The Middle East Channel

Iran's Foreign Minister Confident on Comprehensive Nuclear Deal

In a joint news conference with E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that a comprehensive nuclear deal was possible in "four or five months and even shorter." Ashton cautioned that reaching a comprehensive deal would be "difficult and challenging." She arrived in Tehran Saturday for a two-day visit -- the first visit by an E.U. foreign policy chief since 2008 -- to discuss a wide range of issues, including bilateral ties, human rights, and the Syrian conflict, with Zarif and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke out Sunday from Jerusalem requesting that Ashton press the Iranians on the shipment of weapons that Israel seized last week allegedly bound for Gaza. Talks between Iran and the P5+1 will resume on March 18.

Syria

A Qatari-Lebanese delegation negotiated the release of a group of Greek Orthodox nuns who had been held hostage by Islamist rebels in Syria since being kidnapped from their Maaloula monastery in December. The nuns, who are being transported to Damascus via Lebanon, were freed as part of a prisoner exchange involving 150 women and children held by the Syrian government. Meanwhile, a new report from Save the Children claims that Syria's conflict is threatening to collapse the entire health system, which is already severely crippled. Another report released by Amnesty International accuses the Syrian government of employing starvation tactics against civilians, citing the case of Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus where at least 128 refugees have died as a result.

Headlines

  • The Libyan government has threatened to bomb a North Korea-flagged oil tanker if it attempts to export oil from the rebel-controlled Sidra port. The armed rebels who control the port have warned that an attack on the tanker, which docked on Saturday, would constitute a "declaration of war."
  • At least 40 people have been killed in clashes between Houthi and Sunni tribesmen in Yemen's al-Jawf province since Friday. Meanwhile, a boat transporting African migrants capsized off of the coast of Yemen. At least 30 people were rescued by a Yemeni naval control, however 42 migrants drowned.
  • Thousands marched through Beirut on Saturday demanding Lebanon's first law against domestic violence.
  • A minibus packed with explosives detonated at a security checkpoint Saturday in the Iraqi city of Hilla, killing at least 32 people and injuring at least 150 others.
  • A Palestinian man was shot dead at the border crossing between the West Bank and Jordan after attempting to snatch a weapon from and choke an Israeli Defense Forces soldier according to a military statement.
  • Heavy rain has lashed Egypt since Saturday, resulting in the death of 16 people across the country and the closure of ports, schools, and some highways.

Arguments and Analysis

'Breaking Taboos: Youth Activism in the Gulf States' (Kristin Smith Diwan, Atlantic Council)

"Youth activists are challenging the conservative political culture and traditional social norms of these oil-exporting monarchies. In Saudi Arabia this has included criticism of the king online and even demonstrations. In Kuwait, a youth campaign of escalating street action forced the hand of parliament and prompted the resignation of a scandal-weakened prime minister. Bahrain experienced several years of youth-initiated protests, though these failed to compel political concessions from a sharply divided monarchy.

Youth movements are far from achieving their demands for greater democratic representation and government accountability in a region where political parties are banned and direct criticism of rulers brings imprisonment. But their influence cannot be assessed by a narrow focus on immediate political outcomes. The generational divide is testing not only the state but important mediators of state power: tribes and Islamist movements. Youth are struggling against the suffocating lack of space for social engagement and political innovation. And they are tapping into growing doubts about the capacity of ruling families to manage the coming challenges to the welfare state system. In short, they are laying the groundwork for the transformations to come."

'Iran Deal: Keeping Israel on Board' (Shai Feldman and Oren Setter, The National Interest)

"Given these conflicting considerations, can the U.S. and Israel maintain their informal alliance while maximizing the odds that the talks recently launched would produce an optimal comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran? The key here seems to be the ability and willingness of Washington and Jerusalem to prenegotiate a 'code of conduct' possibly consisting of four elements: First, a U.S.-Israel agreed timeframe for testing Iran's willingness to reach a deal limiting its nuclear program. Second, an understanding that during the agreed timeframe for the talks, Israel, while adhering to its public stance favoring the 'ideal deal' would refrain from undermining the negotiations by waging a public campaign against the talks. Third, that during the same timeframe the Israeli national-security community will be fully briefed regarding the details of the talks, and more importantly, will be provided multiple opportunities to share its possible concerns and to offer its ideas about the ways in which difficult issues in the talks can be best addressed. Fourth, and in parallel, the U.S. and Israel will create one or more Track-II channels for conversations among both sides' non-official experts and former government officials. In these totally deniable frameworks, the two sides will be able to explore ideas and possible compromises that may be deemed too sensitive even for secret-yet-official talks.

The stakes involved for the U.S. and Israel in the recently launched efforts to reach a comprehensive deal with Iran regarding its nuclear program are enormous. Yet their stakes and priorities in these talks are not identical, presenting Washington and Jerusalem with a serious alliance management problem. The four-element 'code of conduct' proposed here would allow the U.S. and Israel to maintain their close ties while the P-5+1 led by the U.S. productively negotiate with Iran."

-- Cortni Kerr

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Turkey’s Prime Minister Threatens to Ban Facebook, YouTube

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to shut down social media sites Facebook and YouTube in response to recent wiretap recordings released anonymously over YouTube. The controversial recordings, the latest development in Turkey's corruption scandal, allegedly incriminate Erdogan and other government officials. In a late Thursday ATV broadcast, Erdogan asserted, "We are determined on this subject. We will not leave this nation at the mercy of YouTube and Facebook," adding that such measures would not take place until after March 30 municipal elections. Turkey's President Abdullah Gul commented Friday that such a ban is "out of the question." Gul, however, added that authorities had the power under a new law to block access to certain materials if a person's privacy is being violated. Meanwhile, new labor statistics show that Turkey's unemployment rate for 2013 increased to 9.7 percent, surpassing the government's goal of 9.5 percent. Despite the economic situation and recent corruption allegations, a poll released Tuesday reported that Erdogan's approval rating rose from its all-time low of 39.4 percent in January to 43.5 percent in February.

Syria

The Syrian government is expected to miss a major deadline next week to destroy its 12 nuclear weapons production facilities. An official from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Thursday that none of the facilities had been destroyed yet. In the city of Homs, a car bomb exploded in the Armenian district, killing at least 15 people and wounding 12 others Thursday. In the south, Syrian aircraft launched an attack near the Lebanese border on the rebel-held town of Yarboud, where at least 17 rebels were killed in fighting on Thursday. Increased Syrian aircraft activity near the Israel-Syria border Friday morning prompted the Israeli Air Force to scramble fighter jets four times, though it did not result in direct confrontation.

Headlines

 
  • Egypt announced in an online statement Thursday that it was acting in solidarity with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain by withdrawing its diplomatic envoy from Qatar to "correct the path of the Qatari government."
  • Egypt's cabinet approved the final draft of a new presidential elections law that is expected to pave the way for an official announcement on the terms and date of the election.
  • Saudi Arabia has formally designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, along with the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
  • At least 30 people were killed in a series of bombings in Iraq's capital of Baghdad and the southern town of Hilla on Thursday. Gunfire killed eight people on Friday in Fallujah, where anti-government fighters have held control for more than two months.
  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Jordan to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian peace process with King Abdullah II.

Arguments and Analysis

'Break Up in the Gulf: What the GCC Dispute Means for Qatar' (Bilal Y. Saab, Foreign Affairs)

"Should Qatar become friendlier with Iran and Oman, it would signal the death of the GCC and herald a new power alignment in the Gulf. It would also severely complicate U.S. plans in the Middle East. For some time, the United States has encouraged the Arab Gulf States to think and act more collectively to enhance Gulf security. But with increasing tensions among GCC members, including possible divorces, this goal seems increasingly unrealistic. Washington may come to see that its Gulf allies will not be able to provide regional security anytime soon and, as a result, think twice about plans to reduce the U.S. political and military footprint there.

Qatar's spat with its Saudi and Emirati neighbors also creates another policy dilemma for the United States. Washington has strategic relations with all three states, which will become difficult to manage if they aren't on speaking terms. It is possible that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi could even lobby the United States to help shut down money flows out of Doha under the guise of counterterrorism. But Washington might not be receptive. Qatar hosts the Al Udeid Air Base and the Combined Air and Space Operations Center, which coordinated all of the U.S. attack and surveillance missions for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, although the U.S. Treasury Department and State Department may show readiness to entertain Saudi and Emirati punitive measures against Doha, the Pentagon will probably put the brakes on any such plans."

'Zooming in on Syria: Adapting US Policy to Local Realities' (Faysal Itani and Nathaniel Rosenblatt, Atlantic Council)

"The single-minded US focus on international diplomacy has come at the expense of a nuanced and granular understanding of the opposition. This has encouraged a reactive approach that has failed to keep pace with the evolution of the uprising as it morphed from peaceful protest to armed rebellion and, finally, full-blown civil war. Unless the United States adopts a more flexible, imaginative, and committed approach, Syria will continue its descent into lawlessness and terrorism, causing untold suffering for Syrians, threatening neighboring countries, and fueling regional sectarian hatred and violence.

For the United States to play any relevant role in facilitating a negotiated political transition in Syria, it needs to fundamentally alter its framework for understanding and dealing with the uprising, to gain a much deeper grasp of the local opposition and its standing among the local population, capacity to govern, and ability to coordinate and represent Syrians in international fora. Policymakers need to evaluate why the opposition has evolved as it did through the stages of protest movement, armed insurgency, and long-term civil war. This brief takes a micro-view of key moments in the evolution of the conflict and shows how moderate trends within the opposition lost the upper hand. The authors argue that foreign actors played a role in worsening internal divisions among opposition players, empowering radical sectarian militias, and thwarting efforts to overthrow the regime. Such an analysis offers critical lessons on how the United States can more effectively pursue a political transition in Syria."

-- Cortni Kerr

ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images