from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

This Week: Terror in Lebanon, Nuclear Talks with Iran, and Stockpile Plans for Syria

November 21, 2013

Civil Defence personnel extinguish a fire on cars at the site of the explosions near the Iranian embassy in Beirut November 19, 2013 (Yassine/Courtesy Reuters).
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Significant Developments

Lebanon. Prime Minister Tamam Salam and speaker Nabih Berry both warned on Thursday of a return to violence in Lebanon if the country fails to resolve ongoing domestic political crises and control internal security. Their comments followed Tuesday’s suicide bombings of the Iranian embassy in Beirut that killed twenty-five people, including the Iranian cultural attaché, and wounded another one hundred and forty people. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an al-Qaeda affiliated Sunni extremist group, took credit for the attack, which it claimed was in protest of Iran’s role in the ongoing civil war in Syria.

On Wednesday, the UNHCR confirmed that at least 2,200 families had crossed into the Lebanese town of Arsal since last week, overwhelming their ability to provide support. Following the influx of refugees, Syrian helicopters attacked Arsal, killing two members of a local prominent family.

Iran. The latest round of nuclear talks are underway in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 countries and are scheduled to conclude on Friday, despite a lack of agreement so far on an interim deal. Intense diplomatic efforts have been followed by squabbling amongst negotiators in the media. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei yesterday called Israel a “rabid dog” and vowed that Iran would not give up its “nuclear rights." On Tuesday, British prime minister David Cameron and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani spoke by phone regarding the nuclear negotiations and bilateral relations, marking the first executive level talks between the two states in more than a decade.

Syria. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced new plans today for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, which could include destroying certain active nerve agents aboard ships and contracting private firms to destroy various chemicals. Meanwhile, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad announced yesterday that he will not consider handing over power to the opposition. Assad said that “there is no need to go to Geneva if this is the general idea.” Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Muqdad echoed Assad’s words while meeting in Moscow with Russian and Iranian delegations on Tuesday. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov reportedly pressed the Syrian regime to allow aid groups access to civilians as conditions in Syria have grown exceedingly dire in many areas. The Syrian military completed a large offensive that began last week on the city of Qara, one of the only remaining rebel supply lines between the Mediterranean and Damascus. Heavy bombardment forced thousands to flee into neighboring Lebanon and inflicted serious losses on opposition forces.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Iran. President Obama met with Republican and Democratic leaders from the banking, foreign relations, armed services, and intelligence committees on Tuesday in an effort to prevent further sanctions against Iran while negotiations are under way. Despite the overture by the president, six senators, led by Senator Mark Kirk, proposed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would further increase sanctions against Iran. With Thanksgiving recess beginning on Friday, it will be at least two weeks before the bill will face a vote, giving the administration time to try and reach an interim deal.

Egypt. Speaking at the State Department Overseas Advisory Council on Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the 2011 Egyptian uprising had been “stolen by” the Muslim Brotherhood. Kerry argued that the Brotherhood capitalized on its highly organized and hierarchical structure at a time of uncertainty and factitious opposition.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Turkey. A parliamentary commission charged with drafting a new civilian constitution has reached an impasse, with spokesmen claiming it unlikely that it will complete the task before the 2015 general election. One major point of contention has been a proposed expansion of presidential powers, a position that at present is largely symbolic. The commission has been working since 2011 to replace the 1980 version, which was drafted by the military following a coup.

Libya. Militias in Tripoli continued to hand over bases and outposts to the military today following growing demand and demonstrations against violence in the capital city. On Tuesday, the government announced plans to remove militias from Tripoli, and disarm and reintegrate them into the military. This coincided with large demonstrations against the militias in response to last Friday’s shooting that left more than forty-five people dead and five hundred wounded after a militia attacked unarmed demonstrators.

Egypt. In an interview on Thursday with a Kuwaiti newspaper, Egyptian defense minister al-Sisi did not rule out a run for president in upcoming elections. Interim vice president Adly Mansour, however, announced on Tuesday that he would not consider entering the race. On Wednesday, violence continued in the Sinai where a suicide car bomb killed eleven soldiers and wounded another thirty-seven.

This Week in History

This week marks the one hundred and forty-fourth anniversary of the inauguration of the Suez Canal on November 17, 1869. In 1854, Ferdinand de Lesseps was granted a concession to build the canal by Sa’id Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt. In 1856, the Suez Canal Company was granted the rights to operate the Canal for 99 years following its opening, though Egypt owned a 44 percent stake in the company. Construction began in 1859, with it taking over a decade to complete the 101 mile canal connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Egyptian financial woes following a broad modernization program enacted under Isma’il Pasha forced Egypt to sells its stock, which the British eagerly purchased. The Suez quickly became essential to east-west trade, cutting the journey between Europe and Asia by six thousand miles. However, Nasser nationalized the canal in 1956 after coming to power, precipitating the Suez Crisis by terminating the original 1856 agreement thirteen years early. The canal was closed for eight years, between 1967 and 1975, serving as buffer between Israel and Egypt. Since the 1979 peace accord between Israel and Egypt, the canal has remained open though a slight decline in traffic has accompanied the recent turbulence in Egypt.