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Biden’s Dilemma: Caught Between Israel and Iran

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

By all indication, the latest sabotage at Iran’s uranium enrichment facility in Natanz aimed at more than just disabling thousands of Iran’s centrifuges and thus cause another setback for Iran’s nuclear program, it was also meant as an indirect diplomatic sabotage vis-a-vis the on-going nuclear talks in Vienna; the latter had shown real signs of progress before the April 10th incident at the Natanz facility, blamed on Israel by the Iranian officials, who have vowed to get revenge — an attack on an Israeli cargo ship off the coast of Oman as well as an attack on an Israeli post in Iraq’s Kurdistan may indeed be the acts of Iranian retaliation.

But, from Iran’s vantage, the biggest response was the decision to upgrade the enrichment level from 20% to 60% percent, thus bringing Iran closer to the weapons grade enrichment, bound to raise the ire of Tel Aviv, which is intent on dispossessing Iran of nuclear weapons capability.  Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has followed suit by stating that Iran will not be dragged into a “protracted negotiation” with the US and that US’ removal of sanctions needs to be the first step in a future US return to the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).  In turn, this raises the question of how will the Biden administration respond, and adjust to, the latest developments?

On the one hand, the Iranian setback in Natanz, widely interpreted inside Iran as a major “embarrassment,” as it is the second time in 9 months that Israel has successfully inflicted serious damage on the facility, weakens Iran’s hand at the table in Vienna, no matter how the Iran negotiators seek to spin the issue.  With Iran’s vulnerability to “nuclear sabotage” irrefutably established, Tehran’s ability to utilize its nuclear chips in the bargaining with US has been diminished, perhaps for the duration of the current year, thus leading some conservative politicians to urge the government to withdraw from the Vienna talks. 

On the other hand, it is by no means clear that the Biden administration favors Israel’s spoiler role, which might lead to an escalation of tensions in the region to the detriment of Biden’s determination to re-embrace the JCPOA as part and parcel of an Iran “re-thinking” policy at odds with his predecessor’s maximum pressure strategy.  Chances are that, much like the Obama administration, the Biden administration will need to defy Israel’s will on Iran and push ahead for a new understanding with Tehran at a time Israel’s hawkish Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and, to a lesser extent the Saudi rulers, are wary of Biden’s resurrection of Obama’s (perceived) conciliatory approach toward Iran.  The big question is if President Biden is willing to act independently of Israel’s hawkish recipe for Iran and make meaningful concessions, above all in the area of post-2015 sanctions on Iran, in order to achieve its key demand of bringing Iran in compliance with its JCPOA obligations?  Lest we forget, Obama’s defiance of Israel on the JCPOA caused a major rift benefiting the Republican Party opponents of the deal, such as Donald Trump, and so far there is little evidence that Biden is unmindful of that prior experience.  In turn, this may explain the timing of US Defense Secretary Austin’s Israel visit coinciding with the Natanz sabotage, which may not have been coincidental as Israel most likely had informed Washington of the coming attack on Natanz beforehand.  

Naturally, Tehran is irritated at Austin’s presence in Israel at that particular time and his expression of “ironclad support” for Israel instead of raising any criticism of nuclear terrorism against Iran, just as China and Russia have done.  In fact, none of the Western governments, as well as the EU, partaking in the Vienna talks, have bothered to condemn the attack on Natanz, thus adding salt to Iran’s injury.  Instead, the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, dispensed with any criticism of Israel and confined himself to questioning Iran’s post-attack decision to increase the enrichment level, which he called “irresponsible.”  But, is it really responsible for the US and European powers to refrain from condemning an act of sabotage with respect to a facility that, under the terms of JCPOA, is recognized to be the hub of Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle? Germany, France, and England, as well as the European Union, ought to act in unison denouncing the acts of nuclear sabotage in Iran, irrespective of Israel’s prerogative.  Their failure to do so simply adds another layer of distrust between Iran and these powers, to the detriment of any prospect for tangible progress in the Vienna talks.

As for Biden’s foreign team, which has reported of its “serious proposal” on the table, it must recognize that unless there is some pressure applied on Israel to stop its spoiler role, US’s national interests maybe harmed and even sacrificed by a hawkish Middle East ally that behaves according to its own calculation of risks to its interests.  In a word, an Obamaian rift with Israel may indeed be both inescapable and inevitable for the Biden administration.

Afrasiabi is a political scientist and author of several books — on Iran, Islam, ecology, Middle East, UN reform, as well as poetry and fiction — and numerous articles in international newspapers and journals.

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Weakness or calculation? How the pandemic undermined the US world leadership

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Anyone watching the numerous doomsday movies, happily churned out by Hollywood, will see American doctors saving the planet from space-borne viruses and the plague epidemic that turn people into zombies. However, the very first serious test in a decade has shown that the US healthcare system is actually inferior even to the Russian one, created during the Cold War years. And this despite the fact, that for the past 30 years, the Russian medical system has been suffering from “optimizations,” cuts and underfunding. Moreover, while the Kremlin, even for propaganda reasons, has managed to provide real assistance to a number of European countries, and has been the first to launch a vaccine on the market, Washington’s actions can be regarded as a sign of weakness, and a very dangerous one to its allies at that.

More than a year after the start of the global lockdown, we can already sum up the initial results, which look disappointing to Washington. The US healthcare system has collapsed under the pressure, thus laying bare the country’s inability to bring the outbreak of a less-than-deadly disease under control. As for Russia, despite its lack of America’s vast resources, it still managed to win the vaccine race and become the first to come up with a viable antidote.

More importantly, Moscow has also come out on top in the information “war” with the West, with its Sputnik V vaccine proving to have far fewer side effects than its Pfizer and Moderna counterparts. Therefore, the US and British lobbying of their own vaccines, and their attempts to close the European market for the Russian vaccine look unethical, to say the least, all the more so amid numerous European media reports about people having  died from side effects after being inoculated with Western vaccines. At the same time, there are simply no reports about similar complications caused by the Russian vaccine, even though the European Commission and Brussels have been keeping a close eye on the effects of its use in European countries, including Serbia and Hungary, which have already taken the first deliveries of the Sputnik V vaccine.

What is the reason for the US demonstrating its weakness? How come that in the midst of the epidemic Washington was unable to find the resources to demonstrate its readiness to lend a helping hand to its European allies? Unfortunately, one of the reasons was that the Americans simply freaked out. The truth is, the US healthcare system is rather decentralized and unorganized. People with good health insurance have little to worry about. However, in a situation of a pandemic, the US medical facilities are pretty hard to manage, so one has to do it manually. Compounded by the general atmosphere of panic and the fact that the poorest strata of society, who have no health insurance and constitute the main risk zone (obesity due to malnutrition, advanced chronic diseases and other COVID-inducing conditions), the system simply collapsed. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Trump administration tried to keep maximum resources at home. Moreover, the businessman-turned-president, who had openly spoken about “exporting security,” never missed a chance to make it clear to his allies that US assistance is never free. As a result, he was replaced by Biden, a Democrat who advocates maximum support for all democratic forces. However, Democrats usually provide moral or military support, but they have proved equally unprepared to line up any serious assistance to the countries hit the hardest by the pandemic.

Moreover, it was actually at the suggestion of the United States and the UK that the COVAX system, a global initiative aimed at providing equitable (but not free) access to COVID-19 vaccines for countries in need, stalled. It turned out (who might have guessed?) that both the US-developed Moderna and the British AstraZeneca vaccines are primarily needed by their own electorates, and only then by countries that need them, but are unable to produce their own vaccine. Meanwhile, India with a population of over 1 billion, managed to fulfill its obligations, and Russia is ready to launch the production of vaccines in Europe. However, bending under Washington’s pressure, the European Union has banned the import of Russian, Indian and Chinese vaccines, without bothering to explain the reasons for this ban.

A country, claiming world domination cannot lead in everything, of course.  Therefore, it is not surprising that the healthcare systems of many European countries, like Sweden and Switzerland, are way better that what they now have in the United States. That being said, the world leader still bears full responsibility for its allies and cannot leave them to their own devices, not only in the event of a military conflict, but also in the midst of a pandemic. However, this is exactly what it did…

From our partner International Affairs

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The legacy of 2020, and 2021 in the prospects of the United States and China

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image source: cnn.com

2020 was a crucial year because of Covid-19, which disrupted the evolution of the world order in the direction of differentiation and transformation. This is the most severe crisis the human world has faced since the Second World War.

As of 10 May 2021, According to the Hopkins University Global New Crown Epidemic Statistics Report, as of May 10, 2021 there have been 158,993,826 confirmed cases worldwide and 3,305,018 deaths.

The pandemic is like a fatal global social test. On the basis of a world order that has already undergoing a crisis, it has not only caused a pause and thus a deceleration of economic development, but it has also stepped up social division and the transfer of power from the political to the technical sphere.

Although the most experienced analysts and leading research institutions have published various reports, currently none of them can accurately predict in detail the huge impact of the pandemic on the history of the 21st century.

The pandemic, however, will bring about major changes in four areas.

Firstly, it will accelerate the general trend of global economic recession and differentiation. This is due to the currency over-issue policies adopted by several countries and to intensified domestic social polarisation. Since 2018 the global economic and financial crisis has not yet been solved. On the contrary, the crisis has only been concealed by the short-term response of monetary policy.

Secondly, the pandemic will speed up internal changes and the reorganisation of the international political and economic order precisely due to internal social differentiation. Owing to the turbulent influence of domestic and international policies, economic and political risks in fragile regions of the world will intensify or have knock-on effects.

Thirdly, the pandemic will strengthen the digital society and competition between countries in building new technologies will become more intense. The most significant impact of digital society is the silent arrival of a transparent society that exists but has no human contacts.

Fourthly, the pandemic promotes the rise of vaccine nationalism and accelerates the revival of the community value of East Asian countries, which has epochal significance from the perspective of the history of world civilisation.

The most influential political and economic event in 2020 was the US elections and the related change of Administration. The US elections represented the sharpest but also the most frustrating change in US history. Although Donald Trump lost the election, 74,216,154 citizens voted for the outgoing President.

For the United States, the change in direction cannot be seen as the advent of a resolute and determined policy along one single line, as the basic reality of the highly divided American society was not changed, but indeed strengthened due to the general election. The huge impact promoted the spread of political violence and protests in the United States.

Source: The US Crisis Monitor, Bridging Divides Initiative, Princeton School of Public and International Affairs’, Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination.

First of all, Donald Trump lost the election, but the spectre of Trumpism has remained in the United States and even in Europe, which is generally not conducive to advancing the strategy of developing relations with China.

Secondly, the “antagonism” of the US strategy towards China has not changed radically. Trump hadopened a political-economic dispute with China. Itisparticularlynoteworthythat the younger generation of the Republican leadership isgraduallybecominghostile and negative towards China, and exertsgreatinfluence in Congress.Thisdoesnotfavours world peace.

Thirdly, if this attitude is not contained, it will lead to negative long-term impacts between high-tech decoupling and ideological competition. Finally, China’s policy towards the United States has been perfected and refined: although the government is still adopting a wait-and-see attitude, the voice of seeking cooperation and being rational and pragmatic is still the mainstream in China.

Besides the issue that China will reduce its dependence on the world and increase world’s dependence on China itself, China will reduce its dependence on traditional growth models and increase its care for social, green and environmental sustainability.

The year 2021 is proving that the focus of the analysis of global political and economic trends will still be competition between China and the United States. President Biden’s Administration still regards China as its main strategic competitor, but the methods of addressing the issue are quite different from those of Trump’s Administration. The main difference lies in the fact that President Biden focuses on solving domestic problems and does not exclude the most important issues with China.

President Biden’s Administration has adapted its strategy for China as the influence of major lobbies and interest groups – such as the US finance and military industry – on policy is constant compared to the previous Administration. Nevertheless, the Chinese factor in the chain of global interests keeps higher levels.

Indeed, voices from both parties in the US Congress calling for curbing China’s rise are also increasing.

In short, in terms of China’s policy direction, President Biden’s Administration is expected to oppose a trade war because it harms the core interests of the US business community. However, there are likely to be problems for Taiwan, Xianggang (Hong Kong), Xinjiang Weiwu’er (Uyghur), South China Sea, Xizang (Tibet), as well as other issues.

The possibility of renewed trade negotiations between China and the United States is expected to increase significantly in the future and the US strategy of constructive competition will be reformed.

Regardless of changes in Sino-US relations, China will certainly promote greater bilateral and multilateral investment cooperation, while seeking new development and shaping new models of cooperation.

The key areas which are currently the most important and noteworthy are, firstly, China’s joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and seeking to adhere to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which shows that China’s top leadership has decided to continue the reform strategy of internal and external promotion.

The RCEP is a free trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific region between the ten States of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Brunei, Cambodia, Philippines, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) and five of their free trade partners: Australia, China, the Republic of Korea (South Korea), Japan and New Zealand. These Member States account for approximately 30% of world’s population and GDP, thus making it the largest trading bloc.

The CPTPP, instead, is a draft regional investment and regulatory treaty in which negotiations, until 2014, twelve Pacific and Asian countries participated: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the USA and Vietnam.

Indeed, between the RCEP and the CPTPP, there is not only the interconnection of the industrial chain and commonality -and more reasons for unity than differences – but also the influence of great powers’ strategic factors.

The main difference between the two is that the CPTPP has higher economic quality requirements, while the RECP is more inclusive. Secondly, the China-EU trade and investment agreement is likely to be signed, which has clear short-term interests for Europe and long-term strategic interests for China. China, however, still needs to take a cautious attitude towards European policy and its legal systems based on double standards. Thirdly, China and Russia are strengthening comprehensive strategic cooperation and there will be new opportunities for their cooperation in the energy and military sectors.

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Why Congress should be rough on Chris Miller at his testimony on Wednesday

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FBI director Chris Wray’s weak congressional testimony in March left most of the Capitol attack questions unanswered and most of us scratching our heads: if the chiefs of the intelligence agencies don’t know, then who does?

As I argued back in March, before Senate Wray picked the low hanging fruit questions — such as confirming that the Trump mob that stormed the Capitol was indeed Trump’s mob and not some other people — while conviniently glazing over the real questions.

This is why the congressional testimony by former acting Secretary of Defense, Chris Miller, this Wednesday matters. The national guard mystery is still the elephant in the room that’s still sitting in the corner in loud, deafening silence.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee has been looking for answers from federal intelligence agencies on Trump’s role in the Capitol insurrection since day one. They have knocked on pretty much any door they could think of, requesting information from sixteen offices in total. That brings us to Wednesday when the Committee will hear from Chris Miller, as well as Jeff Rosen, former acting Attorney General, and Robert Contee III, District of Columbia Police Chief, in a hearing titled “The Capitol Insurrection: Unexplained Delays and Unanswered Questions.”

Back in March, when Senate grilled Wray, the FBI director could not answer why the national guard was not sent in to quell the attack. Wray vaguely put the decision on local policy makers, conveniently circumventing federal responsibility.

Then months later, defense officials actually stated that the national guard was delayed for reasons of “optics” and worries over how it would look if Trump’s mob was pushed out forcefully, as they should’ve been. Miller dragged his feet for hours before giving the green light, as he wanted to imagine what exactly the national guard’s intervention will look like. The actual deployment took only 20 minutes, logistically speaking.

Miller has already spoken about Trump’s “cause and effect” words responsible for inciting the Capitol attacks. And some commentators like Sarah Burris at Raw Story already predict that Miller is about to throw Trump under the bus on Wednesday.

But that’s not enough. Where was Miller back then? The delay was his decision and no one else’s. The Congressmen and Congresswomen of the House Oversight and Reform Committee chaired by Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, should not go easy on Miller only because now, after the fact, he is willing to speak up against Trump. Now it’s easy. Now it doesn’t count.

Trump removed Secretary of Defense Esper over his objection to sending the national guard on the Black Lives Matter movement that sparked up exactly one year ago. That’s why Trump replaced Esper with Miller. Miller could have also said no to Trump but he played along. That’s why Miller doesn’t get to play hero now. There are no heroes in the Trump Administration’s aftermath. Some “cause and effect” talk and hypocritical outrage after the fact don’t count. Now doesn’t count. The House Oversight and Reform Committee shouldn’t buy this. The time for cheap spins and late awakened conscience is up. Now is the time for real answers. Miller and Rosen should get a rough ride on Wednesday. Anything else would not be acceptable.

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