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The Takeaway: Iran nuclear diplomacy shows faint pulse at UN

Signs of life at an extraordinary meeting of senior Middle East officials; also, updates from our correspondents on Israel, West Bank, UAE, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq … and more … all in about 1,400 words!
US President Joe Biden addresses the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York on Sept. 21, 2021.

Hot Take: Five takes on Biden’s UN speech and the Iran nuclear deal


  • Washington doubles down on diplomacy … In a speech to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 21, President Joe Biden drew a pointed contrast to his predecessor and said the United States will shift to "relentless diplomacy" to deal with the world’s problems. He said the United States will turn its "focus to the priorities and regions of the world, like the Indo-Pacific, that are most consequential today and tomorrow." This is a return to the so-called Asia pivot, in the works since the presidency of Barack Obama.
  • … And the Iran deal remains a priority. The only specific reference to the Middle East came with regard to Iran. Biden said, "We are working with the P5+1 to engage Iran diplomatically and seek a return to the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal). We’re prepared to return to full compliance if Iran does the same."
  • Iran is ready to talk, too … Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, in a meeting with the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Joseph Borrell, said Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, is pragmatic and ready to resume talks. Amir-Abdollahian is meeting with other signatories to the JCPOA in advance of the next round of talks, which is expected in a few weeks.
  • … but not so fast. In his address to the UN on Sept. 22, Raisi delivered an old-school anti-US rant, including saying, "We do not trust the promises of America.” The Biden administration is understandably skeptical about Iran’s intentions. Key questions: Will Iran want something different from the JCPOA, and has Iran’s expansion of its civil nuclear program outside of JCPOA constraints already crossed a threshold of no return? Vivian Salama has the scoop in our podcast this week. Israel has also been talking with the United States about a "Plan B" for Iran if talks fail.
  • Meanwhile, Iraq pursues its own "relentless diplomacy" involving Iran, Gulf. If the United States is pivoting to Asia, regional countries are going to have to take the lead themselves. And it’s already happening. Iraq’s foreign minister hosted a meeting of top diplomats from Iran, Saudi Arabia and the European Union as a follow-up to the historic regional summit in Baghdad last month hosted by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. The topic for both meetings was support for Iraq but also support for regional diplomacy, and the presence of the foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia provides hope for a needed diplomatic boost to end the Yemen war and an overall decrease in Gulf tensions.

Final Take: Our take for the past few months has been that Raisi has compelling economic, political and diplomatic incentives to re-enter nuclear negotiations and get sanctions lifted. This week, Bijan Khajehpour explains why Iran’s joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) won’t provide the economic windfall Tehran is hyping. The key to Iran’s economic future remains sanctions relief, and the Biden administration alone holds that card.


From our regional correspondents:


1. Bennett avoids nightmare in Jenin after prisoners recaptured


Following the escape and recapture of six inmates from an Israeli prison earlier this month, the Palestinian territories have witnessed near-daily confrontations with the Israeli army. The mood is especially tense in the northern West Bank city of Jenin, where the remaining two inmates were captured during an Israeli raid on Sunday. Ahmad Melhem reports that Palestinians in Jenin have targeted a nearby Israeli-run checkpoint with bullets and homemade bombs.

Israel is celebrating the end of the two-week manhunt, and there is relief that what could have been a brutal siege of the Jenin refugee camp has been avoided, writes Ben Caspit. “If the first half of this drama seemed like Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s worst nightmare, its second half and denouement was a dream come true for the premier and his fragile coalition government,” he says.


2. Jewish Israelis flock to contentious Temple Mount


Hundreds of Israeli Jews are expected to ascend Jerusalem’s Temple Mount this week to observe the Sukkot holiday, and Israel has beefed up security at the contentious Jerusalem compound in preparation.

The Temple Mount is a frequent flashpoint in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, revered by both Muslims and Jews.

Despite ultra-Orthodox rabbis saying entry is forbidden until the messiah comes, Israelis are flocking to the holy site in record numbers this year, explains Danny Zaken, with the potential for another round of confrontations.


3. Gaza factions reject US terms for refugee aid


The same Palestinian factions in Gaza that condemned President Donald Trump’s decision to cut off aid to the United Nations' Palestinian refugee agency are now protesting the Biden administration’s decision to restore American funding.

Under the newly signed framework for cooperation, the UNRWA must certify that US taxpayer dollars don’t end up in the hands of Palestinian refugees who engage in terrorism.

The agency is also required to check the names of its employees and beneficiaries against a UN sanctions list.

A leader for Islamic Jihad rejected the conditions, claiming in an interview with Al-Monitor they allow the United States and Israel to surveil Palestinian refugees.


4. UAE mulls future role in Afghanistan


After welcoming Afghanistan’s exiled former President Ashraf Ghani, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is now weighing relations with the Taliban leaders who replaced him.

The UAE, which was one of only three countries to maintain diplomatic ties with the insurgent group from 1996 to 2001, is unlikely to extend formal diplomatic recognition this time around.

But as Samuel Ramani argues, Abu Dhabi can instead opt for pragmatic engagement with the Taliban. By involving itself in Afghanistan’s future, the UAE could strengthen its partnerships with India and Pakistan, as well as bolster its standing as a major humanitarian aid donor.


5. Emboldened Turkey picks off PKK operatives


Turkey is continuing its military offensive against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), most recently gunning down 65-year-old PKK veteran Yasin Bulut outside the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah. Bulut’s killing follows a string of deadly Turkish drone strikes on mid-level commanders in Iraqi Kurdistan and northeast Syria.

Amberin Zaman says Turkey’s muscle-flexing in Sulaimaniyah could boost the popularity of Lahur Talabani, the ousted co-chair of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party who is a vocal critic of the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq’s close relations with Ankara.

Elsewhere in Iraq, Shelly Kittleson reports on how Sunni Arabs from eastern Syria and western Iraq are increasingly turning to Iraq’s Kurdistan Region as a place of refuge from sectarian armed groups. “Attacks on Erbil by Iran-linked groups now seem to be bringing Iraq’s Kurds and Sunni Arabs even closer together in ways that would have been unexpected during and immediately following the years under Saddam Hussein,” she writes.


One Cool Thing: Egypt opens ancient cemetery amid tourism slump


After 15 years of renovation work, Egypt has finally reopened the southern cemetery of King Djoser. Located in the Saqqara region, south of Cairo, the cemetery contains the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh from the Third Dynasty — but not his body. King Djoser’s remains are believed to be buried nearby inside the 5,000-year-old Step Pyramid. The unveiling comes as Egypt’s normally vibrant tourism industry recovers from the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on travel. As Baher al-Kady writes, the North African country hopes to lure international visitors this year with the upcoming Grand Egyptian Museum and the 100th anniversary of the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb.


What We’re Listening To: Israel’s Bennett profile in TIME like ‘science fiction’


Ben Caspit discusses the first 100 days of the Bennett-Lapid government with Dana Weiss, a diplomatic correspondent for Israel’s Channel 12. The pair also talk about Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's inclusion in TIME Magazine's roundup of the world’s most influential people — and more notably, Arab politician Mansour Abbas’ endorsement of the right-wing leader. “It’s almost science fiction to think that this could have happened,” Weiss said. Listen here to Ben’s podcast with Weiss.


Reminder: Gilles Kepel debuting Al-Monitor podcast


Renowned Middle East expert Gilles Kepel will next week debut his new Al-Monitor podcast, “Reading the Middle East with Gilles Kepel.” Tune in each week for Kepel’s interviews with authors and thought leaders shaping how we think about the region. His first guest is Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany, whose book “The Republic of False Truths” is a fictionalized account of the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt.

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