Finally, a New START (and a possible end to the international stalemate over Iran)?
After many years of failed attempts to renew an expiring Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) agreement, and in a reversal of a growing trend in antipathy in US-Russia relations, President Obama and Russian President Medvedev sign a New Start pact in Prague on Thursday to reduce their nuclear arsenals. The pact needs to be ratified by the American Congress and the Russian Duma. Its terms limit deployment of no more than 1550 strategic nuclear warheads or 700 launchers and, importantly, renews inspection conventions that expired last December. This is a major foreign policy victory for both Presidents, whose respective countries have found little ground for cooperation in recent years. Eastern European countries expressed weariness at American warmth towards a Moscow that they see as becoming more authoritarian and imperialist by the day. However, the Obama administration took great pains to reassure them.
This agreement is part and parcel of President Obama's foreign policy shift on nuclear weapons that he is promoting heavily ahead of a nuclear security summit to be held in Washington next week. He already refined America's first use policy or Nuclear Posture Review last week, stating that the U.S. would never use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states or states that are in compliance with their commitments to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This serves President Obama's strategic interests to fight nuclear weapons proliferation by state and non-state actors, and lays the ground for a harder and more unified international position on Iran and North Korea. The united front presented by Obama and Medvedev against Iran's nuclear program was indeed notable.
Moreover, just in this week, the UN's nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, believes that Iran is building or preparing to build two new hidden nuclear enrichment installations. But warming relations between the U.S. and China this week over Renimbi valuation overshadowed the fact that China, for the first time, expressed its willingness to discuss sanctions against Iran. This does not bode well for Iran; many believe more sanctions are forthcoming from the Security Council before month's end.
Kyrgyzstan: The Withered Tulip
In the aftermath of a violent and unexpected uprising, Kyrgyzstan continues to reel in confusion. The small central Asian nation seemed to stabilize a bit on Friday as an interim government took control and gave President Bakiyev safe passage to exile, provided he steps down and relinquishes power. Meanwhile, some reports suggest that Bakiyev has already fled the nation, while others suggest he is in the south of the country. In this nation that sustained another political crisis in 2005 -- The Tulip Revolution, which brought Bakiyev to power -- the real issues stem from a serious financial crisis. Apparently only $80 million dollars are left in the budget after Bakiyev's mismanagement. Washington is mostly concerned about the unrest in Bishkek as it relates to the Manas air base, which received a good deal of attention in 2009 as Moscow exerted pressure on Kyrgyzstan to oust the US air force there. Apparently, Manas is still operating as normal, even if its future is unclear. Russia, the former Soviet ruler of Kyrgyzstan, was quick to jump in and make nice with the new Kyrgyz leaders, as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called Roza Otunbayeva, the commanding opposition leader.
While Kyrgyz unrest is a relatively frequent affair, it does cause concern on the part of analysts. So much attention has been paid to unrest in South Asia, instability and Islamist activity in the Middle East, and rebels in the Caucasus. Central Asia, an energy-rich and ethnically diverse region, could be the world's next tinder box for unrest and turmoil. Although hard-line authoritarian regimes have kept stability throughout the past 2 decades, these nations, most notably Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, are at high risk for political unrest and, in some cases, Islamist insurgency.
Following Obama's first visit to Afghanistan and ahead of his own visit to Washington next month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai had a series of erratic and bizarre outburst aimed against Western powers, causing some to question his mental fitness. Karzai's outburst was met with a stern response from Western allies and Karzai sought to downplay his statements, though many remain concerned that Karzai is deeply frustrated by increased Western criticism of his leadership and demands to root out corruption and graft from this government. Effective cooperation is tantamount to the war effort, especially as an increased number of troops are entering the country and Afghan authorities are hoping to move forward with a controversial reconciliation and amnesty effort with certain insurgents.
Meanwhile, following US/Pakistan strategic dialogue in Washington last week, efforts, including drone attacks, along the Afghan border with Pakistan seem to be advancing and putting pressure on insurgents and foreign militants there. However Taliban retaliatory violence continues throughout Pakistan with a suicide attack in NWFP and an attack on the US Consulate in Peshawar.
Concern for the operational security of the war and Central Asian stability in general reached the international zeitgeist as the Kyrgyzstan government fell to rebels this week. Meanwhile, US Centcom Commander Petraeus met with officials from Kazakhstan and shored up their continued support of the effort.
A series of violent attacks rocked Iraq this week, sparking fears that insurgents are trying to capitalize on the political uncertainty following the March 7 elections. Indeed with no clear victor, political leaders are struggling to to form coalitions and a tenable hold on power for effective government. Iyad Allawi's pan-sectarian Iraqi National Movement won the most seats by a margin of two over incumbent PM Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law alliance. Sadrist had a strong showing with 70 votes and the two major Kurdish parties garnered 43.
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