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US-Iran talks reaching Ides of March

The US-Iran negotiations have successfully crossed the boulder that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threw in the way via his outreach to the American lawmakers. The conclusion can be safely drawn after Netanyahu’s speech that neither do the US lawmakers feel emboldened to enact new legislation intended to complicate the US-Iran talks nor is President Barack Obama feeling browbeaten to backtrack on his policy toward Iran.

Surprisingly, after all the brouhaha in the recent weeks, Netanyahu failed to rally the political class in Washington behind his thesis that a deal with Iran is only going to punctuate Tehran’s inexorable march toward clandestinely developing nuclear weapons. On the other hand, his theatrical address before the US Congress has raised such political dust and has proved to be so divisive an intervention in American politics – and added, equally, to the reality that the majority public opinion in the US favors an Iran deal – that a question mark can be out on the sheer efficacy of the Senate even passing a bill requiring Obama to submit any agreement with Iran for congressional approval.

All that the Republican-dominated Congress may end up having will be the reserve power (which it already wields) to delay by an year or two the permanent lifting of sanctions against Iran if a deal is reached, which of course, can also be circumvented through executive action by the president to waive the sanctions temporarily.

To be sure, there was a discernible swagger in Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks to the media following his latest round of talks with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Zarif in Montreux, Switzerland. Kerry claimed “some progress” at the latest round but added the caveat that “there are still significant gaps and important choices to be made.” He seemed to hint at an “increased breakout time” as something that the US is seeking but is yet unsure of it finding acceptability in Tehran.

Simply put, we will have to wait till 15th March to find out when the next round of talks is slated to take place. In this case, however, the Ides of March do not necessarily evoke the notoriously dark mood in William Shakespeare’s time, but instead from Kerry’s tone would seem to hark back to the late antiquity signifying the celebratory day it used to be for Romans marking the ceremonies of the new year and the expulsion of the old year.

Indeed, the fact that Kerry left for Riyadh to take the Saudi leadership into confidence and to brief his GCC counterparts (who are assembling in Riyadh to hear him out) as well as his travel plan thereafter to proceed to Europe to confabulate with his British, French and German counterparts in the weekend would suggest that while it is “certainly possible” (as Kerry put it) that the talks may not ultimately yield any deal on time, the odds are possibly moving in favor of a deal being reached.

That is also the impression one gets from an extraordinary interview by Zarif with the NBC News, here, where he literally tore into Netanyahu as someone who sees peace as an existential threat and thereby marginalized himself.

Posted in Diplomacy, Politics.

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A crisis of trust in Iraq

We will never get to know what painful thoughts raced through the soldierly mind of Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, when he testified before the US senators in Washington on Tuesday, but it certainly wouldn’t have been easy for him to bring himself to compliment Iran’s “most overt conduct… in the form of artillery and other things” in the military operation currently going on to retake the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit from the control of the Islamic State.

For sure, Gen Dempsey knew he was actually complimenting an Iranian general who has been in the American-Israeli ‘hit list’ from time immemorial – Gen Qassem Suleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps [IRGC] of Iran.

To make the point a lit bit clearer still, let me digress for a moment to bring out from my archive a profile of the elusive, charismatic, devastatingly brilliant IRGC general that the New Yorker magazine once had featured in September 2013 in a riveting story entitled “THE SHADOW COMMANDER”. Read it, here, and you will understand why Gen. Dempsey would have been swallowing hard during his testimony yesterday.

But what option would Gen. Dempsey have been left with but to compliment Tehran and distract attention from the central issue – namely, that Baghdad kept Washington in the dark about the Tikrit operations and simply chose to follow Suleimani’s command? The New York Times has an insightful account by Anne Barnard reporting from Baghdad as to what has gone wrong between the Iraqi government and the Americans. As she put it, the Iraqis are frustrated with the “sluggish American pace and pessimistic American estimates of how long it would take to drive the Islamic State from Mosul and the western province of Anbar.” Barnard quotes a close aide to the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as saying, “The Americans continue procrastinating about the time it will take to liberate the country,” he said in an interview. “Iraq will liberate Mosul and Anbar without them.”

Now, one option open to Washington will be to sit on the fence and hope against hope that the Iraqi-Iranian joint operation would at some point solicit help from the US forces. But that seems increasingly unlikely and the field reports are increasingly concluding that the IS faces a crushing defeat in Tikrit.

A second option for the Americans would have been to plead that this is a Shi’ite operation and the US cannot identify with sectarian conflicts. But then, the latest reports suggest that thousands of Sunni Iraqi fighters have also been participating on the side of the Iraqi government forces and Iran’s IRGC cadres. In short, this is a classic war on terror – pure and simple.

For sure, President Barack Obama has some answering to do. Why has the US-led “international coalition” been twiddling its thumbs and marking time by needlessly exaggerating the potency of the Islamic State fighters? Baghdad and Tehran have exposed the US and its coalition partners – ranging from the Australians to the Gulf Arabs – and shows them in a very poor light as cowardly or dissimulating (or both.) In fact, there is a deafening silence on the part of Saudi Arabia even as its erstwhile progenies are facing massacre.

Posted in Military, Politics, Religion, Terrorism.

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Iran squashes IS, US scrambles for cover

Fierce fighting has erupted around the Iraqi city of Tikrit to the north of Baghdad, best known the world over as the home town of Saddam Hussein and regarded to be the spiritual heartland of the Baathist regime. The Iraqi government forces launched an operation on Monday to recapture the city from the Islamic State [IS] militants. This hugely important development has three dimensions.

First, of course, if the operations succeed, it will constitute a big blow to the IS. Tikrit is not only a big trophy by itself but the Iraqi government will be carrying the war into the IS’ territory. Most likely, the next target will be Mosul, straddling Iraqi Kurdistan, where the IS’ dramatic surge first appeared last June. It is tempting to surmise that the IS faces a near-term prospect of extinction in military terms.

The second dimension is with regard to the crucial role that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards [IRGC] are reportedly playing in the Tikrit operation under the Iraqi flag. The BBC has reported, citing Shi’ite militia sources, that the charismatic and legendary commander of the IRGC Gen Qasem Soleimani has been seen in the frontline and is “personally taking part in leading the operation.” There is delightful irony that Soleimani is leading the liberation of the hometown of his old enemy Saddam. That apart, Shi’ite Iran is leading the fight today against a Sunni Islamist enemy who poses existential threat to the Sunni Arab regimes of the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, which has otherwise no love lost for Iran.

Finally, the fighting raging around Tikrit raises a big question: Where on earth is the US-led international coalition hiding? Iran has put the US and its coalition partners to shame by single-handedly taking the war into the IS tent. Iran is relentlessly exposing the IS as a pest that is easily squashed if gone about seriously, than the 10′ tall enemy with mythical prowess that the Western analysts made it out to be.

Meanwhile, the spin doctors are already at work, claiming that the US is deliberately steering clear of Tikrit as a matter of policy, since the fighting in Tikrit is spearheaded by the Shi’ite militia and there is a tacit ‘division of labor’ with Iran – a laughable proposition, to say the least.

Tehran alleges, on the other hand, that the US is actually dissimulating when it claims it is fighting the IS, and that in reality Washington has a nuanced approach that anticipates a future role for the IS as an instrument in its regional strategies. The Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian literally ridiculed the US claims of fighting the IS, when he alleged in a speech in Tehran on Monday, “The US has created the anti-ISIL coalition with the participation of 60 countries, but the coalition’s main practical measure is confined to controlling and administering the ISIL.”

Abdollahian disclosed that the US military aircraft are ferrying supplies for the IS in Syria and Iraq by flying great distances. He asked, “How can one make a 900-kilometer mistake in distance?” Good question, indeed.

In Afghanistan too the US intervened militarily in 2001 on the pretext of vanquishing the Taliban, who have in a curious role reversal today become Washington’s key interlocutors — and, maybe, are being groomed to become tomorrow’s catalysts of change in the vast Central Asian steppes still under Russian influence, or China’s restive Xinjiang Autonomous Region which is struggling with Islamist militancy.

Posted in Military, Politics, Religion, Terrorism.

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Obama on a roll in South Asia

This is going to be an extraordinary week for US president Barack Obama. The crucial meeting with Iran is slated for Friday. Both Tehran and Washington are signaling that a nuclear deal is within sight (here and here).

But a little further to the east of Iran, another success story of immense consequence to the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean region and Central Asia is unfolding, as the Indian Foreign Secretary travels to Islamabad to kickstart the ‘dialogue’ between the two countries and, alongside, a unique coalition government between the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and a Kashmiri regional party People’s Democratic Party assumes power in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir [J&K].

Both these developments in the subcontinent are attributable to the quiet American nudging on New Delhi to move forward with Pakistan and begin a constructive engagement with Islamabad, which forms a critical template of the overall American regional strategies. The point is, unless India-Pakistan relations are calmed and stabilized, the US regional strategies in Afghanistan and South Asia are not going to be sustainable in the long run, which would in turn seriously handicap the US’ pivot strategy in Asia.

Fortunately for Obama, however, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is proving to be much more amenable to American persuasion despite his apparent ideology of ‘Hindutva’ rooted in robust nationalism. Modi is willing to play ball with ‘Friend Barack’ more openly and daringly than even his predecessor Manmoahn Singh who was often branded ‘pro-American’ but carefully toed a median line that didn’t compromise India’s strategic autonomy.

Of course, Modi’s ultra-nationalist credentials are so very impeccable that he owes no explanation to anyone on planet Earth if he one day summarily chooses to break with Pakistan and then, nine months later one fine day decides to kiss and make up with Pakistan – or with a Kashmiri regional party that the Hindu nationalists berated all along as ‘anti-national’.

The curious part is that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh [RSS], which choreogrpahed and mentored Modi’s career as a politician, is also playing a double game here – with a hardline posturing to pander to the domestic constituency that is sold out on the historical imperative to undo the Partition of 1947 (which led to the creation of Pakistan), but on the contrary settling for a passive acquiescence behind the scenes with the negotiations leading to the formation of the coalition government in J&K and the resumption of ‘dialogue’ with Pakistan (although Pakistan has not met any of the Modi government’s preconditions so far.)

The RSS has rolled back its longstanding demand that J&K’s special status under the Indian constitution should be abolished; it is also apparently willing to consider the removal (partial at least, to begin with) of the special powers given to the armed forces deployed in the state which absolved them of the need to be accountable under Indian laws in cases involving human rights abuses. The mother of all ironies is that the key interlocutor from Delhi who negotiated the terms and conditions for the formation of the coalition government in J&K is reportedly none other than a prominent RSS functionary himself.

Clearly, what is emerging is an incredible sight on the Indian political landscape — a face of right wing Hindu nationalism behind its grotesque exterior, incessantly pursuing the politics of hate and fear, which not many would have suspected  – namely, an extraordinary willingness to compromise and to go the extra mile in order to harmonize with the US regional strategies if that is what Washington expects.

Indeed, Obama can look back with immense satisfaction at his visit to Delhi in January. (And in this case, his success in collaring the rising tide of Hindu nationalism is, arguably, a good thing to happen.)

Historically speaking, the US often found that right-wing nationalists the world over made congenial partners. (Chile’s Augusto Pinochet Ugarte is a famous example.) From Obama’s point of view, the Hindu nationalists ruling Indian today are one better than the ilk of Pinochet, because Modi also happens to be a democratically elected leader.

Posted in Politics.

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Reports of Russian economy’s death are greatly exaggerated

A phase of intense anti-Russian propaganda by the West, unprecedented in the post-cold war era, is probably about to end. The propagandists had us believe that the Russian economy is in “tatters”, is in “free fall” and is reduced to “junk” already due to the “smart” western sanctions hatched by the United States, and sooner rather than later Moscow would be compelled to fall in line with the West’s diktat on Ukraine.

But nothing of the sort happened. Russia, if anything, became even more assertive safeguarding its legitimate interests of security. On the ground, Russia has maneuvred into a strong position, while the western opinion fractured with a significant body of opinion building up in Europe that the sanctions policies are not only a road to nowhere but are hurting European interests. The European Union is called upon to decide in the next few months whether the sanctions should remain in place or a rollback is advisable, given the encouraging trends lately that the Minsk accord is slowly but steadily gaining traction in eastern Ukraine.

Now that the tide of propaganda is probably beginning to recede, rational opinion is surfacing. Bloomberg has carried an opinion piece entitled “No, Obama, Russia’s Economy Isn’t in Tatters”, which warns that the reports regarding the Russian economy’s impending demise may prove to be premature.

The National Interest Online magazine has carried a report in a somewhat similar vein regarding a colloquium entitled “Russia’s Energy Sector and the Oil Price Collapse”, which was held in Washington on Tuesday under the auspices of the Center for the National Interest. The views expressed were that the impact of sanctions or falling oil prices on Russian economy should not be exaggerated even if opinions may vary whether or not oil prices will be back up in the $80 per-barrel range by the end of the year. The report is here.

Indeed, the central point in all this is the future of Russia’s energy cooperation with Europe, which becomes the debating point here. No doubt, Europe seeks to diversify sources of supply away from Russia – reducing the high dependency level averaging at 30% of supply of gas at present. But a recent analysis by Professor James Henderson, a senior fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, comes up with a startling conclusion — and let me quote at some length:

“While all sense of a strategic energy partnership between Russia and the EU has disappeared, in reality commercial relations will remain strong. Russia will not want to become reliant on exports to a single powerful customer, such as China, and will use its European options as a balancing item in the same way that sales to Asia are currently being used to make a geo-political and commercial point to European leaders. Furthermore, total sales to Europe are likely to remain the biggest source of revenue for Gazprom, albeit China could become the biggest single customer, and as a result, although the relationship between Russia and its customers in the west is likely to remain politically fractious for the foreseeable future, the mutual benefits of a rational commercial outcome in the energy sector are likely to pre- vent any significant breakdown in gas trade. Furthermore, if Gazprom does pursue a strategy of increased trading on hubs rather than delivery to end consumers, its powerful bargaining position as a low cost producer with vast gas resources close to Europe could ultimately result in an expanding market share over the long term rather than the decline which currently seems to be the EU’s preferred outcome.”

Clearly, Russia continues to pursue highly focused energy policies, undeterred by apocalyptic predictions of the economy’s “free fall”, which are predicated on a shrewd estimation that is far from implying a cessation of relations with Europe. Viewed from such a perspective, Moscow’s cancellation of the South Stream gas pipeline project becomes more a turning point in its gas long-term export strategy brought about by a combination of circumstances (such as the weak gas demand, the EU’s anti-monopoly legislation in the energy sector and the sense that Gazprom is less welcome than before in the European market), which prompts it to work on a new hub on the Turkey/Greece border to send gas into southeast Europe.

Indeed, those who were mocking the so-called Turkish Stream concept initially as just a Russian bluff are increasingly falling silent and sensing that the project is vital to Russia and could be as realistic as the existing Blue Stream project supplying Russian gas to Turkey.  As I hinted in an earlier blog — Russia barges into the EU tent –regarding the possibility of expansion of Russia-Cyprus energy ties, Russia is also positioning itself smartly between Turkey and Greece as a common friend and a new energy axis among the three countries may well be emerging, which would enhance Moscow’s profile in the Mediterranean region.

Even a recent analysis by the Jamestown Foundation, a formidable cold warrior of standing, grudgingly admits, “It is also becoming increasingly evident that the energy-centered cooperation between Russia and Turkey will result in Ankara moving politically closer to Moscow… from an even broader strategic vantage point, Turkey and Russia’s energy cooperation emerges as a serious challenge to the Euro-Atlantic community and its close regional partners.”

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A ‘Pax Indica-Americana’ for South Asia?

Three things that emerge from the “Update on US Policy” in the South Asian region in a special briefing in Washington on Thursday by the United States Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Desai are: a) The US looks back at President Barack Obama’s visit to India as productive in its outcome. b) The US is highly pleased with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appointment of S. Jaishankar as India’s Foreign Secretary; and, c) Washington is unhappy with the leaderships in Bangladesh and Maldives for being intolerant toward the legitimate democratic opposition, but feels thrilled about the regime change in Sri Lanka.

Unfortunately, Desai didn’t throw much light on Pakistan, nor did, surprisingly, none amongst the media persons ask her about it. Maybe, there was a consensus not to spoil the party. At any rate, credit goes to Desai for the skill with which she could navigate an update on US policy in South Asia without once bringing in America’s crucial Pakistan ties.

Desai insisted that Modi and Obama had a “major breakthrough” as regards the civil nuclear cooperation. But then, the two countries are still “exchanging information” at the governmental level, and Delhi has been putting forward “certain additional information and clarifications on their interpretations” as well as “additional information with respect to insurance pools that can… provide additional risk mitigation” that are important from the American perspective “in being able to advance civil nuclear cooperation and move towards commercial opportunities.” Besides, the US-Indian contact group is also “continuing its work to address any areas that require further clarification”.

In the light of these intense cogitations, Desai summed up: “we do believe that the understandings that were reached between the United States and India during the visit of the President fundamentally address the outstanding concerns that we had and advance civil nuclear cooperation.  So in that sense, we do believe that this was a significant breakthrough.”

Desai is an authoritative voice – although Modi government shies away from discussing these goings-on behind the curtain. Arguably, one reason (amongst others) behind Modi’s obstinacy on the controversial land act could be that he knows something we don’t know — that the time is approaching for land acquisition for the Westinghouse nuclear power plant.

Interestingly, Desai pinned high hopes on the “process” located in Delhi and co-chaired by the Foreign Secretary and the American ambassador “on ensuring that the implementation [of various agreements and outcomes during Obama’s visit] moves forward aggressively.” Desai also disclosed that Foreign Secretary just held “a robust set of discussions” in Washington with the American officials regarding South Asian region.

She said this in reply to a query whether the US and India could be discussing developments such as in Maldives. To quote Desai, “I’m not going to get into the details of those conversations, but I think we want to see a growing collaboration and coordination with our colleagues on a range of matters, and we certainly had very fulsome discussions with the foreign secretary during his visit.”

Of course, the Americans know Jaishankar very well – not only as a professional but also his world view and ideology – and Desai’s words exude the confidence that the US counts on him to get Indian policies unmoored from fixations over “strategic autonomy”, et al, and dovetail them with the US’ regional strategies such as, for example, co-sharing the burden of realizing the historic goal of China’s democratic transformation. Jaishankar was an exponent of the quixotic idea fashionable in the middle of the last decade in Delhi regarding a quadripartite alliance between the US, India, Japan and Australia.

Suffice it to say, Desai’s briefing has thrown up a tantalizing question: How the US-Indian “collaboration and coordination” is going to work actually on the ground in the South Asian region? Indeed, she sounded displeased with the leaderships in Dhaka and Male for allegedly denying space to political opponents. Now, is the promotion of democracy in Bangladesh and the Maldives going to be another US-Indian enterprise – after Sri Lanka?

Most certainly, Desai put the South Asian capitals on guard — and might have made the going a bit tougher than it is for Jaishankar (this, this and this) who is embarking on a SAARC odyssey on behalf of Modi. Will India’s smaller neighbors accept a US-Indian axis? Do they respect the raison d’etre of any perceived Indian hegemony?

What options do they have to withstand pressures from a US-Indian axis? Not much ingenuity is needed on their part to make out that the Obama administration counts on Modi as a “strategic asset” in the US’ strategy to contain China. Don’t be surprised if they begin to harbor a sense of oneness with China and Pakistan as a countervailing strategy.

Posted in Diplomacy, Politics.

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Russia barges into the EU tent

The significance of the agreement signed in Moscow on Wednesday to let Russian navy ships to stop at ports in Cyprus may lend itself to exaggerated notions of a military pact between the two countries, which it certainly is not. On the other hand, the profound meaning of the agreement in political terms – and the visit of Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades to Moscow – cannot be lost on Washington and the European capitals, especially Brussels where the European Union is headquartered.

In strategic terms, the deal doesn’t mean that Russia is about to establish naval bases in Cyprus. The agreement merely provides legal underpinning to the Russian navy ships making regular port calls at Cyprus. In military terms, however, Russian navy is getting such access on an assured basis at a time when its only maintenance base happens to be Tartus, Syria, which is caught up in deep turmoil with no end in view. Simply put, the Black Sea Fleet’s Mediterranean operations will be on a sound footing with the backup in Cyprus.

Equally, Russia is establishing military cooperation with a country where Britain maintains a military base. There are reports that China too may be talking with Cyprus for similar facilities as Russia has secured.

However, much more than Russian-Cypriot military cooperation is involved here. Anastasiades’s Moscow visit also has a huge geopolitical backdrop where many crosscurrents are at work. For a start, Cyprus is a EU member country and it is deepening its ties with Russia, which happens to be currently the target of EU sanctions. Anastasiades, in fact, has defiantly questioned the rationale of western sanctions against Russia.

During the past fortnight Cyprus has become the second EU member state – after President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Hungary – to publicly display its dissent and resentment regarding the US-sponsored western sanctions against Russia. Like Hungary – nay, much more than Hungary – Cyprus has strong reasons to be treasuring its cooperation with Russia.

Around 80% of foreign investment in Cyprus is Russian. Moscow gave a big hand to help Cyprus see through its financial crisis – giving a 2.5 billion euro loan in 2011 (and this week cutting its annual interest rate from 4.5% to 2.5% besides extending the redemption period from 2016 to 2018-2021) apart from helping Cyprus organize successfully its first issue of sovereign Cyprus Eurobonds since the crisis for 750 million euros. It is estimated that the money flows from Russia to Cyprus exceeds $200 billion during the period 1994-2011. The quality of the Russian-Cypriot relationship becomes evident in Putin’s remarks to the media in Moscow while welcoming Anastasiades.

The bottom line here is that it will be an uphill task for Washington in the period ahead to rally the EU member countries behind the US’ containment strategy against Russia. The emergence of a leftist government in Greece (which mentors Cyprus), which is credited with strong links to Russian ideologues, already irritates Washington. Hungary and Greece also happen to be NATO member countries.

So indeed is Turkey, which has also edged closer to Moscow in the recent years almost in direct proportion to the strains that have appeared in the discourse between Washington and Ankara. Indeed, at a closer look, a matrix of great complexity is appearing, which would suggest that snapping the umbilical cords that tie ‘post-Soviet’ Russia with Europe is going to be a Herculean task for the US diplomacy.

This is not for want of trying, as the latest US-backed endeavor by the EU bureaucracy to integrate the bloc’s energy market with the singular intention to ‘centralize’ and control Russia’s energy ties with individual member states testifies. But the short point is that Russia has become an avid globalizer, beating the US in its own game, and it intends to remain that way.

Coming back to the Russian-Cypriot partnership, some other templates of regional politics also need to be noted. First, energy ties. Cyprus is sitting on vast untapped reserves of natural gas in its offshore fields in the eastern Mediterranean. Russian oil companies are hoping to wade into Cyprus’ energy sector, which is presently dominated by American companies. Anastasias has apparently invited Russian energy companies to move in.

Now, Cyprus’ gas fields are contiguous to Syria’s economic zone, which also are credited with untapped hydrocarbon reserves. Cypriot and Israeli gas fields are also overlapping – like Qatar and Iran. The evacuation of Cypriot gas to Europe would be an American priority with a view to reducing Europe’s dependence on Russia. On the other hand, the ideal pipeline route from Cyprus would be via Turkey with which Cyprus has no relations following the occupation of northern Cyprus by Turkey in 1974. Washington is keenly encouraging Turkish-Cypriot reconciliation – talks resumed in early February following a two-year break – but the public opinion in Cyprus strongly militates against accepting Turkey’s presence in Northern Cyprus. The deadlock is difficult to break.

Which would prompt Russia to step in as an energy partner for Cyprus. Russia is also pressing ahead talks with Turkey regarding a new gas pipeline via the Black Sea (replacing the South Stream which Moscow has summarily abandoned) leading to the countries of southeastern Europe. Clearly, energy politics of the eastern Mediterranean region is surging and Russia has a finger in almost every pie.

All in all, having secured a strong position on the ground in Ukraine, Russia is returning to the world stage to pick the threads where it left them. The recent visit by Putin to Egypt and Anastasiades’s visit to Moscow signal that Russian diplomacy is neither in defensive mode nor is Russia bogged down in a quagmire in Ukraine.

Posted in Diplomacy, Military, Politics.

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Cuban missile crisis and Ukraine standoff

William Polk, the well-known American author and formerly Harvard don and foreign-policy consultant, sent to me a couple of days back his latest writing on the US-Russia relations (which has since been featured by Consortiumnews Online magazine). I have found myself more or less on the same page with Polk on the Ukraine crisis. Polk, of course, is vastly experienced on Russian-American relations. He played a role as advisor during the John Kennedy presidency in defusing the Cuban missile crisis.

Which indeed makes his latest essay very thoughtful and highly pertinent – drawing the lessons out of the 1962 crisis and with hindsight offering a blueprint for defusing the US-Russia standoff over Ukraine. Indeed, the parallels that Polk draws are striking and the high-risk standoff then (between the US and the former Soviet Union) and now would have more or less the same ‘red lines’. As Polk summarizes them,

  • “It is almost certain that neither the American nor the Russian government could accept even a limited attack without responding.”
  • “There is no reason to believe that a Russian government, faced with defeat in conventional weapons, would be able to avoid using nuclear weapons.”
  • “Whatever attempts are made to limit escalation are likely to fail and in failing led to all out war.”
  • “And, the predictable consequences of a nuclear war are indeed an unimaginable catastrophe.”

Polk outlines that a possible settlement in Ukraine should be based on the following elements:

  • Russia will not accept Ukraine’s induction into NATO;
  • Russia has legitimate interests in Ukraine;
  • The US’ intrusion into what is essentially Ukrainian-Russian affairs is unwarranted and should be stopped.

The sad part is that it is far from certain how far President Barack Obama will be open to such eminently sensible advice. Simply put, Obama is unable to shake himself free from the triumphalism that characterized Washington’s policies toward post-Soviet Russia since the early 1990s.

Thus, one of the leading ideologues who apparently influences Obama’s thinking on Russia, Robert Kagan at the Brookings, wrote only this week, “Despite all of the loose talk of American decline, it is in the military realm where U.S. advantages remain clearest. Even in other great power’s backyards, the United States retains the capacity, along with its powerful allies, to deter challenges to the security order. But without a U.S. willingness to use military power to establish balance in far-flung regions of the world, the system will buckle under the unrestrained military competition of regional powers.”

In Kagan’s ‘liberal’ world order, it is permissible for Russia, China or any regional power to compete with the US economically, but “security competition is different”, because there is “no stable balance of power in Europe or Asia without the United States.”

Polk may not get a reasonable hearing amidst such overpowering triumphalism and the Cold-War era mindset prevailing in Washington. And, yet, the surprising part is that, as I wrote earlier with admiration (See Obama’s ‘moving finger’ writes Iran ties), when it comes to the engagement with Iran, Obama has been nothing but realism personified as regards the limits to American power. How could the same decisive, reflective mind turn out to be so different in the approach to Russia?

To my mind, the crucial difference lies in something else: Ukraine is not about countering Russia’s ‘aggression’, as Obama insists, but in reality it is more about the reassertion of the US’ transatlantic leadership in the post-cold war era. Now, this is not the case with Iran where Obama banks on Europe’s support – and most certainly, it wasn’t the case with the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 at the high noon of the Cold War era.

Posted in Military, Politics.

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Obama’s ‘moving finger’ writes Iran ties

The remarks by the European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini at the Chatham House, London, on Tuesday to the effect that a nuclear deal with Iran is “at hand” are to be taken as the most definitive indication so far at a high level that a historic compromise between the United States and Iran could be taking shape. Indeed, she added the caveat (which we know already) that “a series of internal domestic political dynamics” would need to be handled with care and she listed three — the sparring between the White House and the Republican-dominated US Congress, Israel’s elections (March 17) and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.

Mogherini is an old ‘Iran hand’, having pioneered the West’s thaw with Iran in her capacity as Italian foreign minister. She visited Tehran repeatedly to position Italy ahead of any other European country in the outreach to Iran — and the Iranians on their part valued her friendly approach. But Mogherini’s assessment also helps to decode the evaluations by US Secretary of State John Kerry at a testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington yesterday and a media briefing by senior American officials earlier on Monday regarding the outcome of the talks, which took place this weekend in Geneva.

In his senate testimony, this is what Kerry said in his opening statement: “The fact is that on Iran, sure, it’s controversial and may have some risks. But we are daring to believe that diplomacy may be able to provide a better alternative to ridding Iran of the possibility of a nuclear weapon than a war, or then going first to the threats that lead you to confrontation. So we are trying. I can’t make a prediction what the outcome will be, but we’re leading in that effort to try to help make that happen, together with our P5+1 partners.”

It exudes optimism, no doubt. Kerry’s emphasis during the Q&A on the senate floor was on setting negotiated, verifiable limits to Iran’s nuclear activity (which rejects the Israeli demand of a complete cessation and rollback of the Iranian program.) Kerry refused to concede veto rights to the Congress over a deal with Iran, arguing that the lawmakers would anyway have a say in due course when the lifting of Iran sanctions comes up for legislation.

The senior officials from the American side who briefed the media at Geneva also reiterated that a complex deal is being negotiated on the premise that “we would have a one-year breakout time for a double-digit number of years.” That is to say, a deal with a time frame of ten or fifteen years (or whatever, but involving a minimum of 10 years) will be predicated on the surety (secured through the underpinning of a verification and monitoring mechanism monitored within the framework of a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) that ensures Iran will need at least one year to ‘cheat’ –that is, even if it proceeds to go back on the deal and clandestinely make a nuclear weapon.

The unnamed US officials outlined the thinking: “I think it’s a very straightforward fact, and the whole purpose of this is to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon, and over a period of time, can ensure the international community that its program is exclusively peaceful and get to the point where it is treated as any other non-nuclear weapon state of the NPT. That will take some time.”

In sum, President Barack Obama’s calculation will be that the US Congress will be faced with a fait accompli since the international opinion so heavily favors an Iran deal, especially among the US’ European allies, and, secondly, the easing of the 35-year old US-Iranian enmity would create its own dynamics in the Middle Eastern politics, which would work to the advantage of the US regional strategies on a variety of issues affecting vital American interests such as the threat posed by the Islamic State, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and so on.

Read this insightful AP analysis on the Geneva talks, and it is clear that both Israel and Saudi Arabia will be mighty upset about what is likely shaping up as a basic understanding by end-March that will be filled out by June 30th with “annexes of excruciating detail.” Of course, this has never really been exclusively about nuclear non-proliferation. Obama knows – and the Iranian leadership too – that there is a large geopolitical backdrop in which the talks focused on the nuclear issue are taking place.

Equally, there is an intense awareness in Tehran regarding the ‘big picture’ of the power dynamic in the Middle East. The editorial in today’s Iran Daily underscores the self-confidence of the leadership in Tehran that Iran’s finest hour in international diplomacy is nearing. It has been truly a very long-patient, tenacious waiting through three decades — peace with honor, fairness and equality.

To be sure, the US diplomacy will be on a roller coaster ride with two of America’s most important Middle East allies – Israel and Saudi Arabia — in a near term. But the odds are that the advantages of the deal (and Iran’s integration with the western world) will incrementally work on Israel and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the sheer audacity of what is being attempted is itself mind-boggling, given the tortuous history of US-Iran relations. Obama is turning out to be one of the most underestimated American presidents of modern times. Cuba – and now Iran.

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Iran talks make progress at Geneva

Media “leaks” are an integral part of international diplomacy. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi learnt this to his discomfiture recently when American diplomats planted a story that he profusely shared with US president Barack Obama his angst over China’s rise in a 45-minute conversation. And this when Modi is preparing for a path-breaking historic visit to China.

Now, it is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s turn to be the victim of a “leak”via the Al Jazeera on Monday. The ‘leak’ highlights that Israel’s spy agency Mossad calmly assesses the Iranian nuclear program and sees no reason to panic. Its timing is very curious – just 7 days before Netanyahu is slated to address a joint session of the US Congress in Washington where he is expected to hoist the petard of a ‘nuclear Iran’ and mock at President Barack Obama’s constructive engagement of Tehran.

The “leak” is based on a cable attributed to Mossad, which casts Mossad as a mature spy agency capable of making highly professional assessments even in emotion-charged environs with a political leadership breathing down its neck demanding doctored intelligence input.

Who could have planted this invidious ‘leak’? It all depends, as Vladimir Lenin once put it, ‘Who stands to gain?’ It is a difficult question really, because there could be so man sources who would be interested in bringing Netanyahu down by a few notches – ranging from an exasperated Obama or Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasarullah to Israeli politician Tzipi Livni who hopes to defeat Netanyahu in the March 17 parliamentary election.

The fact of the matter is that the “leak” coincides with the latest round of US-Iran talks in Geneva, which have since been described by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif as “serious, useful and constructive”.

Zarif seems quietly pleased with his 2-day talks with the US Secretary of State John Kerry, and is quoted as saying, “”We have made progress on some topics to some extent, but there is still a long way to pave before reaching a final deal.” The fact that Zarif and Kerry have agreed that negotiations will continue next Monday (after a week’s break) suggests cautious optimism on both sides.

The Iranians even made light of Kerry’s remarks en route to Geneva that the US would leave the talks if Tehran did not take a “productive” decision to prove the “peaceful” nature of its nuclear program.The Iranian negotiator Seyed Abbas Araqchi jovially responded that Tehran too would leave the negotiating table if the other side adopted “a bullying approach” in the negotiations.

In sum, the vibes look good — although caveats must be added insofar as any such tough negotiations would remain a cliffhanger unless and until the final document is initialed. But, on balance, Iranian and the US negotiators seem “locked in”.

This is where the debunking of Netanyahu becomes timely and has been intended in a constructive spirit of neutralizing his potential to play a spoiler’s role in the crucial weeks ahead. The spin doctors would call it “preemptive damage control”. It needs to be seen in perspective alongside other compelling tell-tale signs.

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