for the construction of homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. Construction in that part of Jerusalem has often vexed analysts, journalists, and diplomats trying to grasp the dynamics of the peace process. Columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, who at the time was advocating that the Obama administration "talk to Israel" about settlements in the West Bank, attempted to shed light on the issue back in 2009, explaining that "[t]he building of apartments in Gilo is irrelevant to eventual disposition of Jerusalem because everyone - the Americans, the Palestinians and the Israelis - knows that Gilo... will undoubtedly end up in Israel as part of a negotiated solution... [i]t doesn't matter, then, if the Israelis build 900 housing units in Gilo or 900 skyscrapers: Gilo will be kept by Israel in exchange for a one-to-one land swap with Palestine."
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday declared that his Justice and Development Party's (AKP) recent electoral victory in nationwide local elections had, per Reuters, "given him a mandate to 'liquidate' the enemies" who he accuses of being behind a still-spiraling graft scandal that has ensnared top AKP elites and plunged the country into open political warfare. Erdogan had used his victory speech following those elections to announce that he would make his rivals "pay" for having opposed him. The threat, along with efforts to shut down access to Twitter and YouTube on the eve of the polling, was subsequently cited as the source of potentially irreparable tensions between Turkey and the European Union. Turkish courts subsequently ordered those restrictions lifted, but those decisions have either been reversed or are being fought by the government. Ankara for instance fought a court order to lift its ban on YouTube, and a later ruling by a different court granted the government's request. Google, which owns YouTube, is now fighting to appeal the blackout. The order to reinstate access to Twitter, meanwhile, has been blasted by top Turkish officials - including by Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc on Monday and by Erdogan himself on Tuesday – who continue to call for its reversal. Washington's Ambassador to Turkey Francis J. Ricciardone denounced the restrictions in an interview published earlier this week by Turkey's Hurriyet daily, declaring that "Americans simply cannot understand how" Ankara could "flat-out ban on Twitter and YouTube," and that "the damage from the campaign is something that is still playing out in Turkey’s international standing."
Iranian officials continued through the weekend and on Tuesday to lash out against a recent European Parliament (EP) resolution that criticized Iran over its human rights record, with Tehran's top diplomat threatening to ban EP delegations and Iranian lawmakers crafting a range of responses and resolutions. The EP's April 3 resolution had among other things criticized Iran for limiting "freedom of information, freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, academic freedom, freedom of education and freedom of movement." It also called for parliamentary delegations to Iran to "be committed to meeting members of the political opposition and civil society activists, and to having access to political prisoners." The language came after months of statements by top United Nations officials, including by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, declaring that the Islamic Republic's human rights abuses had not significantly abated under the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham responded to the EP resolution by blasting it as "discriminatory and racist." Iranian media conveyed a statement by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif banning EP delegations who would seek to implement the resolution's call for interactions with dissidents and political prisoners. A prominent Iranian parliamentarian lashed out at the European Union for "meddling in Iran’s domestic affairs," and a statement signed by 258 Iranian parliamentarians echoed the charge. Iranian media outlets for their part went so far as to host guests insisting that - actually – it is "the EU and the West" that contribute to undermining human rights.