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Trump and Erdogan “mend fences” again

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Presidents of the United States and Turkey Donald Trump and Recep Erdogan met for bilateral talks in Washington on November 13th . In the course of what Donald Trump described as “lengthy and productive” negotiations and during a series of one-on-one and enlarged meetings, the Turkish leader announced his country’s  determination to start a new chapter in relations with the United States, which has long been Turkey’s close partner, he said. In turn, President Trump made it clear that he is a genuine supporter of the Turkish leader, who does so many good things for his country and for his people. Both presidents assured each other of their commitment to “Atlantic solidarity” and reprimanded French President Emmanuel Macron for doubting it.

The participants in the talks made no concrete statements at the closing press conference.

Undoubtedly, the meeting meant a lot for both parties. Amid the current anti-Turkish sentiments that prevail across a wide spectrum of the political establishment and that dominate an equally large part of public opinion, Trump, who could well be facing impeachment shortly, should find continuation of the policy of “pacifying” Turkey an exceptionally risky game. As for Erdogan, many Turkish experts believe that given Ankara’s not very successful Syrian policy, a failure of the negotiations would create an extremely unpleasant situation for Turkey, both geopolitically and economically. For the United States as well, the hypothetical “loss” of Turkey, with its unique strategic position and second largest army in NATO, could seriously damage its positions in the Middle East region, particularly, against the strengthening of the positions of Russia.

The two presidents met at a critical period for Turkish-American relations. Among the “stumbling blocks” that have accumulated over the years are the following: a resolution adopted by the US Congress that acknowledges the Armenian genocide of 1915 (the resolution was suspended by the Senate following the meeting), the purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense systems, Washington’s refusal to extradite to Ankara the preacher Fethullah Gulen, who was accused of plotting a military coup back home, the charges against Turkish Halkbank for breaching anti-Iranian sanctions, the suspended but not lifted sanctions for operations in Syria, which, according to US Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin, “are always on stand-by, ready to use”, and finally, a threat to track down and arrest foreign assets that belong to Erdogan and his family members.

Several days before setting out for his overseas trip President Erdogan said that during the negotiations with his American counterpart he was planning to focus on bilateral relations, including  “S-400 missiles, Patriot air defense systems and F-35 fighters,” as well as “regional issues”. And supposedly, he was also set on demonstrating to Moscow yet again that Ankara has room for maneuver outside the Astana format. Right before departure, Erdogan switched the emphasis from the above mentioned one to the struggle against terrorism, in other words, to the “Kurdish issue”: “Neither Russia nor the United States has kept their promises to Ankara concerning the withdrawal of terrorists from areas bordering Turkey. We will discuss this issue with Donald Trump. Upon my return, I will bring the matter up in a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin. ”[i]

Shortly afterwards, there appears an article in the Yeni Şafak newspaper that the Kurds, “having failed to get the desired revenues on the oil wells” they captured in Syria, have signed an agreement with the Israelis on the development of oil fields and the sale of oil. From Ankara’s point of view, this is a blatant “conspiracy” on the part of Turkey’s hardcore foes – the Kurdish militants and Israel, who both enjoy American patronage.

The final decision to go to Washington was made after a “very effective”, according to Trump, telephone conversation between the American and Turkish leaders (after the Congress passed a resolution on the 1915 genocide, Erdogan, at least in words, nearly changed his mind about flying to Washington). In the long run, his decision could not be shaken, even by a publication in the New York Times of unfriendly excerpts from working correspondence by William W. Roebuck,  assistant to Trump’s special representative for Syria James Jeffrey. According to the documents that the newspaper had got hold of, Roebuck blamed “Turkish-sponsored armed Islamist groups,” for nothing less than ethnic cleansing and military crimes in northern Syria. He described the Syrian democratic forces, which Ankara considers a terrorist organization “a strong and reliable ally.” [ii] All this comes in the wake of a statement made by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu that the recent military operation by Turkey no less than prevented the formation of a “terrorist state ” which Israel and some Arab countries allegedly put a stake on!

Finally, on the eve of the negotiations, The Washington Post, citing its sources, reported that the American president was offering the Turkish leader a $ 100 billion trade deal, on conditions favorable for Turkey, as well as a “shortcut” for handling the situation involving Russian missile systems. According to the newspaper, the United States is yet again trying to persuade Turkey not to put S-400s which had arrived from Russia, on combat duty, proposing in return to forget about sanctions and return Ankara to the F-35 production program (in which Turkey has invested heavily!). Well, the attempt to “buy” encased missiles is truly in the spirit of the American businessman president. It is unclear, however, what the partners will fill the 100 billion “wallet” with: at present, the volume of bilateral trade fluctuates around $ 20 billion.

Back to the negotiations. In a nutshell,  judging by the presidents’ press conference, they agreed to continue to work out an agreement on all points of the agenda. For example, commenting on Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400s, Trump said that Washington and Ankara will continue to work in this direction and that “this issue will be considered at foreign minister level.” “Only through dialogue,” – Erdogan confirmed. This means the bargaining goes on.

It looks like the presidents have not come to agreement on the Kurdish issue either. The Turkish president assured his counterpart that Turkey remains America’s most trustworthy partner in Syria, and this state of things should persist in the future. [iii] In other words, it can be assumed that he thereby wanted to say that Ankara is willing to replace the Syrian democratic forces as a major proponent of the American policy in the region. Of course, on condition of maintaining its top priorities: to block the Kurds from creating their own state and redirect the flow of hydrocarbon fuels that are supplied to Europe to pass through its territory.

In fact, having achieved next to nothing in Washington, Erdogan, nevertheless, has demonstrated to the rest of the world (and not in the last place, to his voters) that he is a full-fledged and unyielding partner of the United States. Presumably, he expects Moscow to appreciate it as well. No one can say for sure how long this game on how to boost the geopolitical weight of Turkey will last. But obviously, it will not go on forever, and this is what the Turkish authorities ought to be aware of. 

From our partner International Affairs

Americas

Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics

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The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.

Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.

These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.

The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.

“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.

To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.

Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.

In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.

Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.

To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting;  guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.

Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.

The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”

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Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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