March 10, 2020

In-Depth Issues:

After a Buildup to Counter Iran, U.S. Troops Begin Leaving Mideast - Nancy A. Youssef (Wall Street Journal)
    The U.S. military has begun to draw small numbers of troops out of the Middle East after concluding that the threat of reprisal attacks from Iran or its proxies has subsided, military officials said.
    About 1,000 combat troops who had deployed to Kuwait after the Jan. 3 strike that killed Iranian Maj.-Gen. Qasem Soleimani have left the region over the past two weeks, to be followed by an additional 2,000 members of the same brigade in the weeks ahead.

The Shiite Crescent and the Coronavirus - Hillel Frisch (Israel Hayom)
    A study released on Feb. 24 by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota revealed how salient Iran's religious ties to Shiite communities in Arab states have been in the spread of the coronavirus epidemic.
    The five Middle Eastern countries that first reported COVID-19 cases - Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq and Oman - all have substantial Shiite populations, and all the cases cited are clearly linked to Iran.
    The religious city of Qom has been the site of 40% of the cases identified so far in Iran.
    The ramifications of Iran's becoming a source of disease are more than medical.
    The writer is a professor of political and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research associate at its Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

Report: Iranian Agents Killed Ron Arad in Lebanon (Asharq Al-Awsat-UK)
    Last December, a senior officer in the Military Intelligence Division of the Israeli army revealed that Israeli Air Force navigator Ron Arad, who was captured by the Lebanese Amal movement in 1986, had died on Lebanese soil and was not transferred to Iran.
    The official said Iranian agents killed him because they believed that Israel was behind the assassination of four Iranian diplomats by a Lebanese group led by Elie Hobeika - a former security official in the Christian Lebanese Forces faction.
    See also Soleimani Confirmed that Israel Didn't Kidnap Iranian Diplomats in Lebanon - Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira (American Interest)
    The writer is a senior research fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

News Resources - North America, Europe, and Asia:
  • Iranian Journalist Says Coronavirus Death Toll Is 2,000
    Iranian journalist Mostafa Faghihi, owner of Entekhab.ir, tweeted on Monday: "Mr. [Health Minister] Namaki, you aren't releasing the actual numbers of the dead of coronavirus? Fine! I will play my part instead of you! Dear Iranian citizens! The number of dead in the country that are feared to have died of the coronavirus is nearly 2,000 (10 times the official figures). Over 130 people died just yesterday in Tehran and in Gilan [in northern Iran]!" The tweet was deleted shortly thereafter. (MEMRI)
  • Ceasefire in Syria Cements Assad's Territorial Gains in Idlib - Tuvan Gumrukcu
    After talks with Russian President Putin in Moscow on Thursday, Turkish President Erdogan announced a ceasefire accord which cements territorial gains by Russian-backed Syrian forces over Turkish-backed rebels in Syria's Idlib province.
        The agreement, if it holds, does stem the advance of Assad's forces. But by freezing the front lines, the deal consolidates Assad's recent battlefield victories and allows Russia to deploy deeper into Idlib than before. In Moscow, the deal was widely seen as a triumph for Putin and Assad at Erdogan's expense. (Reuters)
  • Gaza Militants Target Israel with Party Balloons Bearing Bombs - Steve Hendrix
    Merav Hania's daughter stopped loving kindergarten when a cluster of colorful balloons floated toward her playground during recess. "Balloons!" said a pleased young Emma, her mother recalled. But another child, who had heard the warnings from local police, knew better: "That's a bomb!" In recent months, hundreds of booby-trapped balloons bearing improvised explosives have descended on Netivot and other communities downwind of nearby Gaza.
        At Emma's playground, teachers rushed the children inside as a police robot detonated the object attached to the balloons. Emma, who heard the blast, stayed home for two days. "Our children have learned to be scared of balloons," said her mother. The Israeli military has distributed a poem that warns children to be wary of balloons and any boxes, books or soccer balls they may drop. A note attached to one balloon cluster read: "Zionist, you have no place in the country of Palestine. We will send you to your death."  (Washington Post)
News Resources - Israel and the Mideast:
  • Coronavirus: All Travelers to Israel to Face Two-Week Quarantine - Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
    "Everyone who comes to Israel from abroad will enter the 14-day isolation," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a video statement Monday. The isolation requirement applies to both Israelis and foreign travelers. The measure is effective immediately for Israelis and will go into effect for foreigners in 72 hours. No non-citizens will be able to enter Israel without proving they have a place to stay during their quarantine. (Jerusalem Post)
  • Bank of Israel Expects Only Minor Hit to Economy, End of Coronavirus Crisis by July - Luke Tress
    Bank of Israel Governor Amir Yaron said Monday that he expects the coronavirus outbreak to cause a loss of 0.7% to Israel's growth, meaning GDP growth in 2020 of 2%. The bank expects the crisis to subside by the end of June. If the spread of the virus is halted, the bank expects Israel's GDP to quickly rebound. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that the government would provide NIS 4 billion to assist businesses hit by the virus crisis. (Times of Israel)
Global Commentary and Think-Tank Analysis:
  • A Purim Lesson at the White House - Leila Gilbert
    At a White House briefing on anti-Semitism on March 3, U.S. special envoy Elan Carr recounted the story of Purim at the White House. Although a considerable amount of time has passed since the events that took place in 5th century BCE Persia, various efforts to exterminate the Jews continue to reinvent themselves, with chants of "Death to Israel" wafting across the world from Iran. Now Iran's Press TV is speculating that the coronavirus - which is afflicting a large number of Iranians including regime leaders - was developed as a bio-weapon by Israeli and American scientists. This is standard fare in Iranian media. (Jerusalem Post)
  • Don't Boycott Israel Just Yet - Aaron B. Andrews
    Those calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel should consider putting a sock in it until the coronavirus blows over. Scientists at Israel's MIGAL Research Institute say they are 8-10 weeks away from a vaccine. Indeed, Israel is on the forefront of a host of medical breakthroughs. But the BDS movement would cut off such promising research from collaborators and investors in the U.S.
        What's going on in Israel's laboratories is saving lives all over the world. For example, take Israel's medical breakthrough in treatment for multiple sclerosis over a decade ago, or consider its advances in treatment for Parkinson's disease. BDSers should be asking themselves if they would really say no to a vaccine just because it was created in Israel. (Detroit News)
  • Has the Iranian Regime Begun to Modify Its Behavior? - Amir Taheri
    For the first time in decades, Tehran has downgraded its annual "End of America" and "End of Israel" international conferences that attracted professional anti-Americans and Holocaust-deniers from all over the world. In addition, this year there was no Holocaust-denying cartoon exhibition. More importantly, badly hit by cash-flow problems, the regime has been forced to cut down payments to regional clients in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Gaza. The writer was executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. (Asharq Al-Awsat-UK)

  • In Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, and inside Iran itself, the people have realized that the enemy is within. It's their own governments that have allowed the Iranian regime to take over the state and its institutions. The Shia Crescent, which Iran has been investing in for decades, is finally turning against the Iranian regime and its proxies. 
  • Iran is facing its most complicated adversary in years - Shia protestors. For Iran, the enemy is also within, and it's one that cannot be contained without a drastic upheaval in Iran's own strategies and political alliances across the region.
  • Iran's worst nightmare started when the Iraqis - mostly in Shia towns and cities - started to chant "Iran, out out, Iraq free, free." In Iraq, Iran's attempts to turn the protests into anti-U.S. protests didn't work. The three main Shiite cities in Lebanon witnessed widespread protests, despite Hizbullah's constant intimidation and threats to protestors.
  • It is going to be very difficult for Iran and its proxies to come back from this. The Shia in these countries no longer believe that the Iranian ideology is the solution or that its strategy to defeat Israel and the U.S. will elevate them from poverty and hunger.
  • Hizbullah had been relying on Soleimani as a military commander. The group is currently spread too thin to play a much larger role in Iraq or the rest of the Shia Crescent. A proper replacement of Soleimani doesn't really exist, and Iran is going to struggle to fill that void.

    The writer is a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.