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: Iranian Negotiations, Syrian CW Dismantlement, and Israeli-Palestinian Squabbling

by Robert M. Danin
November 7, 2013

Iranian and international negotiators in Geneva November 7, 2013 (Balibouse/Courtesy Reuters). Iranian and international negotiators in Geneva November 7, 2013 (Balibouse/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Developments

Iran. Nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 countries and Iran began today in Geneva with participants voicing optimism that a deal could be reached within days. A senior U.S. official told journalists yesterday that the United States was looking for a “first step understanding” that stops Iran’s nuclear program from moving forward in exchange for “limited, targeted, and reversible sanctions relief.” Iranian foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif said that a nuclear deal may be “possible this week.” Earlier this week, Zarif told an interviewer that “Iran is prepared to call for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Syria.” His remarks came a day after a commander in the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard was killed in Syria after volunteering to defend the Sayyid Zanab Mosque in Damascus. Meanwhile, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu today said that a nuclear deal between Iran and the world powers would be a “mistake of historic proportions.”

Syria. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced today that twenty-two of twenty-three declared chemical weapons production sites have been examined. The most recent site it verified was deemed too dangerous for inspection, but was confirmed by video to be “dismantled and long abandoned.” The United States began efforts today to forge a coalition of states to aid in the destruction of stockpiles transferred out of Syria. Meanwhile, the Syrian government announced on Tuesday that it would attend Geneva II talks without preconditions. While acknowledging failure to produce a concrete date for these talks, UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said it not mean the process has failed. Russian news agencies reported that the talks will be delayed until at least early December. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking from Saudi Arabia, said that the United States does not have the legal justification “or the desire at this point to get in the middle of a civil war” in Syria.

Israel-Palestine. Secretary of State John Kerry today announced from Amman the extension of his Middle East shuttle and his plans to return to Jerusalem on Friday to meet Israeli prime minister Netanyahu. Following several rounds of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leader, Kerry said that both sides were committed to talks. Kerry yesterday described Abbas as “100 percent committed” to peace and called Israeli West Bank settlements “illegitimate.” Kerry’s comments came in the wake of an Israeli announcement on Monday of its plans to build over a thousand housing units in territories it occupied in the 1967 Middle East war. Kerry called harsh recriminations between Israeli and Palestinian officials this week part of the negotiation process.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Saudi Arabia. In an effort to ease tense relations, Secretary of State John Kerry met with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia for two hours on Monday. Kerry assured Abdullah that “the United States would not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.” Following Kerry’s meetings with the king and then Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, both Saudis and U.S. officials downplayed their recent disagreements and stressed the strength of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Secretary Kerry called the Kingdom an “indispensable partner” and guaranteed greater consultations on Iran with the Kingdom in the future. Asked about the Saudi prohibition against women driving, Kerry responded that decisions about “social structure” were a matter for the Saudis.

Egypt. U.S. secretary of state John Kerry visited Cairo Sunday in his first visit to Egypt since the July 3 coup. Kerry met with Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, interim President Adly Mansour and Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Fahmy described their conversation as positive and said that the talks reduced recent stress on U.S.-Egyptian relations. Calling Egypt a “partner” and “friend,” and describing its relationship with the United States as “vital,” Kerry said the Obama Administration was committed to working with the interim government in Egypt and stressed that the suspension of aid to Egypt was “not a punishment.”

Iraq. President Obama met with Iraqi prime minister Maliki in Washington last Friday to discuss cooperation between the two countries on combating terrorism in Iraq and stabilizing the violence-plagued state. U.S. officials have expressed increasing concerns over the resurgence of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups that are using Iraq as a training ground. The two leaders also discussed Syria at length and both voiced support for a negotiated political solution. No comment was offered regarding requests for military aid from the poorly equipped Iraqi army.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Yemen. Following clashes beginning last week that left more than one hundred people dead, U.S. envoy to Yemen Karen Sasahara called on northern Houthi rebels yesterday to disarm and join the currently ongoing national dialogue. On Monday, a UN-brokered ceasefire between Shiite Houthis and Sunni Salafis collapsed only hours after the agreement had been formed. This was the second ceasefire to fall apart in a matter of days in the restive city of Damaj near the mountainous northern border with Saudi Arabia where Houthis and Salafis have experienced increased friction.

Egypt. An Egyptian court on Wednesday dismissed an appeal of the September ban on Muslim Brotherhood activity in Egypt. Brotherhood officials announced that they will take their appeal to a higher court. The murder trial of ousted President Mohammed Morsi began on Monday but was quickly adjourned until January 8, following general chaos in the courtroom.  Morsi refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the court or trial, called for the overthrow of the military regime, and maintained that he was the duly elected leader of Egypt.

Lebanon. Lebanon entered its eighth month without a cabinet yesterday as partisan disagreements continue to plague the formation process. Commenting on the ongoing crisis, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berry criticized the March 14 movement for setting withdrawal of Hezbollah’s fighters from Syria as a precondition for participation in forming a cabinet. On Monday, Hezbollah member of parliament, Mohammad Raad, echoed similar frustration with the movement’s demands and accused them of undermining the state. The current 9-9-6 proposal would grant veto power to both the March 8 and March 14 movements and assign the final six positions to non-partisan ministers.

This Week in History

This week marks the eighteenth anniversary of the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. On November 4, 1995, Rabin was shot and killed at a Tel Aviv peace rally by Yigal Amir, a Jewish extremist who accused Rabin of planning “to give our country to the Arabs.” During Israel’s 1948 war of independence, Rabin had coordinated the battle for Jerusalem, and served in combat in the Negev. He served as the chief of staff of Israel’s armed forces during its lighting victory in the 1967 Six Day War. After serving as the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Rabin was elected to the Knesset in 1973 as a member of the Labor party, and became prime minister after Gold Meir stepped down in 1974. Between 1984 and 1990, Rabin served as defense minister in the Labor-Likud coalition government and was elected to become prime minister in 1992. In 1993, he oversaw secret negotiations with the then banned PLO which culminated in the Oslo Accords, an agreement that recognized the PLO and helped establish Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza. ,” Rabin went on to sign a peace treaty with King Hussein of Jordan in 1994, after winning the Nobel Peace Prize along with Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres.

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