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Middle East

The gamble of Hamas and the “war of evictions”



As usual, with a view to understanding what is happening in the Middle East, we need to rewind the common thread that links the great issues on the table, from the origins to the present day.

Also the new flare-up of war, which has been shaking Israel and the Gaza Strip for a week, necessarily takes us back to the time of Israel’s “war of independence” in 1948 and the subsequent “Six-Day War” in 1967.

In 1948, Palestine’s Jews won the confrontation first with the Palestinians and later with the Arab armies that – on May 15, when the birth of the State of Israel was proclaimed – invaded the territories assigned to them by the United Nations and were incredibly defeated by a crowd of citizens in arms.

Thanks to modern firepower and the professionalism of its British Commander, Sir John Glubb “Pasha”, the Jordanian Arab Legion managed to conquer the Old City of Jerusalem and the Eastern part of the Holy City, with the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, and to keep it under Jordan’s control for the subsequent 19 years.

Much has been said – and rightly so – about the exodus to which 700,000 Palestinians were forced after the military defeat. Less has been said about the naturally less massive exodus of Jews forced to leave their villages and homes in the territories taken away from the fledgling State of Israel by the force of arms.

They included hundreds of Jews living in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of Jerusalem, who were forced by the Arab Legion to leave their homes. Obviously those houses were promptly occupied by Arab families and the situation remained as such until the 1967 war, when again Israel inflicted a crushing defeat on Jordan’s, Egypt’s and Syria’s armies, thus finally putting an end to the Palestinian-Arab dream of “driving the Jews back into the sea”.

During a secret conversation in September 1947 with the Jewish diplomat (later Israel’s Foreign Minister), Abba Eban, the Secretary General of the Arab League, Azzam Pasha, had been prophetic: “Politics is not a matter of sentimental agreements; it is the result of a confrontation between opposing forces. The problem is to see whether, in view of creating a Jewish State, you are able to bring into play more forces than we can muster to prevent it. If you want your own State, however, you have to come and get it”.

Azzam Pasha certainly did not foresee that his assumption would turn out to be tragically true for the Arabs, and the Jews “took” their State in 1948, and even expanded it in 1967, conquering Jerusalem, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank of the Jordan River and the Golan Heights.

The re conquered areas included also the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, entirely inhabited by Palestinians, until – under the pressure and support of right-wing Israeli organisations – some descendants of Jewish families who had been forced to leave their homes in 1948, required their return or at least the payment of rent.

Israel is a State based on the rule of law in which the Supreme Court of Justice does not hesitate to impeach a Prime Minister accused of corruption. Therefore, the dispute over the houses in the Sheik Jarrah neighbourhood dragged on for years before courts, with ups and downs, until a few weeks ago the Supreme Court ruled on the issue and established the right of the Jewish owners to return to their homes or require the payment of rent.

That decision caused incidents in the “disputed” neighbourhood, first between tenants and landlords and then between Palestinian and Jewish protesters in other areas of the Holy City. Demonstrations became ever more massive and violent, also due to the simultaneous end of Ramadan and the Jewish celebrations for the reconquest of Jerusalem, until Hamas – the most extremist faction of the Palestinian resistance movement which, together with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007 – became part of that dispute triggered by a series of evictions.

On Monday 10 May, while Palestinian demonstrators were violently protesting in Jerusalem on the Esplanade of the Mosques, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) suddenly launched a salvo of missiles on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, an act of open warfare that could not fail to cause a very harsh Israeli response.

In fact, as was predictable, not only were 90% of the missiles launched from Gaza intercepted in flight by the Iron Dome air defence system, but Israel’s air force and artillery began a systematic bombing of strategic targets located in the Gaza Strip.

An act of war, such as the decision to strike the capital of a sovereign State, must necessarily have a strategic aim – otherwise it would be a senseless act conceived by a mad mind.

The assumption that Hamas decided on such a risky operation out of solidarity with its Arab-Israeli “brothers” does not hold up, because the extremist factions of the Palestinian resistance movement consider the latter to be collaborators who even agree to send their representatives to the Knesset, i.e. the Israeli Parliament, by participating in free political elections.

We know very well that the leaderships of Hamas and PIJ are not made up of crazy visionaries, but of very clever politicians who have been ruling the two million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip for 14 years with a firm hand and an iron fist against internal dissidents and the factions close to the moderate camp.

We also know that for years Mahmoud Abbas, the successor to Yasser Arafat at the head of the Fatah movement, has been postponing elections in the West Bank, controlled by his party, for fear that Hamas may repeat the success it obtained in the elections held 14 years ago in the Gaza Strip and take definitive control of all the territories under Palestinian administration.

Considering the above, we must therefore revert to the issue of the real reasons why Hamas and PIJ have decided to start an open conflict with an adversary such as Israel, whose military strength and political determination they know very well and which they know they cannot defeat on the ground.

In just over a week, by launching thousands of rockets onto Israeli cities with the aim of causing indiscriminate slaughters, Hamas has succeeded in damaging a few houses and causing the death of ten Jews.

In response to this apparently senseless aggression, the Palestinian resistance movement has suffered considerable damage: not only have the collateral victims of the Israeli bombardments exceeded two hundred people, but the targeted strikes of the Jewish air force have killed dozens of Hamas and JIP militants, thus decapitating both groups’ intelligence, killing their important political and military figures, and destroying strategic infrastructure such as the network of underground tunnels painstakingly built over the last few years to enable the Palestinian military apparatus to operate in absolutely safe conditions.

So far the rocket offensive has been a failure at military level, while on a political level it has not even managed to stop Israel’s internal debate on the formation of the new government – a debate in which the politicians representing 20% of Arab-Israelis are also participating actively.

If Hamas and JIP have decided to take the risk of provoking Israel militarily in a confrontation with no chance of success, the reasons are probably to be found in the internal policy of the Palestinian movement and its moves in foreign policy.

On the domestic front, there is a clear attempt to mobilise the Palestinians living in the occupied territories or in those administered by Fatah and to convince them that the pragmatic policy of Mahmoud Abbas is a weak and losing policy. So far the attempt has failed as the insurgency of the Arab-Palestinians -fomented by Hamas emissaries in the hope of spreading terror to cities like Lod and Ramallah where Arabs and Jews have found tried and tested forms of peaceful coexistence – is gradually dying out.

In terms of international links, so far there has also been the failure of the attempt – clearly inspired by Hamas‘ external sponsors, namely Qatar and Turkey – to sabotage the “Abraham Accords” which, under the auspices of Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia, led to the normalisation of relations between Israel, the Emirates and Sudan at the end of last year.

The exchange of missiles over the skies of Palestine continues in the total silence of the Arab Chancelleries and, above all, of Iran, which has so far not allowed Hezbollah– which has an impressive missile apparatus in the Lebanon, supplied and controlled by the Iranian Pasdaran– to intervene militarily in support of its “brothers” in the Gaza Strip.

If Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and their external sponsors hoped that the missile gamble could be a game-changer in Middle East diplomacy and mobilise a new Arab front, united in the fight against Israel, their strategy has so far proved to be a costly failure.

Now rumours are rife of a call for a truce from Gaza: but can a war be started with the strategic objective of calling for a truce?

The missile crisis has so far embarrassed the United States, causing a split within President Biden’s party. It has shown that Europe continues to be conspicuous by its absence on the international scene, while the United Nations keeps on hesitating and being too cautious. In the debate at the Security Council, however, the missile crisis has also brought to the fore what could be a new protagonist in the Middle East dialectics, i.e. Xi Jinping’s China, which has made its voice of authoritative moderation and self-restraint heard in a discussion in which the other permanent members of the Security Council did not seem to be able to express anything but obvious and inconclusive formulas calling for “pacification”.

If China, which is already present in some strategic areas in Africa, were to decide to make its voice heard on the most sensitive dossiers of the Arab-Israeli confrontation, possibly in tune with Egypt’s and the Gulf monarchies’ voices, the prospects for pacification would become more concrete than the adventurist provocations of Palestinian extremists or the uncertain and contradictory moves of the US diplomacy let us hope. Indeed, after the undeniable success of the “Abraham Accords”, under the hesitant leadership of President Biden and his Secretary of State Blinken, the US diplomacy does not yet seem to have found the tools to enable it to be again an authoritative protagonist in the Middle East peace process.

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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Middle East

Turkey’s Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Cyprus, Turkey, Artsakh



The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin of the Armenian Apostolic Church has recently hosted a conference on international religious freedom and peace with the blessings of His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians.

Tasoula Hadjitofi, the founding president of the Walk of Truth, was one of the invited guests. She spoke about genocide and her own experience in Cyprus, warning of Turkey’s religious freedom violations. Hadjitofi also called for joint legal actions against continued ethnic cleansing and destruction of Christian cultural heritage in Cyprus, Turkey, Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) and other places by the Turkish government and its regional allies including Azerbaijan.

During the two-day conference, access to places of worship in war and conflict zones, the protection of religious and ethnic minorities, and preservation of cultural heritage were among the topics addressed by many distinguished speakers.  The conference paid particular attention to the situation of historic Armenian monasteries, churches, monuments, and archeological sites in parts of Nagorno-Karabakh that have been under Azeri occupation since the 2020 violent war unleashed by Azerbaijan.

Hadjitofi presented about the situation of Cyprus, sharing her recent visit to the Cypriot city of Famagusta (Varoshia), making historic parallels between the de-Christianisation of Asia Minor, Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh by Turkey, and its allies such as Azerbaijan. See Hadjitofi’s full speech here.

Author of the book, The Icon Hunter, Hadjitofi spoke with passion about her recent visit to the ghost city of Famagusta, occupied by Turkey since 1974. Her visit coincided with the 47th anniversary of the occupation. She was accompanied by journalist Tim Neshintov of Spiegel and photographer Julien Busch as she made several attempts to visit her home and pray at her church of Timios Stavrou (Holy Cross).

Hadjitofi explained how her own human rights and religious freedoms, alongside the rights of tens of thousands of Cypriots, were violated when Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan illegally entered her country and prayed at the newly erected mosque in her own occupied town whereas she was kneeling down in the street to pray to her icon in front of her violated Christian church. In comparison, her church was looted, mistreated and vandalized by the occupying forces.  

Hadjitofi reminded the audience of the historic facts concerning Turks discriminating against Christian Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians. They also massacred these communities or expelled them from the Ottoman Empire and the modern Republic of Turkey, a process of widespread persecution which culminated in the 1913-23 Christian genocide. Hadjitofi then linked those genocidal actions with what Erdogan is doing today to the Kurds in Syria, and the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh by supporting Turkey’s wealthy friends such as the government of Azerbaijan.  She also noted that during her recent visit to her hometown of Famagusta, a delegation from Azerbaijan referred to Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus as “Turkish land” and a “part of Greater Turkey”. This is yet another sign of Turkish-Azeri historic revisionism, and their relentless efforts for the Turkification of non-Turkish geography.

Hadjitofi called for a series of legal actions against Turkey and its allies, reminding Armenians that although they signed the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court (ICC), they have not ratified it. She noted that it must be the priority of Armenians if they want to seek justice. Azerbaijan and Turkey, however, neither signed or ratified the Rome Statute.

During her speech Hadjitofi also emphasized the need for unity amongst all Christians and other faiths against any evil or criminal act of destroying places of worship or evidence of their historical existence anywhere in the world. 

In line with this call, the Republic of Armenia instituted proceedings against the Republic of Azerbaijan before the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, with regard to violations of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

In its application, Armenia stated that “[f]or decades, Azerbaijan has subjected Armenians to racial discrimination” and that, “[a]s a result of this State-sponsored policy of Armenian hatred, Armenians have been subjected to systemic discrimination, mass killings, torture and other abuse”.

Hadjitofi said that “Armenia’s lawsuit against the government of Azerbaijan is a positive move in the right direction and more legal actions should be taken against governments that systematically violate human rights and cultural heritage. I’m also in the process of meeting members of the Armenian diaspora in Athens, London, and Nicosia to discuss further joint legal actions. But the most urgent action that Armenia should take is the ratification of Rome Statute of the ICC,” she added.

Other speakers at the conference included representatives of the main Christian denominations, renowned scholars and experts from around the globe, all of whom discussed issues related to international religious freedom and the preservation of the world’s spiritual, cultural and historical heritage.

Baroness Cox, a Member of the UK House of Lords and a prominent human rights advocate, was among the participants. She has actively defended the rights of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia through her parliamentary, charity and advocacy work.

Meanwhile, the organizing committee of the conference adopted a joint communiqué, saying, in part:

” We re-affirm the principles of the right to freedom of religion or belief, as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent international and regional human rights treaties. We claim this right, equally, for all people, of any faith or none, and regardless of nation, history or political circumstances – including for those Armenian prisoners of war still illegally held in captivity by Azerbaijan, for whose swift release and repatriation we appeal and pray, and for the people of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh whose rights to free and peaceful assembly and association necessarily implicate the sacred character of human life.”

On September 11, the delegates of the conference were received by the President of Armenia, Armen Sarkissian, in his palace in Yerevan where they were thanked. The guests also visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial-Museum (Tsitsernakaberd), where Hadjitofi was interviewed on Armenian national TV. She said:

“I read about the Armenian Genocide and I am glad that more countries recognize it as such but I am disappointed that politicians do not condemn actions of Turkey and its allies in their anti Christian attitude towards Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh. I see an interconnection between the genocide and the adopted politics of Azerbaijan, when the ethnic cleansing takes place, when cultural heritage is destroyed, gradually the traces of the people once living there are eliminated and that is genocide”. 

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Middle East

After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians



The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.

According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.

The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.

“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”

Scandal of Al Hol’s children

Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.

“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”

Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021. 

Blockades and bombardment

The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.

“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.

In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.

Living in fear

In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.

At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.

Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.

Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.

Division remains

The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”

Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants

The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.

“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”

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Middle East

IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking



IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi at a press conference. Photo: IAEA/Dean Calmaa

A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?

The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.

Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.

When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.

Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible.  Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.

Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.

The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.

It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.

“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.

I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.

Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.

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