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The military agreement between Syria and Iran

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On July 8 last, Iranian Chief-of-Staff Mohammad Baqeri and Syrian Defence Minister Ali Abdullah Ayub signed an agreement in Damascus – defined as “comprehensive” – to strengthen military cooperation between the two countries.

As they both said, this agreement strengthens military cooperation between Iran and Syria, especially in relation to the expected increase in U.S. pressure on the region. Furthermore, Iran will strengthen the Syrian air defence systems, in particular, as well as improve the training of troops and the armament currently available to the Syrian military.

 On July 1, Erdogan, Putin and Hassan Rouhani had met – by videoconference – within the so-called “Astana format” to regulate their relations within Syrian territory and to plan a future peace treaty with Syria, with the exclusion of the United States and other Western countries.

 Meanwhile, the Israeli Prime Minister has said: “We will not allow Iran to establish military presence in Syria”. It is an entirely natural choice, but we donot believe that – in a perspective of limited military confrontation between Israel and Iran – the United States would provide more than symbolic help to the Jewish State.

 An important strategic fact is that this new agreement pushes the traditional relationship between Syria and Russia aside, both defensively and technologically and politically.

 Russia has already made its Pantsir and S-300 missiles operational on Syrian territory, but rumours are rife within the Syrian Armed Forces that these weapon systems have not deliberately been able to hit Israeli weapons and air raids in Jerusalem.

 The issue is clear: Russia does not activate its S-300 missiles because it has no intention of hitting the Jewish State. Obviously, however, this is certainly not in the plans of Syria, which regards the air threat from Israel as an existential danger for the Syrian State. Iran’s role will be to hit Israel from Syrian territory or to penetrate the Israeli region with its own special forces.

 Certainly the sign of partial disengagement by Assad’ Syria from the Russian Federation is significant, although it does not appear to be decisive, considering that both Russia and Iran keep on supporting Syria.

Nevertheless, it is an attempt at strategic “substitution” that could have long-term effects.

 Furthermore, some Russian analysts note that -also in the hot phases of the war between Assad and the West-supported “rebels” -the presence of the Iranian troops was scarce, while many Shiite volunteers from various areas, Pasdaran and many military advisors were sent from Iran to Syria.

 The Iranian presence in the Syrian war has never been massive but, certainly, it is still very important.

 Iran, in particular, has funded and trained the pro-Assad armed groups, but currently the Syrian President needs to stop – certainly without Russian qualms – the Israeli air attacks, which often hit areas where also the Iranian military operate.

Certainly the Israeli operations in Syria have also caused significant damage to Iran’s nuclear networks and systems.

 A fire in Natanz, at the beginning of July, as well as the explosion west of Tehran a few days ago, and the further explosions in Garmdareh and Qods. On June 26, 2020, there was a fire in a missile factory in Khojr, and another one in Shiraz, in addition to the explosion in a medical clinic on June 30, with 19 victims, as well as a great fire on July 3, again in Shiraz, and finally a fire and an explosion in Ahwaz.

 Such a rational and well-scheduled sequence shows that these incidents, often trivialized by the Iranian government and its propaganda, are anything but random.

 Obviously, however, they are important sites for the Iranian nuclear project: for example, the explosion of July 1 hit the Iran Centrifuge Assembly Centre (ICAC) in the Natanz area.

However, all the Iranian nuclear experts and technicians, also those within the Tehran project, assume a delay in the implementation of the entire project by at least one or two years.

Nevertheless, let us see the dates and strategic significance of Iran’s nuclear power: in May 2019 Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran would unilaterally but progressively withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)signed by Iran in 2015 together with the P5+1, i.e. the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and the European Union.

It should be recalled that the United States had walked out of the JCPOA a year earlier, in May 2018.

 The “maximum possible pressure”, i.e. the maximum tightening of sanctions, announced by the United States at the time of its withdrawal from the Vienna Agreement, led to some demonstrations in November, harshly repressed by the Iranian regime, which left as many as 180 dead on the ground.

It is likely, however, that by permanently and systematically breaking the Vienna Agreement of 2015, Iran wants to show signs not of constructing the nuclear bomb, but rather of putting pressure on the international community to lift sanctions.

Butter first, then guns – just to quote an old joke.

 Where could Iran launch its nuclear bomb? On Israel, which it certainly wants to “erase from the map”, but with the very serious danger of a nuclear counter-operation by Israel against the most important economic and military sites and the most populous Iranian cities?

 On Iraq, which has already a Shiite majority, currently well controlled by the Iranian Intelligence Services?

 Or on Saudi Arabia? Every abstractly possible choice has many more side effects than positive and rational evaluations. But Iranian decision-makers are not fools or minus habens.

If, however, Iran reduces its JCPOA compliance every two months – as it seems to do today – it will have as many as three opportunities, from now until the next U.S. elections in November, to “harden” its nuclear system.

This will certainly have a significant effect on the U.S. political and electoral debate. This, too, will be a well-organized effect, rationally chosen by the Ayatollahs.

 Obviously, President Trump shall strengthen the U.S. military system in the Middle East and this will certainly displease a large part of his voters. Iran will implement its basically non-conventional (but not yet nuclear) strategy, which will consist of attacks on tankers in the Straits of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf; of “heavy” operations by the Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq; of a probable operation in the Shiite area of Afghanistan, capable of shattering the very tenuous agreement between the United States and the Taliban of February, 2020; of a strengthening of the presence of the Houthi Shiite “rebels” or, finally, of another probable Iranian operation in the Lebanon and, precisely, this agreement between Iran and Syria.

Iran’s initial criterion is that of “strategic patience”.

This in no way implies the exclusion of nuclear armament, but concerns the use of its conventional forces, while nuclear weapons will be launched on the aggressor or on Israel, only in case of an extreme existential danger for the State.

 On the other hand, the Iranian “strategic patience” has a further purpose: to separate the EU from the United States and create an economic corridor between Iran and some European countries.

So far the EU has not shown to be able to react autonomously to the U.S. policy towards Iran: two years have elapsed and hence, with the aforementioned speech, Rouhani has adopted a “tougher” strategy.

Therefore, the Iranian President has announced that Iran will continue to move away from the JCPOA provisions until the other signatories to the 2015 Vienna Agreement ensure Iran free access to the world financial system and the free sale of Iranian oil.

 In other words, any “hardening” of the Ayatollah regime on the nuclear issue will be followed by a possible ad hoc opening by Iran to European markets.

 If the EU agrees on this project, from then on Iran will stop its withdrawal from the JCPOA, otherwise its leaving the Vienna Agreement will continue at the usual pace.

So far, however, the United States has further strengthened its system of sanctions, while the EU has threatened to initiate the JCPOA dispute settlement system.

 Iran’s final walking out of the Vienna Agreement has therefore materialized again, but both the United States and the EU – which has the same foreign policy as an ant nest – should realize that the non-nuclear and nuclear threat from Iran is terribly serious and could negatively affect the primary interests of both Western regions.

There is above all the blackmail to Israel, which is also terribly serious, even if Iran were to imagine a “Samson-style” nuclear strategy, i.e. its elimination together with the enemy.

Moreover, the Jewish State rightly considers the EU a den of anti-Semites that does no foreign policy (by now, not even its Member States), while the United States conceives and develops its foreign policy, be it good or bad, only for the time horizon of a mid-term election.

 Israel instead has a very stable military and strategic policy, but it inevitably needs equally stable allies.

 It is no coincidence, in fact, that over the last two months Iran has strengthened not only the project for leaving the JCPOA, but also its various conventional military operations or those of its proxies in the Greater Middle East: just think about the capture of the British oil tanker about a year ago, as well as the two tankers seized – probably by the Pasdaran – in the Gulf of Oman in June 2019, and the many similar operations carried out by the Navy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Iran’s idea is to make Europeans feel above all the “weight” of being in agreement with the United States as to the sanctions against Iran, as well as hit the supply lines of the European countries – coincidentally of the closest ones to the United States’ positions, such as Great Britain – to make them understand that Iran can significantly harm them without resorting to a conventional or nuclear war.

 The Iranian decision-makers ’”policy line” is basically still the one established by Ayatollah Khamenei, shortly after the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, which defines two basic criteria: Iran will continue to implement the Vienna Agreement, although at a very slower pace, but – on the other hand – Iran is ready for a possible definitive withdrawal from the JCPOA.

 This is exactly the best definition of “strategic patience”.

Moreover, President Trump’ strategic position is non-existent: what will the United States do if Iran leaves the JCPOA definitively? Will it impose other sanctions in addition to the current ones? It is even hard to imagine them.

What would the EU do in the event of a crisis – even only conventional–stopping the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf?

What would be the possibilities of serious and effective political pressure on Iran to stop its conventional operations, which could safely reach even the Eastern Mediterranean region?

 As to Iran’s “bimonthly” breaking of the JCPOA, the Iranian leaders have exceeded the limit set by the Vienna Agreement on the production of heavy water. They have also removed all limits to research for centrifuges – in fact, those destroyed in Natanz were of the latest model -and they have finally started again to enrich uranium at the Fordow facility. Indeed, everything seems to have been put in place by Iran to calibrate – slowly but surely –  the pressure on the United States and on the inept EU leaders, while it should also be recalled that, due to its geological characteristics, the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant is very hard to wipe out with a targeted attack.

 What are the Iranian strategic prospects during the progressive restriction of the JCPOA’s validity? Missile attacks on Saudi Arabian territory, as has already happened?

 If the United States were to lift sanctions, Iran would demonstrate it can defeat the “great Satan” and Iran’s demands, especially to the EU, would increase. They would concern relations between the United States and Israel.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Beyond the friendship diplomacy between Morocco and Mauritania

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Over the past decade or so, many politicians and diplomats have held that the most significant bilateral relationship has been between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. That remains true today, and it will be likely the case for long- term partnership to come, even as the sort of that relationship changes over time. Due to, diplomatic rapprochement between them and bilateral cooperation on several levels, Mauritania, tends formally to withdraw its full recognition of the Polisario Front “SADR” before the term of the current president, Mohamed Ould Al-Ghazwani, ends.

Yet, the truth is that Mauritania has unalterably shifted from the previous engagement with Morocco to the recent conflict with it on nearly all the key fronts: geopolitics, trade, borders security, finance, and even the view on domestic governance. To that extent, Mauritania was the most affected by the Polisario Front militia’s violation to close the Guerguerat border crossing and prevent food supplies from reaching their domestic markets. This crisis frustrated Mauritanian people and politicians who demanded to take firm stances towards the separatists.

In the context of the fascinating development in relations between Rabat and Nouakchott, the Mauritanian government stated that President Ould Ghazwani is heading to take a remarkable decision based on derecognized the so-called Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and Polisario Front as its sole representative and follow up the recent UN peace process through the case of Western Sahara conflict under UN Security Council resolutions.

Similarly, the United States announced that “Moroccan (Western) Sahara is an integral part of The Kingdom–a traditional Ally, and it supports the Moroccan government’s constitutional procedures to maintain Moroccan Southern provinces strong and united.” It was rapidly followed by all major countries of African, and the Arab Middle East also extended their supports to the government in Rabat. What a determined move against the Polisario Front separatism in a sovereign state!

During the Western Sahara dispute, the Moroccan Sahrawi was humiliated to the end by Polisario Front: it not only lost their identity but also resulted in the several ethnics’ claim for “independence” in the border regions within. currently, Morocco is the only regional power in North Africa that has been challenged in terms of national unity and territorial integrity. The issues cover regional terrorism, political separatism, and fundamental radicalism from various radical ethnic groups. Although the population of the “Polisario groups” is irrelevant because of Morocco’s total population, the territorial space of the ethnic minorities across the country is broadly huge and prosperous in natural resources. besides, the regions are strategically important.

In foreign affairs doctrine, the certainty of countries interacting closely, neighboring states and Algeria, in particular, have always employed the issue of the Western Sahara dispute in the Southern Region of Morocco as the power to criticize and even undermine against Morocco in the name of discredit Sahrawi rights, ethnic discrimination, social injustice, and natural resources exploitation. therefore, local radical Sahrawi groups have occasionally resisted Morocco’s authority over them in a vicious or nonviolent way. Their resistance in jeopardy national security on strategic borders of the Kingdom, at many times, becoming an international issue.

A Mauritanian media stated, that “all the presidential governments that followed the former President Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidala, a loyal and supporter to the Polisario Front, were not at all satisfied with the recognition of the SADR creation due to its fear that it would cause reactions from Algeria. however, Mauritania today is not the state of 1978, it has become a well-built country at the regional level, and the position of its military defense has been enhanced at the phase of the continent’s armies after it was categorized as a conventional military power.”

This is what Mauritania has expected the outcome. Although neighboring Mauritania has weeded out the pressures of the Algerian regime, which stood in the way of rapprochement with the Kingdom of Morocco, and the Mauritanian acknowledged that Nouakchott today is “ready to take the historic decision that seeks its geopolitical interests and maintain strategic stability and security of the entire region, away from the external interactions.” Hence, The Mauritanian decision, according to the national media, will adjust its neutral position through the Moroccan (Western) Sahara issue; Because previously was not clear in its political arrangement according to the international or even regional community.

Given the Moroccan domestic opinion, there is still optimistic hope about long-term collaboration on the transformation between Morocco and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, even considering some temporary difficulties between the two in the Western Sahara conflict. For example, prior Mauritania has recognized the Polisario since the 1980s, but this recognition did not turn into an embassy or permanent diplomatic sign of the separatist entity in Mauritania, the Kingdom has a long-standing relationship with Mauritania and the recent regional politics would not harm that, because it’s a political circumstance.

Despite the strain exerted by the Polisario Front and Algeria on Mauritania, and intending to set impediments that avoid strategic development of its relations with Rabat, the Mauritanian-Moroccan interactions have seen an increased economic development for nearly two years, which end up with a phone call asked King Mohammed VI to embark on an official visit to Mauritania as President Ould Ghazwani requested.

For decades, the kingdom of Morocco has deemed a united, stable, and prosperous Maghreb region beneficial to itself and Northern Africa since it is Kingdom’s consistent and open stance and strategic judgment. Accordingly, Morocco would continue supporting North Africa’s unity and development. On the one hand, Morocco and Mauritania are not only being impacted by the pandemic, but also facing perils and challenges such as unilateralism, and protectionism. On the other hand, Rabat opines that the two neighboring states and major forces of the world necessarily established their resolve to strengthen communication and cooperation with each other. To that end, both states would make efforts to set up long-term strategic consensus including mutual trust, reciprocal understandings, and respect to the United Nations and the current international system based on multilateralism.

In sum, both Morocco and Mauritania are sovereign states with a strong desire to be well-built and sophisticated powers. Previous successes and experiences in solving territorial disputes and other issues have given them confidence, which motivated both countries to join hands in the struggles for national independence, equality, and prosperity. In sense of the world politics, two states promise to advance the great cause of reorganization and renovation and learn from each other’s experience in state power and party administration.

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Getting Away With Murder: The New U.S. Intelligence Report on the Khashoggi Affair

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It was October 2, 2018 when a man walked into the Saudi Arabian consulate to collect some documents he needed for his impending marriage.  He had been there earlier on September 28, and had been told to allow a few days for them to prepare the needed proof of divorce from an earlier marriage.

So there he was.  His Turkish fiancée had accompanied him and he asked her to wait outside as it would only take a minute or two.  She waited and waited and… waited.  Jamal Khashoggi never came out.

What went on inside is a matter of dispute but US intelligence prepared a report which should have been released but was illegally blocked by the Trump administration.  Mr. Trump is no doubt grateful for the help he has had over two decades from various Saudi royals in addition to the business thrown his way at his various properties.  “I love the Saudis,” says Donald Trump and he had kept the report under wraps.  It has now been released by the new Biden administration.      

All the same, grisly details of the killing including dismemberment soon emerged because in this tragic episode, with an element of farce, it was soon evident that the Turks had bugged the consulate.  There is speculation as to how the perpetrators dispersed of the corpse but they themselves have been identified.  Turkish officials also claim to know that they acted on orders from the highest levels of the Saudi government.  They arrived on a private jet and left just as abruptly.

The egregious killing led to the UN appointing a Special Rapporteur, Agnes Callamard.  She concluded it to be an “extra-judicial killing for which the state of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible.”  She added, there was “credible evidence”  implicating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other senior officials.  

Now the US report.  Intelligence agencies conclude Jamal Khashoggi was killed by a Saudi hit squad under the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.  They add that the latter has had unitary control over Saudi security and intelligence organizations and thus it was “highly unlikely” an operation of this nature would have been possible without Prince Mohammed’s authorization.

Mr. Biden’s reaction is plain.  Although the Crown Prince is the de facto ruler with his father the King’s acquiescence, Mr. Biden has not talked to him.  He called the king and emphasized the importance placed on human rights and the rule of law in the US.

President Biden is also re-evaluating US arms sales to the Kingdom with a view to limiting them to defensive weapons — a difficult task as many can be used for both, a fighter-bomber for example.

There are also calls for sanctions against the Crown Prince directly but Biden has ruled that out.  Saudi Arabia is after all the strongest ally of the US in the region, and no president wants to jeopardize that relationship.  Moreover, the US has done the same sort of thing often enough; the last prominent assassination being that of the senior Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani,  by the Trump administration.  

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US intelligence report leaves Saudi Arabia with no good geopolitical choices

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The Biden administration’s publication of a US intelligence report that holds Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi creates a fundamental challenge to the kingdom’s geopolitical ambitions.

The challenge lies in whether and how Saudi Arabia will seek to further diversify its alliances with other world powers in response to the report and US human rights pressure.

Saudi and United Arab Emirates options are limited by that fact that they cannot fully replace the United States as a mainstay of their defence as well as their quest for regional hegemony, even if the report revives perceptions of the US as unreliable and at odds with their policies.

As Saudi King Salman and Prince Mohammed contemplate their options, including strengthening relations with external players such as China and Russia, they may find that reliance on these forces could prove riskier than the pitfalls of the kingdom’s ties with the United States.

Core to Saudi as well as UAE considerations is likely to be the shaping of the ultimate balance of power between the kingdom and Iran in a swath of land stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to Central Asia’s border with China.

US officials privately suggest that regional jockeying in an environment in which world power is being rebalanced to create a new world order was the key driver of Saudi and UAE as well as Israeli opposition from day one to the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran that the United States together with Europe, China, and Russia negotiated. That remains the driver of criticism of US President Joe Biden’s efforts to revive the agreement.

“If forced to choose, Riyadh preferred an isolated Iran with a nuclear bomb to an internationally accepted Iran unarmed with the weapons of doom,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and founder of the National Iranian American Council. Mr. Parsi was summing up Saudi and Emirati attitudes based on interviews with officials involved in the negotiations at a time that Mr. Biden was vice-president.

As a result, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel appear to remain determined to either foil a return of the United States to the accord, from which Mr. Biden’s predecessor, Donald J. Trump, withdrew, or ensure that it imposes conditions on Iran that would severely undermine its claim to regional hegemony.

In the ultimate analysis, the Gulf states and Israel share US objectives that include not only restricting Iran’s nuclear capabilities but also limiting its ballistic missiles program and ending support for non-state actors like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, and Yemen’s Houthis. The Middle Eastern states differ with the Biden administration on how to achieve those objectives and the sequencing of their pursuit.

Even so, the Gulf states are likely to realize as Saudi Arabia contemplates its next steps what Israel already knows: China and Russia’s commitment to the defence of Saudi Arabia or Israel are unlikely to match that of the United States given that they view an Iran unfettered by sanctions and international isolation as strategic in ways that only Turkey rather than other Middle Eastern states can match.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE will also have to recognize that they can attempt to influence US policies with the help of Israel’s powerful Washington lobby and influential US lobbying and public relations companies in ways that they are not able to do in autocratic China or authoritarian Russia.

No doubt, China and Russia will seek to exploit opportunities created by the United States’ recalibration of its relations with Saudi Arabia with arms sales as well as increased trade and investment.

But that will not alter the two countries’ long-term view of Iran as a country, albeit problematic, with attributes that the Gulf states cannot match even if it is momentarily in economic and political disrepair.

Those attributes include Iran’s geography as a gateway at the crossroads of Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe; ethnic, cultural, and religious ties with Central Asia and the Middle East as a result of history and empire; a deep-seated identity rooted in empire; some of the world’s foremost oil and gas reserves; a large, highly educated population of 83 million that constitutes a huge domestic market; a fundamentally diversified economy; and a battle-hardened military.

Iran also shares Chinese and Russian ambitions to contain US influence even if its aspirations at times clash with those of China and Russia.

“China’s BRI will on paper finance additional transit options for the transfer of goods from ports in southern to northern Iran and beyond to Turkey, Russia, or Europe. China has a number of transit options available to it, but Iranian territory is difficult to avoid for any south-north or east-west links,” said Iran scholar Alex Vatanka referring to Beijing’s infrastructure, transportation and energy-driven Belt and Road Initiative.

Compared to an unfettered Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE primarily offer geography related to some of the most strategic waterways through which much of the world’s oil and gas flows as well their positioning opposite the Horn of Africa and their energy reserves.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s position as a religious leader in the Muslim world built on its custodianship of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, potentially could be challenged as the kingdom competes for leadership with other Middle Eastern and Asian Muslim-majority states.

On the principle of better the enemy that you know than the devil that you don’t, Saudi leaders may find that they are, in the best of scenarios, in response to changing US policies able to rattle cages by reaching out to China and Russia in ways that they have not until now, but that at the end of the day they are deprived of good choices.

That conclusion may be reinforced by the realization that the United States has signalled by not sanctioning Prince Mohammed that it does not wish to cut its umbilical cord with the kingdom. That message was also contained in the Biden administration’s earlier decision to halt the sale of weapons that Saudi Arabia could you for offensive operations in Yemen but not arms that it needs to defend its territory from external attack.

At the bottom line, Saudi Arabia’s best option to counter an Iran that poses a threat to the kingdom’s ambitions irrespective of whatever regime is in power would be to work with its allies to develop the kind of economic and social policies as well as governance that would enable it to capitalize on its assets to effectively compete. Containment of Iran is a short-term tactic that eventually will run its course.

Warned former British diplomat and Royal Dutch Shell executive Ian McCredie: “When the Ottoman Empire was dismantled in 1922, it created a vacuum which a series of powers have attempted to fill ever since. None has succeeded, and the result has been a century of wars, coups, and instability. Iran ruled all these lands before the Arab and Ottoman conquests. It could do so again.”

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