I’m going to be out of commission most of the rest of the day, so I leave you with a short mid-day update to be continued tomorrow.
Monday morning’s missile strike against military bases near Hama and Aleppo killed at least 16 people, most of them reportedly Iranians. Casualty estimates have varied on both of these counts–the high range at this point, briefly reported by Iranian state media, is 40 with slightly fewer than half of them Iranian. There’s still no word as to who was responsible, even though pretty much everybody agrees it was Israel. The reported size of the blasts likely means the Israelis struck at least one weapons depot, presumably holding missiles of some kind. If that’s the case then the Israelis could claim pre-emptive self-defense. Though per their standard procedure it’s unlikely the Israelis will claim anything because they won’t admit to having carried out the attack.
As with every one of these Israeli strikes that kills Iranian personnel, this one will raise the specter of retaliation from Iran. The Iranians have certainly been threatening to retaliate, at the highest levels:
However, when I say that high-end casualty estimate was only “briefly” reported by Iranian state media, what I mean is that they seem to have reported it and then censored it shortly after. This suggests a desire to avoid inflaming the Iranian public such that it begins to demand retaliation. Tehran may not want to paint itself into a corner.
Elsewhere, the Syrian air force bombarded another rebel-held enclave on Monday, this one between the cities of Homs and Hama, before Damascus announced a 2-3 day ceasefire to give rebels there (largely Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) time to consider surrendering and withdrawing to Idlib. Rebels were expected to evacuate the Yarmouk pocket on Monday but I haven’t seen anything yet about their progress.
The US-led anti-ISIS coalition closed down its Iraqi headquarters on Monday, a low-key signal that it sees its operations there as having ended, at least at any significant combat level.
Hard to see how this could wind up being dangerous:
Mohammad bin Salman wants the Palestinians to take whatever they get and shut the fuck up about it:
In a closed-door meeting with heads of Jewish organizations in New York on March 27th, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) gave harsh criticism of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), according to an Israeli foreign ministry cable sent by a diplomat from the Israeli consulate in New York, as well three sources — Israeli and American — who were briefed about the meeting.
The bottom line of the crown prince’s criticism: Palestinian leadership needs to finally take the proposals it gets from the U.S. or stop complaining.
According to my sources, the Saudi Crown Prince told the Jewish leaders:
“In the last several decades the Palestinian leadership has missed one opportunity after the other and rejected all the peace proposals it was given. It is about time the Palestinians take the proposals and agree to come to the negotiations table or shut up and stop complaining.”
This is about as pure a distillation of Likudnik propaganda as you can find, and it’s coming from the heir apparent to the Saudi throne. I’d say this report could wind up hurting MBS back home, but as he also reportedly said in this talk, the Saudis don’t really care about Palestine these days in general.
So the big news of the day (at least so far) has been Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s big presentation on the Iranian government’s HUGE WHOPPING LIES about its nuclear program. All morning (Washington time) people were waiting with bated breath to see what revelations Netanyahu would make to SHATTER THE ILLUSIONS about Iran’s nuclear intentions and conclusively prove that the Iran nuclear deal is nothing but a con game covering up and rewarding Iran’s nefarious misdeeds.
Then Netanyahu delivered a 15 minute or so PowerPoint presentation that said Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons prior to 2003 and lied about it. Which is the same thing every intelligence agency in the Western world concluded a decade ago, and has been the International Atomic Energy Agency’s position since the nuclear deal was concluded. Indeed, that belief is the reason the nuclear deal exists today. Netanyahu said that Israeli intelligence has obtained thousands of pages of archives from Iran’s nuclear program, ostensibly from Iran although if I were working at the IAEA I’d start looking around for leaks right about now, and said that within those pages was proof that Iran has continued to operate a covert nuclear weapons program since the deal was reached in 2015. He offered no evidence for this claim but insisted that it’s definitely there.
Netanyahu closed by urging Donald Trump to quit the nuclear deal, and really Trump was his intended audience for this presentation, which he delivered in English so you can be fairly sure he wasn’t trying to talk to his own citizens. Netanyahu wants his remarks to be picked up by Sean Hannity tonight and Fox and Friends tomorrow morning so that he can be sure Trump will hear him and pay attention as he tries to reinforce Trump’s decision to scrap the deal. That he suddenly had to deliver this presentation right after meeting with Mike Pompeo over the weekend is, well, I don’t think you need to connect very many dots to see the picture here. Clearly Netanyahu wanted to be the last international voice in Trump’s ears after Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, and Theresa May have spent the past couple of weeks urging Trump not to abandon the agreement.
It goes without saying that this is all incoherence in service of deliberately building toward a future US-Iran military confrontation. Netanyahu’s argument is that Iran had a nuclear weapons program in the past (debatable but coincides with what Western governments all believe to be true), that they’ve retained their nuclear weapons knowledge base (which is as far as I could tell his main accusation under the “they’re violating the deal” part of his presentation), and that the only way to do something about this is to do away with the international agreement that nearly every nuclear expert and establishment national security type in Israel, Europe, and the US agrees provides a robust inspection mechanism for the international community to catch Iran if it tries to develop nukes and establishes hard limits on Iranian activities that will make any kind of nuclear breakout impossible for at least the next 10 years.
Netanyahu could have provided his bombshell new information to the IAEA and triggered the nuclear deal’s own investigative tools, but that would’ve validated the nuclear deal, so instead he delivered this very special message to an audience of one. The only way this makes sense is if he’s trying to increase the chance for an eventual war. Netanyahu and the rest of the anti-deal echo chamber will spend the next couple of weeks talking about how much they want to negotiate a new, better agreement because they’re so concerned about the possibility of war, but the fact is that no agreement will ever meet their standards. Because their goal isn’t to reach an agreement, it’s to prevent one.
Multiple attacks across Afghanistan on Monday killed at least 36 people. As I mentioned last night, there was a bombing in Kabul Monday morning. Actually it was a double bombing, with the second bomber targeting first responders and journalists who responded to the first bomb. At least 25 people were killed in the attack, which was claimed by ISIS. Nine of them were reporters, and a tenth reporter, from the BBC, was shot and killed in Khost province. In Kandahar province, a suicide bomber killed at least 11 children at a nearby religious school while attempting to attack a passing NATO convoy. Given the location the Taliban was probably behind that attack, but given that it appears to have been botched and that a school was hit instead, it’s unlikely they’ll claim responsibility for it.
National Security Advisor John Bolton apparently views Libya as the model for North Korean denuclearization. I bet Kim Jong-un does too, but not in the same way. The “Libya model” involves a complete capitulation by the Bad Guy, who agrees to give up all of his WMD on account of the United States has scared him straight or whatever. Then the US intervenes and overthrows him anyway. If Kim takes a lesson from the example of Muammar Gaddafi, then it’s probably “don’t completely give up your nukes because the US will eventually come for you no matter what.”
On the subject of small symbolic gestures between the two Koreas, in addition to the North’s decision to return to the same time zone as the South, South Korea has reportedly decided to dismantle the speakers it’s been using to broadcast propaganda messages across the border since 2016. Seoul had already suspended its propaganda broadcasts in the run up to Moon Jae-in’s meeting with Kim last week.
By a vote of 132-2, so I think they cleared any supermajority requirements, Chad’s parliament on Monday approved a new constitution that puts considerably more power in the hands of President Idriss Déby and reimposes term limits, but in a way that will allow Déby to conceivably remain in office until 2033. He will have been president for 43 years at that point, and something tells me that if the then-80+ year old Déby wants to stick around after 2033 he’ll figure out a way to make that happen.
Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio appears to have given up on forming a new government. On Monday he called for a snap election as early as June and asked the League to help him make it happen. A new election could give the far-right League an opportunity to divest itself of the rest of its center-right coalition and thereby increase the chances of a Five Star-League coalition government. Di Maio’s chances of negotiating a coalition agreement with the center-left Democratic Party appear to be fading by the day, and if they collapse completely it’s not clear if there are any other conceivable paths to a government.
Chief European Union Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier says that Brexit talks are once again in danger of collapse over the issue of the Northern Ireland border. The UK has resisted agreeing to an EU “fallback option” that would leave Northern Ireland in the EU single market after the rest of the UK leaves, in order to prevent the reinstatement of a hard Irish land border. London wants to negotiate some other kind of arrangement, though it’s not at all clear what that could be, and while Brussels is open to that it wants agreement on a plan B for Northern Ireland if that other arrangement doesn’t materialize.
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