This Past Two Week's Top Stories in Foreign Affairs:
Wrestling with Iran and Now a Real Breakthrough
Facts: Following a meeting in Geneva with the 5+1 (UN Security Council Permanent members China, Russia, France, UK and US plus Germany), arbitrated by the EU Foreign Minister, Javier Solana, Iran agrees to allow weapons' inspectors into the country and to export a majority of its enriched uranium to Russia and France for its conversion into nuclear fuel.
Background: This is the outcome of a months' old diplomatic dance between Iran and the West. Since the beginning of the year, the US has proposed to speak directly with the Iranians (sometimes with and sometimes without preconditions) but the Iranians have demurred. Rhetoric was vitriolic between the two countries following the June election. With Israeli impatience and fear growing, the fall UN Security Council meeting was established as an informal deadline for the Iranians to move or face greater sanctions and the threat of an Israeli attack. Only at the end of August did the Iranians respond to some outstanding questions in a report to the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA). In this report, they revealed a small, secret uranium enrichment site near Qum. They also finally agreed to negotiations with the 5+1 to begin in Geneva on 1 October (a date just a week after the informal deadline). The end of September saw a flurry of statements and rhetoric from Western and Iranian leaders at the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council. However, while at the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh, US President Obama, flanked by French President Sarkozy and British PM Brown revealed the existence of the Qum site to the world and demanded immediate cooperation from the Iranians in lieu of further sanctions. The threat of energy sanctions sanctions was far more legitimate since Russian President Medvedev seemed to hint that Russia would not oppose further sanctions. Many speculate that this reversal of position is in response to the US's scrapping of a Missile Defense shield in Eastern Europe, others suggest that the announcement of the Qum site was enough of a catalyst. Iran's initial response was to verbally dismiss international concerns stating that the Qum site was part of its civilian nuclear program, but then a day later it conducted medium-range ballistic missile tests, missiles which would serve as the delivery system of any eventual nuclear device. The meeting in Geneva were in fact the first high level talks in 30 years (since the Iranian revolution) between the US and Iran and though they started off slow, they led to a veritable breakthrough.
SI Analysis: Many will argue that this is just another stall tactic from Iran. But there is strong evidence to argue that this is a real breakthrough. If Iran does not meet its engagements now, it will have a very difficult time avoiding sanctions. Iran was forced to acknowledge the existence of the site and claimed that there are no others like it (which may or may not be the case) implicitly acknowledging that it has been doing something underhanded. Further, Iran has agreed in principle to rid itself of the majority of its enriched uranium thus depriving it of an immediate capacity to develop a nuclear weapon (though this is only the uranium that the world knows about, many believe that there are many such small nuclear sites). Moreover, the time line for Iran to act is very short: Iran has two weeks to let inspectors in, a few more to make plans to export its uranium and until the end of the year to move forward with a more substantive deal. With Russia at the negotiating table, the Europeans staunchly standing by the US and China remaining predictably silent, this is substantive diplomacy resulting from a shrewd, and not naive, American policy of engagement and diplomatic strategy. What would help is if the international community would echo Iran's present position as a champion of nuclear civilian rights and a defendent of nuclear disarmament for all. It is in the interest of all parties to give Iran a meaningful way to exit its pariah status and engage with the US and the international community at large on a slew of common interests (e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan, radical political foreign jihadism, etc) as a real and respected regional player.
Facts: An ambitious calender of international meetings, started with the UN General Assembly in New York, followed by the G20 in Pittsburgh the last week of September and will close with a meeting on Climate change in Copenhagen in December. The US is in a full-court press to illustrate that it's policy is different in both style and substance from its predecessors: President Obama chaired a UN Security Council session on nuclear anti-proliferation. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chaired her own UN Security Council session on sexual violence. In addition to high level talks with the Iranians, the US has also engaged in talks with Cuba and Myanmar.
SI Analysis: Whether these meetings are able to bear fruit on diplomatic, security, economic and environmental fronts will be the litmus test for both the new US policy of engagement and the pertinence of many international institutions. Both yesterday's advances with Iran and the supplanting of the G8 by the G20 show that international cooperation is fundamental to resolving geopolitical challenges and that the Obama administration is leading with deference to the emergent BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries in particular.
Afghanistan (and Pakistan)
SI Analysis: The UN entity responsible for validating the election may invalidate enough ballots to call a runoff election, though incumbent Hamid Karzai is expected to win against Abdullah Abdullah in any case. The leaking of General Stanley McChrystal's assessment report on Afghanistan has led many to reduce the Afghan question to whether or not there will be troop increases. Furthermore, the American zeitgeist is turning against the war in Afghanistan. However, this simplification simply does reflect the reality on the ground nor the task at hand for the war effort in Afghanistan. Vietnam comparisons are growing tiresome and defeatist attitudes may become self-fulfilling. Contrary to common perceptions, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen recently underscored the ongoing dedication and contribution of Canadian and European allies. Moreover, a variety of recent events suggest that there may be real opportunity that was absent before. Progress in new fronts in Afghanistan and Pakistan reveal new levers of action: the offensive in Helmand Province continues; Pakistani officials continue to press factions of the Taliban in the Tribal areas, fighting in Waziristan with drone attacks and making key arrests to pressure new Taliban leader Hakeemullah Mehsud. The most significant evolution though is that the Obama administration and the Pentagon are conducting an ongoing but thorough assessment of the war and developing a strategy, something that has been sorely lacking over the past eight years. Sophisticated counterinsurgency strategy entails working on social, political, economic, cultural and security planes and previous action in Afghanistan and Pakistan was incoherent, uncoordinated and underfunded. Judgement ought to be reserved until a strategy has been articulated.
SI Analysis: Ahead of provincial elections in January, political parties are realigning their alliances and repositioning their platforms to downplay sectarian and religious positions. Elsewhere, analysts are very concerned that terrible tension between Kurds and Arabs in Ninawa Province could devolve into violent conflict and some believe see the return of international jihadis.
Analysis in Brief:
SI Analysis: With great pomp and circumstance, the People's Republic of China elebrated its 60th anniversary. Awesome military parade, massive fireworks displays and prideful speeches from party leaders marked the day in what many might say is a Chinese attempt to express its military and political prowess abroad. Most analysts however say that in a flailing economy, a restive populace and mounting charges of corruption, the party leaders were mainly interested in bolstering a key currency for political stability: Chinese Patriotism.
Militant Showdown in Somalia
SI Analysis: Fighting between rival radical political Islamists groups in southern Somalia is good news for the fledgling interim government. The stark and extremist al Shabaab, the youth organization born out of the ousted Union of Islamic Courts, is jostling with the more moderate yet Islamist Hizbul Islam for who will occupy the Presidential Palace in Kismayo. Both groups have been united in their attempt to oust the Western backed interim government. The leader of al Shabaab underplays the rivalry and dismisses this fighting as a misunderstanding of an isolated event.
Violent Strife in Guinea
SI Analysis: Civilian demonstrations against Capitain Moussa Dadis Camara, the de facto leader of Guinea, turned violent when government security forces cracked down on protesters in the capital Conakry. Camara took over in a military coup at the end of 2008 and promised civilian elections in 2010, but many analysts fear that despotism is the continued likely fate for the beleaguered West African country.
SI Analysis: The bizarre is bordering on the absurd in Honduras. Ousted President Manuel Zelaya returned to the country and took refuge in the Brasilian embassy at the end of September. Acting President Roberto Micheletti declared a state of siege, instituted a curfew, closed down a radio station, expelled diplomats, violently cracked down on protesters causing fatalities and issuing ultimatums to Brazil. Micheletti then said he would reverse most of his actions. Zelaya ouster was due to some of his constitutional reforms, including an extended Presidential term limit, that would break some of the longstanding power hegemony of key institutions in the country (including the army, the congress and the courts). Micheletti, and the army, the congress and the courts, removed Zelaya and called for new elections under which the previous constitutional rules would ostensibly protect them. Popular apathy to the entire conflict is turning quickly into exasperation as the political stalemate is starting to have economic repercussions.
Yemen's Impending Collapse
SI Analysis: The next refuge for foreign radical political Islamists is in Yemen. Yemen's popularity for these groups may follow coordinated attempts by governments to crackdown on internationalist jihadis in Pakistan, Indonesia and Somalia. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has even articulated threats to use Yemen as a base to undermine Saudi stability by targeting domestic and international Saudi interest. (These threats follow the botched assassination attempt of Saudi deputy Interior Minister in August.) Yemen could quickly become a failed state as it is fighting wars on two fronts with Shia al-Houthis in the North and Sunni foreign extremist in the South.
SI Analysis: PM-elect Saad Hariri's struggle to form a government ensures due in part to opposition leader Michel Aoun's vanity and nepotism (he wants his son in law to remain telecoms minister). In other news, an informal assessment of the 2006 Summer War, Israeli officials said Hezbollah has superior intelligence, training and tactical command skills than the IDF.
Report on the Georgia War
SI Analysis: A European Union report on the conflict between Russia and Georgia in the Summer of 2008 has enough blame to go around to all: Georgia (who started it), Russia (who provoked and then exacerbated it), South Ossetia (who committed war crimes against ethnic Georgians and illegally claimed independence) and Abkhazia (who illegally seceded). The important conclusions from the report underscore that none of the underlying tensions -- mainly Georgia's courting of the West and Russia's efforts to destabilize Tblisi and bring it back into its sphere of influence -- have been resolved since the cessation in fighting, hostilities remain and future conflict is likely.
SI Analysis: Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats are comfortably re-elected in Germany. Guido Westerwelle, the leader of the new government's junior coalition partner the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) will likely take over as foreign minister. After faltering in his first foreign interview following his electoral victory, many are dubious of his competency. However, most expect Westerwelle to continue along the lines of outgoing foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier's policies. So far, Mr. Westerwelle says he is a proponent of nuclear disarmament,has waffled on his position of Turkish membership to the EU and says that he values a partnership with Russia.
SI Analysis: Irish voters take to the urns in a second effort to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, the governing tenets of the European Union. Ireland is the only country out of its 27 members not to ratify the treaty, but the only country to pose the ratification to a popular vote. Most expect the ratification to pass this time, despite the abysmal economic conditions in Ireland that have rendered the present government (and proponent of ratification) deeply unpopular. A no vote would greatly threaten the legitimacy of the EU and challenge the prospects for its future as the viable governing body of Europe.
A Hope for Palestinian Statehood and Middle East Peace?
SI Analysis: Most analysts expressed disappointment that US President Obama was only able to negotiate a handshake between Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmourd Abbas on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last week. Some say the peace process is flagging, after much hope following Obama's Cairo speech. Even the Palestinians seem to be moving forward with their own agenda, threatening to establish de facto statehood by 2011? Many would say that present conditions point to certain failure of a peace process: a failed Annapolis initiative by the outgoing Bush government dashed hopes and exhausted confidence; the divided Palestinian leadership prevents a comprehensive peace plan; the Gaza conflict eliminated good will on both sides; the new Israeli leadership barely acknowledges the prospect of a two-state solution and eschews all international pressure to cease settlement building; and an overburdened Obama administration who holds little sway with a suspicious Israel. However, one should not dismiss the handshake. It actually was an accomplishment. It was the first such handshake since the Israeli invasion of Gaza at the beginning of the year, since the first-ever Fatah meeting on Palestinian soil that saw the recalibration and renewal of its leadership and continued negotiations for reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah leaders and the first since Israel's elections that brought in a far-right government. There may indeed be a glimmer of hope. President Obama's willingness to personally engage in talks emphasized the US' interest in talks moving forward and unexpectedly a recent poll revealed that most Palestinians support a two-state plan adds to the momentum that there may be grounds, however fragile, for possible progress.