from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

This Week: Egypt Seeks Nukes, ISIS Gets Escalation, and U.S.-Iran Shun Extensions

February 12, 2015

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Significant Developments

Egypt. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced an agreement to jointly build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant on Tuesday during Putin’s first visit to Egypt in over ten years. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki stated that, “[the United States] support[s] peaceful nuclear power programs as long as obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to which Egypt is a signatory… are fully met.” Meanwhile, an Egyptian court ordered the release of the two remaining Al Jazeera journalists in custody today. The announcement followed the publication this week of a previously undisclosed opinion by Egypt’s highest appeals court criticizing the journalists’ earlier conviction as baseless. Egyptian-born Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy was ordered to pay the equivalent of $33,000 as a condition for being released on bail, while Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian national, was released on bail on his own recognizance.

ISIS. The White House confirmed on Tuesday the death of Kayla Mueller, an American aid worker who had been held hostage by ISIS. A spokesman for ISIS claimed that Jordanian airstrikes in Syria last week were responsible for her death, though officials in Washington and Amman said the cause of death was unclear. Jordan continued to ramp up its airstrikes against ISIS in retaliation for the killing of its pilot, Moaz al-Kasasbeh, last week. Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates launched its first airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria since December after being notified by United States Central Command officials that additional rescue helicopters had been deployed to Erbil, Iraq, to be closer to the zone of combat.

Iran. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met on the sidelines of the annual international security conference in Munich this weekend but did not reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Kerry told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that it will be “impossible” to extend nuclear negotiations with Iran beyond June 30 if the “outlines of the agreement” and a political framework have not been agreed on in the next few weeks. Zarif echoed Kerry’s sentiments, announcing on Sunday from Munich that Iran also prefers to avoid an extension of the talks. Zarif said that “sanctions are a liability; you need to get rid of them if you want a solution…We need to seize this opportunity. It may not be repeated.”

U.S. Foreign Policy

Israel. Prominent Democrats including Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Patrick Leahy, and members of the Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucuses were joined today by almost half of the Jewish Democrats in Congress in announcing that they will not attend Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s scheduled March 3 address to Congress. President Barack Obama on Monday defended his decision not to meet with Netanyahu during the upcoming Washington visit, saying it was “important for [the United States] to maintain these protocols, because the U.S.-Israeli relationship is not about a particular party.” Netanyahu responded by saying his decision to speak to Congress about Iran’s nuclear program is not because he “seeks confrontation with the president, but [is in order to] fulfill [his] obligation to speak up on a matter that affects the very survival of [Israel].”

ISIS. President Barack Obama proposed legislation to Congress yesterday that would grant the administration a three-year Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to fight ISIS. Obama’s proposal would allow the deployment of ground troops for Special Operation commandos and rescue missions but would not authorize U.S. soldiers to conduct “enduring offensive ground combat operations.” The legislation would also repeal the 2002 war authorization that gave former president George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq. However, the proposed legislation would not affect the separate 2001 AUMF authorizing military operations against al-Qaeda following the September 11 attacks. The administration currently uses those authorities to justify U.S. efforts to combat ISIS. Meanwhile, in preparation for an anticipated spring offensive to retake Mosul, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters backed by coalition airstrikes retook three strategic corridors into the city on Monday. According to a commander of the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, “this most recent Peshmerga operation is yet another example of how Daesh can be defeated militarily using a combination of well-led and capable ground forces.”


Yemen. The United States closed its embassy in Yemen on Tuesday in the wake of the Yemeni government collapsing after a coup by Houthi militants last Friday. Other Western countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany, and France followed, announcing they would also close their embassies. U.S. officials cited security concerns as the reason for the embassy closure. Many obsevers, however, saw the U.S. move as an effort to put political pressure on Yemen’s new Houthi-led interim government to negotiate a power-sharing agreement, noting that embassy remained open during more volatile times in Yemen’s capital. That sentiment was echoed by a Yemeni Foreign Ministry official, who stated that “the closure does not necessarily mean the security situation is bad, but it could mean the foreign missions want to exercise or put more pressure on the Houthis.” UN Special Envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar warned last night that Yemen was “on the brink of a civil war.”

Tunisia. Tunisian authorities on Monday arrested over thirty extremists who were allegedly planning attacks on civilian and military sites in Tunisia. According to Mohammad Ali Aroui, spokesperson for the Interior Ministry, the militants planned to target the Interior Ministry and two National Guard posts. He added that many of those arrested had travelled to Syria to fight.

Libya. UN peace talks resumed yesterday in Ghadames near the Algerian border, led by UN Special Envoy Bernardino Leon. UN officials said yesterday’s talks aimed to secure a deal on a unified government, a ceasefire, and on removing armed militias from Libya’s main cities. Meanwhile, Libyan special forces announced Monday that they had retaken Benghazi’s main military base from Islamist fighters. The special forces are backed by troops led by Heneral Khalifa Haftar, who supports the internationally recognized parliament, led by exiled Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni.

Bahrain. Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority (IAA) announced on Monday that it decided to suspend the activities of a new Saudi news channel, Alarab, hours after it went on the air on February 1. The IAA cited “technical and administrative reasons” for the suspension, but it also accused Alarab of failing to “take account of efforts aimed at stemming the tide of extremism and terrorism throughout the region and the world.”Alarab had interviewed Khalil Marzook, the deputy leader of the Shia opposition party al-Wefaq, which is openly critical of the Bahraini regime before its activities were suspended.