Tag Archives: nuclear

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

A suicide bomb attack in Iran killed several senior commanders of the country’s elite Revolutionary Guard and at least twenty tribal leaders in the southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchestan, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan. The bombing was the first major terrorist attack in Iran in more than twenty years, and represents a major public relations blow for the Iranian government. A group known as Jundallah claimed responsibility for the attack, though the Iranian government has also attempted to place blame on the British government for the attack, claiming that Britain has an “overt and hidden hand in terrorist attack against Iran.” Juddallah is a Pakistan-based radical Sunni group campaigning for independence for ethnic Baluchis in Iran.

In an unrelated development, the Russian government indicated it would be willing to impose sanctions on Iran if the Iranian government fails to implement promises it made to the international community regarding its nuclear program. This represents a significant hardening of the Russian position on Iran, which it had previously dismissed as “unproductive.”

In news from outside Iran in the last week:

1. The United Nations-backed panel investigating elections in Afghanistan appears poised to overturn August election results. The panel is recommending that a number of suspicious ballots be thrown out, thus necessitating a runoff election between incumbent president Hamid Karzai and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah. The United States is attempting to resolve the growing political crisis, which threatens to complicate President Barack Obama’s decision on whether or not to expand the U.S. troop presence in the country.

2. Fights between rival drug gangs rocked Rio de Janeiro over the weekend, only one week after the city was named host of the 2016 summer Olympics. At least fourteen people were killed in the violence, and a police helicopter was shot down as members of the Comando Vermelho, Rio’s largest gang, and its rival, Amigos dos Amigos, fought in the favelas that surround the city. The state governor, Sergio Cabral, informed the International Olympic Committee of the events, noting, “We told the OIC this is not a simple matter, and they know this, and we want to arrive in 201 with Rio in peace before, during, and after the games.”

3. The Pakistani government launched a new offensive against Taliban strongholds in the South Waziristan region. The new offensive comes after two weeks in which the Taliban had engaged in a series of attacks against the Pakistani government and military. The Pakistani government believes that the Taliban may have as many as 10,000 militant fighters assembled in the region, which is also believed to be the hiding location for Osama bin Laden.

4. In a dramatic regional contrast, citizens in Botswana are expected to hand the government if Ian Khama a victory in Friday’s elections, while the government of neighboring Zimbabwe is struggling to address the continuing political instability there. Botswana is widely viewed as a success story in Southern Africa, due in part to its political stability and part to its vast diamond wealth.  But as global diamond prices fall, the economy of Botswana may begin to struggle. The government faces a severe budget shortfall, due primarily to a dramatic decline in diamond prices, necessitating a $1.5 billion loan from the African Development Bank.

Meanwhile, in Zimbabwe, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai threatened to “disengage” from working with President Robert Mugabe. The two have been part of a power sharing arrangement since Febraury, but Tsvangarai’s party, the Movement for Democratic Change, has been marginalized from real political power.

5. The United States budget deficit has reached a record level of $1.4 trillion for the last fiscal year, as the government expanded spending significantly in order to address the global economic downturn. The deficit was approximately 10 percent of gross domestic product, but was $162 billion less than the administration forecast in August. Tax revenue fell by more than 16 percent as a result of the economic downturn, but spending increased by more than 18 percent.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

There have been several interesting developments in European politics over the past few days. Final results were released Saturday from the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. The Irish approved the treaty by a wide margin (with 67.1% of voters in favor) after defeating the treaty in June 2008 by a 53.4 percent majority. Ireland’s approval of the treaty represents an important step forward in approving a restructuring of the European Union; a restructuring that would expand the influence of the European Parliament, establish a full-time presidency for the EU (a position for which former British Prime Minister Tony Blair may be tapped), and limit the ability of national governments to veto EU legislation in certain areas. But despite the approval by Irish voters, Czech President Vaclav Klaus tempered expectations, stating that he may delay signing the treaty until a Czech appeals court can review the treaty and assess its implications for Czech sovereignty.

Two important elections also took place recently. In Germany, Angela Merkel won reelection as Germany’s Chancellor. The victory of her center-right coalition promises to continue her emphasis on greater openness for the German economy. Preliminary results from Greek elections on Sunday suggest that the Socialists will soundly defeat the ruling New Democracy party, possibly securing a legislative majority in the national parliament. The contradictory results suggest an interesting restructuring of European politics.

In news from outside of the European Union last week:

1. Government ministers at the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund in Turkey this week rejected warnings by the banking sector that new financial regulations could undermine economic growth. Representatives from the United States, Italy, and the United Kingdom all rejected claims by the global bankers association that regulatory overkill could undermine global economic growth and result in the creation of fewer jobs. But despite apparent agreement on the need for new financial regulations, considerable debate over the exact nature and structure of those regulations remains, and an agreement on the details appears to be a ways off.

2. The International Olympic Committee granted Rio de Janeiro the right to host the 2016 Olympic Games on Friday, making Rio the first South American city to host the Olympics. A last minute visit by President Barack Obama to Copenhagen was unable to convince the IOC to grant the games to Chicago, which was also bidding to host. Several observers have raised concerns that Obama’s unsuccessful campaign to win the games may undermine his ability to deliver on health care reform and foreign policy objectives.

3. A massive earthquake in Indonesia resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,100 people last week. The tragedy follows a tsunami in the South Pacific that killed more than 100 people. Concerns that another, larger quake could strike soon were also raised on Saturday. International aid campaigns have begun delivering supplies to the region, but the widespread devastation of government facilities in the region could hamper aid efforts.

4. The President of Burkina Faso has been dispatched to meet with the military rulers of Guinea to address the emerging crisis in the country. More than 100 people have been killed in Guinea in the past week, as the county’s military government has moved to quash opposition protests. On Thursday, Cellou Dalein Diallo, former prime minister and current opposition leader, was forced to flee the country, as Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, who came to power as the country’s leader in a December coup, has attempted to solidify his hold on power.

5. On Sunday, the government of Iran agreed to permit International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to visit a secret uranium enrichment facility made public by the United States last week. The discovery of the site led the Russian government to concede the possibility of United Nations sanctions on the Iranian government—a proposal which both Russia and China have long opposed. The Iranian decision comes ahead of scheduled six-party talks, involving the United States, Russia, France, China, Britain, Germany, and Iran, at the end of the month.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

With the Congress in recess, the U.S. political scene has been dominated by coverage of town hall debates over health care reform. In the debate, the British National Health System (NHS) has been trotted out as representative of the dangers of government-run health care, charges to which the British government has responded. The Financial Times on Friday offered a balanced comparison of the U.S. and British health care systems, which debunks the selective use of statistics in the current debate.

In news from outside the U.S. health care debate last week:

1. The Taliban has stepped up attacks in Afghanistan ahead of nation-wide elections scheduled for Thursday. On Saturday, the Taliban launched a suicide bomb attack against NATO’s heavily fortified Afghanistan headquarters in Kabul, killing eight and wounding nearly 100 people. With observers already worried about the ability of the Afghan government and international elections monitors to conduct a nation-wide poll in the country, observers fear that the Taliban may attempt to disrupt the elections. The relative period of peace which had preceded Saturday’s attack had led some to believe that the Taliban would allow the elections to take place.

Thursday’s poll will pit incumbent President Hamid Karzai against former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. Although many observers believed Karzai’s campaign enjoyed an insurmountable advantage, Abdullah’s campaign has managed to close the gap, and some are now forecasting the need for a run-off election in October. A runoff would be necessary if neither candidate manages to secure an absolute majority of the vote.
 
2. Palestinian authorities in Gaza engaged in a series of small battles against Jund Ansar Allah, on Friday. The shootouts resulted in at least 13 deaths and dozens wounded. The battles represented the latest—and perhaps most serious—challenge to the Hamas-led government in Gaza. Jund Ansar Allah is one of several small extremist groups pushing for the introduction of strict Sharia law in Gaza. Jund Ansar Allah, which claims ties to al-Qaeda, had labeled Gaza an Islamic emirate subject to theocratic law, a claim which Hamas rejects. For its part, the Hamas government has dismissed challenges to its leadership as “Zionist propaganda” sponsored by the Israeli government.

3. The French Minister for Urban Regeneration, Fadela Amara, sparked a national debate last week when she called for a nation-wide ban on wearing the burka in France. Amara, a French national of Algerian decent, said that the burka represents “the oppression of women, their enslavement, their humiliation.” Banning the burka, she said, must be part of a broader effort to welcome moderate Islam while fighting the “gangrene, the cancer of radical Islam which completely distorts the message of Islam.” Amara’s comments are part of a broader debate in France. The national parliament in July established a committee to determine whether the wearing of the burka is “compatible with France’s republican tradition of equality between men and women,” and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in June said the burka “will not be welcome on the territory of the republic.” An estimated 5-10 percent of the French population is Muslim, though only a few thousand wear the burka.

4. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak last week attempted to re-open talks with North Korea, offering to negotiate troop reductions along the border between the two countries. The border between North and South Korea is among the most militarized in the world, with more than one million troops, including 30,000 U.S. troops, based in the area. However, in his offer, Lee reiterated the South Korean position that a comprehensive peace deal between the two countries would be predicated on North Korea abandoning its nuclear efforts, a proposition with the North has consistently rejected in the past.

5. Continuing her Africa tour with visits to Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke out on several of the continent’s hot spots. Last week, she urged political reconciliation in Kenya and offered support for Somali efforts to fight piracy and Islamic extremism, During her tour, she has not shied away from provoking controversy. In Nigeria, she criticized “the lack of transparency and accountability [which] has eroded the legitimacy of the government.” She also called for African governments to toughen their stance on Robert Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

According to the G8, it looks like we may be starting to see signs that the global economic crisis is beginning to ease. The final communiqué of the G8 summit on Saturday expressed the sentiment that the worst of the crisis may now be over, and that it may be time to begin addressing the challenges of inflation rather than stagnation. According to the communiqué,

There are signs of stabilisation in our economies, including a recovery of stock markets, a decline in interest rate spreads, improved business and consumer confidence, but the situation remains uncertain and significant risks remain to economic and financial stability.

Despite the relatively upbeat assessment, hopes for a quick recovery in the Eurozone (glossary) continue to be thwarted by sharp declines in industrial production and high unemployment.

In other news from the previous week,

1. Incumbent president Majmoud Ahmadi-Nejad decisively won Saturday’s presidential elections in Iran, defeating the moderate reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi. Although Moussavi alleges Ahmadi-Nejad’s victory was the result of unfair electoral practices and intimidation and has demanded a new poll, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has declared the results final, suggesting any challenge would be unsuccessful. Turnout in the election was high—surpassing 85 percent. Protests broke out across Tehran after the election, and the international community is watching developments in Iran with great concern. The elections carried big implications not just for domestic Iranian society, but also for U.S. foreign policy.

2. The United Nations tightened sanctions on North Korea on Friday. After several weeks of increasing tensions in which the government of North Korea had expanded nuclear warhead and missile tests, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution expanding sanctions beyond the narrow focus on weapons and weapons technology (which has long been in place) to now include suspending foreign aid, loans, and export credits outside of humanitarian aid. The passage of sanctions by the Security Council signals a shift in Russian and Chinese policy. The two countries had long opposed intensifying sanctions on North Korea, fearing the collapse of the unstable regime.

3. In a dramatic shift in Russian foreign policy last week, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced the country would drop its bid to join the World Trade Organization and would instead seek to develop a customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus. Russia has been negotiating for WTO membership for 16 years, but has been blocked largely as a result of U.S. opposition. Two schools of thought to explain the shift in policy have emerged. According to the first, this represents Russia’s frustration with the process and is merely a ploy to speed up accession talks. According to the second, Russia is more interested in expanding its influence in its former sphere of influence, and the new customs union would help to achieve that goal. Whatever the truth, the move clearly surprised most observers and confounded analysts.

4. The oil giant Royal Dutch Shell reached a settlement with the family Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists executed by the Nigerian government in 1995. According to the suit, Shell had requested the Nigerian government to intervene—going so far as to finance and assist in operations against groups in the Niger River delta region. Without conceding any involvement in their deaths, Shell agreed to pay $15.5 million in damages to settle the claim. The case was one of the first to be brought before U.S. courts under the Alien Tort Statute of 1789, which gives non-U.S. citizens the right to sue in U.S. courts for human rights violations committed abroad. Shell had unsuccessfully sought to have the case dismissed.

5. The crisis in Peru continued last week, as protestors continue to confront police in the capital Lima. A national strike had been called by indigenous groups and labor unions to protest changes in land rights laws. An estimated 10,000 people turned out on Thursday before police dispersed the crowds. The government of Peru is now moving to suspend the law which led to the protests.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It was a busy week for the Obama administration, as the president made the rounds. On Wednesday, President Obama met with King Abudllah of Saudi Arabia to discuss the “strategic relationship” between the two countries.  On Thursday, the President followed up on a campaign promise, delivering a major foreign policy speech in Cairo, Egypt, where he outlined his vision for Middle East peace. In typical Obama fashion, the speech was balanced and generally well-received. (The video footage of the speech is available on the White House blog). In the speech, he reiterated U.S. support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine dispute, called on Israel to cease all settlement expansion in the West Bank, and called on Palestinians to renounce the use of violence. Demonstrating a cultural and technical sophistication, the White House ensured the speech was simultaneously available through Facebook and other social networking sites in English, Arabic, Urdu, and Turkish. On Friday, the President visited the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. And on Saturday, Obama participated in the 65th anniversary celebration of the D-Day landings before meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy to discuss Iran’s nuclear program.

A busy week for the president, but here are five stories you might have missed if you were only watching his travels:

1. A new audio tape was released by Osama bin Laden, denouncing Obama’s policies as a mere continuation of the previous administration and warning the United States to prepare for war. According to many analysts, the release of the audio tape signals a growing concern from al Qaeda about Obama’s policies. Al Qaeda fears that Obama may be successful in reaching out to moderate Arab states, weakening support for the brand of radical Islam preached by al Qaeda.

2. Elections for the European Parliament took place last week. Although results are still being tabulated, the low level of voter turnout is expected to benefit smaller fringe parties, particularly those on the far right. In the Netherlands, unofficial results indicate that the Party for Freedom will become the second-largest Dutch party in European Parliament, capturing 4 of the country’s 25 seats. The party campaigned on a platform opposing immigration and Turkish ascension to the E.U. In the United Kingdom, voters are expected to hand the ruling Labour party a stinging defeat, with a real possibility that the party may place third in European elections. Similarly, in Ireland, the ruling centrist Fianna Fáil is expected to place second behind its center-right rival Fine Gael

3. The results of Iranian presidential election scheduled for Friday could hinge on…wait for it…the results of Saturday’s World Cup qualifier between Iran and North Korea. In order to qualify for next year’s World Cup finals in South Africa, Iran must win its three remaining matches: the first against North Korea on Saturday, then against the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday, and finally against South Korea on June 17. A loss either of the pre-election matches could produce a sharp backlash against President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, particularly among the 60 percent of Iran’s citizens under 30—a group already inclined to support his rival, Mir-Hossein Moussavi.

4. In a dramatic sign of just how bad the global economic downturn has become, the government of Botswana was forced to turn to the African Development Bank last week for a record $1.5 billion loan. Botswana has long been heralded as one of Africa’s strongest and best-managed economies. Its president, Ian Khama, has a reputation as a reformer and statesman. But even he has been humbled by the problems faced by the economy of Botswana, which depends on diamonds for 80 percent of its foreign exchange earnings and about 30 percent of its gross domestic product. And as the price of diamonds has collapsed, the country has found itself increasingly facing economic difficulties.

5. On Friday, clashes between police and indigenous Amazonian protestors in Peru claimed more than 30 lives. Peru’s President, Alan Garcia, urged calm, but both sides appear to be escalating a standoff which has been ongoing for two months. At issue are indigenous land right claims, which they feel the government has abrogated in order to attract more foreign investment.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The major news story this week was the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to replace David Souter on the U.S. Supreme Court. If confirmed by the Senate, Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic and only the third woman appointed to the highest court in the United States. Politically, Sotomayor’s nomination was a brilliant move on the part of the Obama administration. While President Obama did not take advantage of the opportunity to appoint a liberal counter-weight to the conservative ideologues of Justice Antonin Scalia, the President did manage to force Republicans into a difficult spot. Republicans had been gearing up for a protracted fight against any Obama nomination as a way to mobilize their softening political base and increase fundraising in anticipation of next year’s Congressional elections. But in nominating Sotomayor, Obama forces Republicans to balance their desire to mobilize their base against their need to expand the base of the party to include the country’s largest and fastest growing minority group.

In news from outside Washington DC last week:

1. The United States is still struggling to figure out how to deal with the challenges posed by North Korea’s increasingly belligerent policy stance. Over the past two weeks, North Korea has engaged in a nuclear warhead test (on Monday) and several missile test fire operations. While the United States has officially downplayed the situation, describing North Korea’s actions as “nothing out of the ordinary” and dismissing it as mere “posturing,” it has discussed the need for a tougher approach. Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council seems unlikely to moved on fresh sanctions against the North Korean regime.

2. After a week of intense fighting, the Pakistani military has regained control of Mingora, the main town in the disputed Swat valley. The government of Pakistan has been fighting against Taliban militants, who have turned to terrorist  bombings in their fight against the Pakistani government. On Thursday, for example, four bombs exploded in Peshawar, a city in north-west Pakistan. Observers are speculating that the Pakistani government may turn its attention to the Waziristan region along the Afghanistan border once operations in the Swat valley are completed. But the ability of the Pakistani government to continue to exercise sovereignty over the border regions will depend on its ability to establish governmental institutions and expand the reach of the country’s central institutions into the border regions—something the central government has not been able to do so far.

3. Political tensions within the Palestinian Authority intensified on Sunday after forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (from the Palestinian Liberation Organization faction) raided a safe house belonging to Hamas, the other party in government. The clash–the bloodiest since the Abbas government revived peace talks with Israel in 2007, resulted in six deaths, including two high-ranking Hamas officials. The attack came just four days after Abbas met with President Barack Obama in Washington, DC. Obama encouraged Abbas to improve his efforts to fulfill his obligations under the road map for peace, including maintaining law and order in the West Bank. Observers believe this attack was part of that effort, intended to demonstrate to the United States that the Palestinian Authority is following through on its promises.

4. Fighting in the Niger River Delta region continued over the past week, as the government of Nigeria continued its attacks on militants in the region. The government is hoping to reopen oil wells in the Ogoniland region. But observers fear that the government’s increasingly militarized efforts to address the crisis may backfire. Groups in the Niger Delta region claim that they have received few benefits from the country’s oil wealth, suffering from severe environmental degradation and severe human rights violations resulting from oil production, but seeing little benefit from the industry. Militants in the region have already launched attacks against some oil production facilities, hoping to cut off production and increase the cost of operating. Activists in the United States have taken a different approach, attempting to sue in U.S. courts the multinational oil giant Royal Dutch Shell for their alleged involvement in the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other human rights activists in the region.

5. Oil prices reached a six-month high on Friday, trading at $66 per barrel. OPEC is projecting that oil should reach $70-$75 per barrel by the end of the year. While the fighting in the Niger Delta region certainly contributed to increasing prices, observers also believe that speculators are coming back into commodities markers, leading to price increases. In a move certainly linked to the higher prices, the government of Brazil announced that it would reopen its vast offshore oil fields to international bidders. Meanwhile, the oil giant Chevron is being sued in Ecuadorian courts, facing damage liabilities as high as $27 billion for alleged damage to the environment and human health caused by their operations in the country.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

A new report issued by the International Monetary Fund on Saturday suggests that the globally economy will contract by 1.3 percent in 2009 with a slow recovery beginning in 2010. While the United States has been pushing countries to expand stimulus spending, the IMF said that existing stimulus spending already committed for 2009 should be sufficient to address the crisis. A Friday meeting of the finance ministers of the G7 countries was more cautious, concluding that, “the pace of decline in our economies has slowed and some signs of stabilization are emerging,” but simultaneously warned that “downside risks persist.”

In news outside the global economic crisis from the last week:

1. The outbreak of a new flue strain has raised concern in Mexico, as 68 people have died and more than 1,000 have been infected. The World Health Organization is monitoring the situation to determine if it is likely to reach pandemic status. While the Mexican government is urging people to remain calm, authorities have already canceled more than 500 public events and many residents in Mexico City have opted to stay home rather than travel for shopping and work. Tests have also confirmed the virus has made people in California, Texas, Kansas, and New York ill.

2. Elections in Iceland have produced the country’s first center-left government. The previous government of Iceland had been forced to resign as a result of the devastating impact of the global financial crisis on the country. Preliminary election results give Johanna Sigurdardottir’s Social Democrats 30 percent of the vote. With their coalition partner, the Left Greens’ 22 percent of the vote, the coalition appears well-positioned to drive the political agenda in Iceland. Sigurdardottir becomes the first openly gay person elected head of state in the modern world. The first item on her agenda: Icelandic membership in the European Union.

3. While the Obama administration is hoping to resume the six-party talks with North Korea, the government of North Korea appears to be taking a more hardline stance. Earlier this month it test fired a long-range missile, sparking a confrontation with the UN Security Council. Last week, the government of North Korea last week announced it would put two U.S. reporters on trial, charging them with illegal entry and “hostile acts.” Additionally, after expelling international atomic inspectors two weeks ago, North Korea has announced its intention to resume plutonium extraction. It is widely believed that North Korea already possesses enough plutonium for six to eight nuclear bombs. According to some observers, the deteriorating relations between North Korea and the West may be part of the country’s efforts to force the United States into direct, bilateral negotiations.

4. The sharp upsurge of violence in Iraq, including two suicide attacks that killed 75 people outside a Shia shrine in Baghdad on Friday, have raised concerns that Iraq is sliding back into civil war. Recent attacks raise the concern of sectarian violence, suppressed by a strong U.S. presence over the past year, but never entirely defeated.

5. Reversing a longstanding policy of the Bush administration, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced on Thursday that the United States would be willing to work with a Palestinian government backed by Hamas so long as the organization met international demands to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.  The Bush administration had refused to work with Hamas, which has effectively controlled the Palestinian government since it defeated its rival, Fatah, in elections in 2007. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under pressure to engage meaningfully in international diplomacy and to be seen acting.

And because it was such a busy week internationally, here are two bonus stories from this week:

6. The rebel Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka on Sunday declared a unilateral ceasefire, a move almost immediately rejected by the government. An operation launched by the government last month has effectively confined the Tamil Tigers to a small enclave in the northern part of the country, and the government is expected to announce the defeat of the Tigers any day. But the United Nations has described the situation as a humanitarian disaster, with more than 6,500 civilians already killed and as many as 100,000 refugees created as a result of the fighting.

7. It was announced on Friday that China has become the world’s fifth largest holder of gold reserves, with 1,054 tones of gold. Seen as part of a broader strategy to diversify its nearly $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, the government of China has slowly been building its gold reserves over the several years. However, even with the recent purchases, China has a level of gold reserves (as a percent of its total reserves) far below that of the United States and other developed countries.