Iran's representatives led by their top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili (back 4th L) take part in talks on Iran's nuclear programme in the Kazakh city of Almaty on February 27, 2013 (ILYAS OMAROV/AFP/Getty Images)

Talks in Almaty on February 27 (AFP/Getty Images)

The latest meeting between Iran and world powers to try and resolve the dilemma over the Iranian nuclear programme is over. And once again, a shaft of light has emerged that will lead some to hope that military action over the Iranian programme might be averted.

After two days of talks in the freezing city of Almaty in Kazakhstan, Iran has told the US and five other world powers that it is prepared to hold a couple more meetings in March and April to try to resolve international concerns that it wants a nuclear bomb.

That said, few will want to overplay the significance of this move. Here are three reasons why many western diplomats will be cautious. Read more

Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev sign the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in April 2010. (JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Obama and Medvedev signing the 2010 treaty (Getty)

Can Barack Obama use his second term of office to push through another round of cuts in American and Russian nuclear weapons? After declaring in his State of the Union address that he will “engage Russia” on this issue, the question is suddenly back on the international security agenda.

In his first presidential term, President Obama and his then Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev pushed through big cuts in the number of deployed nuclear weapons each side possesses, with each pledging to have no more than 1,550 each by 2018. Now, Mr Obama has come back to the issue and says he wants to do more – with his officials indicating they want to see deployed US and Russian nuclear weapons coming down another third – to around 1,000 on either side.

Discussions about US- Russia arms control are very technical and the detail quickly gets mind-boggling. To the outsider, the subject also seems dispiriting. Even a big cut like the one Mr Obama is proposing would still leave both countries with massive capability to destroy each other and the world. Still, there are a number of reasons why Mr Obama’s attempt to get new cuts is worth attention in the months ahead. Read more

South Koreans burn pictures of North Korean ruler Kim Jong-eun after Pyongyang's nuclear test. (AP)

North Korea’s decision to conduct its third underground nuclear test will come as no surprise to governments around the world. Pyongyang has been making clear for some weeks that it planned a nuclear test at a “higher level” than its previous two in 2006 and 2009. Its decision to press ahead has already triggered widespread condemnation from the US and its allies. Now that the test has taken place, diplomats and nuclear experts will be asking four key questions about the nuclear explosion.

First, have the North Korans managed to developed a device that they can place on top of a long-range missile?

North Korea stated that the test used “a small and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously”. This will prompt fears that Pyongyang has managed to miniaturize a nuclear warhead, in order to place it on top of a long range ballistic missile. Read more

South Koreans protest this week about a possible North Korean nuclear test. (AP)

This is turning out to be a rather fraught time for people who worry about the spread of nuclear weapons around the world. In recent days, there has been much dismay about the way talks are going between world powers and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear programme. Iran does not look like it wants to make the kind of concessions that the US and its allies seek if there is to be a deal that averts Israeli or US military action over the programme.

Now it looks like there is about to be bad news from the world’s other nuclear pariah state – North Korea. All the signs are that Pyongyang is about to conduct another nuclear test, its third since 2006 and potentially one that is far bigger than the two it has conducted previously.

Nobody can be 100 per cent sure that North Korea will test a nuclear weapon in the next few days. But the signs are growing that something is afoot. North Korea announced last month that it would conduct a nuclear test to protest against UN Security Council sanctions, stating it would be an explosion at a “higher level” than has been seen in the past. 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

A French army officer stands guard on January 16, 2013 while Malian president welcomes service at the military airbase in Bamako (ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)

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

James Blitz on why Vladimir Putin’s visit to London on Thursday is probably the most remarkable diplomatic moment of this Olympic fortnight.  Read more

Mitt Romney in Israel (Getty)

Mitt Romney has caused something of a stir over recent days with comments that he and his campaign team have made about Iran. On a visit to Israel he and his aides said two things on the Iranian nuclear weapons programme that have left politicians and commentators wondering how he would act on this issue if elected.

First there was a comment made in Jerusalem by Dan Senor, Mr Romney’s senior foreign policy aide, who suggested that his boss supports a unilateral military strike on Iran by Israel. “If Israel has to take action on its own,” Mr Senor said in a briefing, “the governor would respect that decision.” Read more

Something is changing in the way the US and its allies are analysing the conflict in Syria. For the last sixteen months, it has largely been seen as an appalling and escalating civil war, one which sees the country’s various ethnic factions lining up against one another, and with some 18,000 people now killed.

But after the events of the last week – above all the assassination of four of President Bashar al-Assad’s top aides –  things are different. This is not only a civil war but a conflict that increasingly threatens the stability of Syria’s neighbours and therefore has serious security implications for western states. Read more

The inability of Russia and the US to forge a collective response to the Syria crisis at the United Nations is a significant moment in the 16-month-long uprising.

It makes it inevitable that the conflict between the Assad regime and rebels will develop into an even more bloody confrontation over the next few weeks, with a potentially significant impact on the wider region. The crisis now poses a range of security risks which will this weekend be much on the minds of policymakers in western states and in the Middle East. Read more


Protestors step on a picture of Bashar al-Assad during a rally on May 31. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/GettyImages)

The bomb attack that has killed Syria’s defence minister and President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law is by far the most serious blow the Syrian regime has suffered since the rebellion began sixteen months ago.

Most security experts and Syria watchers do not believe it spells the immediate end of President Assad. He will fight on, knowing he retains considerable military force to throw at the rebellion.

But today’s events prompt three big questions that will gradually come to be answered in the days and weeks ahead. Read more

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili smiles at a press conference in Moscow, on June 19, 2012. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/GettyImages

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili at a Moscow press conference on June 19. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/GettyImages)

Over the last two months, Iran and six world powers have met three times – in Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow -  to try and resolve the crisis over the Iranian nuclear programme. On all three occasions, little or no progress was made in resolving the dispute.

Indeed after the Moscow talks, negotiations have been downgraded to little more than a pledge to hold discussions between technical experts in early July – and possibly no more than that. So this is a time to take stock of what the diplomacy of the last few months has taught us – and whether it can avert a descent into military action. Read more