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World roundup: June 13 2023
Stories from Iran, India, Ethiopia, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
June 13, 1983: The space probe Pioneer 10, launched in 1972, crosses the orbit of Neptune and becomes the first man-made object to pass the orbits of all the major planets of this solar system. It continued to transmit telemetry data until April 2002 and still sent weak signals back to Earth until January 23, 2003. It’s believed to be further from the sun at this point than any spacecraft save Voyager 1, though it will be surpassed by Voyager 2 sometime in the next few years.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The International Organization for Migration reported Tuesday that 2022 was a very deadly year for migrants in and around the Middle East and North Africa. The IOM recorded 3789 migrant deaths in the region last year, the most since 2017’s 4255 deaths. That figure almost certainly under-counts the true number, given the difficulties inherent in trying to track migration data.
Syrian state media is reporting that the Israeli military has launched another missile strike into Syria, targeting Damascus and/or its vicinity. I don’t have any further details at time of writing but there may be more to say tomorrow.
The United Nations said on Tuesday that it has obtained insurance for its salvage operation involving the marooned FSO Safer, the oil tanker that’s been stuck off of Yemen’s Red Sea coast since 2015 carrying some 1.1 million barrels of oil within its deteriorating hull. That should clear the way for the UN to begin a ship-to-ship transfer of said oil in relatively short order. The salvage team apparently believes that the Safer is still intact enough to withstand that operation, though it’s continuing to inspect the ship while waiting for the new tanker to arrive. Were the oil to spill into the Red Sea it would cause an environmental catastrophe that would cost billions of dollars to clean up.
Israeli security forces killed one Palestinian man and wounded eight other people during an arrest raid in a refugee camp in the West Bank city of Nablus on Tuesday. The target of the raid appears to have been among the wounded but was not, in fact, arrested. Elsewhere, four Israeli soldiers were wounded in a drive-by shooting incident near the West Bank city of Jenin. And Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is in China this week, discussing a few potential Chinese investments in the West Bank. Any interaction between the PA and the Chinese government raises speculation about Beijing potentially mediating talks between the PA and the Israeli government, but that has yet to materialize and it would be a much more challenging diplomatic effort than was China’s mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as that built upon years of similar work by regional governments (particularly Iraq and Oman).
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu briefed a Knesset committee on Tuesday about recent talks involving the US and Iran over what he characterized as a “mini agreement” on Iran’s nuclear program. According to him this proposal involves three main components—an Iranian pledge not to enrich uranium beyond the 60 percent level, the release of an unspecified amount of frozen Iranian government funds, and a prisoner swap. The contours seem to align with a number of recent sketchy reports. Laura Rozen, citing a “senior US official,” reported in her newsletter on Tuesday that there have been indirect contacts between the US and Iranian governments of late, focused on two tracks:
American officials said they have held recent indirect talks with Iran both to convey “unambiguous” warnings that Iran should not conduct weapons-grade enrichment; and to urge Iran to take steps to demonstrate that it is willing to de-escalate tensions. Such steps, such as providing greater access to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and releasing American citizens jailed by Iran, would advance prospects for a potential diplomatic process, a senior U.S. official said.
“We’ve been very clear in messages to Iran through whatever existing channels, that if they were to take some steps, it could lead us to a very dangerous spot, and we’ve been very clear that they should avoid them,” a senior U.S. official, speaking not for attribution, said in an interview Monday (June 12).
“Separately, we have told them we are interested in a de-escalatory path,” the senior U.S. official said. “And we want to see whether they are prepared to do that.”
You’ll note the “de-escalatory path” is here described in terms of what would be unilateral Iranian concessions. But as there’s no reason to think the Iranians would be prepared to make any unilateral concessions, we can assume they’ve talked about some kind of quid pro quo but the Biden administration isn’t ready to admit that yet.
With Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi scheduled for a state visit to the White House later this month, according to Reuters the Biden administration is prodding New Delhi to cut through the red tape surrounding a potential $2 billion-plus sale of US-made MQ-9B “SeaGuardian” drones to India. Part of the problem appears to be the price tag, as the Indian government keeps lowering the number of drones it says it wants to buy. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, in India to prepare for Modi’s visit, told reporters on Tuesday that the administration is hoping to “remove…obstacles in defense trade, in high-tech trade, in investment in each of our countries.” The US government views improving military and commercial ties with India as a major piece of its China containment policy, but since Russia invaded Ukraine it’s also been trying to pry apart the close India-Russia relationship.
A new report from the Peace Research Institute of Oslo says that some 6337 civilians have been killed in conflict since Myanmar’s military seized power in its February 2021 coup. That’s substantially higher than any previous count of civilian deaths. According to the report, the military has been responsible for at least 3003 of those deaths while rebels have been responsible for at least 2152 of them. Nearly all of the rest could not be attributed.
Responsible Statecraft’s Jim Lobe reports on a new poll that suggests considerable antipathy about the “New Cold War” within countries where one might expect higher levels of support for the United States:
Nine out of ten adult citizens of three key East Asian nations with which the United States has enjoyed close military ties are either “somewhat” or “very worried” about a geopolitical confrontation between the U.S. and China, according to a new poll released Monday by the Eurasia Group Foundation.
An average of 62 percent of respondents in Singapore, South Korea, and the Philippines said they believed more intense competition between the two global powers will have negative consequences for their countries’ national security, according to the survey, which was carried out by YouGov.
Respondents also expressed concern that escalating tensions between Beijing and Washington would also result in political polarization within their countries as opposing parties would be pressed to take sides with one power or the other.
The Fijian and New Zealand governments have concluded a new defense pact covering training, maritime security, and disaster relief assistance. Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka suggested during a visit to Wellington last week that such a deal was on the verge of completion. As I noted at the time, this has “New Cold War” implications, as New Zealand is in many respects a US proxy and Fiji had previously been operating under a law enforcement cooperation agreement with China that Rabuka’s government has reportedly put under some sort of review.
The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has appointed four of its member states—Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, and chair Kenya—to a new committee focused on ending the conflict in Sudan. This represents a shift from IGAD’s previous diplomatic effort, which didn’t include Ethiopia and was chaired by South Sudan rather than Kenya. The reorganized group’s efforts are already off to a shaky start, inasmuch as Sudanese military commander Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has preemptively rejected the quartet’s proposal to organize an in-person meeting between him and Rapid Support Forces commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. Hopefully they worked out some sort of backup plan. The US and Saudi Arabia are reportedly about to ditch, or at least substantially downgrade, their mediation efforts—something about their complete failure to achieve anything, I guess—so IGAD may be the only remaining option from a negotiating standpoint.
At least 23 people have been killed in what seem to be tit for tat attacks in central Nigeria’s Plateau state. Plateau is heavily affected by the farmer-herder violence that is increasingly common across central Nigeria. On Saturday two herders were killed and a series of subsequent attacks on farming villages since then have left at least 21 people dead. I’m not entirely clear on whether these incidents are directly linked but it seems plausible at least.
Al Jazeera reports on the lingering uncertainty regarding a large number of Tigrayan prisoners of war:
Almost a year on from the truce, peace is gradually been cemented in Tigray.
Even as the fighting seems to have ended, the TPLF has been deregistered from a government “terror list” and there has been a mass release of ethnic Tigrayans who were in federal security forces before their detention.
An interim administration has been set up in Tigray, telecommunication services and transport links have resumed there and the regional forces have surrendered most of their arms as outlined in the deal.
But some details from the war remain unclear. The fate of hundreds, maybe thousands of fighters and other prisoners of war (POWs) – all of Tigrayan ethnicity – detained during the war, is shrouded in silence.
The Dutch media outlet NOS is reporting that the Dutch military intelligence service, the MIVD, warned the US Central Intelligence Agency last June that there was a Ukrainian plan in the works to blow up the Nord Stream gas pipelines. Anonymous “US officials” say that the CIA then approached Ukrainian officials to object to that operation, only to be told that the Ukrainians had already decided not to pursue it.
Somebody of course did blow up the pipelines in September, and increasingly it seems Western governments are emphasizing that it was Ukraine—apparently acting alone and indeed in contravention of warnings not to do it—that was responsible. Is that plausible? Sure. Is there any reason to believe the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies as they absolve themselves of any responsibility for the bombing? Not particularly. I’m not necessarily saying the CIA was directly responsible or even heavily involved in the attack, but that “warning” may not have been quite as strident as it’s being portrayed, assuming there actually was a warning.
Reuters says it’s been able to confirm that Ukrainian forces control the village of Neskuchne in Donetsk oblast, which would in turn confirm that their big counteroffensive has achieved at least one territorial gain over the past several days. That confirmation would undercut Russian claims, amplified by Vladimir Putin on Tuesday during some sort of press availability for pro-war bloggers and “correspondents,” that the counteroffensive has been a complete failure thus far. Even so, there are a lot of questions about how effective the counteroffensive has been in terms of weighing territorial progress against casualties and loss of materiel. The Russian military reportedly counterattacked on Tuesday in areas where the Ukrainians have claimed progress and there are concerns that the Ukrainians are advancing beyond the effective range of their air defenses, leaving themselves vulnerable to Russian airstrikes. The Russians also bombarded the city of Kryvyi Rih on Tuesday, killing at least 11 people.
Kosovan Prime Minister Albin Kurti suggested on Tuesday that he’s prepared to hold new elections in the four predominantly Serb communities in northern Kosovo that are currently in upheaval over April’s heavily boycotted vote. Serbs skipped that election and have been protesting and clashing with Kosovan security forces since the “winners” (all ethnic Albanians) took office last month. Kurti also announced plans to reduce the Kosovan police presence in those communities, ostensibly because ethnic Serb unrest has diminished though the arrest of an alleged Serb militant leader on Tuesday is threatening to re-escalate the situation. Kurti has been under pressure from Kosovo’s Western pals, who want to see a reduction in tensions between Serbia and Kosovo in order to clear the way for both to join the European Union, to undo April’s elections and offer some sort of autonomous status to Kosovan Serbs.
Spain’s conservative People’s Party and its far-right Vox Party agreed on Tuesday to form a coalition government in the Valencia region. I mention this because Spain is holding a national election next month and this deal seems like the template for an arrangement whereby the PP, which once might have argued that it was the bulwark against the far-right’s return to power, will instead shepherd Vox into power in order to form a governing coalition. Just something to keep in mind.
Finally, John Feffer looks at the neocolonialism that’s increasingly becoming an inseparable part of the clean energy transition:
There are several major problems associated with this new rush to acquire critical raw materials. First of all, there’s just not enough to go around. The earth doesn’t contain enough lithium that we can access for all combustion vehicles to switch to battery-powered ones. Nor is there enough rare earth elements indium and neodymium to build all the solar panels and wind turbines that would be needed to replace oil and natural gas.
This relative scarcity is fueling the desperation in industrial countries. Whoever can secure the greatest access to these raw materials will be the country best poised to profit from the switch away from fossil fuels. It also means that Global South countries in theory hold some very good cards in this global poker game. But these countries haven’t yet figured out a way to leverage those riches—safely, sustainably—to improve their position in the global economic pecking order (as South Korea has done).
A second problem is environmental. The mining of these minerals causes considerable damage to the environment. The mining and processing of lithium, for instance, draws heavily on water resources in dry areas like the “lithium triangle” where Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile all converge. Rare earth minerals contain radioactive materials that pose a risk to workers and surrounding communities.
A third problem is the neo-colonial nature of the relationship between northern manufacturers and southern suppliers of raw materials. In the colonial era, Japan basically plundered Korea for its rice and iron. Today, industrialized countries are trying to extract lithium and other critical raw materials at the lowest possible prices through concessions built into free trade deals that eliminate or lower tariffs. These trade agreements are also designed to make it more difficult for Global South countries to pursue industrial policies that could build strong next-generation industries to compete with those in the Global North. In other words, the Global North is kicking away the ladder that South Korea used to climb to prosperity.
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