February 10, 2017

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IRAN

● Iranians began a nationwide celebration Friday to commemorate the 38th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution with rallies around the country.  Most mainstream US media outlets are focusing on demonstrators in Tehran chanting slogans against the US and Israel.  According to the New York Times, however, the stacks of posters handed out by state organizations have largely avoided mentions of American President Donald Trump.  Anti-American slogans, usually printed in English during past anniversaries for the international news media to see, were mostly in Persian.  Several photographs have surfaced from the celebration showing Iranians carrying signs that read, “Thanks to American people for supporting Muslims,” a reference to American protesters who oppose Trump’s travel ban.  The Times noted, too, that there were no missiles on display, as had been customary in previous years, to show off Iran’s military prowess.

● House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) announced the Committee will convene a hearing entitled “Iran on Notice” next Thursday to examine the future of US policy toward Iran, coming as the White House considers a possible terrorist designation for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.  Earlier in the week, Fox News reported that Iran pulled one of its missiles from its launchpad after preparing it for launch.  Satellite images confirmed by US officials show that the Safir missile reached and then left the pad, but it is currently unclear why Iran chose to remove the missile.  The Pentagon has been concerned about Iran’s Safir program because the rockets use the same components as those found in an intercontinental ballistic missile.  President Trump has reprimanded Iran for its latest missile test and threatened further sanctions on Tehran, stating that the country is “playing with fire.”

-On Tuesday, Iran’s Ayatollah said President Trump’s rise has exposed “corruption in the US ruling system” and shown “the real face of America.” Speaking to a gathering of military leaders in Tehran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Trump’s election confirmed Iran’s longstanding animosity toward the US.  “We are thankful to [Trump] for making our life easy as he showed the real face of America,” Khamenei said, according to Reuters.  “During his election campaign and after that, he confirmed what we have been saying for more than 30 years about the political, economic, moral and social corruption in the US ruling system,” he added.

ISIS

● Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top US commander of the coalition fighting ISIL, said Wednesday the campaigns to liberate both Raqqa and Mosul should be complete within six months.  Iraqi forces, backed by the US-led coalition, have been fighting to retake Mosul since October.  They’ve fully retaken the portion of the city east of the Tigris River, but the western portion remains under ISIL control.  Townsend also said Wednesday he expects operations to retake western Mosul to begin “in the next few days.”  Mosul has been held by ISIL since 2014 and is the terror group’s last urban center in Iraq.  Meanwhile, in Raqqa, the Syrian Democratic Forces have been working to seclude the city since November, with US support.  A spokesman for the US-led coalition said Wednesday he expects Raqqa to be isolated “within the next few weeks.”

TURKEY

● CIA Director Mike Pompeo arrived in Turkey Thursday for a working visit hailed in the Turkish media as a new page in the country’s acrimonious relations with the United States; this was Pompeo’s first overseas visit.  The pair is expected to have discussed security issues, including Turkey’s fight against a movement led by a US-based cleric accused of orchestrating a failed military coup.  The Turkish press’s optimistic coverage of the meeting reflects Turkish hopes that Trump will respond positively to its demands to abandon the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as its premier partner in the fight against ISIL in Syria and to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based Turkish imam who is seen as the mastermind of the failed July 15 coup.

● President Trump spoke with Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan on Tuesday, reaffirming support for Turkey as “a strategic partner and NATO ally,” according to the White House.  The White House said the two spoke about “the close, long-standing relationship” between the two countries “and their shared commitment to combatting terrorism in all its forms.”  According to a readout of the call, Trump told Erdoğan that the US “welcomed Turkey’s contributions” in the fight against ISIL.  Trump, who called NATO obsolete during the campaign, spoke with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Sunday and is slated to join a meeting of NATO leaders in May.

ISRAEL

● An official speaking on the condition of anonymity says Palestinian intelligence chief Majed Faraj has met with US security officials in the first meetings between the Palestinians and the Trump administration.  The Palestinian leadership has tried unsuccessfully to reach out to President Trump and feared the possibility of being sidelined as the administration embraces Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will meet with Trump next week.  A strong relationship with the United States has historically been key to the Palestinian strategy for statehood.

● Israel’s Parliament passed a controversial law on Monday that would retroactively legalize Jewish settlements on privately owned Palestinian land, despite the likelihood that the country’s high court will nullify the decidedly right-wing legislation.  Critics say this was was a defining and disheartening moment in Israel’s increasingly distant relations with Palestinians.  While polls show that most Israelis still support a two-state solution, their leaders and the reality of what is happening are consistently heading in the opposite direction.  PM Netanyahu and the right, both supporters and opponents, have reportedly taken into account that they have more leeway under President Trump than under President Barack Obama, who condemned settlement building.  It remains unclear, however, just how unwavering the new administration’s support is.  A clearer sense of how Mr. Trump differs from Mr. Obama and from nearly 50 years of American opposition to settlement building may emerge next week when Trump and Netanyahu meet in Washington.

YEMEN

● President Trump’s first counterterrorism offensive missed its primary target, according to a new report from NBC Nightly News.  Military and intelligence officials told NBC that the Jan. 29 raid in Yemen was aimed at taking out Qassim al-Rimi, an al Qaeda recruiter and one of the world’s most wanted terrorists.  The operation’s main goal failed, however, and the raid in Yemen has become a flashpoint of controversy.  Media accounts of the raid describe a chaotic scene in which US service members assaulted a heavily guarded compound. Some have indicated that al Qaeda operatives there were tipped off to the raid ahead of time.  One American Navy SEAL was killed and 23 civilians, many of them children were killed in the raid.

● Angry at the civilian casualties incurred in the raid, Yemen on Tuesday withdrew permission for the United States to run Special Operations ground missions against suspected terrorist groups in the country.  While the White House continues to insist that the attack was a “success” — a characterization it repeated this week — the suspension of commando operations is a setback for Trump, who has made it clear he plans to take a far more aggressive approach against Islamic militants.  It also calls into question whether the Pentagon will receive permission from the president for far more autonomy in selecting and executing its counterterrorism missions in Yemen, which it sought, unsuccessfully, from President Barack Obama in the last months of his term.

● The following day, however, Yemen backtracked on suspending US permission, as Yemeni officials find themselves caught between the public outrage at home over civilian deaths and fear of losing American counterterrorism assistance.  Officials clarified that Yemen is requesting a “reassessment” of last month’s American commando raid and closer coordination on future operations, but said that Yemen has not effectively suspended future raids by United States Special Operations forces.

RUSSIA

● The possibility of extending a pivotal Russia-US arms control pact is to be discussed in prospective talks with Washington, the Kremlin announced Friday.  Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the prospects of extending the New START Treaty that is set to expire in 2021 will “depend on the position of our American partners” and require negotiations.  Speaking in a conference call with reporters, Peskov referenced a “certain break in dialogue on strategic security issues” during the Obama administration, and said Moscow and Washington now need “an update of information and positions.”

● On Thursday, eight Republican senators called on President Trump to take a harder line on Russia, days after the president made controversial comments defending Vladimir Putin.  They urged Mr. Trump to take steps to counter continued Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine — following the 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula — and maintain the current sanctions regime until Russia withdraws from the country.  They also called on the president not to enter into any diplomatic or military agreements with Moscow as long as Russia supports Syrian President Bashar Assad in the country’s ongoing conflict.

● In addition, there was a bipartisan agreement in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday that the legislative branch should take decisive action against Russia, even if that means circumventing the White House.  Ranking member Ben Cardin (D-MD) and several other senators advocated for recently proposed bipartisan legislation that would take decisions about Russian sanctions out of the hands of the White House at the hearing on “The United States, the Russian Federation and the Challenges Ahead.”  Cardin noted the bill is modeled on similar legislation regarding the Iran nuclear deal.

SYRIA

● Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview with Yahoo News released Friday that the United States is welcome to join the battle against “terrorists” in Syria, as long as it is in cooperation with his government and respects the country’s sovereignty.  Mr. Assad said he has not had any communication, direct or indirect, with US President Donald Trump or any official from the new administration, but the Syrian leader appeared to make a gesture to the new US president in the interview, saying he supports Mr. Trump’s declaration that he will make it a priority to fight terrorism

● A goal Assad said he also shares.  However, Assad’s government has labelled all armed opposition to his rule, including the US-backed rebels, as “terrorists.”

UNITED STATES

● President Trump’s advisers are considering an order that would designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization.  Trump administration officials told the New York Times Tuesday the measure would also list Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its Quds Force as terror groups.  Leaders of both entities already appear on a government terrorism list, but Republicans want to add the IRGC itself as a message to Tehran.  The Iran clause has strong backing in the White House, while the Muslim Brotherhood suggestion is less favored.  The National Security Council and career State Department officials have issued caution on the proposed measure, arguing it lacks a legal basis and could adversely impact US relations in the Middle East.

● A federal appeals court panel on Thursday ruled to maintain the freeze on President Trump’s controversial immigration order, meaning that previously barred refugees and citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries can continue entering the United States.  The judges concluded there is no legal basis for the president’s executive order, writing “The Government has pointed to no evidence that any alien from any of the countries named in the Order has perpetrated a terrorist attack in the United States.  Rather than present evidence to explain the need for the Executive Order, the Government has taken the position that we must not review its decision at all. We disagree, as explained above.”