- U.S. seeks to assure allies of limited Iran relief, as evidence mounts of sanctions-busting feeding frenzy
- Kerry emphasizes Israeli security concerns to be addressed in Israeli-Palestinian deal, after Palestinians reject U.S. bridging proposal on security
- Reports: Egypt considering declaring Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, after Brotherhood rejects new constitution
- Critics: logistics of Syria chemical weapons deal has U.S. helping regime put down rebels
What we’re watching today:
- U.S. officials are struggling to assure Middle East allies that the financial relief provided to Iran under the recently agreed Geneva interim agreement is relatively limited, and that - per the National Journal - "key sanctions would remain in force against Iran's disputed nuclear program" during the agreement's six-month period. Kerry was specifically responding to worries expressed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that "sanctions would begin to unravel" as nations and companies scramble to avoid being left behind in the rush back into Iran's markets, but Netanyahu's scenario echoes the almost immediate criticism that the administration faced over the extent and structure of its sanctions concessions. Those concerns were dismissed as "fanciful" by analysts linked to the administration. Since then the Associated Press has quoted top auto manufacturing experts predicting that "international investors are expected to re-enter Iran’s market soon," Reuters has documented how Iran is preparing to reassert itself in oil markets, and former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz have assessed that "the threatened reimposition and strengthening of sanctions... risks losing its edge." Earlier this week the Wall Street Journal cataloged a range of companies that are preparing to reenter Iran's market. The Journal noted that while sanctions relief was only granted to a few sectors of the economy, "a much wider set of European and US companies - from pharmaceutical firms and medical-equipment makers to food companies and traders - also stands to regain lost Iranian trade as soon as relief measures are formally adopted next month." The Journal describes the relief as coming from "the fine print of the deal," and particularly emphasized that renewed contacts would stem from the desire of "executives [to] re-establish ties in the Middle East's largest consumer market."
- Speaking at Israel's Ben Gurion airport today, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that the Obama administration is seeking to reassure Jerusalem not just regarding Iran but also regarding "threats to Israel’s security [in]... the final status negotiations process" between Israelis and Palestinians. Peace talks have stumbled in recent days as Palestinian officials rejected U.S. bridging proposals designed to reconcile Israeli security needs, including those revolving around the geo-strategically important Jordan Valley along the border with Jordan, with Palestinian demands. Hebrew-language media outlets reported that that the U.S. had agreed to a long-term Israeli military presence in the area, presumably putting aside scenarios that would have had an international force stationed in the area. Analysts and journalists have pointedly noted that Kerry may have trouble convincing the Israelis that U.S. security assurances can be relied upon in the aftermath of the recently announced interim deal between the P5+1 global powers and Iran over the latter's nuclear program. The terms of the Geneva deal have come under increasingly broad criticism for disadvantaging the U.S. and its allies heading into comprehensive negotiations, as revelations slowly emerged that the agreement allows Iran to continue stockpiling enriched uranium in oxide form and continue bolstering its plutonium production facility, even as the financial relief provided by the international community threatens to unravel the sanctions regime targeting Iran. The White House has also clarified, after being pressed on the issue by journalists, that Iran will likely be allowed to continue enriching nuclear material even after a comprehensive agreement is sealed. Obama officials had for years assured lawmakers and allies that a negotiated solution to Iran's atomic program would require Tehran to fully suspend its nuclear activities, as required by half a dozen United Nations Security Council resolutions. Kerry also told reporters at Ben Gurion that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been "extremely constructive in working with [the United States] on the next steps and where we need to go now" regarding Iran, even as Washington recognizes that he "has every right in the world to make his views known with respect to his concerns about the security of his country."
- Egypt may be preparing to declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, amid escalating efforts by the Islamist group and its supporters to derail passage of a new constitution aimed at facilitating a political transition from the current interim army-backed government to an elected one. The Brotherhood rejected the new constitution, which establishes a framework and offers a timeline for elections, earlier this week. Its aligned Pro-Legitimacy and Anti-Coup Coalition, which emerged after the army deposed the country's former Brotherhood-linked President Mohammed Morsi in the wake of unprecedented popular anti-government demonstrations, subsequently called on its supporters to hold protests throughout the country on Friday opposing the sitting government. The Jerusalem Post today conveyed reports from Egypt's El-Watan newspaper, which has tended to side with the military and against the Brotherhood, describing a closed door meeting - attended by at least Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi and several other ministers - exploring the possibility that Cairo may declare the Islamist organization a terrorist group. The report comes a day after the Associated Press disclosed that Egyptian officials are investigating the degree to which Morsi cultivated jihadists during his roughly one-year tenure as president, with security figures suggesting that they've identified at least "indirect" links between the Brotherhood leader and violent Islamists. There had already been reports during Morsi's rule that the army was straining at its leash to operate against the terrorist infrastructure that was at the time taking root in the Sinai Peninsula, and was being held back by the then-president.
- Foreign Policy Magazine's The Cable yesterday outlined an "array of technical, diplomatic, security, and financial challenges" faced by the U.S. and its allies as they struggle to meet a December 31 deadline, set by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), for putting beyond use Syria's most dangerous chemical weapons. The destruction of the Bashar al-Assad regime's chemical arsenal was the critical condition of a plan, hammered out largely between the U.S. and Russia, to avert a U.S. strike on regime assets in the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack against rebel-heavy suburbs of Damascus. Components of the arsenal are supposed to be packed, transported to Syria's port at Latakia, loaded onto non-U.S. cargo ships, moved to an allied port, transferred to the U.S. vessel Cape Ray, and then destroyed. The Cable notes that, beyond the challenges that will be faced once the weapons are out of Syria, the logistics for keeping the weapons secure as they're moved within the country is proving problematic. Fighting along the arteries to Latakia has occasionally been fierce, and Sigrid Kaag - the head of the United Nations/OPCW joint team overseeing the destruction of the weapons - recently revealed that at least one major route, via Homs, would not be sufficiently secure to use. The New York Times yesterday published more extensive details describing Kaag's logistical preparations, and quoted her emphasizing that "Latakia is the designated port for exit of the chemical agents... chosen by the government." Michael Weiss - a columnist for NOW Lebanon and Foreign Policy, and Editor-in-Chief of The Interpreter - noted that the arrangement will have the U.S, U.N., and Syrian regime all "coordinat[ing] to stop rebel activity along the route," the upshot being that the U.S. - having initially been maneuvered by Russia into the agreement - is now "outwardly enabling regime military gains in Syria."
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