News Roundup and Notes: November 18, 2013

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

Iran

Senior U.S. officials have stated that the administration has been addressing the sticking points arising from the last round of Geneva negotiations, with “a much clearer sense of the text we’re negotiating going into this round” [Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon and Carol E. Lee]. Administration officials have been deliberating the purity levels for Iranian enrichment, the future of Iran’s heavy-water reactor and Iran’s alleged right to produce nuclear fuel domestically.

Reuters reports that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated yesterday that while Iran has the right to enrich uranium, it does not insist others recognize that right, “in what could be a way around one of the main sticking points between Tehran and world powers in talks this week.”

And Russia has also expressed hope for a compromise with Iran [CNN’s Leslie Holland]. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told state media this weekend, “Our common impression is that there is a very good chance now [of a deal] which should not be missed.”

Israel remains skeptical, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling upon the West to “ratchet up the sanctions” against Iran in an interview with Candy Crowley on CNN’s State of the Union (Steve Almasy).

French President Francois Hollande began his state visit to Israel yesterday by insisting, “France will not tolerate nuclear proliferation” and emphasizing that “we will continue with all our demands and with sanctions” until France is certain that Iran has given up its nuclear weapons [France 24’s Gallagher Fenwick]. In return, Netanyahu praised Hollande’s “courageous stance” against Iran and welcomed France as a “true friend” of Israel, in “an indirect jab at President Obama’s push for diplomatic talks” [The Hill’s Julian Pecquet]. The New York Times (Isabel Kershner) and Wall Street Journal (Joshua Mitnick) also report on this development.

And in the U.S., on Friday, Senate Intelligence Committee chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein voiced serious concern over additional sanctions against Iran:

I strongly oppose any attempt to increase sanctions against Iran while P5+1 negotiations are ongoing. The purpose of sanctions was to bring Iran to the negotiating table, and they have succeeded in doing so. Tacking new sanctions onto the defense authorization bill or any other legislation would not lead to a better deal. It would lead to no deal at all.

Sen. John McCain and Senate Armed Services Committee chair Sen. Carl Levin have also expressed a willingness to test diplomacy before imposing additional sanctions [YNet News’ Yitzhak Benhorin].

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, David Ignatius questions whether history will repeat in the Iran negotiations and notes that the “trickiest issue probably will be Iran’s demand for some recognition of what it claims is its “right” to enrich uranium for civilian purposes.” And Robert Satloff argues that Obama’s fight with Israel is “serious” and given the difference in tactics on Iran’s nuclear issue, the relationship “could get worse before it gets better” [Politico].

Drones

The Los Angeles Times (Ken Dilanian) reports that the pace of drone strikes has “fallen sharply” since May owing to “stricter targeting criteria.” However, “a blanket of secrecy thus far has remained firmly in place.”

An aerial target drone malfunctioned on Saturday and struck a missile cruiser training off southern California, causing two minor burn injuries [AP].

Meanwhile, Germany’s new coalition government has agreed to postpone acquiring armed drones, stating, “we will thoroughly investigate all associated civil and constitutional guidelines and ethical questions” [The Local]. The agreement asserts:

We categorically reject illegal killings by drones. Germany will support the use of unmanned weapons systems for the purposes of international disarmament and arms control.

Surveillance

According to a top-secret document published by The Guardian and ABC, Australian intelligence services targeted the mobile phone calls of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and senior Indonesian ministers. Indonesia has recalled its ambassador from Canberra, with Djoko Suyanto, Indonesia’s minister for politics, law and security, stating that his government would “review all information exchange and all other [forms of] cooperation with Australia.” Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has responded to the allegations, stating:

It violates every single decent and legal instrument I can think of on a national level in both countries and on an international level. This is nothing less than an unfriendly act and it has a serious impact on bilateral relations.

The Guardian has live updates on the latest developments.

A further set of documents leaked by Edward Snowden reveal that the U.K.’s spying agency, GCHQ monitored the hotel bookings of foreign diplomats at 350 hotels around the world [Der Spiegel’s Laura Poitras et al.]. The report notes, “Once a room has been identified, it opens the door to a variety of spying options.”

In the U.S., the Supreme Court is set to decide whether to hear the legal challenge brought by the Electronic Privacy Information Center against the NSA surveillance program [The Hill’s Brendan Sasso].

According to a formal committee report published last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee split sharply on proposals to reform the NSA’s spying program [Politico’s Josh Gerstein]. While the Committee billed the FISA Improvements Act, the panel narrowly defeated a series of amendments proposing stricter reform.

U.S. News (Tom Risen) covers how recent revelations that the CIA is spying on international money transfers could stifle U.S. business, as “foreign governments may increase regulation of U.S. finance [and] tech firms.”

In an op-ed in the New York Times, two German politicians, Malte Spitz and Hans-Christian Ströbele argue that Edward Snowden should be given asylum in Germany as without him, “Ms. Merkel would still be a target for monitoring, and surveillance of German diplomats, businessmen and ordinary citizens would be continuing, undetected.”

And the Justice Department announced on Friday that it will notify criminal defendants in cases where the government has used evidence against them that was gathered through warrantless surveillance programs [AP].

Military sexual assaults

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told ABC’s This Week (George Stephanopoulos) that she will not be narrowing her bill on military sexual assaults due to be considered this week, stating “We’re going to stick to the original plan because it’s a better bill.” She said:

It’s been an interesting process, because what we learned is, having the bright line of elevating all serious crimes out of the chain of command, makes sure both victims’ rights are protected and defendants’ rights for civil liberties reasons, that you need fairness and justice.

And Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn covers the “disconnect” between President Obama and his top Pentagon advisers on the issue of sexual assaults in the military.

Syria

ICYMI, on Friday, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) adopted a detailed plan of destruction to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile by June 30, 2014.

The New York Times (David E. Sanger et al.) covers the extent to which the OPCW’s plan “has raised major concerns in Washington, because it involves transporting the weapons over roads that are battlegrounds in the country’s civil war and loading them onto a ship that has no place to go.” Albania and Norway have both turned down requests to destroy the weapons on domestic territory.

A Syrian government delegation met Russian officials this morning to discuss plans for the Geneva II peace negotiations [Reuters]. According to Interfax news agency, a senior Iranian official was also due to arrive in Moscow to discuss plans for peace talks.

In a report in Foreign Policy’s The Cable, Colum Lynch notes that the U.S. and Iran are likely to participate in a UN-sponsored high-level meeting aimed at alleviating Syria’s humanitarian crisis this month, in “another indication of the emerging thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran.”

On the ground, a bomb blast targeting an administrative building in a Damascus suburb last night has killed at least 31 troops, including 4 officers [Al Jazeera]. And the Washington Post (Loveday Morris) reports that according to analysts, a “string of Syrian government gains in the Damascus suburbs and mounting pressure on rebels in the northern part of the country are likely to complicate Western efforts to persuade the opposition to attend planned peace talks.”

Libya

Libya’s deputy intelligence chief was kidnapped outside the Tripoli airport yesterday, just two days after violent clashes between rival militias and protesters in the capital killed at least 45 people [Al Jazeera America]. No group has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.

Reuters reports that the U.S. military is planning to train between 5,000 and 7,000 members of Libya’s security forces, including special operation forces to conduct counter-terrorism operations. Admiral William McRaven, head of the U.S. military’s Special Operations Command, declined to provide further details, stating these were still being negotiated. McRaven acknowledged that the U.S. would have to “assume some risks” that the training might benefit some militia members as former fighters are often employed by the government forces.

Meanwhile, the State Department has offered a $10 million reward for information on the deaths in last year’s attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi [Reuters].

Pakistani Taliban

Gulf News (Colin Freeman) reports that a “bitter feud has broken among the Pakistani Taliban” over its leadership, following Hakimullah Mehsud’s death by a U.S. drone strike two weeks ago. Reportedly, the confirmation of Maulana Fazlullah in the position at a secret meeting last week led to a walk-out by commanders from a rival faction, exposing “long-running tensions within the Pakistani Taliban, who are in effect a loose conglomeration of some 30 different militia groups.”

Afghanistan

Two senior Afghan officials stated yesterday that negotiations on a deal with the U.S. were at an impasse, only days before the scheduled Afghan council vote on the issue [New York Times’ Rod Nordland and Matthew Rosenberg]. According to the officials, both sides had refused to compromise on U.S. insistence that American troops retain the right, in some form, to enter Afghan homes. However, a senior U.S. official remained optimistic, stating he “would not characterize remaining differences as an impasse” and noted that it was normal for negotiations to continue until the last moment.

The Wall Street Journal (Yaroslav Trofimov and Ehsanullah Amiri) reports that a suicide blast detonated on Saturday in the area where the Afghan council vote is due to take place, killing 13 people and injuring 29.

Other developments

The Wall Street Journal (Julian E. Barnes) reports that the military’s top commanders have agreed a plan “that would curb the growth of pay and benefits for housing, education and health – prized features of military life that for years have been spared from cuts” in an effort to deal with a shrinking budget.

The Associated Press reports that according to court documents, the Israeli government has prevented a former security official from testifying in an anti-terrorism case in the U.S. on the basis that it would endanger Israeli national security. In a case brought by families of Israeli victims of suicide bombers, the families allege that the state owned Bank of China, through its U.S. branches, served as a channel to transfer money to the Palestinian groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

A U.S. Army soldier has been charged with premeditated murder of two Iraqi civilians in connection with killings in 2007 [AP].

The U.S. Embassy quickly rebutted a German investigative series into the “depth of American trespasses” in the country, including spying and murder campaigns, on Friday [McClatchy DC’s Matthew Scholfied]. A statement from the U.S. Embassy claimed that the program “is full of half-truths, speculation, and innuendo.”

A large coalition of human rights and civil liberties groups sent a joint letter to the Senate on Friday, calling upon members to support the Guantanamo Bay detainee transfer provisions included in the NDAA for 2014, as covered by Just Security’s Thomas Earnest yesterday.

The FBI has warned that activists linked to Anonymous have launched a series of break-ins into U.S. government computers and stolen sensitive information since last December [Reuters].

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron stated this weekend that he will push for an international inquiry into Sri Lanka’s alleged war crimes, if the Sri Lankan government fails to complete an investigation by March 2014 [The Guardian’s Conal Urquhart].

Amnesty International has published a report – The Dark Side of Migration – detailing the scale of abuse and exploitation against migrant workers recruited by Qatar’s construction sector ahead of the World Cup.

A new opinion poll shows increased levels of public support for the ICC trials against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto [ICC Kenya Monitor’s Tom Maliti].

Yemeni Salafists have rejected Al-Qaeda’s pledge last week to support the group in their fighting with Al Houthi rebels in the country’s north, stating, “We are ideologically different from Al Qaida. We oppose Al Qaida’s killing of Muslims and their armed revolt against Muslim leaders” [Gulf News’ Saeed Al Batati].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

Former Associate Editor at Just Security Follow her on Twitter (@RParekh88).