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Media Summary

Hardline cleric to lead Iran’s judiciary

The BBC, Times, Telegraph, Guardian and Financial Times report that UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said jailed British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe will be given diplomatic protection by Britain. The BBC reports that the decision means the case will now be treated as a formal, legal dispute between the two states involved – Britain and Iran. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was jailed for five years in Iran in 2016 after being convicted of spying, which she denies. Hunt said the move was unlikely to be a “magic wand” to get her released, but was an “important diplomatic step”. He said it “demonstrates to the whole world that Nazanin is innocent” and signalled to Iran “that its behaviour is totally wrong”. Iran refuses to recognise dual nationals, meaning it does not recognise Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s right to be represented by Britain. Diplomatic protection is a rare legal procedure in international law. States can use it to help one of its nationals whose rights have been breached in another country. It is different to diplomatic immunity, which is something given to diplomats to ensure their safe passage and protection from prosecution. According to BBC’s diplomatic correspondent James Landale, her new legal status will not force Iran to change the way it treats her. But it will allow Britain to raise her case with greater ease at international forums such as the UN.

The Guardian reports that a hard-line cleric once thought to be a possible successor to Iran’s Supreme Leader has been appointed head of the Islamic Republic’s judiciary, sparking concern from human rights activists over his involvement in the execution of thousands of people in the 1980s. Ebrahim Raisi was appointed to the post in a decree by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the semi-official Fars news agency reported. Raisi’s selection comes after he was trounced by incumbent Hassan Rouhani in the country’s 2017 presidential election. Some analysts suggest that loss and other concerns means the move takes him out of the running to replace Khamenei as supreme leader. Khamenei turns 80 in July.

Reuters reports that the US accused Iran on Thursday of defying a UN Security Council resolution with one ballistic missile test and two satellite launches since December and urged the council to “bring back tougher international restrictions” on Tehran. A 2015 UN resolution “called upon” Iran to refrain for up to eight years from work on ballistic missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons following the nuclear agreement with the six world powers. Some states argue that the language does not make it obligatory. In a letter to the 15-member council, acting US Ambassador to the UN Jonathan Cohen said Iran tested a medium-range ballistic missile on 1 December 2018, and attempted to place satellites in orbit on 15 January and 5 February. “Iran has carried out these three launches in defiance of the expressed will of the U.N. Security Council, and such provocations continue to destabilise the entire Middle East region,” Cohen wrote.

The Times reports that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stoked a growing row with NATO by signalling that the country might purchase a second Russian missile defence system, accelerating the country’s pivot towards the east. He said he remained committed to his earlier decision to buy the Russian S-400 system, with delivery scheduled for July, despite repeated warnings from the US that such a move could lead to sanctions and the cancellation of Turkey’s order for 100 advanced US F-35 fighter jets. General Curtis Scaparrotti, head of US European Command, said this week that NATO security and US-Turkish relations would be severely compromised should Erdogan go ahead with the $2.5bn deal. The Turkish President dismissed the warning in an interview with the news channel Kanal 24, and went a step further. “The S-400 is a done deal, there can be no turning back,” he said. “We will move toward a joint production. Perhaps after the S-400, we will go for the S-500.”

In the Times, Richard Spencer writes that “Turkey has long been the odd man out in NATO,” arguing that the standoff between NATO and Turkey is coming to a head.

The Guardian reports that the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) claim that the RAF killed only one civilian in thousands of airstrikes against ISIS has been dismissed as ludicrous and “stretching credibility”. According figures released by the MoD following a freedom of information request by the charity Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), the RAF strikes between 2014 and January this year killed or injured 4,315 of the group’s fighters. It said 90 per cent of those were killed. The RAF said it had identified only one civilian killed, despite 70 per cent of its raids using powerful 500lb bombs. Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle, who sits on parliament’s international development committee and who has questioned the RAF’s figures before, said the claim of such a low civilian death rate was not credible. “They have processes and procedures for assessing civilian casualties, but they are insufficient to find the civilians who have been inevitably killed in the RAF’s urban campaign, not least over the densely populated areas of western Mosul,” he said.

The Independent reports that US President Donald Trump has scrapped a policy requiring US intelligence officials to publish the number of civilians killed in drone strikes outside active war zones. The rule was introduced by Barack Obama in 2016 in an attempt to improve transparency and minimise non-combatant casualties during operations against terrorist targets. Human rights groups described President Trump’s decision to revoke Executive Order 13732 as “shameful” and “deeply wrong,” while security experts suggested it was an attempt to conceal deaths from drone strikes carried out by the CIA. Other legislation still requires the Secretary of Defence to release an annual report on “civilian casualties caused as a result of United States military operations”. Drone strikes can also be undertaken by the CIA. Daphne Eviatar, Amnesty International USA’s director of security with human rights, said: “This is a shameful decision that will shroud this administration’s actions in even more secrecy with little accountability for its victims.”

The Times reports that one of Egypt’s best-known actors has been sentenced to eight years in jail for criticising the regime of President Sisi. Amr Waked, best known in Britain for playing the wealthy sheikh at the heart of the romantic drama ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,’ is a noted critic of military rule in his home country. He said that “people close to the military prosecution services” had told him that he had been sentenced to consecutive five and three-year terms “on charges of publishing fake news and insulting state institutions”. Waked, 45, said that the authorities refused to give him an official notification of the two sentences because “they had not yet been ratified”. He was uncertain why his case had been brought before a military court.

In the Guardian Gaby Hinsliff writes: “Antisemitism, Islamophobia – what’s gone wrong with the middle aged?” Hinsliff argues that Prince Harry has asked young people to help enlighten their parents, but politicians should be leading the way.

In the Independent, Mairav Zonszein, an Israeli American freelance journalist, writes: “As an Israeli American, I agree with Ilhan Omar much more than the US politicians weaponising antisemitism”. Zonszein argues that: “Omar is challenging decades-long unconditional American support for Israel while many American legislators are demanding loyalty oaths that enable Israel to continue doing as it pleases – with total impunity.”

In the Israeli media, Yediot Ahronoth, Maariv and Haaretz report that the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) is expecting violent disturbances today on the Gaza border, following an escalation of violent incidents in the past few days and Hamas’s threats to set the area on fire. Yesterday afternoon, an IDF tank hit a Hamas military post in the northern Gaza Strip, in response an attack on an Israeli military installation near the border fence. On Wednesday night, Israel Air Force fighter planes attacked several targets in a Hamas military compound in the southern Gaza Strip after a rocket was fired at Israel from Gaza. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toured the area of the southern border fence yesterday and was briefed by military commanders. Netanyahu said: “[I am] aware that in the past few days there has been a resumption of Hamas aggression in various forms. Hamas should understand now that any display of aggression will be met with a double and quadruple response by Israel. It would be better for them to understand this now rather than later.” This morning Kan Radio reported that an explosive balloon detonated in the air last night near a community in the Eshkol Regional Council. No one was injured and no damage was caused. Israel is still trying to reach understandings with Hamas on a truce, but so far without any success.

Nahum Barnea writes in Yediot Ahronoth: “There is no need to threaten Hamas in order to get it to understand Israel. It understands Israel very well. Netanyahu wants the Hamas regime in Gaza to continue; as he sees it, this is the lesser evil. He has no intention of going into Gaza and paying with the lives of hundreds of soldiers and getting entangled in a bloody takeover; he has no intention of destroying Gaza from the air and causing a diplomatic and humanitarian disaster; he prefers the Palestinians as they are, split, weakened and desperate.” Commenting on Gaza in the context of the election campaign, Barnea concludes that: “Blue and White does not have a diplomatic or military alternative to Netanyahu. Not only that, it tries to be like Netanyahu in everything that he says and does not say on these subjects, not to disagree with him. It is offering the voters Netanyahu’s policy, more or less, but without Netanyahu. That is the source of its attraction. I think that is no little thing. In the ten years of Netanyahu, Israelis enjoyed economic stability, a relatively lower security threat and an improved international standing. These things are in his favour. On the other hand, in these years, he poisoned the internal discourse, he divided, he incited and set one group against another, he corrupted the public mechanisms and corrupted himself and his family. For all these, not for the monthly payoff to Hamas in Gaza, he must end his rule.”

Amos Harel in Haaretz argues that, while relief measures for Palestinians will be perceived as capitulation, without them, the situation is liable to escalate. “Hamas is expecting the Egyptian mediators – this week the Qatari envoy was also brought into the mix – to extract a number of measures from Israel: An immediate increase in the supply of electricity, permission to transfer more money from Qatar, expansion of the fishing zone off the shores of the Gaza Strip, and an easing of movement restrictions at the crossing points. In ordinary times, this is a package with which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could probably manage. The difficulty stems from the accusations coming both from the Right and the Left regarding weakness in the face of terror. Netanyahu is in a trap: Any easing of the situation aimed at preventing a conflagration at this time will be depicted by his rivals as concessions and surrender, whereas slipping into a round of violence that lasts for several days, as happened most recently last November, is liable to leave the Israeli public with a bitter sense that nothing has been accomplished, and could also have a negative influence on the election.”

Yediot Ahronoth reports on tensions in Jerusalem and says the police are deploying extra personnel today ahead of Friday prayers on the Temple Mount. Against the backdrop of the crisis surrounding the mosque that was opened at Bab al-Rahma (the Golden Gate), the Palestinians have defined the prayers as “protest prayers,” and they will be held in two areas: the senior Waqf officials who were removed from the Temple Mount, Abdul Azim Salhab and Raed Daana, will lead a prayer near the Lions’ Gate and prayers will be held on the Temple Mount compound.

Kan Radio reports that an official Jordanian source said that the Jordanian Government was continuing intensive talks with Israel and the international community in order to protect the Golden Gate in the Temple Mount compound. The source told Jordanian newspaper Al-Ghad that Jordan was trying to preserve the legal and historic status quo in the compound. He stressed that the Jordanian Government was opposed to Israeli demands to close it.

Publishing the results of a new election poll, Israel Hayom writes that: “The status quo between the blocs continues with the right-wing in the lead, the small parties are strengthening and the release of the charges against the prime minister changed almost nothing.” The poll predicts that Likud will win 26 seats and Blue and White 33 seats, five fewer than in their poll a week ago. BICOM’s aggregated polling from the past week predicts the race is currently too close to call, with Netanyahu’s preferred coalition predicted to win 60.5 seat and opposition parties predicted to win 59.5 seats.

Maariv discusses the Likud’s plans for siphoning off votes from the small right-wing parties. The scenario in which “a number of right-wing parties may not cross the electoral threshold has the Likud worried, and its campaign staff are preparing plans so the right-wing bloc is not harmed as a result”. The paper adds: “While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his fellow Likud members are very pleased with the number of seats that the Likud gets in the polls and think that the closer we get to Election Day the more it will have, they fear that the right-wing bloc is liable to lose the elections if some of the right-wing parties don’t cross the electoral threshold.”

Maariv publishes an interview with Yisrael Beiteinu leader, Avigdor Lieberman, who says that the polls reported in the media are mistaken and are slanted toward young people, and they do not reflect his party’s voters. “I consider them to be either psychological warfare or a manipulation. In the 2015 elections, all the predictions were that Yitzhak Herzog of the Zionist Union would win and be prime minister, and we know how that ended. I don’t believe in polls. I believe in orderly thinking. I believe in grass roots work. If I believed in polls, I would never run.”