World roundup: March 18 2021
Stories from Iran, Armenia, Russia, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
March 17, 1861: The first Italian parliament proclaims King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia as king of a newly unified Italy. This was the culmination of a unification process (the Risorgimento) that began amid the Revolutions of 1848, though the process wasn’t completed until the Italians took Venice from Austria in 1866 and Rome from the Papacy in 1870.
March 18, 1921: The Peace of Riga formally ends the 1919-1920 Polish-Soviet War. The Poles emerged mostly victorious, regaining some of the territory that had been lost to the Russian Empire during the three 18th century partitions of Poland, and the outcome put a damper on Bolshevik plans to try to spread their revolution to other parts of Europe. Poland’s borders with what had by then become the Soviet Union were of course redrawn again during and after World War II.
March 18, 1965: During the Voskhod 2 space mission, cosmonaut Alexei Leonov becomes the first person to conduct a spacewalk. Leonov exited the Voskhod spacecraft and spent 12 minutes, 9 seconds in space. The mission’s end the following day almost became a tragedy when weather forced the capsule to touch down off course, in the heavily forested Upper Kama Upland region. Leonov and his fellow cosmonaut, Pavel Belyayev, had to spend the night in the forest because the terrain made their planned airlift impossible and ground rescuers couldn’t reach them until the following day.
Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for March 18:
122,357,474 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (21,004,465 active, +545,459 since yesterday)
2,702,455 reported fatalities (+10,465 since yesterday)
3126 confirmed coronavirus cases (+89)
723 reported fatalities (+10)
Gunmen believed to be members of al-Qaeda killed at least 12 people in an early morning attack on a security checkpoint in Yemen’s Abyan province on Thursday. Eight of those killed were separatist Southern Transitional Council fighters who are aligned (at least nominally) with the Yemeni government, while the other four were civilians. In neighboring Aden, meanwhile, somebody attempted to assassinate Yemeni Minister of Civil Service and Insurance Abdel Nasser al-Wali by attacking his convoy with some sort of explosive device. Wali, who was unharmed, is a leading figure in the STC. There’s been no claim of responsibility in that attack and there’s no immediately apparent link between these two incidents beyond the STC connection. Additionally, STC fighters claimed Thursday to have downed three drones, perhaps courtesy of the Houthi rebels, seen flying over the presidential compound in Aden.
The Houthis, meanwhile, conveyed via Al Jazeera their insistence that any ceasefire must be preceded by the lifting of the Saudi air and naval blockade of northern Yemen. Their statement is a response to US envoy Timothy Lenderking’s criticism of the rebels’ priorities last week. The Houthis—as well as the United Nations, several aid organizations, and CNN—have blamed the blockade for severe shortages of basic necessities in northern Yemen. The Yemeni government on Wednesday “categorically” rejected the claim that the blockade is affecting imports of food, medicine, and other such goods (though at the very least it is affecting imports of the fuel needed to distribute those items to people). They contend that the Houthis are diverting aid onto the black market to raise money. Of course even if that’s true, and it wouldn’t be surprising if it were, that doesn’t mean the blockade isn’t also affecting imports.
2,950,603 confirmed cases (+20,049)
29,777 reported fatalities (+81)
Rockets fired from inside Syria reportedly landed in southern Turkey’s Kilis province on Thursday, but they did not explode and apparently caused neither casualties nor damage. Turkish officials seemed to suggest the rockets were fired by the Syrian military, though their statement as reported by UPI was difficult to parse.
The now pretty much official Turkish effort to outlaw the predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has generated some criticism both domestically and from Western governments. The US State Department said that outlawing HDP will “further undermine democracy in Turkey,” while the European Union lamented the Turkish government’s decision to “unapologetically” hasten “the end of pluralism.” in their politics. Unsurprisingly these comments drew a quick “butt out” response from Ankara.
The bottom line is that HDP’s proverbial goose is cooked, and despite claims that the party is but an arm of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the rationales behind banning HDP are entirely political. The party can and likely will reorganize under a different name, but its ability to regain its footing will be limited if for no other reason than that hundreds of its top officials are expected to be barred from political activity for at least five years if not longer.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
434,465 confirmed cases (+2101)
1424 reported fatalities (+10)
Emirati leaders have reportedly decided to “suspend” a summit involving Israel, the United States, and other Arab participants in the “Abraham Accords” that was supposed to take place next month in Abu Dhabi. The reason, it seems, is that de facto UAE leader Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan feels that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been “exploiting” his diplomatic accord with the UAE as part of his campaign heading into next week’s Israeli election. Which he absolutely has been doing, to be clear. Netanyahu’s first planned visit to the UAE was supposed to take place last week, just as the campaign was heading into the home stretch, but he was forced to cancel ostensibly because his flight couldn’t get permission to cross Jordanian airspace. It is entirely possible that the Jordan thing is a cover story to obscure tension with the Emiratis, but that’s purely speculative.
1,778,645 confirmed cases (+7530)
61,581 reported fatalities (+89)
At her Substack newsletter, Diplomatic, Laura Rozen reports on signs that Iranian politics are really starting to hamper any effort to salvage the JCPOA:
Iran’s outgoing second-term President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday blasted domestic rivals he charged with preventing Iranians from potentially receiving the economic relief that could come with the U.S. returning to the 2015 pact and lifting nuclear related sanctions.
“It is a great betrayal of the Iranian nation if any faction or person delays the end of the sanctions even for one hour,” Rouhani said in televised remarks on Wednesday, according to Reuters.
“The small minority that is obstructing this path needs to stop its destructive act. If it stops … the government can break the sanctions,” Rouhani added.
Meantime, a “constructive, concrete plan of action” that Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on March 5 he would soon issue has yet to materialize.
There’s no indication it will be materializing anytime soon, or ever really. With a presidential election only three months away and with the likelihood that it will mark a sea change in Iranian politics fairly high, the window for pre-election diplomacy may really be closed. If that’s the case, and if the next Iranian president proves less amenable to engagement with Washington, Joe Biden and company will have nobody to blame but themselves.
181,165 confirmed cases (+1024)
3301 reported fatalities (+19)
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan pulled the trigger on a snap election on Thursday, marking June 20 as the date for a vote that may help resolve Armenia’s political crisis but also threatens to make it much, much worse. Pashinyan has been facing protests and demands for his resignation since signing a lopsided ceasefire agreement in November to end last fall’s Nagorno-Karabakh war on Azerbaijani terms. Last month he survived what appears to have been an attempted “coup by memorandum” by the Armenian military, which suggested he ought to resign but didn’t take any action to force him to do so. Looking at polling that shows most Armenians want a snap election and that his own support, while diminished, is still greater than any of his rivals, Pashinyan presumably figured it was better to move to a vote now rather than continue to let the crisis play out.
Pashinyan is also still mired in a dispute stemming from that attempted coup, or whatever it was. Russian media reported Thursday that an Armenian court has ruled that military chief of staff Onik Gasparyan, whom Pashinyan has fired, is allowed to stay on the job pending a legal appeal of his sacking. Pashinyan’s office responded by declaring that the court’s ruling has no effect because Gasparyan has already been fired and replaced. It’s not clear to me that this is the case—as far as I know President Armen Sarksyan has not formally accepted Pashinyan’s choice to replace Gasparyan, Artak Davtyan—but even if it were it’s also not clear that Pashinyan can just ignore an unwelcome court order like this.
56,069 confirmed cases (+25)
2462 reported fatalities (+0)
At least four people were killed Thursday when a bus carrying government workers hit a roadside bomb in Kabul. Earlier in the day reports said 11 people were injured, but only three deaths had been confirmed at that time so I’m unsure whether authorities discovered a fourth body or one of those 11 people later died. There’s been no claim of responsibility as yet. Elsewhere, Afghan officials have apparently determined that a helicopter that crashed shortly after takeoff in Maidan Wardak province on Wednesday was in fact shot down. Nine Afghan military personnel were killed. The helicopter was engaged in a combat operation against militia fighters loyal to a local warlord and presumably those fighters shot it down.
A US delegation participated in the Afghan peace conference that was held in Moscow on Thursday, and it even signed on to a joint statement with the Chinese, Pakistani, and Russian governments calling on the Taliban and Afghan government to agree to an immediate ceasefire and reinvigorate their peace talks in Qatar. The collaborative effort highlights the Biden administration’s shift away from the Trump administration’s much more unilateral approach to ending the Afghan war. The Trump administration, by contrast, largely ignored Russian initiatives to try to resolve the conflict. There’s certainly some logic to pursuing a more regional peace process, but the Taliban hasn’t shown much enthusiasm for doing so and therefore the jury is very much out as to whether it can be effective.
142,212 confirmed cases (+22)
3204 reported fatalities (+1)
Myanmar’s ruling junta is building a legal case against ex-leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whom it ousted in last month’s coup. Its latest gambit involves a claim by businessman Maung Waik that he gave Suu Kyi around $500,000 in cash in exchange for favorable treatment for his businesses. The junta has already accused Suu Kyi of receiving over $600,000 from a political ally, though of course under the circumstances these allegations have to be regarded with at least some degree of skepticism.
90,072 confirmed cases (+6) on the mainland, 11,351 confirmed cases (+10) in Hong Kong
4636 reported fatalities (+0) on the mainland, 203 reported fatalities (+0) in Hong Kong
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan opened the first major US-Chinese meeting of the Biden administration in Alaska on Thursday, along with their Chinese interlocutors, diplomat Yang Jiechi and State Councilor Wang Yi. There’s not much of substance to say about the talks at this point, but the opening statements from the two delegations were practically dripping with mutual antagonism. In total the principles spent about an hour criticizing one another with media in the room, which needless to say is not how these sorts of opening ceremonies are usually conducted.
No acknowledged cases
The North Korean government announced Friday that it is cutting diplomatic ties with Malaysia. A Malaysian court earlier this month ordered the extradition of a North Korean national wanted by US authorities on allegations of money laundering. Pyongyang characterized the decision as a “hostile act” targeting someone who was engaged in “legitimate external trade activities.”
North Korean officials are continuing to pour cold water on the idea of engaging diplomatically with the Biden administration, with Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son-hui saying on Thursday that it would be “a waste of time” to engage with the US until it is “ready to feel and accept new change and new times.” The thing is, North Korean officials could just quietly not engage. But talking openly about not engaging is itself a kind of engagement. Pyongyang may be pushing for some sort of gesture from the Biden administration to entice it to the negotiating table.
149,207 confirmed cases (+1032)
2435 reported fatalities (+13)
The UN’s Panel of Experts on Libya issued its final report on Wednesday, and shockingly it’s not especially positive:
In its final report, the Panel of Experts on Libya – established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011) – said that throughout its mandate, the body identified “multiple acts” that threatened the peace, stability or security of the country, and increased attacks against State institutions and installations.
“Designated terrorist groups remained active in Libya, albeit with diminished activities. Their acts of violence continue to have a disruptive effect on the stability and security of the country”, it said.
The 2011 arms embargo – which prohibited Libyans from exporting all arms and related materials, and obliged UN Member States to prevent the direct or indirect supply of all weaponry to Libya – “remains totally ineffective”, the Panel noted.
“For those Member States directly supporting the parties to the conflict, the violations are extensive, blatant and with complete disregard for the sanctions measures. Their control of the entire supply chain complicates detection, disruption or interdiction. These two factors make any implementation of the arms embargo more difficult.”
In addition, implementation of the assets freeze, and travel ban measures regarding designated individuals also remains ineffective, the Panel added.
161,409 confirmed cases (+135)
2027 reported fatalities (+0)
Bandits killed at least ten people in an attack on a village in Nigeria’s Zamfara state on Tuesday. Three of those killed were soldiers responding to the raid while the rest were village residents.
181,869 confirmed cases (+2057)
2602 reported fatalities (+10)
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has reportedly agreed to an Ethiopian Human Rights Commission proposal to conduct a joint investigation into allegations of war crimes during the recent conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. The EHRC is government-appointed but it has displayed some degree of autonomy in the wake of the Tigray war—acknowledging, for example, that Eritrean soldiers participated in that conflict in contrast with denials from both the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments. So there is some reason to believe this could be a legitimate investigation even if it’s not fully independent.
4,428,239 confirmed cases (+9803)
93,824 reported fatalities (+460)
With US-Russian relations suddenly approaching a post-Cold War nadir, Vladimir Putin on Thursday offered to hold “public online talks” with Joe Biden. Putin is a bit miffed over comments Biden made to ABC News on Wednesday, coinciding with the release of a US intelligence community report alleging Russian interference in the 2020 US presidential campaign. Among other things, Biden said that Putin “will pay a price” for the alleged interference, called the Russian leader a “killer,” and suggested that he has no soul. It was all, you know, very normal discourse.
As we already know, the Kremlin has recalled its US ambassador for consultations in response to Biden’s remarks. With respect to the “killer” comment, Putin told Russian media on Thursday that it “takes one to know one,” while his spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, argued that the ABC interview shows that Biden is not interested in improving US-Russian relations. Incredibly, though I guess somehow inevitably as well, some US media outlets seem to be characterizing this exchange, in which the US president publicly threatened and personally insulted another head of state and that head of state responded in obvious irritation but with an offer to sit down and talk, as a display of Russian aggression. Georgetown University’s Anatol Lieven has what I think is a much better take:
The administration approach combines many of the errors committed by Washington officials, politicians, and the media in recent years. First, you have an intelligence report based on evidence that the public cannot see stating that it is “likely” that the Russian government ordered attempts to influence the elections. This report is then turned by the administration and much of the media into an absolute certainty. In a recent ABC News interview, Biden says Putin will “pay a price” for what the report says his government has done. As usual, the issue is personalized by attributing the decision to Putin himself, and the U.S. statement is accompanied by gratuitously insulting language which is likely to offend even many Russian opponents of Putin. Does nobody remember the advice of Teddy Roosevelt — hardly a weakling on U.S. security — to speak softly and carry a big stick?
210,725 confirmed cases (+1797)
4472 reported fatalities (+36)
The Moldovan parliament on Tuesday nominated ambassador to Russia Vladimir Golovatiuc as prime minister. What’s interesting about this is that it’s really the Moldovan president’s responsibility to nominate prospective PMs. But Moldovan President Maia Sandu isn’t on good terms with parliament. She already nominated former Finance Minister Natalia Gavrilița as PM, but that went nowhere. Earlier this week she tapped the head of her own Action and Solidarity Party, Igor Grosu, but clearly parliament isn’t keen on him either.
What Sandu would really prefer is probably for nobody to assume the PM job, because then she’ll have grounds to call the snap election she’s been talking about since her election to the presidency last year. With that in mind, Moldova’s Constitutional Court will now have to rule on Grosu’s nomination and whether or not parliament is obliged to consider it before moving on to Golovatiuc or anybody else.
1,179,612 confirmed cases (+6125)
16,198 reported fatalities (+33)
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Thursday declared an “overwhelming” victory in this week’s parliamentary election. Official results aren’t available yet but all signs point to Rutte’s People’s Party (VVD) winning 35 seats in the 150 seat House of Representatives, which is two more than it held going into the election. Rutte still needs to form a coalition but he’s unlikely to have much trouble doing that.
2,175,462 confirmed cases (+6455)
195,908 reported fatalities (+789)
Gunmen ambushed a police convoy in the central Mexican state of Mexico on Thursday, killing at least 13 police officers. The attack, presumably carried out by a criminal gang, is one of the largest attacks on Mexican police in recent years.
922,848 confirmed cases (+3609)
22,590 reported fatalities (+36)
The Biden administration has agreed to make some 4 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine available to Canada and Mexico under a “loan” arrangement. Those countries would be expected to repay the loan (2.5 million doses for Mexico, 1.5 million for Canada) in kind at a later date. The US has been sitting on millions of AstraZeneca doses even though AstraZeneca’s vaccine is not yet approved for use in the United States. That vaccine is under fire in Europe due to anecdotal reports of links to excessive clotting, but governments there are reversing their decisions to suspend its use after the European Medicines Agency insisted that it is safe.
30,358,880 confirmed cases (+62,629)
552,470 reported fatalities (+1705)
Finally, I don’t really have anything major for the US tonight, but the Senate confirmed veteran diplomat William Burns as the new director of the CIA on Thursday. I’m not very familiar with Burns, but his background is promising and he appears to have some sense of strategic empathy, which is something that’s been on my mind a fair bit lately. I don’t know if he’s the least objectionable member of Joe Biden’s foreign policy team, but he’s definitely not the most objectionable. So I guess that’s something.