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Is Iran Testing Trump With Little Attacks in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf?

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

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Authors: Anne Speckhard, Ardian Shajkovci

The sound of an explosion echoed through the Green Zone on Sunday night around 9:00 p.m., a reminder that this most secure part of the Iraqi capital is not, in fact, all that safe. The projectile appears to have been aimed at the United States embassy and, after the blast, embassy sirens went off, accompanied by repeated warnings blaring on loudspeakers instructing everyone to take immediate cover.

Within the hour the missile was reported to have been fired from the Amana bridge in Baghdad, missing its likely intended target and landing in an empty field near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with no casualties reported.

But for a brief and highly fraught moment alarms were going off in Washington, as well, where the much-publicized threat of Iranian “proxy” attacks on U.S. interests and personnel, and the American response positioning bombers and aircraft carriers, have conjured the specter of a new Middle Eastern war. One breaking news service breathlessly reported National Security Adviser John Bolton “just seen arriving at the White House amid rocket attack possibly aimed at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq.”

President Trump, meanwhile, tweeted: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!” It is not clear if he was responding to the rocket, a Katyusha that might have been fired by any number of players in Iraq, or to threatening rhetoric by some Iranian officials, or both.

In any case, non-essential American personnel at the embassy had already been ordered to depart days earlier, many moving to posts in nearby countries to continue their work, and the U.S. embassy was already expecting a possible attack.

Our team of researchers for the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) landed in Baghdad on May 14, 2019, the day before the U.S. State Department issued the security alert to the “non-essentials” in Baghdad and Erbil, recommending they “depart Iraq by commercial transportation as soon as possible, avoid U.S. facilities within Iraq, monitor local media for updates, review personal security plans, remain aware of surroundings.”

An earlier security alert on May 12 advised all U.S. citizens of heightened tensions in Iraq and the requirement to remain vigilant. It recommended not traveling to Iraq, avoiding places known as U.S. citizen gathering points, keeping a low profile and, once again, being aware of your surroundings.

For those of use who have been visiting Iraq since 2006, this seems at once familiar and strange. Is the threat greater now than it was when the U.S. embassy was housed in Saddam’s former palace, and frequently underwent mortar fire? In those days none of the 5,000 embassy personnel were ordered home.

Despite President Trump saying he does not want war, does this action signal that something more than just mortar fire is about to come?

A former senior diplomat who served in Iraq following the 2003 invasion warned that if the U.S. or Israel had decided to launch air strikes on Iran, emptying the embassy might be a smart move.  Iran could strike back at a close and convenient target—the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad—and its ballistic missiles would be much more dangerous and difficult to withstand than mortars or Katyushas.

According to a senior official in the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services (CTS) the rocket Sunday night was launched by the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah. If it came on Iranian orders, the lone, ineffectual projectile may have been intended as a pin-prick provocation testing reactions without triggering full-fledged war. Other recent incidents—a drone attack on a Saudi pipeline; minor explosions on Saudi and other oil tankers—could fall into the same category.

Iraq, liberated from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein by the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, has come under increasing Iranian influence ever since, and the Iran-backed militias played a key role fighting the so-called Islamic State after the national army virtually imploded in 2014. They have since become a major element in the Iraqi defense apparatus, even though some 5,000 U.S. military personnel are on the ground training and working with other elements of the Iraqi military.

The threat inside Iraq to U.S. personnel was revealed in part to Iraqi leaders during Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s surprise visit here on May 7.

The secretary is reported to have told Iraqi officials that U.S. intelligence detected that Iranian-backed militias moving missiles near bases housing American forces. Reuters reported that, according to a senior Iraqi official privy to the substance of the talks, Pompeo asked the Iraqi government to rein in the Shiite militias. Pompeo also expressed U.S. concern about these militias’ increased presence and influence in Iraq and warned that the U.S. would use force to tackle the security threats if necessary, without first consulting Baghdad.

Iraq’s pro-Iranian military factions have long been a concern for U.S. personnel deployed in the region. Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, a radical Shiite militia in Iraq has, for example, long been cooperating with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a group that was just declared by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization.

The newly appointed IRGC leader, Hossein Salami, replied that his people are proud to be called terrorists by President Trump while also threatening the U.S. and Israel.

The Iraqi militia, Nujaba, also was added by the U.S. State Department to the U.S. list of global terrorist organizations on March 7 this year and its leader Akram Kaabi was sanctioned.

Nujaba has been demanding that U.S. troops leave Iraq for quite some time. On May 12, Nujaba’s leaders proclaimed, “Confrontation with the United States will only stop once it is eliminated from the region, along with the Zionist entity,” while also stating that Iraqi resistance factions are ready to target U.S. interests in Iraq.

The Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia, which our source says was behind the Sunday night rocket attack, warned in February 2018 that it might engage in armed confrontation with US forces in Iraq at any moment. According to one Iraqi source, the Kataib Hezbollah is one of the militias that recently placed missiles near U.S. military bases.

The New York Times reported the the U.S. government was picking up an increase in conversations between the Revolutionary Guards and foreign militias discussing attacks on American troops and diplomats in Iraq.

The New York Times also reported that American officials cited intelligence from aerial photographs of fully assembled missiles on small boats in the Persian Gulf as cause for the U.S. administration to escalate its warnings about a threat from Iran. This created concerns that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps would fire them at United States naval ships or American commercial ships.

An Iraqi source confirmed on May 18 that ExxonMobil was evacuating its personnel of 30 to 50 employees from Basra, Iraq, and that the Bahrain embassy had also evacuated its employees from both Iraq and Iran. And U.S. embassies disseminated a warning from the Federal Aviation Agency that U.S. commercial airliners flying over the waters of the Persian Gulf risk being misidentified and by implication shot down amid rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

A potential conflict much larger than Iranian-backed Shia militias throwing mortar fire at the now fortress-like U.S. Embassy appears to be brewing amid credible intelligence coupled with heated anti-American rhetoric.

Yet, security threats to U.S. personnel serving in Iraq are nothing out of the ordinary and date back to the 2003 U.S. invasion. At the height of its activities, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad had thousands of personnel, including contractors. They regularly suffered all sorts of threats from IED attacks when they ventured out on the road, RPG fire when they used helicopters, snipers when they were out in public view and intermittent but regular mortar fire that rained down on the temporary trailers that served as housing near the old Saddam palace where they worked. One mortar penetrated a window to the bathroom of the Deputy U.S. Ambassador’s office, situated inside the palace, destroying the brick wall around the window. It was later bricked up completely. The walkway from the trailers to the palace was mortared so often and so hard that it was nicknamed “death alley” by embassy personnel serving there.

While embassy personnel received danger and hardship pay, none were ordered home during those years, and danger was considered a part of the assignment. IED’s and mortars occasionally killed embassy personnel, but that did not stop the mission.

At present, the U.S. Embassy Baghdad is housed in a complex on a closed street that only badged officials can enter. The grounds are heavily walled walled and difficult to enter and inside, the buildings appear strongly built to withstand assault.

In Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, which also fell under the non-essential personnel evacuation order, a restaurant nearby was attacked by a car bomb in 2015, killing three non-Americans. But, while less robustly built, the consulate also is behind a concrete walled-off security space.

U.S. Embassy diplomatic personnel posted in both Baghdad and Erbil infrequently leave their fortresses and when they do travel around Iraq, their security requirements require using armored cars, wearing bullet proof vests and flack helmets and traveling with armed security guards, sometimes with chase and lead cars in a convoy.

Likewise, U.S. Embassy Baghdad and the consulate in Erbil are not family postings—diplomatic personnel serve for one or two years, leaving their family members behind.

The new embassy building, not far from the old one, was planned during the time of frequent attacks and was undoubtedly built to withstand mortar storms. Long and short-range ballistic missiles however constitute a whole different threat and it’s not publicly known if the new embassy has bomb-hardened resistant bunkers to protect embassy personnel.

Whether U.S. embassy non-essential personnel will return to post anytime soon remains to be seen, and given the dangers such personnel have faced in the past and the fortress in which they currently serve, why they were really ordered home is also still an unanswered question. With ships coming to the region and troops readying for potential travel, serious troubles may well be on the horizon.

While the saber rattling on both sides continues, Baghdad has also made clear that it doesn’t want to become the battlefield.

Author’s note: first published in the Daily Beast

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). She has interviewed over 500 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, the Balkans, the former Soviet Union and many countries in Europe. She is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Follow @AnneSpeckhard

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Middle East

Saudi oil attacks put US commitments to the test

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United States is rushing to retaliate for a brazen, allegedly Iranian attack that severely damaged two of the kingdom’s key oil facilities.

That is not to say that Saudi Arabia and/or the United States will not retaliate in what could prove to be a game changer in the geopolitics of the Middle East.

Yet, reading the tea leaves of various US and Saudi statements lifts the veil on the constituent elements that could change the region’s dynamics.

They also shine a spotlight on the pressures on both countries and shifts in the US-Saudi relationship that could have long lasting consequences.

With US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visiting the kingdom to coordinate what his office described as efforts to combat “Iranian aggression in the region,” Saudi Arabia and the United States will be seeking to resolve multiple issues.

These include collecting sufficient evidence to convincingly apportion blame; calibrating a response that would be appropriate but not drag the United States and the Middle East into a war that few want; deciding who takes the lead in any military response and managing the long-term impact of that  decision on Saudi-US relations and the US commitment to the region.

A careful reading of Saudi and US responses to the attacks so far suggests subtle differences between the two. They mask fundamental issues that have emerged in the aftermath of the attacks.

For starters, Mr. Pompeo and President Donald J. Trump have explicitly pointed the finger at Iran as being directly responsible, while Saudi Arabia stopped short of blaming the Islamic republic, saying that its preliminary findings show that Iranian weapons were used in the attack. Iran has denied any involvement.

The discrepancy in the initial apportioning of blame raises the question whether Saudi Arabia is seeking to avoid being manoeuvred into a situation in which it would be forced to take the lead in retaliating against the Islamic republic with strikes against targets in Iran rather than Yemen.

Political scientist Austin Carson suggests that Saudi Arabia may have an interest in at least partially playing along with Iranian insistence that it was not responsible. “Allowing Iran’s role to remain ambiguous could reduce Saudi leaders’ need to appear strong… The Saudis are reportedly unconvinced by shared US intelligence that attempts to link the attacks to Iran’s territory. Some experts suggest this may reflect a more cautious approach to escalation,” Mr. Carson wrote in The Washington Post.

Saudi Arabia’s initial reluctance to unambiguously blame Iran may have a lot to do with Mr. Trump’s America First-driven response to the attacks that appeared to contradict the Carter Doctrine proclaimed in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter.

The doctrine, a cornerstone of the Saudi-US relationship, stated that the United States would use military force, if necessary, to defend its national interests in the Gulf.

Mr. Trump’s apparent weakening of the United States’ commitment to the defense of the kingdom, encapsuled in the doctrine, risks fundamentally altering the relationship, already troubled by Saudi conduct of the more than four-year long war in Yemen and last year’s killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Signalling a break with the Carter doctrine, Mr. Trump was quick to point out that the attacks were on Saudi Arabia, not on the United States, and suggested that it was for the Saudis to respond.

“I haven’t promised Saudis that. We have to sit down with the Saudis and work something out. That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us. But we would certainly help them,” Mr. Trump said without identifying what kind of support the US would be willing to provide.

Despite blustering that the United States was “locked and loaded,” Mr. Trump insisted that “we have a lot of options but I’m not looking at options right now.”

Mr. Trump’s response to a tweet by US Senator Lindsey Graham, a friend of the president who favours a US military strike against Iran, that “the measured response by President @realDonaldTrump…was clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness” was equally telling.

No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand.” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Trump further called into question the nature of the US-Saudi defense relationship by declaring that “If we decide to do something, they’ll be very much involved, and that includes payment. And they understand that fully.”

The Saudi foreign ministry maintained, with the attacks casting doubt on the Saudi military’s ability to defend the kingdom’s oil assets and Mr. Trump seemingly putting the onus of a response on Saudi Arabia, that “the kingdom is capable of defending its land and people and responding forcefully to those attacks.”  

Only indisputable evidence that the drones were launched from Iranian territory would incontrovertibly point the finger at Iran.

So far, the Saudis have stopped short of that while US officials have suggested that the drones were launched either from Iran or by pro-Iranian militias in southern Iraq.

Holding Iran responsible for the actions of a militia, whether in Iraq or Yemen, could prove more tricky given long-standing questions about the degree of control that Iran has over various groups that it supports, and particularly regarding the Houthis.

The argument could turn out to be a slippery slope given that by the same logic, the United States would be responsible for massive human casualties in the Yemen war resulting from Saudi use of American weaponry.

Military retaliation may not be immediate even if the United States and Saudi Arabia can produce convincing evidence that Iran was directly responsible.

No knee jerk reactions to this – it’s very systematic – what happens with patience is it prevents stupid moves,” a US official said.

The United States is likely to attempt to first leverage that evidence in meetings on the sidelines of next week’s United Nations General Assembly to convince the international community, and particularly the Europeans, to drop opposition to last year’s US withdrawal from the international nuclear accord with Iran and the harsh economic sanctions that the Trump administration has since imposed on Iran.

Both the United States and Saudi Arabia will also want to use the opportunity of the UN gathering to try to ensure that the fallout of any military response is limited and does not escalate into a full-fledged war that could change the geopolitical map of the Middle East.

Said foreign policy analyst Steven A. Cook: “How the Trump administration responds will indicate whether U.S. elites still consider energy resources a core national interest and whether the United States truly is on its way out of the Middle East entirely, as so many in the region suspect.”

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Middle East

Growing Tensions on the Road to Persian Gulf Security

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The 14 September 2019 drone attacks on oil installations in eastern Saudi Arabia have dimmed hope for U.S. – Iranian discussions aimed to reduce tensions and potentially end the armed conflict in Yemen.  Tensions have increased, and oil prices have risen. Certain hopes created by the initiatives of the French President during the G7 meeting in Biarritz, France and the forced departure of John Bolton as U.S. National Security Advisor have lessened.  In fact, the aim of the attacks may have been to lessen the possibility of Iran – U.S. discussions which might have taken place during the start of the U.N. General Assembly in New York later in September.

There is a good deal of speculation as to who fired the drones and from where.  The Ansar Allah Movement (often called the Houthis) has taken credit, but some specialists doubt that they have  the technical knowhow to send drones from Yemen to the targets in Saudi Arabia.  Some speculate that the drones were sent from southern Iraq, possibly by Iranian-backed militias such as the Popular Mobilization Forces or by units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards stationed in Iraq.  The Revolutionary Guards are nearly “a state within the state” and could take initiatives without orders from the Iranian President or the Foreign Minister.  The Revolutionary Guards could have motivations to prevent fruitful U.S. – Iranian talks at the U.N.  There is also speculation that the drone attacks could be linked to increased tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates concerning the future of south Yemen where the two countries support different factions.

Whatever the locations from which the drones were launched and whomever pulled the switch, the consequences are clear.  At a time when governments were speaking of a possible path to reduce tensions a “No Exit” sign has been put up near the start of the road.  The road leads to ever-greater tensions which may slip out of the control of governments.  Thus, in addition to the French proposal at the G7, there was an earlier Russian government proposal.

On 23 July 2019, the Russian Government’s “Collective Security for the Persian Gulf Region” was presented in Moscow by the Deputy Foreign Minister, Mikhail Bogdanov.  The Russian proposal for Collective Security for the Persian Gulf follows closely the procedures which led to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and the creation of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.  Bogdanov stressed multilateral ism as a mechanism for all involved in the assessment of situations, the decision-making process, and  the implementation of decisions.

It is not clear how the Russian proposal for a Helsinki-type conference will progress.  Russia does not play a leading role in the Middle East today as the USSR did in Europe in the 1970s.  In the lead up to the Helsinki Accords of 1975, non-governmental organizations had played an active role in informal East-West discussions to see what issues were open to negotiations and on what issues progress might be made.  There is a need for such non-governmental efforts today as the Persian Gulf and the wider Middle East are growing ever-more tense.

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Algeria’s political impasse: What is next?

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Seven months after a wave of protests began in Algeria; people are still pilling onto the streets of the Algerian capital “Algiers” and other cities nationwide every Friday, reiterating their main demands: the departure of the regime and its symbols and the application of Articles 7 and 8 of the Constitution stating that the constituent power belongs to the people.

The demonstrations have gained a familiar rhythm and worldwide admiration since tens of thousands of Algerians first took, peacefully, to the streets on 22 February. Thousands of students turn out on Tuesdays and there are larger protests each Friday revolting against former opaque group of power-brokers that have run the country for decades.
After weeks of mass demonstrations, President of the Republic Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down, ceding power after 20 years of rule and abandoning his re-election bid. The protesters pressured the authorities, again, to cancel presidential elections originally scheduled for April.
Despite the postponement of the election, the public anger continued to mount. Thus, Army chief Gaid Salah emerged as the key powerbroker positioning himself in favor of El Hirak “Popular movement”. He publicly disavowed the former leader and called for his impeachment, winning legitimacy in the streets.

Purging Corruption

Gaid Salah responded favorably to protesters’ demands, launching a sweeping anti-graft campaign targeting high-ranked officials that have served the Bouteflika government as well as influential tycoons and businessman.

Two Prime Ministers, namely; Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal, the deposed President’s brother Said Bouteflika, tens of ministers, leading industrialists, tycoons, key businessmen, Governors,  and two former Intelligence chiefs, have been remanded in custody for accusations ranging from money laundering, embezzlement, misuse of public money to using officials posts to influence industrial and commercial contracts and granting undue privileges, affiliation to suspicious parties that plot to destabilize the country, plotting against the army, and instigating the opposition to call for a transitional phase before holding any election.

Bouteflika’s resignation puts Abdelkader Bensalah, Speaker of the upper house of parliament, in charge as caretaker Head of State for 90 days until elections are held. However, elections (scheduled for July 4th) have been postponed for a second time and protesters are demanding his departure.

For his part, Bensalah, and in a bid to calm them, set a Panel of Dialogue and Mediation, composed of political actors, the civil society, the representatives of the trade union organizations and many citizens, with the aim to mediate between public authorities and people  and hold a “serious and responsible” dialogue to reach a national consensus which would help resolve the political crisis in Algeria, through the organization of a fair and transparent presidential election, as soon as possible.”

However, the Panel itself is facing rejection by protesters who are taking into the streets denouncing its formation, saying it does not represent them along other claims, such as the departure of Bensalah, a former head of the upper house of parliament, and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, who are regarded by them as part of the old guard.

Despite all these arrangements, Algeria is still at an impasse, with two camps facing each other in seemingly irreconcilable positions.

To resolve this stalemate, Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, Deputy Minister of  National Defence, Chief of Staff of the People’s National Army (ANP), launched, last week, a call, saying that it would be “appropriate” to convene the electorate on the 15th of September, and that the elections could be held within the deadlines set by law.

In my previous speech, “I have spoken about the priority to seriously launch the preparation of the presidential elections within the coming weeks, and today, based on our missions, prerogatives and our compliance with the Constitution and the laws of the Republic as well, I confirm that we regard as appropriate to summon the Electorate on September 15th and the elections can be held within the deadlines provided for by the law. Reasonable and acceptable deadlines which respond to the insistent demand of the people,” said Lieutenant General.

Theoretically, if the head of state, Abdelkader Bensalah, summons the electorate on September 15, 2019, as desired by the head of the army, the presidential election should take place before the end of the current year (mid-December).  The Organic Law No. 12-01 2012 (Electoral Code) provides in article 25 that “Subject to the other provisions of this organic law, the electorate shall be convened by presidential decree within three (3) months preceding the date of the elections “.

As a response, Algerian street has expressed its rejection of elections in the current political conditions. According to demonstrators, no election should take place as long as Bouteflika-era officials remain in positions of power.

For their parts, the opposition parties and civil society groups have also demanded the resignation of the government which constitutes “a popular demand”, voicing rejection of the holding of the elections.

The people are determined to pursue the hirak until the establishment of a state of institutions, widening gap between them and the power constrained, for lack of serious candidates, to cancel the vote twice.

According to observers, these presidential elections are unachievable for the moment because the approach advocated by Ahmed Gaid Salah ” requires the revision of some texts of the electoral law to adapt to the requirements of the current situation, and not a total and profound revision that would affect all texts, as claimed by the demonstrators. The partial amendment means the holding of elections basing on the same mode of organization. This is likely to trigger the street again as the popular movement with its magnitude unparalleled in the contemporary history of the country will, likely, sabotage the preparations for this election. The political climate also does not allow the organization of such an election with the absence of total trust between voters and the political class.

However, it is imperative to go quickly to a presidential election provided that it is transparent, where the mediation initiatives of the Panel or other organizations, can lead to a consensual platform far from the occult practices of the past which saw the majority of the population sulking the ballot boxes, reflecting the state-citizen divorce, noting that an independent election monitoring commission and the departure of the Bedoui government are two prerequisites for a transparent presidential election.

This necessarily implies the cleaning up of the electoral file, the creation of an independent election supervision body where neither the executive (the government – especially the Ministry of the Interior and the Walis) nor the deputies/senators and representatives of the current APCs denounced by Al Hirak, will be stakeholders. 

Only a democratically elected legitimate president, elected on the basis of a transparent agenda, pledging to include the legitimate demands of Al Hirak including a new balance of power and the moralization of management (fight against corruption and embezzlement), can amend the constitution and carry out the profound political and economic reforms to bring Algeria to the new world and make it an emerging country: a pivotal country regionally and internationally.

Economically, it is imperative to quickly resolve the political crisis before the end of 2019 or at most the first quarter of 2020, to avoid towards a cessation of payments at the end of 2021 and beginning of 2022, and prevent Algeria the depletion of its foreign exchange reserves which would culminated in the economic, social, political insecurity.

From our partner Tehran Times

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