Middle East

U.S. Department of State

Skepticism remains in the United States and Iran about the framework agreement reached last week regarding the latter's nuclear program. Many in Congress are wary of Iran, including some of Connecticut's lawmakers.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says his country will only sign an agreement restricting his country's nuclear program if economic sanctions are lifted. The remarks on state TV came as Iran's supreme leader said he's neither for nor against the deal.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also said that any arrangements must respect Iran's interests and dignity. He questioned the need for talks if they don't trigger the removal of sanctions, and he reiterated his distrust of the United States.

From Istanbul, NPR's Peter Kenyon reports:

President Obama says it would be a "fundamental misjudgment" to condition a nuclear deal with Iran on the country's recognition of Israel.

Obama made the comments Monday during an interview with Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the U.S. to seek a better agreement with Iran over its nuclear weapons program, insisting that he's not trying to kill any deal, just "a bad deal."

Netanyahu, speaking on NBC's Meet the Press, argued that the current plan "leaves the preeminent terrorist state of our time with a vast nuclear infrastructure."

He lamented that "not one centrifuge is destroyed" under the agreement.

(This post was last updated at 8:08 p.m. ET.)

After a process that has tested international alliances and divided politicians at home, President Obama said that Iran and six world powers had come to a preliminary understanding about Iran's nuclear program. The framework agreement was reached after years of multilateral negotiations.

Even before he became president, Barack Obama was imagining the possibilities of a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran. His willingness to reverse decades of official U.S. hostility was one of the things that set Obama apart on the campaign trail.

"We have to have a clear break with the Bush-Cheney style of diplomacy that has caused so many problems," Obama told NBC's Meet the Press in November 2007.

With Tuesday's deadline for an international deal on Iran's nuclear program approaching, foreign ministers from Iran and six world powers are trying to hash out an agreement. The debate currently centers on where Iran's nuclear fuel should be stored, and how — and when — economic sanctions should be lifted.

Other details, such as rules controlling enrichment, the length of the deal and how it would be enforced, also remain unsettled.

The current upheaval in Yemen is a sharp reminder of the fragility of the global oil market. Airstrikes by Saudi Arabia against Houthi rebels in Yemen has stoked fears of a disruption to the supply market.

Yemen and Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil producer, share a long border. While Yemen is only a small producer of crude oil, it controls the Bab el-Mandeb Strait at the southern entrance to the Red Sea.

This post was last updated at 6:29 p.m. ET.

The Saudi ambassador to Washington says the Saudi air operations against Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen will continue and "we will see coalition partners join in the effort" and he accused Iran of sending advisers to aid the Houthis.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani tells NPR that most people in his country want a continued U.S. troop presence and that his government is determined to make sure that the self-declared Islamic State does not gain a foothold.

Ghani, on an official visit to the United States, spoke in a wide-ranging interview with Morning Edition host Renee Montagne to be broadcast on Monday.

He says the perception that Afghans are eager for U.S. troops to leave the country is simply untrue. "They see the United States as critical to their future," he says.

House Speaker John Boehner plans to travel to Israel at the end of the month, close on the heels of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's re-election and the Israeli leader's controversial address to Congress.

Although there are no details on who he might meet in Israel, Boehner "looks forward to visiting the country, discussing our shared priorities for peace and security in the region, and further strengthening the bond between the United States and Israel," his spokesman, Kevin Smith, said in a statement.

Updated at 5:50 p.m. ET

Suicide bombers in Yemen attacked two mosques during Friday prayers in the capital, Sanaa, killing at least 137 people and wounding hundreds more.

Updated at 5:15 p.m. ET.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, fresh from victory in parliamentary elections this week, says he wants to clarify remarks he made on the campaign trail that appeared to write off any possibility of a Palestinian state on his watch.

"What I said was that under the present circumstances, today, it is unachievable," Netanyahu says in an interview with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep to be aired Friday. "I said that the conditions have to change."

With nearly all votes counted in elections for the Knesset, Israel's parliament, Benjamin Netanyahu's center-right Likud party has won at least a five-seat victory over its principal rival, the center-left Zionist Union.

Israeli media report Likud has 29 or 30 seats in the 120-member Knesset to the Zionist Union's 24 seats.

Updated at 6:52 p.m.

Exit polls released after the close of voting in Israel's national election show that the race is too close to call.

Israel's Channel 1 and Channel 10 both said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party and Isaac Herzog's Zionist Union secured 27 seats each in the 120-seat Knesset. Channel 2, meanwhile, have Likud 28 seats and the Zionist Union 27. The numbers were published by Haaretz.

The U.S. returned dozens of artifacts to the Iraqi government Monday. The cultural treasures, some dating back more than 4,000 years, were looted from Iraq and smuggled into the United States.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says while there has been some progress in talks with Iran over its nuclear program, "important gaps" need to be overcome before a deal can be reached by a late March deadline.

"We have made some progress but there are still gaps, important gaps, and important choices that need to be made by Iran in order to move forward," Kerry said.

Chion Wolf / WNPR

Senator Chris Murphy said this week that as long as he's been in the Senate, he's never seen anything like the letter that Republicans recently wrote to Iranian leaders. He called the move by 47 GOP lawmakers "unprecedented."

IsraelinUSA / Creative Commons

Earlier this week, 47 GOP senators signed a letter to Iranian leaders warning against a nuclear agreement. The letter comes less than a month before the Obama administration is scheduled to complete a draft deal on Iran’s nuclear programs, and just a week after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial speech before the U.S. Congress. 

Updated at 5:15 p.m. ET.

It may have been politically rude, but was the open letter 47 Republican senators sent to Iran this week illegal?

Republican senators' letter to Iran about ongoing nuclear talks has prompted a lengthy response from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who delivered an overview of international law as he critiqued the letter.

Peter Stevens/Flickr

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked the United States and President Barack Obama for aiding Israel during a speech to Congress on Tuesday. He also warned of the threat that Iran poses to Israel’s survival.

The world must unite in order to “stop Iran’s march of conquest, subjugation, and terror,” Netanyahu said.

Updated at 2:09 p.m. ET

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a deal the U.S. and its allies are pursuing with Iran over its nuclear program is "very bad" because, according to him, it doesn't take away the Islamic republic's ability to ultimately obtain nuclear weapons.

"This is a bad deal — a very bad deal," Netanyahu told a joint meeting of Congress today. "We're better off without it."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that while the U.S. and Israel agree that Iran should not get nuclear weapons, they disagree about how to stop the Islamic republic. But, he tells the 2015 American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference in Washington, reports of a decline in U.S.-Israeli relations are "not only premature, they're just wrong."

Netanyahu says his planned speech to Congress on Tuesday is not intended to be a slight to President Obama. "I have great respect for both" Obama and the office that he holds," he says.

Updated at 5:45 p.m.

Secretary of State John Kerry sharply criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's "judgment" on talks with Iran on its nuclear program — the latest Obama administration official wading into the controversy stirred by the Israeli leader's planned talk to Congress on March 3 on the dangers posed by the Islamic republic.

Extremist fighters from the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS, have kidnapped "at least" 90 Assyrian Christians in northeastern Syria, according to a monitoring group. The claim emerges from an area recently targeted by coalition attacks.

Looking to take back a city that has high strategic and symbolic value, the Iraqi military will launch an offensive against fighters from the self-proclaimed Islamic State in the coming months, a senior U.S. military official says.

NPR's Tom Bowman reports:

"A U.S. Central Command official told reporters at the Pentagon that the military operation to retake Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, will be in the April-May timeframe, and this operation will involve an estimated 20,000-25,000 Iraqi soldiers.

Kevin Roche

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst has backed off  a new policy  that banned Iranian nationals from some engineering and science programs.

The school had said the ban was tied to federal sanctions designed to discourage Iranian citizens from entering the U.S. to prepare for careers in the energy sector of Iran, or in nuclear science or engineering.  In a statement released Wednesday, the school says after consulting with the State Department and outside counsel,  it will accept Iranian students into science and engineering programs and will develop individualized study plans based on a student's projected coursework and research. 

White House

President Barack Obama is asking Congress to formally authorize war against Islamic State militants.

The request is limited to three years, with no restriction as to where U.S. forces could pursue the threat.

Obama's proposal bans "enduring offensive combat operations," an ambiguous term intended as compromise between lawmakers who want authority for ground troops and those who don't. In a statement delivered Wednesday, Obama said his request "does not call for the deployment of U.S. ground forces to Iraq or Syria." He said local forces are in the best position to fight a ground war.

Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy is one of those opponents to ground forces.

"We’ve got to be smart about this fight," he said. "A smart strategy recognizes that combat troops, in the end, are just going to become bulletin board material for terrorists to bring even more forces to the fight in the Middle East, and across the globe."

In a move that is sure to set off a new round of debate over how the U.S. should fight ISIS, the Obama administration has sent Congress a request for formal authorization to use military force against the extremist group.

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