Weekly Foreign Affairs Roundup

06/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Week's Top Stories in Foreign Affairs :

Noisy North Korea

Facts: North Korea performed a nuclear test last weekend which, according to various seismic measurements, amounted to a blast of somewhere between 4 and 20 kilotons (possibly larger than the US' bombing of Hiroshima in 1945). The significance of the test cannot be discounted, as Pyongyang's 2006 blast was a mere 1 kt. With increased missile technology, more bellicose language, and the breakdown of 6-party talks, nuclear North Korea continues to raise its threat against the West (and even more so against its neighbors Japan and South Korea). The test quickly put North Korea back in the headlines - a place it wants to be. US President Obama responded quickly, vowing quick action against Pyongyang while working with friends and allies to stand up to the threat. Many international thought leaders have called North Korea a real "test for Obama". The UN also issued a fast statement, condemning North Korea and pointing out that the test violated a 2006 UNSC resolution, and thereby showing surprising unity between the US, Russia and China on the issue. US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice announced that Pyongyang will "pay the price" for its actions against the international community. Following these developments, North Korea continued to ramp up the rhetoric, threatening military action on Seoul for participating in US-led efforts known as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) to intercept suspicious cargo ships. In addition, and perhaps most alarming, Pyongyang called the truce that ended the Korean War invalid.

SI Analysis: The underlying issue at hand in North Korea is the fact that it is unclear who is really calling the shots in Pyongyang. Kim Jong-Il, having most likely suffered a stroke last year, is weak and possibly mentally compromised. A host of rumors have been surrounding the question of who will succeed him. No matter who will take up the mantle of leadership in Pyongyang, it is in the interest of North Korea's friends and foes to bring diplomacy back. Preemptive military action against North Korea is not a valid option. Getting North Korea back to the negotiating table is the only way to diffuse the tension on the Korean Peninsula without pushing the nuclear Armageddon clock closer to midnight. The difficulty for American diplomats is that the US is largely powerless in this regard. China (and Russia also) must step up to the plate. This week saw a large number of editorials and opinion pieces calling for increased action from Beijing, North Korea's closest ally. They include Judith Miller of Fox ("The Key to Reining In North Korea? It's China, Stupid..."), Mark Urban for the BBC ("China is in the driving seat over North Korea") and Stuart Whatley of the Huffington Post ("China is the variable to watch in this geopolitical equation, not North Korea"). US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced while on a visit to Beijing that "the Chinese must use their influence to help bring North Korea to the table for the six-party talks." It is only with coordinated and concerted diplomatic efforts from all sides that a resolution can be made. Indeed, this is a test not just for the Obama administration, but also for Beijing, Moscow, Seoul, Tokyo and the UN. The good news is that in the end North Korea wants to be talking to everyone and its recent acts may be less about showing a credible threat of impending aggressive action but more about ensuring domestic political control and playing to the national pride of its disenfranchised and starving populace.

Shift in Pakistan

Facts: The Pakistani Army continued in its offensive against the Taliban in the Swat Valley and expanded its actions into other parts of North West Frontier Province (NWFP). The Taliban claimed responsibility for a sophisticated bombing in Lahore that killed tens of people and another in Peshawar that claimed five lives. The fighting in Swat has displaced an estimated 2.5 million people in desperate need for security and aid.

SI Analysis: There is good reason to believe that Pakistani government military action in Swat is different from previous military incursions against the Taliban. For one, it is more aggressive and sustained than previous campaigns. Second, the Taliban do seem profoundly effected, as they are resorting to terror tactics in urban centers, which will likely continue as they are defeated in the theater of traditional combat. What's more, it appears that public opinion is with the government (which will be further bolstered in response to the recent bombings) allowing it pursue its aggressive tactics. However, analysts are quick to warn that the tide could rapidly change if Pakistan does not take proper care of its displaced people and if there too many civilian casualties. Moreover, this is only the beginning of an action that could eventually undermine the Taliban's hold in the region. A viable alternative to effective Taliban rule in the region must quickly follow with comprehensive government development programs with an adequate provision of civil services.

Prospects for Peace in Israel: Momentum or Pipe dream

Facts: US officials including Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama called on Israel to stop all settlement activity in the West Bank, while Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu vowed to continue settlement development to allow for "natural growth". Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Washington on Thursday to speak with Obama, who called on the Palestinians to continue to improve security in the West Bank. Next week, Obama will travel to Saudi Arabia and then onto Egypt where he is expected to speak on Middle East Peace and American policy in the region. Meanwhile, citing the threat from Iran and Hezbollah, the Israeli Defense Forces will conduct a large military drill on Sunday.

SI Analysis: Despite forthright effortsy the US to engage with both the Israelis and Palestinians on the prospect of peace, the truth remains that domestic and internal politics in the region have never been less propitious for a peace agreement. The Palestinians remain divided between a Hamas-ruled Gaza and a Fatah-led West Bank. In Israel, the far right, which will never agree to a two-state solution or to a halt on settlement building, holds a slim but firm grip on power. Arab states and Iran will use this opportunity to declare their willingness to pursue peace for their own domestic political gains, as they are surely confident that there will be no progress on this issue. President Obama's initiatives in the Middle East will have to continue to be mainly in form and soft diplomacy, to try and sway Israeli, Palestinian and the greater Arab street to a mindset and ethos that could even begin contemplate the prospect of peace.

Speculation of the Week: Somalia's government will fall in 2 weeks

Facts: Somalia has seen growing turmoil and chaos in the past several weeks. Although international forces have been making some headway against pirates, the situation on land has grown dire. The moderate Islamist UN-supported government of President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed has been consistently attacked by the radical Al-Shabaab Islamist militia. In addition, al-Shabaab has condemned the continued presence of African Union troops in Somalia and has vowed increased attacks on them. Many analysts agree that the attacks have put Ahmed's government under such duress and placed Mogadishu at such risk, that it will only last a few more weeks. Mogadishu has effectively turned into a battlefield, with Al-Shabaab and other militias such as Hisb-ul-Islam firing on civilians and government supporters, encircling the Presidential Palace, and forcing thousands to flee to the countryside. In addition, Somalia's chaos is not a strictly domestic issue. First, some reports reveal that much hated Ethiopian forces have reentered the country after departing several months ago. In addition, the Somali government has accused Eritrea of supporting the radical militias. The issue has even been brought to the UN which is considering sanctions against Eritrea.

SI Analysis: It seems that any internationally-supported government is likely to fail in Somalia. Given the duress and stress that al-Shabaab & Co. (al-Qaeda is one rumored sponsor-affiliate of the group) is causing the Somali government, it seems that President Ahmed has only 2 options: 1.) Give so many concessions that Somalia becomes increasingly radical (but more stable) with al-Shabaab occupying key governmental positions, or 2.) fight to the death in which case al-Shabaab will ultimately take over (and then be likely destroyed by a targeted US-led bombing campaign thus condemning Somalia to continued lawlessness). The one important variable in the equation is the presence of influential warlords and other non-radical militias in the country that seek to advance their own agendas. One such group is a group of more moderate Sufis in central Somalia that seek to promote moderate Islam and have vowed to defeat al-Shabaab. The various differing factions and chaos further points to the fact that Somalia is a disjoint nation with no overarching government and little hope of stability in the near future.


Iranian Initiatives

SI Analysis: There were a number of under the radar stories related to Iran this week that demonstrate how Iran is effectively driving its agenda as a rational and realist actor in the region:

  1. The presidential campaign: Iranian Presidential elections take place on June 12. In the running are incumbent and hardliner President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his main opponent: reformist and former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi. This week Mousavi made quite an unexpected gain in polls, taking the lead in Iran's 10 biggest cities by 4%. Some analysts predict Moussavi to win, which could possibly lay the groundwork for a change in Iranian foreign policy (though the Ayatollah remains firmly in control of Iran regardless of election results).
  2. Pipelines. Iran made a lucrative deal with Pakistan this week, signing an agreement with Islamabad to begin work on a pipeline that has been part of larger 12-year-old plans for the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline or "Peace Pipeline". (India has not yet signed on). The pipeline is a boon to both domestic politics and for trade, as it opens up a new market for Iranian natural gas and could be extended to either India or China. Russia's Gazprom has even expressed interest in joining in the deal.
  3. Tehran Summit. On Monday, Iran hosted a trilateral summit with Afghan and Pakistani leaders aimed at improving security in the region. The three nations agreed on the need to confront extremists like the Taliban and the drug trade associated with it. The summit effectively brought the 3 disparate neighbors together and represents pragmatism and initiative coming from Iran. Moreover, the summit points to the fact that Iranian and US interests can be aligned quite easily.

Napoleanoic Delusion of the Week

SI Analysis: Analysts take note of France's opening of its first military base in the Middle East as an effort to reassert French influence (both diplomatic and military) in the region. What's more interesting is to see how the United Arab Emirates has positioned itself to be the darling of Europe, Russia (the first visit by a Russian President to the UAE was in 2007) and the US (recent civilian nuclear deal with the Washington). Jostling over this small conglomerate of Arab tribal fiefdoms could spark new tensions between global powers and in any case will certainly rile Iran.

Conflicted Russia-US Nuclear Agreement of the Week

SI Analysis: The US and Russia reach a formal agreement for Russia to sell non-weapons-grade uranium to the US. This act cements Russia's role as a prime provider of civilian nuclear fuel to the world and lays the groundwork for free-market trade of the controversial material. What is more, previous agreements allowing Russia to trade uranium were part of disarmament and uranium "re-attribution" programs. This new agreement is different and allows for the enrichment of virgin uranium. It is unclear what the US policy regarding uranium enrichment (even low-grade) actually is. While this development undermines individual countries' claims that they need to have their own nuclear enrichment capacity in order to conduct civilian nuclear programs, the sanctioning a free-market trade of the material could easily lead to abuses and runs against US stated policies on anti-proliferation (both civilian and nuclear). In the short term, however, this deal will certainly help with US-Russia negotiations to modernize and extend the START Treaty as well as to create international consensus on the North Korean and Iranian nuclear dossiers.

Election watch

SI Analysis: Elections of note (past and upcoming):

May 16: Kuwaiti parliamentary elections. 4 women won seats in Kuwait's Parliament, which many, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, hail as a "major step forward". The election results also signal a move away from radical Islamist sentiments.

June 7: Lebanese parliamentary elections. Some analysts see these elections as a "barometer" for sentiment and public opinion in the Middle East in general. In the lead is Hezbollah's March 8 coalition. Many Western analysts fear a Hezbollah-led victory, as it would run counter to Western interests. Currently, most are hoping for a stalemate that keeps Lebanon in the status quo. Either way, the election will likely serve to further legitimize Hezbollah's standing as a valid political party in Lebanon, moving it away from its image as a terror organization.

June 12: Iranian presidential elections (mentioned above).

July 8: First round of Indonesian presidential elections.

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