Western officials dismiss Saudi claims that Yemen’s Houthis have close ties to Iran

Bloomberg reports: European leaders are signaling to Riyadh that patience with its three-week offensive — joined by nine mostly Sunni Muslim nations with the stated aim of restoring to power a legitimate, ousted government — is starting to wear thin. Yemen’s disintegration can only be prevented by negotiations between its competing factions, they say.

“The prospect of a military solution to the Yemen problem isn’t foreseen by anybody,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Wednesday after meeting his counterparts from the Group of Seven nations in the German port city of Luebeck. He said all G7 ministers called for a return to dialogue.

There are already indications that al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen is gaining from the conflict. The group and allied fighters on Thursday seized control of an airport and oil export terminal around the town of Mukalla, which they captured this month, according to a local tribal leader.

The Houthis have been fighting against al-Qaeda for years, and say that Yemen’s government, counted by the U.S. as an ally against the jihadists, has been tacitly aiding them.

Secretary of State John Kerry and other top U.S. officials have accused Iran of providing military and financial support to the Houthis in an effort to expand its influence, American and European intelligence officers and diplomats following the issue closely say the Islamic Republic’s support is limited.

The Houthis are not aligned with the Iranian brand of Shiite Islam, two U.S. officials who requested anonymity to be critical of higher-ranking colleagues, pointed out. The group has no allegiance to Iranian leaders in Tehran or top clerics in the holy city of Qom, two European officials said.

The Houthis are fighting largely with small arms and light weapons they’ve had for years or seized from U.S.-backed Yemeni forces, according to one American official. They are not reliant on Iranian arms, money, intelligence or direction to nearly the degree that Hezbollah in Lebanon, some Shiite militias in Iraq or the Syrian government are, the official said. [Continue reading…]

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Nuclear deal may open door to detente with Iran

Adm. Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, writes: Powerful factions in the leadership remain deeply suspicious of the West and even of this agreement, believing that the international community is only interested in regime change, and that only through geopolitical adventurism and the projection of power can the regime be sustained. Failure of the negotiating process will only reinforce their hand.

Iranian reformists, on the other hand, support a nuclear deal because it would be a first step in the evolution they would like to see. But its successful enactment would just be the opening salvo in a struggle between these two visions of Iran. Much will depend on President Rouhani’s ability to continue satisfying the electorate’s demand for change. The next showdown will come when a group of elders charged with selecting the next Supreme Leader get elected next winter. The third showdown comes with Parliamentary balloting in the spring of 2016, with the final showdown being the Presidential election in 2017.

Which of these two visions wins out will become clear over the next several years and will have tremendous repercussions for the future of the Middle East. It might also have tremendous repercussions for American foreign policy, pushing open a door which has remained closed for more than 35 years. Exposure to the Iranian people, and their exposure to us, may yield new opportunities to discourage Iranian support for terrorist groups and other abusive regimes where they exercise influence. It would also more fairly rebalance American influence. We need to re-examine all of the relationships we enjoy in the region, relationships primarily with Sunni-dominated nations. Detente with Iran might better balance our efforts across the sectarian divide. [Continue reading…]

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How could crimes that don’t warrant a life sentence justify a death sentence?

Conor Friedersdorf writes: Some of the most powerful people in the U.S. government wanted to kill Mohanad Mahmoud Al Farekh. The military, the CIA, and an influential Republican member of Congress all argued that a drone should be sent to kill the American.

Now he is in custody.

And if convicted of all charges that he faces, he’ll get a maximum of 15 years in prison–the same sentence that a brother and sister in Missouri got for growing marijuana.

How can a person narrowly escape extrajudicial assassination, get extradited to the United States, appear inside our judicial system, and face just 15 years in prison? Powerful people were prepared to end his life, but the extent of what they’re willing to prove beyond a reasonable doubt wouldn’t even draw a life sentence. [Continue reading…]

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Pakistan could end up charging CIA officials with murder over drone strikes

Time: A landmark case may open the door for a possible multibillion-dollar class-action lawsuit launched by relatives of the alleged 960 civilian victims of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan

A senior judge in Pakistan has ordered police to formally investigate former CIA agents for allegedly authorizing a 2009 drone strike.

If the case moves forward, it may subject the U.S. embassy in Islamabad to sensitive police investigations and even result in U.S. citizens for the first time being charged with murder for covert drone strikes in the South Asian nation.

Last Tuesday, the Islamabad High Court ordered police to open a criminal case against former CIA Islamabad Station Chief Jonathan Bank and ex-CIA legal counsel John A. Rizzo for murder, conspiracy, terrorism and waging war against Pakistan.

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Congress can’t stop Iran sanctions unraveling

Barbara Slavin writes: For months now, Russia has been a constructive member of the international consortium negotiating with Iran, often proposing creative fixes to technical hurdles.

But this week, just as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was taking up sensitive Iran-related legislation, Russia announced that it was going forward with an old contract to sell Iran an air defense missile system that could make it less vulnerable to foreign attack.

The deal to supply the S-300 is not illegal under UN sanctions, which prohibit selling offensive heavy weaponry to Iran. The message the Kremlin is sending is that Russia is not willing to wait for the conclusion of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program to lock in the benefits of resumed trade with the Islamic Republic.

It is unfortunate that the government of Vladimir Putin didn’t wait a few months longer. Critics of the Iran deal have been quick to pounce on the announcement as proof that the Barack Obama administration was somehow duped by Moscow and that the Iran framework so laboriously negotiated over the past 13 months is a “sucker’s deal.”

A more insightful way to read Russia’s act is to see it as a recognition of reality that the elaborate web of multilateral sanctions imposed on Iran over the past five years is unraveling and only an egregious Iranian effort to break out and build a nuclear weapon could arrest that momentum. [Continue reading…]

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Mohamed Soltan — an American citizen abandoned by President Obama

In an open letter to President Obama on his 26th birthday, November 16, 2013, Mohamed Soltan wrote from a cell in Cairo’s infamous Tora Prison:

Dear President Obama,

Last week, I underwent a procedure to remove two 13” metal nails that were placed in my left arm to help support and repair the damage sustained from a gunshot wound I suffered at the hands of Egyptian security forces. The bullet that punctured my arm was paid for by our tax dollars. I was forced to undergo this procedure without any anesthesia or sterilization because the Egyptian authorities refused to transfer me to a hospital for proper surgical care.

Mohamed-SoltanAfter the nails penetrated the skin at my elbow from below, and ripped through my shoulder muscle from above. The doctor who performed this procedure is a cellmate. He used pliers and a straight razor in lieu of a scalpel. I laid on a dirty mat as my other cellmates held me down to ensure I did not jolt from the pain and risk permanent loss of feeling and function in that arm. The pain was so excruciating, it felt like my brain could explode at any given point. I was finally given two aspirin pills almost an hour later when the guards found my cellmates screams for help unbearable.

I share these details here because my mind drifted to 2007 as I stared at the ceiling of my cramped cell after surgery. During your first presidential campaign, I was moved by your message. I was so passionate about everything you represented. Finally, “change we can believe in.” I saw you, as many Americans did then, a true civil servant looking to put the disadvantaged first, and to pioneer a new model of governance. I felt I was part of the making of a great chapter in my country’s history. You were someone I wanted to stand behind, someone I wanted to support, so I volunteered and worked for your campaign in Ohio, a crucial swing state. As an O.S.U. student, I went door-to-door, made phone call after phone call, urged people to join the movement that would revolutionize American politics. It was time to go back to a government “for the people, of the people.”

Now as I sit in this crowded cell, I can’t help but ask myself, was I naïve to think you were a departure from the norm? As domestic and foreign policies I disagreed with passed during your terms, I chalked it up to the negative consequence of bipartisanship, but now after months of being held without cause in Egypt’s infamous prisons and so little [regard for] my Americanness, let alone humanity, shown, I am beginning to think I was just another silly, idealistic college kid who believed the world can look a whole lot different, with a leader such as yourself at the head of it.

Your abandonment of me, an American citizen who worked tirelessly towards your election, and a staunch supporter and defender of your presidency, has left a sting in me that is almost as intense as the sharp pain emanating from my recently sliced arm.

Last weekend Soltan was sentenced to life imprisonment:

An Egyptian court on Saturday sentenced an American citizen, Mohamed Soltan, to life imprisonment for supporting an Islamist protest against the military ouster of President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in the summer of 2013.

The presiding judge, Mohammed Nagi Shehata, sentenced more than 35 other defendants in the case to the same penalty and also confirmed death sentences in the same case for about a dozen defendants, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s top spiritual guide, Mohamed Badie, 71, as well as Mr. Soltan’s father, Salah Soltan.

Gehad el-Haddad, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, was also sentenced to life in prison. Members of the Soltan family have said they will appeal the decision, and other defendants are expected to appeal as well.

The verdict is the latest in a long series of similarly harsh sentences handed down at mass trials of dozens or hundreds of defendants accused of participating in violent protests or riots in the aftermath of the military takeover, often based on only police testimony or cursory evidence. Thousands more remain imprisoned without convictions. The sweeping penalties have drawn outraged denunciations from rights groups and milder rebukes from Western diplomats.

But the case of the younger Mr. Soltan, 27, is exceptional because he is an American citizen.

The verdict comes just days after President Obama released hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid for Egypt that had previously been suspended in response to the military takeover and subsequent repression.

The White House released a brief statement:

The United States condemns the life sentence issued today in Egypt against American citizen Mohamed Soltan. We call for Mr. Soltan’s immediate release from prison. We remain deeply concerned about Mr. Soltan’s health, which has suffered during his 20 month-long incarceration. The President is deeply committed to the welfare of all U.S. citizens abroad and we will ensure that Mr. Soltan continues to receive consular support until he can return safely to the United States, per his wishes.

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Why won’t Obama help my Syrian Christian family?

Hadil Kouki writes: In 2011, I was one of a group that dreamed about living under the shadow of freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Unfortunately, a dream does not always come true. Mine turned into a nightmare, as I spent 40 days in prison because of a dream.

I was 19 years of age, a law student at the University of Aleppo. In early March 2011, before anyone had marched against the dictator in Syria, I was sneaking with my friends from one venue to another distributing flyers that called on Syrians to march in the street for their freedom. As a result, my freedom was taken a few hours after that. I was tortured and placed in solitary confinement. I had no access to a lawyer and denied the right of visitation. My family was almost mourning me until a Syrian Secret Service patrol forced me out of my cell to direct them to my apartment in Aleppo. There I made sure to be seen by a man who knew my family, who later told them that he saw me with the “Visitors of the Night,” as we call them in Syria.

In prison I was denied all of my basic needs. I was denied any products for hygiene, and the cell was rotten and full of rodents. I said to myself, “How foolish you are; freedom, liberty, and pursuit of happiness? Are you getting all of that in this cell now?” Yes, this is Syria. [Continue reading…]

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Iranian president: We are in talks with ‘the major powers,’ not the U.S. Congress

The Washington Post reports: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday that Tehran was negotiating a comprehensive nuclear deal with world powers, not the U.S. Congress, and called a Senate committee’s vote to give Congress the power to review any potential deal a domestic U.S. matter.

The Iranian leader, speaking in a televised speech in the northern Iranian city of Rasht, also repeated earlier statements that his country will not accept any comprehensive nuclear deal with world powers unless all sanctions imposed against it are lifted.

“We are in talks with the major powers and not with the Congress,” Rouhani said, Iranian state television reported. Rouhani said the U.S. Congress’ power to review a nuclear deal with Iran was a domestic U.S. matter, the Reuters news agency reported.

He said Iran wanted to end its isolation from the world by constructing “constructive interaction with the world and not confrontation.”

Rouhani’s comments came one day after a Senate committee voted unanimously to give Congress the power to review a potential Iran nuclear deal after a June 30 negotiating deadline, in a compromise with the White House that allows President Obama to avoid possible legislative disapproval of the pact before it can be completed. [Continue reading…]

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Why has Russia lifted its ban on delivery of S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Iran?

The Wall Street Journal reports: The Kremlin lifted its self-imposed ban on the delivery of a powerful missile air-defense system to Iran on Monday, stoking sharp criticism from the White House and Israel and casting fresh doubt on the international effort to curb Tehran’s nuclear program.

U.S. lawmakers seized on Moscow’s announcement Monday to warn Russia was among a host of foreign countries using the prospect of a nuclear deal to begin seeking out lucrative business deals that could bolster Iran’s military and economy.

Any delivery of an air-defense system would complicate airstrikes on Iranian nuclear facilities by Israel or the U.S. should the diplomatic track fail.

Iran thinks that Russia will deliver the missile system this year, Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, told the Interfax news agency in Moscow on Tuesday.

The U.S. Senate is set to vote this week on legislation that would provide Congress with the power to approve, amend or kill any agreement that seeks to curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for a lifting of international sanctions.

Supporters of the bill, Republican and Democrat, said Russia’s lifting of its ban on the S-300 surface-to-air missile system could be just the beginning of countries testing the sanctions regime and a United Nations arms embargo on Iran.

“Before a final nuclear deal is even reached, [Russian President] Vladimir Putin has started to demolish international sanctions and ignore the U.N. arms embargo,” said Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.), who sponsored legislation that seeks to impose new sanctions on Iran if a final deal isn’t reached by June 30.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the defensive systems didn’t come under the U.N. arms embargo, and that Russia implemented the S-300 ban voluntarily. “This was done in the spirit of good will to stimulate progress in the negotiations,” he said, adding that it was no longer necessary.

The State Department also said that the embargo imposed on Iran in 2010 didn’t prevent the delivery of S-300s. But the White House warned that the missile system, while defensive, could enhance Iran’s ability to challenge key U.S. allies in the Middle East, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

It said that Secretary of State John Kerry raised the issue with Mr. Lavrov on Monday.

Still, the Obama administration was measured in its criticism, noting that it didn’t believe the proposed missile sale would jeopardize the nuclear negotiations. [Continue reading…]

Some analysts may interpret Putin’s move as an effort to undermine the nuclear deal with Iran, but one can argue that on the contrary, the planned delivery of S-300 missiles may make the conclusion of the deal a fait accompli.

With an elastic clock, Benjamin Netanyahu has long favored a breathless time is running out narrative when it comes to closing the door on Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

If no deal is signed and within a few months Iran’s newly-reinforced defense systems make its nuclear sites extremely difficult to attack, 2015 is probably the last year that Israel could launch or instigate air strikes on Iran. It has never been plausible that it could conduct such attacks on its own, but the timing for it to enlist the support of others has probably never been worse.

The U.S. and Iran are effectively on the same side in a war against ISIS. American forces currently in Iraq would definitely become very vulnerable if the U.S. soon started bombing Iran.

Moreover, as Yemen becomes a quagmire for Saudi Arabia, an attack on Iran would likely become the tipping point for the current matrix of regional conflicts to start hopelessly spinning out of control.

Putin’ intention in approving the delivery of S-300 missiles at this juncture might simply be to push Russia first out of the gate in the race to cash in on the rewards from the inevitable ending the economic embargo on Iran.

Those who currently argue that the framework agreement is not good enough are rapidly being confronted with the reality that either the deal gets struck by the end of June or within a fairly short period Iran will see dwindling incentives for making any deal. Time is on Iran’s side.

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Netanyahu told cabinet: Our biggest fear is that Iran will honor nuclear deal

Haaretz reports: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a recent meeting of the security cabinet that if a comprehensive nuclear agreement between Iran and the six world powers is indeed signed by the June 30 deadline, the greatest concern is that Tehran will fully implement it without violations, two senior Israeli officials said.

The meeting of the security cabinet was called on short notice on April 3, a few hours before the Passover seder. The evening before, Iran and the six powers had announced at Lausanne, Switzerland that they had reached a framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and that negotiations over a comprehensive agreement would continue until June 30.

The security cabinet meeting was called after a harsh phone call between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama over the agreement with Tehran.

The two senior Israeli officials, who are familiar with the details of the meeting but asked to remain anonymous, said a good deal of the three-hour meeting was spent on ministers “letting off steam” over the nuclear deal and the way that the U.S. conducted itself in the negotiations with Iran.

According to the two senior officials, Netanyahu said during the meeting that he feared that the “Iranians will keep to every letter in the agreement if indeed one is signed at the end of June.”

One official said: “Netanyahu said at the meeting that it would be impossible to catch the Iranians cheating simply because they will not break the agreement.” [Continue reading…]

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Saudi Arabia, Turkey discussing unlikely alliance to oust Syria’s Assad

Huffington Post reports: Turkey and Saudi Arabia, two nations with a long history of rivalry, are in high-level talks with the goal of forming a military alliance to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to sources familiar with the discussions.

The talks are being brokered by Qatar. As the partnership is currently envisioned, Turkey would provide ground troops, supported by Saudi Arabian airstrikes, to assist moderate Syrian opposition fighters against Assad’s regime, according to one of the sources.

President Barack Obama was made aware of the talks in February by the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al Thani, during the emir’s visit to the White House, one source said. A White House spokesperson declined to comment.

The administration has generally encouraged Persian Gulf countries to step up and do more on their own to promote regional security, particularly in Syria, but such talk has largely remained just talk. It’s unclear whether this case will be different, but Saudi Arabia’s recent intervention in Yemen indicates the nation is becoming bolder with its own forces, rather than relying on proxies.

Following his meeting with the emir of Qatar, Obama said that the two leaders had “shared ideas” for how to remove Assad.

“We both are deeply concerned about the situation in Syria,” Obama said. “We’ll continue to support the moderate opposition there and continue to believe that it will not be possible to fully stabilize that country until Mr. Assad, who has lost legitimacy in the country, is transitioned out.”

“How we get there obviously is a source of extraordinary challenge, and we shared ideas in terms of how that can be accomplished,” he added.

Since those remarks, the United States has continued daily airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and modest training programs for vetted members of the Syrian opposition — but has not publicly offered any strategy for how to negotiate an end to Assad’s rule. [Continue reading…]

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Obama administration still weighing merits of assassinations vs. trials

The New York Times reports: A Texas-born man suspected of being an operative for Al Qaeda stood before a federal judge in Brooklyn this month. Two years earlier, his government debated whether he should be killed by a drone strike in Pakistan.

The denouement in the hunt for the man, Mohanad Mahmoud Al Farekh, who was arrested last year in Pakistan based on intelligence provided by the United States, came after a yearslong debate inside the government about whether to kill an American citizen overseas without trial — an extraordinary step taken only once before, when the Central Intelligence Agency killed the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011.

Mr. Farekh’s court appearance also came as the Obama administration was struggling to fashion new guidelines for targeted killings. The decision to use an allied intelligence service to arrest Mr. Farekh has bolstered a case made by some that capturing — rather than killing — militant suspects, even in some of the world’s most remote places, is more feasible than the orders for hundreds of drone strikes might indicate.

“This is an example that capturing can be done,” said Micah Zenko, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations who studies counterterrorism strikes.

The Obama administration’s discussions about the fate of Mr. Farekh, who used the nom de guerre Abdullah al-Shami, began in earnest in 2012, and in the months that followed the C.I.A. and the Pentagon ramped up surveillance of his movements around Pakistani tribal areas.

Drones spotted him several times in the early months of 2013, and spy agencies used a warrant issued by the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor his communications. The Pentagon nominated Mr. Farekh to be placed on a so-called kill list for terrorism suspects; C.I.A. officials also pushed for the White House to authorize his killing. [Continue reading…]

What is left out of this analysis is consideration of the basic premise that any individual suspected terrorist can pose a national security threat.

The hysteria surrounding terrorism that has become embedded in the American worldview, presupposes that anyone who can be labelled a terrorist is inherently dangerous.

If the same line of thinking was applied across criminal law, then someone could be accused of being a murderer without committing murder.

The task of law enforcement would be to track down individuals who supposedly had a proclivity to commit crimes and could thus be convicted of being murderers, thieves, frauds, and so forth, because criminality was seen to be invested in the person rather than their actions.

This is what makes trials for terrorism difficult: prosecutors often seem to have more conviction that the accused is a terrorist than they have evidence to back up that claim.

Another issue lurking behind the Obama administration’s debate on the expediency of assassination is that the U.S. government and apparently many Americans have far fewer qualms if the targets are non-Americans.

If President Obama was to sign an executive order prohibiting the assassination of American citizens, would the ACLU commend him for doing so?

Why should the assassination of Americans be treated as a graver issue than the practice of targeted killing itself?

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GOP attempt to scuttle Obama’s Iran deal faces its own existential threats next week

Huffington Post: The fragile but growing congressional effort to bring oversight to ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran is at risk of unravelling, as lawmakers from both sides push for controversial additions to the bill.

On Tuesday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) will formally introduce legislation for markup that would grant Congress the final vote on any nuclear deal and prohibit the president from waiving economic sanctions against Iran for two months while lawmakers review the terms of the agreement.

In the days preceding the markup, senators from both parties have introduced a slew of amendments, with several Democrats seeking to strike the more contentious clauses and Republicans vying to add even more restrictive language. The addition of any one of these could convince some of the more reluctant co-sponsors to abandon ship — giving President Barack Obama the margin he needs to ensure that his veto is not overridden.

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Obama’s Arab partners don’t believe in political solutions

James Traub writes: Saudi Arabia has pulled eight other Arab nations, as well as the United States, into its air war against the Houthis. That war has thus become a prototype of a new form of collective regional action with the United States as a supporting player — precisely what Obama suggested at West Point [last year].

The administration defends the Saudis’ resort to force to stem the tide of the takeover of Yemen: The Houthis had placed Scud missiles on the border, while Iran had begun regular flights to Saada, the Houthi stronghold. But the State Department official I spoke to added that the hostilities would have to end soon in order to limit death and destruction, and to bring the Houthis to a political settlement.

There is, unfortunately, no sign that Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz agrees with that proposition. His apparent plan is to bomb the Houthis into submission. What’s more, the Saudis are new to the game of military intervention, and they seem bent on reproducing America’s worst mistakes. The air war has caused over 500 civilian deaths and an incipient humanitarian disaster; created new opportunities for al Qaeda, which has seized Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth-largest city; and done nothing to hinder the Houthis’ bid to conquer the strategic southern city of Aden. It’s not a very encouraging prototype.

The fight is only two weeks old and perhaps the tide will turn. The more lasting problem is King Salman’s idea of a political solution. Once he’s evicted the Houthis, he plans to restore to power President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was forced to flee Yemen to Saudi Arabia. But it was the Saudis who put Hadi there in the first place; so weak is his writ that his army effectively abandoned him in favor of his widely hated predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Hadi might survive, but only as a Saudi puppet. What’s more, the Houthis are not Iran’s puppets, as the Saudis insist, but a powerful indigenous force whose demands must be accommodated in a power-sharing agreement.

A comparable situation can be seen in Libya, where Egypt has given political and military support to the Tobruk government in its effort to destroy the rival government based in Tripoli. The former is avowedly “moderate,” the other “Islamist,” but these oversimplified terms disguise the reality of different regions, tribes, and ethnic groups vying for control. Again, the only lasting solution would be a political one. Yet right now the greatest obstacle to a cease-fire is the refusal of the Tobruk government to negotiate with the Islamists. The Tobruk prime minister, Abdullah al-Thinni, has demanded that the Arabs do in Libya what they’re now doing in Yemen. That would be a catastrophe.

The United States has learned the hard way that it cannot simply prop up governments seen as illegitimate by their own people; that’s why Obama has tried to condition military assistance to Iraq on political reform that offers a significant role to Sunnis. Arab autocrats do not accept this principle. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. expands intelligence sharing with Saudis in Yemen operation

Reuters reports: The United States is expanding its intelligence-sharing with Saudi Arabia to provide more information about potential targets in the kingdom’s air campaign against Houthi militias in Yemen, U.S. officials told Reuters.

The stepped-up assistance comes as two weeks of relentless air strikes by the Saudis and other Gulf Arab allies have largely failed to halt advances by the Iran-linked Houthi forces.

The U.S. officials said the expanded assistance includes sensitive intelligence data that will allow the Saudis to better review the kingdom’s targets in fighting that has killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands since March.

“We have opened up the aperture a bit wider with what we are sharing with our Saudi partners,” said one U.S. official.

“We are helping them get a better sense of the battlefield and the state of play with the Houthi forces. We are also helping identify ‘no strike’ areas they should avoid” to minimize any civilian casualties, the official said. [Continue reading…]

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As encryption spreads, U.S. grapples with clash between privacy, security

The Washington Post reports: For months, federal law enforcement agencies and industry have been deadlocked on a highly contentious issue: Should tech companies be obliged to guarantee government access to encrypted data on smartphones and other digital devices, and is that even possible without compromising the security of law-abiding customers?

Recently, the head of the National Security Agency provided a rare hint of what some U.S. officials think might be a technical solution. Why not, suggested Adm. Michael S. Rogers, require technology companies to create a digital key that could open any smartphone or other locked device to obtain text messages or photos, but divide the key into pieces so that no one person or agency alone could decide to use it?

“I don’t want a back door,” Rogers, the director of the nation’s top electronic spy agency, said during a speech at Princeton University, using a tech industry term for covert measures to bypass device security. “I want a front door. And I want the front door to have multiple locks. Big locks.”

Law enforcement and intelligence officials have been warning that the growing use of encryption could seriously hinder criminal and national security investigations. But the White House, which is preparing a report for President Obama on the issue, is still weighing a range of options, including whether authorities have other ways to get the data they need rather than compelling companies through regulatory or legislative action.

The task is not easy. Those taking part in the debate have polarized views, with advocates of default commercial encryption finding little common ground with government officials who see increasing peril as the technology becomes widespread on mobile phones and on text messaging apps. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s Supreme Leader says sanctions must lift when nuclear deal is signed

The New York Times reports: Iran’s supreme leader on Thursday challenged two of the United States’ bedrock principles in the nuclear negotiations, declaring that all economic sanctions would have to be lifted on the day any final agreement was signed and that military sites would be strictly off limits to foreign inspectors.

The assertions by the leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, could be tactical, intended to give both the negotiators and himself some political space to get Iran’s hard-liners accustomed to the framework of the nuclear deal reached a week ago with the United States and other world powers.

But they sharply illustrated the difficult hurdles that lie ahead as Secretary of State John Kerry and a large team of diplomats, energy experts and intelligence officials try to reach a June 30 deadline that would ensure that Iran could not race for a bomb for at least a decade — and would establish a permanent inspection regime to catch any cheating.

In his remarks, Ayatollah Khamenei added several stinging criticisms of Iran’s regional competitor, Saudi Arabia — calling its new leaders “inexperienced youths” — a sign of rising regional tensions that could pose another threat to the negotiations, even as diplomats strive to keep the issues on separate tracks.

King Salman, the country’s newly installed leader, is 79, though many around him are a generation younger. [Continue reading…]

Calling Saudi Arabia’s defense minister, Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud, an inexperienced youth, might be an undiplomatic yet reasonably accurate characterization of the youngest defense minister in the world. After less than three months in the position, the 34-year-old is now overseeing a war in Yemen that’s predicted to become Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam.

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Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia deepen over conflict in Yemen

The New York Times reports: Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia deepened on Thursday as Iranian leaders lashed out with rare vehemence against the continuing Saudi air campaign in Yemen, even hurling personal insults at the young Saudi prince who is leading the fight.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, on Thursday denounced the Saudi airstrikes in Yemen as “a crime” and “a genocide,” while all but taunting Saudi Arabia that its war in Yemen was doomed to fail.

A regional coalition led by Saudi Arabia extended its bombing campaign for a 16th night in its effort to stop the Houthi movement and its allies from dominating Yemen. The Houthis nonetheless continued their advance, and aid groups warned of a compounding humanitarian catastrophe, particularly in the port city of Aden.

Secretary of State John Kerry sharply warned Iran over its backing for the other side of the conflict in Yemen, in the first explicit American accusation that Tehran has been providing military aid to the Houthis.

Washington was “not going to stand by while the region is destabilized,” Mr. Kerry said in an interview with “PBS NewsHour” on Wednesday night. [Continue reading…]

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