The Week in Review

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The Week in Review

A look at Iran’s growing confidence, Europe opening its borders, a coming Russo-German pact, first-ever joint military exercises in Asia, and much more.

Middle East

Iran’s confidence has continued to build following the U.S.’s nie capitulation with Russia delivering its first shipment of nuclear fuel to Iran. Moscow announced on Monday that it had delivered its first shipment of enriched uranium to power the Bushehr nuclear power plant, which it has been building for Iran since 1995. While U.S. President George W. Bush may pretend this is a good thing because it means Iran no longer needs to learn how to enrich uranium, Ahmadinejad has declared his intent to increase his uranium enrichment program 16-fold. This step forward on the nuclear front, thanks to Russia, may have been the reason Tehran postponed a scheduled December 18 meeting with U.S. officials on the security of Iraq. Tehran would rather see Washington beg for its cooperation.

Russia’s assistance to Iran is clearly not motivated by love for the Iranians, however, but rather by a desire to undermine U.S. influence in the Middle East. By keeping the United States and Iran in a long-term diplomatic struggle, Russia frees itself to go about restoring its Soviet-era strength. After hinting on Monday that it would finish Iran’s first nuclear plant within six months, the Russian state company responsible for bringing the plant online announced on Thursday that completion of the reactor would be delayed until after the end of 2008. Russia, says Stratfor, is “milking its role in the nuclear imbroglio in order to remain a significant player in any future Iranian-U.S. deals.”

Nevertheless, Iran’s newfound confidence is having effects throughout the region.

In Lebanon, for example, the presidential election was delayed for a ninth time this week. Stratfor reports that the newly confident Iran has managed to convince Syria to renege on its deal with the U.S. (in which the U.S. approved Syria’s choice of presidential candidate in return for Syria’s attendance at Annapolis) and hold out for a better deal in Lebanon. The Hezbollah-led opposition is demanding a “one third plus one” share in the government, which would give the Shiites veto power and prevent any future moves to disarm Hezbollah.

In Bahrain, hundreds of Shiites clashed with riot police on Tuesday. The unrest occurred after a protestor was killed following a Shiite rally the day before. Such riots have been taking place all year in Bahrain, whose Sunni government is concerned about Iran fomenting unrest among the country’s majority Shiite population. Such concerns are not limited to Bahrain; other Arab states are worriedly anticipating a drawdown of American forces, which means, Stratfor reports, “they will have to live with an emergent Iran and empowered Shia in Iraq” (December 19).

Also, as Egypt moves decisively into Iran’s camp, it makes clear both its unwillingness to cooperate with the U.S. and its antipathy toward Israel. The Al Ahram daily reported that the Egyptian ambassador to the U.S. said on Thursday that Egypt will reject any conditions set on it as part of the U.S.’s 2008 financial aid package. He was particularly referring to calls by Congress to improve security at the Gaza Strip border to prevent weapons smuggling.

Meanwhile, Iran is working to restructure Hezbollah with leaders who are more hard-line and loyal to Iran—as if the current ones haven’t been—in preparation for the next confrontation with Israel. Though Hezbollah denies it, sources confirm that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has demoted Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

In Paris on Monday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with international donors and received $7.4 billion from the international community. The biggest donor was the European Union, which pledged $650 million for 2008; Germany promised another $200 million by 2010. This effort to boost the Palestinian economy will be in vain, if the results of previous financial aid is anything to go by. French President Nicolas Sarkozy also called for an international peace-keeping force to lend its support to the Palestinian Authority. Watch for Europe to increasingly get involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In an escalation of the Turkish-Kurd conflict, up to 50 Turkish air force planes bombed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (pkk) targets in northern Iraq on Sunday, and approximately 700 Turkish troops moved 5 miles into Iraqi territory late the next day to hunt down militants before withdrawing. The strikes were the largest in several years, with the United States providing intelligence assistance. Popular opinion in Turkey has put increasing pressure on Ankara to take decisive action against the pkk,and Washington has been scrambling to evade a full-scale Turkish invasion in northern Iraq. It may end up being be a lose-lose situation for Washington, however: The Turkish-Kurd border issue is bound to flare up again, and in the meantime the Kurds will probably become far less cooperative in ongoing negotiations aimed at a Shiite-Sunni-Kurdish power-sharing agreement in Iraq.


It was another good week for European integration. Borders throughout Europe were thrown open as nine countries; many from the former Soviet Union, officially joined the Schengen area. This area, named after the town in Luxemburg where the agreement was first signed, is an open boarder area. Passports are not required when traveling between Schengen states, and it’s much easier for residents of one Schengen state to work in another. Obviously this necessitates a far closer agreement on issues such as crime and immigration. Among the borders to dissolve was one the International Herald Tribunecalled “one of the most historically fraught and violently fought over frontiers on Earth”—the German-Polish border. In another step forward for European unification, Hungary became the first country to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, signed only last week by EU heads of state.

Once again Serbia warrants a mention. The EU agreed last Friday to send 1,800 police and security personnel to Kosovo just in case violence breaks out. According to Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates, “This is the clearest signal that the European Union could possibly give that it intends to lead on the whole issue of Kosovo’s future, its status and its role in the region.” Russia, of course, staunchly opposes Kosovo’s independence and Europe’s support of it, and the issue continues to head toward a showdown.

The Balkans is just one of several bones of contention between the EU and Russia. Tensions increased further this week when Russia announced plans to resume maritime patrols in the Mediterranean, essentially dispatching a navy fleet to Europe’s backyard. Historically speaking, rising tensions between two opposing states generally result in conflict or the formation of a treaty, which oftentimes is merely the postponement of conflict. The pressure is mounting now on both sides of the divide of the great Ukrainian plain to bring the German-dominated European Union and re-emergent Russia to the negotiating table.

As part of the trend toward a German-Russian pact, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was the first foreign minister to meet with Russian presidential candidate Dmitry Medvedev since his presidential nomination. After a meeting that went on longer than expected, and was described as “very friendly,” Steinmeier had a private meeting with the real power in Russia, Vladimir Putin. During the trip Steinmeier also initiated further energy cooperation between the two nations.

In other news, a study conducted by Germany’s Interior Ministry warned of the growing threat from radical Muslims in the country. Also this week, the Catholic Church strongly asserted its right to spread its faith. In a document that vigorously upholds and promotes Catholicism’s declared right to evangelize the world, the church stated that all believers are duty-bound to participate in “the Christian mission of evangelization.” Watch for the church to grow more militant in its efforts to convert others and in its dealings with radical Islam.


This week witnessed the beginning of the first-ever joint military exercises between the world’s two most populous nations, India and China. On Wednesday, approximately 100 Indian troops arrived in southwest China’s Yunnan province for a joint anti-terrorism exercise with China’s People’s Liberation Army. Small though it may be, this joint exercise has been hailed by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang as an effort “to increase the mutual understanding and trust between the two countries, especially the two militaries.” It is not insignificant that 45 years after the Sino-Indian War, India and China are working to increase military integration.

Also in India was the first-ever India-China-Russia Trilateral Conference on economic cooperation, held in New Delhi last Saturday. The conference was meant to synergize the manufacturing, scientific, technological, and business strengths of the three nations. India, China and Russia collectively constitute 40 percent of the world’s population, and their cooperation creates one of the largest economic markets in the world. Both militarily and economically, India is coming on board with the Sino-Russian alliance.

Time magazine nominated Russian President Vladimir Putin as its “Person of the Year” on Wednesday. The award was not given so much as an honor, but as recognition of Putin’s role in thrusting Russia back on the scene as a world power. Indeed, Russia’s rise to power is a trend we all would do well to watch.

On Monday, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force successfully destroyed a dummy ballistic missile in the first test of the Japanese Missile Defense System. The anti-ballistic missile was launched from a Japanese ship off the coast of a Hawaiian island. The test was conducted in cooperation with the United States, which has been helping the Japanese develop their missile defense system since 2003. The goal has been for Japan to create its own missile defense shield in addition to the current U.S nuclear “umbrella” protecting Japan. While U.S. officials may hail this as another step toward security in East Asia, it is also another step in Japan’s ability to act independently of the United States in the near future.

In other news, the future of Japan’s relations with South Korea is looking better after the election of a new president in South Korea on Wednesday. President-elect Lee Myung-bak stated that he will work to improve relations with Tokyo after years of strain over territorial and historical disputes. Lee also stated that he believed that “the overall relationship between the nations of Northeast Asia must be improved.” In a world steadily dividing down religious and ideological lines, expect Asian integration to continue.

Latin America, Africa

Thabo Mbeki, president of South Africa since 1999, felt the earth move under him on December 18: After a bitter campaign, he lost the election for president of his party to Jacob Zuma. Readers might remember Zuma as the man President Mbeki removed from the office of deputy president in 2005 when Zuma was implicated in a corruption trial that brought down some of his colleagues. Now that he is the top politician in South Africa, the corruption charges are simmering again. The chief prosecutor has said there is sufficient evidence to charge Zuma himself in the case that put one of his advisers in prison for a 15-year term. No wonder South Africa is rattled. bbc Africa analyst Martin Plaut said that “after more than a decade of stability, everything seems in flux.” President Mbeki still retains his position as president of the country but has lost the support of his party. President Zuma has popular support but is under a constant shadow of scandal.

Cuba’s oldest despot, Fidel Castro, raised eyebrows this week with an announcement that he is ready to take a reduced role in running Cuba. The most interesting reaction came from Spiegel Online: “German opinion on the Communist leader’s announcement was united on one front: the chance for Germany and Europe to take action on Cuba is now.” Watch for relations between Latin America and Europe, with Germany as its economic hub, to improve.

After his loss in the constitutional referendum last week, President “Chavez is now accelerating efforts to consolidate control over the one institution in the country with a penchant for throwing coups: the armed forces,” according to Stratfor. His first move was to absorb Venezuela’s Bolivarian Militias into the National Armed Forces. Having brought this loyal group into the official military structure, other military units will think twice before turning on Chavez.

Meanwhile, his good friend, Bolivian President Evo Morales, is facing his own problems at home. Four of the lowland areas—Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando—have declared themselves autonomous, which the president will never accept. This is greatly endangering Bolivia’s exports; its main customers are already trying to find more stable supplies, so however the civil unrest turns out, all of Bolivia will lose.


U.S. President George W. Bush spoke unusually bluntly against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday, less than a month after the administration pointed to Syria’s involvement at the Annapolis conference as a positive sign for the Middle East. At his year-end press conference, President Bush said, “My patience ran out on President Assad a long time ago, and the reason why is because he houses Hamas, he facilitates Hezbollah, suiciders go from his country into Iraq, and he destabilizes Lebanon. So if he’s listening, he doesn’t need a phone call, he knows exactly what my position is.” Among such mixed signals coming from Washington, however, Assad could almost be forgiven for not knowing.

On the border, targeted officer killings could be spreading from Mexico to the U.S., according to a Stratfor report. Mexican drug cartels regularly assassinate law enforcement and army personnel using heavily armed and highly trained ex-military gunmen. Overall, Border Patrol agents have been attacked 250 times since October 1, up 38 percent from last year. Meanwhile, the Mexican government is calling a partial border fence by the Department of Homeland Security “medieval,” “stupid” and a severe environmental threat.

In response to the subprime mortgage crisis and associated crises, central banks in Europe and Canada, along with the U.S. Federal Reserve, are cranking up the cash-printing presses and dumping billions of dollars into the financial sector. The Fed is auctioning loans to banks whose names will remain anonymous so investors will not know who needs help or how badly. These maneuvers are efforts to prop up consumer spending, which accounts for 72 percent of the American gross domestic product. Meanwhile former head of the Treasury Lawrence Summers has joined the crowd of financial experts predicting a significant U.S. recession.

In British culture news, English is a minority language in 1,300 of England’s schools—5 percent of all English schools. The National Association of Head Teachers told the House of Lords the situation is “out of control” and that a surge in immigration into an area could “strain or even break the resources of the school.” More importantly, it shows the soaring levels of immigration into Britain and how little immigrants are doing to adopt British culture. On a related note, the Times reports that Mohammed is the second-most popular baby boy’s name in Britain, and is likely to rise to number one next year, beating out Thomas, Joshua and Oliver.