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The Takeaway: Israel’s military threats shadow Iran nuclear talks

Erdogan digs in on lira; Egypt, Ethiopia tensions rise again over Nile Dam; Assassins "carefully planned" attack on Iraqi PM; Iraqi Shiite scholars ponder post-Sistani era; Children become breadwinners in besieged Idlib; The return of Mohammed Ali Pasha’s palace … all in less than 1,200 words.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid meets with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, Nov. 30, 2021.

Hot take: Will Biden administration leverage Israeli military threats in Vienna?


While the parties to the Joint Comprehensive of Action (JCPOA) and the United States (which withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018) are gathered in Vienna to explore ways to reassemble the Iran nuclear deal, Israel is waging an unsubtle parallel effort to block a new deal and shape the post-talk strategic landscape no matter the outcome of the talks.

‘The only way.’ Israel Foreign Minister Yair Lapid made the case starkly on Nov. 30 after meeting French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson the day before in London. Israel’s position “is firm,” Lapid said. “Sanctions should not be removed. They should be tightened,” as Rina Bassist reports, adding that “a real military threat must be put before Iran” and is “the only way to stop its race to become a nuclear power.”

‘Nothing good will come from this type of deal.’ According to Ben Caspit in Israel:

  • “Israeli envoys recently presented intelligence to the heads of the P5+1 (the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany) … that Iran is already making technical preparations for uranium enrichment to the military-grade 90% level.”
  • “A senior Israeli military source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the most important next move will be to 'finally place on the table a concrete, realistic military option, one that will scare the Iranians and move them to real action. Only such an option will make the difference.'”
  • “Jerusalem calls this state of affairs treading water and regards it as the most dangerous scenario of all, allowing the Iranians to continue their enrichment while the talks drag on. A minority among the analysts, some of them in [Israeli Prime Minister] Naftali Bennett’s circle, believe the sides are ripe to sign an agreement during this round of negotiations, within a week to 10 days. Nothing good will come of this type of deal for Israel.”

Our take: The expectations so far are as low as can be for the Vienna talks. Israel’s military threats therefore cut several ways. On the one hand, Israel is playing the bad cop; its threats could compel Iran to make a deal to avoid an Israeli military strike, at the same time undercutting Israel’s credibility with Washington and the other JCPOA parties who would then be invested in a deal. On the other hand, if there is no deal, Israel’s military planning could become a key component of whatever Plan B emerges to prevent an Iranian nuclear breakout.


From our regional correspondents:


1. As lira slides, Turkey’s Erdogan digs in heels 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is doubling down on his unorthodox economic experimentation, refusing to raise interest rates and blaming foreign actors for the lira’s staggering plummet against the dollar and other international currencies. Diego Cupolo explains that Erdogan is framing the currency volatility as part of “‘economic liberation war’ that would eventually see Turkey become more competitive as an export hub, drawing new investments and production plants through lower labor costs.”

Turkey’s gross domestic product rose by 7.4% in the third quarter of 2021, but experts question whether that growth is sustainable amid the lira’s slump and unruly inflation. As Mustafa Sonmez puts it, “The export boom in Turkey’s economic expansion could prove a flash in the pan.”


2. Egypt, Ethiopia clash over GERD construction 

Egypt again is sounding the alarm over Ethiopia’s construction work on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a giant hydropower dam on the Blue Nile. Following a meeting with US officials in Cairo last month, Egyptian Minister of Irrigation Mohamed Abdel Aty said that any resulting shortage of water will affect workers in the agricultural sector and create social instability in the region. Egypt and Sudan are locked in a bitter dispute with Ethiopia over the GERD, which Addis Ababa’s downstream neighbors fear could impact their share of vital Nile water. As Mohamed Saied reports, the negotiations over the dam’s filling and operation remain in a stalemate. 


3. Iraq PM’s assassination attempt ‘carefully planned’ 

Hassan Ali Ahmed has the details on Iraq’s investigation into last month’s overnight drone strike on Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s residence in the fortified Green Zone. The probe concluded that two explosive-laden drones were used to target Kadhimi’s Baghdad home, with the second likely intended to strike the premier as he was fleeing the scene. The findings suggest the assassination attempt “was carefully planned and showed a degree of technical sophistication,” Ahmed writes. The investigative committee didn’t assign blame for the attack, and no armed group has claimed responsibility.


4. Shiite scholars ponder post-Sistani era 

The sudden death in September of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s likely successor has prompted religious scholars in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf to accelerate their thinking about the “post-Sistani” era. Professors at the hawza, Najaf’s Shiite seminary, reportedly are grooming Sheikh Mohammed Baqir al-Irawani as a contender for the top slot when Sistani passes away. But as Hassan al-Mustafa reports, Irawani is not the only potential candidate.


5. Children become breadwinners in Syria’s Idlib

The humanitarian situation in Syria’s besieged Idlib province is so dire that an increasing number of children are dropping out of school to work low-paying jobs, including in sheep herding, car repair and construction. Khaled al-Khateb has this gut-wrenching story on child labor in the country’s last rebel stronghold. “Not only are they denied their basic rights, but they are also deprived of any chance to realize their smallest dreams,” he writes.


One Cool Thing: The return of Ali Pasha’s house 


Egypt is gearing up to open a newly restored palace belonging to Mohammed Ali Pasha, the Ottoman-era ruler widely considered to be the founder of modern Egypt. Billed as “a rare architectural masterpiece” by Egyptian officials, the 19th-century palace in the Shubra area north of Cairo combines European, Turkish and Islamic architectural influences. Ibrahim Ayyad reports on the palace’s storied history, including the 2009 theft of several treasured paintings that dated back to Ali Pasha’s rule. 

What We’re Listening To: Israel building the ‘sewage of the internet’


Yonatan Adiri, a leading Israeli digital health care entrepreneur, says Israel could easily double its GDP in the coming decade with advancements in tech startups. “Much like in the early days of Zionism, we are in an era of the avant-garde,” Adiri says of Israel’s booming tech industry. Listen to Ben Caspit’s podcast with Adiri here.

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