On January 20, 2021 the newly elected US President Joseph Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. It looks like none of the previous 45 presidents had to deal with such a huge burden of problems inherited from the predecessor, both in domestic and foreign policies.
On his first day in office President Biden signed about 15 decrees that annul a number of resolutions by the ex-President Donald Trump.However, it is hardly possible to wipe out all of Trump’s provocatively empathizing decrees with just one go even if at such a high level. This requires scrupulous work. And it is this kind of work that is needed with regards to the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI).
Many political analysts, including those in America, believe that foreign policy will not top the agenda of the Biden administration. Nevertheless, he will have to tackle many issues which resulted from Trump’s policy beyond the bounds of the US. One of the most pressing ones is the Middle East, which abounds in hot spots.
What makes the issue of the Middle East special is that no matter where the newly elected president casts his reformist glance – on US-Arab and US-Israeli relations, on Palestinian-Israeli conflict, on the situation in Yemen and Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, Afghanistan and Kurdistan, in the Persian Gulf – everywhere he faces Iran. Tehran has spread its influence to nearly the whole of the Middle East.
The main thing is to reactivate JCPOA
Given the situation, the administration of Joe Biden, who repeatedly called for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian issue, is doomed to a dialogue with IRI. Here, the new president is destined to encounter a variety of “stumbling blocks” which, in the opinion of Washington, incorporate human rights in Iran, Iran’s policies in the region and worldwide, its missile program, and its nuclear project. However, no one doubts that the nuclear program is of primary importance and of global value. A solution to the Iranian nuclear program would both stabilize the nuclear non-proliferation regime and would pave the way if not for a complete and final settlement of the other Iran- and region – related issues, then to a comprehensive discussion and to the arrival at mutual understanding on the positions of the opponents, which will, undoubtedly, reduce the existing tension.
For today, a key point in addressing the Iranian nuclear issue is re-activation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in which both Tehran (the US sanctions are stifling the Iranian economy), and Washington (the political ideologeme of Democrat Joe Biden) are equally interested in. All this makes a promising signal to getting down to work.
As is known, the JCPOA was adopted by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, as well as by Germany, the European Union and Iran in July 2015, was approved by the UN Security Council. Its purpose is to contain the IRI’s nuclear program, and to intensify the IAEA’s control of it with a view to prevent the possibility of creating nuclear weapons in exchange for the lifting of financial, economic and trade sanctions, imposed earlier by the IRI opponents. JCPOA provisions remain valid 5-25 years.
Iran’s commitments under the JCPOA Treaty somewhat differed from those of the counteragents. IRI was required to carry out a complicated technical restructuring of its nuclear infrastructure, take a wide range of measures to reduce, and in some areas, to curtail research and development projects, and to change nuclear research programs. Even taking into account the participation and assistance of the Iranian counteragents on the JCPOA and the IAEA, this means extensive but necessary for the nuclear non-proliferation, work.
Meanwhile, the United States (in the first place) and the European Union vowed to lift all anti-Iranian sanctions, introduced in connection with the Iranian nuclear program.
The adoption of the JCPOA opened up new opportunities to settle the Iranian nuclear issue and create a precedent for resolving nuclear and other disputable issues that emerge worldwide using the experience and example of this treaty.
However, Donald Trump, who came to power in the US in January 2017, struck a deadly knockout blow at this reasonable nuclear agreement. On May 8, 2018 President Trump pulled the USA out of the JCPOA Treaty and slapped tough sanctions on the IRI. Tehran had to respond – on May 8, 2019 it launched a stage-by-stage process to stop implementing the requirements set by the nuclear deal.
JCPOA – collapse history and the present
USA. President Trump, on leaving the nuclear agreement, recalled American experts and scientists who under the Plan worked in Iran carrying out the restructuring of the IRI nuclear infrastructure, reformatting the nuclear facilities so as to make them unfit for being used to produce nuclear weapons. For instance, a working group consisting of representatives of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the Atomic Energy Agency of China and the US Energy Department was set up to work on the heavy water reactor IR-40 in Araks, with a capacity of producing up to 10 kg of weapons-grade plutonium a year, which is equivalent to the amount of fissionable material needed for about two-three nuclear warheads on the basis of plutonium. In 2017 the Americans left the facility. The same happened to the other US projects within the JCPOA. The US also stopped financing projects aimed at implementing the provisions of the nuclear agreement.
The Trump administration did not withdraw from the nuclear deal without pomp, pulling a PR trigger by bringing back the former sanctions and introducing the tougher ones (all in all, about 100 sanctions), and deliberately delaying the process of lifting anti-Iranian sanctions on the part of the EU.
European Union. Britain, France and Germany, as participants and co-authors of JCPOA, came up against President Trump’s policy on Iran. With the approval of Russia and China, European countries managed to work out, register and launch the Instrument for Supporting Trade Exchanges with Iran – INSTEX. Unfortunately, this Instrument proved ineffective under the pressure of US sanctions, which affected any legal and physical persons that had business ties with the IRI.
Moreover, Trump’s sanctions hit hard not only on the Iranian economy, but also on the reconstruction of Iranian nuclear facilities within the JCPOA. In May 2020 the United States annulled temporary exemptions from the earlier introduced regime of sanctions against the Iranian nuclear program. These exemptions made it possible for Tehran to obtain assistance from JCPOA signatories in acting on the Plan’s requirements to present guarantees of the peaceful nature of its nuclear program. They affected, in the first place, projects which were pursued (without Americans) by Russian, Chinese, European scientists and experts in compliance with the requirements of the JCPOA. This concerns operations on the Fordo works and on the Araks reactor.
European participants of the nuclear deal were unable to resist the American sanctions. By early 2021 the JCPOA de facto ceased to exist, under the attack of the US.
Russia and China. These countries – co-authors and active participants in negotiating, signing and implementing the JCPOA, which opposed any sanctions, – did their utmost to preserve the nuclear deal. That Iran has not de jure pulled out of it is to the credit of Moscow and Beijing.
Iran. Exactly a year after the US withdrawal from the JCPOA on May 8, 2019 Tehran announced a gradual pullout of its commitments under the nuclear deal. During this period Iranians returned their nuclear program to the 2015 level, and even exceeded this level on some points.
Iran breached the JCPOA (which was inevitable under the circumstances) practically on all points.
Tehran stopped the restructuring of the Fordo nuclear facility into a research center, so the plant will again become a uranium enrichment facility. The Natanz nuclear complex has expanded its capacity. The heavy water reactor in Araks is returning to its original state of a weapons-grade plutonium plant.
The number of active centrifuges is rising, as more and more cascades are formed of them. Being commissioned are the cutting-edge maximum efficiency centrifuges IR-2m, IR-4, IR-6.
Uranium enrichment level is rising from the permissible 3,67% to 4,1 and 20%.
The volume of enriched uranium reserves allowed under the agreement has increased 12 times. Heavy water reserves are on the rise as well.
The production of yellow cake (a uranium concentrate produced from uranium ore) which is used as a foundation for further enrichment, has increased eightfold.
IRI has launched preparations for the production of uranium metal, which can be used in nuclear reactors and weapons. It has to be explained that even weapons-grade uranium which is enriched in centrifuges to 90 % is not an explosive but a gas, which is not enough to produce an atomic bomb. To make it a weapon gaseous uranium needs to undergo a specific technological treatment which includes at least four or five stages. As a result, gas turns into a metal, which is used for making a nuclear warhead. Until recently, experts had doubts that Iran possesses the high technology and chemically pure substances to complete the process of transforming uranium from gas into metal. Now, it appears, that there are no more such doubts.
On December 1, 2020 Majlis ratified the “Strategic Plan for Counteracting Sanctions” as law. On December 2 the law received the approval of the Supervisory Council. This document stipulates activization and intensification of IRI’s nuclear research, sets the uranium production limit at 120kg of 20% uranium per year, provides for accumulating uranium reserves, for using at least 1000 IR-2m centrifuges in underground facilities of the Natanz center, and for transferring all enrichment, research and development operations with the use of IR-6 centrifuges to a nuclear plant in Fordo.
Speaking in Majlis on December 1, deputy Abolfazl Amoui said that the Plan is designed to unlock the ban on the Iranian nuclear program and achieve the goals set by the “nuclear martyr” Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was killed by terrorists suspected of ties with Israel.
On January 4 IRI announced the start of uranium enrichment to 20%. The next day they obtained the first results. Soon afterwards Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) representative Behrouz Kamalvandi announced that Iran had made so much progress in the nuclear area that “we can easily enrich uranium to any level, even higher than 40, 60 and 90”. Mr.Kamalvandi specified that “in accordance with the new law (The Strategic Plan for Counteracting Sanctions) the AEOI is allowed to enrich uranium to more than 20% if it is necessary for other industries”, adding that “we are contemplating other industries as well”.He did not specify, however, which industries he meant exactly. Could they be the military ones?
Iran’s view on the solution of the JCPOA problem
The law stipulates that within two months after its adoption (February 2021), the Iranian government is to suspend the regulating access of IAEA inspectors, in accordance with the nuclear deal, along with the Additional Protocol to the Agreement on IAEA Guarantees . Three months after the adoption of the law, if Iran’s banking operations in Europe and the volume of oil purchases from Iran do not return to a satisfactory level, the government will have to discontinue the voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol.
Majlis Deputy Ahmad Amirabadi pointed out on January 9 that if sanctions against IRI were not cancelled by February 21, particularly in banking, finance, and oil, “Iran will send IAEA experts out of the country and will surely discontinue the voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol…<…>. The new administration of the US will get down to work on January 21. We have given the Americans one month to cancel sanctions, otherwise IRI will defend the interests of its people”. Saying that the main purpose of the JCPOA was the lifting of sanctions, which did not happen, the deputy concluded: «We see no reasons for acting on our commitments until sanctions are lifted».
The above mentioned deputy Abolfazl Amoui confirmed on January 8: «Iran’s major goal in JCPOA is the cancellation of sanctions».
Speaking on television the same day, Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei said that the parliamentary decision (The Strategic Plan for Counteracting Sanctions), and the government’s measures to cut down on the commitments under the JCPOA are the right thing to do and are fully rational: «The Islamic Republic has been acting on its commitments, but in a situation when the other party is not acting on their commitments, we find it pointless to act on ours (under the JCPOA)». He added: «Of course, if the other side returns to their commitments, we will return to ours as well».
Ayatollah Khamenei emphasized: «We do not insist on the US returning to the nuclear agreement. Whether they will do it or not is not our business. We demand the lifting of sanctions. This is a right, earned by the Iranian people». In his words, the United States and European countries must guarantee Iranians this right.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was in Moscow, told his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov at a joint press conference on January 26: «What we have heard from the new US administration is just words. We will react to actions». In his words, when the United States lifts the illegally imposed sanctions, which run counter to the JCPOA and Resolution 2231 of the UN Security Council, when they stop punishing law-abiding countries, Iran will be ready to react in an appropriate way. That is, it appears that Tehran will be prepared to return to a complete implementation of its commitments under the JCPOA as soon as the United States lifts the sanctions.
However, Iran’s opponents have little time, if at all, Iranian experts say. IRI government representative Ali Rabei has said that the United States and European countries of the JCPOA will not have a window of opportunities for acting on their commitments for ever. According to the schedule, the law approved by parliament, Mr.Rabei pointed out, the first steps to cut the number of inspectors working under the Additional Protocol will be taken in the first week of March. But inspectors working under the general Agreement on IAEA guarantees will continue their regular work as before.
Clarifying Russia’s position on the JCPOA, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a visit of his Iranian counterpart: «We are worried that Iran has to depart from acting on its voluntary commitments under the JCPOA. We understand that the problem stems from systematic years-long violation by the Trump administration of their commitments under Resolution 2231 of the UN Security Council, which approved the JCPOA». The Russian minister expressed hope for a favorable outcome: «We hope that the currently taken efforts will produce good results and will preserve the JCPOA, and that the United States will get back to implementing the above mentioned resolution. This, in turn, will create conditions for complying with all the requirements of the nuclear deal by the Islamic Republic of Iran».
However, the path towards a positive solution of the “Iranian issue” which would satisfy all parties, is thorny.
Even a perfunctory analysis of the work and statements by Iranian authorities suggest that Iran is ready to return to the scrupulous implementation of requirements under the JCPOA and cancel all the activities that go beyond the bounds of the Plan but ONLY AFTER the lifting of sanctions on the part of the United States and other countries. The deadline for decision taking (first of all, in Washington) is limited by the Iranians to two or three months. Next could come the withdrawal of IRI from the JCPOA de jure and the breakage of many agreements with the IAEA with unpredictable, but, clearly catastrophic, consequences.
But, considering the critical social and economic situation at home, the Iranian leadership will have to start a dialogue with the USA. It might be because of this that Tehran is urgently intensifying its nuclear activity and toughening its rhetoric, so that it could accumulate enough bargaining power ahead of an inevitable dialogue with the USA and other participants in the JCPOA.
US glance on the solution of the JCPOA issue
New US President Joe Biden said during his election campaign that he was willing to return the United States in the JCPOA and act towards resolving a whole range of issues related to Iran. He presented his plan in one of his September interviews: “First, I will make an unshakable commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Second, I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy. If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations. With our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern. <…>. Third, we will continue to push back against Iran’s destabilizing activities, which threaten our friends and partners in the region. <…> We will continue to use targeted sanctions against Iran’s human rights abuses, its support for terrorism and ballistic missile program”.
In brief, Biden’s idea is the following: negotiations – yes! (on the American conditions), but not only on the nuclear program, but on Iranian missiles, IRI’s activities in the Middle East and on human rights.
Having estimated Joe Biden’s position on the Iranian issue, we can state with 100% confidence that to resolve the range of problems outlined by the president in the foreseeable future is impossible. Tehran has no intention of conducting a dialogue with Washington on issues other than the nuclear one, which is closely connected to the lifting of sanctions.
In the above mentioned televised address IRI’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei said that any future talks with the West should be confined to the nuclear problem. In his opinion, Washington is the one trying to destabilize the region, whereas Tehran is the stabilizing agent, which must strengthen its friends in the region. Consequently, he made it clear that Iran’s regional presence would continue.
In the same way, Khamenei described the missile program and other military efforts as defensive, saying that the West wanted Iran to be “defenseless” so that enemies “would not be afraid to bombard our cities”, as Saddam Hussein did in the past decades. He argued that by improving its missile arsenal and other systems, Iran would be able to contain its enemies and make them reckon with Iran.
As for the JCPOA, there are differences in principle between the positions of Ayatollah Khamenei and President Biden. Both put forward their conditions, insisting on the first move of the opponent. Biden requires IRI to return to the “nuclear condition” of 2015 before the US could lift sanctions, while Ayatollah Khamenei wants, in the first place, the lifting of American and other countries’ sanctions before it could return gradually to the JCPOA. Naturally, such positions lead to a deadlock.
In order to overcome this hypothetical deadlock (hypothetical because practical work on the reactivation of the JCPOA is yet to begin) the United States is considering several scenarios. Tough and mild. Dennis Ross, former special adviser to President Barrack Obama, now an employee of the Washington Institute of Middle East Policy, presents both.
The former option presupposes the use of the so-called “reserves” built by Trump. Dennis Ross, together with co-author Juan Zarate, writes: “The Trump administration’s wholesale withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement was a mistake and has given Iran an excuse to accelerate its nuclear program. Yet its “maximum pressure” campaign has certainly created leverage that should not be discounted. The supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, may be trying to force Iran onto the Biden administration’s agenda by, among other things, enriching uranium to 20% and showing that the Islamic Republic presents a problem that must be addressed. But, as his words in a recent speech indicate, the Iranian leader is doing so not because he wants the U.S. to rush to rejoin the nuclear deal but because he wants sanctions relief — which Iran should not get for free.”
In his other article on Iran and the JCPOA Dennis Ross suggests using temporary agreements on specific issues related to the nuclear problem. One option would be to allow Iran access to some frozen Iranian accounts in exchange for freezing or reducing the reserves of low-grade uranium, or allowing some countries to purchase Iranian oil in exchange for Iran’s demolishing cascades of present-day centrifuges.In essence, this is a «step by step» method, which, undoubtedly, makes the solution-finding process longer, but on the other hand, with every step it adds to mutual trust, which the two sides are lacking at the moment. Incidentally, the «step by step» method for solving the Iranian nuclear problem was suggested in 2011, by Sergei Lavrov, and this method has proved its efficiency for the JCPOA.
The International Crisis Group believes, and not without reason, that the arrival of the Biden administration in January 2021 may become instrumental in overcoming the nuclear and regional confrontation between the United States and the IRI. A revival of the American-Iranian diplomatic ties on the basis of the JCPOA could bring back this agreement’s considerable advantages in non-proliferation, revive contacts, which faded away overshadowed by the aggressive US maximalism towards Iran, and suggest the prospect of discussing issues beyond the nuclear dossier, in a constructive, rather than a confrontational manner. In the future, a nuclear agreement could pave the way to a dialogue between Iran and the Arab countries of the Gulf, supporting a diplomatic process backed by foreign and regional powers.
But a transition from confrontation to cooperation is bound to be a difficult process, which will require rising above the high level of mutual distrust and hard-going talks.
From our partner International Affairs
Air Balloon and U.S.-China Relations
The story of the Chinese Automatic Drifting Balloon (ADB) violating the U.S. airspace in late January–early February 2023 will be a symbolic marker for a new phase of deterioration in the US-China relations.
The relations were rapidly eroding throughout 2022 and early 2023. In some aspects, U.S.-China relations in 2022 evoked obvious associations with U.S.-Russian relations in 2021. While trying to engage in cooperation with Beijing on certain issues (particularly on Ukraine), Washington simultaneously kept imposing increasingly painful sanctions against the country.
Among important steps recently taken in this direction, there have been restrictions on supplies of advanced microchips and equipment for their production to China, effective since October 2022, as well as the pressure exerted on Japan and the Netherlands (key manufacturers of equipment for the microelectronics industry) to join these restrictions. Licenses to supply virtually any components and equipment to China’s Huawei have been terminated, and a significant number of sanctions were imposed on smaller Chinese companies and individuals.
Most of the Chinese measures have been defensive and involved steps to ensure the security of production chains and the national economy. In the meantime, Beijing is also discussing measures to limit certain items of Chinese exports, with potential thermonuclear consequences. Semi-finished products, raw materials and equipment for the production of solar panels can be affected—given China’s monopoly on a number of products, this could be a shock for the renewable energy industry in the West.
The visit of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in early August 2022 played a disastrous role in the military and political situation in East Asia. That trip, despite repeated warnings from Beijing, triggered a period of rapid increase in Chinese military activity around Taiwan, which still continues.
Chinese activities include numerous live-fire exercises in the waters around the island, large groups of combat aircraft and drones flying along the island’s perimeter, and systematic violations of the median line in the Taiwan Strait by PRC ships and aircraft. For its part, the U.S. is increasing military aid to Taiwan, although it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so against the backdrop of ongoing hostilities in Ukraine.
The November 2022 meeting of Xi Jinping and Joseph Biden in Bali was similar in content to the Geneva summit of Biden and Vladimir Putin in June 2021. We saw similar attempts to achieve at least partial stabilization of relations, establishing rules of the game, unblocking channels for political communication by creating joint working groups, and the same predictable failure. So far, we can only hope that the final outcome of these efforts will not be so disastrous as the one between Moscow and Washington.
The U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s visit was canceled due to the balloon incident, while it was supposed to restore the ruined channels of dialogue. The U.S.-Chinese relation is still lagging far behind the U.S.-Russian relationship in matters of mutual alerting, preventing dangerous incidents, and maintaining emergency channels of communication, where relevant experience has continuously been accumulated since the 1960s. Given the rapid progress of China’s transformation into a new nuclear superpower, conservation of this situation could be dangerous.
Nothing more was expected from Blinken’s visit – no U-turn in relations, no strategic deals, including those concerning Beijing’s positions on the Ukrainian issue. Now, the visit has been postponed indefinitely and the dialogue has been suspended amid the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the Pacific.
The circumstances of the very incident with the Chinese ADB over the United States allow us to take a fresh look at the behavior of China’s leadership in the heating confrontation with the United States. According to U.S. military statements, the ADB shot down on February 4, 2023 was the fourth Chinese apparatus to violate U.S. airspace. The previous three ADBs that visited the U.S. during Donald Trump’s tenure were not detected by U.S. airspace controls in time, and the Americans became aware of their existence belatedly via intelligence channels.
If this is true, China is deliberately and systematically doing what the USSR never afforded during the entire Cold War—flying reconnaissance aircraft directly over U.S. territory. For its part, the U.S. used ADBs on a large scale for flights over the USSR and the PRC in the 1950s and 1980s, and the explanation of their purpose was exactly the same as that used by the Chinese now: border violations due to navigation error or malfunction, meteorological research, observations of airstreams, etc.
China’s contemporary political culture attaches great importance to careful observance of the principle of reciprocity, avoiding situations that could be interpreted as Beijing’s recognition of its unequal position vis-à-vis any major power. This is partly due to the severe historical trauma of the “century of humiliation” in 1840–1945, a time of foreign domination over China.
The current use of the ADB over the United States is by no means a retaliation against historical grievances. Rather, it is a response to some U.S. actions within its “freedom of navigation patrols” in the South China Sea, where U.S. ships and aircraft deliberately violate 12-mile territorial water zones around a number of Chinese-controlled islands. The Americans justify their behavior by saying that these Chinese islands are artificial and do not create rights to territorial waters.
Surely, China believes that the Americans are violating the integrity of its national territorial. From China’s perspective, the U.S., as a power external to the region, should not interfere in any of its territorial disputes with the countries of Southeast Asia. Besides, the high activity of U.S. reconnaissance aircraft along China’s borders—and sometimes over disputed water bodies—has long been a matter of Chinese concern.
From China’s perspective, the use of ADB over U.S. territory may well look like an appropriate response to the U.S. actions. Chinese leaders may have seen this action as a necessary step to confirm China’s status as a great power equal to the United States, even if only a limited number of people knew about these operations for the time being.
The political motivation behind the use of the ADB can also be discerned in the Chinese response to the incident. In a normal situation, if the balloon lost control and inadvertently entered (or risked entering) U.S. airspace, the owner would have contacted the Americans, provided the necessary data and information, and tried to avoid a fallout.
China, for its part, responded to the incident only twelve hours after Pentagon’s statement to that effect. There was a dry statement from the PRC about the loss of control of the weather balloon due to force majeure, for which “regret” was expressed.
Shortly thereafter, China declared that it would not tolerate “hype and speculation” about the balloon and accused the United States of indiscriminate and excessive use of force after it was shot down, threatening some “consequences.”
Under the circumstances, it is difficult to assess this as anything other than China’s deliberate humiliation of the United States as well as demonstration of its own strength and confidence. The Chinese consciously chose this course of action in the run-up to Blinken’s visit—now, as the conflict in Ukraine is escalating, the U.S. is more interested in dialogue than the PRC.
The Americans had to choose between continuing the dialogue in a poorer bargaining position after the humiliation they had endured and abandoning the dialogue altogether. The reaction of American public opinion predetermined the choice for the latter. However, this decision was apparently not easy to make.
The visit has not been canceled, but postponed, and the U.S. will probably look for opportunities to carry out negotiations in the not-too-distant future while saving face. Alongside with Blinken’s visit, there were plans for an even more important visit to China, to be paid by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. On February 9, 2023, Yellen announced that she was still planning a trip to China, although it was not yet possible to give a date.
The incident has shown that the Americans are not overly prepared for a tough confrontation with a comparable superpower as soon as it stops playing at giveaway with them. As it turned out, the few previous Chinese ADBs had not been detected at all, and the last one was shot down only after it had crossed the entire U.S. territory, flying over, among other things, an intercontinental ballistic missile base.
There is nothing surprising or particularly embarrassing about it: the ADB is an extremely difficult aerial target because of its low radar visibility, extremely low speed, and a very high flight altitude. The Soviet Union has been practicing its tactics against ADB for decades. The ability to counter such targets was taken into account in the design of some Soviet air defense interceptors. These include, for example, the MiG-31 still in service in Russia, which has the highest maximum flight altitude among modern fighters and is equipped to fight balloons with a GSh-23-6 cannon.
In the United States, reconnaissance ADBs did not show up during the Cold War, simply because the Soviet Union lacked the necessary technical capabilities in the early decades of the confrontation, and the late-Soviet gerontocracy was later afraid to respond in kind to violations of its airspace. Now, the Americans faced a more active opponent and have yet to learn many new skills.
The traditional U.S. propensity to make up for real-world failures with media victories was not very convincing either. Covering the incident, U.S. propaganda followed two lines. They claimed that, first, the Chinese balloon could not have caused any serious damage to the U.S. compared to China’s existing reconnaissance satellites, and second, that the vehicle was not shot down so as not to pose a threat to civilians on the ground.
The second claim is patently absurd: a significant part of the Chinese ADB route passed over deserted or sparsely populated areas, where the risk of harm to civilians was equal to zero. As for the former, the ADB surely remains a valuable reconnaissance tool that can significantly supplement satellite data. For its part, the U.S. has made extensive use of balloons in the operations against Iraq and Afghanistan.
The reconnaissance satellite operates at altitudes of hundreds of kilometers above the ground, while the balloon does so in the altitude range of 20–30 km. This gives it additional capabilities to conduct electronic reconnaissance and detailed ground surveys. The ADB is capable of monitoring atmospheric chemistry and making other measurements useful for the reconnaissance of nuclear-weapons-related targets. Finally, the balloon is capable of remaining over the same territory for long periods of time, tracking the situation there dynamically, and its flight time over an area is not predictable, unlike that of satellites.
Was the incident with the balloon an intentional attempt to disrupt Blinken’s visit from the very beginning? Hardly. If the Chinese had flown around the U.S. three times in the Trump presidency with their ADBs and got away with it, it would make sense to continue this successful practice. When the “balloon case” became public, the Chinese might have chosen an escalatory course of action based on their view of the situation. It is likely that Beijing concluded that it would not lose with any possible U.S. reaction to the incident, and this is probably true.
From our partner RIAC
Can Lula walk the tightrope between Washington and Beijing?
As Brazil’s New President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (popularly known as Lula) prepares to visit China later this month, maintaining neutrality would be difficult as the winds of change enwrap Beijing.
Brazil is Back
President Lula’s coming to power has marked a decisive shift in Brazilian foreign policy. With the Pink Tide resurging in South America, the new President has clearly spelled out his foreign policy aims: restoring Brazil’s neutrality and importance in international affairs at par with both the West and East after nearly 4 years of impasse under his predecessor Jair Bolsonaro, who had adopted a Sinophobic, pro-Trump foreign policy.
Brasilia’s 39th President, who previously presided over the office between 2003-2010, will have a lot to talk about as he visits his nation’s largest trading partner that imported $89.4 billion in 2022 mostly in soy and iron ore which added a surplus of $28.7 billion to Brazil’s coffers. Boosting the economic partnership with China will be a priority for Lula, who intends to integrate South America into a closely held economic unit. Another important item on the agenda includes the appointment of former President Dilma Rousseff as the new BRICS Bank president.
Lula and the West
Lula had rattled swords with Washington on several occasions during his previous tenure such as alleging the United States for reducing South America to its “backyard” by intervening in its internal politics as well as by opposing the Iraq War. Even though he recognises the importance of maintaining good relations with the superpower up North; several of Lula’s moves including sending a delegation to Maduro-led Venezuela, refusing to sign a UN Human Rights resolution condemning human rights violations in Nicaragua, allowing Iranian warships to dock at Rio de Janeiro, maintaining an ambiguous approach on the Russia-Ukraine War and refusing to send arms to Kyiv, dubbing the ‘Balloongate’ incident a bilateral issue between the US and China and defining the Taiwan issue as Beijing’s internal matter, have deeply irked the West.
While tensions remain, Lula’s focus on combating climate change and call for saving the Amazon have earned a thumbs up from the Biden administration as the former’s election to power comes as a breath of fresh air after his staunch “Trump of the Tropics” predecessor adopted a not-so-friendly approach towards Biden’s entry in the White House. Lula understands Washington’s support is required and hence it was a top spot on his foreign visits list. Lula and Biden held talks amidst a cordial ambience and vowed to reboot bilateral ties by promising to protect democracy and combating climate change.
Winds of Change in Beijing
However, winds of change in the East have dispersed the clouds of ambiguity and China now stands more vocal, more critical and more confident in dealing with the United States.
The recent session of the National People’s Congress, which won Xi Jinping a never-seen-before third term as the President, saw him voicing his criticism against “Washington-led attempts” to “contain, encircle and suppress” China which pose ” serious challenges to its development” (“以美国为首的西方国家对我实施了全方位的遏制、围堵、打压，给我国发展带来前所未有的严峻挑战。”). Sino-US relations have been in the trough since President Trump’s tenure with the recent point of clash being the ‘Balloon incident’ which made Anthony Blinken call off his visit to Beijing.
Xi recently unveiled his new 24 Character Foreign Policy which, Dr. Hemant Adlakha believes, marks “China’s new foreign policy mantra in the ‘New Era’ ” acting as its “ideological map to attain national rejuvenation by 2049”. The characters “沉着冷静；保持定力；稳中求进；积极作为；团结一致；敢于斗争 ” which translate as “Be calm; Keep determined; Seek progress and stability; Be proactive and go for achievements; Unite under the Communist Party; Dare to fight” are set to replace Deng Xiaoping’s 24 Character Strategy focussed on never seeking leadership and assuming a low profile.
China’s confidence is further boosted by its successful attempt to broker peace between Saudi Arabia and Iran, who have been staunch rivals for the past many years. With the handshake that brought the Sunni Arab Kingdom and the Shiite Persian theocracy together, Beijing has garnered accolades from nations across the region and is all set to play a greater international role by not just pulling American allies such as Riyadh to its side but also through actively putting forth its plans to end wars with Xi all set to pay Putin a visit over the Russia-Ukraine War before he meets Lula at Beijing. Lula too eagerly anticipates what Beijing has to say as he told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz “it is time for China to get its hands dirty”.
Neutrality no more?
If the state of Sino-US relations does not improve, things would get hard for many leaders like Lula who seek to balance between the two superpowers. Lula knows neutrality is his best bet but money matters– as his former Foreign Minister Celso Amorim noted “Our surplus with China—and I’m talking just about our surplus—is bigger than all of our exports to the United States. It is impossible not to have good relations with China.” Isolating China, with which Brazil has had a long strategic partnership since the 1990s, at the expense of moving closer to the US might come hard on the purse and exacerbate the many economic challenges he faces. Nor can Washington be isolated– not just because of the economic necessities but also in the face of challenges from far-right forces that both Lula and Biden face.
Lula realises the risks of placing all his eggs in one basket but would he be left with the choice to divide them equally into both? The issue is bound to get stickier but if he successfully manages to escape the quagmire of the unfolding great power rivalry, Lula will set a precedent for not just South America but nations across the globe. The only viable solution would be to strengthen regional alliances in Latin America and boost partnerships with developing nations like India while using the collective strength to push Beijing and Washington to come together.
The Malvinas feud as a Global Constant
As an event gets bigger, it’s more likely that interesting things will happen behind the scenes, that is, in unplanned activities.
The seventh meeting of G20 foreign ministers in India in 2023 confirms this. Bilateral meetings between Qing-Jaishankar, the Blinken-Lavrov dispute, and the meeting between Santiago Cafiero and James Cleverly, during which the former notified the latter of the end of the Foradori-Duncan agreement.
On March 2, 2023, by rescinding the Foradori-Duncan agreement, the Argentine government de facto reopened one of the most important territorial disputes in the Western Hemisphere, perhaps the most important, and did so in the most theatrical way possible: at the G20, the main North-South dialogue platform.
What was the purpose of the Foradori-Duncan agreement?
The idea behind the agreement was for the Argentine government to renounce its claims and any serious discussion regarding the territorial dispute over the sovereignty of the Malvinas (Falklands) Islands and the adjacent territories in the South Atlantic. Instead, the Argentine government would adopt a position of claiming “light sovereignty” in order to obtain benefits, mainly economic ones, through joint exploitation of the natural resources of the islands and adjacent territories in the South Atlantic with the United Kingdom (UK), as well as through British investments in the country.
In practice, this agreement implied the Argentine government’s resignation to discuss sovereign rights over the Falkland Islands and their adjacent territories in the South Atlantic. It can be inferred that this was a disguised surrender clause by the government of Mauricio Macri to continue with Argentina’s sovereign claim over the Malvinas Islands.
The purpose of the Foradori-Duncan agreement was in line with the foreign policy stance of the Macri administration (2015-2019), which had a marked pro-Western (and more Atlanticist) position than previous governments (Kirchnerism 2003-2015).
This geopolitical code (if we can speak of the existence of a “Macrista geopolitical code” coming from the geopolitical code of the traditional Argentine ruling class) consisted of a series of agreements (tacit and official) of Argentine resignation and subordination to traditional Western powers (of which the Foradori-Duncan agreement was one of its greatest exponents) which aimed –in theory– to obtain greater economic benefits and a renewal of the country’s public image in the supposed “international community.”
These types of foreign policy positions would be a constant of the Macri government. Even the Argentine scholar Juan Gabriel Tokatlian has conceptualized such a stance as “Concessive Peripheral Unilateralism” to define the foreign policy of the Macri government .
In practice, these ideas and plans, were shown to be totally ineffective and unproductive. Argentina practically did not receive economic benefits from such positions, nor did its public image have a significant and positive international projection. And the Foradori-Duncan agreement is the most scandalous example of this reality.
Why did the Argentine government of Alberto Fernández decide to end such an agreement?
The first explanation is the internal conformation and political identity of the government of Alberto Fernández, which logically demanded a change in the previous government’s (Macri) stance on the Malvinas agreements, his predecessor and opponent. But this inference raises another question: Why were such measures not taken before? The answers to this question are only conjectures.
Since the end of the Malvinas War (1982) until today, except for the years of the Menem governments (1989-1999), Argentina’s bilateral relationship with Great Britain has always been marked by a strong “Malvinense”  component on the agenda of their interaction, which has often led to high-pitched disputes between both parties. The “agenda” of the Malvinas cause was a constant trend of the Kirchnerist governments (2003-2015), such claims were made, denouncing British illegal occupation of the Falkland Islands on numerous occasions in various international forums, bilateral meetings, and multilateral forums.
But as mentioned earlier, the Macri government would have a diametrically opposed position to its Kirchnerist predecessors regarding the Malvinas question. However, the reality of the country and its foreign policy changed again when Argentina “presented” a new government in 2019, with Alberto Fernández as the head of the presidency.
The government of A. Fernández has an eclectic political character , as a result of a coalition between several political sectors, so the foreign policy of his government also reflects the heterogeneous internal conformation of the government coalition sectors.
In such conformation, sectors such as Kirchnerism, as well as more orthodox Peronist sectors, are present, both of which have traditionally had a more “Post-Western” stance, aiming to “rewrite the Argentine geopolitical code” and the vectors of Argentine foreign policy, projecting an alternative foreign policy, in first place towards their own region: South America, Ibero-America, the Caribbean, and in more modern times, especially towards the Global South, the BRICS, and Asia. In such guidelines, the action of rescinding the Foradori-Duncan agreement was logical. But logic also makes us wonder, why were such measures not taken before? Such questions enter the realm of speculation.
Another analysis could be given in an electoral key reading, this year 2023, presidential elections will be held in Argentina, and Alberto Fernández has expressed on several occasions through words and gestures , that he is willing and interested in being re-elected as the head of the Argentine executive branch.
Facing a public image tarnished by the covid-19 pandemic, and mainly a negative macroeconomic situation, the electoral nature of this foreign policy measure cannot be ruled out: the Malvinas cause is a cause that mobilizes emotions in Argentine society and remains a deep wound to national pride, and is a valid rhetorical and practical tool to antagonize the Argentine opposition (liberals and conservatives), which has never had (and perhaps never will have) a firm geopolitical stance nor interest in the Malvinas question.
Also, the reading of tensions within the coalition of the current Argentine government can’t be ruled out, in this last aspect, this measure could be read as a gesture of balance from the “Albertismo” towards Kirchnerism, a sector of the government in which many leaders believe that the sector identified with the president has geopolitically leaned too much towards Washington and the West since the 2022 debt agreement with the IMF and the war in Ukraine.
Argentina informed the British of its decision during the G20 foreign ministers’ summit, which was dominated by the BRICS. Is it a coincidence that such a measure was taken at one of the most representative events of the Global South?
it clearly cannot be considered a coincidence.
The symbolic weight of such an action, in such a context, must be clearly considered. The G20 has a dual character as the main forum in which traditional (Western) powers dialogue but also reflects their tensions and antagonisms with emerging powers and peoples, including those of the so-called Global South.
With tensions between former metropolis countries and former colonies that make up the G20, and which are now emerging in material capabilities, a post-colonial and decolonial reading cannot be ruled out, and therefore a strong message from Argentina to the world’s emerging powers and the Global South.
Did China have any influence on the finalization of the pact?
No, there is no such “Chinese hand” that has driven such a measure by the Argentine government. These are paranoid arguments with a stubborn anti-Chinese bias that also ignores Argentina’s own reality. To put it plainly, if we use common sense, the decision was not elaborated nor driven from Beijing.
As mentioned earlier, the issue of the Malvinas is a deeply rooted national cause in Argentine society, and a constant in the foreign policy of Kirchnerism, which today is part of the coalition that compose the current Argentine government, which with such measures such as revoking the Foradori-Duncan agreement seeks to “retake the ownership of the Malvinas and South Atlantic issue in its agenda,” marking a clear differentiated stance from the current political opposition (Juntos por el Cambio) that made such a pact in the previous presidential term.
The decision was not elaborated nor driven by Beijing, and in any case, recent and clear positions of support for Argentina’s sovereign claim in the Malvinas Islands by powers such as China  and Russia  were considered within the decision-making process to take such measures. Therefore, the positions of Beijing and Moscow influenced, but did not condition or generate, Buenos Aires’ decision.
The future of the Malvinas Question
It’s very difficult to envision a future scenario for such a specific and complex issue, especially in the long term. But a prospective scenario can be envisioned in the short term, which is basically and probably that the situation will not change significantly under current conditions. Unless the world is altered by seismic events.
It’s highly unlikely that we will see a dialoguing UK government in the short and medium term that is willing to negotiate the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. And it is similarly unlikely to see a future Argentine government, especially if it has the characteristics of a Peronist, Kirchnerist, or progressive government, openly giving up its claims to the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands.
Such a proposition would surely change if there were a liberal-oriented government in Argentina, such as Mauricio Macri’s.
The problem with the current Argentine government, as well as future ones, regarding the Malvinas dispute, is that the country does not have, and will not have in the short and medium term, the set of soft and hard capabilities (economic, diplomatic, military, ideological influence) to press and force the UK hard enough to revise its traditional stance on the occupation of the islands. At least until the current balance of power and the position of emerging powers, such as China, would consolidate even further in the world order.
But in any case, such changes and opportunities will depend on the international context and the agency of third parties, which are independent variables for the positions that future Argentine governments may take.
Most experts in international relations and geopolitics agree that the territorial dispute over the Falkland-Malvinas Islands between Britain and Argentina will not have an easy or predictable resolution in the short term.
Some experts point out that the strategic geographical position of the Malvinas Islands and the presence of significant natural resources in the area, such as fishing and hydrocarbons, make the dispute even more complicated.
Moreover, many experts believe that Britain’s position has been strengthened in recent years thanks to the exploitation of the area’s natural resources and the lack of a clear strategy on the part of Argentina to resolve the dispute.
A hypothetical Chinese presence in the region, through the southern Argentine city of Ushuaia, through the construction of a logistics hub, has added an intervening element that makes it even more complex to envision a prospective scenario .
However, some experts believe that the issue of the territorial dispute over the Falkland Islands, Argentina’s position is legitimate, which has won it great support and sympathy among peoples and emerging powers, most of them with a colonial past .
 Tokatlian, J. G. (2018, 2 de febrero). Relaciones con EEUU: ¿nueva etapa? (Relations with the US: a new phase?) Clarín.
 Porto, J. M. (26/03/2022). Despite diplomatic ups and downs, the Malvinas claim became a state policy. Telam. https://www.telam.com.ar/notas/202203/587606-diplomacia-soberania-argentina-islas-malvinas.html
 In its composition as a coalition, including important elements of what might be called “Centre-Right” sectors that have Western – especially Washington – affinities.
 Its relevant to remember that on 22 February Alberto Fernandez led a public act in situ celebrating 119 years of Argentine presence in Antarctica. “Alberto Fernández visits Antarctica“. Sputnik. (23/02/2023). https://sputniknews.lat/20230223/alberto-fernandez-visita-la-antartida-1136141105.html
 Joint Statement between the Argentine Republic and the People’s Republic of China on Deepening the Argentina-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. (06/02/2023). https://cancilleria.gob.ar/es/actualidad/noticias/declaracion-conjunta-entre-la-republica-argentina-y-la-republica-popular-china
China’s support for the Malvinas deepens a relationship with many agreements. Telam. (03/07/2021). https://www.telam.com.ar/notas/202107/560027-apoyo-china-malvinas-cada-vez-mas-explicito-profundiza-relacion-muchos-acuerdos.html
 United Russia leader Medvedev celebrates Argentina’s termination of Foradori-Duncan agreement. Sputnik. (2023, March 6). https://sputniknews.lat/20230306/el-lider-de-rusia-unida-celebra-que-argentina-haya-terminado-el-acuerdo-foradori-duncan-1136503626.html
Putin defended Argentina’s sovereignty over Malvinas and took aim at Boris Johnson and Margaret Thatcher. Política Argentina. (2022, May 30). https://www.politicargentina.com/notas/202206/44954-putin-defendio-la-soberania-argentina-sobre-malvinas-y-le-tiro-a-boris-johnson-con-margaret-thatcher.html
 The details of the Ushuaia Logistics Hub to supply Antarctica. El Cronista. (24/12/2021).
An Antarctic logistics hub: official plan opens the door to strategic partners. El Cronista. (11/10/2021).
 The Group of 77+China gave strong backing to Argentina’s position on the Malvinas Islands question. Telam. (2022, November 12). https://www.telam.com.ar/notas/202011/534875-el-g77china-dio-un-fuerte-respaldo-a-la-posicion-argentina-en-la-cuestion-malvinas.html
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