As U.S. Tightens Iran Sanctions, Militant Groups and Political Allies Feel the Pain

Arash Khamooshi for The New York Times

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian militiamen paid by Iran have seen their salaries slashed. Projects Iran promised to help Syria’s ailing economy have stalled. Even employees of Hezbollah, the Lebanese group that has long served as Iran’s closest Arab ally, say they have missed paychecks and lost other perks.

Iran’s financial crisis, exacerbated by American sanctions, appears to be undermining its support for militant groups and political allies who bolster Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere.

“The golden days are gone and will never return,” said a fighter with an Iranian-backed militia in Syria who recently lost a third of his salary and other benefits. “Iran doesn’t have enough money to give us.”

Across the Middle East, Iran’s allies are showing signs of financial strain.

Some of that strain may simply reflect the impact of the prolonged armed conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Hezbollah, which had focused resources on confronting Israel along Lebanon’s southern border, has been diverting fighters and weapons to Syria for years. Shiite fighters directed by Iran helped battle the Islamic State after the militant group overran parts of Iraq five years ago.

But Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, acknowledged the difficulties created by the American sanctions, criticizing them this month as “a form of war” and calling on the movement’s fund-raising arm “to provide the opportunity for jihad with money and also to help with this ongoing battle.”

The Trump administration says the strains show that the sanctions are effective. It sought to intensify the pressure on Tuesday by blacklisting 25 participants in what the Treasury Department described as a vast currency trading scheme that had funneled more than $1 billion to Iranian military operations in the region.

“Our pressure on Iran is simple,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a visit to Lebanon last week. “It’s aimed at cutting off the funding for terrorists, and it’s working.”

But analysts question how much funding cuts will change the behavior of these groups, which are relatively inexpensive, remain ideologically committed to Iran’s agenda and can promote it through local politics in ways that the United States struggles to thwart.

Iran has long relied on relationships with groups across the Middle East to boost its influence, serving as a patron of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, the Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

While the extent of Iran’s support varies by group, the strategy has allowed it to project power beyond its borders, countering the United States, vexing Saudi Arabia and menacing Israel.

Last year, President Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions, hoping to undermine Iran’s ability to fund its network of alliances.

Quantifying the strain on this network is difficult because Iranian support is covert and beneficiaries rarely discuss their finances. But interviews with fighters, officials and analysts who track the issue made the economic pain clear.

Iran provided substantial financial aid to the Syrian government early in the conflict, but it has recently failed to deliver on a promised new power plant in the country’s northwest and a credit line to help Syria import essential products.

“Given the financial situation in Syria, new funds from Iran would be…

European press gets popcorn out for another chaotic day of Brexit

A collage of European newspapers

European press and commentators switched on the TV, pulled out the popcorn and sat back to watch the latest preposterous episode in Britain’s Brexit psychodrama with a mixture of disbelief and resignation.

“Most series start getting dull after a second or third season, but Brexit’s different,” said Germany’s Die Zeit. “The longer it lasts, the better the plot gets. Yesterday’s twist was the best yet: first the unloved PM offers to go, then MPs seize the initiative and it seems the tide may be turning.

“But wait … In the end, it turns out they can agree on – absolutely nothing. So, cue uproar in the house, and the credits start running. ‘Order,’ roars John Bercow. Please do not adjust your set: we’ll be back right after the break.”

After a day in which Theresa May offered to step down as prime minister if MPs backed her twice-rejected Brexit deal, and parliament failed dismally to agree on any one of eight possible ways forward, the paper’s incredulous front page headline was: “All against all, and all against everything.”

Anyone blaming Britain’s present impasse on May had been proved wrong, the paper said: “Parliament is no smarter than the prime minister: lesson one. Lesson two, the crisis unfolding in Britain goes beyond Brexit. It has engulfed the political institutions and shaken the whole conventional order.”

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wondered despairingly whether “this moment of madness” might soon be behind us, “so that for all those involved, on both sides of the Channel, we can get back to talking about other…

Boeing 737 Max: Don’t rush into criminal case and don’t make safety a political football

Safety regulators should make careful decisions on when to ground planes, when to put them back in the air, and when to start criminal investigations. .

Nobody wants an airplane to crash. Importantly, the Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration and the commercial aviation industry have worked diligently to prevent this from happening. Since February 2009, about 8 billion passengers have been carried in U.S. commercial aviation without a single passenger fatality — an exemplary safety record.

As a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and a former secretary of Transportation, respectively, we believe that aviation safety regulators must be cautious to avoid unintended consequences. We are concerned about the potential impact of activities since the Ethiopian Airlines crash on March 10 in two respects — the process for grounding the 737 Max in some other countries and commencing a criminal investigation in the United States.

We commend the leadership of the FAA, supported by the secretary of Transportation, for making the difficult decision to ground the 737 Max based on the initial data from the second crash, as well as data from the October crash. Given the great impact of this decision, it should always be made based on data, not external pressure.

Read more commentary:

Airline pilot: Is it still safe to fly in a Boeing 737 Max? Don’t worry about it just yet.

The FAA has grounded airliners only three times in 40 years. The first two were the result of mechanical malfunctions that disabled the airplane so seriously, the risk of a catastrophe was too high. Those groundings resulted from the engine separating from the wing on a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 shortly after takeoff in 1979, and the lithium-ion battery fires in the Boeing 787 in 2013.

This most recent grounding, on the other hand, appears to have resulted from complex automation that pilots should be trained to respond to. Yet in two crashes several months apart, the pilots apparently did not know

Securing a Brexit deal will not end the UK’s political crisis

London (CNN)Anyone who thinks Theresa May’s resignation announcement — telling her party she will stand down once Brexit is delivered — marks the end of the most turbulent period in British politics for decades is mistaken.

We are only coming to the end of the first act of a very long and complicated play.

As was clear from proceedings in Parliament on Wednesday night, lawmakers cannot decide on a Plan B for Brexit.

And yet it’s highly likely that Plan A — the Prime Minister’s deal already defeated twice in the Commons — may be completely dead after the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), on whose votes May depends, said they could never back it.

From this interminable state of deadlock, it is very difficult to predict how the next few weeks and months will turn out for both the government and the United Kingdom, but let’s give it a try.

May pledged to resign in exchange for Conservative votes for her deal, and some Tory lawmakers did switch sides.

It may seem that, given the DUP decision to block it anyway, her offer was a waste of time — and yet it is hard to see how the Prime Minister can cling on beyond the summer anyway, given her authority and credibility are now all but obliterated.

Succession plan?

It was reported that a contest to find May’s successor could begin in late May, perhaps straight after the new potential Brexit date of May 22.

A six week campaign would produce a new Tory leader — and Prime Minister — by early July.

This timetable would chime with that of Brussels, which will be reassembling for a new session after the European Parliament elections in May.

The new Prime Minister’s number one task will be to open the second phase of Brexit negotiations with the European Union, on a future trading relationship…

Raw Politics: controversial copyright reform ignites debate on internet freedom

Raw Politics: controversial copyright reform ignites debate on internet freedom

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In a highly contentious vote on Tuesday, MEPs narrowly voted to push forward with copyright reforms that will require big tech companies to implement “upload filters” to detect copyright-protected content.

Critics are calling it a “dark day for internet freedom”, arguing that the legislation is too broad and puts legitimate content at high risk of being blocked.

Dominic Kis, a…

Should Democrats Worry About Political Experience in 2020?

Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden are at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to high-level political experience.

It’s often been said that Donald Trump destroyed all precedents in his astonishing rise to the presidency in 2016. And one of the unusual things about him was his complete lack of prior experience in public office or running for public office.

In assessing the very large Democratic field assembling to challenge Trump in 2020, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that a lot of politicians with resumes that would not normally bespeak presidential timber have taken a look at the 45th president’s rise to the White House and concluded there are no longer any minimum requirements. Yes, there have been presidents with no prior experience in elected office, but before Trump they were all war heroes (Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower) or Cabinet members (Taft and Hoover). A few major-party nominees were closer to Trump in the empty resume department (notably 1904 Democratic nominee Alton Parker, a state judge, and 1940 Republican nominee Wendell Willkie, a utility executive), but for the most part, especially in more recent times, the major parties have nominated former or current senators and governors.

A recent Morning Consult poll suggests that rank-and-file Democratic voters still value that kind of high-level experience, with 66 percent saying that “decades of political experience” was “very important” or “somewhat important” to them in choosing a 2020 nominee. That could help explain why two candidates (one potential and one actual) who together…

Liberals’ Reaction to Mueller Report Shows They Prioritize Politics Over Truth

So now special counsel Robert Mueller has issued his report, and it turns out after two years of investigation, at an estimated cost of $40 million, that “Russiagate” was fake news.

Much to the dismay of Democrats, Mueller found no collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and the Russians to influence the 2016 election.

Who are the winners here? Of course, the American people—and, of course, President Donald Trump and the Republican Party.

And, we might say, also House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

At the age of 79, with 32 years in the House of Representatives, Pelosi has a well-honed nose for sniffing out which political road to take.

She told The Washington Post earlier this month: “I’m going to give you some news right now, because I haven’t said this to any press person before. Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country. And he’s just not worth it.”

Either the speaker’s time-tested political sniffer is so fine-tuned that she smelled the fake news driving the Russia conspiracy investigation or she knew that driving the whole thing were dirty tricks that originated in her own party and that Mueller would not and could not cover this up.

This is the big and troubling story left in the wake of the Mueller investigation.

How is it that the FBI, including former…

Mueller could never have saved us from Trump. That’s what politics is for

President Donald Trump Joins Senate Republicans For Their Weekly Policy Luncheon<br&gtWASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 26: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media after he arrived at a Senate Republican weekly policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol March 26, 2019 in Washington, DC. Congressional top Democrats have demanded Attorney General William Barr to release special counsel Robert Muellers investigation report for the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The Mueller investigation has ended, not with a bang but with a whimper. Dispirited are those who looked forward to seeing the President removed from office first by impeachment and then in leg irons.

True, the investigation was, by many measures, a redoubtable success. It painstakingly documented Russia’s criminal meddling in our election and led to the conviction of several of the president’s closest advisers and enablers. And it hardly provided the “complete and total EXONERATION” that the president claimed in a characteristically inaccurate tweet, as the report left open whether Trump obstructed justice.

Still, for those who saw Mueller moving up the chain, closing in on the president and his family, the report – or at least what we know about it – must disappoint. Yes, Attorney General William Barr’s conclusion that Trump did not obstruct justice warrants closer scrutiny, and certainly we deserve a full release of the findings. But Barr’s conclusion – that it’s hard to prove the existence of obstruction when there was no underlying crime to obstruct – hardly seems scandalous.

How are we to make sense of the disappointment? I think the answer is that many of us were hoping that the law could deliver us from our contemporary politics, a toxic world shaped but not created by Trump himself. If in Trump’s universe, no facts are safe…

Alternative Brexit options: what will John Bercow select for indicative votes?

Theresa May delivers a speech to a full house in parliament.

MPs will be asked to consider a range of alternative Brexit options after parliament seized control of the Commons agenda to force a series of “indicative votes”.

Several options have been tabled and the Speaker, John Bercow, will select a number of the following for discussion and votes later on Wednesday.

Labour plan

Labour has tabled a motion proposing its plan for a close economic relationship with the EU. The plan includes a comprehensive customs union with a UK say on future trade deals; close alignment with the single market; matching new EU rights and protections; participation in EU agencies and funding programmes; and agreement on future security arrangements, including access to the European arrest warrant.

Common market 2.0

Tabled by the Conservative MPs Nick Boles, Robert Halfon and Andrew Percy and Labour’s Stephen Kinnock, Lucy Powell and Diana Johnson.

The motion proposes UK membership of the European Free Trade Association (Efta) and European Economic Area (EEA). It allows continued participation in the single market and a “comprehensive customs arrangement” with the EU after Brexit, which would remain in place until the agreement of a wider trade deal which guarantees frictionless movement of goods and an open border in Ireland.

Confirmatory public vote

Drawn up by the Labour MPs Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson and tabled by the former foreign secretary Dame Margaret Beckett with the backing of scores of MPs across the house, this motion would require a public vote to confirm any Brexit deal passed by parliament before its ratification.

Customs union

This plan requires a commitment to negotiate a “permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union with the EU” in any Brexit deal.

It is tabled by the veteran Conservative Europhile Ken Clarke, and backed by Labour’s Yvette Cooper, Helen Goodman and the chair of the Commons exiting the EU committee, Hilary Benn, and the former Tory ministers Sir Oliver Letwin and Sarah Newton.

Malthouse compromise plan A

A cross-party proposal calls for Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement to be implemented with the controversial “backstop” for the Irish border replaced by alternative arrangements.

Backed by Conservatives from both…

Brexit extension could be until 31 March 2020, EU documents reveal

Theresa May leaves after a press briefing at the end of an article 50 session at the European council in Brussels on 21 March

The EU has pencilled in April Fools’ Day 2020 as a leading option for Britain’s first day outside the bloc, should the UK government ask Brussels for a lengthy extension of article 50 in three weeks’ time, it can be revealed.

The date was to be offered at the leaders’ summit last week if Theresa May had followed through on her promise to request a short extension in the event of passing her Brexit deal, and a longer one should it be rejected again by the House of Commons.

Such was the disapproval of her cabinet, the prime minister only sought a short delay until 30 June in her formal letter. She was subsequently given an unconditional extension until 12 April, or a longer one to 22 May in the unlikely event of the withdrawal agreement being ratified this week.

Without having received a request from Downing Street for a prolonged extension, the EU’s leaders instead left open the offer of a lengthy delay should there be a new political process or event before 12 April, such as a general election or second referendum, but they did not stipulate its potential length.

A one-year extension, ending on 31 March 2020, was, however, written into internal EU papers before the summit as an offer that could be made to May should she formally seek a longer extension, sources said. It will likely remain an option if May comes back to Brussels having failed to ratify her deal.

Such a UK departure date would ensure the British government would not have any…