12 April 2021   Leave a comment

It is no secret that Israel’s current government considers the possibility that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon an “existential threat“. Former US President worked with other countries to prevent that possibility by forging the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iranian nuclear deal. Former President Trump pulled out of the agreement, ostensibly because the agreement did not address the Iranian ballistic missile capability nor did it do anything about Iranian support for anti-Israel groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Since the US abrogation of the agreement, Iran has slowly begun to violate some of the terms of the agreement. US President Biden has initiated steps to bring both the US and Iran back to the original terms of the agreement.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has opposed a revitalized agreement:

“Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Wednesday that a renegotiated nuclear deal between world powers and Iran will not stop the Jewish state from protecting itself from malign regimes seeking its destruction. 

“While delivering remarks at Israel’s official Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony in Jerusalem, Netanyahu highlighted the threat his government says a revitalized nuclear deal will pose to Israel. 

“’A deal with Iran that threatens us with annihilation will not obligate us,’ Netanyahu declared.

“’Unlike in the past, today there is no one in the world that will deprive us of the right and the might to defend ourselves from an existential threat,’ he said. 

“’The nuclear deal with Iran is once again on the table. Such deals with extreme regimes are worthless.’

“World powers are currently holding talks with the Islamic Republic in the Austrian capital of Vienna, aimed at bringing the US back into the 2015 agreement, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“’I say to our closest friends too: ‘A deal with Iran that threatens us with annihilation will not obligate us.’ Only one thing will obligate us: to prevent those who wish to destroy us from carrying out their plans.’”

The difference between Israel and the US on the JCPOA is dramatic, which raises the question of how closely strong allies should coordinate their foreign policies. It is not unusual for allies to disagree, but generally speaking, close allies do not try deliberately to undermine each other. But Israel has taken actions recently that have made Biden’s desire to renew the JCPOA very, very difficult. A few days ago, an Iranian military vessel was attacked off the coast of Yemen and the circumstantial evidence suggests that Israel was behind the attack.

“An attack this week on an Iranian cargo ship that is said to serve as a floating base for Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard forces off the coast of Yemen has escalated a years long shadow war in Mideast waters. The development comes just as world powers are negotiating over Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal.

“The assault on the MV Saviz on Tuesday appears to have caused the most-extensive damage yet in this shadow war, seemingly between Iran and Israel — and one that could further escalate regional tensions. Attacks and counterattacks between the two nations could spin out of control.

“Since at least 2019, there have been a series of mysterious attacks on vessels, typically with limpet mines attached by a special forces diver to a ship’s hull. The attacks came at a time of mounting tensions between Iran and the United States over then-President Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally pull out of the atomic accord….

“Iranian officials, however, so far have been trying to downplay the incident. That likely springs from the ongoing talks in Vienna that could mean billions of dollars in American sanctions relief. They also have faced two mysterious attacks later blamed on Israel last year without a major response — the explosion at an advanced centrifuge plant at its Natanz nuclear facility and the killing of a scientist who began the country’s military nuclear program decades earlier.”

Yesterday there was a cyberattack on the Iranian underground nuclear facility near Natanz which caused a blackout at the facility. According to CNN:

“Reports in several Israeli media outlets Sunday quoted intelligence officials saying Israel’s national intelligence agency, Mossad, was responsible for the incident. While few details of the unnamed officials are offered, some outlets described them as ‘Western intelligence sources,’ though it is not immediately clear whether ‘Western’ includes the possibility the sources are from Israel or not.

“Israel’s Prime Minister’s office offered no comment on the reports, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Iran Sunday at a toast to mark the anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. ‘The struggle against Iran and its proxies and the Iranian armament efforts is a huge mission,’ he said, appearing alongside Israel Defense Forces chief Kochavi and his senior commanders, as well as Defense Minister Benny Gantz. ‘The situation that exists today will not necessarily be the situation that will exist tomorrow.'”

The damage from the blackout was significant, but intelligence sources suggest that it will only set back Iranian uranium enrichment efforts by about 9 months. The US has clearly stated that it was not involved in the attack on Natanz:

“A White House spokesman said Monday that ‘the U.S. was not involved in any manner and we have nothing to add to speculation about the causes.’

“The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, did not comment on whether the United States had been given advance notice of the attack.”

However, both of these events are acts of war and much depends on how Iran decides to respond to them. Right now, the Iranians seems to be banking on the hope that the Biden Administration will reduce the sanctions that former President Trump imposed and any act of retaliation would scuttle that opportunity. The Iranian government is nonetheless probably under incredible pressure to retaliate against Israel, and it has asserted that it has captured an individual associated with the Natanz attack.

US Secretary of Defense Austin is meeting with Israeli officials in Israel and there is little doubt that the US will remain committed to the defense of Israel if the Iranians do counterattack. But Israel is clearly testing the limits of that commitment and we will learn much if such an attack occurs. There is no way that the US would allow any attack on Israeli civilians, but its response to Iranian attacks on purely military targets might be very restrained.

We should also ask whether Israel’s decision to deliberately undermine US policy should cause the US to rethink Israel’s status as an ally. Israel has made significant progress is cultivating better relationships with former enemies such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. Perhaps the US should ask Israel to engage in similar diplomacy with Iran. Right now, the antagonistic relationship between Israel and Iran has yielded nothing in terms of greater stability in the region. The US should also decide whether it wishes Israel to determine the terms of its relationship with Iran.

Posted April 12, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

10 April 2021   Leave a comment

Over the last month, violence has broken out in Northern Ireland over the ambiguous terns of the Brexit deal. People in Ireland were told that the British departure from the European Union, commonly known as Brexit, would not upset the delicate terms of the erasure of the economic border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. There has been relative peace in Ireland since the Good Friday Agreements in 1998. It was a complex agreement and it was always regarded as somewhat fragile.

The background to the conflict has deep roots and it is a serious mistake to think that it is fundamentally a conflict between Catholics and Protestants. The Associated Press gives a succinct summary:

“Geographically, Northern Ireland is part of Ireland. Politically, it’s part of the United Kingdom.

“Ireland, long dominated by its bigger neighbor, broke free about 100 years ago after centuries of colonization and an uneasy union. Twenty-six of its 32 counties became an independent, Roman Catholic-majority country. Six counties in the north, which have a Protestant majority, stayed British.

“Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority experienced discrimination in jobs, housing and other areas in the Protestant-run state. In the 1960s, a Catholic civil rights movement demanded change, but faced a harsh response from the government and police. Some people on both the Catholic and Protestant sides formed armed groups that escalated the violence with bombings and shootings.

“The British Army was deployed in 1969, initially to keep the peace. The situation deteriorated into a conflict between Irish republican militants who wanted to unite with the south, loyalist paramilitaries who sought to keep Northern Ireland British, and U.K. troops.

“During three decades of conflict more than 3,600 people, a majority of them civilians, were killed in bombings and shootings. Most were in Northern Ireland, though the Irish Republican Army also set off bombs in London and other British cities.”

The Brexit agreement forged by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson moved the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to the Irish Sea which separates Ireland from the United Kingdom. People in Northern Ireland regarded the move as a betrayal and fears have grown that the commitment to Northern Ireland has been weakened. Since the Republic of Ireland remained a member of the European Union, it means that Northern Ireland no longer enjoys any of the benefits of being able to trade freely with the European Union. The BBC explains:

“The violence that has erupted this week on the streets of Belfast and other towns and cities in Northern Ireland has many causes.

“But anger about post-Brexit trading rules that came into force in February is a factor.

“The section of the Brexit deal known as the ‘protocol’ was designed to protect the peace process by avoiding the need for checks on the border with Ireland.

“But it also means that some European laws continue to apply in Northern Ireland.

“And that has reinforced long-held feelings among Unionists that they are being cut off from the rest of the UK – and that they’ve been misled by the UK government and that the EU is not listening.”

Writing for The Guardian, Jonathan Freedland develops the other causes of the renewed violence which are rooted in the 600-year history of British abuses in Ireland. But he places the blame squarely on the shoulders of Boris Johnson:

“This is the ineluctable logic of Brexit. Once Britain chose to be outside the single market and customs union while the Irish republic remained inside, there would always have to be a border. The only question was where. One option was a land border on the island of Ireland, once again separating north and south – which would appal nationalists. The other was a frontier in the Irish Sea, appalling unionists. Boris Johnson swore blind that he would never agree to any such thing, only to do exactly that – devising, negotiating, signing and passing into law the Northern Ireland protocol, which gives that part of the UK a separate status. The result is that loyalists feel that, once again, they have both lost out to the nationalists and been betrayed by London.”

There are serious consequences for pretending that details do not matter and assuming that people are not paying attention.

Posted April 10, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

7 April 2021   Leave a comment

The US is restoring economic assistance to the Palestinian people, a welcome return to traditional US policy of providing humanitarian assistance to a people who are desperately in need of such aid. The Trump Administration abandoned that pattern in a manner consistent with the interests of the Netanyahu government of Israel. That move undermined the US position of trying to be an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. US Secretary of State Blinken made this announcement today:

“The United States is pleased to announce that, working with Congress, we plan to restart U.S. economic, development, and humanitarian assistance for the Palestinian people.  This includes $75 million in economic and development assistance in the West Bank and Gaza, $10 million for peacebuilding programs through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and $150 million in humanitarian assistance for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).  We are also resuming vital security assistance programs.  All assistance will be provided consistent with U.S. law.  Economic assistance includes support for small and medium enterprises’ recovery from the effects of COVID-19; support for needy households to access basic human needs, such as food and clean water; and assistance for Palestinian civil society.  A portion of this funding will support the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, as it continues to provide necessary and life-saving treatments to Palestinians.  This funding is in addition to the $15 million in humanitarian assistance to address the COVID-19 pandemic and food insecurity the United States announced in March.

“The United States is resuming support for UNRWA’s services, including education for over 500,000 Palestinian boys and girls, thereby providing hope and stability in UNRWA’s five fields of operation in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  Funding to UNRWA also provides critical COVID-19 assistance, including healthcare, medicine, and medical supplies, as well as cash and food assistance to families severely impacted by COVID-19.  The United States is deeply committed to ensuring that our partnership with UNRWA promotes neutrality, accountability, and transparency.  As with all of our engagements with UN institutions, the United States needs to be at the table to ensure that the reforms advance efficiencies and are in accord with our interests and values.

“U.S. foreign assistance for the Palestinian people serves important U.S. interests and values. It provides critical relief to those in great need, fosters economic development, and supports Israeli-Palestinian understanding, security coordination and stability.  It also aligns with the values and interests of our allies and partners.  The United States is committed to advancing prosperity, security, and freedom for both Israelis and Palestinians in tangible ways in the immediate term, which is important in its own right, but also as a means to advance towards a negotiated two-state solution.

“The United States encourages other donors to support programs and activities that work toward a common goal of stability and progress for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

This decision is an important step forward, but it does not appear as if the Biden Administration is willing to go further in undoing the damage wrought by the Trump Administration. In the State Department’s 2020 report on Human Rights, the US does not refer to the “Occupied Territories” (the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights) which Israel seized in the 1967 war. Instead it refers to “the West Bank” and the “Gaza”, and goes further to state: “The United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017 and Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights in 2019. Language in this report is not meant to convey a position on any final status issues to be negotiated between the parties to the conflict, including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the borders between Israel and any future Palestinian state.” It seems as if the Biden Administration does not wish to become heavily involved in the peace process. Nonetheless, Israel remains opposed to aid to the Palestinians, particularly to UNRWA.

Indeed, the State Department spokesperson, Ned Price, created a lot of confusion in a rather contentious press briefing on 31 March on the matter of whether the “occupation” of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip continues. He was forced to clarify his comments the next day in another contentious session with the press:

QUESTION: Thank you. Just to be redundant on the issue of occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, why can’t you say it is occupied, without all the caveats? Can you say that it is occupied, that you acknowledge that position? It’s been like this since 1967.

MR PRICE: Well, Said, and that’s precisely what I said yesterday.

QUESTION: Right.

MR PRICE: It is a historical fact that Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights after the 1967 war. That’s precisely why the 2020 Human Rights Report uses that term in the current context of the West Bank. It has been the longstanding position of previous administrations of both parties over the course of many decades. Do we think that the West Bank is occupied? Yes.

QUESTION: Mm-hmm. Okay. Let me just follow up on that. I mean, if you consider it occupied – I know you’ve taken a very strong position in the past; you’ve called for ending the occupation of the Ukraine immediately and so on. Why can’t you call for this occupation to end immediately and all the human rights abuses that go along with enforcing it immediately? Why can’t you call for that?

MR PRICE: Said, what we are calling for – and this really gets to the root of this challenge – is that two-state solution.

QUESTION: Right.

MR PRICE: The two-state solution is precisely what will allow Israelis and Palestinians to live side by side in dignity and security, securing the interests – in the interests of Israelis, in the interests of Palestinians together. That’s precisely why are we are supporting this two-state solution, just as previous administrations of both political stripes have.

It is hard to imagine that much progress can be made on US policy toward the Middle East, given the current turmoil in the leadership of major countries. The most recent Israeli election (the fourth in two years) was inconclusive and the current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu is under indictment on corruption charges. Nonetheless, Israel has decided to keep building settlements in East Jerusalem. Additionally, the Palestinian Authority is scheduled to hold elections on 22 May and its leadership remains in question as well as its overall authority. Moreover, the status of King Abdullah in Jordan and Crown Prince Salman in Saudi Arabia also appears to be in question. The US really has no one in the region in which it can place great confidence right now.

Posted April 7, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

6 April 2021   Leave a comment

The tension between Russia and Ukraine continues to escalate. Not only is Russia massing additional troops in the eastern Donbass region and Crimea, but Russia is now conducting large-scale military exercises. The New York Times reports:

“In Ukraine, Parliament on Tuesday approved a statement declaring an ‘escalation’ along the front, essentially acknowledging that a cease-fire negotiated in July had broken down. It pointed to a ‘significant increase in shelling and armed provocations by the armed forces of the Russian Federation.’

“The statement called on Western governments to ‘continue and increase international political and economic pressure on Russia,’ something Ukraine has been requesting for years. The United States and European allies have imposed financial sanctions on Russia, targeting President Vladimir V. Putin’s inner circle, banks and oil companies.”

Since 2018 there have been 8 cease-fires between Ukraine and the Russian separatists, the most recent of which was brokered by the the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. That cease-fire has broken down. Ukraine cut off water supplies to Crimea after the Russian invasion in 2014 and there are fears that Russia will try to divert water from the Dnieper River in Ukraine in order to address the water shortages in Crimea. Such a move would unquestionably trigger a higher level of violence.

We still do not know if Russia is serious about consolidating its control in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine or whether the Russians are testing the US commitment to Ukraine. It is a deadly game and the Ukrainians have asked for membership consideration to NATO. Reuters quotes the Ukrainian President: “‘NATO is the only way to end the war in Donbass,’ Zelenskiy told NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in a phone call, according to a statement from Zelenskiy’s office. A Membership Action Plan laying out Ukraine’s entry path into the alliance ‘will be a real signal for Russia’, he said.”

I sincerely doubt that US President Biden would seriously entertain such a proposal since the Russians would regard the move as highly provocative. It would replicate many of the passions that the US and Russia endured in Georgia in 2008 when US President George W. Bush broached the idea of Georgian membership in NATO. Ted Galen Carpenter relates that struggle in The National Interest:

“Bush and other officials were effusive in their praise of Saakashvili and Georgia’s democratic revolution. In a May 2005 speech in Tbilisi, Bush hailed Georgia as ‘a beacon of liberty’ and praised that country’s self-styled democrats for creating the template for other ‘color revolutions.’ Therefore, he believed that Georgians deserved special recognition. ‘Your courage is inspiring democratic reformers and sending a message that echoes around the world: Freedom will be the future of every nation and every people on Earth.’ He added (erroneously) that Georgia itself was ‘building a democratic society where the rights of minorities are respected; where a free press flourishes; where a vigorous opposition is welcomed and where unity is achieved through peace.’

“Bush also had pushed the NATO allies to give Georgia (and Ukraine) membership in the Alliance. Even though French and German opposition postponed that scheme, Saakashvili apparently believed that NATO would confront Russia militarily in any showdown between Moscow and Tbilisi. In August 2008, he launched a military offensive to regain control of a breakaway region, South Ossetia, which had been under the protection of Russian peacekeeping forces since the early 1990s. Unfortunately, Saakashvili’s offensive also inflicted casualties on the Russian peacekeeping troops. Moscow responded with a full-scale counteroffensive that soon led to the occupation of several Georgian cities and brought Russian troops to the outskirts of the capital….

“The parallels between Washington’s excessive encouragement of Ukraine and Bush’s blunder with respect to Georgia are eerie and alarming. Vladimir Putin’s government has given the West numerous warnings over the years that attempting to make Ukraine a NATO military client crosses a bright red line in terms of Russia’s security. The Kremlin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea in response to the U.S.-European Union campaign to help demonstrators oust Ukraine’s elected, pro-Russia government and replace it with a pro-West regime should have conveyed that message with great clarity.”

James Goldgeier, writing in Foreign Affairs, suggests that the Ukrainian confrontation is only one of the many issues that rattles the US-Russian relationship. His essay is a decidedly bleak overview of that relationship: “As Biden begins his presidency, one aspect of U.S.-Russian relations is over: the high hopes for what an incoming U.S. president can achieve. The SolarWinds hack, Russian election interference, the conflict in Ukraine, and the poisoning and arrest of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny are just some of the issues that will hinder any return to a more positive U.S.-Russian relationship. But ever since Putin first became president more than 20 years ago, the bigger issue has been the clashing ambitions that U.S. and Russian leaders have for the world and especially for Europe. Although it is possible that Trump would have bowed to Putin’s vision in a second term, Moscow’s and Washington’s conflicting visions will be on full display in the Biden years.”

Posted April 6, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

3 April 2021   Leave a comment

There is political turmoil in Jordan, one of the US’s most reliable allies in the Middle East. According to CNN: “A member of the Jordanian royal family and the former head of the royal court were arrested on Saturday due to ‘security reasons,’ according to Jordan’s state news agency Petra, and the country’s former crown prince claimed he has been told not to leave his home. Former Crown Prince Hamzah bin Hussein had released a video in which he stated he blamed the country’s leaders of being responsible for “the breakdown in governance, for the corruption, and for the incompetence that has been prevalent in our governing structure for the last 15 to 20 years, and has been getting worse by the year.”

King Abdullah has ruled Jordan since 1999 and he has walked a very difficult line between US interests in supporting Israel and the sentiments of the large Palestinian population in Jordan which opposes Israel’s control of the West Bank. Tensions between the Palestinians and the Jordanian government are long-standing, and there was a major break in 1970-71 which is referred to as Black September which led to the ouster of the Palestine Liberation Organization from Jordan. Additionally, the Jordanian economy, which is based on territory which has few valuable resources, has been ravaged by the COVID pandemic. Finally, relations between Israel and Jordan have been strained over the last few months as Israel continues to exercise greater control over East Jerusalem which was once under control of Jordan, compromising King Abdullah’s claim to be the custodian of the al Aqsa mosque, one of the holiest sites to many Muslims:

“Israel recognised the Hashemite role as safekeepers of al-Aqsa as part of the two countries’ 1994 peace treaty, and maintains overall security control over the holy site.

“Amman has long condemned what it says are Israeli efforts to restrict non-Jewish access to the 35-acre (14-hectare) compound, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.

“Israel cites security concerns for restricting the access of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank to the site and any limits it imposes on the number of Muslim worshippers allowed into the compound.”

The current situation resembles that of an attempted coup d’etat, but Jordan refuses to characterize it as such, even though 20 people have been arrested. King Abdullah has received strong messages of support from its Sunni Arab allies in the region and one can expect the US to continue its strong support for him. At this point it is not clear why Hamzah, King Abdullah’s oldest son, released the critical video or what his interests may be. The New York Times describes the family relationships in the Jordanian royal family:

“King Abdullah II, 59, has reigned since 1999, having succeeded his father, King Hussein. In a sign of earlier palace intrigue, Abdullah replaced Hassan bin Talal, a brother of King Hussein, as crown prince just weeks before his father’s death. Hassan had apparently fallen out of favor after making some moves that were widely interpreted as an attempt to consolidate his own power while King Hussein was undergoing treatment for cancer.

“The current crown prince is King Abdullah II’s son, Hussein bin Abdullah, 26.

“Prince Hamzah is the eldest son of King Hussein and Queen Noor, his fourth wife and widow who was born to a Syrian-American family. Hamzah was named crown prince of Jordan in 1999, but his half brother, King Abdullah II, transferred the title to his son, Prince Hussein, in 2004.

“Prince Hamzah is often photographed meeting with tribal figures and is known to be popular, especially among tribal and East Bank Jordanians for his uncanny resemblance to his father, who was beloved by many in the kingdom.”

It may be a few days before we have a clearer picture of what is going on in Jordan, but this turmoil is just another wrinkle in the political instability of the region.

Posted April 3, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

2 April 2021   Leave a comment

The Iranian nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action–JCPOA) which appeared dead last week is showing signs of life. The signatories to the agreement–Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, and Iran–have agreed to meet next week in Vienna, although it appears as if the US and Iran will be in separate rooms for the discussion. The European Union was principally responsible for reviving the negotiations and it seems as if the announcement of the Chinese-Iranian partnership deal a few days ago was a major force in re-opening the talks. That move signaled the futility of continued US sanctions to achieve results.

The primary focus of the talks will be on the possible lifting of sanctions. The US has insisted that it will not lift the economic sanctions until Iran returns to all the original terms of the agreement; the Iranians have insisted that they will not even talk unless sanctions are lifted first. The Guardian highlights the disagreements:

“The private discussions have focused on agreeing a framework whereby the US could start to lift sanctions in return for specific and verifiable steps by Iran to come back into full compliance with the deal. Iran has taken a series of reversible steps to reduce its compliance including increasing uranium enrichment and reducing the UN inspectors’ access to its nuclear sites.

“The US had also sought for the deal at some point to be extended in length and broadened to include other issues, such as regional security, something Iran had rejected.

“Some observers fear Biden does not understand the urgency of making progress ahead of Iran’s June presidential elections, where hardliners opposed to the principle of the deal are likely to triumph in a low-turnout election.”

The talks in Vienna will need to be carefully choreographed. The differences between the US and Iran are not irreconcilable but both sides will feel intense pressure to not appear as if they have capitulated to the other. Hardliners in both the US and Iran would use such a possibility to sink the talks.

“Washington initially insisted that Tehran must return to adhering to the limits of the deal before the sanctions are lifted. But in recent weeks, US officials have been calling for talks to negotiate mutual and gradual compliance with the accord.

“‘We can play games about who goes first. I think anyone who’s dealt with this knows that neither side is going to go first entirely,’ US envoy for Iran Rob Malley said last month. 

“‘There’s going to have to be some agreement on choreographing, on synchronising. We’re open to discussing that, but it’s going to have to be discussed. It’s not going to happen simply unilaterally by one side taking all the steps and waiting.’

“Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also signalled an openness to an approach of a gradual return to the accord earlier this week.

“Zarif confirmed next week’s talks to revive the deal, but he appeared to rule out direct negotiations with Washington.

“‘At virtual JCPOA JC meeting, Iran & EU/E3+2 agreed to resume in-person talks in Vienna next Tues,’ he wrote on Twitter on Friday.

“‘Aim: Rapidly finalize sanction-lifting & nuclear measures for choreographed removal of all sanctions, followed by Iran ceasing remedial measures. No Iran-US meeting. Unnecessary.'”

If both sides are sensitive to the constraints of the other and are careful not to describe any move as a “victory” for their side, it is possible that the JCPOA can be restored. Quiet, careful diplomacy is called for, but I think that US President Biden and Foreign Minister Zarif are up to the task.

Posted April 2, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

1 April 2021   Leave a comment

There are reports that Russia has sent an additional 4,000 troops to the border with Ukraine. The move comes after years of a low-level of military activity in the eastern region of Ukraine called Donbass and failed attempts to broker a cease-fire among Ukrainian forces and rebels supported by Russia. Foreign Policy describes the context of the move:

“Russia recently conducted a military exercise in the region and announced last week that it would permanently base an airborne regiment in Crimea, which experts say could account for some, but not all, of the recent troop movements.

“’They are conducting a sizable deployment, and in a manner intended to be visible, but this so far does not appear to be the sort of force size one would expect for an invasion of Kherson Oblast [the Ukrainian region opposite Crimea] or a large-scale operation along those lines,’ said Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist with CNA. ‘There is a host of other activity along Ukraine’s borders, which consequently raises questions about intentions,’ he added.

“That, combined with a flare-up in fighting in eastern Ukraine between the military and Russian-backed separatists, is stoking a lot of unease in Washington and European capitals. But Kofman cautioned against alarmism. ‘To me, it does not appear that Russia is positioning itself for an imminent invasion,’ he said, adding that the build-up was more likely an effort to coerce Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the actions ‘muscle-flexing’ in a Russian attempt to raise pressure amid stalled peace talks.”

In the Department of State Press Briefing today, the State Department spokesperson made these comments:

MR PRICE: Yeah, he – he did, correct. No, but I think it’s worth us reiterating it from here and, of course, when we talk about the state of the relationship between the United States and Russia, we can’t forget Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine. And we’re absolutely concerned by recent escalations of Russian aggressive and provocative actions in eastern Ukraine, including violations of the July 2020 ceasefire that led to the deaths of four Ukrainian soldiers on March 26th and injuries to others. Russia’s destabilizing actions undermine the de-escalation intentions achieved through the OSCE-brokered agreement of July of last year.

“Additionally, we are aware of Ukrainian military reports concerning Russian troop movements in – on Ukraine’s borders. We are discussing our concerns about that increase in tensions and ceasefire violations and regional tensions with NATO Allies. You’ve heard from various departments and agencies including the State Department; Secretary Blinken had a call with his Ukrainian counterpart yesterday. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had a call with his counterpart. And National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan had a call with Andriy Yermak in Ukraine as well. We will continue to be in close touch with our partners in Kyiv and in Ukraine more broadly in the face of these recent escalations.”

The Russians have struck a belligerent tone on Ukraine but it is hard to determine whether the language reflects an intent to take over additional Ukrainian territory or whether it is merely a test of the new Biden Administration. Chatham House, a reliable British think tank, published an article that observed:

“The idea that the simmering conflict in Ukraine would burst into new fighting comes after a belligerent speech Putin made at the Davos Forum at the end of January. The Russian president said that ‘foreign policy propaganda rhetoric’ was growing, and he expected  ‘practical actions’ by America against Russia to become more aggressive.  Such a game with no rules, he said, ‘critically increases the risk of unilateral use of military force’. 

“He did not state who might be using military force, but the next day Margarita Simonyan, the boss of Russia’s RT English-language news channel, gave a fiery speech at a conference in the Russian-controlled city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine where she said: ‘Mother Russia, take Donbass home!’ “

Russian President Putin is facing declining popularity at home and challenges from popular protests led by dissident Alexei Navalny who is how in a Russian gulag. Additionally, European states also seem to be lining up in opposition to the Russian moves near the Ukraine border.

Posted April 1, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

31 March 2021   1 comment

China and Iran have signed a 25-year strategic partnership which poses a clear repudiation of The US’s strategy of pressuring Iran to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The details of the partnership are a secret and observers have asserted that its goals are “aspirational”. According to The Guardian:

“Detailed work on the agreement has taken two years, with the bulk of the recent drafting undertaken by Ali Larijani, a former speaker of the Iranian parliament.

“Although the deal has been touted as being worth $400bn, the Chinese and the Iranian foreign ministries insist no detailed contracts have been signed, so valuations of this sort are largely worthless.

“The heart of the 25-year deal is an expansion of China’s presence in Iranian banking, telecommunications, ports, railways and dozens of projects. In exchange, China would receive a regular and heavily discounted supply of Iranian oil.”

In many respects the deal appears to be consistent with China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” which it has worked out with a large number of Central Asian states. The deal, however, is a slap in the face of the US which has been trying to persuade the other signatories to the JCPOA to maintain stiff sanctions until Iran agrees to the JCPOA. The New York Times points out that “President Biden has offered to resume negotiations with Iran over the 2015 nuclear accord that his predecessor, President Donald J. Trump, abrogated three years after it was signed. American officials say both countries can take synchronized steps to bring Iran into compliance with the terms of the agreement while the United States gradually lifts sanctions. Iran has refused to do so, and China has backed it up, demanding that the United States act first to revive the deal it broke by lifting unilateral sanctions that have suffocated the Iranian economy. China was one of five world powers that, along with the U.S., signed the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran.” The Times is also reporting that China is seeking to revive its relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Gulf States that normally oppose Iran.

China’s move comes as the US is seeking to restart negotiations with Iran. Politico reports:

“Biden administration officials, mindful of the increasingly unfavorable calendar, plan to put forth a new proposal to jump-start the talks as soon as this week, two people familiar with the situation told POLITICO.

“The proposal asks Iran to halt some of its nuclear activities, such as work on advanced centrifuges and the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity, in exchange for some relief from U.S. economic sanctions, said one of the people, who stressed that the details are still being worked out.

“It’s not at all certain that Iran will accept the terms. Earlier this year, Tehran rejected a U.S. proposal it deemed unacceptable, then offered its own idea that Biden’s team declared a non-starter, two people familiar with the situation said.

“Still, officials in both countries are aware that if no breakthrough takes place over the next few weeks, little is likely to happen until September at the earliest, and that’s if the deal can be saved at all. The warnings come as progressives pressure Biden to rejoin the deal and as some officials and analysts wonder if Biden is genuine about his stated desire to see the agreement revived.

“’Iran is poised to blow through additional nuclear deal restrictions in the next few weeks. This is the crucial time to avoid an escalation of the situation,’ said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, an organization that has closely tracked nuclear negotiations involving Iran.”

There is a great deal of diplomatic movement in the Middle East as the US, Russia, and China are trying to formulate their policies toward the region. The Biden Administration has yet to clearly articulate its goals in the region and China seeks to take advantage of US indecision. It is interesting, however, to note how US influence in the region has declined so dramatically in such a short period of time. The Trump Administration’s intent of leveraging an Israeli/Saudi Arabian axis seems to have come to naught.

Posted March 31, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

28 March 2021   Leave a comment

The National Bureau of Economic Research has published a study on tax evasion by high-income individuals in the US. This topic is particularly difficult to study since there a myriad number of legal tactics to disguise income from the Internal Revenue Service. The study does not suggest that low-income individuals do not try to disguise income, but acknowledges that the rewards for evasion are considerably higher for the wealthy:

“The model allows a taxpayer to adopt some costly form of tax evasion that is unlikely to be discovered
on audit at some cost. We show that adoption of such an evasion technology is likely to be concentrated
at the top of the income distribution for two reasons. First, high-income taxpayers have a greater demand for sophisticated evasion strategies that reduce the probability of detection if (i) the desired rate of evasion
does not become trivial at large incomes, and (ii) the cost of adopting becomes a trivial share of income at
large incomes. This is true even holding the probability of audit by income fixed. Second, overall audit rates
and scrutiny of tax returns are substantially higher at the top than at the bottom of the distribution, making
evasion that is less likely to be detected and corrected on audit more attractive at the top. We can also reinterpret the model to think about situations where the outcome of an audit, if it occurs, is uncertain. With
this interpretation, for the same reasons as before, we show that high-income people are then more likely
to adopt positions in the ‘gray area’ between legal avoidance and evasion.”

The techniques used include placing money in offshore accounts that disguise the owners of wealth, “pass-through” corporations that are exempt from corporate taxes, and by a variety of legal accounting tricks that make it difficult for the IRS to follow the money.

It is important to understand that these techniques are generally legal reflecting the bias of the tax code to favor the rich more than the poor. Additionally, the ability and willingness of the IRS to audit high-income individuals is constrained by a lack of financial support from the Congress. As reported in The Huffington Post:

“The percentage of income tax evasion generally increases with the income category, the study found. Taxpayers in the bottom half of income categories evade taxes on around 7% of their income. Taxpayers in the top fifth evade taxes on 10% of their income, with the richest 5% avoiding taxes on at least 20% of income.

“The average annual income of the top 1% of earners is approximately $1.7 million. They collect some 20% of the money earned annually in the nation, according to the Pew Research Center.

“Even as high earners are dodging taxes, IRS audits of the wealthy have plunged, another recent study has found. Audits of those reporting incomes over $1 million fell from nearly 50,000 in 2012 to just over 11,000 last year — even as the number of millionaires skyrocketed.”

This bias aggravates the problem of economic inequality in the US which is the worst of all the rich countries. The Pew Research Center documents how the situation of inequality has significantly worsened over time:

“The wealth gap between America’s richest and poorer families more than doubled from 1989 to 2016, according to a recent analysis by the Center. Another way of measuring inequality is to look at household wealth, also known as net worth, or the value of assets owned by a family, such as a home or a savings account, minus outstanding debt, such as a mortgage or student loan.

“In 1989, the richest 5% of families had 114 times as much wealth as families in the second quintile (one tier above the lowest), at the median $2.3 million compared with $20,300. By 2016, the top 5% held 248 times as much wealth at the median. (The median wealth of the poorest 20% is either zero or negative in most years we examined.)”

Posted March 28, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

24 March 2021   Leave a comment

There is a traffic jam in the Suez Canal, caused by the grounding of a container ship, Ever Given (owned by Evergreen Marine of Taiwan and sailing under a Panamanian flag), the length of the Empire State building. The vessel ran aground due to high winds, and ships sailing both north and south have been forced to anchor in place. Shutting down the Suez Canal has a dramatic effect on the global economy, and CNN assesses the significance of the canal:

“The passage accounts for approximately 30% of container ship traffic globally each day, according to Reuters, with the alternative shipping route between Asia and Europe — navigating around the African cape — taking a week longer.

“Nearly 19,000 ships, or an average of 51.5 ships per day, with a net tonnage of 1.17 billion tonnes passed through the canal during 2020, according to the Suez Canal Authority.”

It is not clear how long it will take to refloat the ship, but the longer it takes, the more effect it will have on the world economy. Crude oil prices briefly surged when the news was announced, but have since returned to its earlier prices. But the stoppage highlights the vulnerability of oil prices to such chokepoints, raising fears about Iranian abilities to stop ship traffic through the Strait of Hormuz.

Although it is several years old, the data visualization firm Kiln and University College London’s Energy Institute produced a fascinating map of the movement of world commercial vessels in 2012 which can be accessed here.

Posted March 24, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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