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Iran – On the Nuclear Threshold?

Oct 22, 2021 | AIJAC staff

Image Credit: Allexxandar, Shutterstock
Image Credit: Allexxandar, Shutterstock

Update from AIJAC

 

10/21 #03

 

This Update features comment on the increasing warnings being issued that Iran today looks dangerously close to being a nuclear threshold state, with the capability to build nuclear weapons whenever it decides to do so – what this means, and what can be done about it.

We lead with two top American scholars of Iran, Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh, who argue that the conventional wisdom among many that Iran will seek nuclear weapons capabilities, but not actually build such weapons, is wrong. They try to sketch the ideological nature of the regime, especially given most pragmatists have now been purged, and argue the regime relies on conspiracy theories and distrust of the rest of the world. They predict that this regime will build a bomb as soon as it is able, given its worldview, and attempt to justify it afterwards. For their fascinating argument in full,  CLICK HERE. Interestingly, Takeyh has a separate piece in which he argues that the Iranians will indeed build nuclear weapons, but the outcome will be totally counter-productive for the regime.

Next up is Israeli security reporter Yaakov Lappin, who outlines the worrying implications of the latest announcements about uranium enrichment by the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation. He notes there are exactly three proposed options for dealing with it – a return to the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal, a campaign of economic, diplomatic and military pressure to get a better deal, and, as a last resort, a military strike, probably by Israel. Lappin discusses the problems with the first two as well as Israel’s preparations for this last resort option. He suggests that, despite its bravado, Teheran has been shown to be quite wary of getting involved in conventional state-to-state war, so may well be convinced to change course by a credible Israeli military threat. For all the details, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, arguing the US should be providing Israel with the military means for a successful strike on Iran if necessary is former senior US official John Hannah.

Finally, two other Iran experts, Wang Xiyue (who was also a hostage in Iran for three years) and Behnam Ben Taleblu, examine Iranian statements and actions since the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, to gauge how this has affected Teheran’s approach to nuclear negotiations. They see clear signs that Iran has drawn the lesson that the US is desperate to withdraw from the region, is in decline, and will not put up a fight if Iran moves ahead on the nuclear front – and is upping its nuclear demands accordingly. They insist it is essential for the US Biden Administration to now work closely with regional allies and partners to reverse this impression if there is to be any hope of getting any sort of reasonable nuclear deal with Teheran before it is too late. Their complete argument is HERE.

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Iran Won’t Stop Until It Has a Nuclear Weapon

Khamenei and his regime haven’t gone to all this trouble merely to become a ‘threshold state.’

By Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh

Wall Street Journal, Oct. 19, 2021


Iran is led by an “ardent Ideological regime” dominated by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – who has purged all pragmatists from the leadership. The regime’s worldview will lead it to actually build nuclear weapons, the authors argue. (Photo: Farzad Frames, Shutterstock)

It is a common hope within Washington’s foreign-policy establishment that no matter how close Iran gets to the atomic threshold, it won’t detonate a bomb. The intelligence community claims Tehran isn’t currently taking steps to build a nuclear weapon. Many want to believe that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s fatwa against the production and use of nuclear weapons will keep Iran a threshold state. These hopes are delusional.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is led by an ardent ideological regime that frequently relies on conspiracies to explain its predicament. Leaders of the regime speak incessantly about the cabal of Zionists and Jews who control America and plot against the Islamic revolution. Mr. Khamenei and his henchmen haven’t spent billions and endured a tidal wave of sanctions and social unrest only to get close to a nuclear weapon. They will build the bomb as soon as they can and justify it afterward.

The Iranian theocracy has gradually transformed itself. Mr. Khamenei has purged the pragmatists from Iranian leadership. The reformers who rallied around Mohammad Khatami (president from 1997 through 2005) and believed the theocracy could be softened, even superannuated, through the ballot box have been banned from the corridors of power. Even conservatives who contemplated diplomatic engagement with the West to enhance the regime’s status and economic power, like former President Hassan Rouhani (2013-21) and former Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani (2008-20), are denied a seat at the table. Iran is becoming less subtle. The new president, Ebrahim Raisi, is the personification of the new elite—cruel, dogmatic and indifferent to Western sensibilities.

As the guardians of the theocracy see it, the U.S. uses institutions like the United Nations Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency to pressure regimes into submission. Nonproliferation norms and international conventions are meaningless to Tehran. As Mr. Khamenei recently said, “Whenever you made your affairs contingent on Westerners’ cooperation, you failed, and whenever you moved forward and showed initiative without trusting Westerners, you succeeded.” Iran won’t try to join a global community that is designed and run by its enemies.

Iran has other compelling reasons for developing atomic weapons. So far, the theocracy has relied on Shiite proxies and militias to project its power and influence across the Middle East in a relatively low-cost and effective way. To ensure that Iran can counter the West, Israel and the Arab Gulf States, the regime will need more weapons. Building armies, armadas and air forces is expensive and requires too much foreign input; relying on proxies against well-armed adversaries is precarious. Hegemony on the cheap can come only from the atomic bomb.

There is no longer any meaningful obstacle to the regime’s nuclear ambitions. The Biden administration is too predictable and fearful. The debacle in Afghanistan and the rhetoric about ending “forever wars” has emboldened Tehran, which now toys with the U.S. through on-and-off nuclear talks. In his truculent address to the U.N. General Assembly last month, Mr. Raisi mocked America. “From the Capitol to Kabul,” he said, “one clear message was sent to the world: The U.S. hegemonic system has no credibility, whether inside or outside the country.”


Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi is accompanied by the chief of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, Mohammad Eslami, during a visit to the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant earlier this month. (Photo: Office of the Iranian President)

Sanctions have damaged Iran’s economy, but they haven’t slaked the thirst for nuclear arms. Revolutionaries aren’t bankers; they don’t conduct cost-benefit assessments.

The notion that Israel can come to the rescue with a military strike is also doubtful. Jerusalem has had its share of tough-talking prime ministers, but so far it has relied on sabotage and targeted assassinations to stall Iran’s nuclear program. Such measures won’t alter Iran’s atomic trajectory. Tehran’s advances in centrifuge development will soon make pre-emption impossible.

No force in history has proved more powerful than self-delusion. Mr. Khamenei has already thought what the West still believes is unthinkable. He believes he is on the cusp of getting even. The White House and Congress should start thinking about what to do after Iran’s first detonation to ensure an Iranian bomb becomes a liability for the regime, not an asset.

The administration should try to marshal an international consensus against trade with Tehran by first getting the French, the European country most serious about nonproliferation, on board. Congress could pass legislation restricting access to U.S. markets for those who trade with Iran.

If nothing is done, realism and defeatism—the two often travel together—could play decisively to the regime’s advantage.

Mr. Gerecht, a former Iran targets officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Mr. Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations and the author of “The Last Shah: America, Iran and the Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty.”


Three plans to deal with Iran’s nuclear program: Which one will go into effect?

 

Iran’s uranium enrichment activities are at their most advanced stage to date, as Tehran benefits from a current status quo that lacks maximum pressure or terms associated with a new deal.

BY YAAKOV LAPPIN

JNS.org, October 21, 2021


New Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran head Mohammed Eslami has announced a major Iranian buildup in enriched uranium, signifying Iran is today closer to the bomb than ever (Photo: MEMRI).  

The freshly appointed head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Mohammad Eslami, made a significant announcement on Oct. 10.

Iran enriched more than 120 kilograms of uranium to the 20 percent level, he said—a major jump from the 84 kilograms that Iran had previously enriched a month earlier, according to the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The 120-kilogram milestone is more significant than meets the eye. While Eslami said the figure represented an objective set by the Iranian parliament that was successfully met, which it was, the number holds a far wider significance.

This quantity of enriched uranium, if further enriched to 90 percent, is almost what is required to build a single nuclear bomb.

The fact that Iran is also openly enriching other, albeit smaller quantities of uranium to the 60 percent level, as its previous announcements demonstrate, represents an abandonment by Iran of the civilian cover for its nuclear program. No non-nuclear states need to enrich uranium to the 60 percent level.

All told, this means that Iran is at its most advanced stage ever in its nuclear program, both in the amount of uranium enriched and especially at the level that some of that uranium has been enriched to (60 percent).

These developments signify a wider problem, and that is the twilight “no-man’s-land” zone that the Iranian nuclear program currently is in. On the one hand, no new or old nuclear deal has been reached since the Trump administration exited the JCPOA in 2018 unilaterally. On the other hand, the “maximum pressure” campaign that the former American administration waged on Iran is not in place either.

Although the Biden administration has not lifted sanctions on Iran, the level of enforcement has noticeably decreased, and so, too, has the discipline by members of the international deal. China is striking crude-oil deals with Iran that didn’t strike a year ago.

Absent maximum pressure and absent a deal, Iran is enjoying all of the benefits as it enriches a growing quantity of uranium.

The longer the status quo goes on, the worse the situation will become for global, regional and Israeli security.

In the meantime, Iran has increasingly limited the IAEA’s supervision capabilities. Iran is delaying its return to the nuclear talks; the last round of negotiations occurred in Vienna in June.

In several months, if no change occurs, the threshold for Israeli military action might be triggered.

All told, Iran is approximately a year-and-a-half away from having a nuclear program. While it is making major progress on developing fissile material, it has not surged on other components of the program, such as preparing an underground nuclear test, due to the fact that this would make it obvious to the entire world that a military nuclear program is breaking through to the bomb.

This would likely create a strong backlash—a development that the Iranian regime is keen to avoid. Instead, Iran retains all of the technological knowledge and personnel needed to break through, and “puts them on ice,” waiting for different timing.

Economic, diplomatic and military deterrence

Looking ahead, there appear to be three potential plans in the work to deal with this situation.

The first, “Plan A,” is the intention by the Biden administration to return to the 2015 nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

While Washington appears intent on this plan, it is almost pointless in terms of meaningfully stopping Iran’s program in light of all of the nuclear progress that Iran has made in the past 18 months.

“Plan B” would involve applying real international pressure to bring Iran back to negotiations in an authentic manner in order to strike a longer, stronger nuclear agreement. This would involve employing diplomacy, mixed with a credible military threat by both the United States and Israel.

It seems reasonable to assume that Israeli officials visiting Washington have been promoting such an approach. A better, stronger agreement would keep Iran away from nuclear weapons for decades—not just several years as the current JCPOA and its short-term sunset clauses would.

A better deal would also see Iran not only giving up its fissile material but disassembling its nuclear infrastructure, and the IAEA receiving stronger supervision abilities able to respond to suspicious activity as revealed in the Iranian archive, which the Mossad retrieved from Tehran in 2018 in a daring operation.

The international community has already proven its ability to unite and press Iran to the negotiations table in 2015, and it could in theory repeat this. A combination of economic, diplomatic and military deterrence and pressure would be needed to achieve this.

A strike could trigger a wider war

In the event that the two plans fail, the question of military action becomes relevant.


IDF F-35s: The Israeli military has been training and acquiring material to make sure a military option remains feasible against Iran if all else fails.

The Israel Defense Forces has been working to build updated military options to prevent Iran from breaking through to nuclear weapons.

If diplomacy continues to stall, Iran will need reminders that military options also exist.

From Israel’s perspective, a nuclear Iran would form an intolerable, existential threat—and not only because of direct nuclear threats. Iran’s regional activity and network of proxies would receive a nuclear umbrella, meaning that Iran’s risky, destabilizing activity in the region would be placed on steroids. This would trigger a nuclear arms race with Sunni states like Saudi Arabia launching their own bids to arm themselves with atomic bombs in the coming decades. Such a regional future represents an unacceptably dangerous and unstable scenario to be avoided at all costs.

Despite its bravado, Iran has no interest in entering into direct state-on-state wars. It has demonstrated this repeatedly in the past 20 years. In 2003, with the U.S. Military in Afghanistan and Iraq around it, the Islamic Republic froze its military nuclear program, dubbed “Amad.” More recently, Iran has invested plenty of efforts and resources in protecting its nuclear infrastructure by placing parts of it underground and surrounding its sites with air defense systems—showing just how seriously Tehran takes the threat of military action.

Should diplomacy fail, “Plan C” would be the last resort. It is a scenario that the Israeli defense establishment must prepare intensively for. A strike on Iran’s nuclear program would likely trigger a regional wider war, though not necessarily.

Multiple scenarios, including the activation of Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is 20 times more powerful than it was during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, coupled with Iran’s proxies in Syria and Iraq, must be factored into the planning.

This will contribute to the credibility of Israel’s military deterrence. Currently, it appears as if Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, does not assess that there is an imminent military threat to his country, and he is acting on the basis of that assessment.

Should he be convinced otherwise, particularly with the assistance of the United States, Khamenei is likely to change course for he fears what a direct war could do to his Islamic revolution.

Israel began developing its military capabilities for stopping Iran’s nuclear program in 2004, and it hasn’t stopped. As time goes by, the chances of Israel needing to deploy these capabilities appear to have risen. Now, with Tehran accelerating its nuclear program, Jerusalem is accelerating its own military strike capability in parallel.

The year 2022 will prove to be a critical junction.


What Iran Has Learned From Biden’s Afghanistan Debacle

Like other adversaries, it is more emboldened, willing to take more risks, and appear less restrained by the prospect of American military power.

Wang Xiyue and Behnam Ben Taleblu

The Dispatch, October 20, 2021


Since the chaotic scenes which accompanied the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, Teheran has repeatedly pressed for premature sanctions relief and stressed the “lesson” that the US is in decline and weak (Photo: US Department of Defense)

There are bitter lessons aplenty about America’s 20-year and $2 trillion Afghan excursion. There are equally as many about the U.S.’s botched exit from that country this August, which has been dubbed “Biden’s debacle” by formerly favorable international outlets. Yet neither the horrendous scenes from the rapid Taliban takeover, the glee of U.S. adversaries, nor the domestic political debates that the withdrawal has deepened have managed to slow America’s eagerness to head for the exits in the Middle East. Despite the fiasco, the Biden administration’s desire for a regional drawdown continues apace.

When President Joe Biden proclaimed on August 31 that the Afghan withdrawal mission was an “extraordinary success,” he meant it. Not far behind was Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who called the airlift out of Kabul “an extraordinary effort” in his September 14 testimony to Congress.

That’s precisely because getting out of the way, no matter the facts on the ground or the wherewithal of the enemy to continue fighting, is fast shaping up to be a feature, not a bug, of the Biden administration’s approach to conflict zones across the Middle East. Nowhere is this truer than with respect to Afghanistan’s western neighbor, the Islamic Republic of Iran, whom Washington is trying to tempt back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

In fact, there is a direct line between the administration’s quest to resurrect the JCPOA and its Afghanistan exit. Both are borne out of a misguided belief that the region no longer matters and that the best thing Washington can do is de-escalate. The JCPOA is specifically desired by the Biden team to claim that an urgent (read: nuclear) threat inherited from its predecessor has been headed off and less time can be spent managing the Iran threat. Under such a scenario, the U.S. might “pivot” more assets, interests, and attention away from the Middle East to other parts of the world.

The problem? Iran’s nuclear escalation has become more than just a leverage-seeking exercise to get back to the deal. Tehran’s progress in enrichment purity and advanced centrifuge deployment coupled with its cost-free harassmentobfuscation, and pressuring of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) provides the regime with “irreversible” technical gains—which cannot be undone by resurrecting an accord that was weak even in 2015 to meet the nonproliferation challenges of 2021. There are also genuine and open-ended questions about the regime’s interest in JCPOA re-entry in the short term.

In both the Afghanistan and Iran-nuclear scenarios, the administration has explicitly chosen the option that diminishes the U.S. military footprint—and by default the threat of military force—while shedding most of its previous policy aims in the hopes of addressing a long-standing national security issue. Put differently, Washington is signaling that it doesn’t mind giving up the fight, a move which will invite more, not less, headaches.

Already, on at least three separate occasions since the U.S. left Afghanistan, Iranian officials have pressed their case for premature sanctions relief, hoping to build on their sense of America’s political desire for an agreement and an aversion to escalation and conflict. Perhaps this is why Iranian officials are more braggadocious about revealing their outright desire to expel America from the Middle East.

While the Biden administration still hopes that U.S. adversaries and allies alike read the past two decades of war as a marker of American resolve, it’s more likely that despite the sacrifice of more than a generation of U.S. and coalition servicepersons, the gains of the past two decades will be blurred by more recent images from the U.S. withdrawal and the Taliban reconsolidation. This is made plain in the commentary of Iranian officials who do not feel any inclination to concede.

On the balance sheet for adversaries, as expected, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has framed the U.S. departure from Afghanistan as “a lesson for all countries,” and noted that the Taliban is back in power despite America’s early goal of regime change in Kabul. Not far behind is Iran’s chief of staff of the armed forces, Maj. Gen. Mohammad-Ali Bagheri, who proclaimed that the manner of the U.S. withdrawal was proof “of America’s accelerating decline.” More bluntly, Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, said in his first U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) address that, “Today, America is not exiting Iraq and Afghanistan, but is expelled.” Further afield, Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Iran’s chief regional proxy, Lebanese Hezbollah, also weighed-in alleging the episode was a “moral downfall for America,” and that Washington, “evacuated the dogs who worked in the security forces, but not those who aided them.”


Wang Xiyue being greeted by US diplomats in Switzerland in 2019 after his release from more than three years of imprisonment in Iran on phoney “espionage” charges (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

U.S. regional partners and allies appear justifiably spooked. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for instance, has reportedly been partaking in direct and bilateral talks with the Islamic Republic amid reports that  the U.S. is removing missile defenses from the region. The talks, which have been acknowledged, likely aim to change how Riyadh is seen by the Biden administration, but also read as another sign of hedging on Iran, a move driven by fears that Washington may not come to the aid of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf in the event of a potential conflict with Iran.

Prior to this, the UAE had begun to hedge on Iran policy as early as 2019 after Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) downed a U.S. drone over international waters and before it attacked oil installations in eastern Saudi Arabia using drones and land-attack cruise missiles. Then-President Donald Trump opted against kinetic action in both instances. During that time, the emirates instead elected to engage in a maritime security dialogue with the Islamic Republic and began to draw down its forces in Yemen where, along with Saudi Arabia, they had faced Iran’s newfound partner, the Houthi rebels.

Last but not least, while U.S. diplomats continue to talk with Israel about a Plan B on Iran, one person’s Plan B may not read like another’s. At the time of this writing, Washington has yet to make the necessary public shift toward aggressively countering Iran through steps that would represent a de minimis diplomatic interest in using pressure against Tehran.

No matter the political spin in Washington, America’s adversaries today, like Iran, are more emboldened, willing to take more risks, and appear less restrained by the prospect of American military power than before. This point was driven home by the commander of the IRGC, Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, who proclaimed that, “The America of today is not the America of the past 10, 20, or 30 years.”

There is a humbling lesson in all of this. Defeats do not exist in a strategic and political vacuum. Iran intends to capitalize on, not ignore, the lessons of the past two decades of conflict against America. So too, do American adversaries in the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, if there is any lesson to learn from the Cold War amid the era of great power competition, it is that while the direct conflict between the U.S. and USSR remained relatively cold—despite a few close calls—there were multiple hot spots and conflict zones around the world involving actors affiliated with both parties that could have quickly spiraled out of control. And in many instances, inferences about capabilities, intentions, and resolve were made and reapplied to other theaters.

Lest we forget, Iran had a 572-mile-long front-row seat to America’s way of war in Afghanistan. It even crossed that line multiple times to participate in the war by way of material support to the Taliban and attempts to buy off the government in Kabul. While the rise of the Taliban in 2021 presents Iran with new threats and opportunities, its ascendancy drives home two critical talking points for Tehran. First, that partnering with Washington will end in ruin, and second, that America was defeated in Afghanistan and can be defeated elsewhere, too. It’s up to the Biden administration to work with allies and partners to help reverse this impression, not to cement it.

As Washington again weighs sticks but only wields carrots on Iran, it ought not to forget that two decades ago, Iran was forced to restructure its atomic quest in what we now know was initially a crash program for five nuclear weapons. By most interpretations, U.S. military success against neighboring Iraq in mere weeks—the same Iraq that had taken Iran eight years to fight to a stalemate in the 1980s—was an outsized reason for the reorientation of Iran’s nuclear program and its faux-civilian veneer. The voluntary erosion of the U.S. military footprint from the region coupled with a JCPOA-centric Iran policy may just be the other “own goal” that the Islamic Republic needs from the Biden administration.

Wang Xiyue, a graduate student and former hostage in Iran, was most recently a Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). The views expressed are their own.

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