Foreign Affairs Roundup

This Week's Top Stories in Foreign Affairs:

Peace Prevails in Ireland
A last minute peace deal is reached in Northern Ireland to peacefully devolve London control of Northern Ireland's police and judicial system to Belfast while changing the oversight of loyalist militias and parades. Growing tension and public scandal had derailed efforts by Protestant and Catholic leaders to see through the tenets of a power sharing coalition that ended years a protracted and violent civil war. DUP head Peter Robinson and Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness agreed to the deal mediated by British PM Gordon Brown and Irish head or Taoiseach Brian Cowen.

Persian Posturing For All
Iran made some big moves this week showing that it is very much a global player that can drive agendas. This week, Tehran launched a rocket into space carrying living organisms (including worms, turtles and a rat). Shortly after that, President Ahmadinejad announced that he was prepared to accept (but on his terms) the proposal from last fall from the 5+1 (the UN Security Council + Germany) to exchange "fuel for fuel", shipping partially enriched uranium to the West which would then be shipped back to Iran as nuclear fuel for a power plant. (His announcement was dismissed as a stalling tactic by world leaders.) This move was logical, as Iran needs respond to President Obama's harsh warning during the State of the Union and came in the wake of greater reporting on the buildup of US defenses in the Persian Gulf. Tehran also countered the reports telling Gulf nations not to buy US missiles as Iranian weapons would render them useless. Iran faces yet another layer of sanctions and 2010 could prove to be a delicate year with fomenting internal unrest, a stabilizing Iraq, increased international focus on the issue of nuclear proliferation, and the ever-present threat of an Israeli or US strike on weapons facilities.

China-US Tensions Continue

Well, it didn't take too long. After a year of growing tensions on both sides of the Pacific, Chinese-American relations took a turn for the worse this week. US President Barack Obama spoke out against Beijing's policy of pegging the yuan to the value of the dollar, which, according to many (and mostly Western) economists, undervalues China's currency and makes for an artificial hole in the world's economy. Obama's words are viewed by some analysts as dangerous. The issue has been a long standing one, and had received a good deal of attention from former US Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson. The tension stemming from China's alleged currency manipulation is important for its massive economy. That being said, it is not the only issue between the US and Beijing. There was the hoopla last week over Google's threat to leave China. Last Friday, the US announced a $6 billion arms deal with Taiwan. This week , Obama also announced that he would meet the Dalai Lama. With former Chinese officials seeing "dark clouds on the horizon" for Sino-American relations, a lot of good will is likely to be seen from Washington in the coming months. Thursday's US-bred panda shipment to China is a start. Expect Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to fly to Beijing soon. International human rights advocated take note that a year ago this week, Human Rights activist Gao Zhisheng went missing from his home.

War Reports:

Two female suicide bombers attacked in Baghdad killing 54 people in the latest of a string of attacks targeting Shias, raising political tensions and unease in the Iraqi capital. Greater political crisis was hopefully averted when an appeals court overturned a ban by the Justice and Accountability Commission of over 500 people from running in the 7 March Parliamentary elections. However, PM Maliki has convened Parliament on Sunday to debate the "illegal" decision. US and Western leaders are hopeful that the appeals court decision will stand so that all parties, an in particular minority Sunnis, will have a fair running in the upcoming election.

President Karzai returned from a Donor's conference in London with a heavy mandate to form a Cabinet, foster political reconciliation with medium and low level Taliban, build up his own security forces, stamp out corruption, implement a National Justice Program and reinforce the socio-political structures of his fledgling state. Kabul also intends to seek an entente with Government, Tribal and Taliban leaders though calling a loya jirga or tribal council and immediately sought to find a mediator with the Taliban in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. As US and NATO troops prepare for a massive offensive on Taliban strongholds, they continue to apply other multiple and varied tactics to bring Afghanistan under control: seeking to woo local leaders to support US actions and even reaching commitments from some tribes, including the Shinwari Tribe in the Nangarhar Province, to fight directly against the Taliban. Meanwhile, focus grows on Pakistan's political crisis which seems exacerbated by growing US incursions into Pakistan, the growth of a US diplomatic presence in Pakistan, US intervention in what many consider Pakistani internal affairs and even the presence of US special forces within Pakistan. The porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan's restive Kandahar and Helmand Provinces remain a strategic concern for the US and NATO effort in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, following the confirmed death of Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud in a 14 January US drone attack, the Pakistani Taliban named Malik Noor Jamal, or Mullah Toofan, as their new leader.

Analysis in Brief:

Hamas Assassination Mystery

This week a Hamas operative, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, was assassinated in Dubai. Fingers across the Middle East immediately pointed to Israel. Dubai's government even announced that it would seek Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu's arrest if it turns out that the Mossad is responsible for al-Mabhouh's death. No matter what the case, neither Israel or Hamas will stand to gain much. Meanwhile, talks for a good-faith, confidence-building prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel, involving the possible release of Israel soldier Gilad Shalit, broke down.

Yemen Ceasefire Thwarted
Reports emerged that a ceasefire between the Yemeni government and al Houthis rebels was scrapped after the rebels would not promise to stop attacking across the Saudi border. Houthis spokesmen claimed however that they were open to a prisoner swap in exchange for a cease in Saudi cross-border attacks, the rebels reportedly hold a score of Saudi border guards and soldiers. Meanwhile, rumors circulated that US special forces were stepping up operations in Yemen, most likely against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula strongholds to the south.

No Substantive US-Europe Rift
That President Obama will not attend a US-EU Summit in Spain in May is not the big story that the mainstream press is trying to make of it. Obama had never planned to attend the Summit. The real issue still lies in that the EU has yet to make itself a competent and united foreign policy interlocutor for the US and the world.

Damascus on the Mind
Israeli and Syrian leaders traded aggressive barbs this week, with Syrian President Bashir Assad accusing, "Israel is driving the region towards war, not peace". Walid Moallem, the Syrian foreign minister, further threatened Israel that "you know that war at this time will reach your cities". Not to be outdone, Israel's extremist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called for Syria to release all claims on the Golan Heights and warned Damascus that "in the next war [with Israel], not only will you lose, but you and your family will lose the regime". Israel's mainstream political apparatus did its best to temper Lieberman's comments and call for further cooperation and the pursuit of a peace agreement. Elsewhere, the US nominated Robert Ford a state department veteran to fill the post of US Ambassador to Syria, the post has been vacant since the US ceased relations with Syria following the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. Meanwhile, Iraqi and US soldiers announced the creation of a security fence on a part of the Syrian border to help stymie the influx of Sunni insurgents.

What's Next for Dagestan?
Russian President Medvedev is slated to name the next leader of the violent and volatile Russian Republic of Dagestan. Couched between the Caspian Sea and the restive states of Chechnya and Ingushetia, cuurent President Mukhu G. Aliyev has had great difficulty in bringing radical political Islamists and over 30 clashing ethnic groups to heal. Analysts are divided on whether Medvedev should reappoint Aliyev or bring in some new blood with Magomed I. Abdullayev, a deputy prime minister. In any case, he must decide before 20 February.

A New START Soon
The US and Russia reconvened in Geneva this week to negotiate a successor treaty to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) that expired in December. Most analysts expect a new treaty to emerge in the next few weeks. Last year, Presidents Medvedev and Obama agreed to reduce nuclear warheads by 25% and carrier missiles by 30%. The news that Romania accepted a US proposal to host ballistic interceptor missiles did not see to derail talks.

Ugandan Gay Rights and Wrongs
Uganda returned to headlines this week as Obama spoke out against a bill in Kampala that would impose the death penalty for some gays and lesbians. This controversial bill has become a foreign policy issue for Uganda as governments in Africa and around the world watch its passage. It speaks loudly, especially in Africa, where nation building can often curtail the rights of controversial minority groups: anti-gay US activitists who traveled on "humanitarian" junkets to Uganda are behind the conception and drafting bill. Expect more controversy to follow, especially if the bill becomes law.

Ukrainian Election Drama
In a bizarre and strange twist, current President (but loser in last month's primary), western leaning and pro-democratic champion Victor Yushchenko signed into law an election law that seems strangely undemocratic. The bylaw designed to ensure proper oversight of urns by all party representatives was amended to lower the threshold for a valid quorum. Underdog, Yulia Tymoshenko said that the action was undemocratic and greatly hampered the chances of a free and fair election. The initiative was pushed through Parliament by supporters of Victor Yanukovich, the pro-Russian opposition leader and leader in the polls. Watch as this could evolve into a major political crisis in Ukraine.

You can read this roundup on the Simple Intelligence Site and on the Huffington Post World Page every Friday.