Sir John Sawers, the head of the British intelligence agency M16, has estimated that Iran will likely achieve nuclear weapons capability within two years. Sir John spoke in front of a forum of about 100 senior civil servants in London last week, and announced that covert British operations had prevented nuclear weapons development as far back as 2008. He said, "The Iranians are determinedly going down a path to master all aspects of nuclear weapons...It is equally clear that Israel and the United States would face huge dangers if Iran were to become a nuclear weapon state." Iran has insisted its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. The United States has further tightened sanctions to increase pressure on Iran after recent rounds of talks have failed to bring the parties to an agreement. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, it has blacklisted several companies and individuals it suspects are assisting Iran in its acquisition of nuclear weapons capacity. The U.S. Treasury department has also identified "Iran's attempts to evade sanctions through the use of front companies, as well as its attempts to conceal its tanker fleet by repainting, reflagging or disabling GPS devices." The United States has also ramped up military deployments to the Persian Gulf as Iran continues threatening to close the vital waterway, the Straight of Hormuz.
Syrian opposition activists have reported that over 200 people have been killed in the Sunni village of Tremseh in Hama province in what might be the bloodiest attack since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011. According to residents' and activists' accounts, Syrian forces bombarded the village with tanks and helicopter fire on Thursday morning, followed by Alawite Shabiha militiamen carrying out execution-style killings for several hours. Conversely, Syrian State television, SANA, reported three security forces and 50 others were killed in a massacre by "armed terrorist groups." General Robert Mood, head of the U.N. mission in Syria, has confirmed the use of helicopters and heavy weaponry, but observers will not be able to move into Tremseh to investigate until there is a cessation of violence. Meanwhile, U.S. officials have said that Syria has begun moving its chemical weapons stockpiles out of storage facilities. Syria is believed to hold the largest stockpile of chemical and biological weapons in the region. Of particular concern is sarin gas, a deadly nerve agent, which can be released in the air or water. Officials are divided over President Bashar al-Assad's motives for moving weapons: Some believe the regime may use them in an ethnic cleansing agenda against the opposition; others think that Assad is protecting the stockpile in case of a western intervention, or is attempting to flex its muscle as a means of intimidation.
- Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood's political party, the Islamic Action Front, announced it will boycott parliamentary elections saying electoral reform has not gone far enough.
- Israeli troops killed one man and wounded another, both found to be unarmed, as they crossed over the Sinai border with Egypt.
- Partial counts of Libyan polls show Mahmoud Jibril's National Forces Alliance far ahead of rival Islamist parties. Official results will be released next week.
Arguments & Analysis
‘In Simply Meeting, Egyptian and Saudi Leaders Open New Era' (David Kirkpatrick, The New York Times)
"In his first foreign visit as Egypt's newly elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood met Thursday with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a signal that the two intended to set aside their profound ideological enmity in favor of pragmatic mutual interests. It was a meeting freighted with symbolism. The Saudi Arabian monarchy is the conservative anchor at the center of the authoritarian order that prevailed across the Middle East. It was a close ally of the former Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, and in both Washington and Cairo, Saudi envoys pushed hard to rally support for his government and then to protect him from trial, Western and Egyptian diplomats say."
‘Bashar al-Assad's shrinking circle' (The Guardian)
"The fact that high level defections are happening does not of itself shorten the terrible war that is going on there. But it does speak to the sectarian and tribal fissuring that is taking place under the pressure of these extreme forces. The defection of Syria's ambassador to Baghdad, Nawaf al-Fares, is important not just because of who he is - a Sunni bestowed with the honour of being Syria's first ambassador to Iraq in three decades. It is also about the people Fares represents. He is head of the Uqaydat tribe which straddles the Syrian-Iraqi border and is highly armed. If Fares's parting message to the Syrian military to turn their guns on the criminals of the regime is heard, it will be heard by his own tribe first."
‘Unhappy birthday' (The Economist)
"A year after the divorce from the north South Sudan's outlook is dismal. Oil that was meant to pay for both countries was switched off by the southerners in January during a row over transit fees demanded by the north, for use of the pipelines and ports that take the oil to market. The shutdown has crippled both economies. In the south inflation has climbed from 20% to 80%. Devoid of industry and wholly reliant on imports, the country is keenly feeling the impact of a slide in its currency. The UN, a big employer, is to start paying its local staff in dollars in view of the crisis. The government has so far ignored calls to adopt the dollar. Making matters worse, a border conflict with rump Sudan has sent 170,000 refugees into the south, where they are struggling to survive."
--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey