World roundup: February 2 2023
Stories from Iran, the Philippines, Poland, and elsewhere
This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges, but did you know you can get it delivered right to your inbox? Sign up today:
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
February 1, 1713: The Skirmish at Bendery
February 1, 1979: Ruhollah Khomeini returns to Iran after several years in exile, just in time to seize power.
February 2, 1982: The Hama Massacre begins
February 2, 1943: The remnants of the German Sixth Army surrender to the Soviets, ending the Battle of Stalingrad a bit over five months after it started. The combined Axis army that attacked Stalingrad suffered upwards of 1 million casualties as well as the loss of thousands of vehicles, the initiative on World War II’s Eastern Front, and the sense of inevitability that previous Axis victories had created. The battle served as a turning point, after which it would be the Red Army, not the Axis, that was on the offensive.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The French military reportedly seized a haul of guns and other armaments in the Gulf of Oman earlier this week. The shipment was presumably bound for the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen, courtesy of Iran. The interdiction itself is not that big a deal, but as Al-Monitor’s Jared Szuba points out it’s a win for the United States in its effort to get European states to assume a greater security role in the Persian Gulf region in lieu of the US Fifth Fleet. One might question why any of these countries, the US included, have taken it upon themselves to provide “security” in that region, but I digress.
The Turkish foreign ministry on Thursday summoned nine Western ambassadors—from Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States—to complain that their frequent warnings about possible terrorist attacks are hurting Turkey’s tourism sector. Each of those countries has either issued a terrorist warning or closed their Istanbul consulate in recent weeks on the basis of…well, it’s not entirely clear. Turkish authorities don’t seem to have found any evidence of an imminent plot as yet, though they have carried out counter-terrorism operations based on information from unnamed allied governments. Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, in the time honored calm and non-hyperbolic style common to all Turkish politicians, accused the countries in question of waging “psychological warfare” to try to cripple the Turkish economy.
As I think anyone could have predicted, the Israeli military bombed Gaza overnight in response to the rocket fired out of that enclave on Wednesday. I have not seen any reports of casualties but the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine apparently fired another round of rockets out of Gaza in retaliation for the Israeli airstrikes, which means another round of said airstrikes is forthcoming and there’s a chance this situation is about to escalate into a full-fledged conflict.
The Iranian government has officially blamed Israel for this weekend’s drone attack on a military manufacturing facility in Isfahan and is planning to “respond,” according to a letter sent to the United Nations by Iranian UN ambassador Amir Saeid Iravani. It’s unclear what form that response might take, but the Iranians and Israelis have been engaged in a tit-for-tat conflict for a few years now so it’s not like the Iranians haven’t had practice at this sort of thing.
Meanwhile, Laura Rozen reports that the Biden administration hasn’t ruled out new negotiations on reviving the defunct 2015 Iran nuclear deal, but US officials are blaming the Iranians for the fact that those talks haven’t already happened:
Biden “never said diplomacy was dead,” US Iran envoy Rob Malley told the BBC’s Hard Talk in an interview aired Jan. 30. “He never said that the possibility of an understanding with Iran was dead. In fact, we have said the exact opposite time and time again.”
“We could play with words about what exactly is dead or not,” Malley continued. “I've been charged by the President to seek a diplomatic outcome. That's still what I'm doing even as we take other steps…I don't think anyone can doubt the military capacity of the United States…It's not our first option…It's a very dangerous option. It's not one that… President Biden would engage in cavalierly. He would do it if necessary.”
So does that mean the U.S. administration is exploring a non-JCPOA diplomatic arrangement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon? And in the meantime, it will pursue a version of maximum pressure 2.0?
A senior American administration official said they still seek a diplomatic resolution to address grave concerns about Iran’s growing nuclear program, but Iran to date has rejected direct talks.
The UN World Food Program is reportedly acquiescing to the Afghan government’s employment restrictions on women, for example by using exclusively male employees to deliver aid. The UN is hampered because, while it is still employing women, its aid deliveries usually rely on local organizations that are subject to the Taliban’s decrees. NGOs that work with the UN are sounding the alarm over this issue, since using men only effectively blocks aid access to female-headed households given restrictions on women interacting with men to whom they are not related. Even UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths has, while acknowledging this UN shift, complained that the situation is unacceptable.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Manila on Thursday, where he and Philippine Defense Minister Carlito Galvez announced an expansion of the US-Philippine defense cooperation agreement. As expected, this expansion includes US access to additional Philippine military facilities, four of them in all. Two of those facilities are located in the northern part of Luzon island, which could come in handy in the event, say, of a US confrontation with China over Taiwan. The other two facilities are positioned on the disputed South China Sea, where Manila has been increasingly frustrated with regards to overlapping Philippine-Chinese maritime claims. Austin stressed that no part of this expansion was meant to suggest permanent US military bases in the Philippines, which would be a dicey proposition under Philippine law. It simply means the US can station men and materiel indefinitely at several Philippine military bases, which is completely different.
The US military is reportedly tracking a Chinese “spy balloon” that entered US airspace sometime over the past couple of days. US officials are at this point not interested in shooting the device down out of concern about the damage its debris could cause. They’re unsurprisingly being mum about where exactly the balloon is, but they considered downing it over Montana and the US intercontinental ballistic missile stockpile is concentrated in Montana, Wyoming, and North Dakota, so it’s probably safe to assume those facilities are on the agenda.
Earlier this week Austin visited South Korea, where he announced that the US will deploy additional military aircraft and other “strategic assets” to South Korea so as to expand “joint training and operational planning” with the South Korean military. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has been anxious to secure additional US military support, up to and including a return of US nuclear weapons to South Korea. Fortunately the Biden administration hasn’t acquiesced on that particular issue, but it’s undoubtedly happy to position more assets in South Korea since anything that would be useful in the event of a war with North Korea would also be useful in the event of a war with China.
This news has, as you might expect, been poorly received in Pyongyang, where the North Korean Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that “the military and political situation on the Korean peninsula and in the region has reached an extreme red-line due to the reckless military confrontational manoeuvres and hostile acts of the U.S. and its vassal forces.” The US and South Korea carried out joint air drills on Wednesday, which seems to have further inflamed the situation.
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen visited Khartoum on Thursday and came away with a new promise to move forward with the “Abraham Accords” normalization agreement between Sudan and Israel. The timetable, however, is uncertain. Based on comments Cohen made to reporters after returning to Israel, it sounds like any progress is going to wait until Sudan has a civilian government in place, and it’s unclear exactly when that might happen.
Burkina Faso’s ruling junta has unveiled the “Action Plan for Stabilization and Development,” a document that’s supposed to lay out a roadmap back to civilian rule. Apparently all the junta needs to do now is: defeat jihadist militants, solve Burkina Faso’s humanitarian problems, reform state institutions, and oversee a national reconciliation project. I figure they should have that all wrapped up in time for a new election by the year 2223, give or take. In actuality the junta has committed to an election next year, so good luck with that I guess.
At least one person was killed on Wednesday in an attack on an Independent National Electoral Commission office in southeastern Nigeria’s Anambra state. Nigeria is set to hold its general election on February 25 and I don’t think the timing is coincidental. A significant haul of election material was reportedly destroyed. There’s no indication as to responsibility, but Biafran separatists are generally suspected in any violent incident in that part of Nigeria. There are concerns that INEC offices could be targeted for violence more frequently as the election approaches.
According to Foreign Policy, eastern NATO members like Poland are agitating for The Gang to spend more money on their militaries:
A handful of NATO countries are pushing to raise the alliance’s defense spending benchmark from 2 percent to 2.5 percent or even 3 percent of member countries’ GDP, according to six current and former European and U.S. officials familiar with the matter, a move that could amount to hundreds of billions of dollars in new defense spending if approved.
The initiative, pushed in diplomatic circles by Poland and Estonia, is a long shot and may face significant pushback from Western European powers already struggling to meet the existing NATO defense spending benchmark of 2 percent of GDP. But it reflects a mounting concern among NATO members on the alliance’s eastern flank that Europe is ill-equipped for a long-term military showdown with Russia in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine last year.
“We do expect that against the backdrop of everything that’s going on, the NATO commonly agreed level should be higher than 2 percent,” Estonia’s ambassador to the United States, Kristjan Prikk, told Foreign Policy in a message, noting that discussions were still ongoing as to what the proposed new benchmark should be.
A group of 29 US senators wrote a letter to President Joe Biden on Thursday in which, echoing comments earlier this week by Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), they said they would not support the sale of new F-16s and F-16 modernization kits to Turkey unless/until the Turkish government approves both Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO memberships. Both the Biden administration and the Turkish government have insisted that the F-16 sale and the NATO issue are not connected, though there’s not much either can do if Congress decides to connect them. That said, 29 senators cannot block a sale. A majority of the Senate would have to vote to block the sale and, if Biden were to exercise his veto, a two-thirds majority would be required to override it. It’s unclear whether Biden would be prepared to use his veto in this case.
The Austrian government on Thursday expelled four Russian diplomatic personnel, most likely for spying based on the wording of the foreign ministry’s statement. Two worked at the Russian embassy while the other two were part of the Russian delegation to the UN’s Vienna office. That brings to nine the number of Russian diplomatic personnel expelled by the Austrians under similar circumstances since 2020. The Austrians didn’t reveal the identities of the four individuals but they’re confirmed to be below the ambassador level. A Russian response is probably forthcoming.
Interim Peruvian President Dina Boluarte has advanced yet another proposal for holding an election this year, this time calling for a vote in October so that a new Congress and new president could take office by December. Multiple proposals for a 2023 election have flopped in the Peruvian Congress in recent days so there’s probably not much reason to expect this one will fare any better.
Finally, Foreign Policy’s Rajan Menon and Daniel DePetris argue that the Russian military’s struggles in Ukraine call for a radical rethinking of Europe’s military dependence on the United States:
Still, nearly a year since the invasion began, Russia is still regarded by many as a formidable military power and a dire threat, not only to Ukraine itself but also to Europe as a whole. This continues to be the predominant lesson drawn from the Russian military’s decision to invade what is—the European part of Russia aside—Europe’s largest country in land area and one of its most populous.
Driving this widespread assumption is the misguided notion that Europe is simply incapable of defending itself without the help of the United States and that in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine the U.S. military presence has to be beefed up—which it has. This belief is pervasive in the corridors of power in Washington and Europe and was reiterated most recently by Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin in December.
This assessment—of a Europe rich and technologically advanced but in effect defenseless—was compelling for much of the Cold War. Back then, the Soviet Union had a substantial conventional military advantage over Western Europe. Soviet troops were forward-deployed all across Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe (which formed part of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact), with more than 300,000 Soviet troops stationed in East Germany alone. European economic recovery was also a work in progress.
Today, however, this view is flat-out wrong.
Thanks for reading! Foreign Exchanges is entirely a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.