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CWA # 426, 21 February 2021
The World This Week #107, Vol. 3, No. 8
The World This Week #107, Vol. 3, No. 8
Rashmi Ramesh, Sourina Bej, Apoorva Sudhakar, Avishka Ashok
Iran: The new US offer to restart a dialogue
On 18 February, the United States offered to restart talks with Iran on the JCPOA. The Secretary of State Anthony Blinken held talks with the officials of the European countries that are party to the agreement and stated that the US would return to it formally if Iran treads the path of compliance. The US State Department signalled that Washington was ready to hold “informal talks” with Iran, on the invitation of one of the European countries.
On 19 February, in response, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson tweeted that the country stood firm and would agree to compliance only when the US lifts the sanctions imposed on it by the Trump administration.
What is the background?
First, the new US administration, and a nuanced approach by Biden towards Iran vis-à-vis Trump’s hammer strategy. Joe Biden’s campaign highlighted the need to reverse Trump’s policy on Iran concerning JCPOA. Offering direct talks with Iran is the first step that the Biden administration has taken, towards restoring the JCPOA. However, Biden has also cautioned about restarting the dialogue unless Iran returns to compliance. This is in stark contrast with the previous US administration, which withdrew from the deal in 2018, as part of the maximum pressure policy. Trump imposed a slew of sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy and has taken several steps to curtail its regional influence.
Second, Iran’s hardline position and the willingness to address the concerns if the sanctions are removed. Since the US withdrew from the nuclear deal, Iran has gradually scaled down its commitments to the deal. In December 2020, the Iranian Parliament approved for increasing the uranium enrichment levels to 20 per cent, in a clear breach of the deal. The move came after the assassination of the country’s top nuclear scientist Dr Mohsen Fakrizadeh, allegedly by Israel. The moderate cabinet headed by Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani is bound to implement the legislation passed by the hardliner Parliament. The Iranian Parliament Speaker announced in January that Iran has produced 37.5 pounds of 20 per cent enriched uranium at the Fordow nuclear facility. On 8 February, the IAEA reported 3.6 grams of uranium metal at Iran’s Fuel Plate Fabrication Plant. On 16 February, Iran informed the IAEA that it “will stop implementing voluntary transparency measures under the JCPOA as of 23 February, including the Additional Protocol.” The Additional Protocol enables the IAEA to conduct inspections of undeclared sites on short notice. The Supreme Leader, in a televised address to the nation, said that the country would not comply with the deal unless the US lifts the sanctions that are crippling the economy.
Third, Europe’s concerns regarding instability. The E3 (UK, Germany and France) fear the outcomes of a more hardline stance by Iran, particularly the regional instability. The joint statement that followed the virtual meet of the E3 and the US officials urged “Iran to consider the consequences of such (enrichment) grave action, particularly at this time of renewed diplomatic opportunity.”
What does it mean?
First, an emerging space for diplomacy with Iran. There have been indications of talks and negotiations from the US, E3 and Iran. Both Iran and the US, despite stringent stances, have expressed their willingness to restart talks that are mediated by one of the European countries. The US's formal call for talks will induce a new lease of life to the nuclear deal and the larger question of US-Iran relations.
Second, Biden’s policy choices. While there is a significantly large section demanding a more nuanced approach, there are stronger voices within the US that do not want to soften its stance on Iran. He risks being tagged as a pro-Iran president and angering the US’s strong allies in the region- Israel and the Arab countries.
Iran, therefore, is a difficult nut to crack for Joe Biden.
Munich Security Conference: Biden's commitment, Discussion on withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Russia threat and NATO in 2030
On 17 February, the NATO defence ministers met to address NATO's missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, review progress for a fairer burden-sharing, and discuss the NATO 2030 initiative in their two-day virtual conference. The ministers also met with their NATO partners Finland, Sweden, and the European Union to address the shared security challenges. The important outcome from the conference has been US President Joe Biden’s reaffirmation to NATO.
On 19 February, Biden told at the online session of the Munich Security Conference: “The United States is fully committed to our NATO alliance, and I welcome your growing investment in the military capabilities that enable our shared defenses." “An attack on one is an attack on all. That is our unshakeable vow.” This was Biden’s first speech on the international platform after winning the election.
On 17 February, the NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said: “This is our first meeting with the new Biden administration and an opportunity to prepare the NATO summit in Brussels later this year.”
What is the background?
First, Biden’s restores the US commitment to the Atlantic alliance. Since the Trump administration, there has been a trust deficit and a strained partnership with the European leaders. Trump had publicly hammered and sought to shame, Germany and other NATO members for not meeting a target of spending 2 per cent of their gross domestic output on defence. But Biden’s speech sort to signal a different approach. He reversed Trump's decision to withdraw troops from the US bases in Germany and also outlined a vision of international engagement that will put West-led multilateralism at the core of the security agenda of NATO.
Second, the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. The issue of withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq has been a challenge discussed at the conference. The Doha Agreement formalized the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan by 1 May, however, neither the conditions are palpable or mature for it. Before the meeting, the Taliban said, “Our message to the upcoming NATO ministerial meeting is that the continuation of occupation and war is neither in your interest nor in the interest of your and our people.” Contrastingly, on 15 February, Stoltenberg said the presence of the alliance’s troops in Afghanistan is “conditions-based.” In Iraq, NATO has a training and advisory mission, which Biden welcomed in his speech. Thus, the ministerial meeting, that builds the groundwork for the lager NATO summit in Brussels later in the year, will face withdrawal question solemnly.
Third, a curtain-raiser for NATO’s Brussel’s summit. The Defense Ministers meeting has been a modest affair, unlike in the past, with representation only from the major Western powers. Later in 2021, the conference in all likelihood will see participation from top officials from China and Russia. The defense meeting took stock of the threat posed by Russia in the backdrop of the diplomatic crisis over Navalny’s arrest. "The Kremlin attacks our democracies and weaponizes corruption to try to undermine our system of governance," said Biden.
What does it mean?
The meeting charts the course for a probable future relationship between the European leaders and the US within the alliance. Though Biden made a passing reference to NATO budgetary contributions, the issue of sharing burdens and defence spending is not likely to outrightly smoothen a wrinkled relationship. Biden has made it clear for the NATO members that China along with Russia should be on any future agenda for NATO. Thus, one could anticipate a strategic blueprint for NATO in maintaining its relation with China.
The alliance may not simply return to an old-world order while the transition for NATO will be an important marker to watch for in 2021.
Libya: Ten years after Gaddafi, the Libyans look forward with a new hope
On 17 February, thousands of Libyans gathered in the capital city of Tripoli to mark the 10th anniversary of the uprising that led to the end of four decades of Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi’s dictatorship. Arab News quoted several of those gathered for the celebrations. One civilian, who took part in the 2011 uprising, acknowledged the conflict that followed. According to him, “It doesn’t mean you have to choose between Qaddafi and chaos. Revolution is a process. We must build a new Libya that we deserve.” Others blame the post-2011 leaders for the current state of affairs in Libya.
On 17 February, Amnesty International said, “A decade after the overthrow of Muammar al-Gaddafi, justice has yet to be delivered to victims of war crimes and serious human rights violations including unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, torture, forced displacement and abductions committed by militias and armed groups.”
What is the background?
First, a brief recap of the revolution against Gaddafi. On 17 February 2011, protests erupted against Gaddafi. The protests escalated and threatened the interests of external powers in the oil-rich country. Subsequently, Gaddafi was killed in NATO-led intervention in October 2011. Libya descended into chaos resulting from the sudden power vacuum. An election dispute in 2014 led to the formation of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), and a parallel rebel authority, the Libyan National Army (LNA). The GNA was centred in western Libya while LNA controlled the East.
Second, external interventions. After the formation of the two parallel authorities, external powers like Russia, Turkey, France got involved in the conflict, to safeguard their priorities regarding Libya’s oil and gas reserves. The GNA was supported by Turkey, Qatar and Italy. On the other hand, the LNA, led by a former general and aide to Gaddafi, was supported by Egypt, France, Russia and the UAE. The power struggle between the above countries fueled the conflict in Libya.
Third, the newly formed interim government. On 5 February 2021, 75 delegates from Libya agreed on a new united interim government during UN-brokered peace talks; the interim government will ensure parliamentary elections in December 2021. The new president has been chosen from eastern Libya and the prime minister from the west. This was the result of a ceasefire signed in October 2020 and also one of the first positive developments in the country since 2014.
Fourth, the Arab Spring of 2011. The overthrow of Ben Ali’s dictatorial regime in Tunisia inspired the revolution in Libya. Other countries like Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Sudan followed suit with a common demand to overhaul the authoritarian systems.
What does it mean?
First, external interventions without an exit strategy or a plan ahead for the country lead to increased instability. This is evident not just in Libya, but in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and other countries as well. More often than not, external powers let the conflicts continue to serve their self-interests and increase their leverage in big power politics.
Second, though the 2011 revolution did not produce an immediate victory for the protesters, they have now pinned their hopes on the newly formed unity government. How the government charts out its course over the months leading to the December elections will decide the future of Libya.
The US: Weather anomalies suggest a fast approaching climate change
On 15 February, The United States issued an alert regarding a winter storm that affected Southern and Central American states. The State of Texas is one of the worst affected regions with as many as five million people suffering from power outages for consecutive days. On 18 February, the White House reported that the sudden winter storm is the type of event that could be triggered by climate change.
On 17 February, parts of Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Israel were also hit by a winter storm that covered the cities in 10-15 centimetres of snow. It snowed for the first time in Southern Lebanon and Northeast Libya. The sudden downpour in many areas and snow was brought by the Gale Winds, an unusual and rare occurrence.
On 18 February, the NASA Earth Observatory reported that the mid-February dust storm that crosses over Southern and Central Europe from the Sahara had materialized earlier than usual with increased intensity.
On 20 February, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that President Biden approved a major disaster declaration for Texas and 77 counties.
What is the background?
First, the numerous weather anomalies. The recent winter storm is not the only proof that indicates the ever-changing global temperatures. The United States has been experiencing extreme hot winds and temperatures, leading to annual forest fires that continue to burn for months in the state of California. California has warmed by 3 degrees Fahrenheit in the last century, causing the ecosystem to burn more rapidly. The changing ocean temperatures also affect the formation and behaviour of tropical cyclones. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change observes that cyclones will become more powerful in the coming years, gathering high speeds and heavier rains.
Second, the weather changes across the globe - from the US to Australian, in the recent period. Strong and persistent winds from the Sahara covered the snow in parts of Europe in early February. The sight, although mesmerizing to look at, is a cause for concern. The rare phenomenon led to a degradation of the air quality in Europe and accelerated the advancing global warming. The Amazon Rainforest that burns every consecutive year, destroyed an area as large as Israel in 2020. Between 2019 and 2020, over 18 million hectares were destroyed in the Australian bushfires, endangering the entire Koala population. Increasing temperatures have also caused rapid melting of glaciers resulting in flash floods in Uttarakhand and an upward trend in the frequency of cyclones in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.
Third, linking winter storms to climate change. While many consider warming of the earth’s atmosphere, melting snow and rise and sea levels as the only side-effect of climate change, rapid change in weather patterns such as snowstorms are also related to the problem. The duration and severity of such storms are key factors that depict a shift in weather conditions. The winter storms that hit America and the Middle East this week are becoming more frequent and occur for a longer duration at a given time. Research suggests that the primary cause of the winter storm is the rise in temperature in the Arctic, affecting the jet stream that controls weather patterns around the world.
What does it mean?
The issue of climate change crosses political and geographical boundaries. The issue cannot be resolved by individual countries acting in isolation and thus requires international cooperation and coordination.
President Joe Biden, upon entering the White House, took major steps to address the issue of climate change, unlike his predecessor. US returned to the Paris Agreement and suspended various projects like the Keystone XL pipeline. Despite the debate against green energy which failed to deliver during the winter storm, Biden Administration will most likely hasten its efforts in negotiating climate change at a global level and push for a shift towards non-conventional sources of generating energy.
Also in the news...
By Avishka Ashok
East and Southeast Asia This Week
China: Foreign Ministry justifies the ban on BBC
On 18 February, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that revoking BBC World News’ license was reasonable and lawful considering UK’s ban on CGTN. The Ministry spokesperson addressed the ban on CGTN and called it outrageous and unreasonable. She also accused BBC of producing fake reports and spreading false information against China.
Hong Kong: High Court denies bail to Jimmy Lai
On 18 February, media mogul Jimmy Lai was denied bail as the court believed that he would engage in activities that would endanger national security as soon as he’s released. The founder of Apple Daily Newspaper was arrested in August 2020 and has been in custody since December on charges of violating the National Security Law. He has been denied bail for the third time since his arrest.
Hong Kong: Two pro-democracy legislators plead guilty at trial
On 16 February, nine activists who were charged with organizing and participating in the biggest pro-democracy protests were brought to stand trial in the Hong Kong High Court. The two individuals who pleaded guilty were former Hong Kong Legislators who were charged for their association with the illegal assembly against the State. The remaining seven, including Jimmy Lai and Martin Lee, a pro-democracy legislator, have pleaded not guilty. A few others who have been accused rallied against the court with banners that read “Peaceful Assembly is Not a Crime; Shame on Political Prosecution.”
Japan: The US agrees on a cheaper deal for cost-sharing of hosting troops
On 17 February, Japan and the United States agreed to extend the Host Nations Support by a year in an unusual move. The extension of the agreements is generally extended for five years. Japan will be paying $1.9 billion for the next fiscal year. The Trump administration wished to increase the amount paid by Japan from $2.5 billion to $8 billion but the Biden administration has agreed to settle for a cheaper deal.
Japan: Putin reluctant to discuss ownership of northern territories
On 14 February, President Vladimir Putin expressed hopes for developing relations with Japan but refused to go against the Russian Constitution which disallows ceding of territories to foreign countries. The constitution was amended in July 2020 to include the provision of forbidding territory transfer. This is the first time Putin has stated the Northern Territories which have been a part of Russia since World War II. Japan reacted to Putin’s statement by reaffirming the continuation of negotiation based on the 1956 Joint Declaration.
South Korea: the US states that forced sexual labour during World War violated Human Rights
On 18 February, The US State Department Spokesperson stated the issue of forced sexual labour and said, “the trafficking of women for sexual purposes by the Japanese military during World War II was an egregious violation of human rights.” The statement comes after a Harvard professor claimed that the comfort women were voluntary prostitutes who had entered contracts willingly. On 16 February, one of the survivors of the ordeal urged the South Korean government to take the issue to the International Court of Justice so that the two countries can deal with the issue and continue with their political relationship.
North Korea: The US indicts three North Koreans for Cyberattacks
On 17 February, The US alleged that the three North Koreans who were arrested in December for criminal hacking were members of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, a North Korean Military intelligence agency. The hackers developed malicious cryptocurrency applications to steal funds, obtained funds in marine shipping vessels to evade sanctions and created ransomware targetted at US contractors, energy companies, aerospace firms and tech firms. North Korea stole funds worth $1.3 billion which was used for the development and expansion of their nuclear capacity.
Myanmar: Protests against the military turn violent
On 14 February, the military amended law on privacy and security rights, allowing the police to detain its citizens without a warrant and also tap into their communications. On 16 February, a secret closed-door trial against Aung San Suu Kyi began without prior notice to her defence attorney. Suu Kyi has been accused of violating import restrictions and COVID-19 restrictions which may land her in prison for a total of six years. Thousands of people continued to protest creatively against the military by blocking roads with cars, walking slowly, hacking government websites and emptying military-controlled banks. On 20 February, at least two people were killed as the police used live ammunition to disperse the crowd. The Junta has also banned the national and local news channels from using the term “Junta” and “regime in their articles and illegally brought changes to the colonial-era Penal Code
Thailand: Vaccine developed by Chulalongkorn University enters human trials
On 20 February, Chulalongkorn University Vaccine Development Project announced that the vaccine produced by them had successfully passed the trials on rats and macaques. The Vaccine is now considered safe to be tested on humans and will soon begin human trials. If the trials are successful, Bionet Asia will be given the responsibility of producing over one to five million doses of the vaccine be the end of this year.
Australia: Quad members meet virtually to discuss Myanmar
On 18 February, the members of the Quad group, Japan, India, Australia and The US met virtually and discussed issues of maritime security, terrorism, countering disinformation and restoring democracy in Myanmar. The Ministry of External Affairs revealed said, “In the discussion pertaining to recent developments in Myanmar, the upholding of rule of law and the democratic transition was reiterated by India.” The ministers also pledged to meet annually at the ministerial level along with regular meetings at the official levels and promised to work towards and free and open Indo-Pacific.
South Asia This Week
India: Government takes foreign diplomats on Kashmir tour
On 17 February, over 20 foreign diplomats visited the disputed Kashmir region for the third time since being stripped of its ‘semi-autonomous’ status in 2019. The diplomats were taken around the region amid tight security and held meetings with the recently elected village councillors. The people shut their businesses and shops to portray their discontent against the government.
India: Prime Minister Modi introduces health diplomacy at a regional workshop
On 18 February, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a workshop on ‘COVID-10 Management: Experience, Good Practices and Way Forward’ with nine neighbouring nations. At the workshop, he suggested the creation of a special visa scheme that would enable the healthcare workers and professionals to travel quickly within the region during emergencies. He also suggested creating a regional air ambulance for medical emergencies and a platform to collectively study the effectiveness of vaccines on populations.
Bangladesh: Five sentenced to death in Abhijit Roy murder case
On 16 February, Anti-Terrorism Tribunal sentenced five members of the banned Ansarullah Bangla Team to death and one member to life imprisonment for hacking writer and founder of Muktamana blog, Abhijit Roy to death in February 2015. Two of the accused have escaped since the beginning of the trial while the remaining four are being held in jail. All six individuals have to pay a fine of fifty thousand takas each.
Sri Lanka: Imran Khan’s Parliament address canceled weeks before the visit
On 16 February, the Sri Lankan government canceled Imran Khan’s Parliament address in a last-minute move citing COVID-19 constraints. Imran Khan will be visiting the country on 23 February and this will be his first visit to the country after assuming office in 2018. The two countries are looking forward to signing multiple agreements aimed at strengthening economic partnership and improving connectivity between each other.
Pakistan: Multinational maritime exercise Aman-21 comes to an end
On 16 February, Pakistan’s Maritime exercise Aman-21 marked its culmination. The event was attended by the President, Chief of Naval Staff, Minister for Maritime Affairs and many other high-profile military officers, ambassadors, and high commissioners. This year, over 45 countries participated in the military exercise by showcasing their warships, aircraft, and special operation forces.
Pakistan: UN Ambassador opposes UN Security Council Reforms
On 17 February, Pakistan’s permanent representative in the UN, Munir Akram reaffirmed that “Pakistan is opposed to expansion in the permanent category along with veto,” Pakistan believes that expansion of the security council’s permanent bench will contradict the fundamental ideals of sovereign equality, democracy, representativeness and accountability.
Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa This Week
Georgia: Prime Minister resigns after disagreement withing his team
On 18 February, Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia resigned after rising differences in opinions within his team on the detention of a prominent opposition politician. He tweeted, “I believe that confrontation and rivalry within the country endanger the future of Georgia’s democratic and economic development.” The opposition has called for an early election to form the new government.
Nigeria: WTO appoints the first woman, African to lead the organization.
On 15 February, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala became the first Woman and the first African to hold a leading position at the World Trade Organisation. She has been appointed as the Director-General of the WTO. She pledged to prioritize the economic and health consequences of the pandemic and “implement the policy responses we need to get the global economy going again,”
Nigeria: Hundreds of school children abducted by gunmen
On 16 February, hundreds of children and teachers were abducted by gunmen in the northwestern state of Niger. One student has been killed so far. Niger is plagued with the issue of kidnapping and abduction by gangs and bandits like Boko Haram. Most of the children, not all, are released after a ransom is paid in exchange.
Saudi Arabia: the US reaffirms defense partnership after Houthi attack
On 19 February, the United Stated Defense Secretary reaffirmed the strategic defense partnership with Saudi Arabia during a phone call with the Saudi Crown Prince who is also the Defense Minister. The two countries reviewed their bilateral relations with special emphasis on defense cooperation. The US also condemned the recent Houthi attacks across Saudi Arabia’s border.
Yemen: UN warns that the famine could threaten peace in the region.
On 18 February, the UN issued a warning to the Security Council regarding the famine situation in Yemen and the quest for territorial gain that may destroy all prospects for peace in the region which had been renewed with Biden’s engagement in stopping the war. UN aid chief said, “There’s an important opportunity right now to help Yemen move towards lasting peace … but that opportunity will disappear, it will be wasted, if Yemen tips into a massive famine.”
Israel: Biden makes a first phone call with Netanyahu
On 17 February, US president Joe Biden had the first phone call with Prime Minister Netanyahu leading to speculations regarding the relations between the two leaders as Biden’s call comes even after his phone conversation with Xi Jinping. Analysts believe that Biden wishes to neutralize the relation between the two countries after Trump’s escalation of relations with Netanyahu.
Europe and the Americas This Week
Spain: Catalan Socialist Party wins elections
On 15 February, the Northeastern Spanish Region concluded its regional elections. Despite the low turnout in voters due to the pandemic, the pro-independence parties won a majority in the elections. The Catalan Socialist Party won 33 seats, Catalan Republic Left also won 33 seats, Together for Catalonia won 32 seats. All three parties are secessionist. Post elections, the focus will now be upon the formation of the new regional government.
Spain: Protests against the arrest of Pablo Hasél
On 20 February, Spain witnessed the fourth consecutive night of protests against the arrest of Pablo Hasél, a rapper who wrote songs insulting the Spanish monarchy. The protests turned violent as thousands of people took to the streets to portray their dissent. Over 80 people have been arrested and more than 100 injured since the beginning of the protests.
France: Legislature passes anti-radicalism bill
On 16 February, the lower house of the French Parliament passed the ‘Supporting respect for the principles of the Republic’ bill to strengthen surveillance over mosques, schools and sports clubs. The bill aims to safeguard France from Radical Islamists and promote respect for French values. The passage of the bill has been contested by many who fear that the state is pointing fingers at Islam.
Russia: Europe’s top human rights court’s plea rejected by the Kremlin
On 20 January, Navalny lost two cases in the Russian Court. His appeal against jail time has been refused and he has been charged for libel. A third case, charging him for embezzlement, remains pending. However, Navalny used the space provided to him against the Russian government by commenting and explaining his anti-Putin stand."
On 17 February, Russian authorities rejected the European Court of Human Right’s demands to free Alexei Navalny. The Court warned that failure to release Russia’s most prominent critic would be seen as a breach of the European Human Rights Convention. However, Russia has flatly refused the demands, calling them “unfounded and unlawful.”
United States: NASA Mars Rover lands successfully.
On 18 February, NASA successfully landed its fifth robotic rover on the red planet. The most technologically advanced rover will spend two years on the planet and will explore the surface thoroughly. The rover also consists of a small helicopter which will make history as the first flight on another planet if there are no technical difficulties. The rover is as big as a small car, weighs around one ton, has a robotic arm with a camera, a chemical analyzer and a rock drill.
About the authors
Rashmi Ramesh is a PhD Scholar, Apoorva Sudhakar is a Research Associate, Avishka Ashok is Research Assistant, in the School of Conflict and Security Studies at NIAS. Sourina Bej is an Independent research scholar.
Abigail Miriam Fernandez