Hot Take: What next for beleaguered nuclear deal?
No cheer at UNGA for JCPOA. "Anyone hoping for quick progress in talks to restore the Iran nuclear deal would find little reason for cheer in the posture adopted by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian," writes Mark Fitzpatrick.
Depends on what he means by ‘soon.’ Making the rounds at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) last week, Amir-Abdollahian repeatedly said Iran would "soon" return to negotiations over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal, but gave no sign Tehran was ready to pick up where his predecessor, Mohammad Javad Zarif, left off in June. Instead, Amir-Abdollahian insisted the next steps should come from the United States, which he said must fulfill its JCPOA commitments by waiving all sanctions imposed since US President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in May 2018. Only then would Iran reverse the "reversible" actions it has taken with regard to expanding its production of highly enriched uranium required to process a nuclear weapon.
Could a goodwill gesture break the impasse? "Amir-Abdollahian’s strongest talking point in New York," writes Fitzpatrick, "was the US role in contributing to Iran’s health crisis. Releasing some frozen funds for medicinal purchases, as has been suggested by various parties, would be a powerful goodwill gesture." And Iran could in turn release the four Iranian-Americans unjustly held in Iran, a swap which Amir-Abdollahian claims was in the works this summer. Whether these moves would shake up the nuclear talks is unclear; they should nonetheless be on the agenda.
From our regional correspondents:
1. Syria’s jihadis spurn calls to reconcile
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Liberation of the Levant, or HTS), the former al-Qaeda-linked jihadi group that now rules the war-weary city of Idlib, Syria, has rebuffed calls from its rival jihadi group and current al-Qaeda-affiliate Hurras al-Din to resolve their many differences through Sharia arbitration. A member of HTS’ Shura Council said the offer was made by “hypocrites who resort to the Sharia when they think that it serves their whims.”
Hurras al-Din’s proposal comes as HTS, which controls Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib, has doubled down on its efforts to oust Hurras al-Din and other rival jihadis from the region. A source close to HTS told Khaled al-Khateb that HTS has continued arresting members of the competing Islamist group and recently detained Osama al-Karar, a Hurras al-Din leader, during a raid on his house in Idlib city. HTS is still a designated terrorist group by the United States and the UN Security Council.
2. Hamas goes after Abbas for UN speech … and students wearing black and white keffiyehs
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ speech at the UNGA didn’t sit well with Hamas. A spokesperson for Gaza’s militant rulers told Entsar Abu Jahal that the 85-year-old leader’s presentation was weak. The Palestinian president’s approval rating continues to slip following his postponement of long-awaited parliamentary and presidential elections. A recent public opinion poll found nearly 80% of Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza want Abbas to resign.
But the intra-Palestinian hostility was sharpest last week, Amany Mahmoud reports, over a symbolic issue. The Fatah movement of Abbas was infuriated by recent attacks by Hamas-affiliated security forces on university students in the Gaza Strip. The Al-Azhar University students were reportedly targeted for wearing the Palestinian keffiyeh, the black and white scarf attributed to former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.
3. Armenian land lease riles Palestinians
Palestinians are outraged over a decision by the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem to lease a plot of sensitive land in the contested Old City to the Israeli municipality, and ultimately, to a Jewish Australian real estate developer. Palestinian officials have urged the Armenian government to intervene in the land dispute. Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi also raised the issue with his Armenian counterpart, Ararat Mirzoyan, on the sidelines of the UNGA. Daoud Kuttab has more on where the real estate scandal fits into Israeli relations with the Armenians, nearly 1,000 of whom live in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.
4. Israel’s Lapid pivots left to keep base
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is no longer courting the country’s center-right, writes Mazal Mualem. Israel’s chief diplomat, the former TV anchor who built his political reputation as a hawkish patriot trying to peel off right-wing Likud voters, is now pinning his political future on Israel’s center-left. In a recent speech, Lapid claimed the new Israeli government he formed with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has healed the rifts created by ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu and his conservative Likud party. “This is a normal government led by normal people,” Lapid told the audience. Mualem argues here that the foreign minister’s recent rhetoric boils down to “a clear case of identity politics, intended to give Lapid’s supporters and potential voters a sense that they are the good guys.”
5. Rumored Turkish resignations raise questions over Syria mission
Turkey has pushed back on reports that five Turkish generals serving on Syria-related missions are seeking retirement. For some, Ankara’s explanation that some of the generals had asked to retire for “health and familial reasons” didn’t entirely ring true. As Metin Gurcan writes, “Abrupt retirement requests by meritorious generals with ample operational experience and bright careers ahead of them are highly unusual in the deep-rooted traditions of the Turkish military, especially in the middle of critical missions.”
Their possible departure could be explained, in part, by the recent uptick in Russian and Syrian government air raids in northwest Syria, which have jeopardized the safety of Turkish military outposts in the area. Earlier this month, three Turkish soldiers were killed by an anti-tank guided missile near Idlib city.
One Cool Thing: Qatar’s garbage transformed into art
A thought-provoking Qatari artist is drawing attention to the Gulf country’s plastic pollution problem. For her latest installation in Doha, Fatima Mohammed took photos of herself dressed in an abaya covered in plastic feathers made from discarded water bottles. Mohammed told Sebastian Castelier she hopes the images demonstrate that “we, as humans, collectively distort and destroy our surroundings by polluting.” Plastic consumption is among Qatar’s top environmental concerns, with the country’s plastic use growing by 14% between 2006 and 2016.
(Image courtesy of Fatima Mohammed)
ICYMI: UN says Syria death toll at least 350K
The United Nations has issued a new casualty count from Syria’s decadelong civil war. The 350,209 tally is what UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet described as a “minimum verifiable number.” The new estimate — the first since the UN stopped counting in 2014 — is likely a vast undercount, Bachelet said, given the tens of thousands of people believed to be missing. Read the UN report here.