James Blitz

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s President, declared on Tuesday that the referendum on independence in Crimea was conducted in strict accordance with democratic principles and international law.

In particular, he cited Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008 as an example of self-determination that has been praised by the west – and which provided a legitimate template for Russia’s action in Crimea.

But how justified are these arguments? 

James Blitz

For the last seven years, Iran and world powers have been engaged in seemingly endless negotiations over whether the Iranian nuclear programme could be curbed. After each failure, diplomats and journalists ended up wondering whether diplomacy would ever prevail – or whether Iran would end up either getting the nuclear bomb or being bombed.

But this autumn three factors came into play to make this the moment when a landmark deal needed to be agreed – and when the years of deadlock and obfuscation needed to come to an end. The agreement, hailed as a historic moment, has halted further progress on the nuclear programme in return for a modest lifting of international sanctions. 

James Blitz

Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief, and Mohammad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister, ahead of talks in Geneva, November 7. Getty.

As Iran and world powers hold a new round of talks in Geneva on Tehran’s nuclear programme, western diplomats have one immediate goal in mind. They want Iran to call an immediate halt to further progress in the nuclear programme so that time can be found next year for a comprehensive solution to the stand-off with the west.

The first round of talks in Geneva last month between Iran and six world powers – the US, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China – went well. Iran suggested it was looking to try and sign a comprehensive deal at some point in 2014 that lifts the full raft of international sanctions while setting out constraints on its nuclear activities.

But as they start negotiating over this hugely complex deal, western diplomats fear time is not on their side. Their concern is that while everyone is talking in Geneva, Iran is developing its nuclear programme on the ground at a speed which they believe is alarming. 

James Blitz

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a press conference after two days of nuclear talks in Geneva.

Iran and world powers are still a long way from agreeing a deal to allay global fears about the Iranian nuclear programme. But something has started to happen at this week’s negotiations in Geneva that may significantly improve the chances of a pact.

For the first time, the US and the west have started to explore what the “end state” of the Iranian programme should be – in other words what kind of nuclear facilities the US and its allies will allow Iran to retain over the very long term. 

James Blitz

Iran's president Hassan Rouhani address the UN General Assembly (Getty)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been at the UN in New York all this week, opening up the possibility of engagement with the US over Tehran’s nuclear programme. One of the most striking features of his performance is the way he has used different settings to push forward different messages about how he views the world.

In his speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Mr Rouhani took what sounded like a very traditional Iranian line. It may have had none of the apocalyptic and offensive rhetoric of his predecessor, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, on such occasions. But the speech contained plenty of passages which implied a strong attack on America’s “coercive economic and military policies.” Many experts were disappointed that it failed to deviate from Iran’s traditional script.

Mr Rouhani has also found plenty of time, however, to meet US media, and here his tone has been very different. With CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, he read out a message in English of goodwill towards Americans.

 

James Blitz

Can Iran and the west finally do a deal on the Iranian nuclear programme, ending the decade long stand-off that has plagued international diplomacy? As we watch the extraordinary set of encounters at the UN General Assembly in New York this week between leading Iranian and US figures, that question will be on the mind of every diplomat and journalist.

The atmospherics between Iran and the US this week are certainly exceeding expectations. All the attention on Tuesday will be on whether an encounter occurs between Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. But whatever happens on that front, other important encounters are already being scheduled that say a lot about just how much the mood has changed. 

James Blitz

David Cameron

David Cameron addresses the House of Commons during a debate on Syria. Press Association

How much has Britain’s standing in the world been damaged by the House of Commons decision last month to rule out military action against Syria? As the crisis has gone through its numerous twists and turns over the last few weeks, the verdict seems to be constantly changing.

At first, the judgment of many people was that the Commons vote on the night of August 29 was a serious blow for David Cameron’s government. The Commons had overturned the will of the PM. The UK was not standing shoulder-to-shoulder with its US ally. Britain looked like it had badly damaged the much cherished “special relationship” with America. 

James Blitz

Why did the Russian government launch its sudden initiative on Monday asking Syria to bring its chemical weapons under international control? According to most commentators, the overwhelming motivation will have been to stop the Obama administration carrying out a missile strike on Syria. By making this move, Russia has stopped the march to war.

But some western diplomats say there may have been another factor weighing on the Kremlin’s mind ahead of this move. This is the expectation in some capitals that next week’s UN inspectors’ report into the chemical attack on eastern Damascus will be more embarrassing for the Assad regime than we have been led to believe. 

James Blitz

David McNew/Getty Images

Did President Bashar al-Assad personally order the chemical weapons attack that was carried out on eastern Damascus on August 21? Or was the decision to mount the attack taken by military commanders without Mr Assad’s knowledge, or that of the closest people to him? As the US presses ahead with its argument that there must be a response to the chemical attack, these questions are increasingly under discussion.

In their intelligence assessments of the August 21 attack, the US, Britain and France have stated with high confidence that the Assad regime was responsible for what happened.

But the question of whether Mr Assad personally knew about the attack in advance – or whether the assault happened without him being forewarned – is an intriguing one. It gained a sharper focus at the weekend after Germany’s Bild am Sonntag paper cited a unnamed German intelligence officials saying they believed he had not given the order. These officials based this assessment on intelligence suggesting Syrian brigade commanders had been asking Mr Assad to allow them to use chemical weapons for the last four and a half months – but permission had always been denied. 

James Blitz

Is there any point in the US pressing ahead with its planned missile strike on Syria? After President Obama made his surprise announcement on Saturday night that he will seek Congressional approval for the operation, the thought must have crossed the minds of more than a few diplomats and military chiefs in Washington and allied capitals.

The fundamental argument put forward by Mr Obama and his allies over the last week was that a missile strike is needed to send a message to the Assad regime that the US will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons in war. But if the strike eventually takes place, how resolute will the message to Assad look after so many weeks of debate and deliberation, after so much to-ing and froing in Congress and the British parliament