- Senate push for delayed Iran sanctions racks up majority support, reportedly with dozens of Democratic Senators in support
- Khamenei: nuclear talks expose "enmity" of U.S. "Satan"
- Syrian rebel alliance targets Al Qaeda, expels group from key city
- Hamas brags about reinvigorated alliance with Iran
What we’re watching today:
- Senate legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran if Tehran refused to dismantle its atomic program at the end of negotiations inched today toward a "near-filibuster-proof majority," with Foreign Policy outlining that 58 Senators now support the proposed bill. Meanwhile William Daroff, the Senior Vice President for Public Policy at The Jewish Federations of North America, revealed information from a "very reliable source" counting 34 Democratic Senators in support of the push. Provided that Iran does not cheat on its obligations while negotiations are ongoing, the legislation would put off any new measures until the end of talks and give the President the flexibility to delay those measures as talks are extended. The White House has nonetheless threatened to veto the bill, and has heavily pressured Senators to oppose it. Foreign Policy unpacked the White House's current legislative strategy, which now involves heavily pressuring Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid not to permit a vote on the potential law. A Senate staffer who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon estimated that Reid would be forced to buck White House pressure if the bill gets "60 cosponsors and more than 67 votes on the whip count." The Obama administration insists that the legislation would derail talks with Iran, but supporters counter that it merely codifies the White House's own repeated promise to ratchet sanctions up if negotiations fail. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, for instance, insisted to 60 Minutes last month that "we will ensure that the pressure is reimposed" if Tehran is caught violating agreements to first freeze its program and then put it beyond use for weaponization.
- Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei lashed out against the United States on Thursday, declaring that "we would negotiate with the Satan (the United States) to deter its evil... [but] the nuclear talks showed the enmity of America against Iran, Iranians, Islam and Muslims." The statements came amid growing concerns - including from largely sympathetic outlets corners - that Iranian president Hassan Rouhani lacks the will or ability to substantially change Iranian domestic and foreign policy. By law and assisted by raw political power, the Supreme Leader controls among other things Iran's foreign policy. For his part Rouhani used to be openly acknowledged as close to Khamenei - a Reuters article from 2008 is to the point, and the characterization seems straightforwardly accurate - but since his election he has been framed by Western media outlets as a moderate opponent of the regime. It is not yet clear to what extent the White House will condemn Khamenei's remarks. The administration was markedly slow in condemning past inflamatory statements by Khamenei.
- An alliance of Syrian opposition fighters has seized parts of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo that had been controlled the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an Al Qaeda-linked group operating across the region, dealing what McClatchy assess as "an enormous setback" to the international terrorist organization. The forces that targeted Al Qaeda in Aleppo drew from a wide range of groups, ranging from secularists to unaffiliated hard-line Islamists. ISIS forces executed dozens of imprisoned opponents as they retreated, and The Times conveyed opposition estimates that "as many as 50 prisoners... had been slaughtered in cold blood at the group's hospital headquarters before the militants fled for the northeastern province of Raqqa." The episode is the latest in what has become regular fighting between Al Qaeda and more moderate, or at least not Al Qaeda-linked, rebels. ISIS leaders have called on their followers to target and kill fighters from those more moderate groups, including from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA). The internecine fighting has direct diplomatic stakes beyond Syria's borders. Analysts are becoming increasingly vocal in criticizing the United States and its Western allies for de facto siding with Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime, and with the regime's Iranian sponsors, due to fears that Al Qaeda might otherwise consolidate territorial gains. The administration's current policy has it giving weapons to Iraq - which the Washington Post's David Ignatius describes as a "virtual client of Tehran - so that Baghdad can fight Al Qaeda in Iran. Meanwhile Washington has partially frozen assistance to rebel groups who are battling Al Qaeda in Syria. The tension between the two positions may prove increasingly difficult to justify.
- The Guardian today conveyed statements from multiple Hamas figures indicating that the Palestinian terror group has rebuilt warm relations with its long-time sponsor Iran, overcoming a temporary break in relations that had some analysts declaring that there was an opening for Western engagement. The outlet quoted Taher al-Nounou, an aide to Hamas's Gaza-based prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, assessing that bilateral relations were "almost back to how they were before" divisions over the Syrian war caused a strain in ties, and that Hamas "believe[s] we will soon be back" to pre-Syrian war levels. Much had been made by analysts and journalists of the distance between Hamas and Iran TIME took it as evidence against what it described as "Israeli p.r." that "likes to portray Hamas as a satellite of Tehran," speculating that Hamas had put itself in a position it to prosper in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. The National Interest suggested that the shift should cause the United States to engage Hamas and integrate it into peace efforts. Hamas's time outside the Iranian orbit was short-lived. Reports emerged as early as July 2012 that representatives from the group were secretly meeting with Iranian figures to rebuild ties. By August there were multiple signals that reconciliation was being pursued and by September Hamas was again publicly positioning itself as part of an "Axis of Resistance" anchored by Iran. In early December Hamas senior member Mahmud al-Zahar was ready to declare that "relations between Hamas and Iran have resumed," and by the end of that month Hamas sources were confirming that "warm relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran have been restored." The rapid restoration of ties suggests that Hamas's relationship with Iran may be more robust than some analysts had been willing to grant.
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