Ross; ‘Obama serious about warnings to Iran’

Dennis Ross, who spent much of the last several years advising US President Barak Obama on the Iran file told Bloomberg on Monday that Obama is not bluffing in the standoff with Iran and Teheran should take American warnings that it will use military force to stop the Islamic Republic’s renegade nuclear program if sanctions and diplomacy fail very seriously. “There are consequences if you act militarily, and there’s big consequences if you don’t act,” said Ross, adding that on balance, the administration considers the risks of permitting a nuclear-armed Iran to be greater than the risks of military action. “You don’t have any communication between the Israelis and the Iranians. You have all sorts of local triggers for conflict. Having countries act on a hair trigger - where they can’t afford to be second to strike, the potential for a miscalculation or a nuclear war through inadvertence is simply too high.”

Ross also applauded stepped up efforts by the EU, Japan, India, South Korea and other big consumers of Iranian oil to curb their imports, opining that Iran is “feeling pain in a much more dramatic way.”

To read the latest intelligence report on Iran, click HERE (PDF)

Elsewhere, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed on Monday that Iran has begun enriching uranium to as much as 20 percent U-235 at the underground Fordow underground site near the holy city of Qom. On the same day, US officials denounced the death sentence of Iranian born US citizen Amir Mirza Hekmati, 28.

“Amir Mirza Hekmati was sentenced to death... for cooperating with the hostile country America and spying for the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency]," ISNA news agency quoted judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei as saying. "The court found him corrupt on the Earth and Mohareb [one who wages war on God]."

"If true, we strongly condemn such a verdict and will work with our partners to convey our condemnation to the Iranian government," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said. "Allegations that Mr Hekmati either worked for, or was sent to Iran by the CIA are false. The Iranian regime has a history of falsely accusing people of being spies, of eliciting forced confessions, and of holding innocent Americans for political reasons."

Iran could "hold on to Hekmati and use him — as they have with previous foreign detainees — as a pawn in their rivalry with the United States", said Gala Riani, analyst at forecasting firm IHS Global Insight.

"All nuclear activities, including enrichment in Natanz and Fordow, are under continuous surveillance and control and safeguards of the IAEA," Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told Reuters in Vienna, addressing the nuclear issue.

"All of Iran's enrichment activity is in violation of [United Nations] Security Council resolutions and any expansion of its capacity at Fordow just compounds those violations," said a Western diplomat in Vienna.

Israel and PA hold second round of talks in Amman

Israeli and Palestinian Authority officials met in Amman Jordan on Monday for the second time in a week, despite continuing disagreements over security, borders, and many other issues. Jordan hosted the meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Amman and there was no participation by representatives of the Quartet – the US, EU, Russia and UN. Prior to the meeting, officials from both sides tried to lower expectations, saying it was unlikely the meetings would result in a substantial breakthrough, but adding that it was good to continue talking. One PA official declared that if no progress was achieved by 26 January, a previously announced Quartet deadline, the PA would resume its efforts to gain Palestinian membership in the UN.

Meanwhile, the Fateh political faction of PA president Mahmoud Abbas announced on Sunday that in light of a recent refusal by security forces from the Islamist terror militia Hamas to allow Fateh officials into the Gaza Strip, Fateh will reevaluate its planned reconciliation agreement with Hamas. According to the Fateh statement, the “inadequate and humiliating” treatment of its delegation showed that Hamas was not serious about joining Fateh in a unity government. A Hamas statement retorted that Fateh was to blame because it was too busy talking with Israel to pursue Palestinian unity.

“If Fateh has made a decision to backtrack from reconciliation in favor of returning to negotiation with the Zionist enemy, they should bear full responsibility for the consequences of such a decision before the Palestinian people, and the Egyptian mediator,” Hamas said in a statement.

Elsewhere, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told a gathering of supporters from the Islamist Ennahda party in Tunis on Sunday that, "we are among those who will create a new Middle East. We have created a glorious revolution that will bring back the nation and its glory in place of the chaos that the American administration had so desired."

"Israel no longer has allies in Egypt and in Tunisia, we are saying to the Zionist enemies that times have changed and that the time of the Arab Spring, the time of the revolution, of dignity and of pride has arrived," he continued. "We promise you that we will not cede a single part of Palestine, we will not cede Jerusalem, we will continue to fight and we will not lay down our arms."

The crowd, which numbered in the thousands, chanted "Palestinian liberation" and “Death to Israel” and "the army of Mohammed is back."

Haniyeh has traveled Arab and Muslim nations on a Middle East tour that began December 25, including Egypt, Sudan, Turkey and Tunisia.

Blatant anti-Semitism in the Chilean press

Several Chilean journalists over the weekend continued to blame last week’s fire in one of the countries nature reserves on Rotem Singer, an Israeli backpacker, despite increasing doubt of his involvement by the authorities. One paper, El Cidudadan, argued that Singer was part of an Israeli group sent to set the stage for an Israeli invasion of Chile. “It is easy to imagine... the Israeli military... arriving in the middle of nowhere in no man’s land to claim power, accommodation and natural resources,” the paper wrote. The leader for the 25,000 strong Jewish community in Chile, Shai Agosin dismissed the article and said that the comments were both anti-Semitic and ridiculous.

Israeli defense budget to be increased
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Sunday that the Israeli defense budget will receive a slight increase, reversing an earlier position that military spending would be cut in order to finance social reforms. "I have reflected on this question, but in view of what has happened in the region, I have reached the conclusion that cutting the defense budget would be a mistake, even a big mistake,” Netanyahu told reporters. During a briefing to members of the cabinet, he added; “any sensible person can see what is happening around us. ... All these changes have strategic implications for the national security of the state of Israel, for our ability to face the new challenges and instability. (The IDF) is the shield of the country, which is why we must increase its means." As if to emphasize the continuing threat, the IDF announced late Sunday that soldiers operating at the Salem crossing near Jenin had arrested four Palestinians and confiscated 11 pipe bombs and other weapons, stopping what might have been a major terrorist attack.

Lebanon declares intention to explore for natural gas
Lebanon declared over the weekend that it would seek tenders to explore for natural gas reserves off Lebanon’s coast, despite an ongoing dispute with Israel about the maritime border. "Our target is to begin within three months," Energy Minister Gebran Bassil told AFP. "Every big oil company has begun initial talks to explore offshore drilling and bought data to that end. We are working on making potential drilling a factor of stability, not a factor of conflict or instability. I believe that Israel has no interest in threatening our oil resources. It has resources itself -- it's a balance of power, and Lebanon now has enough power to protect its own resources."

Arab League will continue Syria monitoring mission for now
A powerful squadron of Russian warships, including the flagship of the Russian fleet, dropped anchor in the Syrian port of Tartus on Sunday in what the regime of president Bashar Assad declared was a show of solidarity by Moscow, but Russia defense officials insisted that the six day port call was a routine stop for rest and resupply. Meanwhile, the Arab League issued a statement on Sunday that it will continue the mission of monitors for now and that it was not yet ready to refer the Syrian situation to the UN, insisting that it was still working towards ending the violence which has killed over 6,000 people, including several dozen who were killed in clashes over the weekend and 26 killed by a mysterious car bomb in the heart of Damascus on Friday. The regime has blamed the bomb on Al Qaida, but opposition groups claim this is a ploy designed to deflect attention from the regime’s brutality.

Jaffa Christian leader slain
Four suspects from a rival Arab Christian family are in custody following Friday’s stabbing murder of Gabriel Cadis, 61, who was chairman of the Jaffa Orthodox Church Association. Cadis was stabbed to death by a man dressed up as Santa Claus, during a parade to mark the Orthodox celebration of Christmas. “The suspects have been in a past dispute with the murder victim,” a police source said on Sunday. “The possibility of a financially motivated crime is being considered.”

Islamists dominate final round of voting in Egypt
Although several races will need to be decided by runoffs, Egypt’s Moslem Brotherhood looked set to dominate the third and final round of parliamentary elections in Egypt over the weekend. The Brotherhood and the even more extreme Salafi al-Nouor party, along with other Islamist factions, garnered nearly two thirds of the seats in the 498-seat lower house elections, giving them momentum going into elections for the upper house scheduled for later in the spring and the presidential vote scheduled for the summer. Additionally, a 100 member committee will draw up a new constitution for Egypt will be appointed by the new legislative assembly. Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence out of Egypt suggests that vigilante groups of ‘morality police’ have begun to intimidate Egyptians, especially women, into adhering to strict Islamic dress codes and other behavior, similar to the situation in Saudi Arabia.

US Navy rescues Iranian fisherman

Relations between the US and Iran became even more complicated over the weekend as a ship escorting the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier, which Iranian officials recently warned had better not come back into the Persian Gulf or else, rescued a group of Iranian fisherman who had been taken hostage by Somalia-based pirates. The Al Molai, with a crew of 11 Iranian fisherman, was captured about six weeks ago by the pirates and used as a mother ship to launch attacks on commercial shipping. On 5 January, the Bahamas-registered cargo ship Sunrise issued a distress call saying it was under attack from pirates. A helicopter from the USS Mobile Bay, part of the Stennis battle group, intervened, capturing a group of men who they suspected to be the pirates, then releasing them and following them back to their base, which was the Al Molai. The nearby USS Kidd then sent in a boarding team which rescued the Iranians and arrested the pirates.

The Iranian sailors "were extremely grateful," said Cmdr. Jennifer Ellinger, the commanding officer of the Kidd.

To read the latest intelligence report on Iran, click HERE (PDF)

Despite the rescue, the Iranian media reported on Sunday that a new underground facility was recently opened at a site just south of Teheran for the purpose of enriching uranium, the latest act of defiance by Teheran as it pursues its renegade nuclear program. Additionally, the semi-official Fars news agency reported on Monday that Iran's Revolutionary Court has sentenced an Iranian-US man, Amir Mirza Hekmati, to death for the crime of “cooperating with the hostile country (the United States) and spying for the CIA.” Adding that "the court found him Corrupt on Earth and Mohareb (waging war on God).”

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey addressed the situation during an interview on the CBS News program Face the Nation on Sunday, with Panetta declaring that “our red line to Iran is: do not develop a nuclear weapon! The responsible thing to do right now is to keep putting diplomatic and economic pressure on them to force them to do the right thing.”


IDF and Pentagon plan missile defense exercise

Senior defense officials announced on Thursday that together with the US military it will hold the massive "Austere Challenge 12" joint missile defense exercise. "The exercise scenario involves notional, simulated events as well as some field training and is not in response to any real-world event," said a military statement."The U.S. European Command and the Israel Defense Forces periodically conduct routine exercises in Israel. These exercises, which are part of a long-standing strategic partnership, are planned in advance and part of a routine training cycle designed to improve the interoperability of our defense systems."

Syria continues to smolder despite monitors
Commander of the Syria Free Army, Riad Al Asaad, declared that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad would be forced out of power by militarily means, Al Jazeera reported Friday. He added that Arab League monitors should leave Syria immediately because of the "failure of their mission." The same report added that, according to opposition groups, at least another 31 people were killed by forces loyal to the regime of president Bashar Assad on Thursday, including 13 who were killed in the northeastern city of Deir ez-Zor. Violence has also spread to the heart of Damascus, which many analysts have described as a tipping point which could lead to an acceleration in the regime’s fall. On Thursday, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani admitted during a meeting with UN General Secretary Ban ki-Moon that “we must evaluate the types of mistakes (the Arab League monitors) made and without a shadow of a doubt I see mistakes, even though we went in to observe, not to stop the violence.” He added a plea for assistance from the UN in making necessary adjustments.

Jordan under pressure from Islamists
Islamist movements are gaining momentum in Jordan, to Israel’s east, as representatives of the Hashamite Kingdom’s branch of the Moslem Brotherhood met with Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh on Thursday. While billed as a simple effort by the government to reach out to different political groups, the Brotherhood in Jordan has been at the forefront of protests against many of the King’s pro-Western policies, including the peace treaty with Israel. Meanwhile, the State Security Court (SSC) on Thursday released on bail another batch of prisoners from the Salafi movement who are suspected of involvement in terrorist activity, including attacks against police officers.

Moslem Brotherhood assures Washington of good intentions
Egypt’s Moslem Brotherhood has conveyed assurances to the US State Department that it has no intention of violating the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty despite public statements to the contrary by some of its most senior officials. "We have had other assurances from the party with regard to their commitment not only to universal human rights, but to the international obligations that the Government of Egypt has undertaken," State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland said in a briefing. "We will judge these parties by what they do."

IDF beefs up border security
An investigation by the IDF has concluded that the terrorists who carried out the attack against Israel along the Egyptian border on 18 August, killing 8 Israelis when they opened fire on cars traveling on Road 12, just west of the Netafim crossing, were Beduin from the Sinai region. The development is deeply worrying because Beduin tribes have traditionally stayed out of the Arab Israeli conflict, suggesting a change in ideological motivation. In related news, the IDF announced on Thursday that it has invested in boats and sensors which will allow the Jewish State to guard the approaches to Israel from the Red Sea, along with increasing the numbers of troops along the border with Egypt. The network of  “The border between Israel and Sinai continues into the sea, and when one part is closed there might be someone on the other side who thinks that they can try to come into Israel a different way, maybe via the sea,” said Lt.-Cmdr. Ronen, commander of the patrol ships in the Red Sea. “We understand that our operations have significant and strategic consequences. Before the revolution in Egypt, the threats that we prepared for were for the most part theoretical.”

Harper; ‘Iran biggest threat to peace’

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave an interview to Calgary radio station CHQR on Thursday in which he declared that Iran poses the "world's most serious threat to international peace and security" and appealed to other world leaders to form a coordinated response to the Islamic Republic’s renegade nuclear program. Elsewhere, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu gave a powerful signal that Harper’s suggestion might not be so easy to implement on Thursday when he gave a joint press conference in Teheran with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, and announced that Turkey would not allow its territory to be used to launch a military attack on Iran. "I certainly do not see Iran as a threat," Davutoglu said, attempting to dispel months of rumors that relations between the two countries were in steep decline.

In related news, senior Israeli defense officials briefed journalists this week on the increasing reach of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, responsible for setting up and supporting terrorist groups which support Teheran’s foreign policy goals, in Europe and South America. “By establishing this infrastructure, the Iranians are making clear that their response to an attack against their nuclear facilities will be worldwide,” one official said.

Finally, Iranian officials declared on Thursday that they are "not concerned" about an imminent EU oil embargo, while also condemning the measures as initiating "an economic war."

"Iran has always been ready to counter such hostile actions and we are not concerned at all about the sanctions," Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in a joint news conference with visiting Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. "We have taken provisional measures. We have weathered the storm for the past 32 years and we will be able to survive this as well."

“These sanctions are an economic war against us," Economy Minister Shamseddin Hosseini told the official IRNA news agency.

The European Union is the second-biggest destination for Iranian oil after China, accounting for around 15 percent of the 2.6 million barrels exported each day, or some 450,000 barrels. Iran relies on oil sales for 80 percent of its foreign revenues.

EU continues to hold out hope for Israel-PA talks

A senior EU diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous, said Thursday that the recent meeting between Israeli and Palestinian Authority officials in Amman Jordan was positive and that the EU had hopes for tangible progress in the near future. "A lot of things can go wrong but it was a very good meeting," the diplomat said. “The Palestinians handed over to the Israelis their proposals on border and security. The Israelis received them and promised to study them and to present counterproposals in the coming weeks. Border and security issues are priority issues to tackle settlements."

For a closer look at recent developments in the PA, click HERE (PDF)

Meanwhile, Gaza's Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told a press conference in Tunis on Thursday that "Palestine is not a banner that we brandish like nobody's business, it's a religious and nationalist commitment." He also thanked Tunisia’s newly elected Islamist prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, for supporting Hamas by inviting him to come to Tunisia. He also described the recent talks in Amman as "a punch in the wind." A crowd of Tunisian well wishers waved Palestinian and Tunisian flags and shouted for "the liberation of Palestine."

Haniyeh has already visited Egypt, Sudan and Turkey, with Bahrain and Qatar also on his itinerary.

“The Palestinian leadership is in a difficult position,” said Palestinian political scientist George Gaqaman. “The continuation of settlement construction obstructs the possibility of having a Palestinian state, and the Palestinians can’t boycott the political efforts. Therefore we see maneuvering, not strategy.”

Iran fumes as Pentagon shrugs off threats

Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi, wanted by INTERPOL in relation to terrorist attacks in Argentina in the early 90s, told the ISNA news agency that his forces will hold additional naval exercises in the Persian Gulf soon, adding that Iran "will do anything to preserve the security of the Strait of Hormuz…the presence of forces from beyond the [Gulf] region has no result but turbulence. We have said the presence of forces from beyond the region in the Persian Gulf is not needed and is harmful." Deputy chief of Iran's forces, Masoud Jazayeri, agreed, declaring that “the United States must leave the region." US officials have issued several statements brushing off the Iranian saber-rattling, with the White House issuing a statement that the white-hot rhetoric merely indicating Iran’s “weakness.” That statement was hotly disputed on Wednesday by Iran's parliamentary national security and foreign policy commission chief Aladdin Borujerdi, who fumed that the U.S. description of Iran being weak "is a completely illogical stance."

"There's an anticipation that it might lead to an escalation of military activity in the region, but we think this is overplayed," said Gareth Lewis-Davies, energy strategist at BNP Paribas in London.

For a closer look at development in Iran, click HERE

The price of oil has jumped as a result of the tension in the Gulf, and sanctions on Iranian oil imports agreed to in principle by the EU on Wednesday. But within Iran there is even more economic turmoil, demonstrated by the plunge in value of the Iranian rial, as many foreign currency exchange merchants refused to open on Wednesday because of a government order to putting an artificial cap on the value of the dollar against the Iranian currency. The central bank has also taken other measures to try and prevent Iranians from sending money out of the country, especially dollars and Euros. Foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast insisted on Tuesday that the volatility in Iranian currency markets had many causes but "definitely has nothing to do with sanctions."

"These are the kinds of steps that we would like to see not just from our close allies and partners in places like Europe, but from countries around the world," US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said in Washington. "Because we do believe that this is consistent with tightening the noose on Iran economically and we think that the place to get Iran's attention is with regard to its oil sector."

Elsewhere, Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu was in Iran Wednesday and Thursday to hold consultations with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, about Iran's nuclear program as well as developments in Iraq and Syria.

Whispers of Erdogan’s illness growing louder

Rumors that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cancer have gained strength in recent days, leading to a flurry of political activity. Turkish media confirmed last month that the popular 57-year-old leader had undergone stomach surgery, but denied that any tumor had been found. “It was a preventative operation,” Turkish President Abdullah Gul said. “There is nothing more normal than someone who has undergone an operation to rest for a while.” But rumors have persisted in the Turkish blogosphere that Erdogan’s condition is much more serious than his public statements indicate. Edogan’s AKP political party include term limits which would not allow him to run for another term as Prime Minister, so it was widely expected that he’d run for the largely ceremonial post of president in 2014. Polls indicate that Turkish voters would be much less supportive of the AKP if anyone besides Erdogan was running it, leaving his potential successors in a difficult position.

Israel wins debating prize
Israeli brothers and Tel Aviv University students Omer, 26, and Sella Nevo, 22, won the World University Debating Championships for English as a second language on Tuesday, the third year in a row the prize has been won by an Israeli team. “People think, ‘Oh we’re Israelis; we have to win because we argue all the time.’ But really we win it in spite of this. Also, in spite of the stereotype, Israelis can be very good at listening and understanding people; they just have to learn how to do it,” explained debate team coach Yoni Cohen- Idov, who won the competition for Israel last year. “After the debates, we can have beers with one another and can be wonderful ambassadors of Israel. I don’t know any other competitive fields like that.”

Liberal MEP encourages Israel
Hans Van Baalen, a member of the European Parliament and President of the London based Liberal International organization, earlier this week visited Israel to deliver a speech to the Israel Liberal Group, part of an old political faction which joined with Likud in 1973. Van Baalen also met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and told him that he is in support of granting Israel observer status in NATO along with upgrading its relations with the European Union. He described the European Parliament as being one-third pro-Israel, one-third anti-Israel, and one-third undecided and uninformed.

Google making large investments in Israel
Google Inc., one of the world’s largest corporations, has acquired several Israeli businesses, hired hundreds of Israeli employees and continues to expand its operations in the Jewish state by raising capital for Israeli high-tech start-ups. At a recent session playfully titled “Garage Geeks” David Lawee, Google’s mergers and acquisitions chief, met with over 100 Israeli companies who were hoping to attract Google’s attention. Google set up an investment fund shortly thereafter. High-tech already accounts for 47% of Israeli exports and employs hundreds of thousands of Israelis either directly or indirectly. Industry representatives say that Israeli start-ups are badly in need of foreign investment since the local capital markets, including government funding for research, have mostly dried up.

Olmert and Lupolianski formally charged
On Thursday morning, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was charged by Tel Aviv District Prosecutors for having accepted bribes in the Holy Land real estate affair. In 2010, police announced that they was suspected Olmert had accepted a million shekels in bribes in order to give the green light for the construction project. Olmert was then questioned about the matter, but denied all allegations against him. In addition to Olmert, Thursday also saw charges filed against Olmert’s bureau chief Shula Zaken, along with former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski. The Holy Land affair was a building project in southern Jerusalem which has gone down in history as being the worst corruption case in Israel’s 63 year old history.

Assad releases hundreds of prisoners

Syrian state TV announced on Thursday that security forces loyal to the regime of president Bashar Assad have released 552 political/security prisoners “who were involved in recent events (but) whose hands were not stained with blood." Last week a release of 755 prisoners was announced, but opposition groups say the releases are a tiny fraction of the number of people who have been detained in the 10-month revolt and that the regime intends to re-arrest many of those released as soon as Arab League monitors have left the country. Meanwhile, at least 20 more people were killed in clashes between Assad loyalists and rebellious troops throughout the country on Wednesday, bringing the total of civilian protesters killed since last March to 6,000, according to the Syrian Revolution General Commission, an umbrella group representing around 40 opposition groups.

For a closer look at Assad’s military activities, click HERE (PDF)

In Cairo, Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby declared that his observers had reported a withdrawl from residential areas by Assad’s forces. He also said that the League’s mission had managed to halt the bloodshed and had secured the release of about 3,500 prisoners. Rami Abdelrahman, head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, immediately disputed Elaraby’s statement, saying "we are not seeing the release of detainees or the true removal of a military presence from the streets. Army tanks have been replaced with police armored personnel carriers that still have the capability to shoot heavy weaponry."

“The observers are going to areas known to be loyal to the regime,” said Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“Since the mission started, the regime has been limiting their [observers’] movements, and when they go out they are under the protection and supervision” of Syrian security, agreed another activist, Syria-based Mustafa Osso.


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