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Quo Vadis to Jerusalem? Taking the Road Pointed out by Trump?

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On December 6 Trump came up with a sensational program speech that became one of the most significant political events of the passing year. He stated that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and the USA is moving its embassy there.

Trump’s assurances that the decision will bring peace to the 70-year-glittering Israeli-Palestinian confrontation and that Jerusalem will increasingly prosper as the democratic center of three religions has caused a genuine storm throughout the region.

The UN Security Council special session, with just one vote for, voted against that decision. Foreign Ministers of the Arab League States (ALS) assembled in Cairo demanding Israel to liberate the lands occupied from Palestinians and Arabs in 1967. The resolution, however, was snippy. Arabs proved once more to be unable to act jointly under a force majeure conditions.

Besides, the situation has changed. Vast majority of Palestinians don’t want to fight and suffice with simply crowded demonstrations, setting tires and Trump’s pictures to fire. As to the Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas’s accusations addressed to Trump that “he opened gates of hell” and other threats, they are nothing more than rhetoric aphorisms.

The thing is that the militant Palestinian group Hamas is losing its sponsors. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is not just unwilling to fight Israel, moreover, it is reconciling with the latter against Iran. Egypt is not pleased with the third intifada, either. However, the biggest loss for Hamas is abstraction by Iran. Tehran’s cooling attitude towards the movement is explained by the latter’s flirt with Iran’s enemy Gulf countries and, namely, with Riyadh. The Sassanids never forget such things and never do they forgive.

As to Europe, it doesn’t welcome military actions of Hamas, either. France and other countries did criticize Trump’s decision, however, they are sick and tired of terror acts so that they will defend only Palestinians’ soft power actions, and that’s all.

On the background of these political developments, as to be expected, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears on the stage. He appears to play a diplomatic farce, behind which his pink ambitions are outlined: to become the leader of the Great Middle East. Or perhaps a new caliph and then the leader of the third world? Who knows?

Erdoğan is trying to fasten Russia to his plans. (When Erdoğan lavishes “спасибо” (thanks) in Putin’s address and boasts his friendship, Yerevan of the 1960s come to one’s mind when during street fights the parties invited people with “certain authority” to make a psychological influence on the rivals and to win in case of a fight. That practice was called “to get guys”.)

Making a speech in Istanbul, at the special summit meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) formed at his initiative, Erdoğan puts Israel and the USA to pillroy for “violating international law”, pressing and terrorizing the Palestinian people. Then Erdoğan demands Jerusalem to be granted the status of Palestine’s capital, absolutely “forgetting” that it is actually a violation of international law and UN resolutions.

Two days later, moving further forward he states, “We have already declared East Jerusalem the capital of Palestine.” “… Soon Turkey is going to open its embassy in Jerusalem.” This was the last nail hammered by Ankara into the coffin of its relations with Israel.

And when during the Istanbul Endspiel Erdoğan snaps his fingers at Washington he reminds of the famous little character from Krylov’s fable who “raises a great rumpus” at the elephant. (I. A. Krylov, Elephant and Pug.)

Indeed, some really interesting scenes were played in Istanbul where Aliyev’s diplomatic salto mortale stands out when, being one of Israel’s closest partners, he appeared in the vanguard of those denouncing the latter. (I would give much just miraculously to be present at Netanyahu-Aliyev encounter and to see the latter’s expression at that moment.)

… Coming back to trump’s statement, it should be noted that some experts assume his decision was the result of lack of the President’s political experience, his impulsive and indiscriminate temperament which borders on adventurism, emotional outbursts and affection, and so on.

Not contesting such an analysis of the American President’s moral features, it should be noted that the comments on his decision are simplistic and encompass neither deep political motives of the issue at stake, nor core strategic aspects of American diplomacy.

Donald Trump’s decision is actually a well-balanced program deliberated over and approved by Washington brain centers.

Let us try to view the issue from two positions.

Internal politics

After presidential elections US President’s position and rating began to fall catastrophically because of objective and subjective reasons threatening with an impeachment and making him take up urgent steps.

Thus, the main target of Trump’s “Jerusalem game” was aimed at pleasing the large Orthodox Jewish-American Republican electorate for whom seeing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is an “idée fixe”, an absolute religious category. Trump had promised them to make that “donation” and kept his promise which found a positive response in various layers of the American society. (Whenever the country’s president keeps a pre-election promise is highly appreciated.)

Foreign politics

In this field Trump is also trying to keep his pre-electoral promise: “America first”. It must be noted that by the end of the Syrian Odyssey Russia, headed by Putin, assumes a dominant role. Meanwhile Washington is losing its position and influence in the Arab world. It is not fond of the behavior of the alliance Russia-Turkey-Iran so much that the White House seems even not to notice certain serious disagreements within this alliance. It is most important under these conditions to push Moscow aside. Having that in mind Trump visited Saudi Arabia in May and, to the music of “al-arda (traditional male-only) sword dance”, created a “mini” or “Arabic” NATO aimed against Iran. That didn’t work. Currently a new game is being played on the big Middle East chess board planned by the USA, with new pieces, new combinations. Trump’s December statement was preceded by the royal coup according to the scenario of his son-in-law and advisor Kushner, developed at Israeli think-tanks and Mossad bunkers. Result? A new, incredible union is born that analysts couldn’t even imagine in the pre-Trump period. It is the Saudi Arabia-Israel military-political alliance whose aim is to augment geopolitical position of Washington and Israel and to realize their plans, namely struggle against Iran in the Middle East. Time will show how successful it is.

Conclusion

  1. Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the embassy there has insulated new additional tensions throughout the region thus creating a new situation in global processes and promoting reorganization of balance of power.
  2. Unless, owing to some or other circumstances and variations in the political situation, the US relinquishes the idea to move its embassy to Jerusalem other states will follow the suit in due time. That scenario is not very likely in case of Arab countries. Only Jordan and Egypt have diplomatic relations with Israel, but even they will abstain until the issue is resolved.
  3. Trump’s decision has driven Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations into a deadlock, which will hardly be broken shortly.
  4. The first reaction of Arab countries in response to Washington’s move didn’t receive a wide coverage and development, didn’t turn into a mass anti-American campaign, and didn’t become a Bickford’s cord connecting countries. So, it is likely that the volatile situation will gradually calm down. However, there is high probability of terror acts in all core countries, specifically after bringing large-scale military actions in Syria to an end, although the key radical Islamist force – Daesh – has notably weakened.
  5. Israel-Iran confrontation will not turn into a war affair. But clashes between the Saudi Arabia-Israel alliance and Hezbollah shouldn’t be discounted that can be disastrous for Lebanon and local Armenian community.
  6. The alterations in the situation around Israel can’t become an obstacle in the process of regulating and developing Armenian-Israeli relations begun earlier this year (perhaps at the approval of Moscow and Washington).
  7. On the contrary, within defining the status of Jerusalem and its borders, it is vital to take speedy and urgent measures at the level of the RA Government, the MFA, worldwide Diaspora (if possible, also the Pope) to secure the physical safety of our fellow countrymen in Israel, as well as inviolability of the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem founded in the first century, churches and other historical-cultural treasures.
  8. Azerbaijan’s active involvement in the anti-Israeli policy should be broadly manipulated through all pan-Armenian state and non-state means to drive a wedge in the Azerbaijani-Israeli relations and to discredit the Azerbaijani administration throughout the Christian world.
  9. Recently Israeli parties Yesh Atid and Meretz are going to submit to Knesset the proposal to recognize the Armenian Genocide. The circle of this process can widen. Nevertheless, at this point it would be unwise to condition regulation of Armenian-Israeli relations by the recognition of the Genocide. Besides, we should be weary that Israel doesn’t make it into ”a bargaining chip” in its relations with Turkey.
  10. Exchange of embassies is the main element of normalizing relations. It is possible that the Israeli side might put forward before Yerevan a condition – to open the embassy in Jerusalem; in that case the Armenian side could offer to open the embassy of Israel residing in Yerevan. This is a common practice in diplomatic relations and can’t hamper the activities of an embassy, unless, of course, it is staffed with professional diplomats.
  11. The RA voted in favor of the UN resolution condemning the US decision at the General Assembly. We believe it would have been preferable for Armenia to abstain or not to take part in the vote for the following reasons: a) the position of the Armenian side will not promote any progress in the Armenian-Israeli relations in stagnation for more than quarter of a century; b) rejection of the decision doesn’t guarantee that from now on Arab-Muslim countries will change their anti-Armenian position in international relations, taking into account the decisive role played in their policy by Turkey, Azerbaijan and Pakistan plus Saudi Arabia that have not recognized Armenia so far; c) the noticeable progress in the Armenian-American relations under current Washington administration falls under doubt; d) it seems improbable that the Armenian issues in Jerusalem will find a positive, for us, solution within the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations as they have come to a stalemate amid current political chaos.

As to the UN General Assembly resolutions, they are not legally binding, thus often remain a voice crying in the wilderness.

Middle East

Turkey’s Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Cyprus, Turkey, Artsakh

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The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin of the Armenian Apostolic Church has recently hosted a conference on international religious freedom and peace with the blessings of His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians.

Tasoula Hadjitofi, the founding president of the Walk of Truth, was one of the invited guests. She spoke about genocide and her own experience in Cyprus, warning of Turkey’s religious freedom violations. Hadjitofi also called for joint legal actions against continued ethnic cleansing and destruction of Christian cultural heritage in Cyprus, Turkey, Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) and other places by the Turkish government and its regional allies including Azerbaijan.

During the two-day conference, access to places of worship in war and conflict zones, the protection of religious and ethnic minorities, and preservation of cultural heritage were among the topics addressed by many distinguished speakers.  The conference paid particular attention to the situation of historic Armenian monasteries, churches, monuments, and archeological sites in parts of Nagorno-Karabakh that have been under Azeri occupation since the 2020 violent war unleashed by Azerbaijan.

Hadjitofi presented about the situation of Cyprus, sharing her recent visit to the Cypriot city of Famagusta (Varoshia), making historic parallels between the de-Christianisation of Asia Minor, Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh by Turkey, and its allies such as Azerbaijan. See Hadjitofi’s full speech here.

Author of the book, The Icon Hunter, Hadjitofi spoke with passion about her recent visit to the ghost city of Famagusta, occupied by Turkey since 1974. Her visit coincided with the 47th anniversary of the occupation. She was accompanied by journalist Tim Neshintov of Spiegel and photographer Julien Busch as she made several attempts to visit her home and pray at her church of Timios Stavrou (Holy Cross).

Hadjitofi explained how her own human rights and religious freedoms, alongside the rights of tens of thousands of Cypriots, were violated when Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan illegally entered her country and prayed at the newly erected mosque in her own occupied town whereas she was kneeling down in the street to pray to her icon in front of her violated Christian church. In comparison, her church was looted, mistreated and vandalized by the occupying forces.  

Hadjitofi reminded the audience of the historic facts concerning Turks discriminating against Christian Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians. They also massacred these communities or expelled them from the Ottoman Empire and the modern Republic of Turkey, a process of widespread persecution which culminated in the 1913-23 Christian genocide. Hadjitofi then linked those genocidal actions with what Erdogan is doing today to the Kurds in Syria, and the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh by supporting Turkey’s wealthy friends such as the government of Azerbaijan.  She also noted that during her recent visit to her hometown of Famagusta, a delegation from Azerbaijan referred to Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus as “Turkish land” and a “part of Greater Turkey”. This is yet another sign of Turkish-Azeri historic revisionism, and their relentless efforts for the Turkification of non-Turkish geography.

Hadjitofi called for a series of legal actions against Turkey and its allies, reminding Armenians that although they signed the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court (ICC), they have not ratified it. She noted that it must be the priority of Armenians if they want to seek justice. Azerbaijan and Turkey, however, neither signed or ratified the Rome Statute.

During her speech Hadjitofi also emphasized the need for unity amongst all Christians and other faiths against any evil or criminal act of destroying places of worship or evidence of their historical existence anywhere in the world. 

In line with this call, the Republic of Armenia instituted proceedings against the Republic of Azerbaijan before the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, with regard to violations of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

In its application, Armenia stated that “[f]or decades, Azerbaijan has subjected Armenians to racial discrimination” and that, “[a]s a result of this State-sponsored policy of Armenian hatred, Armenians have been subjected to systemic discrimination, mass killings, torture and other abuse”.

Hadjitofi said that “Armenia’s lawsuit against the government of Azerbaijan is a positive move in the right direction and more legal actions should be taken against governments that systematically violate human rights and cultural heritage. I’m also in the process of meeting members of the Armenian diaspora in Athens, London, and Nicosia to discuss further joint legal actions. But the most urgent action that Armenia should take is the ratification of Rome Statute of the ICC,” she added.

Other speakers at the conference included representatives of the main Christian denominations, renowned scholars and experts from around the globe, all of whom discussed issues related to international religious freedom and the preservation of the world’s spiritual, cultural and historical heritage.

Baroness Cox, a Member of the UK House of Lords and a prominent human rights advocate, was among the participants. She has actively defended the rights of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia through her parliamentary, charity and advocacy work.

Meanwhile, the organizing committee of the conference adopted a joint communiqué, saying, in part:

” We re-affirm the principles of the right to freedom of religion or belief, as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent international and regional human rights treaties. We claim this right, equally, for all people, of any faith or none, and regardless of nation, history or political circumstances – including for those Armenian prisoners of war still illegally held in captivity by Azerbaijan, for whose swift release and repatriation we appeal and pray, and for the people of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh whose rights to free and peaceful assembly and association necessarily implicate the sacred character of human life.”

On September 11, the delegates of the conference were received by the President of Armenia, Armen Sarkissian, in his palace in Yerevan where they were thanked. The guests also visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial-Museum (Tsitsernakaberd), where Hadjitofi was interviewed on Armenian national TV. She said:

“I read about the Armenian Genocide and I am glad that more countries recognize it as such but I am disappointed that politicians do not condemn actions of Turkey and its allies in their anti Christian attitude towards Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh. I see an interconnection between the genocide and the adopted politics of Azerbaijan, when the ethnic cleansing takes place, when cultural heritage is destroyed, gradually the traces of the people once living there are eliminated and that is genocide”. 

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After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians

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The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.

According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.

The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.

“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”

Scandal of Al Hol’s children

Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.

“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”

Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021. 

Blockades and bombardment

The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.

“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.

In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.

Living in fear

In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.

At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.

Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.

Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.

Division remains

The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”

Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants

The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.

“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”

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IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking

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IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi at a press conference. Photo: IAEA/Dean Calmaa

A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?


The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.

Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.

When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.

Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible.  Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.

Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.

The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.

It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.

“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.

I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.

Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.

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