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Foreign Affairs Roundup

This Week's Top Stories in Foreign Affairs:

Iran Rallies, Counter-Rallies, and a Deadline Passed

This week saw the continuation of another wave of mass protests throughout Iran partly stemming from the death of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a well-known critic of current government policies, and partly in continued reaction to June's violent government put-down of post-election protests. Both the opposition and government partisans came out in full force, leading to the death of several people, including the nephew of June Presidential candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi and further forceful warnings from the government calling for the opposition's silence. Protests are continuing into the new year with no signs of abating. What is clear is that the government has failed thus far in silencing the very disorganized opposition (with some claiming that now is a "tipping point" for Iran), leading only to increased criticism of the hard line regime (does Khamenei like caviar?).

Meanwhile, and in addition to a new wave of criticism from the west regarding Tehran's oppression of the opposition, pressure on Iran over its nuclear program continues. Iran has not met Washington's ultimatum to engage with the West over its nuclear program by the end of 2009. The Obama administration's next course of action will involve sanctions against discrete elements of the Iranian government, aimed at harming the rulers while attempting not to alienate the Iranian people. Israel has quickly rushed to back the American sanctions and many wonder just how long it will be until Israel makes a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.

The Yemen Situation

Who would have ever thought that this small Arabian nation would play such a confusing role in the ongoing spread of Islamist extremism or the West's campaign to counter global terrorism? Yemen has played a main role in recent events, following government raids on al-Qaida positions on December 19 (assisted by the US, which is spending $70 million over the next 18 months to support Yemeni counterterrorism) that killed several al-Qaeda operatives in the country. This was followed by a connected retaliation on Northwest Flight 253 that has brought gigantic criticism of the US' security apparatus, and as President Obama has stated, "systematic failure". The worry for many, amid the Yemeni government's various anti-terror campaigns -- assisted by both the US and Saudi Arabia -- is that Sana'a won't have the stability to stand strong for long, given various Islamist extremist groups jockeying for power (not just al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but also other domestic and foreign jihadists as well as managing the Shia al-Houthis insurgency in the North). What's more, the proximity of Islamist extremism in Somalia and pirates in the Gulf of Aden adds to the instability generally.

War Reports:

Iraq
SI Analysis: Moving into 2010, much of the focus in Iraq and on Iraq returns to the genesis of modern conflict in the Persian Gulf: oil. This past week saw oil firms Lukoil (Russia) and Statoil (Norway) win contracts to develop the West Qurna 2 oil field. Iraq's "superfields" are not just open to world giants. Angola's Sonangol won a contract this week to develop the Qayara and Najmah fields, demonstrating Baghdad's commitment to diversification of international investment and its desire to play by its own rules when it comes to its natural resources. Oil was an obvious point of contention this past fortnight as well, as Iran appeared to claim the Iraqi Faqna oil field along the contested border, with the incursion heightening fears that Tehran will continue to try to wield direct and indirect influence in the still-weak state. The release of the British hostage Peter Moore, held for 2 and a half years, also brings up the question of Iranian involvement. Finally, a slew of recent suicide bombings in Baghdad and elsewhere have brought about a tense mood before national elections on March 7.

Afghanistan/Pakistan
SI Analysis: 2010 will be a key year for both Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the US presence there (overt in Afghanistan and covert in Pakistan). Following this week's suicide bombings in Karachi (killing 40 civilians), in Peshawar (killing 4 civilians) and in Southern Afghanistan (killing 8 CIA operatives), the opening of the year does not bode well for stability or success. Parliamentary elections in Afghanistan in the spring are unlikely to yield any effective changes in the nation, as much of the imputed stability in the nation depends directly on the Obama administration's increased military offensive there. With doubled US casualties in Afghanistan in 2009, the outlook is tenuous. Meanwhile, Pakistan's economic, political, and security crisis continue to be worrisome and leave most analysts asking how long can Zardari (and the "moderate majority") hold on? We are loath to make vast predictions, but we expect more crisis as the Intelligence Services and the Army will jockey for more control in this highly unstable and volatile nation in 2010.

Analysis in Brief:

Trying to re-start START
SI Analysis: The START nuclear arms reduction treaty of 1991 between the US and Russia expired in December, leaving a gaping hole in international non-proliferation protocol. After several near-misses, the man who seems to have the key to renegotiating and reinstating an agreement Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has provocatively called for more weapons to counter increased American missile defense plans. Let's hope that Putin's New Year message, reaching out to Obama and saying he hopes that an agreement could be forged soon indicates a sea-change in Russian anti-proliferation policy.

Serbia's bid for the EU
SI Analysis: In December, Serbia reached out to the EU and began a formal bid for membership, citing its willingness to move beyond past difficulties in bilateral relations (read: Kosovo and Russian influence in Belgrade). Despite this about-face, don't expect anything to happen soon. Croatia, long a darling of Europe, and with a long-standing application for EU membership, is still waiting.

Drug wars in the Americas

SI Analysis: One of the most troubling and underplayed stories of 2009 is the rampant drug wars going on in the Americas, many in northern Mexico. While Mexico and the impolitic violence of the cartels have received some attention (cartels and their influence and stretch into the United States has been a mild worry for American media), the drug wars are not solely a Mexican problem. Colombia, massively supported by the US, is a perennial haven for drug lords and a site for a low intensity ongoing war. In 2010 expect Washington to step up to the plate out of necessity, with new tactics and aid directly south of the border and increased drug raids in Colombia using military bases there as a launching point.

China's rigid stance
SI Analysis: The end of 2009 saw Beijing's harsh ruling for Liu Xiaobo, a veteran human-rights activist, to 11 years in prison. It also saw Beijing's execution of British citizen Akmal Shaikh who was charged with smuggling drugs. Both events served as a message not just to the Chinese populace, but also to the world. China will not tolerate defiance of the government and will operate as it wishes with regards to human rights. As 2010 rolls in, China, poised to make the most of the new year and new decade, will do so according to its own rules.

Finally, the one issue we neglected to mention that deserves an obvious nod is that of Middle East peace. A year ago, Israeli forces were in the throes of a massive deadly assault on the Gaza Strip that more or less halted Hamas Qassam rockets from flying into Southern Israel. Much happened this year but little else was accomplished. If history teaches us anything, we know that this conflict will continue in 2010, perhaps with another violent mini-war. Short term gains in the peace process could be reached if Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is released by Hamas, if West Bank cleric Marwan Barghouti is released by Israel, if Israel implements a long-term settlement freeze (including East Jerusalem) or if Hamas symbolically recognizes Israel's right to exist. But key to a compelling peace process would be a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah with a clear and defined Palestinian leader (since Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says he is stepping down) as well as an unequivocal statement from the Netanyahu Administration expressing a sincere political will and desire for peace. May it be so.

You can read this Foreign Affairs Roundup on the SimpleIntelligence Site or on the Huffington Post World Page.