Commentary on the economic , geopolitical and simply fascinating things going on. Served occasionally with a side of snark.
Saturday, March 8, 2014
War Watch March 8 , 2014 - Iraq death dealing continues unabated , US Special Forces training Iraqi and Jordanian troops as well as Syrian rebel forces ...... Syria focus these days remains on the rebel vs rebel in-fighting , but the War between the Syria Government and Rebels rolls on , Syria chemical weapon destruction item of note ....... Another Afghan drone attack mifire - how widely will the implications of the deaths and serious injuries sustained on this occasion by Afghan National Army soldiers be felt remains to be seen ........ Iranian nuclear talks and international politics regarding same in focus.....
Suicide bomb kills dozens in Iraq
March 9, 20148:59AM ET
A car bomb detonates at a checkpoint during morning rush hour in southern Iraq, killing dozens
A suicide car bomber set off his explosive-laden vehicle at a security checkpoint in the southern Iraqi city of Hilla on Sunday, killing at least 22 people and wounding 147, officials said. The attack was the latest in a string believed designed to destabilize the country in the run-up to scheduled elections,.
The explosion went off at the main checkpoint at a northern entrance to the largely Shia Muslim city during morning rush hour as dozens of cars were waiting to be searched. Thirteen civilians, including a woman and 12-year old child, and nine security personnel were killed, two police officers told the Associated Press, with at least 55 other people were wounded, they said.
Reuters reported a death toll of at least 32 with 147 people wounded.
Police say the victims' burns suggested the bomber packed his car with liquid fuel, probably gasoline.
At least 50 cars were set ablaze with passengers trapped inside and part of the checkpoint complex was destroyed, an officer told Reuters.
Iraq has seen a spike in violence since last April, with the death toll climbing to its highest levels since the worst of the country's sectarian bloodletting in 2006 though 2008. The U.N. says 8,868 people were killed in 2013, and more than 1,400 people were killed in January and February of this year.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks, but they bore the hallmarks of an Al-Qaeda breakaway group that frequently uses car bombs and suicide attacks to target public areas and government buildings in their bid to undermine confidence in the government.
Suicide bomber kills 45 in Iraqi city of HillaMarch 09, 2014 10:59 AM (Last updated: March 09, 2014 04:04 PM)By Ali al-Rubaie
Fire fighters and civilians inspect the site of a massive bomb attack in Hillah, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) south of Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, March 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Str)
HILLA, Iraq: A suicide bomber driving a minibus packed with explosives killed at least 45 people and wounded 157 on Sunday in the southern Iraqi city of Hilla, police and medical sources said.
The attacker approached a main checkpoint at a northern entrance to the largely Shi'ite Muslim city and detonated the minibus, a police officer said on condition of anonymity.
At least 50 cars were set ablaze with passengers trapped inside and part of the checkpoint complex was destroyed, the officer said.
Sunni Islamist insurgents linked to al Qaeda have been regaining ground in Iraq over the past year, particularly in the western province of Anbar bordering Syria.
No one claimed responsibility for Sunday's attack, but the deputy chairman of Hilla provincial council, Aqeel al-Rubaie, accused al Qaeda of being behind the bombing.
Rubaie said the local government had received tips that al Qaeda-affiliates hiding in farmland north of Hilla were plotting a strike.
He said the violence was a spillover from fighting in neighbouring Anbar, where the Shi'ite-led government has been battling the al Qaeda faction the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) around the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah.
"We have evidence that al Qaeda terrorists are standing behind the suicide attack today and since the breakout of fighting in Anbar, al Qaeda has stepped up attacks in Hilla," Rubaie told Reuters.
"We can't separate today's attack from Anbar's fight."
The scene of the attack was strewn with debris from the checkpoint, and the shells of burnt out cars littered the road.
"I was sitting inside my kiosk when suddenly a horrible blast threw me outside and hurled my groceries up in the air. I saw cars set ablaze with people burning inside," said Abu Nawar, owner of a makeshift kiosk made of palm tree leaves near the checkpoint.
Police were using cutting equipment to break into the blackened vehicles and lift out the bodies, the police officer said.
"A policeman thought the minibus was suspicious and he asked the driver to pull over for a check, but the vehicle exploded," the officer said.
Bombings and other attacks killed almost 8,000 civilians in Iraq in 2013, the deadliest year since 2008. Violence has not abated in the early months of 2014.
Relatives of the casualties lined up outside the Hilla morgue to claim the bodies of their loved ones. Inside, family members cried and wept as they struggled to recognise the bodies.
"I want to keep my son's shoes forever, I loved him so much, they broke my heart," said Um Muthanna, who identified the charred body of her son, Muthanna Abdul Hussein, a cameraman for state television, from his shoes and socks.
Muthanna was killed along with a second cameraman from Iraqiya state television, Khalid Abid.
The death toll rose as some of the wounded died in hospital and more bodies were discovered at the bomb site, police said.
In a separate incident, on the border of Anbar province and western Baghdad, a group of gunmen attacked an army check point in the Sunni area of Abu Ghraib, killing four soldiers, police and medical sources said.
In northern Iraq, three North Oil Company employees were killed and seven wounded when gunmen in a car fired at a bus ferrying NOC employees near Tuz Khurmatu, close to the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, according to a police official.
ISIL militants and other armed groups linked to the fight in Anbar have been carrying out attacks in northern Iraq as they try to divert government troops from Anbar and exploit openings made by the concentration of security forces in the west.
The US pledged the training operation after al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) seized much of the Anbar Province. The Iraqi military has continued to try to oust them, with very limited success.
The training is expected to last through the end of April, though Iraqi troops are believed to only be scheduled to stay through the end of this month, and next month will just be for Jordan’s own forces.
The training operation appear to be organized completely separately from the other ongoing US training mission in Jordan, where they are training Syrian rebels in hopes of imposing regime change in Damascus.
At least 44 people were killed and 60 more were wounded across Iraq in today’s attacks. A number of people were harmed in the ongoing situation in Anbar province. Also, a candidate was assassinated in northern Iraq.
Baghdad — Saudi Arabia and Qatar are supporting militant groups in Iraq and have effectively declared war on the country, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said as nationwide violence left 15 dead Saturday.
The rare direct attack on the Sunni Gulf powers, with Maliki also accusing Riyadh of supporting global terrorism, comes with Iraq embroiled in its worst prolonged period of bloodshed since 2008, with more than 1,800 people killed already this year, ahead of parliamentary elections due next month.
The bloodletting in Iraq, which shares a long border with Saudi Arabia, has been driven principally by widespread discontent among the country's Sunni Arab minority and by the civil war in neighbouring Syria.
Maliki, a Shiite, has in the past blamed unnamed regional countries and neighbours for destabilising Iraq.
But in an interview with France 24 broadcast on Saturday, the Iraqi premier said allegations he was marginalising Sunnis were being pushed by "sectarians with ties to foreign agendas, with Saudi and Qatari incitement".
Referring to the two countries, he said: "They are attacking Iraq, through Syria and in a direct way, and they announced war on Iraq, as they announced it on Syria, and unfortunately it is on a sectarian and political basis."
"These two countries are primarily responsible for the sectarian and terrorist and security crisis of Iraq."
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have emerged as regional rivals because, while both have provided support to fighters opposed to embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the two countries have also sparred in recent weeks over Doha's support for the Muslim Brotherhood of deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.
Saudi Arabia, along with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, withdrew its ambassador to Qatar this month.
Baghdad has long complained that support for militant groups fighting in Syria's civil war finds its way through to Iraq with weapons in particular ending up in the hands of jihadists.
Maliki said in the interview that Riyadh and Doha were providing political, financial and media support to militant groups and accused them of "buying weapons for the benefit of these terrorist organisations".
- 'Dangerous Saudi stance' -
In the interview, Maliki also accused Saudi Arabia of supporting global terrorism, both inside the Arab world and in other countries.
He slammed "the dangerous Saudi stance" of supporting "terrorism in the world -- it supports it in Syria and Iraq and Lebanon and Egypt and Libya and even in countries outside" the Arab world.
Maliki in January blamed "diabolical" and "treacherous" Arab countries but has consistently refused to point directly at particular states.
But, as violence has worsened markedly in Iraq -- the death toll from attacks and clashes last month was more than triple that of February 2013 -- and with elections due on April 30, Maliki has taken a hard line, pushing security operations against militants.
He has also called for greater coordination against militancy, with Baghdad due to host an international counter-terrorism conference on March 12.
On Saturday, violence nationwide killed at least 15 people, including a parliamentary election candidate -- the second murdered this year -- and four children, security and medical sources said.
Election candidates have been targeted in the past, with nearly 20 killed ahead of April 2013 provincial council elections.
Attacks in Baghdad and north of the capital, meanwhile, left 14 others dead.
Violence has killed at least 110 people so far this month, and more than 1,800 since the beginning of the year, according to AFP figures based on security and medical sources.
Diplomats and analysts have urged Iraq's Shiite-led authorities to pursue reconciliation with the Sunni minority in addition to security operations, but political leaders have been loath to compromise ahead of elections and have offered little in the way of concessions.
And while officials have trumpeted moves against militants for months, violence has remained at its worst since Iraq emerged from a brutal Sunni-Shiite sectarian war in 2008, and anti-government fighters have held control of Fallujah, a major city on Baghdad's doorstep, for more than two months.
The violence tapered off slightly today, the prayer day, but at least 42 people were still killed and 62 more wounded. Shelling in Falluja and a bombing at a market in the north left the most casualties.
At least 82 people were killed and 176 were wounded across Iraq today. Most of the casualties were civilians. A series of bombings once again took place in Baghdad province, but there were significant blasts in nearby cities as well.
DAMASCUS, March 8 (Xinhua) -- A radical rebel group executed about 10 civilians in Syria's southern province of Daraa, the official SANA news agency reported on Saturday.
The report cited online video footage which showed that several armed masked men forced a group of civilians to kneel on the ground for execution. Ten people, including an elderly man and a 10-year-old kid, were killed in a fusillade of bullets fired at close range.
The elderly man begged for his life, while his executioner showed no pity to him but urged another masked militant to execute the 10-year-old boy.
SANA said the massacre took place in Daraa, while activist reports said it was in a town in the northern province of Aleppo and blamed the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) for committed the killing.
The ISIL, imposing a radical Islamic rule in the areas under their control, have recently been engaged in fights against other radical groups across Syria.
The Syrian government has for long accused regional countries of supporting such radical groups, which try to establish an Islamic state in Syria.
Syria takes over key rebel town
March 8, 20144:19PM ET
Zara was one of the last rebel strongholds along the Lebanese border
Syrian government forces seized a town from rebels near the Lebanese border on Saturday, their latest attempt to cut off opposition fighters' supply lines, state media and activists said.
The fighting in Zara came as President Bashar al-Assad marked the 51st anniversary of his ruling Baath party's ascent to power, vowing to strengthen relations with international allies that have provided his main backing over the past three tumultuous years.
"The (Baath) leadership's efforts are concentrated on strengthening the alliance with friendly countries such as Russia, Iran and China," state TV quoted Assad as telling a group of local Baath party leaders from the suburbs of Damascus.
The fighting has lasted weeks around Zara, which rebels used as a base to attack pro-regime communities in the area, said pro-Syrian government media and Rami Abdurrahman of the anti-Assad, Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The town was one of two last strongholds for rebels along the Lebanese border leading to the city of Homs, the other being the nearby village of Al-Hosn, said another activist who identified himself as Samy al-Homsi.
"Without Al-Hosn and Zara, it will be the end of the revolution to the west of Homs," al-Homsi said. "It's the only two areas left to the rebels there."
In a statement on state news agency SANA, Syria's armed forces said they had established complete control over the village and killed and captured a "large number of terrorists,” using state media's customary term for rebels fighting to overthrow Assad.
The victory gave government forces control over a route connecting central Syria to the Mediterranean coast and which had been used as "a primary route for terrorist groups coming from Lebanese territory to neighboring areas to carry out criminal operations", it said.
Meanwhile, Syria's main Western-backed coalition confirmed Saturday that it has chosen a new army chief following an embarrassing episode in which their former leader refused to step down.
The statement insisted that despite some "confusion," Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir would assume leadership of the coalition's military council.
The body originally issued the announcement appointing al-Bashir on Feb. 17. But two days later, Maj. Gen. Salim Idris rejected his dismissal. Then Idris, along with more than a dozen senior insurgent commanders, severed ties with the political opposition-in-exile, further fragmenting the divided rebel movement.
Idris was ousted by colleagues who blamed him for the waning influence of the coalition-backed Free Syrian Army, as Islamic-orientated brigades grew in power.
Syria's civil war has killed over 140,000 people since it started three years ago as a peaceful protest movement against four decades of Assad family rule. Syria remains the most dangerous country for journalists with more than 63 killed since 2011, including 29 last year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has issued a new statement today mocking rival al-Qaeda faction the Nusra Front, dubbing them a “front of betrayal and treason” which had tried to defeat them militarily and failed.
Last week Nusra had given AQI a five day ultimatum to agree to arbitration by clerics over territorial disputes, and fighting continues between the two factions, with 23 reported killed today in Markada, in the northeast.
The fighting between the two sides began with an offensive by Nusra and the Islamic Front to try to take territory from AQI. They lost momentum fairly quickly, and much of AQI’s lost territory was retaken.
The fight also has an international component, with al-Qaeda’s parent organization disavowing AQI and endorsing Nusra as their representative faction in Syria. Despite this, AQI remains the stronger faction, controlling much more land than their rivals.
Battle for Syrian rebel town erases Lebanon border
By BARBARA SURKMarch 6, 2014 4:29 PM
ARSAL, Lebanon (AP) — Sunnis and Shiites from Lebanon are streaming into Syria to take up arms on opposite sides of a fierce battle over a rebel stronghold — a fight that has effectively erased the border between the two countries and underlined how Lebanon is being sucked into the civil war next door.
The northeastern Lebanese town of Arsal, dominated by Sunnis, has become a key logistical base for the Syrian rebels who have been fighting for months to keep their hold on the strategic Syrian town of Yabroud, only 20 miles away (30 kilometers) across the border.
On a recent day, armed fighters in pickup trucks and on motorbikes were seen scrambling down dusty roads out of Arsal into the mountains to cross into Syria and head to Yabroud. Syrian rebels move freely back and forth across the border, and rebels wounded in the battle are brought to Arsal for treatment in clandestine hospitals.
At the same time, Lebanese Shiite fighters from the Hezbollah guerrilla group are crossing into Syria to fight alongside the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad that have been besieging Yabroud since November.
For the past three years, Lebanon has been struggling with the spillover from Syria's civil war. Sectarian tensions in Lebanon have escalated, as its Sunni community largely supports the mainly Sunni Syrian rebel movement, while its Shiites back Assad. Hezbollah, the most powerful armed force in Lebanon, has thrown its weight behind Assad, sending fighters who have tipped some battles in the government's favor.
The violence has blown back into Lebanon itself, with suspected Sunni extremists carrying out a string of retaliatory bombings against Hezbollah-controlled Shiite areas.
Map locates Arsal, Lebanon; 1c x 3 inches; 46.5 mm x 76 mm;
Around Arsal, all sides are brought into dangerously close proximity, exacerbated by the battle raging just over the border.
The town's Sunni population strongly sympathizes with Syria's rebels. Lebanese security officials say a few hundred Lebanese Sunnis are believed to be offering logistical support or fighting alongside the rebels, particularly in Yabroud. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
But Arsal is surrounded by mainly Shiite towns in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa valley, raising the potential for friction between the various fighters on Lebanese soil. The town of Baalbek, 20 miles (30 kilometers) to the south, is a source of many of the Hezbollah fighters heading to join the Yabroud battle.
Syrian rebels being treated at Arsal hospitals said Hezbollah guerrillas make up the bulk of the forces besieging Yabroud.
"They have many weapons, and they are fighting hard because Yabroud is important for them," one rebel, who spoke on condition he be identified only by his first name, Basel, told The Associated Press. "But it's our country and we are strong men. We will defend our people, our land and our honor until we die."
In this picture taken on Wednesday, March 5, 2014, Ibrahim, right, and Adul-Karim, left, both18, Syr …
Basel was seriously injured in the groin and left thigh when he and four other rebels were preparing to ambush pro-government forces at Yabroud but were instead ambushed themselves by troops who descended on them from behind.
The 27-year-old needs surgery that Arsal's makeshift hospital, attached to a mosque, cannot provide. But his brother, standing at his bedside, said he will not send him anywhere in Lebanon outside Arsal because he fears he could be captured on route by Hezbollah fighters manning several checkpoints in a neighboring Shiite village.
"I am going to pay more money to bring doctors here to help him, but he's only leaving this bed to go back to Syria," the brother said. He declined to give his name for fear of reprisals.
Another wounded Syrian rebel, Mohammed Awad, was barely out of the operating room when he began pleading with doctors to let him go back to the front at Yabroud.
The 20-year-old was wounded when a rocket hit a vehicle carrying him and other fighters. His face bandaged after doctors removed shrapnel from his jaw and left hand, Awad said he was determined to rejoin the battle because he is originally from Syrian town of Qusair, another border town that was a rebel stronghold until Hezbollah fighters helped overrun it last year in their first major incursion in Syria's war.
In this picture taken on Wednesday, March 5, 2014, a Lebanese nurse, right, helps Adul-Karim, 18, a …
"This is enough reason to want to fight Hezbollah and Assad to death," Awad said.
But there is the issue of personal revenge too, he said: He lost four uncles, two cousins and four female relatives amid the fighting in Qusair.
The battle for Yabroud is particularly fierce because the town is key for rebels. It is their last stronghold in Syria's Qalamoun region, between the Lebanese border and the Syrian capital Damascus, an important route for smuggling supplies to rebels from Lebanon.
Government forces have taken a string of other rebel-held towns in the area in the past month and are now making a final push on Yabroud. Earlier this week, Syrian helicopters attacked the town's outskirts with barrel bombs — containers packed with explosives and fuel that the government has used to devastating effect in other rebel-held urban areas in Sryia.
The fighting has contributed to a wave of refugees fleeing across the border to to Arsal. In the past two weeks alone, 13,000 arrived in Arsal, which has already been overwhelmed by Syrians settling in makeshift camps in the fields and hills on its outskirts.
In this picture taken on Wednesday, March 5, 2014, a Lebanese nurse, left, and Syrian man, right, ca …
Facilities for the rebels have geared up as well in Arsal. Two months ago, a new hospital opened in the town with two operating theaters, an emergency room and seven doctors on staff, including several surgeons, who perform an average six operations a day.
So far, up to 200 people have been treated there, mostly Syrian fighters and civilians, said Bassem Faris, a Syrian doctor and the hospital's manager. He was previously in Yabroud treating fighters at a makeshift hospital but had to flee the area after the fall of Qusair.
"Every one of us has a role to play in this revolution, and I will be more useful if I treat people and save lives," Faris said.
OPCW refuses to confirm nature of besieged Syria weapons depot
BEIRUT // The UN’s chemical weapons watchdog yesterday refused to reveal if a secret government military facility at the centre of a tense standoff in southern Syria last week was a possible chemical weapons site.
As part of a deal to decommission its chemical weapons programme, one of the largest in the world, Syria was required to provide the UN with a comprehensive list of its chemical weapons stocks, production and delivery systems.
Under the terms of that agreement there have not been searches by weapons inspectors to ensure the declaration was complete. Instead, it depends on the Syrian authorities giving an honest accounting of the extensive programme, whose existence they had denied until September last year.
Syria’s stockpile declaration was shared with members of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), including the US, Europe and regional states but it can only be made public by Damascus, something the authorities have not done.
“All declarations to the OPCW are confidential and details thereof can only be publicly disclosed with the consent of the State Party,” said Michael Luhan, the OPCW’s spokesman, said about Tal Al Jabiyeh, a military facility near Deraa and the Israel border.
Israeli jets were on standby to destroy the bunker and the entire military complex if rebels entered it, according to sources familiar with the incident.
They described an eleventh-hour panic in the international command centre over what it called “strategic weapons” on Tal Al Jabiyeh. Rebels in the area say a defector who served with the Syrian military there handed over intelligence that sarin, a deadly nerve agent that has already been used in the Syria war, was hidden in the bunker, a claim that cannot be independently confirmed.
Efforts to remove all of Syria’s chemicals weapons have fallen behind a tight timetable laid out by the OPCW-UN joint mission.
On Wednesday however, Sigrid Kaag, the special representative heading the mission, said the Syrian authorities had recently accelerated their work to remove and destroy 1,300 metric tones of chemicals.
After missing two deadlines, Damascus submitted a revised timeline for the decommissioning of its declared weapons programme by the end of April.
“The month of March, as I informed the Security Council, is the critical month to look at continued progress toward the overall deadline,” Ms Kaag said.
Also on Wednesday, a UN human rights investigation team said it had found strong evidence that nerve agents, used in chemical weapons attacks in Damascus suburbs and two other locations last year, came from regime supplies.
“The evidence available concerning the nature, quality and quantity of the agents used on August 21 indicated that the perpetrators likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military, as well as the expertise and equipment necessary to manipulate safely large amount of chemical agents,” the UN investigators, led by Paulo Pinheiro, said in the report.
The Syrian regime has maintained chemical weapons remained safely under its control and have not fallen into rebel hands.
It denies carrying out a complex nerve gas attack that killed hundreds of people in suburbs of Damascus in August.
A UN special inspection into that incident was not mandated to apportion blame but the evidence it compiled strongly indicated regime forces were responsible.
The Obama Administration’s effort to coax some Afghan official current or future to give their imprimatur to a continued occupation took another major blow yesterday, with a drone strike against Logar Province yesterday.
That seems less credible today, however, as Afghan officials say the base had been regularly used by US troops in the past, and even though the US no longer uses the base, it is unthinkable they simply forgot and assumed it was a Taliban base.
The Pentagon issued a statement offering “condolences” for the deaths but NATO would only say they were seeking to determine ways to ensure such killings don’t happen again.
AIPAC’s Plan C on Iran Diplomacy Blunted
by Jim Lobe
It’s been a difficult annual policy conference for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its hopes of getting Congress to set the toughest possible conditions on any final nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (the U.S., Britain, France, China, and Russia plus Germany). As readers of this blog know, AIPAC entered the conference, which ran from Sunday through Tuesday, in a rather parlous state as a result of its worst foreign policy setback in a generation; specifically, its failure to muster nearly enough Democrats to gain a veto proof-majority in favor of the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill that Obama had threatened to veto. Attacked by hard-line neoconservative groups on the right, notably theEmergency Committee for Israel (ECI) and the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) for sacrificing its devotion to Bibi Netanyahu’s jihad against Iran in the interests of bipartisanship — namely, not unduly alienating Democrats in Congress and thus bolstering J Street — the nation’s most powerful foreign policy lobby found itself in a seemingly dazed and unfamiliar defensive crouch, lacking until the very last moment a coherent lobbying agenda for the 14,000 attendees signed up for the proceedings.
That was bad enough. But the Russian takeover of Crimea made things worse. The event dominated the news throughout the conference, making it virtually impossible for AIPAC to break through the blanket TV news coverage of the Ukrainian crisis. Even Netanyahu’s belligerent remarks delivered to the conferees Tuesday morning, designed to psyche them up for their subsequent shleps up to Capitol Hill, were relegated to the inside pages of major national newspapers.
Even the weather refused to cooperate. The snowfall that blanketed the area Sunday night and Monday morning effectively shut down the government and downtown, closing Congressional offices, making it highly inconvenient — and, in many cases, impossible — for the usual overwhelming majority of members of Congress, who customarily make cameo appearances at the conference to ensure their good standing, to get to the convention center, and generally cast a wintry pall over the three-day proceedings.
Ultimately, aside from Netanyahu’s belligerence (a embarrassingly amount of which was directed against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement), what did AIPAC get on the Iran front? Although the smoke has not yet completely cleared on that question, it seems they got some form of its Plan C (after losing on Plan A — the Kirk-Menendez bill — and never getting any lift from Plan B, a non-binding resolution laying out impossible conditions for a final agreement) — a Congressional letter that the group helped to draft.
There are now, however, two such letters that are being circulated in Congress for signature — one hard-line version supposedly co-written by Sens. Lindsey Graham and Robert Menendez that clearly AIPAC and Netanyahu would prefer; the second, a softer one co-authored by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer. The question is, which version (both have been cleared by AIPAC) will get the most support on Capitol Hill?
As I’ve pointed out, both versions are ambiguous on key points, notably on the critical issue of whether Iran will be permitted — at least by Congress as a condition for lifting sanctions as part of any final agreement between the P5+1 — to maintain a limited uranium enrichment program on its own soil. The best analysis of the difference in both letters and the context in which they have been drafted and presented was provided yesterday in a statement by the National Iranian American Council’s (NIAC) policy director (and fellow-Seattle native), Jamal Abdi. Here it is:
…NIAC has serious concerns with the language in the Senate letter regarding demands for a final deal. NIAC outlined its position on what principles should guide Congressional action regarding U.S.-Iran diplomatic efforts in a recent letter to Congressional leadership that was signed by forty organizations. That letter urged that Congress uphold the JPOA [Joint Plan of Action agreed between the P5+1 and Iran last Nov 24], not issue demands on negotiations that contradict the interim terms or the terms outlined for a final deal in JPOA, and that Congress work with the Administration regarding the need to eventually lift sanctions.The House letter meets those standards. NIAC has minor concerns with the House letter, but will not oppose it and commends the efforts of those in the House who succeeded in securing a more balanced letter.
Unfortunately, the Senate letter does not meet those standards and NIAC therefore opposes the Senate letter.
The Senate letter uses new language to offer old ultimatums that will complicate ongoing negotiations, box-in U.S. negotiators, signal that the U.S. would violate the terms outlined in the JPOA, and serve as an invitation to hardliners in Iran to issue similar escalatory demands that will narrow options for compromise. Sections of the letter will be construed to rule out any final deal in which Iran retains a civilian enrichment program, in contradiction of the Joint Plan of Action. This, in combination with demands regarding dismantlement of infrastructure and facilities, and requiring the deal to have regional implications beyond its scope, can only interfere with the work of U.S. diplomats to resolve key concerns at the negotiating table.
NIAC urges that the Administration and Congress coordinate closely regarding ongoing negotiations and work towards the shared goal of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran and averting a disastrous war. NIAC urges that members of the Senate abstain from signing onto the Menendez-Graham letter and instead consider language that supports the ongoing negotiations towards a final deal instead of adding unnecessary complications.
Thus, in NIAC’s opinion, the House letter is preferable for understandable reasons, although the group doesn’t support it.
Now, the latest interesting development is that Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin, who was among the first of the senior Democrats to speak out against the Kirk-Menendez bill, has endorsed the House (Cantor-Hoyer, or C-H) letter and proposed it as a substitute in the Senate for the (Menendez-Graham, or M-G) letter. My understanding is that Levin believes that, despite its ambiguity, the House letter gives the administration the room it needs to negotiate a final agreement that would presumably permit some limited enrichment. If, as expected, other Senate Democrats, such as Banking Committee Chair Tim Johnson and Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein, follow suit, the chances are pretty good that he can get the backing of the majority caucus (although bringing around the 16 Democrats who co-sponsored the Kirk-Menendez bill will be a challenge). And, with Cantor as the chief Republican sponsor of the C-H letter, it’s almost certain that a majority of the House will sign onto that. Especially because, like the tougher M-G letter, the C-H letter has also been blessed by AIPAC.
Thus, as recently three weeks ago, AIPAC was still lobbying hard in the Senate for the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill, which was clearly designed by its drafters to sabotage the JPOA. When it failed to win at that, it tried briefly to get a resolution that would have set out conditions — known to be unacceptable to Tehran — that a final deal with Iran would have to incorporate, but the Democratic caucus would not go along. Twice rejected, it has been forced to settle for a letter and could very well wind up with the weakest one currently on the table. (See update below)
Moreover, the difference between Netanyahu’s maximalist position — no uranium enrichment, no centrifuges, no nothing — and the House letter endorsed by AIPAC is quite large, and Bibi must be rather upset by the gap. Indeed, his strongest supporters here are very upset.
Now, it bears mentioning that the White House, fearful of their effect on the negotiations and feeling perhaps a bit triumphant after frustrating AIPAC so badly over the last couple of months, opposes both letters, which could prove problematic if and when a final agreement with Iran is reached. While Obama can use his executive authority to ease or waive many sanctions, some sanctions can only be lifted by an act of Congress. Moreover, if Obama relies on his waiver authority, there’s no guarantee that his successor, who could even be a Republican, will continue waiving. As the NIAC statement warns “It is critical that Congress work with the Administration to ensure necessary authorizations are in place to enable nuclear-related sanctions to be lifted, as outlined by the JPOA. Those authorizations do not currently exist.” Thus, the administration’s opposition to Congress expressing its views on the subject could have the perverse effect of alienating key lawmakers whose support will eventually be required to fully implement a final agreement — a point made in an ironic tweet (“Pro-Israel and Pro-Iran Lobbies Agree: Iran Cannot Lift Sanctions Without Congress”) by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’(FDD) Mark Dubowitz, who has long favored waging “economic warfare” against Tehran.
UPDATE: In the battle of the two letters on the Senate side, I understand that the Menendez-Graham version has currently fetched more signatures by a margin of 34-11. The 34 on the M-G side consist of 25 Republicans and 9 Democrats, while the 11 signatories to the Levin (or Cantor-Hoyer) substitute are all Democrats. Two Democrats who did not co-sponsor the Kirk-Menendez bill have signed both letters. I’ve been told that AIPAC is now actively lobbying against the Cantor-Hoyer version, despite the fact that it cleared the letter before the co-authors circulated it. If you have a preference, you should probably call your senator’s office.