January 13, 2017

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Iran

● A US Navy ship fired warning shots at Iranian boats on Sunday in international waters near the Strait of Hormuz, a Pentagon official said.  Four Iranian speed boats with weapons approached a destroyer — the USS Mahan — at high rates of speed, coming within 900 yards, Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis reported. The Mahan used radio calls, flares and other signals to steer the ships away, but there was no response. A US helicopter overhead also dropped smoke grenades. Finally, the US ship fired three warning shots. After those shots, the Iranian ships, belonging to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy, stopped their approach. The US navy has had confrontations with Iranian naval forces in the Gulf, but they do not usually reach the point of prompting warning shots. In September, President-elect Donald Trump said any Iranian vessels harassing the US navy in the Gulf would be “shot out of the water.”
● On Tuesday, Iran pledged to take steps that would push its stockpile of enriched uranium far below the 300-kilogram cap established in the 2015 nuclear agreement, potentially eliminating one flashpoint over the deal. Iran agreed to this after discussions in Vienna Tuesday with the six powers that reached the nuclear agreement. The meeting is expected to be the last in which the Obama administration will participate before President-elect Donald Trump takes office on Jan. 20. The outgoing administration has been looking for ways to bolster the nuclear accord ahead of Trump’s inauguration. Western officials have also stated that Iran has come very close to reaching its 300-kilogram cap on the amount of enriched uranium allowed in the country in recent weeks.

Israel

● Republican Senators Lindsey Graham (SC) and Ted Cruz (TX) introduced legislation on Thursday that would cut off funding to the United Nations in retaliation for the recent resolution denouncing Israeli settlements. The bill would stop the flow of funds until the president confirms the repeal of a UN Security Council resolution that called Israel’s expansion into Palestinian territories a violation of international law. Sen. Cruz said President Obama “betrayed decades of robust bipartisan American support for Israel” by having his administration abstain from voting on the resolution rather than vetoing it. Sen. Graham, who oversees funding for the State Department and foreign operations, called the vote “a slap” against the Middle East ally. “I begged the UN months before, don’t put me in this box. This was John Kerry and Obama taking a slap at Israel,” Graham said. The House passed a resolution on a 342-80 vote last week denouncing the Security Council vote. The Senate has introduced its own resolution, which is backed by 68 senators, though it hasn’t come up for a vote yet.

● President-elect Donald Trump may soften his pledge to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. During the campaign, Mr. Trump vowed to move the US embassy — a move frequently promised by US presidents, but one with potentially fraught international implications.

In the short term, Trump’s transition team has instead suggested temporarily splitting America’s diplomatic presence in Israel between both

cities, CNN reported Tuesday. Under this plan, Trump’s ambassador to Israel would live and work in the US consulate in Jerusalem.

Russia

● On Thursday, American soldiers rolled into Poland, fulfilling a wish some Poles have had since the fall of communism in 1989: to have US troops on their soil as a deterrent against Russia. Some people waved and held American flags as US troops in tanks and other vehicles crossed into southwestern Poland from Germany and headed toward Zagan, where they will be based. Poland’s prime minister and defense minister will welcome them in an official ceremony Saturday. The US and other Western nations have carried out exercises on NATO’s eastern flank in past years, but the new deployment — which includes some 3,500 U.S. troops — marks the first-ever continuous deployment to the region by a NATO ally. It is part of a larger commitment by President Barack Obama to protect a region that grew anxious when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and then began backing separatist rebels in Ukraine’s east.

● In response to this move, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman on Thursday said that US military assets in Poland are a threat to “our interests and our security.” “It’s a third country that is building up its military presence on our borders in Europe,” Dmitry Peskov told the BBC. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Mechkov also blasted Obama’s policy, claiming that such a move is a “factor destabilizing European security.”

● The Obama administration has also been at odds with Russia over how to resolve Syria’s conflict. Incoming President Donald Trump has indicated he might distance the US from Syria’s rebels, bringing Washington in closer alignment with Moscow. Trump wrote on Twitter Saturday that he would strive to build good relations with Russia, and “perhaps, work together to solve many of the great and pressing problems and issues of the WORLD!” Asked about the comments, Assad said warmer relations between Washington and Moscow “reflects positively on the Syrian conflict.”

Syria

● The Obama administration tightened sanctions against the Syrian regime Thursday in response to reports by international monitors that forces loyal to President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons in 2014 and 2015. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons,” said Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council. “The Assad regime’s barbaric continued attacks demonstrate its willingness to defy basic standards of human decency, its international obligations, and longstanding global norms,” he added. Though the United States has sanctioned Syria in the past , the sanctions announced Thursday are the first leveled against Syria for its use of chemical weapons.

● United States commandos carried out a raid against ISIL fighters in eastern Syria over the weekend, two American officials said on Monday. At least 25 fighters were killed in the two-hour raid in al-Kubar, a village in Deir al-Zour Province, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. American military officials in Washington and at the United States Central Command in Tampa, Florida declined early Monday to confirm any details of the operation, including who or what was targeted. “No big deal, normal business,” said one military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because details of the operation had not yet been made public.

Turkey

● Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday he believed relations with Washington would improve under President-elect Donald Trump and that the two NATO allies would reach an easier consensus on regional issues. Ties between the United States and Turkey — which has the second largest army in the NATO alliance and is key to the US-led fight against ISIL — have deteriorated quickly since the failed military coup in July. Ankara has also long been perturbed by US support for a Kurdish militia group fighting ISIL in Syria, as Turkey sees the group as an extension of the PKK. “I believe we will accelerate dialogue when Mr Trump takes office,” Erdogan told a conference of Turkish ambassadors. “I believe we will reach a consensus with Mr. Trump, particularly on regional issues,” he added. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the envoys he believed Trump would not make what he called the same mistakes as the outgoing US administration.