Saudi Arabia announced Friday that Iranians will be allowed to participate in this year’s Hajj pilgrimage, signaling a possible thawing of tensions between the two regional rivals. “Ministry of Hajj and Umrah and Iranian Hajj Organization has conducted all necessary arrangements for Iranian pilgrims' participation in Hajj 1438,” the Saudi Press Agency said Friday in a statement, referencing the Islamic calendar year. Last year, Iran barred its citizens from attending the annual Islamic pilgrimage after the two countries failed to agree on security arrangements. Relations between the two countries further deteriorated in the week leading up to the Hajj, when Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, citing a deadly 2015 Hajj stampede, called on Muslims to reconsider Saudi control of Islamic holy sites—comments which were met with a response by Saudi Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, who accused Iranians of not being real Muslims. Tensions between the two countries are hardly new. In addition to supporting opposing sides in the six-year Syrian civil war—in which Iran aligns itself with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Saudi Arabia supports Syrian opposition forces—the two countries suspended diplomatic ties in 2015 after Saudi Arabia executed prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr, which was followed by the storming of Tehran’s Saudi embassy by Iranian protesters.
—German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Trump at the White House today. It was their first meeting since the election. More here
—Saudi Arabia announced that Iranians will be allowed to participate in this year’s Hajj pilgrimage, signaling a possible thawing of tensions between the two regional rivals. More here
—The head of the United Nation’s West Asia commission resigned over pressure to withdraw a report that said Israel has imposed an “apartheid regime” on the Palestinian people. More here
—We’re tracking the news stories of the day below. All updates are in Eastern Standard Time (GMT -5).
Iran Will Resume Hajj Participation, Saudi Arabia Says
An Attack on a Boat of Refugees Leaves 40 Dead Off the Coast of Yemen
A boat full of Somali migrants was attacked off the coast of Yemen on Friday, killing at least 40 people, including women and children, United Nations officials said. It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the attack, and there were conflicting accounts of whether the boat had been targeted by a military warship or a helicopter. The boat is believed to have carried about 140 people in all. The boat had illegally launched from Yemen’s west coast into the Red Sea, a common smuggling route. It was attacked just before dawn, about 30 miles from the port city of Al Hudaydah. Some of the victims carried identity documents issued by the United Nations’ refugee agency, and officials say the migrants may have been heading from Yemen to Sudan, then to Libya, and ultimately for Europe. Despite years of war, Yemen hosts 255,000 Somali refugees. But as violence in the country intensifies, some refugees have taken to increasingly dangerous smuggling routes in hopes of reaching more stable and wealthy countries.
UN Official Resigns Over 'Apartheid' Israel Report
The head of the United Nation’s West Asia commission resigned Friday over pressure to withdraw a report that said Israel has imposed an “apartheid regime” on the Palestinian people. Rima Khalaf, who served as UN under-secretary general and executive secretary of the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), told reporters in Beirut Friday that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres asked the commission to remove the report, prompting her resignation. The report, which no longer appears on the commission’s website, was met with criticism by U.S. and Israeli officials, who condemned the report as “anti-Israel propaganda” and a “blatant lie,” respectively. Khalaf said such responses were “expected,” adding the report highlights “the crimes that Israel continues to commit against the Palestinian people, which amount to war crimes against humanity.” This is not the first time a UN agency has faced controversy over reports regarding Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. In October, Israel suspended its ties with UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency, over a resolution criticizing the country’s policies restricting access to religious sites in East Jerusalem and the West Bank—a report Israel charged with using language allegedly denying Jewish ties to the region’s holy sites.
Let Them Eat Bread: Venezuela Arrests Pastry-Makers in a Battle Over Baking
Four bakers were arrested in Venezuela this week amid an economic crisis that President Nicolás Maduro's socialist government warned could amount to a “bread war.” The arrests, according to a statement Wednesday by the Venezuelan government, were made for alleged violations of a new government rule that says 90 percent of wheat used by bakers must go toward price-controlled loaves of bread. Of the four arrested, two of the bakers are accused with using too much wheat to make speciality pastries such as sweet bread and ham-filled croissants, while two others were detained for using expired wheat to make brownies. At least one bakery was temporarily seized by the government. The rule comes as the latest response to Venezuela’s economic crisis—one which prompted the government to slash imports, resulting in nationwide food shortages. Maduro has sent soldiers and inspectors to more than 700 bakeries to enforce the rule, warning this week that “those behind the 'bread war' are going to pay, and don't let them say later it is political persecution.”
Derek Walcott, Nobel Prize-Winning Poet, Dies at 87
Derek Walcott, the Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright from St. Lucia, has died at the age of 87, the St. Lucia Star and the Associated Press report, citing his family. No cause was given, but Walcott was said to be in poor health. Walcott’s work centered on the impact of colonialism on his native Caribbean. His mother paid to publish his first two collections, which came out by the time he was 19. Several others poetry collections followed, but the work for which Walcott is perhaps best known is Omeros (1990), a reimagining of the Odyssey—it’s a work that cemented his legacy and made him a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he won two years later. Walcott was a contemporary and friend of V.S. Naipaul, a fellow West Indian Nobel laureate, but the two men bitterly fell out over, among other things, their differing views on colonialism’s impact on the Caribbean. Walcott, who was awarded the MacArthur genius grant in 1981, taught at American universities, where two accusations of sexual harassment eventually resulted in his withdrawing his candidacy for Oxford Professor of Poetry in 2009 following what was described as a smear campaign. (Ruth Padel, his rival for the job, was ultimately revealed to have leaked details of the case to the media, prompting her resignation from the post nine days after she assumed it.) Walcott, the recipient of several literary prizes, divided his time between St. Lucia, Boston, and New York.
Israeli Jets Strike Inside Syria; Syria Fires Back
Israel and Syria engaged Friday in a series of retaliatory bombings and missile launches, marking an escalation in the relationship between the two adversaries. Israel took rare responsibility for several overnight airstrikes on targets in Syria, reportedly at a military site near the ancient city of Palmyra. As the planes returned to airspace over Israeli-controlled territory in the Jordan Valley, an Israeli military spokesman said Syria fired several anti-aircraft missiles. At least one missile was intercepted by Israel’s “Arrow” system, designed to shield the country from attacks by ballistic missiles, and developed with U.S. financial aid. Israeli media said it was the first time Israel has deployed this system since it was set up in the 1990s. Israel has reportedly struck targets in Syria in the past, mostly along weapons-smuggling routes, though these have typically been clandestine. But as the civil war in Syria enters its seventh year, Israel is becoming increasingly concerned that militant groups like Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside the Syrian military, will become empowered.
Trump and Germany's Merkel Meet for the First Time
President Trump is set to receive German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House on Friday for their first meeting since Trump took office in January. The two are expected to talk for about two hours, and their conversation will cover a range of issues from ISIS, immigration, North Korea, the European Union, and NATO. Trump has previously criticized the EU as a “vehicle for Germany,” and accused Merkel of “ruining Germany,” but the two leaders have spoken by telephone since the presidential election during which Merkel reportedly “explained” the Geneva convention to Trump. Merkel has reportedly been studying up for the meeting, reading Trump’s speeches and past media interviews. Trump is expected to press the German chancellor on contributing more toward NATO; Germany is one of the countries that spends less than the mandated 2 percent of GDP on the Atlantic alliance. Merkel is expected to press Trump on climate change, as well as the benefits of economic cooperation. She is bringing along with her executives from BMW and Siemens, which employ tens of thousands of workers in the U.S.
U.K. Says White House Won't Repeat 'Ridiculous' Claim About Its Spy Agency Wiretapping Trump
A spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May has told the BBC and others that the White House’s claim on Thursday that the U.K.’s GCHQ spy agency wiretapped Donald Trump during the presidential campaign at the behest of President Obama was “ridiculous and should have been ignored,” adding the U.K. government had received assurances from the Trump White House the claim would not be repeated. The Telegraph reported that intelligence sources had told them that Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, and H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national-security adviser, “have apologized over the claims” to the U.K.’s ambassador to Washington. Spicer’s claim Thursday elicited an unusual response from GCHQ, which typically neither confirms nor denies reports about its alleged activities. A spokesman, in a statement, called the claim “nonsense.” Spicer’s claim was itself based on remarks made on Fox News by Andrew Napolitano, a frequent commentator, who said: “Three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command. He didn’t use the NSA, he didn’t use the CIA, he didn’t use the FBI, and he didn’t use the Department of Justice. He used GCHQ.” Speculation about the wiretapping was fanned by Trump earlier this month who tweeted that Obama had his “wires tapped.” Those claims have been consistently dismissed—and denied by Obama—but fanned repeatedly by Trump and his supporters. Two U.S. senators—a Republican and a Democrat—who’d looked into the allegation said ther’d seen no evidence of it. But Spicer, citing Napolitano, said Thursday Trump stood by the claim.
Tillerson Says Military 'Option's on the Table' With North Korea
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the military “option's on the table” if North Korea escalates its nuclear-weapons program “to a level that we believe requires action.” He also ruled out talks with the North, noting that two decades of diplomacy had yielded little. The comments, which were made in South Korea, come at a delicate time: North Korea has carried out nuclear and missile tests in violation of its treaty obligations and much to the worry of Japan and South Korea, with which the North technically remains in a state of war; the U.S. has deployed a missile system to South Korea, a move that’s sure to incense the North, but which has also angered China, which views the system as a threat; and the ouster of South Korea’s president means fresh election in May that could bring to power a candidate who is keener on closer ties with Pyongyang. I’ll note here that Tillerson’s remarks about the military option being “on the table” are quite typical in diplomacy and have been used by American secretaries of state as well as presidents from both parties. Indeed, the Obama administration had used that exact phrase in 2012 while discussing Iran.