The Cable

U.S. Intel Eyes New Threat: al Qaeda in Lebanon

BEIRUT — Lebanon celebrated the 70th anniversary of its independence today with a parade of marching soldiers, sword-wielding cavalrymen, and camouflage green tanks in downtown Beirut. But the scene a 15-minute drive away presented a stark reminder of the central government's limited power. The Iranian embassy remained pockmarked from the Nov. 19 double suicide bombing, which killed 25 people and wounded 147 more, while the façade of the adjacent building was torn to shreds.

The attack was likely the handiwork of al Qaeda-linked militants -- just one of the many radical Sunni groups that are viewed as an increasingly dangerous threat by American intelligence officials and mainstream Sunni Lebanese politicians alike. Bolstered by the raging violence in Syria, these jihadist groups pose a mounting danger to the tenuous peace that has prevailed in Lebanon since the beginning of the uprising next door.

Lebanon's mainstream Sunni leadership, while condemning the Iranian embassy attack, also deplored Hezbollah's decision to intervene militarily on the side of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, which has led to an increase in Sunni-Shiite tensions and radicalization that made the bombing possible.

"I believe that if the situation will stay like this for another year, there will be no role for moderates" in either Syria or Lebanon, said Nohad Machnouk, a member of parliament aligned with the anti-Hezbollah Future Movement. "The radicals will be in the front because they are ready to die, they are ready to kill, they are ready to do anything."

The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an al Qaeda-linked group that is active in Lebanon, Jordan, and the Arabian Peninsula, claimed responsibility for the bombings and promised further attacks until Hezbollah withdraws from Syria. According to McClatchy, a Western intelligence agency warned Lebanese government officials over the past two weeks that such an attack was in the works, passing along audio evidence of contact between a Saudi operative affiliated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Abdullah Azzam Brigade's top leader.

A U.S. intelligence official told Foreign Policy that it was the U.S. assessment that the Abdullah Azzam Brigade's Lebanese wing, the Ziad al-Jarrah Battallion (ZJB), conducted the attacks. "Sunni extremists in Lebanon see Shiites in Lebanon backing up the Shiite Alawi regime in Syria, and they are taking [revenge] on Shiites and Alawi inside of Lebanon," the official said. "It will continue and possibly get worse as the [Syrian] insurgency drags on."

The Iranian embassy bombing would be by far the largest operation ever conducted by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades in Lebanon. Previously, they had only seemed capable of comparatively small-scale attacks: They launched rockets into Israel in 2009 and took credit for a roadside bomb attack on a Hezbollah convoy near the Lebanese-Syrian border in March.

"What really concerns us now is that the ZJB -- which is a relatively small, not an extremely well-known group -- was able to conduct this attack against such a hardened target inside of a Hezbollah stronghold," the intelligence official said. "So we can't rule out that if they had the opportunity to strike a U.S. diplomat or a U.S. facility, whether it's in Lebanon or outside ... these groups may decide to conduct that attack."

Nor is the Abdullah Azzam Brigades the only Sunni jihadist group that could try to bring the Syrian war to Lebanon. As the Wall Street Journal described earlier this week, Sunni groups in the northern city of Tripoli have been radicalized by months-long running clashes with the city's Alawite communities. In March, followers of Salafist Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir engaged in deadly clashes with the Lebanese army that left at least 17 soldiers dead.

A political vacuum in Lebanon has only heightened the power of these radical groups. The government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, which came to power from the support of Hezbollah and its allies, resigned eight months ago -- but the failure to form a new government has left it in power. Those opposed to the Syrian regime criticize it for not doing anything to oppose Hezbollah's military intervention in Syria. Meanwhile, anti-Assad forces feel that the Lebanese army is too weak to protect them.

"If you go now to talk to the Lebanese Armed Forces, they will tell you, ‘We don't talk to Hezbollah, we don't have connections with them,'" said a retired Lebanese general. "But this is not the truth."

In such an environment, jihadist groups have gained strength by making the case that Sunnis must protect their co-religionists -- by whatever means necessary.

"I'm a moderate, I believe in a political solution," said Machnouk. "[The Iranian embassy bombing] will not change my position -- I will not agree, and I will contest any time any radical reaction. But I cannot stop it."

ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Iran Talks On the Rocks As Two Sides Needle Each Other

GENEVA - U.S. and Iranian diplomats failed to meet at the negotiating table together Thursday. Top Iranian and Western officials are trading public barbs. And back in Washington, senators conspired to impose another round of sanctions on Tehran. It's all raising fears that the historic nuclear deal which seemed so close just a few days ago might be slipping away.

Wendy Sherman, the chief American nuclear negotiator held a brief meeting Wednesday night with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, but a senior State Department official said that Catherine Ashton, the European Union's top diplomat, was the only leader to hold direct and formal talks with the Iranians Thursday at the high-end Intercontinental Hotel here.

The State Department official said leaders from the so-called P5+1 -- the U.S., Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China -- held bilateral talks throughout the day and stressed that Ashton was negotiating on behalf of the entire group. Despite the darkening atmosphere, it's too soon to conclude that the talks are unraveling. The current talks are designed to freeze -- or at least slow -- Iran's nuclear program for roughly six months while the two sides work towards a comprehensive agreement. The U.S. and its allies would give Tehran access to roughly $7 billion in frozen assets as part of any interim deal. Privately, two Western officials said Thursday's talks had been fairly productive and that there was still a decent chance of a deal. The officials said Iran might have been posturing to show their domestic audience back home that they were taking a hardline with the P5+1 rather than simply agreeing to every Western demand.

Still, the lack of any direct contact between American and Iranian negotiations on the second day of what is supposed to be a three-day conference was striking. American officials say the talks can be extended through the weekend if a deal was close at hand, but the talks could also come to an abrupt halt Friday if the remaining differences between the two sides can't be bridged.

Publicly, at least, there were indications that the Iranians and their P5+1 counterparts were beginning to lose confidence in each other's willingness to make the concessions necessary to reach a deal.

Late Thursday night, a senior Iranian official offered a strikingly pessimistic assessment of the state of the talks. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi told Iranian reporters that there was no point inviting Kerry or other foreign ministers to Geneva until the two sides were close to an agreement.  Asked how the negotiations were going, Araqchi offered a blunt answer: "We haven't made any progress." EU officials were far more optimistic, with a spokesman for Ashton saying earlier that Thursday had been a "day of intense, substantive and detailed" negotiations, conducted in a "good atmosphere."  The differences between the two assessments suggest the two sides are far apart not just on the substance of the negotiations, but also on the far more basic question of whether they're advancing at all. 

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi told reporters that Tehran "cannot enter serious talks until the trust is restored." He quickly added that negotiations would continue, but the comments were unusually blunt for an experienced diplomat.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, meanwhile, told a French television station that he hoped a deal could be reached but stressed that any agreement "can only be possible based on firmness."

Fabius has consistently been one of the most hawkish of the P5+1 leaders, and his opposition to the draft text cobbled together during the previous round of talks earlier this month helped sink the deal. Fabius argued then that the agreement didn't do enough to reduce Iran's stockpiles of enriched uranium or to halt the construction of its Arak plutonium reactor. In his interview on French television, Fabius said that his position had now been adopted by the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1.

The public jabs come as Iranian leaders appeared to be hardening their public negotiating positions. On Wednesday, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called Israel a "rabid dog" and said his country had red lines in the talks that it was not willing to cross.

Iranian officials have long said that one of their red lines was a Western acknowledgement that the country had a "right" to continue enriching uranium, something the P5+1 countries have been unwilling to grant. Diplomats from both sides have suggested various ways of wording a compromise, but they haven't agreed on one yet.

Another sticking point is the future of Iran's stockpiles of near-weapons grade uranium. The P5+1 want Iran to halt its enrichment efforts and take clear steps to reduce its existing stores. Tehran has signaled that it might be willing to hold off on enriching any more of the uranium, but that it wasn't willing to give away any of the current stockpile.

Meanwhile, in Congress, the Obama administration's weeks-long effort to convince Senate leaders to hold off on a new round of sanctions appears to have succeeded. On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) opted not to include a new sanctions amendment to the 2014 Defense Authorization bill, much to the dismay of hawkish Senators. The decision ensures that there won't be a live debate on such an amendment during this week's delicate negotiations in Geneva -- a key White House demand. However, Reid did commit to voting on new sanctions after this week's talks.

"The Senate must be prepared to move forward with a new bipartisan Iran sanctions bill when the Senate returns after Thanksgiving recess. And I am committed to do so," Reid said.

Lawmakers adamant on ramping up sanctions against Tehran aren't satisfied.

"Now is the time for maximum pressure on the Iranian regime, before the only option left on the table is the military one," Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) told The Cable in a statement. "Despite past promises, we are now hearing reports that the Administration intends to back off these much needed sanctions. I continue to push for the Senate to pass another round of sanctions, before we are left without any peaceful recourse."

Republicans aren't the only ones feeling heartburn over this week's talks. Top Senate aides tell The Cable that Democrats including Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) are working with Republican Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) on a plan to ramp up sanctions after the Thanksgiving recess. The lawmakers enlisted a bipartisan group of senators for a joint statement calling for the passage of immediate sanctions. "We will work together to reconcile Democratic and Republican proposals over the coming weeks and to pass bipartisan Iran sanctions legislation as soon as possible," read the statement.  Signatories included Ben Cardin (D-MD), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Bob Casey (D-PA), Chris Coons (D-DE), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) among others. One Senate aide said top Democrats were feeling intense pressure from pro-Israel constituents. "The Jewish community is freaking out about what the president is about to do and Menendez and Schumer are looking for cover," said the aide.

While the talks continue, hundreds of reporters from around the world are going to extreme lengths to get any morsel of news. On Wednesday night, more than a dozen Iranian reporters chased a senior administration official through the hallways of a nearby convention center following an evening briefing. One of the reporters stood on a glass coffee table in an attempt to get a photo of the U.S. official, but the glass shattered, sending him tumbling to the floor.

Reporters' haven't always gotten their prey, however. On Thursday night, Sherman, the chief U.S. negotiator, strode through the lobby of the Intercontinental without any of the Western or Iranian reporters seeming to notice. Many of the reporters had been there since the morning, trying to keep themselves awake with $11 coffees and $10 bottles of Coke Zero. By that point in the evening, they were simply fried.