Iran Nuclear Deal & What It Means for the Future of International Security Part I: On the Brink of a Diplomatic Breakthrough?

P5+1 Talks With Iran in Geneva, Switzerland

Last Thursday was a historic day for world diplomacy as the P5+1 (US, UK, France, China, Russia + Germany) announced a framework for a deal with Iran over it’s nuclear program. Terms will not become final until June 30 but the key points are: 1) Iran dramatically reduces its enriched uranium to 3.67% (uranium needs to be enriched to 90% to make a bomb); 2) Iran’s centrifuges are reduced to 6,104; 3) Iran reduces its uranium stockpile from 10,000kg to 300kg; 4) IAEA has access to all of Iran’s nuclear facilities; 5) IF Iran keeps its word, sanctions will be lifted very gradually–some will remain in place still for over 20 years.

Reactions are wide-ranging. Iranians celebrated the possible end to sanctions that prevent them from accessing basic necessities for life–food, medicine, electricity etc. Saudi King Salman, who is fighting a proxy war with Iran in Yemen expressed cautious hope that this leads to increased peace & stability in the region. French president Francois Hollande points out that sanctions can be reinstated if Iran does not fully comply. Unsurprisingly, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not happy, insisting any deal must include Iran’s recognition of Israel’s right to exist, that the deal endangers the survival of the state of Israel and that his country will not accept it when the terms become final.

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Israel would appear to have little pull in stopping this deal as it is not part of the P5+1. Well, except for the catch. UN and EU sanctions are relatively easy to lift but easing US sanctions require Congressional approval. Hence when President Obama spoke about the framework he began making his case to Congress.

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The president’s foreign policy usually leaves much to be desired but he is absolutely right that “should negotiations collapse because we, the United States, rejected what the majority of the world considers a fair deal, what our scientists and nuclear experts suggest would give us confidence that they are not developing a nuclear weapon, it’s doubtful that we could even keep our current international sanctions in place…”

Despite their skepticism, neither Congress or Netanyahu mention any viable alternatives. If there is no deal, there are only two: 1) continuation of the status quo or, 2) war.

Congress would do well to heed the president’s words and remember that the US and Iran were not the only parties at the negotiating table.This is a multilateral deal and countries are eager to do business with Iran; China and India for starters. Assuming Iran complies, the rest of the P5+1 have agreed to lift the EU and UN sanctions. We can refuse to lift ours, but the world may not follow us. Iran may even start to look like a victim. This is just one more confirmation that the US is not ‘indispensible’ anymore. The world is not afraid to oppose us like in years past as seen with the AIIB. If we push too hard we may find ourselves isolated while the world moves on. If that happens, American power really will be in decline.

Narendra Modi gets to work cultivating alliances that could prove pivotal for India and international relations

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India’s new prime minister Narendra Modi is not wasting any time toward improving the economic situation in his country. The West (which previously shunned Modi) is not hesitating to embrace Modi as he seeks to make India a lucrative place to do business and for foreign investment.

Earlier this month, top British leaders met with Modi and his Foreign Minister and Indian business leaders in Mumbai for two days as they discussed expanding bilateral trade (already up to $15.8 million) and foreign investment from Britain into India. The talks included the sale of arms as India, already the world’s biggest arm importer seeks to build up its defense.

The United States announced Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel travel to India in late July-early August to discuss expanding India and the US’s bilateral relationship.

The relationship between the world’s largest democracies has been testy at best under the Obama Administration after being strong during the Clinton and Bush Administrations. Frank Wisner, the US ambassador to India under Clinton told the Express Tribune that as Obama has focused on China’s rise, India has trouble seeing where it fits in to Obama’s policy. As Modi is likely to be in power for foreseeable future, the time to cultivate a viable US-India relationship is now. Especially if Modi succeeds in replicating the economic success he oversaw in Gujarat, in the rest of India.

But India is not just looking to the West for alliances.

Despite tensions over border clashes, Modi met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping earlier this week in Brazil, days ahead of the BRICS summit.  Modi wants to resolve conflicts with China, emphasizing their shared similarities in an attempt to invite Chinese investment in Indian infrastructure.  In turn Xi Jinping invited Modi to Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in November.

If these former rivals could manage to put aside their differences for a mutually beneficial partnership, it would be an amazing example in international politics.  More than that India and China make up 40% of the world’s population on the continent to where power is shifting.  India seeks for the world to take it seriously and China seeks to undermine US hegemony in Asia.  India and China working together could prove consequential for the world.

So far Modi appears to be pragmatic, and it’s working.

Russia and China Set Out to Change the World Order As We Know It

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Russia and China’s developing alliance was in the news last week as Vladimir Putin signed two agreements while visiting Shanghai.  The first brings $450 billion worth of Russian natural gas to China over 30 years, in a demonstration to the West that Russia still has friends in the midst of growing political isolation.  Experts caution that this move is largely symbolic.  For the moment, Russia still needs Europe to buy its gas.  China, welcomes any natural resources it can access.

The minimal American media coverage focused on whether this deal threatens the United States, with US officials responding that not much should be made of this deal since there is nothing special about Russia and China having bilateral relations with each other.  Perhaps there is nothing special about a deal that is largely symbolic for now anyway.

The same cannot be said about the second agreement however.  Russia and China also agreed to bypass the US dollar in bilateral trade.  America’s financial hegemony partly comes from the American currency being the reserve currency in international trade.  This allows the US to spend beyond its means and have a significant influence abroad.  As the world becomes more multi-polar, there is a strong desire among the BRICS nations to change the status quo.  Russia and China agreeing to do just that is a first step, especially if more BRICS follow suit.

Russia is pushing this relationship as a show of power in the face of Western condemnation, but China can be described as a benevolent opportunist.  Its leaders appreciate the access to raw materials and a chance to challenge the US while at the same time not going beyond certain limits.  Russia-China’s combined strength is already felt in international diplomacy, as both countries use their veto power on the United Nations Security Council to stop resolutions proposed by other members of the P5.

Whether American leaders are willing to admit it or not, Russia-China’s new friendship is one to watch.  No it is not an ideological friendship but a marriage of mutual interests, which might be more effective than a union of affection.  The closer these countries become, the more they will resist US actions in the East and elsewhere, and be invulnerable to American retaliation.  Russian and Chinese leaders have come together for one common goal: to change the world order as it currently exists.

American Foreign Policy in 1914 and 100 years later

An eternal historian, my mind instinctually looks to the past to analyze global affairs in the present.  As President Obama walks a fine line between pursuing American interests abroad and tending to domestic issues, it is becoming clear that Americans have little interest in foreign affairs.  For one between the economy, voting rights and other issues, many Americans feel there is enough going on at home that needs attention.  But also, after more than a decade of two fruitless wars abroad that did nothing except damage the United States’ image, many Americans have simply lost the desire to use American power to solve the world’s problems.  In December 2013 the Pew Research Center reported that 52% of Americans believed the country should remain out of global affairs.

Yet international crises keep manifesting themselves.  Tensions between Russia and Ukraine still has Europe on edge over what Vladimir Putin will do next and China’s continued rise has its neighbors apprehensive, particularly over the disputed islands in the South China Sea, and the list goes on. But that does not change American apathy toward events outside our borders.  In March of this year, at the height of the Crimea-Ukraine-Russia crisis, Pew reported that while 29% of Americans thought the government should take a hard stance on Russia, 56% did not want the United States to get too involved in the situation.

This is eerily similar to American foreign policy a century ago in 1914.  After a brief attempt early in the 20th century to create an overseas American empire similar to the empires of Europe, the United States retreated inward and remained so when the Hapsburg heir was assassinated.  In fact, most Americans had no idea of the tensions in Europe at the time.  In both world wars, the United States refused to involve itself until American lives were at stake.

A century later, talks of a third world war slowly grow with every new crisis.  But Americans remain focused internally while other countries fear the future of international relations if America removes itself from the global stage.  In its May 3rd issue, the Economist highlighted that American hesitance to intervene militarily has our allies on edge amid fear that American enemies are emboldened.  The United States is no longer the world’s policemen as it was in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed.  But Americans not caring about the world’s affairs unless it directly threatens us is nothing new.  Even in the beginning years of American nationhood, there was no foreign appetite.

More than that, America can no longer get away with what it did before.  Not only are other countries rising for their share of the geopolitical pie but America simply does not have the money to fund a long-term military campaign.  American military might is still at the top but even that is slipping albeit slowly and other countries are catching up.

American leaders will deny the country is in decline but as a historian, I will not ignore the parallels.  In the early 20th century, Britain, which controlled 25% of the world’s population and the world’s most powerful navy, was insecure of its status as a global power after Queen Victoria’s death and an unsuccessful South African war which left it politically isolated in Europe.  Similarly, in late 2013 Pew reported that 53% of Americans see the country less powerful and less important than it was 10 years ago.  In truth, the world is becoming more multipolar, also similar to 1914.

Indeed this is the cycle of history.  World powers never remain world powers forever.

Russia invades Crimea–Is WWIII on the horizon?

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The US and Europe are on edge right now as Russia has taken Crimea, an semi-autonomous region of Ukraine whose population is 60% ethnic Russian.  Early yesterday Russia’s legislature, the Duma approved military force in Ukraine.  Since Crimea is recognized as part of Ukraine, for Russia to take it by force is a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and international law.  The Ukrainian military is on full alert, however Ukraine’s military is much smaller than Russia’s military and Ukrainian economy is in shambles.

This situation comes on the heels of an uprising in the Ukraine that forced its president into exile and left a very divided country.  The western part of the country leans towards the West, the European Union and wants more integration in the EU.  However eastern Ukraine is more aligned to Russia.

On Saturday the United Nations Security Council called an emergency meeting in New York where UN Ambassadors from the US, UK, France and the Ukraine condemned Russia’s action, while Russia’s UN Ambassador defended it.  Obviously nothing substantial came of it, not even a resolution since Russia has veto power.  President Obama had a 90 minute phone conversation with President Putin and again nothing substantial came of it other than Obama asking Putin to pull back his forces, and notifying Putin that the US would suspend its participation in the G8 summit scheduled for June in Sochi.  David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom later withdrew his country’s participation from the G8 summit, as well as leaders from France, Germany and Canada.  The question for the US and Europe is what do they do now?

A war is the last thing the international community wants or needs.  However there was a treaty in 1994 between Ukraine, the US and UK.  In exchange for Ukraine relinquishing it’s chemical weapons, the US and UK guaranteed Ukraine’s borders.   Crimea itself is autonomous, and until 1954 was part of Russia.  But if Putin moves his forces beyond Crimea into mainland Ukraine, would the US and UK be dragged into war with Russia?

As a historian, my immediate reaction was this is eerily similar to Hitler annexing the German-speaking Sudetenland, which was part of then-Czechoslovakia.  Putin’s reasoning to sending troops to Crimea is to protect the ethnic Russians who live on the island.  In 1938, Britain and France were traumatized by WWI and fearful of starting another war so they did little to stop Hitler.  Similarly, the US is war weary after Iraq and Afghanistan.  Also as the UK greatly downsized it’s military to a mere police force for its empire after WWI, just last week US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the US military would be downsizing to pre-WWII levels.

If the West wishes to prevent this situation from de-escalating, diplomacy must prevail.  Economic and diplomatic sanctions are a good start.  Russia should be isolated as much as possible starting with the G8 summit in Sochi.  The problem is that Ukraine is a very divided country, among its leaders and its people.

Devyani Khobragade and the future of India-America relations

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The diplomatic-political row between India and the United States over the treatment of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade has both countries more or less scrambling to prevent it from derailing an important alliance between the world’s largest democracies.

Khobragade was arrested by federal marshals in New York City on charges of visa fraud and human trafficking related to how much she was paying her nanny, Sangeeta Richard.  She was arrested and strip-searched before being released on bail.  The Indian government was outraged and has since retaliated by rolling back privileges previously given to American diplomats in India.  Some Indian politicians have taken it further and suggested that gay partners of American diplomats should be arrested, as Khobragade was, since homosexuality has recently been criminalized by the Indian Supreme Court.

Indian politicians are furious, but many Indian-Americans applaud the arrest and the Indian citizenry is slightly divided but mostly upset at what they call blatant disrespect of their diplomats by the US.  Curious enough, every time I started to write about this I learned new information that literally changed my opinion on who was right and wrong.

I’ve observed American, British and Indian media coverage on this and while there are reasons to be suspicious of both Devyani Khobragade and Sangeeta Richard, it is incredibly clear that the US did not take their time to get all the facts and rushed to arrest Khobragade.  The American government “evacuated” the Richard family from India Sangeeta Richard was under criminal investigation by the Delhi High Court.  In doing this the US not only interfered with the Indian judicial process but sent the message that the US government does not respect India’s judiciary enough to communicate with it about what was going on and allow India to handle a situation from within its own borders.  India rightly points out that this is not acceptable behavior from a country that calls itself India’s ally.

I’ll also highlight that I only heard about Delhi’s investigation into Richard when I watched Indian coverage.  However the British news released information revealing Sangeeta Richard’s dubious motives.

I honestly do not know who is the victim here–Khobragade or Richard.  The truth is probably somewhere in between.  But as an American, I’m aware of the racism in American bureaucracy.  European diplomats on American soil have been accused of crimes much worse than this, and American authorities did not treat them the same way they did Khobragade.  India knows this and is rightfully angry.  Also, India has elections in 2014 which is also playing a background role as both the ruling party and main opposition seek to use this situation to demonstrate what they would bring to Indian Foreign Policy, that they will stand up to the West.

Furthermore, even if the case against Khobragade was air tight, the United States owes India respect as an ally, the world’s largest democracy and a rising power to not rush to arrest and prosecution like they did.  On his 2010 visit to India, President Obama praised India, calling it “a true democracy”, and America’s partnership with India, one that defines the 21st century.

Which brings me to my main point in even writing about this.  India has every right to be angry, and unless Khobragade has committed a crime on American soil (which it’s looking less likely that she has), she should be released, her passport returned and an apology issued to India not just for her quick arrest and strip-search but for American authorities completely bypassing India’s judicial system.

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India and the United States are the world’s largest democracies.  It does neither country any good to be on opposite sides, particularly the US.  China is continuing to rise economically and according to Forbes, is poised to become the world’s largest economy by 2016.  China is also spreading its influence beyond its borders to Africa, in particular.  India is pursuing partnerships with African nations as well, and if America wants to retain any type of leverage in a world system where the balance of power is shifting away from the US, it would seem self-evident that a partnership with India would not only benefit the US more given our shared ideologies, but it would provide a deterrent of sorts to China should it become overzealous in its pursuits on the world stage.

As in the 20th century, Britain was our indispensable ally–our shared language, heritage and government linked us together as countries with similar interests.  In the 21st century, the world order is not what it was in 1945.  Britain has accepted this, so must the United States.  I’m not advocating for US-India’s relationship to replace the “special relationship” between the US-UK, but we share the same similarities with India as we do with Britain.  It is a grave mistake to discount India as Asia becomes the global center of power, with China at the top and India poised to overtake Japan and become the world’s third largest economy by 2028 according to London’s Centre for Economics and Business Research.

All of this is to say, the United States no longer runs the world and must not act like it does. This is all part of the cycle of history, but if the US wants to maintain it’s world power status it must realize it is no longer the world’s most powerful, but one of many great powers.