Robert M. Danin

Middle East Matters

Danin analyzes critical developments and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

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This Week: Iran Negotiations, Syria Pre-Negotiations, and Egypt Moots Legislation

by Robert M. Danin
October 17, 2013

Delegations from Iran, the United States, and other world powers sit before the start of two days of closed-door nuclear talks at the United Nations offices in Geneva October 15, 2013 (Coffrini/Courtesy Reuters). Delegations from Iran, the United States, and other world powers sit before the start of two days of closed-door nuclear talks at the United Nations offices in Geneva October 15, 2013 (Coffrini/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Developments

Iran. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and EU negotiator Catherine Ashton issued a joint statement yesterday, following talks between the P5+1 countries and Iran, announcing that further talks would continue on November 7 in Geneva.  Zarif presented a new Iranian proposal this week which deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqachi claimed allows for Iran possibly accepting the NPT’s additional protocol permitting surprise inspections by the International Atomic Energy Association. While Iran has yet to agree to suspend its nuclear program—a requirement for the United States to lift crippling sanctions—White House spokesperson Jay Carney said that the Iranian proposal “represents a level of seriousness and substance we have not seen before.” Araqachi voiced disappointment on Sunday that the talks had not moved to the level of foreign minister, a reference to U.S. secretary of state John Kerry’s absence from this week’s negotiations.

Syria. Speaking from Moscow today, Syrian deputy prime minister Qadri Jamil announced that the proposed Geneva II talks will take place November 23-24. Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson Alexander Lukashevich responded within hours, saying that, “We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves.” On Sunday, George Sabra, the president of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the largest bloc within the Syrian Opposition Coalition, announced that SNC would not attend the Geneva conference and would not participate in negotiations until Bashar al-Assad’s regime falls. Sabra confirmed that the SNC would not stay in the coalition if it participates in Geneva. Meanwhile, a video released by Syrian rebels on Wednesday announced that a total of seventy groups have now withdrawn their support from the opposition coalition. The opposition has grown increasingly fractured in recent months as the exile leadership has experienced difficulties procuring weapons and aid.

A spokesperson for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced today that eleven out of twenty sites declared by the Syrian government had been verified and that weapons and equipment at six of them had been destroyed. However, a series of car bombs and mortar attacks in the areas surrounding the inspectors’ hotel has raised concerns about the safety of the mission. In an unrelated attack today, rebel forces killed Major General Jamaa Jamaa, the provincial head of intelligence in Deir Ezzor. Jamaa was a top Syrian official in Lebanon during the Syrian occupation who had been questioned over the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Harriri.

Egypt. Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour, drew criticism on Wednesday over a new law under consideration that would severely limit the size, location, and duration of any protest in the country. The Muslim Brotherhood has called for renewed protests against the military following Friday prayers. The military continues to face a creeping insurgency in Sinai where troops were moved on Sunday following intelligence reports that recently discovered tunnels would be used to carry out attacks. Meanwhile, the family of deposed President Mohammed Morsi said Sunday that he will not enter any negotiations or make any concessions.

U.S. Foreign Policy

UAE-Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon announced yesterday that it is preparing to sell $10.8 billion of military hardware to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The sale includes one thousand “bunker buster” bombs to Saudi Arabia and five thousand to the UAE. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) released two statements yesterday detailing the deals, noting that Saudi Arabia has requested $6.8 billion in munitions and equipment and the UAE has requested $4 billion worth of military hardware. The DSCA noted that, “the UAE continues host-nation support of vital US forces stationed at Al Dhafra Air Base and plays a vital role in supporting US regional interests…This proposed sale will improve the UAE’s military readiness and capabilities to meet current and future regional threats, reduce the dependence on U.S. forces in the region, and enhance any coalition operations the United States may undertake.”

Egypt. Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy said Wednesday that the U.S.-Egyptian relationship is in a state of “turmoil.” Fahmy’s remarks followed last week’s decision by the United States to drawdown military aid to Egypt in response to the violent repression of the Muslim Brotherhood.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere:

Israel. In a speech to the Knesset Tuesday afternoon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that it would be a “historic mistake” to take pressure off of Iran now and said Israel would not rule out a preventative strike. On Tuesday, the Israeli security cabinet issued a statement calling for continued sanctions against Iran given the advanced stages of their nuclear program, despite the talks in Geneva. Also on Tuesday, Israeli military officials discovered and destroyed another tunnel connecting the Gaza strip and Israel. It follows Sunday’s finding of a lengthy one mile underground tunnel connecting Gaza to a Kibbutz in Israeli. A spokesman for the Israeli military claimed the tunnels could be used to carry out attacks in Israel; government officials announced Israel would suspend the shipment of construction materials to the private sector in Gaza.

Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia was elected today to its first ever two-year term on the United Nations Security Council. Abdullah al-Muallimi, the Saudi ambassador to the UN, said that, “Our election today is a reflection of a long standing policy in support of moderation and in support of resolving disputes through peaceful means.” Saudi Arabia, and the four other new members, will assume its seat on January 1.

Lebanon. A car bomb containing fifty kilograms of explosives was discovered and successfully disarmed by Lebanese authorities in a southern suburb of Beirut on Tuesday. Recent attacks against pro-Hezbollah areas of Lebanon have drawn increasing concern about spillover from the conflict in Syria. On Monday, videos were released of two Turkish Airlines pilots who have been held hostage in Lebanon since August; both appeared to be in good health. They are being held by a group known as Zuwwar al-Imam Ali al-Reda, which is demanding the release of nine Shiite pilgrims being held in Syria.

Iraq. Government officials announced Thursday that Iraq will begin receiving military aid from Russia as part of recently revived $4.3 billion arms deal that was scuttled last year amid corruption allegations. Meanwhile, a new study released this week estimates that approximately 461,000 Iraqis have died as a result of Iraq’s war. The casualty count includes not only battle related deaths, but the ensuing insurgency and “avoidable deaths,” such as those caused by collapsing infrastructure. Attacks on Thursday and Tuesday left more than 60 people dead and dozens more wounded across the country.

Turkey. The European Commission called on Wednesday for renewed debate on Turkey’s long-stalled membership request. While issues have been raised regarding Cyprus and government crackdowns on protestors, EU governments will discuss the commission’s report on October 22 and could begin talks with Turkey as early as November. For the first time, on Tuesday, the Turkish military specifically targeted jihadist sites in Syria with artillery in response to a mortar attack by the al-Qaeda group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

This Week in History

This week marks the fortieth anniversary of the 1973 oil embargo by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). In response to the United States’ massive airlift of military equipment to Israel during the Yom Kippur/October War, OPEC imposed an embargo on shipments of oil to the United States and all countries that had supported Israel. Prices rose by 70 percent initially, though they eventually rose by an additional 130 percent with the price of oil per barrel going from $3 to $12. The ensuing years of U.S. stagflation and the fear of dependence on foreign oil brought about radical changes in U.S. energy policy, fuel efficiency standards, and touched off a wave of expanded oil exploration the world over. In March 1974, OPEC lifted the embargo that greatly enriched a number of gulf countries.

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