- Western diplomats: Iran progress on creating plutonium-based nuclear bomb "really crept up on us"
- Iran experts slam "journalistic henpeckers" for minimizing Rouhani statements describing Israel's existence as "wound"
- Top military figure sentenced to life in prison as Turkey Islamists tighten grip on military
- Palestinian peace commitments questioned amid soccer controversy
What we’re watching today:
- The Wall Street Journal reports on "significant advances" that Iran has made in recent months on its Arak plutonium facility, putting the Islamic republic in a position to start producing two bombs' worth of weapons-grade plutonium by next summer. U.S. and European officials cited by the WSJ described progress that Iranian scientists have made on the complex, which includes a heavy water plant and a plutonium-based reactor. Iran has officially notified the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, that it intends to bring the reactor online by the second half of 2014. The revelations come as the country's new president Hassan Rouhani was sworn in, and continued development of the facility may be read by diplomats as a thread of continuity between his administration and that of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The past Iranian president was on hand in mid-June to tour the Arak facility amid declarations by Iranian officials that they would soon activate the reactor. Nonetheless an official based at the IAEA's Vienna headquarters told the Journal that Iran's progress "really crept up on us."
- Hassan Rouhani was sworn in on Sunday as Iran's new president, amid sharp debates in the U.S. foreign policy community over his ability or willingness to alter Iran's confrontational diplomatic posture toward the West. Journalists from the Wall Street Journal today noted the contrast between Western journalists who "were quick to emphasize [Rouhani's] pledges to be more moderate... than his predecessors" with statements actually made by Rouhani a few days ago describing Israel's existence as an "old wound." Rouhani had specifically referred to "the shadow of the occupation." The phrase was, according to WSJ Assistant Books Editor Sohrab Ahmari, "seized" by "journalistic henpeckers" to insist that Rouhani was referring only to Israel's presence in the West Bank, and not to the Jewish state's existence. Ahmari, a Farsi speaker and Iran expert, blasted such interpretations as displaying a "literal-mindedness that borders on stupidity" and emphasized that "when Iranian leaders say 'the occupation'" they mean the entire state of Israel. Iran's foreign policy is in any case set by the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. In response to the media controversy over Rouhani's statements, Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted a reminder "Iran's actual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, still very much wants Israel to disappear."
- Several developments in Turkey over the weekend and stretching into today - including the first convictions in a years-old legal campaign against former top military officials, coupled with new appointments to the country's military echelon - have observers fearing that the country’s ruling Justice and Development (AKP) Party is tightening its grip on the country’s armed forces. On Monday former military Chief of Staff Ilker Basbug was sentenced to life in prison for his alleged role in a covert, conspiratorial, ultranationalist group that sought the government’s overthrow. The AKP has been blasted by human rights groups for using the so-called Ergenekon trials - of which the Basbug conviction is a part - as a mechanism for rounding up and imprisoning hundreds of political dissidents. Freedom House accused the AKP of "using problematic articles in the penal code to attack critics and dissidents... transform[ing] a legitimate attempt to dismantle an antidemocratic, criminal organization into a series of show trials, during which innocent and guilty alike languish in jail." Ankara this weekend also appointed new top-ranking military officials perceived to be favored by the regime. Turkey’s Supreme Military Council, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had blocked the promotion of Gendarmerie Commander Gen. Bekir Kalyoncu and forced him into retirement.
- Palestinian pushback to cultural normalization with Israel is being criticized for undermining renewed U.S.-sponsored peace talks, after Palestinian officials refused to invite Israelis to a good-will soccer exhibition held by a top Spanish soccer team traveling through Israel and Palestinian-controlled territories in the West Bank. FC Barcelona, which includes Argentinean soccer divinity Lionel Messi, is in the region to play in front of both Israeli and Palestinian audiences. Palestinian officials refused to allow Israelis access to the team's exhibitions in the West Bank, though Israeli officials subsequently invited between 400-500 Palestinians to watch gameplay in Israel's Jaffa. The dispute over the matches comes just days after Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas triggered controversy by declaring that a future Palestinian would be cleansed of Jews. Another session of peace talks has been set for the second week of August.
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