Middle East update: May 1 2018


Militant fighters in the Yarmouk area began evacuating on Tuesday under what amounts to a hostage swap negotiated between the rebels in Idlib and the Syrian government. The rebels, or more specifically Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, have begun releasing civilians they seized three years ago when they captured Idlib province in return for safe passage for some of the Yarmouk fighters. It’s unlikely that this deal covers the ISIS fighters who control most of Idlib, but I confess I’m not 100 percent clear on its terms at this point.

To the east, the Syrian Democratic Forces on Tuesday announced the start of the “final phase” of their anti-ISIS operations in Deir Ezzor province. ISIS has control of two enclaves in the eastern part of the province that the SDF will now look to clear out. Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights announced that at least 14 civilians were killed in an airstrike on Tuesday in Hasakah province. Hasakah is north of Deir Ezzor and has received a large number of people displaced by the fighting there. It’s not clear who would be bombing anything in that province.

This post is already going to be long enough (trust me) without me excerpting anything from them, but there’s some interesting material in two Al Jazeera pieces today from Brookings’ Ali Fathollah-Nejad on the way the Iranian government is managing its involvement in Syria for its domestic audience. For example they’re proclaiming “victory” over ISIS while downplaying the Iranian body count and expenditures in support of Bashar al-Assad. But as we saw in December’s protests and as was seen in isolated incidents in the months before that, there have been Iranian voices criticizing both the blood and treasure cost of the war and Iran’s support for Assad despite his abuses.


The head of the small, religious Felicity Party, Temel Karamollaoğlu, announced his candidacy for Turkish president on Tuesday. He now needs to collect signatures to be eligible for a spot on the ballot. Karamollaoğlu’s party and constituency are both too small to seriously contend for anything, but his goal isn’t to win–it’s to maybe siphon enough religious voters away from Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to force Erdoğan’s vote count below 50 percent and put him in a runoff. Erdoğan would be heavily favored to win a runoff, but he wouldn’t be a lock, especially if opposition voters can coalesce behind his opponent despite whatever political differences they might have with her (or him, but most likely her).

Jago Russell, who runs a criminal justice NGO called Fair Trials, writes that Turkey is leading the way in a new trend–misusing Interpol in an effort to expand its police state internationally:

In July 2017, Turkish media reported that Turkey attempted to upload the names of 60,000 people to Interpol’s database. Most of these 60,000 were targeted because they were suspected of being followers of the exiled Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan has accused of “terrorism” and plotting the 2016 coup. This database works as an international criminal alert, notifying all 192 countries in the database that a person is wanted by police. Although Interpol vets at least one type of wanted person alerts — known as Red Notices, which are like international wanted posters — to ensure they are not politically motivated, it currently doesn’t vet another type known as diffusions.


Entering 60,000 people into a database designed to help locate the most dangerous criminals on the planet is clearly an abuse of the system. To give a sense of perspective, in 2016 there were just under 13,000 new Red Notices issued across the globe. However, the problem isn’t limited to Turkey. My organization, Fair Trials, has documented examples from many countries — including Russia, Indonesia, Egypt, and Venezuela — of Interpol alerts being abused for political purposes, in many cases seeking to silence journalists, human rights defenders, and political opponents. If Interpol wishes to remain a trusted tool in the fight against crime, it must ensure that it is not abused by governments seeking to enforce political vendettas.


Israel and the Palestinian Authority reached agreement on Tuesday on a 15 year, $775 million deal to upgrade the West Bank’s power grid. Under the deal, the Israeli and Palestinian power companies will collaborate on the construction of four new power plants in the West Bank that should reduce the Palestinians’ dependence on Israeli-supplied electricity. Well, in the West Bank, anyway. The proverbial beatings in Gaza will continue until morale improves.


So, having had a day to digest Benjamin Netanyahu’s SHOCKING EXPOSÉ on Iran’s nuclear program, I think we can say a few things. One, Netanyahu’s big dramatic conclusion, which is that the Iranians have been lying when they say they never pursued nuclear weapons, isn’t really that dramatic. In fact it’s the assumption that underpinned the negotiations over what eventually became the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and it’s been the operating assumption of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s efforts to ensure Iran’s compliance with the deal.

We can argue about whether or not some of this Israeli evidence proves that Iran has been lying. The Iranians do seem to have conducted some computer modeling on nuclear weapon designs, for example, and they obviously did work on technologies that have dual civilian and military uses, but whether that constitutes having an active nuclear weapons program is up to your interpretation. But the point is that regardless of whether you or I think Iran ever had a nuclear weapons program and lied about it, the assumption that they did has been built into the deal from the start. Indeed, he didn’t make any revelations that the IAEA hadn’t already released in their 2015 report about the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s past nuclear research:

Well, that’s not entirely true. He did make two revelations, accidentally, that work against his case that Iran is a nuclear menace in-waiting. One is that Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, if we believe they did have them, were so modest–only five devices each with only a 10 kiloton yield–as to be purely defensive:

This is a remarkably miniscule, unambitious arsenal. It would make Kim Jong Un giggle. Only one country is known to have created anything like it: South Africa, which built a handful of very basic nuclear weapons in the 1980s, and then decided to dismantle them. Only later, after the end of Apartheid, did the new government reveal the story. According to a South African nuclear official, Waldo Stumpf, the idea was to keep the bombs secret; only if the country were threatened with invasion would it hint at its capability, or conduct a nuclear test to reveal it.


Did a similar idea motivate Iran’s AMAD Plan? We don’t know. Not enough information has entered the public record. But it is worth asking whether this project amounted to a crash program to create a secret, fairly rudimentary nuclear capability, only to be revealed in an emergency.

The second revelation is that the missiles Iran has been developing since 2003 (when most Western intelligence assesses they stopped working on nuclear weapons almost entirely) haven’t been designed to carry nuclear warheads:

Nothing in Netanyahu’s presentation demonstrated that Iran is in violation of the JCPOA. Could there be something in the trove of documents he says they took from Iran that does show a violation? Conceivably, but clearly nobody has found it yet. Netanyahu’s argument is that Iran lied before so they must be lying now. That’s an assumption–one that, again, the nuclear deal is designed to handle via its inspection and dispute resolution mechanisms. If Iran withheld information from the IAEA on past weapons work that’s problematic, but the IAEA would need to go through this material and render that judgment itself. It’s not Benjamin Netanyahu’s verdict to render, and since he wasn’t able to reveal anything the IAEA didn’t already evidently know, his case on that point is pretty weak at the moment.

This would, of course, not be the first time Netanyahu has lied about Iran’s nuclear program, but this time he’s not really playing to an international audience–he’s playing to one man. Everything about yesterday’s presentation–its brevity, the big words and pictures on the big screen behind him, the fact that it was delivered in English–suggests he wanted only to reach Donald Trump. Probably via Fox News, which–hey, look at that, Netanyahu actually did an interview on Fox and Friends this morning! Mission accomplished! This was about being the last word in Trump’s ear on the nuclear deal before the May 12 deadline to extend the JCPOA’s sanctions waivers, after Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel pitched their cases in favor of the nuclear deal to Trump in Washington last week:

It’s also a little about distracting global attention from the ongoing Israeli slaughter of protesters in Gaza. But most importantly, it was about providing Trump with a case for scuttling the deal while blaming the Iranians for violating it. Ironically, to any audience except Trump, Netanyahu’s presentation made a very strong case for keeping the nuclear deal in place:

The history of secret Iranian work related to nuclear weapons design is all the more reason to keep the JCPOA and is why the agreement was designed as it was.  It is an agreement for doing business with a state that has lied and kept secrets, not one that is entirely honest and trustworthy.  This was the reason not only for the tight restrictions on enrichment and other nuclear activities but for the establishment of a highly intrusive regimen of inspections and monitoring by IAEA inspectors.  The JCPOA provides not only for regular monitoring of declared nuclear sites but also for inspection of any other locales in Iran if the IAEA is given reason to suspect any prohibited activity.  If Netanyahu really were interested in ensuring there is no Iranian nuclear weapon rather than putting on a television show to try to kill the agreement, he would provide his material to the IAEA (which, as far as we know, may already have it) to be checked out.  As the office of European Union foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini tweeted, “IAEA is the only impartial international organization in charge of monitoring Iran’s nuclear commitments. If any country has information of non-compliance of any kind [it] should address this information to the proper legitimate and recognized mechanism.”


Netanyahu, Trump, and the other American players inside and outside his administration who are intent on killing the JCPOA, while dispensing with logic, are relying on emotion and confusion to try to achieve their objective.  Netanyahu’s theme of Iran lying serves partly as innuendo that will lead some people to believe that Iran somehow is violating the JCPOA, even though it isn’t.  The IAEA has repeatedly certified that Iran is living up to its obligations under the JCPOA.  (Holding files is not a violation of the agreement.)  The violations so far are all on the U.S. side.  The emotion part involves getting people angry in general about Iran and relies on a popular misconception that the JCPOA is some kind of reward or act of generosity to Iran rather than a restriction on, and evidence of mistrust of, Iran.

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