World roundup: December 7 2021
Stories from Iran, Russia, Peru, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
December 6, 1240: The Mongols sack Kyiv
December 6, 1904: In his State of the Union message to Congress, US President Teddy Roosevelt issues his “corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine. The Roosevelt Corollary took the mostly defensive (at least in principle) Monroe Doctrine, which warned against European intervention in the Western Hemisphere, and made it offensive, stipulating that while European nations should butt out, the United States was entitled “to the exercise of an international police power” in the Americas. This remained US policy until Franklin Roosevelt introduced his “Good Neighbor Policy,” and then once that brief interlude was over the Corollary became the basis of US policy toward Latin America during much of the Cold War.
December 7, 1941: The Japanese military undertakes a coordinated series of attacks on US and British colonial holdings throughout the Pacific region. Of these, certainly the best remembered is the assault on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii. Over 2400 people were killed in what was intended to be a preemptive strike to ensure that the United States would not interfere with Japanese plans in the Pacific. Of course it had the opposite effect, drawing the United States into World War II. Which, needless to say, did not work out to Japan’s (nor, for that matter, to its European allies’) benefit.
December 7, 1965: During the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I issue the Catholic–Orthodox Joint Declaration of 1965. The declaration reversed the mutual excommunications that had been issued by Pope Leo IX and Ecumenical Patriarch Michael I Cerularius in the Great East-West Schism of 1054. The Catholic and Orthodox churches are still in schism, of course, but their relationship has improved considerably since the 11th century.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
With COVID’s Omicron variant still surging around the world, there’s some competing early information about how serious the new strain actually is. On the one hand, a small new study suggests that Omicron can partially evade the protections afforded by the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. The study is the first to test Omicron against a vaccine so more research is needed, and indications appear to be that the vaccine still protects against severe illness. On that latter note, South African researchers are suggesting that Omicron may be less severe than previous COVID strains in general. Again it’s very early to draw conclusions, but South Africa’s experience with Omicron seems to show that the strain is causing a surge in COVID cases but not a surge in serious cases (e.g., cases requiring supplemental oxygen).
An apparent Israeli airstrike hit Syria’s main seaport at Latakia early Tuesday morning, causing a large fire and heavy damage but no casualties according to Syrian media. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is claiming the target was a shipment of arms bound for Syrian militias, presumably courtesy of the Iranian government though that’s not clear and as always reports from both the SOHR and the pro-government Syrian media should be treated with caution.
The US military has launched another of its internal investigations amid claims that a drone strike in Idlib province on Friday killed civilians. The Pentagon says the strike targeted a “senior al-Qaeda leader,” which probably means someone affiliated with the Hurras al-Din organization, and it sounds like military officials believe they killed him but also took out at least one civilian in the process. If this investigation is as rigorous as the US military’s other recent investigations into potential civilian casualties, I’m sure they’ll determine that they did nothing wrong and/or that they meant well and that’s what really counts.
The Saudi coalition in Yemen announced a new round of airstrikes against Houthi targets in Sanaa as well as in Yemen’s Jouf and Maʾrib provinces on Tuesday. Those strikes came in retaliation for a major Houthi missile and drone barrage against Saudi targets. The full extent of that barrage is unclear but Saudi missile defenses clearly intercepted at least one missile over Riyadh and the kingdom also said it downed two Houthi drones. There’s been no report of casualties from either operation though in this case I’d say absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
A motorcycle bomb killed at least four people and wounded at least 20 more in Basra on Tuesday, the first time that city has been hit by a terrorist attack in years. There’s been no claim of responsibility but Iraqi authorities seem to be pointing toward Islamic State as the culprit.
French police arrested a man named Khalid Alotaibi as he was attempting to board a flight to Riyadh at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris on Tuesday. The reason this is notable is that somebody named “Khalid Alotaibi” was allegedly part of the hit squad that murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018, almost certainly on the orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Saudi government has been insisting that it convicted and imprisoned all the members of that team—though, to be fair, the Saudi government also insists that MBS had nothing to do with it and that’s almost certainly a load of bullshit. Saudi officials are claiming that the main arrested in Paris had nothing to do with the murder, though whether they mean that Khalid Alotaibi wasn’t actually involved or that this Khalid Alotaibi is a different Khalid Alotaibi is unclear.
The Khalid Alotaibi who was allegedly part of the hit squad is wanted by the Turkish government, which has put out Interpol notices on all of the alleged killers. But the Turkish government has been trying to make nice with the Saudis for some time now, and if this guy is extradited to Turkey for trial it could dredge up some uncomfortable memories. The arrest also comes just a couple of days after French President Emmanuel Macron flew to Saudi Arabia to help launder MBS’s international image with a big push to resolve recent tensions between the Saudi and Lebanese governments. So the timing isn’t great from Macron’s perspective either.
Negotiations on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal will resume Thursday in Vienna, according to Iranian media. Parties at the current seventh round of talks decided to hit the pause button on Friday in lieu of a total collapse of the negotiating process, after two Iranian proposals (covering the two main issues, sanctions relief and Iran’s return to compliance with the agreement) apparently went over like lead balloons. The new Iranian government had said it would go into this round of talks with the intention of building upon the progress the previous Iranian government had made in the first six rounds, but US and European diplomats claim the Iranian offers walked back every concession Tehran made in those earlier rounds while “pocketing” every concession Western negotiators made.
Obviously US and European negotiators may be mischaracterizing the Iranian position for bargaining purposes. But if they really feel like the talks have moved “back to square one almost,” as Laura Rozen quoted one European diplomat, then that’s not great news if you were hoping a deal would get done. One maybe positive aspect to this breakdown is that Iranian officials are responding defensively, suggesting they were stung a bit by the criticism of their offers. Which in turn suggests that they made those offers in good faith rather than in an attempt to torpedo the talks. There have also been some hints that the Iranians have heard private complaints from Russia and China, two countries whose support Tehran needs if it’s to survive a scenario in which these talks fail and the US does not lift its sanctions. Though Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has staffed his administration will people who opposed the nuclear deal in the first place, they also have an incentive to show up the previous administration by getting a “better deal” in some way. So there could still be an opening to bring these talks to a successful conclusion, albeit one that’s probably getting smaller.
On a possibly related note, an explosion near Iran’s main uranium enrichment facility at Natanz sparked a bit of panic on Saturday. Iranian officials initially attributed the explosion to a missile defense test but then later suggested that missile defense systems were triggered by a drone. If the Vienna talks break down to the point where a US and/or Israeli airstrike becomes conceivable, Natanz will be among the potential targets.
Russian President Vladimir Putin stopped by New Delhi on Monday to see how Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is doing and to sign a whole bunch of business deals. The two men apparently signed 28 deals in all and pinky swore to increase bilateral trade to upwards of $30 billion per year by 2025. Of particular importance for humankind, a couple of the agreements involved expanded Russian sales of oil and coal to India. That should help ensure that India continues to belch out high levels of carbon for the foreseeable future.
A court on Monday sentenced former Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi to four years in prison on charges of incitement and breaching COVID restrictions. That sentence was then halved by the country’s ruling junta in what I guess was supposed to be a magnanimous gesture toward the woman it ousted in February’s coup. Former President Win Myint also received a four year sentence and it’s not clear to me whether his was also reduced. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet lambasted the proceedings as a “sham trial,” which gives you an idea how the international community took the news. Suu Kyi faces other, more serious charges that will undoubtedly draw longer sentences when she’s convicted.
The Biden administration on Monday confirmed mounting speculation that it will stage a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, citing alleged Chinese human rights violations. US athletes will attend as normal but no senior US officials will be present. The Chinese response to this announcement, which had been somewhat expected, has been all over the place. On the one hand, official media has suggested that US officials weren’t invited to attend in the first place, which seems unlikely given Olympic tradition. On the other hand, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has accused the US of attempting to “sabotage” everybody’s good time and is warning that it will “pay” some unspecified “price” for doing so. Presumably the concern is that the US boycott will trigger similar moves by other countries and create an international embarrassment for Beijing.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare comfortably saw off a no-confidence motion on Monday, with his backers defeating the measure 32 votes to 15. The motion stemmed from recent unrest in Honoria, which was fueled by a host of grievances against Sogavare and his government, including its 2019 decision to cut ties with Taiwan and open them with Beijing. Sogavare blamed “Taiwan’s agents” of fomenting the unrest, which abated in the presence of international peacekeepers and does not appear to have resumed in the wake of the vote.
Gambian President Adama Barrow won reelection fairly handily on Saturday after a campaign marred by claims of democratic backsliding. A couple of years ago, amid an effort to rewrite the Gambian constitution, Barrow fell out with his former party, the United Democratic Party, and the other parties with which UDP collaborated to defeat former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh in the 2016 election. That coalition had agreed that, if he defeated Jammeh, Barrow would step down in 2019 and trigger a new presidential election in which he would not be a candidate. After winning the election—and after finally unseating the authoritarian Jammeh, who initially refused to leave office—Barrow reconsidered his options and decided that he’d prefer to remain president for his full term. He formed his own party, the National People’s Party, which then aligned itself with Jammeh supporters to defeat the proposed new constitution.
Although Jammeh, in exile in Equatorial Guinea, has disavowed any alliance with Barrow, opposition leaders have alleged that Barrow intends to cover up the findings of a commission his administration tasked with rooting out the crimes of his predecessor’s government. The campaign saw some unrest, though the outcome suggests that whatever divisiveness Barrow’s actions engendered among the Gambian political elite didn’t really have much salience with voters. Nevertheless, there is the potential for more unrest now that the election is over.
Unknown gunmen attacked and set fire to a bus in northern Nigeria’s Sokoto state on Tuesday, killing at least 30 people. There’s no indication as to who the attackers were apart from the vague appellation of “bandits.”
The Ethiopian government announced Monday that its forces had retaken the cities of Dessie and Kombolcha, both of which lie at a strategically important highway junction in Ethiopia’s Amhara region. The rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front captured those cities in October as it undertook an advance on Addis Ababa that now seems like it may be falling apart. The TPLF is trying to claim that its withdrawal from the two cities is part of some unspecified “plan,” but I’m not sure what sort of plan would involve surrendering key territorial gains without some corresponding advance elsewhere. As ever, the lack of steady/reliable news out of Ethiopia means the overall picture of the conflict is difficult to ascertain, but it seems pretty clear that Abiy Ahmed’s government—perhaps due to the support of his allies—is in much better shape in its battle against the TPLF than it was just a couple of weeks ago.
Speaking of Equatorial Guinea, the Chinese military may be looking to establish a presence there and the United States government wants to be sure you’re suitably terrified at the prospect:
Classified American intelligence reports suggest China intends to establish its first permanent military presence on the Atlantic Ocean in the tiny Central African country of Equatorial Guinea, according to U.S. officials.
The officials declined to describe details of the secret intelligence findings. But they said the reports raise the prospect that Chinese warships would be able to rearm and refit opposite the East Coast of the U.S.—a threat that is setting off alarm bells at the White House and Pentagon.
Principal deputy U.S. national security adviser Jon Finer visited Equatorial Guinea in October on a mission to persuade President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and his son and heir apparent, Vice President Teodoro “Teodorin” Nguema Obiang Mangue, to reject China’s overtures.
The phrase “opposite the East Coast of the US” is doing an extraordinary amount of work in that passage, given that Equatorial Guinea is well over 5500 nautical miles from Miami and that’s on a direct line, which cuts through part of West Africa. The most direct sailing route between them is therefore even longer. Nevertheless, I’m sure the Pentagon does find the idea of a Chinese naval base on the Atlantic to be troubling—maybe as troubling as the Chinese military finds all those US military bases in the Pacific, most of which are substantially closer to China than Equatorial Guinea is to the US.
REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
The governments of the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo signed an agreement on Monday establishing what they’re calling the “Energy Friendship Loop,” connecting the power grids of the two countries. Specifically, the deal will connect an ROC power plant at Pointe-Noire with a DRC hydroelectric plant at Inga. Both countries are looking to expand their energy production capacity, with the DRC especially looking to generate more electricity to support mining operations in its southern Katanga region.
Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin held a virtual summit on Tuesday where they focused mostly on a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine, which depending on who’s talking is either imminent or will never happen. Biden is said to have threatened Putin with highly punitive US sanctions in the event of an invasion. Those sanctions would likely target major Russian banks and could cut them off from the global financial network and limit their access to US dollars. It’s also believed that the Biden administration has a deal in place with the German government to shut down Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Putin reportedly expressed his anger over growing military ties between Ukraine and NATO member states, while demanding some sort of guarantee against further eastward NATO expansion. The latter would probably be impossible for Biden to provide even if he were inclined to provide it, which he almost certainly is not. There’s no indication that the two came to any sort of resolution or really did anything other than air their grievances.
On a somewhat more positive note, the US and Russian government have reportedly made some progress toward ending their ongoing diplomatic staffing dispute. Details are unclear, but the US government has rescinded its authorized departure policy that allowed family members of US diplomatic staff to leave Russia if desired. The two governments have been whittling away at their respective in-country diplomatic missions for years now, to the point where by some accounts the US mission in Russia is barely functioning.
While Biden and Putin were complaining to one another, the Ukrainian military and Russian-backed separatists were reportedly clashing along their mostly frozen front line in the Donbas region. There are no reports of casualties on the Ukrainian side and no reports at all on the rebel side. The Ukrainian government is now accusing Moscow of deploying tanks and snipers to eastern Ukraine, either in preparation for a more serious outbreak of violence or possibly to provoke that outbreak.
Former Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer became the country’s new chancellor on Tuesday. Nehammer succeeds Alexander Schallenberg, who became chancellor back in October when his predecessor and former People’s Party leader Sebastian Kurz resigned amid a corruption investigation. Kurz resigned as party leader and left parliament altogether last week, at which point Schallenberg also resigned in order to allow the party’s new leader to also take over as chancellor. The party selected Nehammer as its new boss on Friday.
The final procedural hurdle to the accession of Germany’s new governing coalition was cleared on Monday, when members of the Green Party voted to approve its participation in a three-party alliance with the Social Democratic Party and the Free Democratic Party. SPD leader Olaf Scholz should be officially confirmed as chancellor on Wednesday, succeeding the outgoing Angela Merkel.
The right wing effort to impeach Peruvian President Pedro Castillo fizzled out on Tuesday, as only 46 members of the 130 Congress voted in favor of the measure (with 76 voting against). That’s shy of the 52 votes Castillo’s opponents needed to send the proceeding on to the next stage and well short of the 87 votes they would have needed to remove Castillo from office. Keiko Fujimori, who lost to Castillo in June’s presidential runoff, spearheaded the failed effort. There was some uncertainty as to the outcome, as Castillo’s own Free Peru party had flirted with the idea of supporting the impeachment after Castillo sacked his leftist cabinet back in October in favor of a more moderate one. But the party came around in recent days, and Castillo’s discussions with other party leaders seem to have shored up his support.
Honduran elections officials are opening a recount targeting votes from 2581 ballot boxes, over disputes surrounding last month’s congressional election. The Liberty and Refoundation of Xiomarra Castro, who won the corresponding presidential election, is alleging that the current ruling National Party has manipulated the vote count in its favor. The current preliminary results have Liberty and Refoundation with 61 seats in the 128 seat National Congress, so majority control of the chamber could be at stake if there’s any merit to this recount.
The Biden administration on Tuesday imposed sanctions on multiple Syrian and Iranian entities and individuals over alleged human rights violations. The most prominent of these would appear to be Gholamreza Soleimani, commander of Iran’s paramilitary Basij force, and the Special Units section of the Iranian police force. The administration also sanctioned the head of Uganda’s military intelligence service, Abel Kandiho, on similar allegations. The new sanctions all come a couple of days before Joe Biden’s big “Summit for Democracy” is set to kick off were likely intended to serve as a demonstration of the kinds of sanctions Biden will call on attendees to impose.
Finally, at The American Prospect, the Government Accountability Project’s Zack Kopplin digs into a case that illustrates how important the United States is to the illicit global financial network:
A few blocks from the water, in the heart of Miami’s glitzy South Beach, is a drugstore not like the others. Tourists buying sunscreen and straw hats from the CVS on Washington Avenue are financing a Middle Eastern kleptocrat.
The plexiglass building housing the roughly 12,000-square-foot pharmacy is worth $18.3 million and, because of favorable rent terms negotiated with CVS, should generate significant profit for its landlord. In 2019, based on Miami property records, local press credited a Virginia-based real estate company, KLNB, with purchasing the building. But the Virginia firm’s inclusion in the property registrar was a diversion. “KLNB is not the owner of this property and had no involvement in the transaction,” a company representative said.
The actual purchase was made by an anonymous Delaware shell company. Buried in incorporation documents for this Delaware company’s Florida branch is the name of the building’s real owner: Masrour Barzani, the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan.
A semi-independent region in Iraq’s north, Kurdistan is a hereditary monarchy in all but name and has been dominated by the Barzani family for decades. The Kurdish prime minister has abused his power to attack, torture, and kill his critics, including Saudi-style assassinations of journalists. While he previously served as the region’s intelligence chief, Barzani had a local university student, Zardasht Osman, tortured and killed for publishing a satirical poem about the social advancement that would come with marrying one of the prime minister’s sisters.
The Kurdish prime minister is not a benign pharmacy operator. But because of America’s underappreciated role as an enabler of corporate secrecy, if not for a clerical error, South Beach residents would have no idea about the Washington Avenue CVS.
No one knows the extent of the illicit wealth hidden inside the United States. Corporate secrecy laws, maintained by states like Delaware, keep it that way. But tracing the Barzani family’s investments, like this Miami pharmacy, explains why America has become an appealing destination for dirty money.
Barzani also apparently laundered some of his presumably ill-gotten loot through the UAE, but America was his primary conduit. USA A-OK, and so forth.