Ed Miliband outlines his foreign policy plans at Chatham House in London

If Ed Miliband becomes Britain’s prime minister next month what will this mean for the country’s foreign policy? The question is one that the UK’s allies should start considering because the prospect of him winning power is growing. Betting companies believe there is now a greater chance of Mr Miliband entering Number 10 after the May 7 election than of David Cameron returning to office.

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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? Read more

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. Read more

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. Read more

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. Read more

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.

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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. Read more

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. Read more

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. Read more

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. Read more

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 Read more

For the past 2½ years, the US and its allies have been deeply reluctant to become engaged in the Syrian civil war. Over the past few days, however, the mood in the Obama administration has clearly shifted. In the aftermath of an apparent chemical weapons attack on the eastern suburbs of Damascus, the US is clearly contemplating military action. Nothing, as yet is guaranteed. Instead, as Mr Obama and his allies contemplate the next steps, there are three broad questions they will be considering.

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Syrian rebels in the southern town of Maaret al-Numan (AFP)

US President Barack Obama’s decision to send arms to the Syrian rebels is clearly an important moment in the country’s civil war. It is a decision that will be welcomed by David Cameron, the British prime minister.

Over the last year, Cameron has been one of the strongest supporters for the idea of sending arms to the rebels in order to level the Syrian battlefield and help bring the Assad regime to the negotiating table. A constant theme in his argument is that there must not be a repeat of the Bosnia conflict in the 1990s, in which thousands died while the west stood aside and did nothing. Read more

Qusair, in Homs Province (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

This has been a week of intense diplomatic and military activity over Syria. At the end of it, anyone analysing the situation has much new detail to reflect on. The Assad regime is making considerable advances on the ground. The EU arms embargo on Syria has been amended, allowing Britain and France to supply weapons to parts of the Syrian opposition at some future date if they wish. Russia seems to be pressing ahead with the provision of the S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to the Syrian regime, alarming the Israelis. Meanwhile diplomacy over a planned peace conference to try and bring an end to the civil war presses ahead – albeit with deep scepticism from many diplomats about the chance of success.

What should we make of all these events? After conversations with several western diplomats analysing the situation, one can pick out various strands that help organise one’s assessment of where things stand. Read more

Fighting on: rebels on a training exercise in Syria's northern Latakia province (Getty)

The international diplomacy to try and resolve the crisis in Syria is entering a new and complex phase. Over the next few weeks, the main focus will be on attempts by the US and Russia to convene a peace conference in early June that brings together representatives of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, president, and the Syrian opposition. Whether this conference can achieve anything – indeed, whether it will even take place – is hard to tell. As President Obama said when meeting David Cameron, British prime minister, this week: “I’m not promising that [the peace conference] is going to be successful. It’s going to be challenging, but it’s worth the effort.”

Despite that effort, the UK and France are not giving up on an altogether different diplomatic push. Both want to open the way for the transfer of weapons by EU states to the moderate rebels fighting the Syrian regime. Britain has committed itself to providing the opposition with armoured vehicles, body armour and power generators. But Mr Cameron said this week that he now wants “more flexibility” to support the rebels.

The UK and France are therefore committed to trying to get the EU arms embargo on Syria amended at the end of this month so that weapons can at some later stage be transferred to the Syrian opposition. The difficulty is the huge opposition within the EU to any amendment that allows weapons to be transferred to Assad’s opponents. Read more

On its way out? A Trident submarine leaves Faslane naval base (Getty)

Does the US want Britain to renew its independent nuclear deterrent? The question is generating a certain amount of debate among security analysts on both sides of the Atlantic. Between now and 2016, the UK must take a decision on whether to spend £20bn building four new submarines to carry the Trident missile. David Cameron’s Conservatives are keenly committed to a like-for-like replacement, saying there can be no compromise with the UK’s ultimate security guarantee.

But there are a few discordant voices out there who are questioning whether it is really worth ploughing all this money into a renewed nuclear weapons capability when the UK is having to cut its conventional arsenal as much as it is. Would it not be better, ask some critics, if Britain shifted the billions of pounds of cash meant for Trident’s replacement and bought weapons it is far more likely to use and which will ensure it remains an effective ally of the US? Read more

(CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images)

(CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images)

President François Hollande this week published France’s long awaited strategic defence review, setting out what the French armed forces should be aiming to do in the years ahead. The publication of the document – called the “livre blanc” or “white book” – was an important moment for those following European defence.

In recent years, the US has become increasingly concerned that European states are cutting back on defence spending, leaving the US to do more and more of the heavy lifting in Nato. In 2010, Britain, the biggest defence spender in Europe, slashed expenditure by eight per cent in real terms. The big question was whether France was about to do the same.

The good news for France’s allies is that it isn’t taking what might be called the “Cameron approach.” According to Camille Grand, director of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, France did debate whether to slash defence spending by 10 per cent. “But the French finance ministry lost that argument, much to relief of the service chiefs,” he says. Read more

Images of two suspects at an FBI press conference on April 18  (Darren McCollester/Getty)

Images of the two suspects at an FBI press conference on April 18 (Darren McCollester/Getty)

Two brothers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, are suspected by US law enforcement officials of carrying out the bombing of the Boston marathon on Monday. The elder brother Tamerlan died in the course of an early morning car chase. The younger is now the subject of a manhunt. If we assume that these two men were indeed the perpetrators of the killings, establishing the motive for the attacks will soon become the biggest challenge for the US authorities.

Over the next few hours and days the US police and security services will be searching properties and buildings associated with the two men, analysing the content of computers and laptops, interviewing family and friends – all in order to build up a picture of why the two brothers acted as they did. Only then will the US government be able to work out the security and policy implications of the horrific events Boston has seen this week.

As of now, no form conclusion can be drawn. What can be said is that the two brothers will have had one of three possible motives. Read more


As Barack Obama visits Israel and the Palestinian Territories this week, he will doubtless find that one issue tops all others for the Israeli government: the need to persuade him to make a firm commitment to take military action over Iran’s nuclear programme if negotiations to scale back Iranian ambitions eventually break down.

President Obama said recently that he does not think Iran will be in position to get a nuclear weapon for at least another year. But Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s PM, is still looking for a firmer commitment from the White House that if the Iranians take their nuclear capability beyond a certain point, the US will take military action.

Whether differences between the US and Israel will be closed on this trip – or at some other point – is far from clear. Although it says Iran must not get a nuclear weapon, the US administration certainly views the timeframe for the Iranian programme in a more relaxed way than the Israelis do. Read more

Employees in the town of Kfar Saba sew flags in preparation for the upcoming visit of Barack Obama (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Employees in the town of Kfar Saba sew flags in preparation for the upcoming visit of Barack Obama (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama will visit Israel on Wednesday 20 March. It will be the first foreign visit of his second term. The trip will be dominated by three foreign policy issues – Iran’s nuclear programme, the Syrian civil war and the Middle East peace process.

Those issues will do much to define how his presidency is eventually judged. This will not be an easy visit for Obama; his relations with Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s PM, are notoriously frosty. “Obama has done a lot for Israel but many Israelis are still uncertain to what extent he is a true friend of their country,” says one veteran foreign diplomat. “If he wants to persuade Israelis to move on issues like the peace process he needs to convince them he is genuinely on their side.”

But this visit has to be more than just a charm offensive. Three questions will determine whether it is a success. Read more