Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The political situation in Iran continued to evolve over the past week. Last week, a standoff between President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, culminated in the dismissal of two conservatives from the cabinet and the firing of Vice President (and close ally of Ahmadi-Nejad), Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. The deteriorating relationship between Ahmadi-Nejad and Khamenei further undermines the political stability of Iran, already weakened by June’s disputed presidential elections and the subsequent protests which have rocked the country. Protests have been a regular feature of the Iranian political scene for the past month, including clashes between police and opposition supporters like those that occurred on Thursday.  Although the Iranian government last week released hundreds of people arrested for participating in the post-election protests, the trial of 100 of the most prominent detainees is moving forward. Critics of the regime have condemned the trial as a spectacle.

Meanwhile, three Americans were arrested on Saturday by Iranian security forces for allegedly entering the country illegally.  The three were camping in Kurdistan (near the Iraqi-Iranian border) when they crossed over into Iran. They have been transferred to the capital, Tehran, where they are currently being held.

In news from outside Iran in the last week:

1. Two statements by the Indian government last week dashed hopes of progress in multilateral negotiations. On Wednesday, India’s commerce secretary, Rahul Khullar, dismissed hopes of rekindling World Trade Organization talks as unrealistic in the current global political and economic climate. The current round of talks, referred to as the Doha agenda, has been under negotiation for nine years. The talks have been suspended numerous times, largely as a result of the inability of WTO member states to agree on binding cuts to agricultural subsidies. According to Khullar, progress is unlikely because, in the context of the global economic crisis, political leaders are focused on job losses and the lack of domestic economic growth, a focus which makes it difficult to move forward on a new global trade deal.

In another development, India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, said on Friday that India would not agree to binding emission cuts for at least ten years, potentially throwing climate talks scheduled to take place in Copenhagen in December into disarray. India and China are both dismissive of western pressure to agree to greenhouse gas reductions, believing that such reductions would undermine future economic growth and development in their countries. But without the participation of China and India in climate change negotiations, progress will be far more difficult, particularly given the historical U.S. negotiating position that it will not be bound by any climate change agreement that does not also include reductions for China and India.

2. Over the weekend, Russia concluded negotiations to expand the Russian troop presence in Kyrgyzstan. The expanded Russian presence is part of Russia’s broader effort to reassert itself in its traditional sphere of influence, an effort which included the development of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a counterpart to NATO which includes Russia and six other former Soviet Republics, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Armenia and Belarus. The United States and Russia have been competing for influence in Kyrgyzstan, which occupies an important geo-strategic position, and Kyrgyzstan’s president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, has skillfully negotiated between competing Russian and American interests. In February, after receiving $2 billion in aid from the Russian government, Bakiyev ordered the United States to leave Kyrgyzstani bases by June. The bases are part of the U.S. air transit route to supply forces in Afghanistan. After the United States agreed to triple rent payments for use of the base and to offer additional financial assistance to the Kyrgyzstani government, Bakiyev rescinded his request that the U.S. withdraw.

3. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has once again sparked widespread criticism, this time among human rights groups. At issue is the latest development in the president’s campaign against “media terrorism”—a new law which would punish journalists and their sources with up to four years in jail for “causing panic,” “disturbing social peace” or compromising national security.

In an unrelated development, the government of Venezuela has “frozen” diplomatic and economic relations with its neighbor, Colombia. Relations between the two countries have been poor since March 2008, when Colombia launched a raid into Ecuador, a close ally of Venezuela. The decision to suspend relations came after Colombia accused Venezuela of supplying rocket launchers to Marxist rebels in Colombia.

4. Clashes between security forces and an Islamist sect in three states in Nigeria continued last week despite the death of Islamist leader Mohammed Yusuf in police custody. More than 150 people have died in five days of fighting in Nigeria, where a sharp economic and political divide between the largely Muslim north and the predominately Christian south has been exacerbated by the country’s declining economic situation. The fighting in the northern part of the country complicates efforts to address the longstanding crisis in the southern, oil producing region of the country, where conflicts between militant separatist groups and the government have continued off-and-on for the better part of a decade. Taken together, these conflicts represent the most significant challenge to the Nigerian government since independence.

5. The International Monetary Fund on Friday issued a statement intended to play down the standoff between the Fund and the government of Iceland. At issue are the conditionalities imposed on the government of Iceland as a requirement for the dispersal of $2.1 billion in IMF loans. The government of Iceland has been under immense political pressure regarding the status of foreign savings deposits in Icelandic banks, which collapsed last year as part of the global economic crisis. The IMF is requiring that the government guarantee all foreign savings deposits, but the government of Iceland has so far refused, bowing to domestic political pressure not to compensate account holders.

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