Daily Archives: February 6, 2013


Hold back the celebratory cupcakes (Getty)

As the FT reported this morning, the US has refused to give the Europeans the big, bold announcement on trade that they were desperately seeking.

The plan was that tomorrow’s US-EU summit would announce the beginning of negotiations to form a trade agreement between the US and Europe. But, for now, the Americans are refusing to play ball.

In Brussels, some may see this as a lamentable lack of vision. In fact, it is simply a welcome injection of some scepticism and realism. Read more

He is not quite kissing babies yet but Mario Monti is throwing off his image as a fusty economics professor and former EU bureaucrat with his first election campaign spot.

The one-minute spot – released today on social network sites and local television stations – shows the human side of the 69-year-old, playing on the carpet with his grandchildren and promising a “together we can do it” better future.

Hammering home the message that the “old parties are not capable of reforming Italy”, the ad skips over the issue that Mr Monti’s centrist alliance includes two of parliament’s most veteran politicians.

If the campaign carries echoes of Barack Obama, could that be because Italy’s technocrat prime minister has hired two consultants from the old team led by David Axelrod, strategist for the US president?

The spot cleverly splices images of wads of cash changing hands and lines of official limousines as Mr Monti promises to crack down on corruption and wasteful government spending while promising economic growth, jobs and “responsible” tax cuts. Read more

Moaz Al-Khatib (L), with Lakhdar Brahimi during the Munich Security Conference on February 1 (Getty)

Moaz Al-Khatib (L), with Lakhdar Brahimi during the Munich Security Conference on February 1 (Getty)

Moaz al-Khatib, the Damascene preacher elevated to lead Syria’s rebel coalition last November, is the most astute tactician the opposition has fielded so far.

The feelers al-Khatib has put out to Bashar al-Assad and his backers in Russia and Iran are clever, even though anyone who discerns diplomatic progress here, let alone the birth of a “peace process”, will be disappointed.

Al-Khatib, president of the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces (the full title by which more than a hundred countries recognised the rebels in December) has ostensibly revived the idea of a dialogue with the Assad regime, in weekend talks held in Munich with the Russian and Iranian foreign ministers – who both said this was what they had been advocating all along. But the devil is, as ever, in the detail.

The conditions set by al-Khatib include: the release of 160,000 prisoners (the number he says) the regime is holding; the issue of passports to tens of thousands of refugees who have had to flee Syria without papers; and that any talks on transitional arrangements to end the war should be with Farouk Sharaa, the Syrian vice-president.

A little more than implicit in the latter point is the offer of safe passage out of Syria for President Assad – which most rebel forces on the ground and a good number of the political figures in the National Coalition regard as taboo, maybe even treachery. Read more

In February, the weather in Almaty is usually well below freezing. So as some of the world’s top diplomats prepare to travel to the former capital of Kazakhstan this month for yet another meeting with Iran over its nuclear programme, most will be feeling somewhat gloomy. The concern is not just the weather, of course, The thing that will induce angst is the near-certain prediction that they will sit there for days in the freezing cold of the southern Kazakh mountains – only to make no progress yet again in talks with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. As one top diplomat tells me: “The best I’m hoping for is that we agree another date to meet. That’s it.”

Judging by the advanced briefing for this meeting – where Iran will negotiate with the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany – it’s easy to see why Almaty is set to join Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow as the scene of another negotiating failure. Read more

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The visit of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad to Cairo on Tuesday marked the first time an Iranian leader has been to Egypt since Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979. At a press conference he said he hoped the trip would be “a new starting point in relations between us”.

But the Iranian president, who is a Shia Muslim, suffered two awkward moments during his visit. He was reprimanded by the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, the highest authority in Sunni Islam, who warned him against seeking the “extension of Shia reach”, pressed for Sunni Muslims in Iran to be given full rights, and told Ahmadi-Nejad to hold back from interfering in Gulf Arab states.

Then, as the Iranian president visited a mosque, a man tried to strike him with a shoe. Read more