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Russia, China – neither allies nor rivals

There have been some wild theses lately, including among the Indian pundits and think tankers, that consequent upon Russia’ s tensions with the West, Moscow has ‘pivoted’ to China in strategic terms and a Sino-Russian axis is steadily taking shape in world politics and that these two ‘Eastern” powers are all set to challenge the United States.

Some speculators even went to the extent of fancying that the fate of the American dollar is sealed and it is a matter of months before the Bretton Woods system comes crashing down.

This was of course fantasyland and anyone who has followed the trajectory of Russian-Chinese relations through the past decades would know that there are far too many complexities (and contradictions) involved in this relationship and it can never be the case that they would simply decide one day to embrace each other and become allies.

Paradoxically, the US strategy toward Russia and China is itself predicated on the virtual certainty that the latter two can never form an axis in the international system.

Of course, it is in the interests of fostering the tendencies of ‘polycentrism’ in world politics that Russia and China should walk shoulder to shoulder. But then, such a thought will forever remain in the domain of wishful thinking — or a pipe dream.

China is far too self-centred and ‘pragmatic’ a power to think of joining alliances, and as for Russia, it is fiercely independent in foreign policies and, intensely conscious of its proud history, it can never be a junior partner to another power.

President Vladimir Putin asserted only a few weeks ago in his address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow that Russia will never allow itself to be an inferior military power vis-a-vis any country. Which was as much a reference to China as it was to the United States.

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Two editorials in the Chinese communist party tabloid Global Times within the week throw much light on how China views the gravity of the crisis facing Russia today, and what should be China’s stance in Russia’s cold war with the United States. Being editorial comments, they surely carry the stamp of official thinking.

An interesting point to be noted here is that the two editorials straddle Russian President Vladimir Putin’s traditional annual yearend press conference in the Kremlin last Thursday.

To be exact, the first GT editorial appeared on Wednesday and the second one today (four days after the Kremlin event.)

And, interestingly, there has been a gentle ‘course correction’ by the Global Times between last Wednesday and today.

The annual yearend Kremlin press conference by Putin was scheduled weeks in advance and Russia’s tensions with the US were expected to dominate the event on Thursday. To be sure, the timing of the GT editorial on Wednesday on the eve of the press conference is also to be duly noted.

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The GT editorial on Wednesday, here, drew an alarming picture of the Russian economy, showing it as facing an unprecedented crisis, and assessing that its future is unpredictable.

The crisis was compared to the collapse of the former Soviet Union. The commentary said the crisis posed “new challenges to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tenure, forcing him to apply a defensive strategy,” while noting at the same time that there are also concerns “about him becoming more aggressive.”

The Chinese commentators have traditionally treated Putin with velvet gloves as if he were an invincible hero, and to suggest that he could be erratic is a marked departure.

The commentary estimated on the whole that Russia will pull through this crisis in the short term and “the threat of collapse is still far away.” But it went on to claim that China is a significant factor in Russia’s strategic environment and, therefore, Putin’s “most realistic option” will be to take China’s support.

But then, it noted, China-Russian cooperation is “no longer ideology-based but driven by common interests” and, therefore, China should not be “proactive’ but instead wait till Moscow puts in a request for help.

The punch line comes toward the end when the commentary assesses that Russia will probably “recalibrate” its national strategies to cope with the crisis, but there is no certainty that it will draw closer to China and on China’s part, therefore, the relations with Russia need to be conducted on a reciprocal basis.

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The commentary was stunning in its prescience — in a manner of speaking. For, Putin made it absolutely clear during his press conference that Russia intends to tighten its belts and pull through on its own steam through the coming one-year period ahead until the growth of the world economy picks up and in the meanwhile Russia proposes to undertake a much-needed structural reform in terms of reducing the dependence on oil income.

Putin also rebutted the West’s propagandistic reports on the Russian economy. He explained the comfortable position with regard to foreign exchange reserves and stressed that there is going to be no rollback in social sectors or defence expenditure.

With regard to China, he showed no signs of any intention on Moscow’s part to take help from China or even to contemplate such dependence on China.

Significantly, Putin gave a new twist to the recent mega gas deal with China, flatly denying any ‘pivot’ to China in Russia’s energy export strategy as a result of the chill in relations with Europe. This is what Putin said:

“As for energy, the demand for resources is racing in leaps and bounds in China, India, as well as in Japan and South Korea. Everything is developing faster there than in other places. So should we turn down our chance? The projects we are working on were planned long ago, even before the most recent problems occurred in the global or Russian economy. We are simply implementing our long-time plans.”

Now, the western commentators have given the spin that Russia has made ‘concessions’ to China from a position of weakness. But Putin said something entirely different:

“About the Chinese contract – it is not a loss-making project. It enjoys privileges on both sides – on both sides, I must stress… China offered some benefits as well – these benefits aren’t extraordinary or anything; the Chinese government simply decided to provide some support to the project participants. We, in turn, agreed to do the same. So the project definitely became profitable. Definitely.

“Moreover, we have agreed on a pricing formula, which is not much different – if at all – from the one applied to our European contracts, except for the specific regional market coefficients. This is regular practice.

“In addition, it will help Russia, which will receive and accumulate gigantic resources at the project’s initial stage, to begin connecting our Far Eastern regions to the gas distribution grids, not just to export gas through the pipeline. This will allow us to make the next  – a very important – step. We will be able to link together the western and eastern gas pipeline systems and promptly re-channel resources back and forth when needed, depending on the international market. This is very important. Without it, we would never be able to connect Eastern Siberia and the Far East to the gas distribution system.

“So this project holds many potential benefits. Not to mention that it is a huge construction site that will create jobs and generate tax income at every level, and revive Russia’s Far East and the entire region.”

What stood out was that Putin underscored that mutual benefit and commercial considerations alone determined the Russia-China energy cooperation. And, in a subtle way he also flagged that Moscow is by no means diluting its energy ties with Europe but is actually creating a link-up between its western and eastern gas pipeline systems whereby it can “re-channel resources back and forth.”

In political terms, he also told the Xinhua correspondent at the press conference that the cooperation with China in the UN Security Council is “an important element in stabilizing the international situation,” and it is “many common interests on the international stage, such as international stability.” Period.

The unspoken part was that any request to China to bail out Russia was the last thing on Putin’s mind at any point during his 3-hour long press conference. Evidently, without saying so in as many words, he neatly rubbished the Chinese interpretation of Russia’s economic “crisis” in alarmist terms. (Kremlin website)

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Interestingly, the second editorial by the Global Times, here, which appeared today (four days after Putin’s press conference) no longer views Russia in apocalyptic terms. It estimates, on the contrary, that when sanctions proved ineffective against Cuba and Iran, how could they he “the straw that breaks the back” of Russia?

It stresses: “Vladimir Putin’s reign can hardly be overturned simply by currency inflation. Russia has experienced many ups and downs, and it has the tenacity to withstand risks and dangers.”

The commentary also dropped the smug patronizing tone earlier to admit, “Russia does not want to be a vassal of the Chinese economy and this red line must be clearly understood by China… China must hold a positive attitude to help Russia out of this crisis… But anything w can do to help will be limited to what Russia asks for.”

An impression becomes unavoidable that the Chinese pundits initially lapped up the West’s doomsday predictions of Russia, but after reading Putin’s mind at Thursday’s press conference, beat a hasty retreat.

On the other hand, today’s GT commentary has also sought a middle ground between the US and Russia and noted, “China must act as an active mediator between Russia and the US, or it will have to face unavoidable geopolitical risks if their conflict spirals out of control.”

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Indeed, Moscow would have no such intentions to invite China to mediate its differences with the US. Moscow cannot but be aware that China and the US have just concluded in Chicago a major trade and investment meeting that balances greater market access to US business with the reciprocal move by Washington to open the doors for eliminating restrictions on high-technology exports to China. (China Daily)

The Chinese vice-premier Wang Yang reportedly told his hosts at the negotiations in Chicago that China and the US have “much more common interests than differences”, and that their economic and trade cooperation will prosper as long as the two countries can “seek common ground while resolving differences” in the spirit of mutual respect, mutual understanding and mutual accommodation. (China Daily).

Come to think of it, the divergence in the Russian and Chinese perspectives regarding the US’s policies is actually rather glaring. Putin repeated his allegation at the press conference that the US has throughout fuelled the insurgency in Chechnya by instigating the rebels and that it has pursued an unfriendly policy toward Russia aimed at encircling and weakening it. To quote Putin,

“Didn’t they tell us after the fall of the Berlin Wall that NATO would not expand eastwards? However, the expansion started immediately. There were two waves of expansion. Is that not a wall? True, it is a virtual wall, but it was coming up. What about the anti-missile defence system next to our borders? Is that not a wall?

“You see, nobody has ever stopped. This is the main issue of current international relations. Our partners never stopped. They decided they were the winners, they were an empire, while all the others were their vassals, and they needed to put the squeeze on them.”

Clearly, China does not share any of this existential predicament. Put differently, the United States that Putin has to deal with and speaks about is not at all the country with which Chinese President Xi Jinping strives to build a new type of relationship.

Unsurprisingly, Putin has extended an invitation to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to Moscow next May to mark the seventieth anniversary of the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany.

It comes at a time when China’s relations with North Korea have reached a low point. Xi is yet to visit North Korea and has not yet met Kim as presidents, while in July he actually snubbed Pyongyang by visiting South Korea.

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Obama may quiz Modi on Bhagwat

The spin given by South Block to the expulsion of Devyani Khobragade from the premises of the External Affairs Ministry to the parking lot stretches credulity. The excuses being given are laughable. Something far better should have been cooked up.

The Indian media largely preferred to toe the official line and it has been left to the New York Times to get at the quintessence of it by giving an apt title to its dispatch from Delhi: “India Tires of Diplomatic Rift Over Arrest of Devyani Khobragade.”

Spot on. In sum, the Modi government is mothballing the DK affair. These are times when no one in Delhi wants to remember unpleasant things about America. For, US President Barack Obama is on his way.

DK has become a bit of an embarrassment for the government, considering that the BJP had championed her cause vociferously from the nationalistic platform. The then chief minister Narendra Modi even raised the issue with the then American ambassador Nancy Powell. Such was his sense of indignation and national humiliation.

Simply put, one wouldn’t have expected such a supine, cowardly attitude on the part of the Modi government.

Some larger questions arise here. Why should India think it to be an embarrassment to pursue the DK case? The US would never have given up in a comparable position.

In fact, no self-respecting country would, when a foreign country subjected its diplomats to “cavity search”.

Modi doesn’t want to talk about DK affair with Obama. But then, we are getting Obama wrong here.

He wouldn’t have taken it amiss at all if Modi brought up DK. He’d only say in his trademark style with a wide grin, ‘That’s the right thing to do.’

For one thing, Obama admires Modi as ‘a man of action’. Besides, Obama is known to have a flair for details. Remember, he had no qualms about getting involved with Russia’s anti-gay legislation?

For all one knows, Obama himself may choose to catechize Modi about the Christian religion and quiz him regarding the outrageous remarks by the RSS boss Mohan Bhagwat and VHP leader Pravin Togadia in Kolkatta launching their historic project to ‘reconvert’ the Christians of India.

If the recent spy exchanges meticulously worked out between Obama and Cuba’s Raul Castro mean anything, it is that emotions do not come into play in settling inter-state issues.

Second, Delisting DK affair from Modi’s talking point with Obama goes alongside the feverish attempts to get ready as many ‘deliverables’ as possible to please him.

Arguably, the unseemly hurry in putting away DK in the attic and in finding an ingenuous way to circumvent the nuclear liability law are of the same piece.

The first meeting of the India-US Contact Group on nuclear liability law was held in Delhi this week. The “positive and forward-looking” discussions will be followed up poste-haste as soon as Christmas festivities are over in America.

The Reuters broke the story in the weekend that Modi hopes to “sway” Obama with an ingenuous proposal whereby the liability in the event of nuclear accidents will be met out of “an insurance pool” by the plant operators.

That is to say, Modi government proposes to simply sidestep the nuclear liability law instead of “tweaking” it or amending it. Bravo!

Like DK, nuclear liability law is also a BJP baby. But the BJP wants to altogether disclaim the motherhood (which resulted from weak moments of passion), because it wants to make itself available now for a raunchy fellow dropping by. Three cheers for Indian nationalism.

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Kabul allows Pakistan to hunt down Fazlullah

The initial reports attributed to Pakistani defence ministry officials that the Pakistan Taliban chief ‘Mullah’ Fazlullah has been hunted down seem credible.

Pakistan had held him responsible for the Peshawar school attack on Tuesday. Army chief General Raheel Sharif flew to Kabul the next day to seek President Ashraf Ghani’s okay to hunt down Fazlullah.

Ghani apparently acquiesced with a Pakistani operation within Afghan territory where Fazlullah was hiding. The details are sketchy. The Pakistani military had initially claimed that they wanted him alive but apparently settled for his killing.

Dead men tell no tales and the lid has been put on the Fazlullah saga and his mentors and financiers and handlers can now sleep in peace. It is a sad, familiar story of an uneducated, rustic, small-time mullah who had his uses for the Pakistani security establishment initially but was disowned when he became an embarrassment, whereupon, other intelligence agencies co-opted him and turned him against his erstwhile mentors in Pakistan.

It stands to reason that the US prevailed upon Ghani to agree to what Gen Sharif demanded. Rawalpindi set this as a litmus test of how far the Pakistani military could hope to work with the current set-up in Kabul known as the ‘national unity government’.

Washington cannot afford to displease Gen Sharif on whom it is betting to intensify the counter-terrorist operations in North Waziristan against the Taliban groups ensconced there.

On the other hand, there could be elements within the Afghan intelligence (going back to the Hamid Karzai era) who wouldn’t like what has happened. But then, Ghani is cracking down on them in a systematic purge. Pakistan will draw some comfort that the hostile faction within Afghan intelligence is being marginalized.

From this angle, Ghani’s green signal to Gen. Sharif to go for fazlullah becomes a ‘confidence-building measure’. In sum, the nascent Afghan-Pakistani understanding following the transition in Kabul to the Ghani presidency has not only survived the acid test of the Peshawar school attack but may emerge stronger.

Indeed, Pakistan’s new resolve to go for the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban will now be put to test by Ghani. Meanwhile, Afghan Taliban will also be watching. The fact remains that Fazlullah is known to them. Interestingly, a Taliban commentary viciously attacked Ghani on Thursday.

PM Nawaz Sharif’s visit to the GHQ in Rawalpindi is probably meant to signal that the civilian and military leaderships are on the same page in the crackdown on terrorist groups.

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Talbott declares war in Chechnya

Given Strobe Talbott’s impeccable credentials as an American cold warrior wired into the bowels of the US Central Intelligence Agency for decades and still a key figure in the American foreign-policy establishment (who would even have a ‘second coming’ in the corridors of power in the event of a Hillary Clinton presidency), his blog in Reuters this week threatening Russia with a “third Chechen war” in the New Year must be taken with the utmost seriousness as a ‘curtain-raiser’ to the world politics in 2015.

His thesis is that another round of Chechen insurgency, which is about to commence in 2015, will bleed Russia and could sound the “death knell” for that country “in its current borders.”

In sum, Talbott visualizes Russia’s imminent dismemberment, and he is apparently delighted that he’d live to see it happening. His tone of triumphalism is unmistakable.

This is a chilling prognosis by a former US deputy secretary of state in the Bill Clinton administration. What India needs to take note is that Talbott doesn’t bother to conceal that external forces would have a role in stoking violence in Chechnya and this “resurgence of unrest” will have links to the Islamic State.

In sum, the US is back to its old dirty games now that the American economy is recovering – ie., manipulating the extremist Islamist groups as pawns in its geopolitical agenda in our region.

If anyone had thought that 9/11 taught the Americans some home truth about life and death, it is turning out to be misplaced hope.

The ascendancy of the Islamic State in Iraq, which is the ‘Syrian legacy’ of the US’s close regional allies in the Middle East, has always been suspected to be with covert American backing. Circumstantial evidence is increasingly confirming this estimation.

Most certainly, Talbott’s disclosure implies that the US military-cum-intelligence presence in Afghanistan and the establishment of the American bases in that country would give a launching pad for the CIA to begin the war on Chechnya, directed against Russia but camouflaged as a struggle for the ‘Caucasus Caliphate’.

That is to say, the Central Asian region is about to turn into a battleground. Conceivably, Moscow is closely watching the trends in regional politics. President Vladimir Putin’s recent stopover in Tashkent was clearly aimed at strengthening the Russian-Uzbek understanding in fighting Islamist groups. The Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan has historically been a hotbed of radical Islam.

From the Indian perspective, these trends will have profound security implications insofar as the Afghan Taliban (who have been the only party to have ever recognized Chechnya as an independent country) would once again become comrades-in-arms for the CIA.

What role would the US assign for the Pakistani military in the unfolding Islamist campaign against Russia remains to be seen. More so, will the Pakistani political elites and society want to play such a role?

The recent visit by the Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sharif to the US lasted for a fortnight and it is entirely conceivable that some Faustian deals might have been struck.

Amazingly, US secretary of state John Kerry praised the Pakistani military in the presence of Gen. Sharif as “a binding force” and euologised its professionalism. All indications are that the US is pretty much pleased that Gen. Sharif is a man they can do business with.

Viewed from another perspective, the recent Russian overtures to Pakistan assume an altogether new meaning. President Vladimir Putin made an enigmatic remark on the eve of his visit to India that good Russian-Pakistani relations will only serve India’s interests. Presumably, Putin discussed the regional security scenario with his Indian host in Delhi Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently

Clearly, Moscow (and India) wouldn’t like a replay of the Afghan ‘jihad’ of the 1980s when the US and Saudi Arabia hired the Pakistani military’s skills and expertise in fomenting insurgencies abroad and deployed it against the former Soviet Union.

Although India has not been destabilized to the extent Pakistan has been through the recent decades, Afghanistan’s ‘role’ as the revolving door of international terrorism ever since the US-supported Afghan jihad in the 1980s has vitiated regional security as a whole and the debris fell on India, too.

Of course, the situation is somewhat different today from the Cold War era, since there is no ideological tussle between socialism and Islam today. Nonetheless, there have been sustained western attempts to pit Russia (and China) as antithetical to Islam — in Syria, for example — and to encourage the Islamist groups to move against these two countries. The North Caucasus and Xinjiang become potential battlegrounds in this strategy. But it is the control of Central Asia that will be pivotal to this strategy.

This is a smart approach tactically too, because it gets a much-needed reprieve for the US from the Islamist groups. A lull in the US’ much-touted fight against the Islamic State is already apparent. It is even being argued that the US has “demoralized” the Islamic State already.

The information war has apparently begun. After all, there is nothing like it if the Islamic State now lurches toward Russia, Central Asia and China – and in turn would leave the US and its allies in peace.

To be sure, the US-Saudi axis never really weakened as one would have thought, given the Gulf Arab regimes’ distaste toward certain aspects of the US regional policies in the recent years such as the Obama administration’s passivity toward the ouster of the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak or Washington’s initial enthusiasm for the Arab Spring and its overall hesitancy to deploy military power.

What needs to be factored in here is that the Saudis also pursue their own agenda, which is primarily focused on countering Iran’s surge as regional power. There is an apparent contradiction here.

On the one hand, the Obama administration is apparently seeking reconciliation with the Iranian regime while on the other hand, the Saudis (in close coordination with Israel) are moving heaven and earth to isolate and contain Iran.

Are the US on one side and Saudi Arabia (and Israel) on the other side working at cross purposes and undercutting each other or are they moving in tandem with shrewd calibration in a cynical game to outwit Iran? That is a Persian puzzle that the Iranian regime needs to figure out sooner or later – the sooner the better.

Britain’s return to “East of Suez” (by establishing a military base in Bahrain) should be an eye-opener for Iran.

Without doubt, Russia, China and Iran become natural allies in this developing geopolitical scenario.

But here too, the US is adopting a clever strategy to ensure that a Russian-Chinese-Iranian concord never really takes shape on the ground in practical terms.

Washington has, therefore, adopted a differentiated approach – engage Iran and China while ‘punishing’ Russia.

The game plan aims to make sure that Tehran and Beijing would have no compelling reason to align with Moscow as of now while they are busy working on a ‘new type of relationship’ with the US.

In fact, why should Iran and China get involved with Russia’s confrontation with the West when the US is so actively and constructively engaging them, isn’t it?

A smug editorial comment recently by the Chinese communist party tabloid Global Times suggests that China is marking some distance from Russia’s sorrows currently and would prefer to keep its head below the parapet.

But it will be a short-sighted approach on the part of Iran and China to imagine they have this very special thing going on with the Obama administration. They could eventually face a catastrophic outcome if Russia gets weakened and the global strategic balance moves in favor of the US for the first time since World War II.

If, as Talbott promises with such cocky self-confidence, Russia’s dismemberment will be accomplished in 2015, then the US will be in a position to tackle Iran and/or China in a very near future, indeed.

On the contrary, if a seasoned ideologue with killer instinct such as Talbott could only be daydreaming, Iran and China would have nothing to worry about.

But then, Talbott is an old ‘Russia hand’ — and Reuters has had a checquered history in the Cold war era. When Talbott conceived the plan for NATO’s eastward expansion in the early 1990s at a time when Boris Yeltsin was bending over backward to secure habitation for Russia in a European home, he knew well enough that it was a matter of time before Russia would remerge like a Phoenix out of the ashes of the former Soviet Union.

People like Talbott never really believed that the Cold War ended. That was why he brushed aside the warning by the eminent ‘Sovietologist’ and cold-war era strategist George Kennan that Russia will never accept an expanded NATO on its borders.

Talbott hurriedly pushed through the ‘containment’ strategy toward Russia with the conviction that a US-Russia showdown would become inevitable at some point. He has turned out to be right.

Talbott belongs to the school that believes in the imperative to dismember Russia and somehow get rid of that global adversary once and for all so that the New American Century project can roll on without challenge.

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Cuba is starter, Obama’s main course is Iran

The US president Barack Obama’s statement on Wednesday was modestly titled as ‘Cuba Policy Changes’ but it must stand out as one of the finest moments of his presidency – and a watershed event in US diplomatic history.

It took six long years to redeem the important foreign-policy pledge Obama made in the 2008 campaign with regard to Cuba, which only underscores how difficult it is to break the moulds of hardened mindsets, especially when foreign-policy issues get entangled with domestic politics.

Of course, it needs immense courage for any statesmen to candidly admit his country’s mistakes and Obama of yore once before did it, too – in Cairo University in June 2009 as regards the US’ deeply flawed relations with the Muslim Middle East. Arguably, the US-Iranian engagement stemmed from it.

In fact, the first thing that strikes the mind is that Cuba could be the ‘starter’, while Obama is preparing the main course of his foreign-policy legacy, which is about the mending of the US’ fractured relationship with Iran, another onetime close ally of America.

From such a perspective, it becomes important to sift through the principles he outlined in Wednesday’s statement and explore how his mind could be working on the US’ normalization with Iran.

Obama explained his decision on Cuba policy from six different angles. He said in a nutshell that the US was pursuing “an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests.” Replace Cuba with Iran and the Obama could have said much the same.

Second, Obama said the US intended to “create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people.” With regard to Iran too, he has always claimed an overarching empathy with that nation. Third, he said the US policy shift will “begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas.” Most certainly, regional politics in the Middle East can never be the same in the downstream of the US-Iranian engagement.

Fourth, sanctions have had “little effect”, as “Cuba is still governed by the Castros and the Communist Party that came to power half a century ago.” It’s ditto the case with the Islamic regime in Iran since its inception thirty-five years ago in 1979.

Fifth, the US’ “rigid policy” toward Cuba, rooted in a distant Cold War era, simply made no sense any longer; nor its designation as a state sponsoring terrorism. Havana is, Obama pointed out, on the same page as the US when it comes to countering the “threats from al-Qaeda to ISIL”, which is what terrorism is about in the present day. Indeed, Tehran is Washington’s staunchest ‘regional ally’ in the Middle East today, when it comes to the fight against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

Finally, Obama admitted that “given Cuba’s history, I expect it will continue to pursue foreign policies that will at times be sharply at odds with American interests.” One an safely wager that Tehran’s fierce adherence to independent foreign policies will endure far into the future.

Nonetheless, Obama said the hard reality is “I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades (more) and expect a different result.” Obama summed up that, therefore, the right thing to do will be “to cut loose the shackles of the past so as to reach for a better future.” The logic is impeccable.

No two situations in international politics are quite analogous, but Tehran will have good reason to closely examine Obama’s thought processes with regard to Cuba.

The big question is, What is the US’ calculus when it comes to Cuba (or Iran)?

What emerges is that the US sees that Cuba is opening up its economy to stimulate foreign investment and private enterprise – for example, the major new port facility in Mariel with a 180-square-mile Chinese-style Special Economic Zone with full ownership of enterprises by foreign investors, tax exemptions, guaranteed supply of cheap and state-disciplined labor.

The US business interests are peeved that European and Asian competitors may move in to garner lucrative profits.

Second, the US appreciates that the Cuban leadership has been aggressively pursuing closer ties to Washington through the past five years of the Obama presidency.

Third, the US sees engagement as the better route – nay, the only viable option – to influence Cuba’s policies. (The dialectic of the US-Iranian engagement already would already testify to this.)

Fourth, the US estimates that its geostrategic objectives will be affected without a thaw in relations with Cuba at a time when both Russia and China have begun fostering close economic and political ties with Cuba.

Put differently, Cuba has a larger-than-life influence as regional power and the establishment of ties with Cuba enhances the US’ effectiveness in the rest of the hemisphere, which has harbored resentment historically over perceived American bullying in the region.

But, having said that, there is a major difference here as well when it comes to Iran. The point is, the hemisphere has always opposed the US’ embargo on Cuba and its efforts to isolate that country and all reports suggest that the US-Cuban normalization is being universally acclaimed today in the hemisphere.

Whereas, many Middle Eastern countries, which are close allies of the US, would have grave reservations about the Obama administration’s engagement with Iran. Some of them apprehend that they might lose their pivotal role in the US’ regional strategies once Washington normalizes with Tehran.

Again, the US estimates that Cuba’s admission to the Summit of the Americas in April will incrementally prompt it to narrow the gap on democratic development vis-à-vis the rest of the hemisphere. However, the shoe is on the other foot when it comes to Iran. With all its aberrations, representative rule in Iran is miles ahead of the democratic development of the rest of the Muslim Middle East and this is one region why Iran’s immediate neighbors in the Gulf fear the Islamic regime in Tehran.

Obama’s policy shift on Cuba still remains controversial in the US politics and a long battle looms ahead between the White House and the Congress as regards the dismantling of the sanctions regime. When it comes to the Iran deal, the struggle is going to be even more ferocious.

But then, Obama has used his executive powers to advance the new policies toward Cuba. He could do the same with regard to Iran. Is he testing the waters? The text of Obama’s statement on Cuba is here.

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Afghan-Pakistan thaw faces acid test

These are early days to be conclusive that the Peshawar school attack by Pakistan Taliban on Tuesday would be turned into a game changer by Pakistan’s civil and military leaderships to work together to crush the militant groups.

Be that as it may, what comes under the limelight in immediate terms is the alchemy of the Afghan-Pakistan relationship, which would have crucial bearing on the effectiveness of continued Pakistani military operations in North Waziristan.

The departure of former Afghan president Hamid Karzai from the political arena led to some improvement in the Afghan-Pakistan relations. Under President Ashraf Ghani Kabul has made overtures to Islamabad in the recent months – and vice versa.

Simply put, the air in Afghan-Pakistani relations has been clearing , albeit slowly and steadily. Now, the Peshawar attack puts to acid test these nascent positive signs.

The Pakistani army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif rushed to Kabul on Wednesday, accompanied by the head of the ISI Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar, for talks with Ghani on the security situation along the Afghan-Pakistan border, and specifically to seek Kabul’s cooperation in tracking down the Pakistani Taliban leader Fazlullah who is allegedly located inside Afghanistan.

The crisply worded statement from Rawalpindi on Gen. Sharif’s Kabul visit mentioned that “Vital elements of intelligence were shared… with regard to Peshawar incident” and Ghani assured Gen. Sharif that “Afghan soil will not be allowed for terrorist activities against Pakistan and any signature found in this regard will be immediately eliminated.”

It said Gen. Sharif also assured Ghani of “full support… in all spheres including joint efforts against terrorists” as well as “complete support in eliminating terrorist in his area of responsibility.”

The Afghan media reports on the meeting quoted Ghani as saying that the time was ripe for taking decisive action against militancy; both Afghanistan and Pakistan should earnestly decide to eradicate terror; and that Kabul is willing “to act independently and jointly against terrorist groups.”

There is nothing very new in what Ghani reportedly said. However, interestingly, according to one Afghan report, Ghani seemed to have compared the Peshawar attack to the incidents in Yahya Khel district of Paktika province and Estiqlal high school in Kabul where innocent children and youths were targeted.

It is highly improbable that Kabul will accept any ‘hot pursuit’ operations by the Pakistani military on Afghan soil. Equally, it is to be expected that Kabul will watch closely whether there is a genuine paradigm shift in the Pakistani thinking, translating as reciprocal willingness on the part of the Pakistani military to cooperate in curbing the terrorist strikes by the Afghan Taliban groups as well.

The suspicions regarding Pakistani intentions are far too deeply rooted in the Afghan mindset and even Ghani, who is relatively favorably disposed toward Pakistan, cannot be impervious to that. In fact, Ghani himself is currently grappling with a surge in (Afghan) Taliban attacks.

Ghani is yet to complete the revamping (or ‘purge’) of the Afghan intelligence, which under Karzai was packed with operatives who were very hostile toward the Pakistani military. The Pakistani military suspected that these elements within the Afghan intelligence have consorted with the Indian security agencies and secretly promoted the Pakistani Taliban groups.

Therefore, the remarks by Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah while speaking in Kabul yesterday (following Gen. Sharif’s rushed visit)  assume significance. He seemed to suggest that Kabul’s approach should be riveted on an attitude of ‘all-or-nothing’ – that is to say, Kabul should not accept the Pakistani military’s differentiation between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban.

Suffice it to say, the backlog of trust deficit is so very formidable that the incipient signs of improvement in Afghan-Pakistani relations in the recent period risk getting blighted prematurely following the Peshawar school attack.

The Pakistani military will surely view Ghani’s response as the touchstone of his sincerity to cooperate and his ability to ‘deliver’, while the Afghan president would genuinely have his limitations, given the inchoate nature of the national unity government in Kabul.

To be sure, Washington faces a huge politico-military challenge here. In political terms, it no doubt hopes to ensure that the nascent Afghan-Pakistani ‘thaw’ in the recent period stays on course and even gathers momentum.

At the same time, the US also intends to encourage (from behind the scene) the Pakistani military leadership to continue with the operations in North Waziristan and even intensify them in the coming weeks and months (the efficacy of which will, however, largely depend on coordinated actions on the Afghan side of the border.)

On its part, Pakistan will expect Washington to lean on Ghani to cooperate in smashing up the Pakistani Taliban. The Afghans on the other hand do not have the confidence that the US will be able to get the Pakistani military to reciprocate by reining in the Afghan Taliban groups.

In fact, the Afghans have had a dismal experience in this regard, which often accounted for Karzai’s embittered remarks regarding the US policies. Most certainly, Karzai had a point insofar as the US policy to ‘incentivize’ the Pakistani military by providing financial aid and weapons – amounting to an estimated $18 billion through past decade – has not so far had the desired outcome. In reality, the Pakistani generals walked away laughing with a sense of triumphalism.

But having said that, what is the alternative course available for the Obama administration to influence the Pakistani military? The Islamic State introduces ever new compulsions for the US to remain engaged with Pakistan, which is a big Sunni Muslim state in turmoil buffeted by ‘Islamism’ (which also happens to be a nuclear power with a highly strategic geographic location.) This is one thing.

Second, while the US’ inducements to the Pakistani military might not have worked in the past – or, only worked up to a limited extent and episodically – the US threats and coercive methods invariably proved counter-productive and only helped to send the Pakistani generals’ back up.

At the end of the day, it has been a tragicomic tale of the tail wagging the dog – most of time so far, at least.

The unprecedented fortnight-long visit by Gen Sharif to the US recently seemed to give the impression that the American side views him in a far more favorable light in comparison with his distinguished predecessor Gen. Ashfaq Kayani who proved to be a tough interlocutor with an enigmatic mind that the Americans never quite fathomed.

How Gen. Sharif goes about in the downstream of the Peshawar attack will, therefore, be a litmus test of the US’ assessments of him as the general they can do business with in Rawalpindi.

Significantly, Gen. Sharif’s only meeting in Kabul other than with Ghani yesterday was with US General John Campbell, who heads the NATO forces in Afghanistan. It brings the US right on to the forecourt of the delicately poised Afghan-Pakistani ties.

Posted in Diplomacy, Military.

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Modi revisits Pakistan narrative

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s phone call to his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif to convey his deep condolences for the loss of lives in the Peshawar school attack yesterday constitutes a profoundly meaningful mark of solidarity. Modi has shown statesmanship of the highest order by holding Sharif’s hands.

On the other hand, Modi’s unprecedented decision that schools all over India shall observe two minutes of silence today in memory of the victims of the brutal terrorist attack in Pakistan also sends a complex message within the country itself.

Actually, we are seeing a facet of Modi’s political personality that was not supposed to exist, according to common folklore. Taken together, therefore, Modi made an overture to Pakistan thoughtfully and with foresight.

Conceivably, the terrorist attack in Peshawar could turn out to be the tipping point for Pakistan to get its act together, finally, in clamping down on terrorist groups.

It is in India’s interest to encourage Pakistan to decisively move in that direction. India should not only work with other countries – especially, the United States, China, Russia, Iran and Afghanistan – in a team spirit in this regard but also solicit their sustained and constructive engagement with Pakistan in the interests of regional security and stability.

Indeed, evidence is piling by the day that the Islamic State is slouching toward the region. Modi would know that in today’s world there is nothing like ‘absolute security’ for India.

The point is, India and Pakistan are sailing in the same boat and many in our country do not yet realize it or refuse to countenance the very thought. Ironically, it has been left to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz to examine with understanding the extremely complicated security environment through which Pakistan has had to navigate its regional policies.

To be sure, Modi has punctuated the Indian narrative, which has been increasingly revisionist of late as regards what India can and cannot (or should not) do vis-à-vis Pakistan.

His intervention opens a new window of opportunity to resume the dialogue track. Of course, there are diehard elements in both countries who may not want to see that happening, and, therefore, the opportunity should be seized quickly.

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A (mild) thaw in US-Russia ties

On Friday, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution regarding the new non-combat, training, advisory and assistance mission that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] proposes to undertake in Afghanistan from next year.

Russia had consistently demanded that the NATO mission in Afghanistan ought to have a UN SC mandate. For Moscow, a big principle is involved here insofar as the UN Charter and international law should guide all such interventions and the western alliance should comply with the established practice.

Moscow suspects that there has been an invidious project to project the NATO as a global security organization that may work outside the UN Charter.

Evidently, the US relented and Russia and the United States found themselves on the same page. This is happening when Russian-American relations are at a low point.

But then, Afghanistan is far too important a topic for international security that lends itself to polemic. The UN SC resolution requires NATO to report back periodically to New York its work in progress, enables Russia to review such reports and opinionate on the score card and, in turn, it ensures Moscow’s cooperation in making available the Northern Distribution Network for the NATO powers to ferry supplies for the alliance’s forces in Afghanistan.

The Indian pundits must be surprised how such bonhomie could exist between Washington and Moscow at the UN SC on the very same day (Friday) in New York when the US state department mildly censored Delhi for doing ‘business’ with Russia during President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India.

Plainly put, that’s how the international system works, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi not only understood it perfectly well but has also been prescient about the imperatives of a Russian-American working relationship sooner rather than later, and of course the transitory nature of the current chill in Russia’s relations with the West.

Modi, therefore, acted wisely by going to such extraordinary length to assert India’s independent foreign policies and to uphold its national interests. With a foresight rare in Indian diplomacy, Modi acted to revive and strengthen the India-Russia “strategic privileged partnership”.

Coming back to the UN SC resolution on Friday, all indications are that it might not be a mere flash in the pan — an isolated instance of Russian-American working relationship.

The early reports on the meeting between the US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, rather unusual for a Sunday, at the American Embassy Residence in Rome suggest that an urgent need has arisen for the Obama administration to seek the Kremlin’s cooperation in the Middle East crisis.

The fact of the matter is that the Sydney café siege underscores beyond any doubt that the dalliances between the US’ regional allies and the extremist Islamist groups in Syria have spun out of control.

A Daily Mail report identifies that the Shahada flag displayed in the Sydney café belongs to Jabhat al Nusra, an extremist group operating in Syria, which, ironically enough, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel had fostered or patronized at various times.

The Lavrov-Kerry meeting on Sunday presumably focused on the Middle East situation. The DebkaFile, a news agency with links to Israeli intelligence, estimates that the Obama administration may be sensing by now that the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria is actually a factor of stability in the prevailing critical situation and this in turn would put the US and Russia “on the same side, a step toward mending the fences between them after the profound rupture over Ukraine.”

Be that as it may, the upshot of all this could be that the Russian plan to convene a meeting of the Syrian parties in Moscow may be gaining traction, after all, and Washington may be lending support to it from behind the scene.

The underlying factor favoring these positive trends is also to be noted in terms of the cooling of tensions over Ukraine. The ceasefire that came into effect on Thursday in eastern Ukraine is holding and Moscow is nudging Kiev and the separatists to implement the Minsk accord and commence discussion regarding a federated country.

True, the US Congress has notionally passed a resolution on tougher sanctions against Russia, but it is highly unlikely that in the emergent situation in international security, Obama will want to alienate Russia further by imposing more sanctions. Obama also would know that Europe is not willing to impose more sanctions against Russia, either. The Europeans, all in all, see the move by the US Congress as a shadow play in American domestic politics.

A thaw in the frosty ties between the US and Russia at this point needs to be understood in terms of the failed American policies on Syria as a result of which the West’s security is in jeopardy. The hostage crisis in Sydney becomes a defining moment. Read a candid analysis here on the failed policy of ‘regime change’ in Syria.

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Iran hemmed in by Western presence

A little over a week since formalizing the establishment of a military base east of Suez in Bahrain, London has announced that British troops after returning to Iraq after a five-year interlude. The British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon disclosed the plan in an exclusive weekend interview with the Telegraph newspaper.

The issue is sensitive in the British opinion, and, unsurprisingly, Fallon underplayed the news, saying the deployment will be in “the very low hundreds”, that the UK force will be training Iraqi army and the Kurdish militia to fight the Islamic State [IS] and that a small “force protection” deployment of combat-ready soldiers is also expected to be sent to defend the military training teams.

Fallon resorted to some quibbling with words since Britain’s Iraq war wounds are not yet healed. Yet, the Daily Mail reported that a force up to 100 British Paras is being sent “to join the battle” against the IS and that the generals in White Hall are pretty much pleased that Britain is back in business in Mesopotamia.

What can be said beyond doubt is that the establishment of the British base in Bahrain and the deployment in Iraq emanate out of close coordination between London and Washington. An FT analysis pondered that Britain is steeping in so that the US can pay more attention to its ‘pivot’ strategy in Asia.

For sure, we could be witnessing the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The point is, Germany also announced on Thursday that it is sending about a hundred military personnel to Iraq and that “other [western] nations will participate, including Italy, the Netherlands and some Scandinavian nations.”

Again, the Pentagon announced on Friday a plausible timeline for a Syria plan within which 5000 rebels will be trained and equipped to fight the IS in Iraq and Syria.

One big question will be, Is it a “mission creep” that would eventually morph into a deployment under the flag of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO]? But a second big question is, which is not unrelated and is more in focus will be, How the Western deployments mesh with Iran’s role in Iraq and Syria?

The US is doing some tight-rope walking. Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel most certainly took his Israeli counterpart Moshe Ya’alon into confidence in a phone call on Friday. The readout said the fight against the IS and a range of related issued figured and both sides stressed the “strength of the US-Israeli security relationship.”

Indeed, Iran, too, is riding many horses simultaneously and which one is going to surge time only will show. For one thing, the Iranian role in fighting the IS has become quite significant. In fact, the right-wing pro-Israeli ‘regional experts’ in the US think tank circuit, here, and the Gulf Arab commentators, here, have begun sounding alarm bells by voicing wild apprehensions that Iran is ‘dominating’ Iraq and the Obama administration is to be blamed for that.

Of course, Tehran is openly acknowledging its role in Iraq and is in turn being assertive about it of late.

All indictions are that Tehran realizes that a strong Western commitment to fight the IS is in Iran’s interest. Iran and the US are consulting each other on the IS threat. On the other hand, Iran still lacks the trust and confidence as regards the US’ intentions behind its renewed intervention in Iraq.

In political terms, pending an accord on the nuclear issue, Iran cannot afford to be explicit about cooperating and coordinating with the US in the fight against the IS.

Traditionally, Iran’s approach in such delicate situations will be to engage even more actively on the plane of ‘public diplomacy’. It hosted a major Track II conference last week in Tehran with delegates from 40 countries to discuss the IS threat.

Apart from the sustained contacts with the western countries, which is a regular feature of Iranian diplomacy, the nuclear negotiations as such have provided a convenient forum, sequestered from public view, for exchange of views with the US on regional issues such as Iraq.

The American and Iranian diplomats will be spending a lot of time together again next week. Last Tuesday, Tehran hosted a foreign-minister level meeting with Iraq and Syria. The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is expected to visit Tehran on coming Wednesday.

Interestingly, Tehran has taken in its stride the establishment of the British base in Bahrain — although, Iran and Imperial Britain had a difficult history of confrontation. Suffice it to say, it cannot be lost on Tehran that while the naval base could enhance Britain’s capability to undertake operations against the IS, London has made it clear that the UK will use its increased regional presence to cooperate with Iran’s Gulf Arab neighbors on security, which cannot but factor in their profound disquiet over the surge in Iran’s regional influence.

A penetrating interview by the RT with Iran’s interior minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli (who visited Moscow last week) brings out that Tehran faces acute contradictions in the regional environment even as its is poised to integrate with the West very shortly. Fazli was in denial mood, predictably, with the quick-witted RT interviewer pursuing him relentlessly.

Posted in Diplomacy.

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Iran nuclear deal within grasp

The US-Iranian negotiations for a nuclear deal are slated to resume on Monday amidst growing optimism that this could be the end of the year-long endgame under way, and an accord is in sight, finally. The US secretary of state John Kerry recently said that the effort will be to reach an accord even before the extended deadline of end-June.

The target is to reach a political agreement by March 1, 2015 and a comprehensive agreement by July 1. To be sure, if there was any disappointment that the deal couldn’t be struck yet after intense talks began an year ago, that has dispelled. The mood in Tehran bazaar is “bullish”, according to New York Times, sensing that a deal with the US is in the works.

The main reason for this growing optimism is that the two sides have a good idea by now of each other’s ‘red lines’ and also the grey area where give-and-take is possible. In sum, there is no more a need for brinkmanship or grandstanding.

A first-hand American account captured the increasingly relaxed mood: “At a human level it’s very interesting to watch the evolution of these talks. Slightly more than a year ago, it was impossible to imagine that the parties [US and Iranian diplomats] would mingle with each other in such a relaxed manner and would call each other “Hey Bob” and “Hey Abbas”. They bump into each other at the breakfast buffet and joke about the watery scrambled eggs or the giant chocolate croissants. Obviously the Iranians avoid pork and alcohol, but they share everything else. There may not be trust at the political level but there now is significant trust at a personal level. They’ve spent so many hours with each other that now they are intimately familiar with one another’s body language and mood. In the last days in Vienna, even the U.S. and Iranian foreign ministers were meeting alone, as they no longer felt the need for the EU mediator.”

The respective ‘red lines’ are: a) Iran insists on the right to industrial-scale nuclear enrichment and wants sanctions to be lifted and not merely suspended; b) the US wants the ‘breakout time’ (time needed for Iran to develop one nuclear weapon) to be not less than a year and is eager to retain in some measure the leverage of sanctions to ensure Iran’s commitment to any deal.

Besides, new salients have appeared. For sure, the US and Iran are already working together (without acknowledging so) to ease regional tensions in the Middle East, which in turn instills mutual confidence at the negotiating table.

Second, the US’ ‘partners’ within the P5+1 (European allies, Russia and China) are eager to settle the Iran nuclear issue and move on with Iran’s full integration with the international community.

Third, steadily, an Iranian domestic consensus has formed as regards the imperative need to resolve the nuclear issue. Fourth, there is, possibly, a certain easing of Israeli opposition to an Iran deal (that is, any deal that allows Iran’s enrichment program to continue in any form).

Five, and most important, a breakdown of the talks becomes in reality a ‘non-option’. On the one hand, Europeans and Russia and China have had enough of Iran’s sanctions, while on the other hand, the US (and Israel) simply lacks the capacity to stage a military attack against Iran with impunity.

Finally, at least for the present, the Obama administration is not allowing itself to be held hostage by the US’ Gulf Arab allies – Saudi Arabia, in particular – and has not embarked on a direct confrontation with the Syrian regime (which would upset the apple cart.) See  an excellent round-up of the overall state of play by the International Crisis Group’s Iran Senior Analyst Ali Vaez.

Some of this may have begun rubbing on the US Congress, which, according to conventional wisdom, is under the Israeli thumb and/or is itching to somehow deny President Barack Obama a historic foreign-policy legacy.

At any rate, there are incipient signs that the Congress is opting for a pragmatic approach and sidestepping the route of imposing any more sanctions to pressure Iran. The Congress is strengthening its oversight by legislating that there ought to be formalized reporting and information sharing by the Administration regarding the negotiations but, interestingly, not insisting an immediate ‘up-or-down’ vote in the Congress following the negotiation of an accord with Iran.

Equally, there is a groundswell of circumspection among lawmakers regarding new sanctions that would have curtailed the US diplomats’ ability to strike a nuclear deal. At any rate, the 113th Congress is winding up without passing new Iran sanctions. Therefore, in diplomatic terms, as an AP report assessed last week, the US diplomats would have “a short window to negotiate unimpeded by Congress.”

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