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
A French army officer stands guard on January 16, 2013 at the military airbase in Bamako (ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)
How justified was France’s decision to intervene in Mali and seek to thwart the advance of the Islamist militants inside the country?
Nearly one week after President François Hollande ordered military action, the question is one which is beginning to reverberate in media commentary. The French have been clear that they need to go into Mali to stop the spread of an al-Qaeda linked movement that has a significant foothold in the country and might ultimately threaten the west. But some figures in the US administration clearly have doubts about the wisdom of the move.
The biggest concerns have been raised in an article in Thursday’s New York Times. The NYT says US officials have only an “impressionistic understanding” of the militant groups that have established a safe haven in Mali. It suggests that some US officials wonder how much of an external threat they pose. The NYT quotes Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, who last June played down the terrorist threat to the United States from Mali. He said that the al-Qaeda affiliate operating there “has not demonstrated the capability to threaten U.S. interests outside of West or North Africa, and it has not threatened to attack the U.S. homeland.” Read more
Will France, Britain and the US come to regret their decision to topple Colonel Muammar Gaddafi? Nearly two years after these three states began their mission to remove the Libyan leader, the question is one which some commentators are starting to ponder.
Nobody would deny there was a strong humanitarian interest for the US and its allies to intervene in Libya in the spring of 2011, stopping what would otherwise have been Gaddafi’s massacre of his rebel opponents in Benghazi. But nearly two years on, some might be tempted to argue that his removal ran against the west’s strategic interest, given the course of subsequent events in north Africa and the Middle East. Read more
There is little doubt that the period since November has seen many setbacks for Assad, not the least of which has been the growing co-ordinatiuon – and international recognition – of the opposition. But some senior military and political figures in the Middle East and in Britain remain cautious. Read more
David Cameron at a Syrian refugee camp (Getty)
David Cameron has long been anguished by the unwillingness of the west to do anything about the civil war in Syria. Ever since he became prime minister there has been a strong humanitarian instinct to his foreign policy. In 2011, he joined forces with Nicolas Sarkozy, then the French president, to push the case for western military intervention in Libya to stop the Gaddafi regime’s assault on Benghazi. Over the last 20 months, he has expressed even deeper concern over Syria, where civil war has led to 40,000 deaths. As he said in a speech to the UN General Assembly in September, the blood of young children in Syria is a “terrible stain” on the UN’s reputation.
Mr Cameron’s agony over Syria is sincere, a product of the anguish that the Conservative party went through over its failure to act on the humanitarian crisis in Bosnia in the 1990s. That said, British military planning on Syria over the last 20 months has not shifted one jot. Read more
Since the start of this month, there has been a spate of stories in the western media about the possibility that the Assad regime is about to use chemical weapons against rebel forces in Syria. The stories – most of which have been briefed by US intelligence officials to the American print and broadcast media – have been alarming. As the Assad regime comes under increasing pressure, there are fears that it might use some of its stocks of sarin in a last-ditch demonstration that it is determined to hang onto power. The Obama administration has again asserted that it would see the use of such weapons as the crossing of a red line that triggers US intervention in the conflict.
Anyone trying to bring together the steady stream of news stories on this issue is left with a somewhat murky picture. Some have suggested that the military has loaded chemical weapons into bombs and is awaiting the order from the regime to drop them on rebel groups.
Others have suggested that the precursors for sarin gas have been mixed and could be ready for use.
There is also one report that goes in the other direction and suggests the fears of US intelligence have eased.
What are we to make of it all ? The fact that Syria possesses chemical – and possibly biological – weapons is not in doubt. After years of obfuscation, the regime admitted to having chemical weapons stocks last summer. Most academic opinion is in no doubt that Syria possesses one of the largest arsenals in the world, one that was developed as a strategic deterrent against Israel. Read more
Whatever happens on the diplomatic front in the latest conflict over Gaza, defence analysts will be reflecting for some time on the big military revelation of recent days – the role played by Israel’s Iron Dome interceptor and what it tells us about the value of missile defence systems. Read more
Last month, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, made two announcements regarding his country’s stance on the Iranian nuclear programme.
First, he said that Israel would not be going ahead with a unilateral military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities this year, abandoning the much feared “October surprise.” Secondly, he spelled out a new “red line” that Iran will not be allowed to cross as far as its nuclear activities are concerned. This will be the moment when Iran has acquired enough more highly enriched uranium to build one nuclear bomb – a moment that in Mr Netanyahu’s view may come by next summer.
In recent days, Israeli officials visiting London have spelled out the details regarding this new red line. In their view, Iran by next summer will have acquired some 240kg of more highly enriched uranium (that is uranium at a 20 per cent concentration). This could be converted by Iran into enough weapons grade uranium (at a 90 per cent concentration) to provide Iran with one nuclear weapon.
The difficulty for the Israeli government is that while western leaders are relieved that Mr Netanyahu postponed plans for a strike this autumn, they don’t regard his new red line as having much credibility either. Read more
What are the potential implications of Turkey’s exchange of artillery fire with Syria over the last 24 hours? Read more
In this photo from April 2010, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is shown unveiling a sample of the third generation centrifuge for uranium enrichment (Photo by BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)
Last week’s report by the International Atomic Energy Agency into Iran’s nuclear programme has left observers somewhat perplexed over Tehran’s intentions.
There was a certain amount of worrying news in the report that will heighten concern that the stand-off will end in military confrontation. But there was also some reassuring detail about Iran’s actions that probably needs to be highlighted more clearly than it has been.
The big headline from the report (the worrying news, if you like) was that Iran has significantly increased the number of centrifuge machines which can be used to manufacture more highly enriched uranium – so-called 20 per cent uranium – at its heavily protected facility at Fordow, near Qom. This 20 per cent concentration worries the west because it is close to the weapons grade concentration of uranium needed to produce bomb. Read more