diplomacy

Gideon Rachman

Ordinary New Yorkers have good reason to dread “UNGA week” – the five days in September when world leaders descend en masse on New York for the UN General Assembly.

The result is gridlock in Manhattan as the east side of the city, near the UN, is blocked off to allow easier passage for presidential motorcades. On the other hand, the powerful and well-connected can be guaranteed a few good cocktail-party invitations. And interested spectators all over the world can be guaranteed some political theatre. Here is what to look out for this year when the leaders’ speeches get underway on Tuesday: Read more

Video footage showing rows of children in burial shrouds and doctors desperately trying to save other victims shocked the world on August 20. What appeared to be a chemical attack on rebel-held suburbs of the Syrian capital was the latest in a series of allegations that the regime of Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons in its war against the armed opposition. Just over a year ago, Barack Obama, the US president, vowed that any use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war would be a ‘red line’ that would provoke US intervention in Syria’s conflict. But despite acknowledging that Mr Assad has used chemical weapons, the US has so far failed to take action. Here is a timeline of US statements on chemical weapons and allegations of their use in Syria.

July 23, 2012 The Bashar al-Assad regime confirmed for the first time it possessed chemical weapons, saying it would use them in the case of Western military intervention but never against the Syrian population.

August 20, 2012 President Barack Obama announces his “red line” for Syrian intervention, threatening “enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.”

December 6 2012 The White House expresses concern that the Assad regime “might be considering the use of chemical weapons” and that the Syrian authorities would be “held accountable by the United States and the international community if they use chemical weapons or fail to meet their obligations to secure them”. Read more

James Blitz

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

Daniel Dombey

Gold bars are seen at the Czech Central Bank on September 05, 2011 in Prague (MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images)

The golden stuff (AFP/Getty)

It must rank as one of the most thankless jobs in diplomacy. Just how do you draw up incentives for Iran to rein in its nuclear programme?

Talks have lumbered on, in one incarnation or another, for a decade now. Efforts to win over Tehran have been encumbered by mutual suspicion, political sensitivities (there is always the charge of appeasement) and sheer force of law.

Many of the sanctions the Islamic Republic most objects to are already on the statute book, whether as UN Resolutions, EU agreements or US law. No wonder it is difficult to come up with a compelling offer; few countries can change their laws by fiat.

On Monday, Tehran attacked one of the latest ideas seemingly floated by the world’s major powers – the notion the US could roll back recently imposed sanctions on gold sales to Iran.

The idea may have been designed to help Western allies – notably Turkey –as much as to alleviate Iran’s economic isolation. Last year Ankara became the world’s leading gold exporter to Iran, whether directly or through entrepôts such as the UAE. Demand from the Islamic Republic helped Turkey’s overall exports of the metal reach levels of $1.5bn-$2bn some months.

The trade has various explanations – chief of which is that bank transactions with Iran have become ever more problematic, particularly in the wake of measures affecting Swift, a group that facilitates electronic funds transfers. Against this backdrop, Tehran started taking payment for its oil and gas exports to Ankara in Turkish Lira – instead of via bank transfer – and using the money to buy gold it then ships home. Read more

John Paul Rathbone

Julian Assange speaking in December 2011 (LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)

William Hague, the UK foreign secretary, has said he wants to make Latin America a priority of British diplomacy. The UK’s approach to Julian Assange suggests otherwise.

Mr Assange, today granted political asylum by Ecuador, remains holed up in its embassy in London. But the foreign office has said that, under UK law, British police can storm the Ecuadorean embassy and remove him. Such action would presumably form part of its “binding obligation to extradite Assange to Sweden,” as a foreign office spokesperson put it.

Bad move. For one, the law is unnecessary. As Ecuador acknowledges, rather than raid the embassy British police could simply arrest Assange as soon as he stepped out onto London’s street, en route to political asylum in Quito. (He faces charges of skipping bail.) The law is also politically flat-footed. It casts the UK as a heavy-handed western country that considers itself above international norms (especially given the UN Security Council’s condemnation of the sacking of the British embassy in Iran). It thereby tacitly confirms the worst kinds of conspiracy theories swirling around Assange. And it allows Ecuador to play the plucky David standing up to the bullying colonial Goliath of Britain. The pose resonates throughout the region, and has similarly been struck by Argentina in its arguments with the UK over the Falklands. Expect President Cristina Fernandez to start singing that refrain again soon. Read more