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World roundup: August 8 2023
Stories from Iran, Niger, Spain, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
August 8, 1967: Five Southeast Asian states—Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand—found the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The new bloc succeeded the three member (Malaya, the Philippines, Thailand) Association of Southeast Asia with the aim of encouraging regional peace and economic interaction. Given the geopolitics of the 1960s it’s probably not surprising to learn that ASEAN was also intended as a specifically anti-communist institution, overlapping somewhat with the US- and UK-backed Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), though ironically only two actual Southeast Asian nations (the Philippines and Thailand) were ever SEATO members and that group dissolved in 1977. ASEAN now includes 10 members, with Papua New Guinea and East Timor both in some stage of accession.
August 8, 1988: Hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of protesters engage in demonstrations and civil disobedience across Burma (Myanmar if you prefer) to protest the ruling Burma Socialist Programme Party’s repression, corruption, and economic mismanagement. The BSPP came to power following a 1962 coup and led a military government that purged itself of much of its leftist/socialist element in the 1970s. The 8888 Uprising, as it’s known, briefly sparked a move toward elections that ended with a military coup in mid-September and the imposition of a new junta. With the partial exception of the country’s 2011-2021 experiment in semi-civilian governance, the military has remained in power to the present day.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service confirmed on Tuesday something I’m pretty sure everybody had already figured out: July was the hottest month on record, by a significant margin. Last month’s average global temperature was 62.51 degrees Fahrenheit (16.95 Celsius if you prefer), which beats out the previous record holder (July 2019) by six-tenths of a degree Fahrenheit (one-third of a degree Celsius).
In other excellent climate news, a new study published by the journal Frontiers in Environmental Science finds that Antarctic sea ice hit a record low level this past February. Study co-author Caroline Holmes told reporters that “it's going to take decades if not centuries for these things to recover…even if it's possible.”
Another attack by Islamic State fighters has left at least ten Syrian government-aligned fighters (soldiers and militia members) dead and another six wounded. The incident took place in Syria’s Raqqa province on Monday evening. IS carried out a similar attack in Hama province last week. The group has been reduced to relatively unsophisticated hit and run-style attacks, but given their ability to disappear into the Syrian desert its fighters can still be effective in those sorts of operations. There were also reports of a car bombing in Damascus on Tuesday, though as far as I know there’s been no indication of any casualties. IS may have been responsible for that incident as well. Rebels aligned with Turkey say they arrested at least two IS members in a recent operation in Aleppo province.
The Syrian government has agreed to allow the United Nations to continue using two crossing points along the Turkish border to bring earthquake recovery aid to communities in northwestern Syria. Damascus agreed to open (or reopen, since they’d previously been used under the UN’s humanitarian relief program) those corridors back in May. The extension means they’ll remain open through at least November 13. The cause of Syrian earthquake relief was nevertheless complicated on Tuesday when the sanctions exemptions the US government created for that purpose expired. The Biden administration is not planning to renew them, and will instead pretend that the typical US boilerplate about generic humanitarian aid exemptions will suffice.
The Arab Center’s Daniel Brumberg argues that developments in Iran point to an intra-elite conflict that could have negative repercussions for regional stability:
The recent redeployment of Iran’s dreaded “morality police” signals much more than a victory for the country’s hardliners. Instead, it seems to be part and parcel of a wider campaign to impose a network of true believers whose mission will be to anchor the ideological legacy of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Many forces, including the young women who have taken to the streets over the last year to protest the killing of Mahsa Amini, will resist this effort. Still, it is the struggle within the ruling elite that counts most, especially if Khamenei’s allies manage to isolate their rivals in what remains a fractious political system. Indeed, their efforts could be a prelude to a wider political housecleaning, especially when and if Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, succeeds him. But if they eventually prevail, the “absolutists,” as they are sometimes called, should be careful what they wish for. Their victory could also yield a regime that lacks the means to manage elite conflicts, thus producing a ruling apparatus that is at once more centralized yet more vulnerable. Indeed, the very attempt to expel rivals from the political arena could spark further elite struggles.
Given the risk that comes with any effort to advance this political “cleansing” (as Khamenei’s allies call it), Iran’s leaders have embarked upon a very public effort to reduce tensions with Tehran’s Gulf neighbors. The last thing the supreme leader and his allies need is a strategic surprise that might complicate their quest to clear a path to uncontested power. Hence the logic of seeking a détente with regional states, as well as reported efforts to forge some kind of unwritten understanding with the United States on the nuclear issue. Iran’s leaders will probably use such a diplomatic respite to advance their power grab while further shielding their enrichment program from US or Israeli attack.
This blend of regional pragmatism and domestic retrenchment owes much to the efforts of former Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Chair Ali Shamkhani. He spearheaded Iran’s outreach to Gulf Arab states, an effort that set the stage for China’s brokering a renewal of Saudi-Iranian relations. But Shamkhani’s very visible role at home and in the region came with a cost. In late May he was replaced by Ali Akbar Ahmadian, an important member of the club of security hardliners who, with Khamenei’s backing, have secured prominent positions in the government.
The security leaders who are now extending their grip on power advocate a rhetorically ambitious strategy of global “resistance” that could prove very risky. Its success depends on the assumption that expanding diplomatic relations will provide a reliable umbrella for sustaining Iran’s oil sales while strengthening its capacity to deter a US or Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities. With the Biden administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government focusing on their respective domestic challenges, these calculations might prove correct. But with the prospects for a temporary Iran-US accommodation on the nuclear issue declining, Iran and the United States could slide into the kind of military confrontation that none of the key players in the region are seeking. The problem is that there is no Plan B.
The Election Commission of Pakistan ruled on Tuesday that former Prime Minister Imran Khan is barred from holding political office for the next five years. Khan has, as you know, been convicted of illegally receiving and reselling state gifts, hence the ban. Khan is appealing the conviction, and if it’s overturned then the ECP ruling ban should also be lifted. For the time being, at least, this means Khan will not be leading his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party into the next Pakistan election—whenever that might be. Khan is the third former PM to wind up facing an ECP ban since 2012.
A new report from the UN’s Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar finds that, from July 2022 through June 2023, Myanmar’s ruling junta “committed three types of combat-related war crimes with increasing frequency and brazenness.” Those include “widespread and systematic attacks against civilians,” a charge junta leaders have denied. The report’s findings could contribute to an international effort to bring the junta to justice, if such a thing were realistically possible.
The Chinese government is demanding that its Philippine counterpart remove a grounded World War II-era warship, the BRP Sierra Madre, from its current position near the disputed Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea. The ship was deliberately run aground there in the 1990s to provide a rudimentary base for Philippine military personnel. It was that facility that the Philippine Navy was trying to resupply over the weekend when the Chinese Coast Guard interfered. China and the Philippines both claim the shoal.
A new Guardian poll gives the New Zealand National Party the inside track to unseat the current Labour government in October’s election. The survey has the Nationals at 34.5 percent support to Labour’s 29 percent. Along with the conservative ACT New Zealand party with its 11.3 percent support, it’s likely (assuming the poll is accurate) that the vote will result in a new right-wing coalition government. Issue polling suggests that a high cost of living is the Labour government’s biggest problem heading into the election.
The Sudanese military has reportedly escalated its air campaign in and around Khartoum, focusing especially on a bridge that connects the city of Omdurman to Khartoum and Bahri across the Nile River. Heavy fighting has been reported especially in Omdurman, where at least nine civilians have been killed in the past two days. Hunger and disease are also starting to take a higher toll among civilians as the conflict wears on, with over 300 people having reportedly died of “measles and malnutrition” between mid-May and mid-July.
Bissau-Guinean President Umaro Sissoco Embaló on Monday named African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) deputy leader and former finance minister Geraldo Martins as his new prime minister. PAIGC’s opposition coalition won June’s parliamentary election, leaving Embaló no choice but to appoint its PM pick. Embaló dissolved the previous parliament in May 2022, necessitating this year’s snap election, but his legislative outlook has not improved.
Niger’s ruling junta on Tuesday barred a delegation, sent by the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union, and the United Nations, from entering the country. The Nigerian government imposed additional sanctions on Niger following the snub, but Reuters didn’t go into specifics as to what they entailed. The rebuff may have increased the odds that ECOWAS members will decide to invade when they meet to discuss Niger’s situation on Thursday, though there still doesn’t appear to be any internal consensus and ECOWAS leaders are still talking about reaching a “diplomatic” solution, without really explaining what that would be or why they would expect the junta to suddenly become receptive to diplomacy. It’s probably more likely that ECOWAS members will decide to extend and/or intensify their sanctions, which unfortunately (but not unexpectedly) are already interfering with humanitarian operations in a country whose people need all the aid they can get.
The UN World Food Program has tentatively restarted its food aid deliveries to Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region. The WFP, following the US Agency for International Development, suspended aid to all of Ethiopia in May over concerns that it was being diverted away from its intended use. It’s starting a new program that will supposedly prevent diversion, rolling out first to just seven distribution centers before going wider. The aid suspensions have exacerbated malnutrition across Ethiopia.
The UK government added 22 individuals and entities to its Russia blacklist on Tuesday, targeting primarily entities based in Belarus, Iran, Turkey, and the UAE that have allegedly been helping the Russians procure military components. All seem to be involved in the area of duel use electronics and/or drone manufacturing.
Russian officials are claiming that their missile strike on the Ukrainian city of Pokrovsk on Monday hit a Ukrainian military “command post.” Ukrainian officials insist the attack struck a residential area, killing at least seven people. Both could be true, but what seems incontrovertible is that the Russians hit whatever it was they were targeting, because details that have emerged since Monday suggest this was a “double tap” strike. The two missiles that hit the target arrived some 40 minutes apart, more than enough time for emergency services to have responded to the initial attack and gotten caught in the follow-up.
World Politics Review’s Miquel Vila looks at the dilemma facing Spanish regional political parties following last month’s election:
Spain’s inconclusive elections on July 23 left both the conservative and progressive blocs unable to form a majority government. As a result, political parties representing Catalan, Basque and Galician regional nationalists hold the keys to determining the next prime minister. Though their options are limited, how they navigate the current landscape will have implications for Spain’s national politics as well as other regional nationalist movements in Europe.
In the past, both the leftist Spanish Socialist Workers Party, or PSOE, and the conservative People’s Party, PP, have regularly relied on the support of the regional parties to govern, with the most recent example being the PSOE-led minority government of current Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. However, given the outcome of last month’s voting, that option is not available to PP party leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo.
Though the PP finished with the most seats in parliament, Feijoo would not be able to form a conservative coalition government without also including the far-right Vox party, which has pledged to ban separatist parties and harden Spain’s policies on regional languages and devolved powers. But since a PP-Vox coalition would still come up short, Feijoo would also need the support of a regional party. And the one most likely in principle to cooperate with him—the moderate Basque nationalist PNV party—has already ruled out participating in any government that includes Vox. Nor did the PNV change its position after Vox offered to support a PP-led minority government without participating in it.
As a result, providing Sanchez with the support he needs to renew his mandate seems like the only option for regional nationalist parties. However, because Sanchez is aware of this, he has fewer incentives to make substantial concessions in return.
That presents regional nationalist forces with a tough dilemma: either accept Sanchez as the lesser evil and sacrifice their agendas for national recognition; or rerun the election and a risk an outright victory for a hostile right-wing coalition. To make matters worse, whichever option they choose, regional parties will alienate different sections of their electorate.
PNV’s unwillingness to back the People’s Party even after Vox withdrew from a potential coalition may well close the door on the PP’s chances of forming a government. That doesn’t mean that the Socialists will be able to do so either.
Leaders of eight Amazon rainforest countries met in Brazil on Tuesday and failed to coalesce behind Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s proposal to end deforestation by 2030. They did agree to boost joint efforts to protect the rainforest but that seems like window dressing, particularly as The Gang also refused to come together behind a Colombian proposal to end oil exploration in the rainforest. The Bolivian government in particular is resisting the 2030 commitment, and Brazil itself is one of several countries considering major new oil projects in the region.
With the “Big Five” US defense contractors—Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and RTX—having raked in a combined $196 billion in military revenue last year, Jacobin’s Stephen Semler explores one of the many unfortunate tradeoffs that the massive US military budget creates:
This summer, both chambers of Congress approved versions of the annual National Defense Authorization Act, authorizing a record-setting Pentagon budget of $886.3 billion. But military spending isn’t the only thing on the rise in the United States: food insecurity just reached its highest level since Joe Biden took office.
Recent data from the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey show that the number of US adults who don’t have enough to eat eclipsed twenty-seven million in July 2023 — 3.3 million more than in January 2021. And this is the fourth straight month of increasing hunger, the longest streak since the Household Pulse Survey began collecting data in April 2020.
Yet as millions of stomachs rumble, more military spending is probably on the way. The budget bill negotiated by Biden and House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) earlier this year ostensibly sets $886 billion as the ceiling for Pentagon spending in FY2024, but that amount will likely be treated as a floor — Biden and McCarthy agreed to a go-around that allows still more public funds to be funneled into the Pentagon. All they have to do is label excess funds an “emergency,” exempting them from the bill’s established budget caps. What constitutes an emergency? It’s whatever Congress and the president say it is.
Apparently the US military doesn’t regard rising hunger as an emergency. I guess it’s all in the eye of the beholder.
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