The Middle East Channel

White House Threatens to Veto New Iran Sanctions Bill

U.S. President Barack Obama made a rare threat to veto legislation after a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran if an interim nuclear agreement fails. Despite pressure from the Obama administration, on Thursday a group of 26 republican and democratic senators filed a bill, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013, targeting Iran's oil exports and penalizing its engineering, mining, and construction industries. Additionally, it would give the senate a voice in any final nuclear agreement with Iran. The sanctions would not take effect before the end of the six-month term of the interim deal. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the "action is unnecessary" and could "disrupt the opportunity here for a diplomatic resolution." Additionally, Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor, said, "We just can't have new sanctions during this period." One of the bill's main supporters, Senator Robert Menedez, New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement, "Current sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table, and a credible threat of future sanctions will require Iran to cooperate and act in good faith."

Syria

U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi has begun meetings in Geneva with U.S. and Russian officials planning for a second international peace conference on Syria. Meetings will later include other U.N. Security Council representatives, as well as senior diplomats from the European Union, Arab League, and Syria's neighbors -- Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Officials have yet to determine whether Iran and Saudi Arabia will be invited to participate in the conference, and Syrian opposition members have not yet formed a delegation. The talks are scheduled to start on January 22 in the Swiss town of Montreux, and then move to Geneva. Meanwhile, Russia has rejected a proposed U.N. Security Council statement condemning Syrian regime airstrikes that has come as government warplanes bombard the northern city of Aleppo for the fifth day. According to Doctors Without Borders, at least 189 people have been killed and another 879 wounded in the city since December 15. Opposition activists have accused the government of dropping barrel bombs on Aleppo and the surrounding villages. France claimed the indiscriminate government airstrikes constitute war crimes and the United States said it was very disappointed that a Security Council statement expressing "our collective outrage" was blocked.

Headlines

  • Eight people detained in a major corruption investigation in Turkey, denounced by Prime Minister Erdogan, were formally arrested Friday on bribery charges.
  • Security forces stormed the offices of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights late Wednesday in what appears to be an expanding government crackdown.
  • A double bombing at a sheep market north of Baghdad killed six people Friday a day after several suicide attacks targeting Shiite pilgrims in Iraq killed at least 36 people.

Arguments and Analysis

'Stability through Change: Toward a New Political Economy in Jordan' (Faysal Itani, Atlantic Council)

"Although it appears Jordan has survived the Arab uprisings thus far, all is not well in the Hashemite Kingdom. Over the past twenty years, its political economy has changed profoundly, putting pressure on the foundations of regime stability. The state in Jordan has been retreating from many citizens' economic lives, shrinking its circle of privilege and patronage, and leaving the population to fend for itself in a dysfunctional economy. Worryingly, the segment of the population most affected is the monarchy's base, which sees the Palestinian-Jordanian population as benefiting from the new status quo. Today, Jordan is also coping with hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, many of whom may remain in the country long term. Yet the real danger to the monarchy's stability is not the immediate cost of refugee care but the alienation of its traditional power base.

Currently, the bloodshed that followed a peaceful uprising in Syria is helping contain the Jordanian people's appetite for political change. Rather than use this to scare its public into accepting an unsustainable status quo, the regime ought to use this breathing space to take the political risks associated with transforming its institutions and reimagining its relationship with its citizens.

The brewing crisis in Jordan calls for political creativity and boldness that the monarchy and its allies have yet to show. Simply put, Jordan needs a new social contract if it is to survive economically and politically. If it succeeds, it may present a much-needed transition model for other Arab countries. If it fails -- or fails to try -- the monarchy may well survive and muddle on, but only until its economic and political problems begin to fuel serious civil unrest."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

The Mideast Channel wishes you a happy and safe holiday season. The brief will resume on January 2, 2014.

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The Middle East Channel

Egyptian Court Clears Mubarak Sons and Allies as Morsi Faces New Charges

An Egyptian court acquitted two sons of former President Hosni Mubarak and several of his allies, including his last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, on charges of corruption Thursday. Shafiq, who has lived in the United Arab Emirates since his presidential election loss to Mohamed Morsi in 2012, was tried in absentia. The case was questioning whether Shafiq, a former air commander, enabled Gamal and Alaa Mubarak to purchase land owned by the Egyptian pilots' association, of which he was president, in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia below market rate in 1993. Also on Thursday, a court acquitted Shafiq on another corruption case, but it is unclear if the prosecution will appeal that ruling. The Mubarak sons are still facing several other corruption charges. Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Egypt's military-backed government filed new criminal charges against ousted President Mohamed Morsi. Prosecutors accused Morsi of conspiring with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas in a terrorist plot that involved killing protesters and leaking state secrets to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The Muslim Brotherhood said the charges were "trumped up." Morsi is already being tried for inciting murder and violence in connection with a 2012 attack by Islamists on opposition protesters. He appeared in court in November but rejected the proceedings claiming to be Egypt's legitimate president.

Syria

U.N. investigators have accused the Syrian government of waging a campaign of enforced disappearances of activists and other Syrian citizens. According to a report released by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry, "enforced disappearances were committed by government forces as part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population, and therefore amount to a crime against humanity." In a separate report, Amnesty International has accused Islamist militants, particularly al Qaeda affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), of abducting people and holding them in secret jails in northern Syria, committing "a shocking catalogue of abuses," including floggings, torture, and holding summary trials and executions. The leader of al Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, spoke to Al Jazeera in his first televised interview, saying that the Syrian conflict is nearing an end and that his fighters will "achieve victory soon." He additionally ruled out peace talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Syrian Kurds are demanding their own delegation, separate from the government and opposition, to a peace conference planned for January 22 in Switzerland.

Headlines

  • In a West Bank raid Thursday, Israeli troops killed two Palestinian men, including wanted intelligence officer Saleh Yassin, in a move that Palestinians called a "dangerous escalation" threatening peace talks.
  • A suicide bomber killed an estimated 14 Shiite pilgrims in an attack in the Dora district of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad Thursday.
  • Istanbul's police chief has been removed from his post two days after dozens of detentions and raids were conducted in part of a major corruption investigation in Turkey.

Arguments and Analysis

'Whatever Happened to the Arab Spring?' (Madawi al-Rasheed, Al-Monitor)

"The Islamists were not the destiny of the Arab world, but they certainly filled a vacuum created by oppression and exclusion at a time when liberation from authoritarian rule lacked the language under which it could be pursued. Hence the secular-Islamist divide was important to fragment Arab publics and ensure the persistence of authoritarian rule. From North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, regimes flirted with Islamism even while they might have appeared to be confronting it. There was a love-hate relationship between the two despite the multiple confrontations. Islamism served important purposes and was only curbed when it became a threat to regimes, not societies.

Equally, neither is the sectarian Sunni-Shiite schism in the dominant narrative about the region an inevitable destiny unfolding in every corner of the Arab world. Yes, sectarian tension and even killing are rife and tend to show their ugly faces in diverse societies such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain. Yet this sectarianism flourished specifically in those corners where either exclusion was entrenched or the regimes themselves were sectarian. Both republics and monarchies co-opted sectarian elites and rewarded them for their loyalty, but continued to exclude the rest of the communities. The regimes searched for token mediators rather than representatives, thus allowing grass-roots sectarian populist entrepreneurs to inflame the imaginations of their followers with utopias of identity politics that promise future emancipation, equality and power. Resisting exclusion from the corridors of power and the economy found a disturbing niche in the language of sectarian identity. Both Sunnis and Shiites adopted the discourse of mathloumiya, historical injustice inflicted on them because of their sect, to the detriment of seeing clearly the roots of exclusion that have grown under authoritarian rule. So sects were either indulged by the regimes in an attempt to use them against political rivals or suppressed to please their wider constituencies."

'Which Iran Will We Choose?' (Trita Parsi, Bijan Khajehpour, and Reza Marashi, Huffington Post)

"The 2013 presidential election unexpectedly catapulted centrist leaders into power that have sought an opening to the West on numerous occasions. Such efforts include the 2001 collaboration with the U.S. in Afghanistan, the 2003 Grand Bargain offer, and the 2005 offer to limit Iran's enrichment program to 3,000 centrifuges (Iran currently has 19,000). These offers were all made prior to the West imposing crippling sanctions. By rejecting this outreach, Washington strengthened the hand of Iranian hardliners who believe the only way to compel the U.S. to deal with Iran is not by sending peace offers, but rather by resisting American power.

Rouhani's team is again pursuing the notion that Iran's national security goals require peace and accommodation with regional powers -- and by extension, the West. To that end, they see western countries as potential partners in helping Iran achieve its declared goals -- not just in nuclear technology, but also in other technological, regional and security issues. Perhaps more importantly, their policies reveal a larger point: for Iran's national interest, the nuclear issue is more means than goal, in the sense that it is instrumental to the real goal of recognition and reintegration in the international system as an equal player."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

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