Tag Archives: general assembly

Why the ‘brosé summit of 2015’ was more about Russia than the United States

US president Barack Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin share a toast Monday at the United Nations. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US president Barack Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin share a toast Monday at the United Nations. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The way the US and international media portrayed Monday evening’s meeting between US president Barack Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin, you might think that the diplomatic maneuvering at the United Nations General Assembly over Syria’s civil war amounted to a fight-to-the-finish struggle for the two countries, both of which are permanent members on the UN Security Council. UNSyria Flag IconRussia Flag IconUSflag

But that’s just not true because the stakes in Syria for the United States are far, far lower. It is tempting to view every disagreement between the United States and Russia as a zero-sum game, with a clear winner and a clear loser, but that’s false.

Here’s why.

Why Syria matters so much to Putin

Consider how important Syria and, in particular, Bashar al-Assad, is to Russia. Assad, these days, doesn’t control much of Syria’s territory, but he does retain power throughout many of the coastal cities where most of Syria’s weary population still resides. That’s important to Moscow because the Syrian coast hosts the only warm-water port for the Russian navy at Tartus.

A look at which groups control Syria, as of September 2015. (Wikipedia)
A look at which groups control Syria, as of September 2015. (Wikipedia)

But it’s so much more.

While the United States continues to project influence on a global basis and while China has expanded its regional reach into south Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and even parts of Latin America, Russia’s post-Soviet influence is more limited. The battle lines between Russia and the ‘West’ are no longer Vietnam or Afghanistan or even Poland or Hungary, it’s skirmishes within former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia or fights over influence in central Asia.

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Syria, however, retained the strong ties with Moscow that it developed under Assad’s father Hafez in the 1970s. Outside the former Soviet republics, there is virtually no other country that you could consider anything like a Russian ‘client state,’ with the exception of Syria. That’s a big deal for a country resentful that it has gone from a truly global player — culturally, technologically, politically and economically — to regional chump with fading commodity exports, crumbling physical and social infrastructure and an economy one-tenth that of the US economy.  Continue reading Why the ‘brosé summit of 2015’ was more about Russia than the United States

Sharif, Singh meet in New York, agree to cooperate over terror attacks


Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif and Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh met as planned in New York Sunday morning to discuss bilateral relations — even after 12 Indians were killed by suspected Pakistani terrorists in Kashmir last week. Pakistan Flag IconIndia Flag Icon

Accordingly, the resulting understanding between the two was far wider than a mere handshake of the kind rumored last week to be in the works between US president Barack Obama and Iran’s new moderate president Hassan Rowhani:

The leaders agreed that their military chiefs should meet and investigate any attacks in disputed border regions in order to prevent a recurrence, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Jalil Jilani told reporters after their one-hour breakfast meeting, held three days after the latest deadly raid in Kashmir. Jilani didn’t specify when the military officials will meet.

The two also invited each other to their respective countries, Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon said after yesterday’s meeting.  “We have actually achieved a new stage and now have some understanding of how to improve going forward and I think that is an advance on one and a half years ago,” Menon said.

It’s important to note that both sides downplayed the significance of the meeting, but there’s reason for optimism — if such a strong statement resulted as a formal matter from the meeting, there’s reason to believe that Sharif and Singh could have discussed and agreed on much more.  Sharif, in addition, agreed to ‘movement’ on Pakistan’s role in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.

Sharif only began his third term as prime minister in June 2013, but he has indicated he wants to strengthen relations that have been strained since Partition in 1947 — primarily over India’s control of the provinces of Jammu and Kashmir along the Pakistani-Indian border, over which the two countries have gone to war twice.  In an address earlier this week to the General Assembly, Sharif said that the nuclear arms race between the two countries was a waste of massive resources.

Singh, who has been hesitant to embrace Sharif’s overtures and claimed earlier this weekend that Pakistan is an epicenter of south Asian terrorism, is in his final months after what will be a decade as prime minister in India, and he’ll be succeeded by May 2014 by either the Indian National Congress (Congress, or भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस) standard-bearer Rahul Gandhi, the fourth-generation scion of the party’s (and perhaps India’s) leading political family or the chief minister of Gujarat state, Narendra Modi, who will lead the conservative, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, or भारतीय जनता पार्टी) into next spring’s elections and whose plucky style could mean a tense period for the bilateral relationship, given his alleged role in anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002.

So even though the meeting’s potential was always limited, there’s good reason to welcome it — for at least five reasons, as I argued over the weekend in The National Interest:

  • Boosting regional security will be even more important as the United States draws down troops from the Af-Pak theater in 2014.
  • Aside from Pakistan’s election in May, Iran’s election in June and India’s elections next year, Afghanistan will elect a president next spring and Bangladesh will hold elections in January.  That means we could see five new leaders in the span of one year in southwest Asia, in addition to this year’s leadership transition in the People’s Republic of China.
  • Greater ties between India and Pakistan could boost both countries’ underperforming economies.  Freer trade is low-hanging fruit.
  • The meeting can cement Sharif’s credentials as a strong — and democratic — leader as he contemplates who will succeed Ashfaq Parvez Kayani as the next army chief of staff.
  • Finally, while the world cares more about the potential of a nuclear-armed Iran, it’s easy to forget that both Pakistan and India have had nuclear weapons for a decade and a half.  Cooperation between the two countries not only improves regional stability, but global stability.

Obama-Rowhani call a historic first step in securing better US-Iranian relations


Today, for the first time since 1979, the leaders of the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran held a bilateral discussion when US president Barack Obama called Iranian president Hassan Rowhani to discuss a potential solution to the international stalemate over Iran’s nuclear energy program.USflagIran Flag Icon

It wasn’t the handshake that everyone thought might have been possible earlier this week in New York at the United Nations General Assembly, but it’s still a remarkable step — and could result in real movement between Iran and the ‘P5 + 1’ countries over the future of the Iranian nuclear program and crippling UN sanctions.

It’s important to remember that there’s a long history of misfires on US-Iranian relations, with former Iranian presidents like Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami making overtures to the United States that went unrewarded — everything from Iranian assistance to Bosnian fighters in the 1990s to Iranian assistance to bring the Northern Alliance to support the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Even Rowhani, as Iran’s first nuclear negotiator in 2003, was burned when he offered a moratorium on further Iranian enrichment.  That concession led to nothing but the empowerment of anti-American hardliners, who came to power with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in 2005.

It follows a relationship that, even before the 1979 revolution that brought Shiite ayatollahs to power in Iran, was troubled — Iranians, even today, haven’t forgotten the role that the United States played in toppling former Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 and boosting the repressive regime of the Iranian shah through the 1979 revolution.

As I wrote shortly after Rowhani’s staggering election as president in June 2013:

The Obama administration’s challenge is to forge a strategic path with Iran’s new president that undermines the hardliners in both Iran and in the United States.  Whether Iran likes it or not, it has to demonstrate to the world that it’s not pursuing clandestine nuclear weaponry.  But whether the West likes it or not, it must ultimately acknowledge that Iran — a sovereign nation of 75 million people — has a right to its own nuclear energy program on terms that respect the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic, and Obama will have to back up his weekend olive branch with substantive alms that show the United States is serious.

The discussion follows a potentially even more historic meeting between US secretary of state John Kerry and Iran’s even more moderate, English-speaking foreign minister Javad Zarif (pictured below) over a potential breakthrough in the standoff over Iran’s nuclear energy program.


One telephone call between presidents and one meeting between foreign ministers doesn’t exactly mean that Iran and the United States will have solved all of their issues.  Rowhani’s reluctance to meet with Obama in New York earlier this week demonstrates that, while Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (who remains the most powerful leader in Iran) may have blessed Rowhani’s diplomatic initiatives, strong opposition remains within the Islamic Republic, including within the conservative ‘principlist’ camp and from within the Revolutionary Guards.  The Obama administration will also face opposition — from its Middle Eastern ally Israel (which boycotted Rowhani’s largely conciliatory speech to the UN on Monday) and from neoconservative hawks from within the Republican Party in the United States.

But there’s a deal here: the United States doesn’t want to go to war with Iran, Iran doesn’t necessarily want nuclear weapons (and it especially wants Israel to give up its not-so-secret nuclear weapons) and Iran desperately wants an end to the sanctions that have harmed its economy.

This week’s diplomatic advances also follow the surprisingly moderate response from Iran over the Syrian chemical weapons crisis, even as the United States was considering a unilateral strike Bashar al-Assad’s regime at the time:

Although Iran has become a pariah state in recent years over its nuclear energy program (and the corresponding US and European fear that Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapons program as well), many Iranians were the victims of the last major chemical weapons attack in the Middle East when Iraqi president Saddam Hussein deployed mustard gas and sarin against Iran during the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s — with the knowledge and acquiescence of the United States, which wholeheartedly supported Iraq in the 1980s.

Rowhani made clear through his presidential Twitter feed this week that he condemned the use of chemical weapons, in Syria or elsewhere.

Rowhani, a former Rafsanjani aide who united both the moderate camp and Khatami’s more liberal camp (including the ‘Green movement’ supporters from the contested 2009 election), was elected in large part for the perception that he could negotiate an end to international sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.  He handily defeated five other challengers to win a first-round victory in the June election, including two principlists — Iran’s former hardline nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and populist (and popular) Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf:

Continue reading Obama-Rowhani call a historic first step in securing better US-Iranian relations