-NUCLEAR INSPECTORS ARRIVE…A team of inspectors from the U.N. nuclear watchdog, IAEA, arrived in Tehran today for more talks about Iran's controversial nuclear program. The IAEA scheduled the visit in order to address concerns about the military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program. Meanwhile, Iran has been working on its war-readiness - in extensive military exercises begun in central Iran over the weekend. The country's elite Revolutionary Guard is simulating a defensive war against a foreign attacker.
-TOP U.S. OFFICIAL TALKS IRAN WITH ISRAELIS…From Alex MARQUARDT: National Security Adviser Tom Donilon met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for two hours yesterday, ahead of Netanyahu's trip to DC early next month. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is in Jerusalem later this week - both visits seen as the latest in a string (Panetta and Dempsey earlier) of meetings designed to get a sense of Israel's thinking on Iran and urge them to see how sanctions play out before carrying out an attack on the nuclear program. One of Israel's famed "Iron Dome" batteries is being deployed in the Tel Aviv area in the coming days for a drill to simulate incoming rockets and missiles. The IAF is downplaying the first-time (in Tel Aviv) drill, saying it is long-planned and part of ongoing efforts to improve Israel's nationwide multi-layered air defenses. Meanwhile Elizabeth Bumiller's report on the difficulties Israel would face in striking Iran is worth a read.
-RED CROSS NEGOTIATING ACCESS…The Red Cross is talking to the Syrian government about ways to reach those suffering from the fighting inside that country - including the possibility of a negotiated cease-fire.
-THE CRACKDOWN IN HOMS…A Syria-based activist says three columns of army reinforcements including tanks are heading toward Homs. The regime appears to be preparing to storm rebel-held neighborhoods in the city before a referendum is held Feburary 26th on the new constitution.
-IRANIAN NAVY SHIPS DOCKED…Meanwhile, eyes are still on those two Iranian naval ships that passed through the Suez canal and docked at the Syrian port of Tartous this weekend.
PALESTINIAN PRISONER NEAR DEATH?
MARQUARDT again: A case getting a lot of attention here and abroad that may heat up in the coming days: Palestinian prisoner Khader Adnan is near death after a hunger strike that has lasted for 64 days. The thirty-three year-old Adnan is being held without charges by Israel for being a suspected member of Islamic Jihad. His appeal against a four-month "administrative detention" was denied. Israel can extend the administrative detention indefinitely if the person is considered a security threat.
-STOCKS RISE AHEAD OF EXPECTED GREEK BAILOUT DEAL…While U.S. markets are closed for the holiday, global markets have risen with hopes the Greek bailout deal will be finalized. The Finance Ministers of Eurozone countries will meet today to decide whether or not to approve the next tranche of Greece's bailout loan following the adoption of new austerity measures in Athens.
-OIL SPIKES…Richard DAVIES reports: Global oil prices are at a 9-month high, moving up to $105 a barrel. Watch for higher gasoline prices as a result. Over the past month gas has soared 18 cents a gallon. The oil price spike is largely the result of Iran's decision to halt exports to Britain and France - ramping up the dispute over its nuclear program. Iran's oil ministry says it has stopped crude shipments to British and French companies. This appears to be a preemptive blow against the European Union for sanctions on Iran's crucial fuel exports. Oil prices were also sent higher by China's decision to boost money supply in a bid to spur lending and economic growth.
NORTH KOREA WARNS OF 'TOTAL WAR' OVER MILITARY DRILLS
South Korea has conducted live-fire military drills from five islands near its disputed boundary with North Korea, despite North Korea's threat of retaliation. The Guardian reports South Korea saw no immediate action by North Korea following the drills, which ended after about two hours. Before the drills began, North Korea said it would launch a "thousands-fold more severe" punishment than the 2010 shelling and "total war" if South Korea went ahead. Meanwhile, North Korea and the US are scheduled for talks this week in Beijing on the country's nuclear weapons program.
KIM JONG IL'S SON…CUT OFF?
As Akiko FUJITA reports: It's no secret Kim Jong Nam loves press attention, but this is one report he probably wants kept out of the media. The Russian weekly, Argumenty i Fakty reports the eldest son of Kim Jong Il was kicked out of a Macao hotel, after his credit card was declined. The grand total of the bill? $15,000. Kim's living expenses are paid for by the Chinese secret service, but North Korea primarily covers his "entertainment" expenses - i.e, gambling and women. The magazine reports Kim Jong Un may have cut off funds to Kim Jong Nam, after he now infamously told a Japanese journalist that "(Kim Jong Un) would not be able to maintain his leadership for long." The Kim family soap opera continues…
AFGHAN WAR: VIOLENT DAY
Two separate attacks in Afghanistan overnight, per Aleem AGHA in Kabul. In Kandahar, a suicide attacker driving a car killed one Afghan police officer and three civilians. Meanwhile, three Italian NATO troops were killed in an operation in western Afghanistan.
PAKISTAN'S TALIBAN: THE KIDNAPPING BUSINESS
The New York Times reports a campaign of high-profile kidnappings has provided the Pakistani Taliban and its allies with new resources, arming insurgents with millions of dollars, threatening foreign aid programs and galvanizing a sophisticated network of jihadi and criminal gangs whose reach spans the country.
TEENAGER TO BE CANED FOR FACEBOOK INSULT
Bazi KANANI reports: A judge in Zimbabwe has sentenced a 17-year-old boy to be caned for insulting a woman on Facebook. According to the Herald newspaper, the boy confessed to taking a photo of the woman without her knowledge, then posting it with a caption that said she was among the town's prostitutes. When the woman discovered the photo, she called police. The boy was sentenced to be beaten with a cane twice. Caning is a common punishment in Zimbabwe for those considered too young for prison.
JAPAN: RECORD TRADE DEFICIT
From Akiko FUJITA in Tokyo: New numbers released by the Ministry of Finance show Japan posted its worst trade deficit since World War II, with the gap widening to $19 billion in January. The drop can largely be blamed on the country's energy crises. With all but two nuclear plants idle, Japan's liquefied gas imports surged 12.2 percent, as utilities increased thermal power generation by 12.6 percent. Shipments to China (Japan's largest market) fell 20 percent from a year ago. The Bank of Japan Governor has said the trade deficit "won't become a firmly established trend" because it is driven by "temporary factors." Meanwhile, S&P warned it could lower Japan's sovereign rating if the economy expands less than expected, or if the public debt continues to grow.
STILL IN JAPAN: DEAD SHARK FOUND IN A PARK
FUJITA again: Tokyo police are trying to figure out who left a dead shark at Yoyogi park (just outside the ABC bureau!) this weekend. Guards were first alerted to the shark Sunday morning. They found the carcass, roughly 5 feet long and weighing 220 pounds, covered with a blue tarp. There are reports of a similar dead shark on display outside a sushi restaurant, near the park on Valentine's Day…and police are trying to learn whether the two are related. The Yomiuri, which interviewed the unnamed sushi restaurant, quotes the owner who says "we handed the carcass off to a person who claimed to be an artist." The Yomiuri says the restaurant served the shark, but planned to throw out the carcass, until the "artist" asked if he could take it. Needless to say, questions abound…
WITH AVALANCHES IN THE NEWS…
Joe SIMONETTI spies this compelling tape - cleared for use. "To give you a sense of what it's like to get caught up in an avalanche - Storyful has posted (and cleared) one skier caught up in an avalanche in Austria…on February 16th. The incident was captured on his helmet camera as he was carried rapidly down the slope and came to rest partially buried. The accompanying description with the video, in Norwegian, says the incident took place at the ski resort of Sankt Anton am Arlberg, in Tyrol, and the skier got away with only a lost ski, a broken pole and a bruised elbow.
WORLD'S FIRST TEST TUBE BURGER?
The Guardian reports Dr. Mark Post, head of physiology at Maastricht University, plans to unveil the first lab-grown meat burger this October aiming to reduce the number of cattle farmed for food and thus reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The burger will cost more than 200,000 pounds (around $31,000) because the in-vitro meat is grown from stem cells. Post said the burger would be a "proof of concept" to demonstrate that "with in-vitro methods, out of stem cells we can make a product that looks like and feels and hopefully tastes like meat."