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The Takeaway: Iran seeks sanctions assurances as West loses patience

Negotiators meet again in Vienna as the US warns Iran is "playing with fire." Plus, the Islamic State's recruitment drive, a transatlantic scandal in Israel, Lebanon's solar energy surge, and more.
Iran nuclear

Hot take: Can negotiators meet Iran's demands for assurances?


Talks over reviving the Iranian nuclear accord resumed in Vienna this week, with Iran demanding the eighth round of negotiations address its sanctions-battered oil industry. 

Guarantees and verification: Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said Monday that verification of sanctions relief remains a top priority for Iran's negotiating team. 

"The most important thing for us is to reach a point where we can verify that Iranian oil will be sold easily and without any limits, that the money for this oil will be transferred in foreign currency to Iranian bank accounts, and that we will be able to benefit from all the revenues," he said. 

To recapThe United States imposed crushing sanctions on Iran’s oil sector after former President Donald Trump abandoned the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in 2018. Iranian crude oil exports sank, and Tehran responded to the economic penalties by steadily breaching the JCPOA. 

Prospects for a renewed deal that would bring Iran back into compliance looked bleak when talks paused in mid-December. European diplomats warned that Iran's nuclear acceleration meant there were "weeks, not months" before the original deal's benefits are lost. US Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley told the New Yorker that the Iranians are “miscalculating and playing with fire.” 

Iran’s insurance policy: The new hardline government of President Ebrahim Raisi is pressing Washington to lift all sanctions, as well as provide a guarantee that future US administrations won't renege on the nuclear deal and snap back sanctions that could deter foreign investment. The aim is for Iran "to enjoy full economic concessions” of a revived accord, Amir-Abdollahian said Monday.  

Sanam Vakil, an Iran expert at Chatham House, told Al-Monitor that some “creative thinking” is needed to assure Iran that a renegotiated deal will outlast the Biden administration. 

“Tehran doesn’t have the confidence to return to the nuclear agreement without some protection, and this I think is the main crux of the issue,” Vakil said. “Everything else can be negotiated and resolved.”

A 'good’ deal: Iran’s arch-foe Israel is carefully watching the latest round of talks. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told Army Radio: “We are not automatic naysayers. We’re taking a practical approach.” Bennett raised the possibility of a “good agreement” emerging from the Austrian capital, but said that outcome was unlikely without a “firmer position” from the West. 

As Ben Caspit reports, Bennett kept his criticism to a minimum in recent weeks after the White House ignored an informal request for a phone call with Biden. 


From our regional correspondents:


1. Islamic State gains recruits as Syria's poverty deepens 

Nearly three years after the Islamic State lost its final stronghold in the Syrian town of Baghouz, the terrorist group is exploiting Syria’s dire economic crisis to lure new recruits. Reporting from the Kurdish-held city of Hasakah in northeastern Syria, Amberin Zaman spoke with prison officials and current detainees who said IS is offering irresistible sums of money to poor Syrians willing to join their ranks. “I did it for the money,” said Ahmed, a 24-year-old father of three who worked as an IS courier. 

2. How effective are Iraq's anti-IS operations?

As the US combat mission in Iraq drew to a close, Iraqi security forces ended the year by capturing or killing a number of key Islamic State operatives. Most recently, military intelligence reportedly captured a man near Ramadi who was collecting a tax from local shepherds. But analysts question the effectiveness of Iraq’s recent anti-IS operations, given that an increasing number have ended without any captures or kills. 

Shelly Kittleson explains that Iraqi military operations provide “much in the way of photo opportunities, but little chance of catching insurgents unaware.” Meanwhile, Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government are working to improve security coordination in disputed areas where IS has retained a foothold. 

3. Israel's ex-spy chief's political ambitions in doubt 

Former Mossad director Yossi Cohen has long been seen as a possible successor to ousted prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has himself referred to the charismatic ex-spy chief as a potential heir. But a bombshell investigation from Israel’s Channel 13 could torpedo Cohen’s apparent political ambitions. The TV channel reports that Cohen divulged state secrets about Mossad’s operations to a flight attendant with whom he had a transatlantic affair, as well as her husband. 

It’s too soon to know whether the scandal will create lasting damage to his popularity, especially among Netanyahu’s right-wing voter base. Then again, as Ben Caspit writes, “a whiff of criminality could help, not to mention skills of deception and manipulation and a killer instinct, all of which Cohen has in spades.” 

4. Energy-starved Lebanon turns to solar power 

As Lebanon’s energy crisis worsens, the demand for solar power has surged. Rodayna Raydan reports that solar system suppliers in energy-starved Lebanon are overwhelmed with requests for installations, and some grocery stores have begun selling solar panels to meet the demand. 

But the switch to solar energy remains cost prohibitive for most households in the small Mediterranean country, which is grappling with frequent power cuts amid its worst economic crisis in decades. Many residents are instead relying on traditional methods of lighting, including kerosene oil lanterns and candles. 

5. Turkey’s HDP seeks justice for killed volunteer  

Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) is bent on seeking justice for a young female volunteer gunned down at the party’s Izmir office in June. The assailant, Onur Gencer, told police he acted alone. But HDP lawyers and members of Turkey’s second-largest opposition party say Gencer is merely the fall guy. 

They believe an investigation would reveal Gencer's links to a private security company that is close to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as well as his security and intelligence apparatus. Nazlan Ertan has this breakdown of HDP claims, including that Gencer was trained as an assassin in Syria. 


One Cool Thing: Inside Gaza’s lost Jewish quarter


Hadeel Al Gherbawi takes us inside the Gaza Strip’s so-called Jewish Quarter, an old and dilapidated part of Gaza’s Zaytoun neighborhood that until the late 1960s was inhabited by a Palestinian Jewish family.  

Previous Jewish settlement in the coastal Palestinian enclave remains a fraught subject. Few residents even know of the Jewish Quarter’s existence, and several Palestinian archaeologists and academics contacted by Al-Monitor refused to discuss the neighborhood’s history. 


What We’re Watching: Sudanese refugees find jobs in Egypt  


Refugees have been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic impact. Menam Sami reports on a success story out of Egypt, where South Sudanese refugees have been hired to make coronavirus face masks. The new Al Capitol factory also provides education, legal recourse and consultation for asylum seekers. Check out the video here.

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