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Melkulangara Bhadrakumar

US-Russian Exchanges Gather Momentum

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If a single exchange stood out during the tense interview of President Trump with the CBS News 60 Minutes on Sunday — Washington Post listed 8 of them — I would say it was when he tried to filibuster Lesley Stahl over the topic of ‘Russian meddling’ in the American elections.

Stahl kept taunting Trump but all she’d get was Trump repeating, ‘But China also meddled in the US elections.’ When she pointed out that she was asking about Russia, Trump repeated calmly, “And I think, frankly, China is a bigger problem”. Later, Stahl recounted that out of all 4 interviews she’s taken with Trump in the past 2 years, he was different this time: “He’s truly President. He felt it, I felt it.” Now, that was fulsome compliment from someone who is known to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

Most certainly, Trump is unceremoniously shifting the narrative on Russia by laterally inserting China into it. He calculates that it pays, since ‘Russia collusion’ did not turn out to be a campaign issue in the midterm election in US, after all. Besides, the tide of opinion in the US regarding China has changed so dramatically and the focus is no longer on Russia. Arguably, engaging Russia as ‘counterweight’ to China might even appeal to the American opinion. Henry Kissinger long advocated it.
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US-Saudi Relations Enter Unchartered Waters

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The disappearance of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in mysterious circumstances while on a visit to his country’s consulate in Istanbul last Tuesday still remains unexplained. The plot is thickening by the day. The latest reports suggest that he may not even be alive.

The Istanbul Prosecutor has ordered an investigation. President Recep Erdogan has called Khashoggi a “journalist and friend”. Turkey has a troubled relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has a complicated history dating back to the Ottoman era and is entangled with Erdogan’s brand of Islamism. A serious diplomatic rupture may ensue, depending on the outcome of the Turkish investigation.

So far, the Khashoggi affair has been a matter between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. But Khashoggi has influential backers in the Washington Beltway too. A chorus of condemnation of the Saudi regime is building up to a crescendo in the US, portraying Khashoggi as a human rights activist meeting a tragic end.

The US takes a selective approach to human rights. Which way will it act? In the present civil war conditions in the US, President Trump’s opponents will use the Khashoggi issue to draw attention to his erratic behavior – wildly swinging from obsequiousness to the Saudi ruler to rank contempt.

But, there is also a lavishly funded Saudi lobby, which can pull strings among the American elites. Trump chose Riyadh for his visit abroad and son-in-law Jared Kushner is reputed to be a close confidante of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
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India, Russia and the Post-American Century

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India’s impending purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system has come to be the leitmotif of the “2+2” dialogue of the foreign and defence ministers of India and the United States due to take place in New Delhi on September 6. However, the issue here is not about a single defence transaction, either. There are far wider geopolitical ramifications.

The heart of the matter is that the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which was signed into law by President Donald Trump in August 2017, endangers India’s long-standing defence relationship with Russia across the board for many defence goods. The cutting edge of the CAATSA lies in regard of Sections 231 and 235 of the law. Section 231 requires the US president to impose sanctions on any entity that “engages in a significant transaction” with Russia’s intelligence or defence sectors. Section 235 provides for prohibiting transactions in US dollar (which is the currency used in India-Russia arms deals.)

Now, the US Congress has given waiver authority to the president under certain highly constraining conditions – that is, if he can certify that the waiver is fundamentally in US national security interests, that the country concerned is taking “demonstrable steps” to reduce its defence dependence on Russia and that it is cooperating with the US in advancing critical strategic interests. In effect, the CAATSA provides an underpinning for the US’ global hegemony, which is far beyond its stated purpose of sanctioning Russia over the Crimea.
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The Ball is in Trump’s Court to Engage Iran

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As I had written last week, a conversation of sorts has been under way between Washington and Tehran. The megaphone is no longer in use, the conversation is in civi tone from public platforms or more meaningfully, through the Twitter. It’s become an almost daily occurrence Broadly speaking, the communication is between President Donald Trump from the American side, with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif actively interjecting on behalf of President Hassan Rouhani almost in real time. To be sure, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is listening in.

The duet has incrementally come to be this: Trump is willing to meet with Rouhani “anytime… without preconditions.” He has a gut feeling lately that it could happen “very soon.” (When Trump puts a timeline like that in broad strokes, it hints at some back channel.) But then, Tehran says it will not talk under duress and injured pride and honor; US must first show “respect” and stop unfriendly activities.

On the other hand, Trump claims he perceives change in Iran’s behaviour. (It can be construed as a signal or an acknowledgment.) Interestingly, Tehran neither disputes Trump’s claim nor confirms it. In fact, there is some discernible “change” in Iran’s behavior – Moscow has disclosed that Iranian forces and the “Shi’ite formations” have withdrawn their heavy weapons in Syria to a distance of 85 km from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and “there are no units of heavy equipment and weapons that could pose a threat to Israel at a distance of 85 km from the line of demarcation.”
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Trump Threatens Turkey with Sanctions. What if He’s Serious?

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The frequency with which US President Donald Trump holds out threats to other countries is such that he is no longer being taken seriously. The list of countries threatened by Trump so far includes North Korea, Germany, Canada, China, Venezuela, Pakistan, Syria, Iran and Turkey.

In all fairness, Trump makes no distinction between enemies, adversaries, friends or allies. Turkey, a NATO ally, holds a record of sorts as the country most threatened by the Trump administration. In separate tweets on Thursday, Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence gave an ultimatum to Turkey that unless Andrew Brunson, an American evangelical pastor of a small Protestant church in western Turkey, is released from detention immediately, Ankara should be “prepared to face the consequences” in the form of “significant sanctions.”

For the benefit of the uninitiated, Brunson who has been living in Turkey for 23 years was arrested in the aftermath of the failed 2016 coup attempt to overthrow Erdogan, charged with spying and involvement in the failed coup. The Turkish government had probably hoped for a tradeoff – Brunson in exchange for the Islamist preacher Fetullah Gulen who is living in Pennsylvania whom Ankara regards as having masterminded the 2016 coup attempt to overthrow Erdogan. Ankara has been pressing Gulen’s extradition and Washington has been stonewalling. It’s a complicated case history, since Gulen has had links in the past with the CIA.
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Russia Exposes British Lies on Skripal, but Trail Leads to US

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The sensational case of the poisoning of the ex-MI6 agent and former Russian military intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal on March 4 in Salisbury, in the UK, is becoming more and more curious. Under a blinding spotlight from Moscow, the British allegation regarding a Russian hand in the poisoning of Skripal is getting exposed. An engrossing plot in big-power politics is also unfolding. There is stuff here for a Le Carre novel.
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US Attack on Syria is Futile but Serves a Purpose

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The United Nations Security Council turned down a compromise resolution on Syria, proposed by Sweden and seconded by Russia seeking investigation on the alleged chemical attack in Douma. Five countries supported the resolution with two permanent members – United States and Britain – opposing it. Earlier, a resolution on the same lines which was supported by Russia and China was also opposed by the US and Britain.

This is a significant political and diplomatic victory for Russia insofar as only two other countries joined the US and Britain to oppose the Swedish resolution. Six countries abstained.

The big question is whether this development portends an impending US attack on Syria, bypassing the UN. The UN has refused to confirm there has been any attack at all. Russia and Syrian government insist there has been no attack and have approached the Organization for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for an international investigation. The good thing is that the OPCW is deputing two teams of experts to go to Douma later this week. Russia has offered to give them full security protection.

So Trump has a major decision to make. Logically, punishment follows a crime that has been committed and it seems no crime has been committed. This appears to be a false flag operation – that is, a fabrication with a view to trigger a sequence of events. That was how the US invaded Iraq in 2003 and it is an established fact today that Saddam Hussein did not have any program to develop weapons of mass destruction, as then US Secretary of State Colin Powell had misled the UN Security Council. (Powell later admitted that he was misled by his own administration.)
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US Feels Uneasy About Inter-Korean Amity

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The North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has upset all doomsday predictions that once the Winter Olympics Games are over, the tensions on the Korean peninsula would reappear. Kim’s invitation to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang can be regarded as a "game changer." Moon has been non-committal, saying conditions need to be created first. The important thing is that Moon neither accepted Kim’s invitation nor declined. As a senior South Korean official put it, Moon has “practically accepted” the invitation. Thereby hangs a tale.

Left to himself Moon may want to visit Pyongyang. But a number of factors come into play. First and foremost, North Korea should refrain from missile tests, especially nuclear tests. Kim’s invitation to Moon implies that Pyongyang intends to hold back on missile and nuclear tests even after the Winter Games get over. On the contrary, if the joint US-South Korean military drills resume, all bets are off.

Therefore, Moon faces the daunting challenge of persuading the Trump administration to defer military drills. Now, that is not going to be easy. The US insists that North Korea should unilaterally suspend its missile and nuclear tests and does not accept any linkage with the US-South Korean military drills. Indeed, the sensible thing to do is to follow the suggestion by China and Russia on "double suspension" – ie., US and South Korea suspending military drills and North Korea reciprocally suspending missile and nuclear tests.
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The US-ISIS Nexus in Afghanistan Becomes Hot Topic

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Tehran has begun highlighting in loud decibel its hitherto-low key voice of disquiet that the United States is transferring the Islamic State* fighters from Syria and Iraq, where they have been defeated, to Afghanistan.

On January 30, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said: "The US goal of transferring the ISIL terrorists to Afghanistan is aimed at creating the justification for its continued deployment in the region and for buttressing the security of the Zionist regime." Indeed, any statement at the level of the Supreme Leader invariably draws attention as signaling an authoritative policy directive based on careful decision taken in the light of relevant intelligence inputs.

The point is, three days before Khamenei spoke, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) had an encounter with ISIS terrorists infiltrating Iran’s western province of Kermanshah from Iraq. By all accounts, it was a major encounter in which three IRGC personnel were killed, including an officer of the rank of major. According to the commander of the IRGC’s ground forces, Gen. Mohammad Pakpour, as many as sixteen ISIS terrorists were captured. Incidents of this nature are happening with increasing frequency along Iran’s borders and Iranian security agencies are busting large caches of explosives and arms smuggled across the border, but this is the first time such a big encounter took place.

Significantly, the senior foreign policy advisor to the parliament speaker, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, who is an influential voice in the Iranian diplomatic circuit, raised the issue of the US’ covert transfer of ISIS fighters to “northern Afghanistan” at a meeting with Jan Kubis, chairman of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq on January 28.
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Russia Wades into Saudi-Iran Rift

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The remark Wednesday by the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and Presidential envoy for the Middle East Mikhail Bogdanov offering Moscow’s mediation for a rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran comes within the week of the Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz’s talks with President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. Bogdanov was on a visit to Rabat and probably had the Middle East audience in view. He knew most certainly that the weekend is approaching when the US President Donald Trump is expected to outline a new containment strategy against Iran.

Bogdanov’s remark profiles Russia as a unique peacemaker in the centre stage of Middle East politics. No great power ever seriously toyed with such a tantalizing idea. But how realistic is the idea?

An essay penned by Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in the Atlantic magazine recently takes a panoramic view of the troubled relations between his country and its neighbours. The title of the essay aptly sums up its thesis – Foreign meddling has wrought a fractured Middle East. The heart of the matter is that the problematic relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia is not a ‘bilateral’ issue – nor can it be regarded as an issue of ‘reconciliation’. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia does not represent the Sunni Arab states, either. Nonetheless, Bogdanov is also right when he says that it becomes easier to resolve the burning problems of the Middle East (such as Syria, Iraq or Yemen) if Saudi Arabia and Iran could work together.
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