World roundup: December 9 2021
Stories from Iran, Pakistan, France, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
December 8, 1953: US President Dwight Eisenhower delivers his “Atoms for Peace” speech to the United Nations General Assembly. Eisenhower’s speech, and the program it announced, was meant to focus international attention on the peaceful uses of nuclear power, either as a way to ease fears about nuclear weapons or as cover for the massive US nuclear buildup that followed. Or, hey, why not both? And maybe drum up some revenue for US companies along the way? The Atoms for Peace program helped build research reactors in Iran, Israel, and Pakistan. Two of those countries eventually weaponized their nuclear programs, though ironically it’s the one that didn’t that’s become the DC Blob’s obsession.
December 8, 1980: Former member of the Beatles John Lennon is shot and killed outside of his home in New York City by Mark David Chapman.
December 9, 1824: The armies of Peru and Gran Colombia defeat a Spanish royalist army in the Battle of Ayacucho. Considered one of the last major engagements of the Latin American wars of independence, the Peruvian-Colombian victory ensured Peru’s independence and cleared the way for the Peruvian commander, General Antonio José de Sucre, to enter Upper Peru (modern Bolivia) and campaign there.
December 9, 1961: The Tanganyika Territory, which later merged with Zanzibar to form Tanzania, gains independence from the United Kingdom. Annually commemorated as Tanzanian independence day.
December 9, 1987: The First Intifada begins
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters reportedly attacked a Turkish military unit in northern Iraq, killing three soldiers. Turkish officials say they retaliated with airstrikes in which at least six PKK fighters were killed.
The US military’s combat mission in Iraq officially ended on Thursday after a final round of transitional talks with Iraqi officials. The Biden administration announced earlier this year that it intended to close down the combat mission by December 31, so they’re apparently ahead of schedule. Despite outward appearances this doesn’t necessarily mean very much in terms of the US military presence in Iraq, as many (or most, or all, it’s unclear) of the 2500 US soldiers currently in the country will probably be sticking around under a different label—trainers, advisers, etc. US personnel transitioned into a more explicitly supportive role last year. The intention is to give Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi the political victory of “ending” the US combat presence without doing anything that looks like a major withdrawal.
The Lebanese Central Bank raised the exchange rate for banks from 3900 to 8000 pounds per US dollar on Thursday, which was both an acknowledgement of the currency’s collapse on the black market and a trigger for a further collapse. At last check the pound was approaching the 25,700 per dollar record it hit last month, with some speculation it could dive to 40,000 per dollar or even lower relatively soon. Officially the pound is still pegged at 1500 per dollar, in case you were wondering for some reason.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited Qatar on Thursday in the surest sign yet that the Saudi-Qatari rift is at an end—at least a temporary one. MBS is on a Gulf tour that’s already taken him to Oman and the UAE and should see him visiting Bahrain and Kuwait as well. The purposes seems to be rehabilitating the prince’s public image so I don’t think there’s much substance to the visit.
Negotiations on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal resumed in Vienna on Thursday and there are some positive early signals about their progress. After the talks broke on Friday with US and European officials expressing irritation over what they argued was a newly inflexible Iranian negotiating stance, reporting Thursday suggested that the Iranians have altered that stance in response to criticism, mostly from Russia and China. It’s unclear how, exactly, the Iranians have adjusted their position, but it sounds like they’ve moved away from the proposals they submitted last week and are more amenable to building on compromises offered by the previous Iranian government during the previous round of talks, earlier this year.
The US State Department said Thursday that it would need some time to assess what, if anything, changed in the Iranian position on Thursday. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is clearly pivoting from carrot to stick in its approach toward Tehran. Hot on the heels of yesterday’s revelation that the US and Israeli1 militaries are planning joint exercises simulating attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities (which, to be fair, is as much about keeping Israel calm as it is about threatening Iran), The Wall Street Journal’s Laurence Norman reported on Thursday that the administration “is moving to tighten enforcement of sanctions against Iran.” Specifically, it’s sending a delegation to the UAE to warn banks and other firms still doing business with Iran that they’re risking serious consequences. There’s evidence that the administration has been turning a somewhat blind eye to Iranian commerce, particularly to Iranian oil exports to China via the UAE, presumably in deference to the talks. Norman is a hawkish reporter at a hawkish paper, but he’s also well connected so it’s likely his reporting here is accurate and the administration is changing tactics to some degree.
A new outbreak of fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces along their shared border again has officials on both sides blaming one another for starting it. At least two Armenian soldiers were wounded and one Azerbaijani soldier killed Thursday in the exchange of fire. Details beyond that are sparse, so among other things it’s not clear to me exactly where this clash took place. The skirmish comes a day before the Russian government is set to host the first meeting of a new six-party “3 + 3” South Caucasian peacemaking body that was established in the wake of last year’s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In addition to the three Caucasian states (Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia), the group also includes Iran, Russia, and Turkey.
The Pakistani Taliban have ended their one-month ceasefire with the Pakistani government, which expired on Thursday but could have been renewed had both parties agreed to it. The group issued a statement in which it accused Islamabad of breaching the ceasefire’s terms, continuing to conduct security operations against Taliban militants while failing to honor obligations to carry out a prisoner release and to make some headway on negotiations for a permanent end to hostilities.
Indian farmers called an end to their year-plus long protest on Thursday, after winning new concessions from Narendra Modi’s government. Modi agreed last month to repeal three controversial laws that established private agricultural markets and sparked the protests over fears that they represented an end to farm subsidies. His government has now further agreed to drop potential criminal cases against the farmers and to form a committee to study the institution of minimum crop prices. Protest organizers held out the possibility of resuming their movement if they don’t see progress on their minimum price demand.
It looks like the US-led diplomatic boycott of February’s Winter Olympics in Beijing may top out at four participants. While Australia, Canada, and the UK have joined Washington in keeping top officials away from the games, the French government announced Thursday that it will not boycott and further talked about formulating a unified “European” stance on the subject. While there’s still a chance some other nations will join the Gang (Japan, for example), this likely quashes any chance for a wave of diplomatic boycotts, which is probably what the Biden administration was after.
A doctors organization in Sudan’s Darfur region is reporting that at least 138 people have been killed in three weeks of inter-communal violence in West Darfur state. That includes the 88 or more killed since the weekend in fighting in the Kreinik area as well as others killed in fighting between Arab groups in the Jebel Moon area that began in mid-November. That fighting appears to be ongoing, with at least 25 people reportedly killed yesterday.
Unspecified gunmen attacked a civilian auxiliary militia in northern Burkina Faso’s Loroum province on Thursday, killing at least 14 people. All of the dead were members of the Homeland Defense Volunteers, a paramilitary force that Burkinabé authorities have recruited to supplement the country’s overmatched regular security forces. Escalating Islamist violence cost former Burkinabé Prime Minister Christophe Dabiré his job on Wednesday.
The Nigerien and Burkinabé militaries announced Thursday that they’d killed some 100 “terrorists” in a joint operation along their border that began on November 25. They also say they were able to destroy two jihadist bases, one on either side of the border. It’s unclear whether this operation targeted the region’s Islamic State affiliate, its al-Qaeda affiliate, or both.
The two people killed in an inter-communal clash in Cameroon’s Far North region on Wednesday were two of at least 22 people authorities believe have been killed in similar violence this week. Shua Arab herders have been battling the more sedentary Musgum and Masa communities for access to water, the supply of which has been dwindling due to low levels of precipitation. According to the Red Cross at least 3000 people have been displaced into Chad by the fighting, which has been exacerbated due to the ubiquity of weapons in northern Cameroon—an artifact of the conflict against Boko Haram and its Islamic State offshoot in neighboring Nigeria.
Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov suggested on Thursday that the US and Russia have not made progress on resolving their ongoing dispute over diplomatic staffing, despite previous reports to the contrary. Ryabkov characterized an accord the two sides reached last week as “peripheral,” while they remain at loggerheads over the main issue—the limits each country has placed on the size of the other’s diplomatic mission.
The Russian Foreign Ministry on Thursday alleged that the Ukrainian military “is building up its contingent” along the frozen front line in eastern Ukraine’s breakaway Donbas region. Russian officials have been alleging that Ukraine is on the verge of launching a major new offensive against separatist rebels in Donbas, though it’s hard to know if that has any merit or is just Moscow’s “I know you are but what am I?” retort to accusations that it’s massing forces on the Ukrainian border.
Emmanuel Macron held a news conference on Thursday in which he laid out some ambitious-sounding plans for France’s six-month presidency of the European Union, which begins on January 1. This is a little odd, in that the EU presidency doesn’t really confer much power, Macron’s pretensions to European leadership notwithstanding, but it makes more sense if you imagine that he’s not so much announcing his plans to the EU as he’s aggrandizing himself for the benefit of French voters. Although he hasn’t formally announced it yet, Macron will stand for reelection in April, and presumably he feels that making a show of European dominance will help him at the polls.
The Nicaraguan government announced Thursday that it’s joining most other countries in cutting diplomatic ties with Taiwan and opening them with mainland China. That leaves only 14 states, including the Vatican, that still have full diplomatic relations with Taipei. Given the hostility the US government has evinced toward Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, and the usefulness that China offers as a potential counterweight, the only thing surprising about this move is that it didn’t happen sooner.
Finally, with Joe Biden’s “Summit for Democracy” kicking off on Thursday, Foreign Policy’s Stephen Walt reflects on what the summit (and it’s, ah, questionable guest list) says about the Biden administration’s foreign policy priorities—or lack thereof:
So what is the Biden administration’s main foreign-policy concern? If it thinks the chief danger today is “autocracy” in general and the threat it poses to the world’s democracies, then gathering the world’s democracies together for a pep talk and some forward-looking initiatives might make sense. But if defending democracy and human rights is the guiding star of U.S. foreign policy, then it should stop supporting authoritarian rulers in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and instead distance itself from states veering in autocratic directions (like Turkey and Hungary) or systematically denying political rights to millions of people (like Israel and China). The summit’s guest list would be a lot smaller, but at least it would be ideologically consistent.
If the central problem today is a rising and increasingly assertive China, by contrast, then Washington can’t be so choosy about who its friends are. From a geostrategic perspective, welcoming Angola and snubbing Singapore seems rather shortsighted. If great-power politics is the main concern, expressing a strong preference for democracy could reduce U.S. influence in certain areas and provide China with the opportunity to cultivate countries that aren’t going to reorganize their political arrangements to make Uncle Sam happy. Although it may have been somewhat easier for the United States to work with its fellow democracies during the Cold War, being on good terms with anti-Soviet autocrats was often smart geopolitics as well. For that matter, the most valuable ally the United States ever had may have been Stalinist Russia, given the central role it played in defeating Nazi Germany. And Joseph Stalin was a mass murderer. My point is if China is the central challenge the United States faces today, emphasizing democracy may not be the best way to address it.
But what if problem No. 1 is actually a big global problem like climate change or the pandemic? If so, then U.S. foreign policy’s main task is to foster cooperation with countries of every sort instead of dividing the world into “good” and “bad” states, such as those whose political systems are like the United States’ versus those that aren’t. If that is Biden’s top priority, then a summit that quite consciously excludes a lot of big and important countries is likely to be counterproductive.
Well, at least it looks like a fun time.
Interestingly, of late there’s been an outpouring of Israeli officials and ex-officials lamenting Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the deal. To be fair, prominent retired Israeli military officers expressed support for the deal when it was negotiated and opposition to Trump’s withdrawal in the moment, but it seems the events in the three-plus years since that withdrawal have improved the deal’s retrospective image within the Israeli security establishment.