- TIME: Iran's heavy-water reactor "invulnerable to military attack" once it goes online
- Bipartisan Congressional frustration over WH aid cutoff grows, as Egypt army escalates campaigns against Islamic radicals
- Abu Dhabi media: Iran uses "regular clandestine flights" to supply Syria with troops, weapons
- Hamas official declares terror group "sentenced to death" as Egypt moves deepen isolation
What we’re watching today:
- A heavy-water plutonium reactor that Iran has committed to bringing online would become "invulnerable to military attack" once Iranian scientists activated it, according to analysis conveyed today by TIME, inasmuch as any such attack would release radioactivity that might be "catastrophic." Work toward activating the reactor, which is part of the Arak facility that also includes a heavy water production plant, has been described as part of Iran's "Plan B" for developing a nuclear weapon. Material produced by the reactor could be used to make a plutonium-based bomb, alongside the uranium-based bomb that the international community fears Iran is seeking to construct with material produced via enrichment facilities. Former IAEA Deputy Director Dr. Olli Heinonen, speaking Monday on a conference call organized by The Israel Project, noted that Iran's construction at Arak "appears to be an alternative, at least for a rainy day, to have fissionable material, which could be, for example used for nuclear weapons." There are also fears, according to TIME, that Iran will attempt to surreptitiously activate the reactor under the ruse of conducting a test run, avoiding Western intervention. In May, Iranian officials filed paperwork with the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog to conduct a test run . U.S. lawmakers have demanded that Iran halt work on the reactor as a condition for lifting sanctions, but Iran has thus far shown no willingness to do so. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in fact recently boasted that a diplomatic charm offensive conducted by his government had left Tehran "consolidating its nuclear rights step by step, and removing hurdles from the path of the nation's progress."
- The Hill reported today on heightening bipartisan Congressional criticism of the Obama administration's decision to temporarily freeze some military assistance to Egypt, a move made in response to - albeit months after - mass anti-government protests that led the Egyptian army to depose the country's Muslim Brotherhood-linked former president Mohammed Morsi. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, slammed the White House’s decision, echoing analyst concerns that the cutoff was degrading U.S.-Egyptian ties at the expense of "our security interests." Both Engel and Committee Chairman Ed Royce declared that the army-backed interim government was preferable to what had become increasingly autocratic Brotherhood rule, with Engel emphasizing that he'd "take the military every time" over the Brotherhood and Royce declaring that the Brotherhood's "hostil[ity] to American interests binds" the U.S. to Cairo. In addition to launching a decapitation campaign against the Brotherhood, the military has also been engaged in a concentrated campaign to uproot jihadist infrastructure in the Sinai Peninsula. Those campaigns have relied heavily on American military assistance - including and especially American-supplied air assets such as Apache helicopters, which were used as recently as last month to target arms depots in the northern Sinai. The White House has insisted that its partial freeze explicitly exempts counterterrorism assistance bound for the Sinai, but critics have questioned the feasibility of distinguishing between Sinai-bound aid versus other kinds of weaponry, and pointed out that the administration is in fact blocking the delivery of Apache helicopters.
- Abu Dhabi media yesterday described "regular clandestine flights between Tehran and Damascus" allegedly being conducted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which transport among other things "fighters to help regime forces battle rebels." The National described as many as three flights a week that have been taking place for months. Syrian opposition leaders have claimed that Iran has 60,000 fighters stationed in Syria, while Iran has flatly denied having any boots on the ground in the country. Though the opposition number is considered high, the revelation of clandestine flights will deepen skepticism regarding the categorical Iranian denials. The report will also fuel growing doubts that newly inaugurated Iranian president Hassan Rouhani is willing or able to broadly moderate Iranian policies. Rouhani had already explicitly vowed to support the Bashar al-Assad regime - a commitment that aligns well with reports of continuing shipments from Iran to the regime - and had floated grand conspiracy theories regarding Western intentions toward Syria. Rouhani has recently aligned his rhetoric with that of the Assad regime and with Russia, arguing that the Syrian opposition is composed of "terrorists" who must be expelled from the country.
- The left-leaning Israeli paper Haaretz quotes a Hamas official declaring that the Palestinian terror organization has been functionally "sentenced to death" by Egypt, as Israeli and Egyptian measures to degrade Hamas's capabilities - coupled with a series of disastrous geopolitical gambles - keep the group bottled up and isolated in the Gaza Strip. Hamas spent weeks in fall 2012 deliberately escalating the amount and sophistication of rockets and missiles it launched against Israelis, triggering an eight-day bombing campaign against Israel that severely degraded the group's command and control infrastructure. Meanwhile Hamas aligned itself with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which was then in control of Egypt, putting itself on the wrong side of the Egyptian military, which was already at odds with the Muslim Brotherhood-linked government of President Mohammed Morsi. Egyptian military officials waged a media war to erode Hamas's standing inside the country, and - after Morsi fell - moved to close both Gaza's smuggling tunnels and border crossings, cutting off Hamas's access to the outside world. By mid-2013 regional blocs were forming in the Middle East, pitting the the U.S.'s traditional Israeli and Arab allies opposite a Shiite extremist Iranian/Syrian/Hezbollah axis, and both of them opposite a Sunni extremist bloc that included the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey, and Qatar. Hamas tried to triangulate between the Shiite and Sunni extremist blocs and ended up alienating both. Evaluating Hamas's precipitous decline weeks ago, Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argued that Western policymakers have a narrow window of opportunity to strike a death blow to the group.
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