Middle East Insider, October 28, 2020

Newly released satellite imagery shows Iran rebuilding the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility that was badly damaged in a July 2 explosion

Iran

International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi stated during a Tuesday interview with The Associated Press that Iran has started building an underground centrifuge assembly plant at the Natanz nuclear site. A July 2 explosion at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility destroyed much of the above-ground-parts of the facility and Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, declared last month Tehran “decided to establish a more modern, vaster and inclusive [building] to be constructed in the heart of the mountains around Natanz.” Satellite imagery released Wednesday by San Francisco-based Planet Labs appeared to show excavation work at the site and a potential tunnel into the surrounding mountains.

Turkey

issued a statement Wednesday imploring the Trump administration to “stop the advance of Azerbaijani troops into Nagorno-Karabakh” by cutting off US arms supplies to Baku and pressing “Turkey and Russia to stop fueling the conflict with the supply of weapons and, in the case of Turkey, mercenaries.” According to the Syrian Observatory For Human Rights, Turkey has transported at least at least 2,050 Syrian fighters to Azerbaijan. During a Wednesday AKP parliamentary group meeting, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he informed Russian President Vladimir Putin in a telephone conversation Tuesday night that at least 2,000 PKK terrorists are fighting alongside the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia and the PKK deny Erdogan’s claim.

Charlie Hebdo Cartoons

Ankara’s chief prosecutor and Turkey’s justice minister Wednesday threatened legal action against France’s Charlie Hebdo magazine after it published on the cover of Tuesday’s edition a cartoon of Erdogan looking under a woman’s dress and saying, “The Prophet.” This represents the latest step in an escalating diplomatic row between Paris and Ankara since an Islamic terrorist beheaded French middle school teacher Samuel Paty on October 16 for showing his students caricatures of Muhammad from Charlie Hebdo. French President Emmanuel Macron asserted last Wednesday, “Samuel Paty was killed because Islamists want our future… We will strongly proclaim the concept of laïcité [secularism]. We will not disavow the cartoons, the drawings, even if others recoil.” As part of a crackdown on Islamic extremism, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin ordered the Grand Mosque of Pantin’s closure for six months because it shared on its Facebook page days before Paty’s murder a video criticizing his use of the cartoons. Darmanin tweeted France should dissolve the Muslim NGOs Collective against Islamophobia in France and Baraka City, calling them “enemies of the Republic” and warning that “there is no accommodation possible with radical Islamism.” The two NGOs stand accused of launching a social media campaign against the teacher before his assassination. In response to the French President’s remarks about Islamic extremism, Erdogan said last Saturday, “Macron needs some sort of mental treatment… He has not only made himself the enemy of Islam, but of all peace-loving people too.” Erdogan’s comments prompted Paris on Sunday to recall its ambassador in Ankara for consultations. On Monday, Erdogan called on Turks to boycott French goods, claiming French Muslims are now “subjected to a lynch campaign similar to that against Jews in Europe before World War II.” Addressing parliament Wednesday, Erdogan denounced Macron’s secularization campaign: “I believe the enemies of Turkey and Islam are going to drown in a swamp of hatred and animosity in the name of freedom. It’s a sign that Europe has returned to the dark ages.”

Iranian President blasted President Macron’s defense of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. At a Wednesday cabinet session, Rouhani pronounced, “Insulting a prophet is nothing but an encouragement to violence and an immoral act… If the West is sincere about his efforts for peace and security, it should stop interfering in internal affairs of Muslims.” He added, “Every single European is in debt to the prophet, as he was the teacher of humanity.” Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei then tweeted: “Why is it a crime to raise doubts about the Holocaust? Why should anyone who writes about such doubts be imprisoned while insulting the Prophet (pbuh) is allowed?”

Syria

Two days after Russian airstrikes on an Idlib training camp of the pro-Turkish Faylaq al-Sham rebel group killed at least 78 fighters, Erdogan told AKP MPs Wednesday, “Russia’s attack targeting the Syrian National Army forces training center is a sign that a lasting peace and calm is not wanted in the region.” Erdogan also reiterated that Turkey may launch another military operation to drive the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia away from the Turkish border. “If the terrorists here are not cleared as we were promised, we have the legitimate right to mobilize once again… The terror group and the threats it poses to our country are continuing in areas along our Syrian border that are not under our control.” The YPG is the main component of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the official defense force of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. Both Turkey and the US identify the YPG as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party ‘(PKK) Syrian chapter. Although the State Department designated the PKK as a “foreign terrorist organization” in 1997, the US has cooperated with the YPG to fight ISIS. Ankara claims that late Tuesday night two YPG fighters infiltrated Hatay province with paragliders and security forces killed one while the other blew himself up rather than surrendering.

Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman signed new versions of three agreements on research cooperation that would henceforth make institutions in the territories captured in the Six-Day War eligible for funding. The Binational Science Foundation (1972), Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation (1976), and Binational Agricultural Research and Development Fund (1977) provide grants to American and Israeli academics and corporations. Binational Science Foundation grantees include 47 Nobel Laureates in medicine, physics, chemistry, and economics. The Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation provides matchmaking support between US and Israeli companies as well as funding covering up to 50 percent of project development costs without taking equity in the companies. Netanyahu and Friedman symbolically signed the updated agreements at Ariel University in the West Bank. They also signed a new Science and Technology agreement to fund government-to-government cooperation. A PLO statement denounced the agreements: The “US announcement to extend its scientific cooperation to illegal West Bank settlements and the occupied Syrian Golan Heights will neither redefine international law nor the United Nations Charter and affirms that annexation is an ongoing process under full US support.”

Politico Wednesday reported the Trump administration as early as Thursday may permit Americans born in Jerusalem to list Israel as their place of birth. Hitherto, passports only listed “Jerusalem” because of the city’s disputed political status. A 6-3 Supreme Court ruling in 2015 struck down a law allowing American parents of children born in Jerusalem to obtain passports stating they were born in Israel, concluding that only the President could set policy on Jerusalem’s status.

Micah Levinson is the Washington, DC Resident Fellow at the Middle East Forum

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