- WSJ: After fiery comments, renewed concerns that Iran president lacks "ability to deliver" nuke deal
- Egyptian military promotes army chief Sisi, sets stage for presidential ascension
- Focus on Israeli red lines, Russian arms shipments after mysterious Syria explosion
- Jihadists release tape showing successful missile strike on Egyptian helicopter
- Reuters today conveyed statements from State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf confirming that the first round of comprehensive nuclear negotiations with Iran will begin in New York in mid-February, amid both news and analysis reflecting unease over the willingness and ability of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani to offer meaningful concessions. The Wall Street Journal this morning evaluated interviews recently given to CNN by Rouhani and by Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, dryly noting that their intransigent tone and positions had "rekindled concerns in Washington and Europe about [Rouhani's] ability to deliver" a robust agreement. Zarif had explicitly accused the Obama administration of lying about Iranian commitments to dismantle nuclear centrifuges in the context of the current interim agreement, while Rouhani had ruled out dismantling centrifuges during any future agreement. The stance was quickly echoed, as Iranian media pointed out last Friday, by a senior Iranian cleric who cited statements from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A report published last week by the U.S.-based Institute of Science and International Security (ISIS) had calculated [PDF] that Iran would minimally need to dismantle 15,000 centrifuges to verifiably put its atomic program beyond use for weaponization. Obama administration efforts to contain the fallout from the Iranian statements, which saw White House officials describing the CNN interviews as geared for domestic consumption, were literally, openly mocked by members of the White House press corps. The Associated Press had already assessed last week that the Rouhani and Zarif's statements were set to "renew criticism that Iran is stalling and energize the push in Congress for tougher sanctions," while Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg noted that if Rouhani's statement is sincere then "there is no possibility of a nuclear deal between Iran and the six powers."
- Egyptian army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi was today cleared to run for president by the country's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), setting the stage for what is widely expected to be an easy glide into the presidency by the broadly popular and seemingly teflon military figure. SCAF also promoted Sisi to the rank of Field Marshal, part of what is being read as an all-but-explicit endorsement of his ascension by Egypt's military hierarchy. Sisi emerged as Egypt's most popular figure after the army's July 2013 ouster of then-president Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-linked government, which came amid mass protest calling for Morsi's resignation and early elections. Egypt's English-language Ahram Online this weekend described Sisi as "the Brotherhood's arch-foe" and assessed that the Islamist organization is "more outcast than ever." The description is in line with an Agence France-Presse report from last week describing the Brotherhood as "in complete disarray." It follows arguments stretching back months by Washington Institute fellow Eric Trager evaluating that the Brotherhood's rigid, hierarchical structure made it vulnerable to disruption and decapitation. A presidential win by Sisi, especially if it is read as a firm popular rebuke of the Islamist organization, may complicate bilateral relations between Washington and Cairo. Last August the then-general expressed open anger at the Obama administration for what he described as America "[turning its] back on the Egyptians" as they battled Islamists. A diplomatic snub this week by the State Department risked further diplomatic deterioration.
- An overnight explosion reported in Syria's Mediterranean port city of Latakia, which Syrian opposition sources linked to action by the Israeli Air Force (IAF), has refocused attention not just on Jerusalem's oft-reiterated commitment to stem the flow of advanced weapons through Syria but on Russia's increasingly open efforts to arm the Bashar al-Assad regime. Reuters had reported on Friday that in recent weeks Moscow has "stepped up supplies of military gear to Syria," part of a campaign by the Russians to "raise [their] diplomatic and economic influence in the Middle East." The opposition sources that described this week's incident in Latakia suggested that the target was a shipment of Russian S-300 missile launchers, anti-aircraft assets that the Israelis have emphasized for years they would seek to interdict should Syria move to acquire them. Lebanese sources had earlier in the day reported unusually intensive IAF overflights in Lebanese airspace, potentially en route to Syria. The Israelis are thought to have taken action more than half a dozen times to enforce Jerusalem's "red line" against Syrian acquisition or transfer of advanced weapons. That said, details of this incident are murky - and as usual the Israelis have refused to confirm or deny an attack - and veteran Israeli defense correspondent Alon Ben-David this morning flatly ruled out [Hebrew] reports linking the IAF to the explosion.
- Islamists over the weekend released a tape showing fighters from the Al Qaeda-aligned Ansar Jerusalem jihadist group using a surface-to-air missile (SAM) to down an Egyptian helicopter operating in the northern Sinai Peninsula, the first time the group has demonstrated the capability to successfully deploy SAMs. David Barnett, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, described the video and read the attack alongside a late 2013 declaration by Ansar Jerusalem to wage a protracted war against Egyptian forces. For its part, TIME’s Karl Vick contextualized the strike as one of several recent incidents in which sophisticated weapons have been deployed by jihadists near Israel's borders. Vick outlined how "[t]he flight approach to [Israel's] Eilat airport comes uncomfortably close to Sinai foothills on the Egyptian side of the border," the upshot being that terrorists could use SAMs to down Israeli commercial aircraft. Vick outlined a number of scenarios that would mitigate such risk, the most straightforward being Egyptian move to secure the territory. Egyptian security officials have for months sought to do exactly that, albeit with uneven success. Moves by the Obama administration to freeze military aid to Cairo due to the army's ouster of the country's former president Mohammed Morsi were criticized for potentially interfering with Egypt's efforts to uproot the jihadist infrastructure in the Sinai.
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