News Roundup and Notes: January 14, 2014

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

The New York Times (Mark Landler and Jonathan Weisman) covers President Obama’s fight against additional Iran sanctions. Obama told reporters yesterday, “My preference is for peace and diplomacy, and this is one of the reasons why I’ve sent the message to Congress that now is not the time for us to impose new sanctions.” Sponsors of the sanctions bill have secured the backing of 59 senators, “putting them within striking distance of a two-thirds majority that could override Mr. Obama’s threatened veto.” However, Reuters (Patricia Zengerle and Timothy Gardner) notes that the agreement reached on Sunday on the implementation date “makes it harder for sanctions supporters to attract more backers,” according to analysts, lawmakers and congressional aides.

According to Iranian state media reports, Iranian hard-liners cautiously welcomed the agreement on implementing the interim nuclear deal [New York Times’ Thomas Erdbrink].

The International Atomic Energy Agency has announced this morning that its talks with Iran, initially scheduled for next week, have been postponed to February 8 [Reuters].

Meanwhile, the U.S. has raised concerns about a report that Russia is negotiating an oil deal with Iran worth $1.5bn a month, which could trigger U.S. sanctions, according to National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden [Al Jazeera].

The Wall Street Journal (Benoit Faucon et al.) reports that executives from some of France’s biggest companies are scheduled to visit Tehran next month, “signaling a fresh wave of corporate interest in Iran as the West eases sanctions.”

On a related note, the Washington Post editorial board covers the incremental progress made toward a nuclear-free world, noting “a lot still needs to be done,” including with regards to North Korea, Iran, India and Pakistan.

Syria

Speaking with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and UN Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry outlined the possible confidence building measures ahead of the Geneva II peace conference, including localized ceasefires and prisoner exchanges. The officials remained divided over Iran’s role in the peace talks. Brahimi said:

“Iran is a very important country in the region and … they have to be present in a conference like this … Discussions are still continuing between the three countries, and we hope that before we are over, the right decision will be taken.”

Lavrov accused the U.S. of taking into account “ideological considerations,” while also criticizing the UN of “trying to shun responsibility” by refusing to take the decision. While Kerry emphasized that Iran’s role “is not a question of ideology,” but one of “practicality and common sense.” Kerry added:

“Iran has yet to state whether or not it supports implementing the Geneva I communique, which calls for nothing more than the mutual consent of the parties to a transitional governing process to make peace … If they’re going to participate in order to further the goals of the conference, they would be welcome.”

The Wall Street Journal (Stacy Meichtry) Washington Post (Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly) provide more details.

Meanwhile, Kerry has reportedly told the Syrian opposition that U.S. support for the group could be reduced if it fails to attend the upcoming peace conference, according to Western officials [New York Times’ Michael R. Gordon].

On the ground, extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has reclaimed significant parts of the territory that it lost last week to rival rebels [New York Times’ Anne Barnard]. And the Wall Street Journal (Sam Dagher and Maria Abi-Habib) covers how “[the] Assad regime is gaining ground as it takes advantage of infighting between Syrian opposition groups, in a sign of how the rise of extremists could tip the balance in the three-year-old civil war.”

NSA Surveillance

The Washington Post (Ellen Nakashima) reports that lawyers for an Oregon man convicted for attempted terrorism based on evidence obtained from an NSA surveillance program have filed a motion seeking discovery of information that they believe will assist in an eventual constitutional challenge to the law that authorized the surveillance in his case.

Politico’s Josh Gerstein notes that Obama’s powers over NSA surveillance reforms “have significant limits” as many of the key reforms expected will require congressional action.

Tech firms reportedly told administration officials in a meeting last Friday that they did not want to hold metadata for government, and that bulk collection programs should not be expanded to internet data [Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima].

Iraq

The Wall Street Journal (Matt Bradley et al.) reports that Sunni tribal leaders and al-Qaeda-affiliated militants held talks in Fallujah last night, “in an effort to negotiate an end to a two-week siege and avert a full-scale sectarian conflict.”

Speaking in Baghdad yesterday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called upon all Iraqi political leaders “to fulfil their responsibilities to ensure social cohesion, dialogue and progress over political obstacles” [UN News Centre].

Top American commander in Iraq from 2004 to 2007, retired Army Gen. George Casey has said that the “problems are Iraq’s to solve” and that “no amount of American troops” would have helped the crisis [Wall Street Journal’s Julian E. Barnes].

And CNN’s Michael Holmes looks at whether, two years after U.S. withdrawal, things in Iraq are “worse than ever”.

Egypt

Reuters (Michael Georgy) covers the voting in Egypt’s constitutional referendum, which began this morning, and which is “likely to spawn a presidential bid by army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.”

The Washington Post editorial board argues that “Egypt’s bogus democracy doesn’t deserve U.S. aid.” The editorial notes that the referendum “is being staged in a climate that makes a fair ballot impossible,” with, among other concerns, arrests made against those who have tried to peacefully campaign for a no vote.

In a separate development, senior Egyptian security officials have told Reuters (Yasmine Saleh) that after crushing the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s military rulers plan to target Palestinian militant group Hamas next.

Other developments

House-Senate negotiators revealed a $1.1 trillion spending bill last night, following more than six weeks of intense bargaining [Politico’s David Rogers]. The bill includes a measure that provides Pentagon with nearly $93 billion to buy new weapons [Defense News’ John T. Bennett]. The bill also allows the Obama administration to restore $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt [The Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin].

President Obama downplayed former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ memoir yesterday [The Hill’s Justin Sink]. Obama praised Gates’ “outstanding” service, while stating that “war is never easy” and noting that “after having already made enormous investments of blood and treasure in another country, then part of your job as commander in chief is to sweat the details on it.” Meanwhile, in an interview with Yahoo News’ Katie Couric, Gates downplayed his criticism of Obama, insisting he did not have an “adversarial relationship” with the President.

Vice President Joe Biden pressed Israeli President Shimon Peres on peace talks yesterday, stating that “there’s a possibility for an island of stability … between the Palestinian people and the Israeli people in two secure states respecting one another’s sovereignty and security.”

Fox News (James Rosen) reports that according to declassified testimony, top defense officials were informed of a “terrorist attack” minutes after the 2012 Benghazi attack, thus questioning the “false narrative [from the Obama administration] … for two weeks afterwards.”

A former U.S. soldier charged with attempting to join terrorist group al-Shabaab has been sentenced to seven years in prison [CNN].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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