Significant Middle East Developments
Syria. A deadly car bomb exploded in Damascus today just hours after the Eid holiday ceasefire, brokered by UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi between Syria’s regime and the Free Syrian Army, took effect. Over sixty people have been killed throughout Syria today despite the ceasefire. The bomb, detonated near a children’s playground, killed five people and wounded over thirty more. Clashes also broke out between regime troops and rebels in Damascus’ suburbs and around the Wadi Deif base in northwestern Syria, while army shelling was reported in Homs. Despite the violence, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights noted that it was still less than usual. Taking advantage of the relative lull in violence, the largest anti-regime protests in months gathered in the streets of several cities. The ceasefire is meant to be in place for the Eid holiday.
Iran. Citing intelligence officials from several countries, the New York Times reported today that Iran has nearly completed its underground uranium enrichment plant at Fordo. The disclosure of the near-completion of Fordo comes just days after the New York Times reported the United States and Iran had reached an agreement to hold bilateral face-to face negotiations. White House and Iranian officials immediately denied that report. NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor addressed the Fordo reports, saying, “The president is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and continues to believe there is time and space for diplomacy.” Until last month, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had implied that he would not allow the Fordo plant to go into operation, with other Israeli officials arguing that once it did, Iran would enter a “zone of immunity” since Israel does not possess the bunker-buster bombs necessary to destroy the plant. However, in his remarks before the UN General Assembly in September, Netanyahu seemingly backed off of that position, laying down a deadline of next spring before military action must be taken.
Israel. With Israel slated to head to the polls on January 22, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a surprise joint ticket Thursday between his Likud Party and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party. The joint list will be proportional to the two party’s current Knesset makeup, in which they jointly hold a total of forty-two seats – twenty-seven for Likud and fifteen for Yisrael Beiteinu. Israel’s Channel Two television reported last night that the two men had also agreed to rotate the position of prime minister, with Lieberman set to take over for the fourth year. However, both Lieberman and Netanyahu have denied the report.
Jordan. Jordanian officials announced Sunday that they had thwarted a major terrorist plot to attack multiple civilian and diplomatic targets. The Jordanian government said it had apprehended eleven Jordanian nationals with links to Al Qaeda in Iraq, who were gathering weapons and explosives in Syria for use in Jordan. The plot has been described as the most serious in Jordan since 2005, when terrorists bombed a series of hotels, killing sixty people.
West Bank. Palestinians in the West Bank went to the polls for municipal elections Saturday for the first municipal elections since 2005 and the first election of any kind since 2006. Abbas’ Fatah party was out-polled in five of the eleven main municipalities by lists composed of either former Fatah members now running independently, or other factions. Hamas boycotted the election. According to exit polling, more than one-third of voters listed jobs and economic conditions as their first concern. Post-election reactions have been mixed, with many Palestinians now calling for national elections. Nasser Lanham, editor-in-chief of the Maan News Agency said that “If there is no elections for the Parliament and the president, there will be a third intifada…We are talking about angry people, poor people. If they are not going to the elections, they have bad alternatives.”
Lebanon. Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea yesterday accused Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah yesterday of exploding a powerful car bomb last Friday in a mostly Christian neighborhood in Beirut killing at least eight people including Major General Wissam al-Hassan, Lebanon’s top intelligence officer. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah responded to Geagea’s comments, saying, “Any wise and patriotic [individual] would reject such comments that can only be welcomed by those who are willing to do a service to the Israeli enemy and its criminal plans.” Meanwhile, a U.S. FBI team arrived in Beirut yesterday to assist in the investigation at the Lebanese government’s request. The Lebanese army had deployed Monday to quell tensions following weekend protests which included gun battles in Beirut and Tripoli.
While We Were Looking Elsewhere
Gaza Strip. The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, visited Gaza Tuesday in the first visit by a head of state since Hamas violently took control of the territory in 2007. Entering Gaza from Egypt, Sheikh Hamad pledged four hundred million dollars in assistance to finance reconstruction projects. Yigat Palmor, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said that the emir had “thrown peace under the bus” since his visit came just hours after a bombing from Gaza that wounded an Israeli soldier. Following the emir’s visit, Palestinian militants launched dozens of missiles into Israel that prompted Israeli retaliatory air strikes. Late Wednesday evening, Egypt managed to broker an informal truce between Hamas and Israel.
Egypt. Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi met with various political factions Wednesday in an effort to forge unity around the draft constitution released last week. The meeting was boycotted by seventeen political parties and movements, including Mohammed el-Baradei and former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi. The consultations did not produce a compromise, and Morsi has said that he will resume working with groups to reach one after the Eid holiday. The Cairo Administrative Court announced on Tuesday that it was referring lawsuits challenging the composition of the Constituent Assembly to the Supreme Constitutional Court. The plaintiffs are challenging how the members of the Assembly, the panel responsible for drafting Egypt’s new constitution, were chosen.
Yemen. Two senior Yemeni security officers were assassinated yesterday in a drive-by shooting in the city Damar, south of the capital Sana’a. Yemeni president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi blamed Al Qaeda in a televised address late last night.
This Week in History
This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Enrico Mattei, the founder of the Italian energy company Eni. On October 27, 1962, Mattei died in an airplane crash, the cause of which remains unclear to this day, and was the subject of the 1972 Francesco Rosi film, The Mattei Affair. A partisan leader in the Italian resistance movement, Mattei helped create Eni after World War II to lead Italy’s energy sector. He was elected to represent the Christian Democrats in the first government formed by De Gasperi, only to resign in 1953 to become Eni’s president. Under Mattei, Eni developed the Po Valley in the late 1940s, and transformed it into the vast energy resource that fueled Italy’s post-war economic recovery. Internationally, Mattei helped break the oligopoly of the so-called “Seven-Sisters” that dominated the oil-industry, and took Eni into the Middle East, forging agreements with Tunisia, Morocco, Iran, and Egypt on favorable concessionary terms unheard of at the time. “The oil is theirs,” was Mattei’s famous motto, one that earned him disfavor with the other oil companies and Western countries at the time. Today, Eni is the world’s sixth largest oil company in the world with employees in 85 countries. In 2010, it endowed the Enrico Mattei Chair at CFR. It is my honor to be the first holder of the Enrico Mattei Chair. Today, Middle East Matters commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of its namesakes’ death.