World roundup: October 21 2021

Stories from Iran, Cameroon, Barbados, and more

This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges, but did you know you can get it delivered right to your inbox? Sign up today:


PROGRAMMING NOTE: Barring any unforeseen developments we’ll be taking a little break from the news this weekend. FX will be back to regular programming on Tuesday.

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

October 20, 1448: The Second Battle of Kosovo ends

October 20, 1962: Chinese forces attack India in two disputed border regions—Ladakh in the west and the Tibet-Arunachal Pradesh region in the east, beginning the month-long Sino-Indian War. The conflict ended with a decisive Chinese victory that stabilized the still poorly defined Chinese-Indian border on Beijing’s terms.

October 20, 2011: With the tide of Libya’s civil war having turned decisively against him, thanks in no small measure to NATO’s intervention, a fleeing Muammar Gaddafi is captured by rebels west of the city of Sirte and summarily executed. This of course brought the war to a decisive conclu-just kidding. Had you there for a minute, didn’t I?

October 21, 1096: The “People’s Crusade” ends

October 21, 1600: Tokugawa Ieyasu’s army defeats the “Western Army” of Ishida Mitsunari at the Battle of Sekigahara. The victory left Ieyasu in virtually uncontested control of Japan and is generally marked as the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate, even though Ieyasu wasn’t officially appointed shōgun until 1603.

October 21, 1805: A British Royal Navy fleet under Horatio Nelson (who was killed in action) decisively defeats a combined Franco-Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar, near Cape Trafalgar in southern Spain. Britain had established naval supremacy over France years earlier through engagements like the 1798 Battle of the Nile. Trafalgar confirmed that naval supremacy and was the last major naval engagement of the Napoleonic wars. Napoleon’s plan to build a great new navy that would finally defeat Britain’s was derailed by his defeat on land years later.

INTERNATIONAL

In today’s global news:

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

That reported drone strike on the US military outpost at Tanf in southern Syria turns out to have been a little more involved than initially realized. A statement from the US military on the incident describes a “deliberate and coordinated attack” that involved drones and artillery. The statement doesn’t identify a culprit but if the attack was as intense as described then it’s very likely to have been the Syrian military and/or pro-government militias, the latter maybe a bit more likely than the former. A US retaliation of some kind may be forthcoming and I assume it will not involve evacuating Tanf, an outpost that at this point exists solely to block one of the main arteries connecting Syria and Iraq.

A Syrian rebel group called the Qasiyun Brigade has claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s bombing of a Syrian army bus in Damascus. As far as I can tell every report you can find on the bombing refers to them as “little known,” which seems about right. They’re active in Damascus and have attacked Syrian security forces and other government personnel in the past, but beyond that there’s not much information about who they are or their place in the Syrian rebel milieu.

YEMEN

The Saudi military says it carried out airstrikes against Houthi facilities in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, related to the rebels’ drone and missile programs. There’s no word on any casualties in those strikes but the Houthis are saying that at least two Yemenis were killed in some sort of clash in northern Yemen’s Saada province. Details are unclear but that incident may have involved Saudi airstrikes as well.

TURKEY

The Financial Action Task Force, which monitors financial shenanigans like money laundering and terrorist financing, placed Turkey (along with Jordan and Mali) on its “grey” watch list on Thursday, which subjects it to heightened scrutiny but does not carry any immediate risk of sanctions as a blacklist designation would. The Turkish Treasury called the designation “undeserved” but said it will work with the FATF to get Turkey off of that list. Though being placed on the grey list doesn’t carry any overt penalties, it does have a measurable impact in terms of reducing foreign investment, which is something Turkey’s wobbly economy really doesn’t need at the moment.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar has released a draft bill that would bar any Israeli politician under indictment for a “serious” (defined as anything that could result in three or more years of prison upon conviction) crime from forming a government. Although written in general terms this particular circumstance would only apply to former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and would, if it is passed, bar Netanyahu from returning to his old gig. I wouldn’t begin to try to guess the chances of this bill ever becoming law but the implications for Israeli politics could be significant if it does. Opposition to Netanyahu is the thing that’s holding Israel’s current coalition government together. With him legally out of the picture there would be a decent chance that the coalition would collapse in favor of a new election.

IRAN

The Quincy Institute’s Trita Parsi has garnered a fairly big scoop about the course of negotiations on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal:

Iran’s delay in rejoining talks in Vienna to revive the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement has fueled speculation that the new Ebrahim Raisi government has lost interest in the accord. Its deepened mistrust, optimism about its China option, and confidence that it can weather American sanctions have shaped this conclusion, leaving Washington with no choice but to publicly threaten its own shift to more coercion under an undefined Plan B, the narrative goes.

But new information obtained by Responsible Statecraft reveals that that impasse is not because of an Iranian sense of immunity to pressure, but largely because President Joe Biden refused to commit to keeping sanctions lifted on Iran for the rest of his term, even if Iran rejoins and complies with the nuclear deal.

A crucial turning point in the negotiations occurred earlier in May of this year. The Iranians had insisted on legally binding commitments that the United States would respect its signature and not re-quit the JCPOA, were it to be revived. Though the U.S. team found the Iranian demand understandable, it insisted it could not bind the hands of the next administration, nor guarantee that a future administration hostile to the JCPOA wouldn’t again abandon it.

But according to both Western and Iranian diplomats involved in the negotiations, the Iranians then lowered their demand and requested a commitment that Biden would simply commit to staying within the deal for the rest of his own term, granted that Iran also would remain in compliance. According to these sources, the U.S. negotiation team took the matter back to Washington but to the surprise of Tehran and others, the White House was not ready to make such a commitment, citing legal obstacles. Instead, it offered changes to the negotiating text that fell short of a legal commitment.

Put simply, if the Biden administration isn’t even willing to guarantee that it will abide by a restored JCPOA through the end of its own term, barring an Iranian violation, then there’s really no reason for the Iranian government to return to the agreement. In fact the worst case scenario from Iran’s perspective would be returning to the deal, reimposing its strict limits on the Iranian nuclear program, only to have the United States suddenly invoke the deal’s sanctions snapback provision. It’s unlikely the Biden administration intends to do something like that, but the Iranians have no real reason to believe anything any American official tells them at this point. Even without snapback, a US refusal to commit even to three years of sanctions relief would inject so much uncertainty into the situation that foreign investors and companies would likely shy away from doing business with Iran anyway.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

The United Nations says it is forming a “trust fund” for the purpose of making donor cash directly available to Afghans without being filtered through the Taliban-led government. It’s unclear to me how such a program could work without the Taliban’s cooperation at a minimum, but the head of the UN Development Program, Achim Steiner, says his office has discussed the initiative with Taliban officials. Absent a massive influx of aid virtually everyone in Afghanistan (some 97 percent of the population) is either currently living in poverty or is at risk of falling into poverty by the middle of next year.

One of the keys to unlocking international aid is likely to be the Taliban’s treatment of women. In a somewhat troubling development along those lines, the Taliban is telling most women employed by the Kabul city government not to report to work until the appropriate “conditions” for their continued employment (whatever those might be) are established. Women working in public jobs in health, education, and a few other sectors are being exempted from the new ban and the Taliban says it will continue to pay the salaries of those who are being forced to stay home.

PAKISTAN

Pakistani security forces killed three Islamic State fighters in a raid on an IS hideout in the city of Peshawar early Thursday. All three were Afghan nationals. Later in the day Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi announced several new initiatives aimed at bolstering the new Afghan government, including additional humanitarian aid, the lifting of border closures to boost commerce, and a restoration of direct flights between Islamabad and Kabul after their suspension earlier this month.

SOUTH KOREA

The South Korean space program took a partial step forward in a test flight on Thursday. South Korea’s first domestic space launcher, the KSLV-II Nuri, successfully took off and reached its target altitude. That’s the step forward. It was unable, however, to place its test satellite payload into orbit. Hence the “partial” step. Long-term the rocket’s successful launch and ascent was probably the more important development.

AFRICA

MALI

A French drone strike reportedly killed a senior commander in the al-Qaeda linked Jamaʿat Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin group, along with several other JNIM personnel, earlier this month in Mali’s Tombouctou region. In southern Mali’s Sikasso region, meanwhile, suspected jihadists kidnapped five people in an overnight attack. This is unusual in that southern Mali has not suffered from jihadist violence to nearly the extent that northern and eastern Mali have. The identity of the abductors is unclear.

CAMEROON

Anglophone separatists in western Cameroon’s “Ambazonia” region have reportedly formed some sort of alliance with Biafran separatists across the border in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region. The extent of their collaboration is not fully clear but Ambazonian separatists have reportedly been expanding their arsenal of weaponry lately and their ties to the Nigerian separatists may be the reason why. The alliance also presumably gives each group the ability to take refuge and/or set up bases on the other side of the border. News of this alliance could prompt the Nigerian and Cameroonian governments to collaborate on their mutual separatist challenges, though the two countries have struggled to work together on the Boko Haram/Islamic State threat so they don’t have a good precedent for that sort of relationship.

ETHIOPIA

The Ethiopian military bombed the Tigray regional capital, Mekelle, on Thursday, marking its third day of strikes on that city this week. Ethiopian officials say they targeted a Tigray People’s Liberation Front base in Mekelle, though there’s no indication of any casualties.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

Attackers likely belonging to the Islamist Allied Democratic Forces militia raided a village in the eastern DRC’s North Kivu province late Wednesday, killing at least 16 people.

EUROPE

ROMANIA

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis on Thursday designated retired general and interim Defense Minister Nicolae Ciucă as prime minister. Ciucă will attempt to succeed where previous PM-designate Dacian Cioloș failed in terms of cobbling together a coalition to replace former PM Florin Cîțu’s recently collapsed government. It’s possible that Ciucă, a member of the Liberal Party like Cîțu, will try to reconstitute the ex-PM’s coalition, but we’ll see.

AMERICAS

CHILE

A new poll shows far-right Chilean Republican Party boss José Antonio Kast slipping a point ahead of leftist Social Convergence party leader Gabriel Boric ahead of Chile’s November 21 presidential election. This single poll has to be weighed against a much larger number of polls showing Boric in the lead, so I would caution against putting too much weight on these results. But there has been an unmistakable surge in support for Kast, who has moved past the relatively more centrist Sebastián Sichel in recent surveys and is probably now the favorite to join Boric in the December 19 runoff (no candidate is polling anywhere close to what would be needed to win outright in the first round). This may actually be a positive development from Boric’s perspective, as hypothetical runoff polling consistently has him defeating Kast head-to-head.

BARBADOS

The two houses of the Barbadian parliament voted late Wednesday to elect Governor-General Sandra Mason as the country’s first president, a major milestone on its transition from British Commonwealth realm to republic. Mason will be sworn-in on November 30 and will become Barbados’s first elected head of state, replacing Queen Elizabeth II in that role.

MEXICO

Jacobin’s Kurt Hackbarth looks at a new effort by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to gain a measure of control over Mexico’s energy sector:

Picture a country where energy prices have quadrupled in the last year, where citizens have taken to the streets to protest, where five corporations manipulate the market in order to gouge customers at will, where said oligarchy holds a gun to the head of a government that has proven virtually powerless to act, and where a constant stream of former leaders and cabinet ministers spin through the revolving door to take up lucrative positions on the companies’ boards of directors.

If you were thinking Latin America, think again; that country is Spain.

However absurd it may seem in the light of recent events, it is precisely this liberalized Spanish energy market that, since its 1997 privatization, has been the model for successive neoliberal regimes in Mexico. It was with resolve to end this creeping “Spainification” that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) sent a package of constitutional reforms to Congress on October 1. If passed, the package would amend Articles 25, 27, and 28 of the Constitution in order to consolidate the role of the public Federal Energy Commission. This would mean its conversion into an autonomous legal entity, abolishing the subsidiaries and commissions that have kept it conveniently hamstrung, and reserving for it the production of at least 54 percent of the nation’s energy supply.

But the wild card in the announcement was what came next: the stipulation that lithium and all other minerals deemed strategic for the nation’s energy transition will come under the control of the state, which is to possess the exclusive rights of exploration and mining. In so doing, the president elevated the ongoing scuffle between the public and private energy sectors to the level of a historic battle.

The lithium nationalization effort is particularly interesting in that, at least according to Hackbarth, it could force the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) to make some hard political choices.

UNITED STATES

The US military conducted several tests related to its development of hypersonic weapons technology on Wednesday, just days after a report surfaced that China may have conducted a successful hypersonic test of its own earlier this year. One of those tests, of a hypersonic glide vehicle (one type of hypersonic projectile), failed when a booster rocket malfunctioned, but the others reportedly went as planned.

Finally, if you haven’t already read Daniel Bessner’s latest Foreign Exchanges column, outlining recent developments in the field of diplomatic history, please check it out:

In the last three decades, the field traditionally known as “diplomatic history” has been transformed. First, it’s been rebranded. Now, scholars no longer study “diplomatic history”; instead, they study the history of the “US in the World.” The new phrase, many argue, has two primary benefits. First, it suggests that manifold different subjects, besides the interactions of diplomats, are legitimate focuses of analysis. Second, it combats American exceptionalism by underlining the fact that the United States is one of many countries in the world and that to understand the history of the former one must also study the history of the latter.

In addition to this rebranding, the field of the “US in the World” has been transformed by two historiographical “turns” that have reshaped how scholars understand the history of US foreign relations. The most important of these is known as the “international turn.” Instead of focusing on domestic actors and processes—elections, the personality of leaders, lobbying groups, etc.—those who have taken the international turn have instead trained their eyes on how foreign groups, peoples, and movements shaped US behavior in the world. In this way, scholars have attempted to “de-exceptionalize” US history by emphasizing the non-US origins of US foreign policy.