Diplomacy

Week in Review: Congress Takes On the UN; Iran’s Mixed Week in South America

Anti-Israel UN Resolutions? Not in Our House (of Representatives)

Battle lines have been drawn between the Obama administration and a large bipartisan majority of Congress after the White House refused to veto United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, which condemned Israeli activities in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The House of Representatives voted 342-80 on Thursday to condemn Resolution 2334, stating in their own motion that the UN move “effectively lends legitimacy to efforts by the Palestinian Authority to impose its own solution through international organizations,” and served as “an obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace.” That number included 109 Democrats, more than half the party’s delegation. Parallel legislation has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Ben Cardin (D – Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and committee member Marco Rubio (R – Fla.). Cardin made clear when introducing his resolution that “Congress will take action against efforts at the UN or beyond that use Resolution 2334 to target Israel.”

Such actions may already be underway in New York: On Christmas Eve, the UN General Assembly quietly authorized funding to create a database of companies that do business in areas Israel captured in 1967, which some observers worry could be used to form a “blacklist.” The action was predicted by former Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, who wrote in Newsweek last week that Resolution 2334 would not only make peace “ever more remote,” but would likely lead to boycotts of Israel and of companies that do business there.

Northwestern University law professor Eugene Kontorovich argued in The Washington Post on Monday that the United States could take action to ensure that efforts to target Israeli actions beyond mere condemnations are unsuccessful. For example, Congress could defund the UN, or at least its agencies that continually target Israel. It could also strengthen anti-boycott language in trade legislation to extend protections to all territories where Israel currently has jurisdiction.

The House vote exposed the growing distance between President Barack Obama and congressional Democratic leaders when it comes to Israel—among those who condemned Obama’s decision to abstain from the UN vote was Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who will be the most powerful Democrat in Washington at the end of Obama’s term. Josh Kraushaar of National Journal wrote in late December that the Obama administration’s abstention “put his party in an even deeper hole” politically after November’s crushing presidential loss. Given that that polling shows that the moderate voters that Democrats need to win elections have much more sympathy for Israel than the Palestinians, Obama’s failure to protect Israel at the UN “underscored how out-of-step his views are from the rest of the country—and on this issue, even with his own party.”

Kraushaar described how the abstention was received last month:

Jew­ish groups across the ideo­lo­gic­al spec­trum cri­ti­cized the de­cision in harsh terms, while even dovish Demo­crats such as Ohio’s Sher­rod Brown dis­tanced them­selves from the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ac­tion. Former DNC chair­wo­man Debbie Wasser­man Schultz, who sup­por­ted Obama’s con­tro­ver­sial Ir­an nuc­le­ar deal, called the U.N. res­ol­u­tion an “ir­re­spons­ible ac­tion [that] moves us fur­ther away from peace and hastens the like­li­hood that we lose the trust of our al­lies around the world.” She called the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ab­sten­tion “reck­less.”

In short, he wrote, “Obama’s clashes with Israel over the Iran nuclear deal and set­tle­ments have turned the lib­er­al wing of his party against Is­rael, but he hasn’t been suc­cess­ful in per­suad­ing any­one else to fol­low suit.”

Esta semana en noticias iraní-sudamericanas

Iran has been handed a setback in Argentina, as an investigation has been reopened to examine whether former Argentine president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner partnered with the Islamic Republic to cover up its role in the deadly 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. The accusation against Kirchner was originally made by prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who was found dead with a gunshot wound to his head hours before he was set to present his evidence to a closed session of Congress.

The reopening of the investigation means that “a glimmer of hope in the fight against Iranian-backed terrorism shone forth from Argentina during the final days of 2016,” Tower senior editor Ben Cohen wrote. He added that “the Iranian mullahs and their Hezbollah auxiliaries have escaped justice for more than 20 years,” and so the reopening of the case potentially means that “Argentina’s courts are once again in a position to convict the Iranians for the unpunished crime of the AMIA bombing.”

“While opening an investigation into Nisman’s complaint is an important step forward, it’s unclear whether Argentina’s judicial system will be able to investigate the case without a high degree of politicized partiality,” cautioned Toby Dershowitz, vice president for government relations and strategy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Still, the new investigation means that “those who engaged in an effort to cover up the role of the Iranian perpetrators of the AMIA bombing will hopefully no longer be able to hide from scrutiny.”

While Iran may be losing influence in Argentina, its designs on Venezuela received a boost this week when embattled president Nicholas Maduro appointed Tareck El Aissami to be his vice president. While serving as interior minister under Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez, El Aissami reportedly participated in a program to provide Syrian terrorists with Venezuelan passports. Joseph Humire, the founder of the Center for a Secure Free Society, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2015 that El Aissami “developed a sophisticated, multi-layered financial network that functions as a criminal-terrorist pipeline bringing militant Islamists into Venezuela and surrounding countries, and send[s] illicit funds and drugs from Latin America to the Middle East….This network became integrated with the larger Ayman Joumaa moneylaundering network that used the Lebanese Canadian Bank to launder hundreds of million of dollars and move multi-ton shipments of cocaine on behalf of Colombian and Mexican drug cartels as well as Hezbollah.” Al Aissami was described in a 2014 Wall Street Journal article as someone who could give Iran greater access to Venezuela.

Driving on Air? An Uplifting Story

One of the advantages of working at a daily news blog is getting to see a story develop over time. There are downsides to that perspective too: Political stories often take a while to unfold and aren’t always cheery. But technology stories are often impressive. This week, it was reported that the Cormorant, a “flying car” drone designed to operate in urban areas, recently completed its first successful flight. The drone, made by the Israeli company Urban Aeronautics, has been in development for some time now: The Tower reported on an earlier iteration of the Cormorant three years ago. That vehicle, called the Air Mule, could only hover.

Urban Aeronautics founder and CEO Rafi Yoeli has registered 39 patents related to the development of the Cormorant, which he sees as having potential to help clean up toxic sites. It could be used on battlefields as a safer way to retrieve wounded soldiers, and its internal rotor could give it advantages in urban settings, where it could operate without fears of striking power lines or buildings. Yoeli hopes to have the drone ready for market in three years time. Given the progress made in the past three years, that seems quite doable.

Feature: Israel’s Coming Chemical Weapons Crisis

Israel has been very clear that it will not allow Hezbollah to acquire chemical weapons or other “game-changing” arms. But now, due to weaknesses in the agreement that was supposed to rid the Syrian regime of its chemical weapons stockpiles, Israel now faces a possible WMD threat on its northern border.

Shortly after the deal was agreed to, Neri Zilber wrote, “reports surfaced in April 2014 that the Assad regime was, contrary to the deal, hiding parts of its chemical weapons stockpile as a deterrent against rebel forces.” And while Secretary of State John Kerry proclaimed in the middle of 2014 that Syria was free of chemical weapons, he also acknowledged that there remained “important questions with regard to discrepancies and omissions.”

The weakness of the chemical deal hasn’t only given Hezbollah access to the deadly stockpiles; there is evidence that ISIS has been using the proscribed weapons in the battlefield. In late November, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, the local ISIS affiliate on the Golan border with Israel, fired on an Israeli position for the first time (albeit with conventional weapons). Zilber wrote that while no IDF soldiers were injured and the terrorists were killed the attack, the event “did mark a watershed” and “goes some way toward explaining why the use of chemical weapons in Iraq by ISIS made it into the IDF’s annual summary a few weeks later.”

The presumption that Israel was safe from chemical weapons attacks is, Zilber wrote, one of the Syrian civil war’s “expanding list of losses.”

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Three Big Questions

Earlier this week, Arab separatists announced that they had blown up two Iranian oil pipelines. The group, which calls themselves the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz, represents the persecuted ethnic Arab minority that lives in Iran’s southwest region. The attacks followed a report last month by Jonathan Spyer and Benjamin Weinthal in The American Interest that Iran has increased its oppression of its Kurdish minority. These are the latest manifestations of what Iranian writers Sohram Ahmari and Peter Kohanloo termed the regime’s efforts “to downgrade – even erase – the country’s diverse identities.” To what degree do the emerging ethnic tensions threaten the viability of the increasingly oppressive Iranian regime?

In a valedictory press conference covering his tenure as Secretary of State, Kerry claimed that President Obama did not backtrack on his “red line” to bomb the Assad regime if it used chemical weapons against civilians, because the idea that the United States would use deadly force in that scenario was just a “perception.” “The perception hurt, but the perception came about despite the fact that we actually got a far better result of getting all of the weapons of mass destruction of Syria without dropping a bomb,” he said. The respected Israeli researcher Ely Karmon’s observed in 2015 that the chemical weapons deal meant that “the political need to get Mr. Assad to hand over his declared stockpile took precedence over keeping the regime honest.” The failure to fully reckon with unsecured chemical weapons stockpiles may have lead to ISIS obtaining them, as Zilber reported. Did a similar dynamic, in which America prioritized a deal over enforcing a WMD threat, take place during the nuclear negotiations with Iran? This question is especially pertinent given that we now know that secret side deals effectively allowed Iran to violate the terms of the deal without consequence.

North Korea announced this week that it was in an advanced stage of developing a nuclear-capable Intercontinental Ballistic Missile that could reach the United States. This came a few days after a satellite picture showed a Korean ballistic missile silo that appeared to be very similar to one located in Iran, suggesting that the two rogue states are collaborating on illicit nuclear weapon research, as has long been suggested. Could Iran be avoiding violating the terms of the nuclear deal by farming out the research to its partner in nuclear crime?

[Photo: soccerdhg / Flickr ]