- UN demand for detonator information shifts focus to Iranian foot-dragging on transparency obligations
Officials from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear watchdog disclosed on Friday that they had demanded more information from Iranian officials regarding tests on detonators - specifically, on Exploding Bridge Wire (EBW) detonators - suspected of having been conducted with the aim of creating nuclear warheads, the latest development in an emerging controversy over Tehran's willingness to disclose a range of widely suspected "possible military dimensions" (PMD). The Islamic republic is obligated to provide transparency into PMD-related activities by United Nations Security Council resolution 1929, and non-compliance with those obligations has been cited by U.S. lawmakers as a central justification for maintaining pressure on Tehran. President Barack Obama had as early as 2009 declared that Iran would have to "come clean" in disclosing all past nuclear activities, language that was explicitly echoed by Secretary of State John Kerry on the eve of announcing the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA), under which Iran received sanctions relief in exchange for slowing down its nuclear progress. The JPA however did not include any requirement that Iran meet its PMD obligations, and was criticized on precisely that account by among others Washington Institute Executive Director Robert Satloff and by Mark Dubowitz and Orde Kittrie, respectively the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a senior fellow at the foundation.. Top administration officials pushed back by insisting that the JPA had only been meant to facilitate negotiations, and that Iran would be forced to meet its PMD obligations in the context of a final agreement. Observers have become increasingly concerned in recent weeks that a range of Iranian moves appear aimed at delaying discussion of PMD activities until after most other issues have been resolved, at which point Iranian negotiators would refuse to meet their transparency obligations and functionally dare the West to scuttle an emerging deal over what they would characterize as past work. There are now suggestions floating in corners of the foreign policy community "that in the enthusiasm for a comprehensive agreement, the P5+1 could ignore the PMD aspect if all other conditions are met... if Iran’s break-out capability is indefinitely delayed and the technology available to it is severely limited, in addition to greater transparency and IAEA access to its facilities, the PMD question may not have to be directly dealt with at all." Analysts nonetheless have been emphatic that the success of any deal, and especially any agreement that would lean heavily on verification mechanisms, would require extensive disclosure in the context of untangling the Iranian military from the country's atomic program. Washington Institute Managing Director Michael Singh explained months ago that "[w]ithout insight into the full extent of Iran’s clandestine nuclear activities, no amount of monitoring and inspection can provide true confidence that Iran lacks a parallel program beyond inspectors' view."
Reuters on Friday published a wide-ranging analysis - headlined "Egypt's [Abdel-Fattah El-]Sisi turns Islam on the Islamists" - documenting a range of moves and statements being made by the country's presumptive next president suggesting that while Sisi "may turn out to be the most outwardly pious of any of the military men to have governed Egypt since the republic" he does not seem likely to "inject more Islam into the government" and is instead positioning himself as "a religious reformer." The wire assessed that the former defense minister's near-certain victory in upcoming presidential elections "could bring a sustained effort to reinforce state-backed, apolitical Islam, providing clerical cover for destroying his Islamist foes." Reuters pointedly noted consistent statements from Sisi flat-out rejecting the concept of a "religious state" and blasting "religious discourse" for preventing Egyptian growth. His first televised interview as a candidate saw him bemoaning the degree to which "hardline religious rhetoric" had undercut Egypt's critical tourism sector. Commenting on that interview - and evaluating other statements that Sisi made about the Brotherhood - the insidery security bulletin KGS Nightwatch had tersely evaluated that "outside interests that advocate on behalf of the Brotherhood are out of step with the political turn Egypt has taken." The Associated Press (AP) reported Thursday that the Obama administration had formally picked Ambassador Stephen Beecroft to take the helm at the U.S.'s Cairo embassy, which has had a vacancy at the ambassador level for nine months. The AP described the declaration as "a routine but necessary step [by the White House] toward smoothing its stormy relationship with Cairo." The Obama administration had steadily degraded bilateral ties after the Egyptian army - led at the time by Sisi - last summer overthrew Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-linked then-president Mohammed Morsi.
Turkish officials throughout the week and into Friday scrambled to respond to last week's "Freedom of the Press" report - published annually by the Washington-based Freedom House watchdog group - which had downgraded Turkey from "Partly Free" to "Not Free" and had explained that "constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press and expression are only partially upheld in practice, undermined by restrictive provisions in the criminal code and the Anti-Terrorism Act." The report also noted that "Turkey remained the world's leading jailer of journalists in 2013, with 40 behind bars as of Dec. 1." Responding to the ensuing controversy, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu declared on Friday that the report was "an insult" and that the real problem was that journalists remain uninformed about Turkey. Davutoglu had previously declared that Turkey was in fact more free than even "Partly Free" countries, part of a statement in which he emphasized that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) expected Turkish journalists "to reject" the Freedom House report. Ankara has had trouble settling on talking points describing its jailing of journalists in general, and more specifically on the number of journalists that the Turks are willing to admit are behind bars. Davutoglu's Friday statements insisted that "there are only five imprisoned journalists with press cards," opposite a list of 44. Responding to the same list, a statement released by Turkey's Justice Ministry earlier this week had held that only 29 journalists were in jail. Government officials had in April cited a statement from the the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) - one that CPJ insists Ankara invented out of thin air - pegging the number at 15.
Firefights between Yemeni army forces and Al Qaeda fighters killed at least seven people on Friday in the country's capital of Sana'a, as violence spread to Yemen's presidential palace on the same day as an assassination attempt almost claimed the life of its defense minister, Major General Muhammad Nasir Ahmad. Reuters described Sana'a as being "in lockdown" in the aftermath of the violence - checkpoints were erected across all of the city's main entrances - and assessed that the attack on Ahmad was done "in apparent reprisal for the army's biggest push against militants in nearly two years." Recent days had seen Yemeni troops storm a major compound operated by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a key goal in the ongoing military campaign. Fears of reprisals to the offensive had led the United States to suspend operations at its Sana'a embassy, and the missions of other Western countries at least limited their operations. Yemeni officials have struggled to put down at least two insurgencies, one in the country's south driven by AQAP and another involving Shiite secessionists stationed largely out of the north. The central government and Western officials have linked Iran to both. Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in late March blasted Tehran for providing assistance to Shiite separatists, after security officials captured a weapons-filled boat bound for the Sunni country loaded with Katyusha rockets, anti-aircraft missiles, RPG launchers and Iranian-made night-vision goggles. Links between Iran and AQAP, meanwhile, have been publicly known for years. Suspicions grounded in a now-notorious cable from bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, thanking Iran for its "vision" in infiltrating Yemen, were subsequently deepened in 2009 when reports emerged that Zawahiri had a channel to Iranian Qods Force commander Qassem Suleimani. Gulf leaders have since at least 2012 been open in condemning a range of Iranian efforts they insist are aimed at destabilizing Arab states. Wikileaks cables published years ago had already disclosed that the Saudis urged the U.S. in 2008 to launch attacks against Iranian nuclear infrastructure, and in July 2010 the UAE's ambassador to Washington publicly made the case that "a cost-benefit analysis" argued in favor of military action against Iran.