World update: January 14 2020

Stories from Iran, Australia, Libya, and more


January 13, 532: The Nika Riots, arguably the archetype for modern soccer riots, begin in Constantinople. Basically, two factions of chariot racing hooligans, the Greens and the Blues, both frustrated over taxation, corruption, and recent crackdowns on their hooliganism by the authorities, broke out in revolt during that day’s chariot races. Over the next week the mob seized control of the city, crowned its own “emperor” (against his wishes, it seems), and nearly put the real emperor, Justinian I, to flight. But a few of Justinian’s military officers were able to slip out of the city and bring their soldiers back with them, while the emperor offered leaders in the Blue faction a hefty bribe to turn on the Greens. The Byzantine historian Procopius says that some 30,000 people were killed in the ensuing counterattack, though that figure may be too high.

January 13, 1951: A French army is able to win a decisive victory over a larger Việt Minh force in the Battle of Vĩnh Yên. The battle ended a several months-long string of victories by the Việt Minh and arguably played a role in extending the First Indochina War all the way into 1954.

January 14, 1761: The Third Battle of Panipat

January 14, 2011: Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resigns after over 23 years in power and almost a month of protests. Ben Ali’s resignation marked the successful conclusion of the Tunisian Revolution (this date is annually commemorated as “Revolution and Youth Day” in Tunisia) and the first major victory of the Arab Spring movement. It helped spark and motivate similar movements in Libya, Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere, though none of those worked out quite as successfully.



Residents of Syria’s Idlib province are reporting that Russian aircraft have resumed their bombing campaign a scant two days after a Russian-Turkish negotiated ceasefire went into effect. I guess those leaflets the Russians dropped offering people safe passage out of the province were only good for 48 hours or so. Elsewhere, Israeli aircraft (presumably) attacked Syria’s T4 airbase in Homs province on Tuesday. Syrian officials are claiming that their air defenses intercepted most of the missiles fired on the facility and that the ones that did get through only caused physical damage, no casualties. But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the strike killed at least three Iranian-aligned militia fighters.


Somebody fired Katyusha rockets at the Taji military base north of Baghdad on Tuesday, with no casualties reported. No group has claimed responsibility but an Iraqi militia seems likely.

Between the Iraqi political system’s crippling dysfunction and the crisis posed by the escalation in US-Iran tensions, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has managed to remain in office despite having resigned all the way back in November, in the face of large public protests demanding his removal and a violent crackdown against protesters by Iraqi security forces. Now it’s starting to look like Abdul-Mahdi might stick around indefinitely, as in “resignation? what resignation” indefinitely. The political focus in Iraq has shifted away from appeasing protesters and on to getting US military forces out of the country. In part of course that’s a result of the US and its recent actions, but there also seems to be a concerted effort underway to use recent US actions to take the heat off of Abdul-Mahdi. He’s won the support of both the Shiʿa militia crowd and the Kurdish crowd, which gives him a strong base of political support. Even Muqtada al-Sadr, not exactly Abdul-Mahdi’s biggest fan, has shifted his focus onto the US. Abdul-Mahdi is still loathed by the protesters, though, so the longer he stays the harder it will be for Iraqi leaders to calm things down.

Abdul-Mahdi receiving Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Baghdad back in May (State Department via Wikimedia Commons)


As in Iraq, protesters in Lebanon have also returned to the streets after a surprisingly brief pause amid the Qassem Soleimani assassination and its aftermath. Demonstrators on Tuesday blocked major highways around Beirut while others protested in the capital (where there were clashes reported between protesters and police) as well as in several other cities across the country. Frustrations have built up again in part because Prime Minister-designate Hassan Diab, remains a PM-designate even though he was tapped for the job almost a month ago. Diab still hasn’t been able to put together a cabinet and so the protesters’ goal of a “depoliticized” Lebanese government remains elusive.


Egyptian-American dual citizen Mustafa Kassem has died while in Egyptian custody. Kassem was arrested six years ago during the Egyptian government’s massacre of more than 1000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Cairo’s Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square, and though he was almost certainly picked up simply for being in the vicinity of the Brotherhood protesters he’s been in prison ever since. He went on a hunger strike to protest his situation in September 2018. The US government, which would have shouted Kassem’s case to the heavens had he been an Iranian-American arrested in Iran, did virtually nothing to pressure Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government to release him and even now has said almost nothing about his death.


This got lost in the crush of Iran news over the weekend, but it’s…weird:

Leave aside the implication that the US military is now the world’s largest mercenary operation and just focus on the $1 billion part. They’ve deposited it in “the bank”? What does that mean? It’s unclear. Nobody else outside the Pentagon seems to have heard tell of this $1 billion payment, and the Pentagon won’t confirm that there was a payment (though they do say they’re in talks with the Saudis about compensation), so is it even real? What bank? Is it a bank where the US government has a savings account or something? Or could it be a bank where Donald Trump has a savings account? That seems farfetched, and yet as I write this on January 14, 2020, I’m honestly not sure just how farfetched it really is.


At some point I have to assume each day won’t bring two weeks’ worth of Iran news with it, but we’re clearly not at that point yet. Of less importance, the Trump administration seems to be dumping its “imminent threat” justification for assassinating Qassem Soleimani and is now going with “deterrence” as its rationale. This should be important, because there’s no “deterrence” exception to laws about killing people so they’ve admitted that killing Soleimani was illegal. But like the tree falling in the forest, if there’s nobody around to enforce the law then whether something is “illegal” or not becomes more or less irrelevant.

Inside Iran, meanwhile, it would appear that there’s a fourth night of anti-government protests happening (complete with police brutality), sparked by the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 by an Iranian anti-aircraft unit last week. Iranian authorities have reportedly begun arresting people who were involved in the shoot down, in an effort to demonstrate accountability, though it doesn’t appear they’ve nabbed any high profile types so far. It’s also being reported that they’ve arrested a person who posted a video of the aircraft being struck by the missile to the internet, which is a pretty good way to demonstrate a lack of accountability. The Iranian judiciary has also apparently labeled British ambassador Rob Macaire as persona non grata after he was briefly arrested for having attended a protest. It’s unclear whether they’ve formally designated him as such, in which case he’d have to leave the country.

This new wave of protests is being bolstered by a spate of resignations by Iranian journalists, who have quit their jobs for state media outlets and in some cases have made public apologies for years of dealing in government propaganda. Iran is not a good place to be a journalist and these resignations are bringing that issue to the fore in a way that the government will have a difficult time suppressing.

Amid the protests, the Iranian Guardian Council engaged in its usual pre-rigging ahead of next month’s legislative election, barring over 8000 potential candidates from standing for office including dozens of sitting members of the Iranian Majles. The Guardian Council is empowered to decide who is and isn’t permitted to run for office. While officials say most of those cut from the ballot this time around were removed for reasons related to corruption, ideology is always a major factor in determining someone’s “qualifications” to stand for public office. Reformist media has claimed that most of those blocked from running are in the reformist or at least moderate political camps, helping to open the field for conservatives.

The major Iran-related story of the day is that the “E3”—France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—have triggered the 2015 nuclear deal’s dispute resolution mechanism, which despite European protestations to the contrary likely spells the final end of the accord. This is their response to several Iranian moves to reduce compliance with the deal, which in turn was Iran’s response to the US decision in 2018 to withdraw from the deal entirely and wreck its entire framework on the way out the door. The Europeans say that they want to prod Iran back into full compliance with the deal, and I think you sort of have to give them credit for not sugar-coating the imperialist mindset that’s baked into their demands. Even though the United States has wrecked the deal, and even though the E3 have done nothing to try to preserve its benefits for Iran, their expectation is that the Iranians will keep their end of the bargain regardless. The only way that logic works is if you believe implicitly that the Iranians are subservient to the other parties to the deal.

The dispute mechanism involves several steps, some of which can be extended, perhaps for quite a while. Assuming the Iranians do not knuckle under to their pressure, the E3 could try to extend the dispute period through the US elections in hopes that Donald Trump loses. But assuming there’s no solution to the dispute, and it’s hard to see how there could be one that doesn’t amount to full Iranian capitulation, things eventually wind up at the UN Security Council, where because of the way the mechanism was designed in the deal the imposition of UN sanctions against Iran would be a foregone conclusion. While the practical effect would be negligible, since US sanctions are so comprehensive as to make any UN sanctions superfluous, it would be a major symbolic step. It would mark the end of the deal, including presumably its inspections regime. The Iranians have in the past threatened even to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in such an instance, though they insist they’re not looking to produce nuclear weapons and I have my doubts they would go so far as to leave the NPT since that really could trigger a war.

European leaders like Boris Johnson have been trying to flatter and/or cajole Trump to the negotiating table (Johnson’s sycophantic suggestion Tuesday for a “Trump Deal” to replace the 2015 deal was particularly nauseating). They say they’re still not caving to Trump’s hardline position—available evidence to the contrary notwithstanding—and are not joining his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. They may be hoping that triggering the dispute mechanism will convince Trump that they’re being Very Serious About Iran and help their case. But nobody’s offering anything to encourage the Iranians to engage—not even a basic assurance that they won’t have the rug pulled out from underneath them a second time. And especially in the wake of the Soleimani assassination there’s little reason to think that even the Iranian public would be amenable to more negotiations with Washington. So far the response from Tehran to this move has been tepid, which all things considered is pretty good. A mild Iranian response allows the Europeans to justify taking their time on the resolution process.



The committee overseeing the construction of Indonesia’s new capital city has a new chairman: Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and de facto UAE leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. He’ll be responsible in part for doing the business deals expected to finance much of the $34 billion construction of the new city, which will replace the heavily-polluted and actually-sinking-into-the-ground city of Jakarta and promises to wreak havoc with whatever remains of the natural environment in the East Kalimantan region of Borneo Island. The UAE is also helping Indonesia to establish a sovereign wealth fund, out of charity and kindness I’m sure and not for any crass business reasons.

Tony Blair is also on the committee, so as long as this enterprise doesn’t end in some sort of disastrous and unnecessary war I guess that should be considered a successful outcome. It’s nice to see Blair spending time abroad, though I really think he’d get a kick out of visiting The Hague one of these days and would encourage the folks there to invite him over for a visit.


The Trump administration has decided to lift its designation of China as a “currency manipulator,” which it imposed in August. The designation meant that the administration believed China was deliberately devaluing its currency to gain an edge in international trade. The reason for the shift has to do with the planned signing of “phase one” of a US-China trade deal, scheduled to happen on Wednesday. Supposedly that agreement has some provisions to curb Chinese devaluation


The Trump administration on Tuesday sanctioned two North Korean businesses accused of helping export North Korean workers abroad in violation of UN restrictions.

At The Diplomat, Defense Priorities fellow Bonnie Kristian argues that, in order to jump-start diplomacy, the Trump administration needs to shelve its demand for North Korea to “denuclearize” and instead rely on traditional deterrence while negotiating over goals that are actually achievable:

Lastly, return to negotiations with more plausible aims. For the United States, this means a nuclear freeze and an end to surprise weapons testing, a peace treaty for the Korean War, reduction of tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and a movement of the Kim regime toward normalized international relations and free, democratic governance at home. For North Korea, it means sanctions relief and the opportunities for international trade and the economic advancement that entails, as well as the peace treaty and an end to the U.S.-South Korean military drills, which Pyongyang views as practice for invasion.



I know we don’t normally cover sports around here but this seems like a special case:

The safety of players at this year’s Australian Open has been brought into sharp focus after a day of poor air quality in Melbourne forced the abandonment of the former world No 1 Maria Sharapova’s match in a warm-up event at Kooyong. Another player, Dalila Jakupovic, collapsed on court at Melbourne Park in jarring scenes at the venue for the year’s first grand slam.

Jakupovic was forced to retire midway through her qualifying match when she suffered a coughing fit. The match had been given the green light to go ahead by tournament organisers after the day’s play had initially been delayed for an hour due to the blanket of bushfire smoke enveloping Melbourne on Tuesday.

Sounds like it should be a real fun time for all the tennis pros. Maybe Scott Morrison can cut out the middle man and just light up a big coal fire for everybody at center court.



Sudanese security forces managed to suppress an attempted uprising by a group of ex-intelligence operatives on Tuesday. Former National Intelligence and Security Service agents attacked several government offices in Khartoum and took control of two oil fields in Darfur in an attack apparently motivated by anger over their severance packages. The attackers eventually agreed to surrender after negotiations. Sudanese leaders are blaming former intelligence chief Salah Gosh, currently in self-imposed exile somewhere (Egypt, probably), for orchestrating the whole thing.


“Libyan National Army” commander Khalifa Haftar did sleep on the ceasefire agreement that he and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj negotiated on Monday in Moscow…and then he woke up and left Russia without signing it. Reports followed of multiple engagements between the LNA and forces aligned with Sarraj’s Government of National Accord. The Turkish government, which is aligned with the GNA and has begun sending military advisers to Libya to assist in the war effort, lambasted Haftar for refusing to sign the agreement and threatened to take stronger action against the LNA.

The Russian government, which has been backing Haftar via the judicious use of Russian “mercenaries,” said that he was still considering the deal and had returned to Libya for consultations with his supporters. But Haftar is much more responsive to his patrons than his supporters, so chances are he’ll really be consulting with folks in Cairo and Abu Dhabi. If he simply refuses to sign the deal it could be a little embarrassing for Vladimir Putin, who arranged the ceasefire talks in part to show what an influential world leader he is. If he can’t even control his own clients, that doesn’t speak terribly highly of his international influence.



British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday issued a firm rejection to Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s request for a new independence referendum. For some reason Sturgeon was apparently hoping to hold such a referendum later this year even though it’s inconceivable that Johnson would allow that to happen. She insists that somehow she’s going to get a referendum done but it’s difficult to see how. The Scottish government could take its case to court but there’s certainly no guarantee of victory there. A strong showing for the Scottish National Party in next year’s Scottish legislative election might help her case but it’s still Johnson who holds the leverage. And he doesn’t seem inclined to budge.



Peru’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled on Tuesday that President Martín Vizcarra was within his rights to dissolve Congress back in September. Vizcarra’s move was the culmination of a running feud over his anti-corruption reforms, and was rejected by his conservative opposition. The court ruling means that a snap election will proceed as scheduled on January 26.


Finally, since they’re Donald Trump’s favorite foreign policy tool, I leave you with a couple of takes on sanctions. At the Quincy Institute, Thomas Lippman argues that they’re not the one-size-fits-all solution to global problems that the Trump administration seems to think they are:

In his address to the nation on Wednesday about Iran’s response to the U.S. assassination of a senior Iranian military leader, President Trump pledged that the United States “will immediately impose additional punishing sanctions on the Iranian regime.”

Two days earlier, angered by Iraqi threats to expel U.S. troops because the assassination of the Iranian general was carried out on Iraqi territory, Trump promised to hit Iraq with “sanctions like they’ve never seen before, ever.”

With those statements, the president revived a debate that has been going on since long before the creation of this country: Do economic sanctions work? Are they an effective tool of foreign policy?

The president clearly thinks the answer is yes, but in truth it is much more complicated. Sometimes sanctions bring about the desired result, but more often they do not, and on occasion they can backfire.

Elizabeth Rosenberg and Neil Bhatiya of the Center for a New American Security, meanwhile, argue that the way Trump has employed sanctions against Iran have made it more difficult to stabilize the Middle East:

Trump’s ominous sanctions threats are not a middle ground policy option meant to create space for diplomatic negotiation or de-escalation. His track record on Iran sanctions suggests that the White House sees sanctions as a windup to missile strikes or other hostile measures. Sanctions are a new signaling tool to advise U.S. adversaries of lethal intent. They also now appear to be a diplomatic démarche. Sanctions exceptions permit the U.S. State Department to issue visas to Iranian political leaders to attend United Nations meetings. But Trump just threw out this adherence to the U.N. Headquarters Agreement and denied Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s visa to travel to the U.N.

The strictures of sanctions can illuminate the possible future trajectories of U.S.-Iran tensions. These economic measures box Iran and the United States in, foreclosing certain de-escalatory paths in the bilateral relationship. The forced isolation and stigma of sanctions make it difficult for Iran to communicate with the United States and others. This can be a particular challenge for conflict management in tense times.