M.K. Bhadrakumar

United States asks Israel to join defense of Ukraine

For more than one reason, U.S. President Joe Biden’s call with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on April 24 is hugely consequential. This has been Biden’s second phone conversation with Bennett in four weeks. On March 30, Biden called to express his “deepest condolences” following the terrorist attacks that killed 11 people in three Israeli cities.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter.

This time around, his call coincided with the joint meeting of the U.S. secretaries of state and defense with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on April 24 signifying that Washington is raising the ante in the Ukrainian conflict with Russia and marking a shift in the conflict, signaling its readiness to wade deeper into the dispute after initial qualms.

The U.S. and NATO allies are showing readiness to supply heavier equipment and more advanced weapons systems to Ukraine. After the trip to Kyiv, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told journalists in Poland that Ukraine can win the war against Russia if it has the right equipment. “We believe that we can win, they can win if they have the right equipment, the right support,” he said.

Officials in Kyiv had earlier drawn up a list of weapons that they urgently needed from the U.S., which includes anti-missile and anti-aircraft systems. Ukraine is known to have sought advanced weaponry from Israel previously, including the famous “Iron Dome” anti-missile system and the infamous Pegasus spyware for use against Russia. But Israel didn’t want to stick out its neck for Ukraine due to fears of jeopardizing its tacit deconfliction measures with Moscow during its operations against Iranian targets in Syria.

However, things have changed dramatically in the past fortnight or so, as Israel gave up its neutrality toward Russia’s special operation and accused Moscow of committing war crimes. Biden’s conversation with Bennett took place as Russia-Israel relations began plummeting. Interestingly, the White House readout flagged a pointed reference by Biden to Israel’s Iron Dome system.

Both the White House readout and the statement from Bennett’s office mentioned the situation around Iran. It is entirely conceivable that the sudden unexplained shift in Israel’s stance vis-a-vis Russia in the Ukraine conflict is prompted by some sort of modus vivendi with the Biden administration regarding the lifting of sanctions against Iran.

Israel has been pulling out all stops to prevent the Biden administration from conceding to the Iranian demand for the removal of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) from Washington’s watchlist of terror groups. The Israeli statement not only mentioned that the IRGC issue was discussed but also quoted Bennett as saying, “I am sure that President Biden, who is a true friend of Israel and cares about its security, will not allow the IRGC to be removed from the list of terrorist organizations. Israel has clarified its position on the issue: The IRGC is the largest terrorist organization in the world.” Meanwhile, Biden has accepted an invitation from Bennett to visit Israel “in the coming months.”

In the entire West Asian landscape, there is not a single country other than Israel that the U.S. can count on today as an ally against Russia. Clearly, the security climate in West Asia will change phenomenally if the Biden administration were to turn its back at this point on the negotiations relating to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The White House readout highlighted that Biden and Bennett discussed “shared regional and global security challenges, including the threat posed by Iran and its proxies.”

A powerful lobby in the Beltway, starting with none other than the Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is opposed to any deal with Iran. These lobbyists argue that with Iran continuing to rapidly escalate its nuclear program and making clear that its ballistic missiles and regional policies are not negotiable, there is little left for the U.S. to salvage out of the JCPOA.

Speaking at the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, said recently, “In my personal opinion, I believe the IRGC Quds Force to be a terrorist organization, and I do not support them being delisted from the foreign terrorist organization list.” Again, in an open letter to Biden, 70 national security professionals have opposed the delisting of the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization. In another open letter, 46 retired U.S. generals and admirals have opposed the ongoing nuclear deal with Iran.

Viewed from another angle, now that the European Union is not contemplating a collective oil/gas embargo against Russia, Washington is no longer under pressure to lift the sanctions against Iran’s energy exports. And at any rate, the U.S. will be mindful of the possibility that Iran may provide a lifeline to Russia to beat Western sanctions.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s priority is also shifting away from economic sanctions against Russia to “finally breaking the back of Russia’s ability to project power outside of Russia to threaten Georgia, to threaten Moldova, to threaten our Baltic allies”—to borrow the words of former U.S. Army Europe Commander Ben Hodges from a recent interview with CBS.

Austin called a meeting at short notice on April 26 at the American base in Germany with counterparts from allied countries to discuss the scope for meeting the requirement of the vastly increased military supplies to Ukraine on a long-term basis. Biden’s call to Bennett just prior to that meeting suggests that the U.S. may have persuaded Israel to be an active participant in the war in Ukraine, which would bleed Russia white.

What motivates Israel would be that the Biden administration is willing to accommodate Israeli concerns over a U.S.-Iran nuclear deal. That explains Bennett’s confidence that Biden will not concede to Iran’s demand to remove IRGC from the terror watchlist.

The bottom line is that Tehran is left with no other option now but to either accept a new nuclear deal or stick to its demands and pay for the consequences. The U.S. estimates that Tehran, having come so close to the U.S. lifting the sanctions, which will of course be a game-changer for Iran’s besieged economy, would think twice about walking away with empty hands.

Biden’s call with Bennett sends a message to Tehran that the U.S. is prepared to turn to other options if the negotiations over the deal fail in Vienna.

Author Bio: M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.

Asian fault lines emerge over great war conflict

The tremors of the United States’ tensions with Russia playing out in Europe are being felt in different ways already in Asia. The hypothesis that Ukraine is a part of Europe and the conflict is all about European security is delusional.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter.

From Kazakhstan to Myanmar, from the Solomon Islands to the Kuril Islands, from North Korea to Cambodia, from China to India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the fault lines are appearing in different parts of Asia.

To be sure, extra-regional powers had a hand in the failed color revolution recently to overthrow the established government in Kazakhstan, a hotly contested geopolitical landmass bordering China and Russia, both of whom are Washington’s sworn adversaries. Thanks to swift Russian intervention, supported by China, a regime change was averted in Kazakhstan.

Equally, the Anglo-American project to embroil Myanmar, bordering China, in an armed insurgency has floundered for want of a sanctuary in India’s northeastern region and due to the perceived congruence of interests among the surrounding countries in Myanmar’s stability.

In comparison, the North Korean fault line has aggravated. North Korea moves on its own timetable and has probably decided that the Ukraine crisis offers useful cover while it ramps up its weapons testing program. Pyongyang explicitly supports Russia’s special operation in Ukraine, with a researcher at a North Korean state-run institute on international politics, Ri Ji Song, stating that “the basic cause of the Ukraine incident lies in the high-handedness and arbitrariness of the United States, which has ignored Russia’s legitimate calls for security guarantees and only sought a global hegemony and military dominance while clinging to its sanctions campaigns.”

North Korea’s objective is to enhance its security and leverage by increasing the quality and quantity of its deterrent capabilities and strengthening its bargaining position.

Meanwhile, the Ukraine crisis has injected a new urgency into the U.S. efforts to cultivate new Asian partners. But Washington has run into headwinds and had to indefinitely postpone a special summit with the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that was initially scheduled for the end of March. No new date has been proposed, although the United States had hyped up the summit as a top priority.

Showing some ire, Washington issued sanctions against Cambodia, which is currently the ASEAN chair. Clearly, the Southeast Asian countries are chary of taking sides between the United States and China or of voicing their criticism against Russia.

Perhaps, the most direct fallout of the Ukraine crisis in Asia so far is the sharp deterioration in Japan’s ties with Russia. It is an unwarranted development insofar as Tokyo simply did a cut and paste job, copying all the U.S. sanctions against Russia (including against the country’s President Vladimir Putin). Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida wantonly destroyed what his predecessor Shinzo Abe had carefully cultivated: a cordial and friendly relationship with Russia.

Japan now openly refers to the Russian “occupation” of the Kuril Islands—something it hasn’t been doing in the past. Moscow retaliated by designating Japan as an “unfriendly” country. Yet, analysts were estimating until recently that Russia and Japan had congruent interests in blocking China’s Arctic ambitions and were, therefore, moving toward solving their dispute over the Kuril Islands.

Suffice to say, Kishida’s motivations—in an abrupt turnaround—to make the Kuril Islands a potential flashpoint in the Japanese relations with Russia can be, to say the least, traced back to the broader U.S. strategy to isolate Russia.

Meanwhile, a contrarian development has also appeared in China’s challenge to the U.S.’ Island Chain strategy in the Western Pacific by negotiating a new security deal with the Solomon Islands. This game-changing development may have extensive consequences and is dangerously interwoven with the Taiwan issue. Biden is reportedly dispatching a top White House official to the Solomon Islands to scuttle the deal with China.

The Biden administration is now doubling down on India to roll back its ties with Russia as well. That becomes a fault line in the U.S.-Indian strategic partnership. What must be particularly galling for Washington is the likelihood of India pursuing its trade and economic cooperation with Russia in local currencies. Indeed, China and India have also taken a somewhat similar stance on the Ukraine crisis.

Given the size of the Chinese economy and the high potential for growth of the Indian economy, the inclination of both these countries to bypass the dollar would be a trendsetter for other countries. “Russia, hit by Western sanctions, has called on the BRICS group of emerging economies to extend the use of national currencies and integrate payment systems,” said the Russian Finance Ministry.

Suffice to say, the “weaponized dollar” and the West’s abrasive move to freeze Russia’s reserves sends a chill down the spine of most developing countries. Nepal caved in to ratify the Millennium Challenge Corporation agreement following a threat by a middle-ranking U.S. official.

There is no conceivable reason why NATO should become the provider of security for the Asian region. That is why Afghanistan’s future is of crucial importance. Without a doubt, the regime change in Pakistan is partly at least related to Afghanistan. The Russian Foreign Ministry has disclosed certain details of the U.S. interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs and its pressure on former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.

But time will show how realistic Washington’s expectations are of inducting Pakistan into the U.S. orbit and making it a surrogate to leverage the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Russia and China are making sure that the door remains closed to NATO’s return to Afghanistan. They have undercut Washington’s recent efforts to co-opt the Taliban leadership in Kabul.

The message out of a recent third Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on the Afghan Issue Among the Neighboring Countries of Afghanistan in Tunxi, China, which took place on March 31, is that in Afghanistan’s transition from chaos to order, the regional states hope to undertake a lead role. Thus, the regional states have incrementally marked their distance from the West’s exceptionalism and are instead adopting a persuasive track through constructive engagement. The joint statement issued at Tunxi reflects this new thinking.

The developments over Afghanistan provide a signpost that any attempt at imposing Western dominance over Asia will be resisted by the regional states. Most Asian countries have had bitter experiences with colonialism in their history.

Although the American analysts underplay it, the fact remains that the conflict in Ukraine is bound to impact the “Asian Century” very significantly. The United States is determined to transform NATO into a global security organization that will act beyond the purview of the United Nations to enforce the West’s “rules-based order.”

The West’s desperate push to weaken Russia and tilt the global strategic balance in the U.S.’ favor aims to clear the pathway leading to a unipolar world order in the 21st century. In a recent interview with Scott Simon for NPR, Hal Brands, Henry A. Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, put across the U.S. strategy behind the war in Ukraine as very logical:

Author Bio: M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.

Biden makes an opening move in a thorny foreign policy challenge

The frozen lake of US-Iran confrontation is generating a pinging sound. The cracking of the ice is yet to produce that loud booming thunderclap. But these are early days.

It was only last Thursday that the US and the three European states who are party to the JCPOA (2015 Iran nuclear deal) — Germany, France and UK, or the 'E3' — lobbed a joint statement across the court to Tehran, whereby the Joe Biden Administration announced its willingness to return to diplomacy with Iran.

It was an opening move, where the Biden administration merely reiterated its position that it will return to the JCPOA if Tehran returns to strict compliance with it. The E3 and the US seek to strengthen the JCPOA to address broader security concerns related to Iran. But certain other moves went along with it on the same day:

  • Washington expressed its acceptance of an invitation from the European Union High Representative to attend a meeting of the so-called P5+1 countries – Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States – with Iran for an informal "diplomatic conversation" to chart a way forward;
  • The Biden administration rescinded the Trump administration's decision in September 2020 to invoke "snapback sanctions" worldwide at the United Nations—a provision under Security Council Resolution 2231 – that was earlier rejected by the other 14 members of the council; and,
  • The Biden administration also informed Iran's UN Mission in New York that it had removed Trump's travel restrictions on its diplomats in New York, which allows them now to move anywhere within a 25-mile radius of the UN Hqs. Some Iranian officials also may be allowed to travel to the UN.

A conversation between US and Iranian diplomats in an informal setting certainly serves a purpose insofar as it is a follow-up on an idea floated by Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif during an interview with the CNN on February 1 that the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell could assume the role of coordinator and create a mechanism to choreograph the steps to be taken simultaneously by both Iran and the US sides to achieve JCPOA reinstatement.

By Saturday, Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, the country's chief nuclear negotiator, was on record that Tehran too is considering the proposition from Brussels and would "respond to this proposal [on informal meeting] in the future."

Now, it is easy to see that the retraction on the "snapback sanctions" and the removal of restrictions on Iranian diplomats are necessary pre-requisites of a US-Iranian engagement.

Meanwhile, on Friday, Biden said at the virtual Munich Security Conference that the US is driven to "reengage in negotiations" to revive the JCPOA. He added a positive note, "We need transparency and communication to minimise the rise of strategic misunderstanding or mistakes."

On Sunday, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that the US has started talks with Iran over the return of at least five American hostages whom Tehran is holding. "We have begun to communicate with the Iranians on this issue," Sullivan said.

On Sunday, again, Rafael Grossi, the head of the IAEA, met with Iranian officials in Tehran to try to maintain his inspectors' ability to monitor Tehran's nuclear program. After the talks, a joint statement was issued, which suggests that "a temporary bilateral technical understanding" has been reached for a 3-month period ahead to continue necessary verification and monitoring activities.

But the deal also calls for less access for IAEA inspectors and no more snap inspections. That is to say, Iran is sticking to its stance that unless the US lifted the sanctions, it will soon abandon the Additional Protocol of the JCPOA, but is only partially curbing the inspectors' activity at this point.

Broadly, both the US and Iran are slowly but steadily edging back to the negotiating table. Both want the other party to go first, and neither would allow perceptions of weakness to form or that they're acting under pressure. It's a delicate tango where both are also compromising while appearing to be otherwise.

The Sunday Times newspaper carried a sensational report yesterday quoting a national security source that the US is considering sanctions relief for Iran as a first step towards reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. If so, Washington is about to make the first move on the expectation that Tehran would reciprocate with some significant compromises.

"Sanctions relief is definitely coming, not today or tomorrow but it is coming," Sunday Times quoted its source. But the catch is that Iran can return to the JCPOA by ceasing to enrich uranium over the limit set by the deal, exporting most of its stockpile, and warehousing banned centrifuges. Whereas, the Biden administration has far more difficult path to traverse by way of untangling scores of Trump-era financial, economic, trade, targeted personal and business sanctions and lift those that violate the JCPOA.

One possibility is that the Biden Administration may move in this direction after the "diplomatic conversation" that the EU foreign policy chief is facilitating. In Tehran's estimation, the lifting of US sanctions is now a foregone conclusion, only a matter of time. There is much optimism that the White House will not allow any interference by the US' regional allies.

A commentary in Iran's official news agency IRNA draws satisfaction that President Biden "gave a cold shoulder" to Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and has not forgotten the latter's defiant behaviour toward President Obama by attending a congressional hearing in Washington without being invited by the administration and criticising the administration's negotiations with Iran. It had "angered the then Vice President Joe Biden who shouted that no authority in Israel has the right to humiliate the US president. Netanyahu has been advised to avoid direct confrontation with the Biden administration."

Again, there is talk that the White House intends to release a redacted version of the CIA report on the brutal killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the consulate in Istanbul in 2018. If the report holds the Saudi Crown Prince as culpable for the murder, it will rock the US-Saudi relations. Biden has made his aversion toward the Crown Prince known by letting it be known that he will only interact with King Salman.

Clearly, there is a profound sense of unease in Saudi Arabia and the UAE over the Biden administration's decision to engage with Iran. Conceivably, Tehran senses that a historic moment is at hand marking the end of the US' decades-old strategy to encircle Iran with an alliance of the Gulf Arab states and Israel.

As the situation around Iran begins to transform through the coming weeks and months, the West Asian politics and the regional security scenario will change beyond recognition. The Western powers are for the first time talking about the imperative need of reconciliation between and amongst the regional states of the Persian Gulf instead of fuelling the regional rifts and capitalising on them.

In their statement of February 18, the US and E3 "expressed their joint determination to work toward de-escalating tensions in the Gulf region." By force of circumstances, the Western powers are appropriating an idea that Russia and China have been expounding all along.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter. M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.

Joe Biden unveils 2 big surprises sending a powerful signal he's pivoting to the left

The US president-elect Joe Biden did two spectacular things last week which may rewrite the assumption that his presidency would return America back to the Barack Obama era. One was the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan Biden rolled out Thursday and the other his choice of William Burns, veteran diplomat, to lead the Central Intelligence Agency.

Seemingly unrelated, these two things convey a powerful signal that Biden understands that the real pandemic danger in America is social collapse and what is needed is a national policy that prevents societal disintegration — and a foreign policy which reflects that top priority.

Biden's advisors had let it be known back in October that if elected, even without waiting until Inauguration Day, he would right away provide an immediate fiscal relief the American economy needs and directed and targeted to middle-class and lower-class families, to the smallest businesses instead of just the big corporations that have the best connections to big banks, since "families need to put food on the table to pay their electricity bills, to keep roofs over their heads."

Biden has kept his word. His spending proposal sets aside $400 billion to address the coronavirus; $1 trillion in direct relief to families and individuals; and $440 billion to help communities and businesses hit the hardest by the pandemic. The proposal envisages:

  • Topping up the $600 cash relief passed by Congress last month with $1400 payments additionally;
  • Hike in unemployment benefits from $300 to $400 per week through September;
  • Fourteen weeks of paid sick and family and medical leave;
  • Raise in national minimum wage to $15 per hour;
  • Eviction and foreclosure moratoriums;
  • $160 billion earmarked for a broad range of programs, including coronavirus vaccination, testing, therapeutics, contact tracing, personal protective equipment, etc.;
  • $ 170 billion for schools;
  • Billions of dollars earmarked for underserved populations (eg., African-Americans), including health services on tribal lands;
  • Billions of dollars more for helping long-term care workers and who have borne the brunt of the pandemic (and who are disproportionately Blacks.)

It is an unabashedly progressive agenda that the left has been trying to advance for decades — and, arguably, the bulk of them do not even have anything to do with the health emergency as such but are social welfare measures.

Interestingly, Biden is not seeking to raise everybody's taxes to pay for this, but instead proposes to pay for this plan with a series of tax increases on the wealthy, including taxing capital gains as regular income and increasing the marginal tax rate for top earners to almost 40% which he'd announce in spring as a second long-term broader recovery package to "build back" the economy.

The writings of the renowned Serbian-American economist Branko Milanović come to mind. Milanović is famous for his work on income distribution, inequality and poverty. Formerly chief economist at the World Bank and currently teaching at the London School of Economics and the New York City University, his latest work Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System that Rules the World figured in the Foreign Affairs list of Best Books and earned him acclaim as one among the top 50 thinkers in the year 2020.

Milanović wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs last year in March noticing the lengthening shadows of the pandemic stealthily advancing in America at that time. With extraordinary prescience, he forewarned that "the human toll of the disease will be the most important cost and the one that could lead to societal disintegration. Those who are left hopeless, jobless, and without assets could easily turn against those who are better off."

"Already, some 30 percent of Americans have zero or negative wealth. If more people emerge from the current crisis with neither money, nor jobs, nor access to health care, and if these people become desperate and angry… If governments have to resort to using paramilitary or military forces to quell, for example, riots or attacks on property, societies could begin to disintegrate. Thus the main (perhaps even the sole) objective of economic policy today should be to prevent social breakdown. Advanced societies must not allow economics, particularly the fortunes of financial markets, to blind them to the fact that the most important role economic policy can play now is to keep social bonds strong under this extraordinary pressure."


On the eve of Biden's address on Thursday, he announced that Ambassador William Burns will be the Director of the CIA in his administration. It is an unusual choice. Indeed, it is not unusual for an "outsider" to head the CIA. During the past quarter century, out of the ten CIA directors, seven came from "outside" — a smattering of generals and a string of politicians. Yet in CIA's 73-year history, this will be the first time that the agency is going to be led by a career diplomat.

Biden has made an optimal choice. Burns is widely praised as a "titan of the foreign-policy world" and also happens to belong to that breed of diplomats who believe that diplomacy and espionage are two sides of the same coin. In his wonderful book, The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal, Burns wrote that in foreign policy, diplomats ought to "harness all the tools of American statecraft—from the soft power of ideas, culture, and public diplomacy, to…intelligence-gathering and covert action".

Interestingly, Burns disavows the so-called "militarisation" of foreign policy. When asked about it in an interview with the Foreign Service Journal, Burns estimated that "time and time again, we've seen how over-reliance on military tools can lead us into policy quicksand. Time and time again, we've fallen into the trap of overusing—or prematurely using—force. That comes at much greater cost in American blood and treasure, and tends to make diplomacy a distorted and under-resourced afterthought."

Without doubt, the choice of Burns is emblematic of where Biden is headed in the conduct of foreign policy. Biden sees Burns as eminently qualified to reinvigorate diplomacy as a critical tool of national power while charioting the intelligence community to devote more attention to its mission of complementing diplomacy.

Burns is also a rare diplomat-intellectual with a mind of his own — who believes that active coordination with China and Russia is necessary to address global challenges to US foreign policy, who derisively looks at the Trump administration's maximum pressure strategy against Iran being a spectacular failure, who maintains that NATO's post-cold war expansion was a grave mistake that derailed relations with Russia, and who strongly argues for arms control talks with Russia in mutual interests.

In the interview with the Foreign Service Journal, Burns spoke about the directions of US foreign policy in the contemporary world situation. He said: "The overarching challenge for U.S. foreign policy today, it seems to me, is to adapt to an international landscape in which American dominance is fading. To put it bluntly, America is no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical block. That's not meant to be a declinist argument. In fact, I'm still bullish about America's place in the century unfolding before us. We can't turn the clock back to the post–Cold War unipolar moment. But over at least the next few decades, we can remain the world's pivotal power—best placed among our friends and rivals to navigate a more crowded, complicated and competitive world. We still have a better hand to play than any of our main competitors, if we play it wisely."

Biden's choice of Burns as CIA director underscores his intention to put diplomacy first in the US foreign policies. It also means engagement, based on the realistic understanding that the US can no longer impose its will on other countries.

The pandemic has accelerated the shift in power and influence from West to East. Biden reposes confidence in Burns to lead the intelligence community into a brave new world where the post-cold war "unipolar moment" has vanished forever.

Fundamentally, Biden's expectation would be that the US foreign and security policies will reflect his national strategy, "which not only begins at home, in a strong political and economic system, but ends there, too, in more jobs, more prosperity, a healthier environment and better security" — to borrow Burns' words.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter. M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.

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Deal in the Works Could Bring Two of the World's Most Dangerous Nuclear Rivals Closer to Peaceful Relations

The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India [TAPI] gas pipeline project has been making progress — albeit under the radar and visible only to keen observers — during the past year. The fact that Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif chaired a meeting of the petroleum ministers of the TAPI member countries in Islamabad today would signal that the project is likely approaching the takeoff stage.

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The Egyptian Revolution Is Dead and Buried - Only a New Pharoah and Imperial Outside Powers Are Celebrating

Editor's Note: The following are two articles from Asia Times -- the first by Pepe Escobar on the geopolitical maneuvers around the latest bloodbath, and the second by MK Bhadrakumar on Egypt's new domestic political situation.

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More to Syria Than Meets the Eye -- Major Power Battle Between Kremlin and US Underway, And the Stakes Are High

 Seldom it is that the Russian Foreign Ministry chooses a Sunday to issue a formal statement. Evidently, something of extreme gravity arose for Moscow to speak out urgently. The provocation was the appearance of a United States guided missile cruiser in the Black Sea for naval exercises with Ukraine. The USS Monterrey cruiser equipped with the AEGIS air defense system is taking part in joint Ukrainian-US exercises, Sea Breeze 2011. 

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The Overthrow in Kyrgyzstan Was a Really Big Deal -- It's a Huge Loss for America in the Global Power Game

This is not how color revolutions are supposed to turn out. In the Ukraine, the "Orange" revolution of 2004 has had a slow painful death. In Georgia, the "Rose" revolution of 2003 seems to be in the throes of what increasingly appears to be a terminal illness.

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Controlling Yemen Is Just Part of Obama's Power Game with China

A year ago, Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh made the startling revelation that his country's security forces apprehended a group of Islamists linked to the Israeli intelligence forces. "A terrorist cell was apprehended and will be referred to the courts for its links with the Israeli intelligence services," he promised.

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Behind the Scenes, U.S. Tempts Iran with Global Nuclear Fuel Bank Deal

It is again early spring in the Central Asian steppes. There is a deceptive calm, but all signs are that the Great Game is bestirring from its slumber. The United States is focusing on the key Central Asian country of Kazakhstan, to stage a strategic comeback in the region. Prospects are brighter than ever as Kazakhstan is edging closer to the chairmanship of the Organization of Security and Economic Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) next year. The OSCE leadership brings Kazakhstan into the forefront of the Western strategies in Eurasia -- and out of Russian orbit.

The war in nearby Afghanistan provides the backdrop for the US's proactive diplomacy. But that, too, is deceptive. It seems the US is also probing a solution to the Iran nuclear problem with Kazakhstan's helping hand. The urgency is great and President Barack Obama has already hinted that he intends to pay a visit to Kazakhstan, the first ever to the steppes by an American president.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Obama administration is "carefully considering" the setting up of an international uranium fuel bank in Kazakhstan, which could form the exit strategy for the historic US-Iran standoff. That is why the visit by the Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to Astana, Kazakhstan, on Monday assumes exceptional importance.

In bits and pieces, a stray thought has been surfacing in the recent months in the US discourses over the situation surrounding Iran. It sought a rethink of Washington's insistence on Iran jettisoning its pursuit of uranium enrichment as a pre-requisite of commencement of direct talks between the two countries. This was borne out of a growing realization that the US insistence was no longer tenable. A logjam has indeed developed as it became clearer by the day that within the fractious Iranian opinion there is virtual unanimity when it comes to the continuance of the country's nuclear program, and effecting a regime change in Tehran didn't necessarily alter Iran's policies.

The Obama administration faces the reality that unless the impasse is broken somehow, the standoff continues. The standoff worked to Iran's advantage only insofar as the country speeded up its nuclear program ever since the series of United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions since 2006 began forbidding Iran from enriching uranium. Iran today has installed over 5,500 centrifuges and built up a stockpile exceeding 1,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium.

It now appears that the US might cede to Iran's nuclear program. The Wall Street Journal reported last Friday that as part of a policy review commissioned by Obama, "diplomats are discussing whether the US will eventually have to accept Iran's insistence on carrying out the [enrichment] process, which can produce both nuclear fuel and weapons-grade material". The newspaper assessed that the Obama administration's message to Tehran is increasingly shaping up as "Don't develop a nuclear weapon" - a nuanced stance that would not rule out a deal accepting Iranian enrichment as such. It pointed out that Obama's articulations on the subject have become much less specific than those of former president George W Bush, who never minced words in crying a halt to Iran's enrichment.

The new thinking is that the priority should be to win greater access for UN inspectors to the Iranian nuclear establishments, as compared with the current limited inspection regime, which has led to diminishing information regarding Iran's nuclear program. In other words, why not trust Iran to retain its enrichment activities so long as its program can be effectively verified.

In this scenario, it is significant that following talks with Ahmadinejad, Kazakhstan President Nurusultan Nazarbayev chose the venue of their joint press conference on Monday in Astana to make the public offer that his country is willing to host a global nuclear fuel bank as part of a US-backed plan to put all uranium enrichment under international control. "If such a nuclear fuel bank were to be created, Kazakhstan would be ready to consider hosting it on its territory as a signatory of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and as a country that voluntarily renounced nuclear weapons," Nazarbayev said.

The veteran Kazakh statesman (who might have been the Soviet Union's prime minister but for the superpower's implosion in 1991) didn't speak out of the blue. Such impetuousness is alien to his shrewd political temperament. He knew the time has come for his proposal to be publicly voiced. It is an idea that is evidently supported by Obama. It devolves upon the creation of a global repository that would allow countries to tap into Kazakhstan's vast reserves of uranium to fuel their nuclear plants without having to develop their own enrichment capability. At any rate, Ahmadinejad also chose to publicly welcome the Kazakh proposal. "We [Iran] think that Nurusultan Nazarbayev's idea to host a nuclear fuel bank is a very good proposal," he noted.

These are, of course, early days. However, Iran used to maintain at one point that it would be open to the idea of stopping sensitive uranium enrichment if a supply of nuclear fuel from abroad could be guaranteed. In the face of the Bush administration's mindless containment strategy, the Iranian stance hardened, especially as the nuclear file got transferred from the International Atomic Energy Agency to the UN Security Council, and the country began harping on its due rights to master the complete nuclear fuel cycle, including enriched uranium, for peaceful purposes.

Later on Monday in Astana, Ahmadinejad utilized yet another press conference to argue that he welcomed Nazarbayev's proposal since "any country that has uranium mines and the capability to produce nuclear fuel can also establish a nuclear fuel bank". He then went on to elaborate the Iranian response:

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A Diplomatic Storm Is Brewing over Pakistan and India After Mumbai Attacks

No sooner had the guns fallen silent and the terrorist carnage ended in Mumbai than a keen three-way diplomatic tussle began involving India, Pakistan and the United States. The two South Asian nuclear powers are locked in race to get the US on their respective side.

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Afghanistan Abyss Awaits Obama

The struggle for influencing Barack Obama's foreign policy agenda has begun in right earnest. The maneuvering by influential establishment figures - including Congressional voices, Obama advisors and even military officials - who are projecting incumbent Robert Gates as secretary of defense in the incoming administration highlights the pressures working on the president-elect.

The focus is on the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as in promoting the basic George W Bush policies promoted since the 1990s by nationalist and neo-conservative Republicans. These are policies animated by long-term ambitions for US economic and military hegemony.

A Gates appointment will signal that Obama may turn his back on his campaign pledge to withdraw US troops from Iraq in 16 months. Gates, of course, disfavors any set timeline or timetable for a withdrawal plan.

Equally, his accent is on fighting the war in Afghanistan more efficiently while pursuing a containment strategy toward Russia and pressing ahead with the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In his perspective, Central Command chief General David Petraeus' troop "surge" policy in Afghanistan meets the requirements.

Adjusting at the margins
To use the words of investigative historian and journalist Gareth Porter of Inter Press Service, there is a "phalanx of determined military opposition" in the Pentagon to Obama's withdrawal plans in Iraq, which goes all the way up to Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and includes Petraeus and General Ray Odierno, the new commander in Iraq.

The Washington Post newspaper reported that a "smooth and productive" equation between the military brass and the incoming president will be possible only "if Obama takes the pragmatic approach that his advisers are indicating, allowing each side to adjust at the margins". The newspaper quotes Peter D Feaver, a former National Security Council official in the Bush administration who was a strategic planner on the administration's Iraq "surge" policy, to the effect that if Obama presses ahead with his 16-month withdrawal plan, "a civil-military crisis" might arise in Washington.

According to Porter, Obama had a battle of wits with Petraeus when they met in Baghdad in July and the general argued for a "conditions-based" withdrawal rather than the presidential candidate's 16-month deadline. Porter says Obama refused to back down and told Petraeus, "Your job is to succeed in Iraq on as favorable terms as we can get. But my job as a potential commander-in-chief is to view your counsel and interests through the prism of our overall national security."

But Gates' appointment could change the equation. The smiling, silver-haired and earnest-looking veteran who has been through it all - the Soviet Union, Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan - proved his awesome capacity to make himself durable in the Byzantine world of Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinzki and William Casey. Gates is the very antithesis of the clean break that Obama promised.

Lame duck planting mines
The Russians justifiably claim Gates may have already forced Obama's hand. They see a distinct pattern. In August, cleverly using the Caucasus crisis and the unfriendly public mood in the West about Russia, Gates pressed ahead with the signing of an agreement on the deployment of elements of an American strategic missile shield - 10 interceptor missiles at Wick Morskie between the towns of Ustka and Darlowo on the Baltic coast in Poland and an X-radar in Brdy near Prague, Czech Republic. Of course, Russia has concluded that the US deployments are intended to blunt the thrust of its strategic forces in the European theater.

Again, out of the blue, Washington imposed sanctions two weeks ago against Rosoboronexport, Russia's only arms exporter, for allegedly violating the Iran Proliferation Act of 2000. The sanctions have no "bite" as Rosoboronexport has no dealings with US companies and the Russian company's functioning is not in jeopardy. What the Bush administration has done is in essence create an irritant in US-Russia relations.

Obama will run into resistance from the US military-industrial complex if he attempts to lift the sanctions, as Rosoboronexport is proving to be a plucky competitor in the world's arms market. According to US Congressional reports, Russia is the world's second-largest arms exporter next to the US, with a turnover of US$10.4 billion in exports in 2007, as against $8.1 billion in the previous year, accounting for 17.4% of all weapons sold in the world market. Russia is entering new markets in North Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Latin America.

The Rosoboronexport irritant can become yet another factor hindering effective, whole-hearted US-Russia cooperation over Iran, which Obama will seek. A Russian commentator wrote, "The main purpose of this demonstrative move [sanctions] … is not so much to complicate life for Russian exporters as to saddle a new administration with new irritants between the White House and the Kremlin, irritants that will be difficult for Obama to remove. It is like anti-personnel mines planted on the path toward better relations between Moscow and Washington."

Again, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's annual address to the Duma (parliament) on November 5 contained a statement that Russia might be compelled to deploy short-range missiles in Kaliningrad unless a compromise was reached on the US missile defense deployments in Central Europe. There was nothing startlingly new in the statement. The Russians have said this before. Medvedev's speech on the whole also contained positive elements regarding European security and relations with the US.

Yet the US media interpreted that it was the "first serious Russian military threat against the West since the fall of the Soviet Union [in 1991]"; that it struck a "discordant note amid an otherwise welcoming global reaction to Obama's election"; that the timing and "anti-American tone of the speech were extraordinary given the widely held belief here [in Moscow] that Obama is less ideological in his approach to Moscow than his Republican rival".

They aimed at generating an impression that Obama ought to rely on experienced hands - such as Gates - to deal with those bad boys in the Kremlin. And all this while the general opinion among Russian politicians and experts is one of cautious optimism that Obama is devoid of Cold War phobias and may incrementally opt out of the "containment strategy" toward Russia.

To be sure, Obama will find himself under great pressure to follow Russia policies inherited from Bush, even though these are what he was elected to change or terminate. The crunch comes in December when NATO holds a crucial ministerial meeting to take a view on the membership of Ukraine and Georgia. While on a visit to Estonia on Wednesday, Gates found it irresistible to taunt Moscow: "Russia has no need to impede a sovereign country's desire to more fully integrate with the West. Doing so is not a threat to Russia's integrity." A lame duck could have kept quiet.

Hard choices of peace

Meanwhile, Moscow hopes Obama will be less supportive of spending on missile defense than the Bush administration. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Obama's positions "instill hope that we shall be able to more constructively examine this theme in the upcoming period". A similar restraint is apparent in the Russian statement read out on behalf of the member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) at the UN General Assembly debate on Afghanistan on Monday. It abandoned the recent high pitch of criticism of the US-led war.

Russia seems to weigh that the war in Afghanistan presents a dilemma of a different kind to Obama and Moscow should not make things harder. Indeed, the Afghan war will be the number one foreign policy priority for the Obama administration. Here too, a struggle has commenced for influencing Obama's policy. Two Pentagon consultants - Ahmed Rashid and Barnett Rubin - did some kite-flying recently. In an article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine titled "From Great Game to Grand Bargain", they argued that the US strategy should be to seek compromise with insurgents while addressing regional rivalries and insecurities.

Their recommendation was to offer "political inclusion" to the insurgents "in return for cooperation against al-Qaeda" and to launch a major diplomatic initiative addressing the "vast array of regional and global issues that have become intertwined with the


crisis". Furthermore, they suggested that a "contact group" of select countries mandated by the UN Security Council must work to put an end to the "increasingly destructive dynamics of the great game in the region". They recommended that a "regional diplomatic initiative" ought to replace the international presence under NATO.

Their buzzword is "regional security". Britain has also echoed it by coming up with a parallel idea of regional security, whereby regional players such as Pakistan, Iran, India, China and Russia along with the US and Britain will be brought into a structure, a consultative mechanism, as "stakeholders". The British ambassador in Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, visited Tehran a fortnight ago to sound out the Iranians. He visited Delhi over the weekend, and told the media, "Our strategy is of a politically-driven, security-led counter-insurgency strategy and more coherent, sustained international support for Afghanistan and its government. What we want to do, for good counter-insurgency reasons, is to get our troops out of direct combat operations. So it is Afghans doing the fighting, not foreign forces."

The Foreign Affairs article charters a breathtaking landscape that all but ensures that Obama will lose his way and will never get anywhere near an Afghan settlement in the four years ahead of his presidency. Britain, while setting the tempo for Obama, focuses on itself as remaining a key player. But Sir Sherard's play of words apart, the ground situation is grim for Obama.

On Tuesday, Germany's Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said Berlin would resist any US pressure to send troops to strife-ridden southern Afghanistan. Spain openly called for changes to the Western strategy after the killing of two Spanish soldiers in a suicide attack in the western city of Herat on Sunday. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos has been quoted as saying, "The debate must not be about sending more troops, but about how to carry out a political and military strategy that will put an end to the situation of instability."

Canada has reiterated its decision to pull out its troops by 2011. In Britain, according to an opinion poll released on Wednesday, 68% said British troops should be taken out of Afghanistan by 2010. The head of the British armed forces, Air marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, warned against Obama's idea of sending more troops to Afghanistan, similar to the "surge" in Iraq in 2007. He told the BBC, "Even if the situation demanded it, it cannot be just a one for one transfer from Iraq to Afghanistan, we have to reduce that tempo … I am a little nervous when people use the word 'surge' as if this were some sort of panacea."

Tehran has lost little time to rubbish Sir Sherard's proposal. At an international conference on Afghanistan at Dushanbe on Tuesday, attended by a senior US State Department official, the Iranian delegate ambassador Ali Ashar Sherdoust said Western countries and mediators should leave the issue to the Afghans and let them decide their fate. He stressed that Iran opposed the continued presence of foreign forces and their interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. Sherdoust ridiculed the "countries thousands of kilometers away" from Afghanistan which are insisting on running the country's affairs while "ignoring the interests" of Afghanistan's neighbors.

The British game plan is partly at least to spike the parallel initiative by the SCO to hold a special conference on Afghanistan. The US and Britain have been resisting repeated attempts by the SCO and the Collective Security Organization to play a role in Afghanistan. They have so far ensured that NATO's role has remained exclusive. The ideas floated by the Foreign Affairs article as well as by Sir Sherard will more or less keep the initiative over the Afghan problem in the US-British clasp, which has been the Bush administration's bottom line and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's objective.

The million dollar question is: Will Obama also play the great game in Afghanistan? Or is he capable of showing the compassion to let go that hapless country and allow it to wander towards a rediscovery of its traditional modes of life?

It is obvious he has to walk through a veritable minefield and reconcile various elements. Indeed, an intra-Afghan dialogue is needed and reconciliation with the Taliban becomes a central issue in such a dialogue. For that to happen, a regional climate needs to be prepared, which primarily involves engaging Pakistan, Russia and Iran and also addressing larger concerns in their relations with the US. Fortunately, Obama possesses the immense moral stature needed to convene a regional summit on Afghanistan.

Least of all, it may become necessary at some point to spell out a timeline on the troop withdrawal. Every challenge also offers an opportunity. The upcoming presidential election in Afghanistan offers an opportunity for Obama to resist the temptation to impose another US proxy in Kabul like President Hamid Karzai. Let Afghan people genuinely choose their leader. Let a new president emerge out of the complex deal-making that is part of the Afghan way of life. It is a difficult decision for Obama to take, but it needs to be taken. It will signify the beginning of a US "withdrawal".

As a recent commentary in the Chinese People's Daily noted, "Since it is absolutely not easy to carry on the war, then, the 'peace' solution poses a wise option … War and peace are horns of a dilemma in Afghanistan at present, and this has once again exposed the helplessness of Western nations in a predicament." The recent Chinese commentaries seem to underscore that the Obama administration runs the real risk of a quagmire in Afghanistan unless a political solution is quickly found.
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