TIKRIT SIEGE TIGHTENS
Iraqi armed forces and Shia militias were surrounding ISIS fighters inside the city of Tikrit yesterday with Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi confident that victory over the terrorist group was only a matter of time. “Time is on our side. We have the initiative,” AFP quoted him as saying. Since the operation started 12 days ago, anti-ISIS forces have regained much of the territory around and inside the city, but fights continue to rage around a palace built by the late dictator Saddam Hussein, The New York Times reports. ISIS, meanwhile, has tried to shrug off the military setbacks by officially welcoming Boko Haram into its “caliphate” days after the terrorist group that seized vast part of northern Nigeria pledged its allegiance.
ON THIS DAY
Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis on this day, two years ago already. Time for your 57-second shot of history!
BEHIND EBOLA, MEASLES
As the death toll from the Ebola outbreak surpassed 10,000 yesterday, researchers warned that a measles outbreak could soon threaten the West African countries hardest hit by Ebola. Ebola so overwhelmed the health care systems of these countries that it could lead to an outbreak of vaccine-preventable diseases, the most dangerous of them being measles. If the highly contagious virus were to hit Sierra Leone, Liberia or Guinea, the scientists believe the infection rate could be much higher than that of Ebola and could lead to as many as 16,000 deaths. Read more from Mother Jones.
MADURO COMPARES HIMSELF TO STALIN
"I am just like Stalin," Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said Thursday during a visit to the Caracas Book Fair. Today's Mexican daily La Razon featured this shockingly proud comparison to the Soviet dictator. Read more on our 4 Corners blog.
700 SQUARE KILOMETERS
Egypt is set to unveil what the Financial Times describes as “ambitious plans” for a new administrative capital in a bid to reduce congestion in Cairo, a city of 18 million people. The “Capital Cairo” project would be built over 700 square kilometers, the size of Singapore, to make room for up to seven million inhabitants and extend the city as far as Suez, on the Red Sea.
Photo above: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/ZUMA
“The best thing I ever did with my life was stand up and say I've got Alzheimer's,” British fantasy writer Terry Pratchett once said. After his death yesterday, fans are remembering his best quotes. Read some of his best lines on Radio Times.
NETANYAHU LAGS BEHIND IN POLLS
With just four days to go before Israel’s election day, the polls published in several newspapers today all show Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party behind the center-left Zionist Union, AFP reports. The Zionist Union of Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni are in the lead with a projection of 24 to 26 seats in the Knesset, while the Likud is expected to keep just 21 or 22. The incumbent prime minister accused other right-wing parties of splitting the vote yesterday. “Whoever wants me as prime minister — which is the majority of the public — must vote for my party,” he said. In an editorial, The Economist describes “Bibi” as a “bad deal for Israel.”
After one of superstar DJ David Guetta’s concerts in Brazil, Le Monde’s Véronique Mortaigne sat down for an interview with the happy hedonist. “Guetta, who grew up in eastern Paris near the Aligre market, where Jews and Arabs lived together, is a popular, intercommunity artist, which is rare for a music genre that is typically regarded as the domain of white people,” the journalist writes of the second highest-paid DJ in the world who also has 17 million Twitter followers. “But Guetta has collaborated with the elite of black American music: Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Kid Cudi, Usher, Kanye West, who feature on his albums and vice versa. ‘I have a black musical background,’ he says.”
Read the full article, David Guetta, The Happy, Genre-Busting DJ.
SWEDEN TO QUESTION ASSANGE
In a U-turn move, Swedish prosecutors have offered to travel to London to question Wikileaks founder Julian Assange over sex assault allegations, the BBC reports. Lead prosecutor Marianne Ny explained the change in position by saying some of the crimes Assange is accused of will reach their statute of limitations in August. Assange, who has been taking refuge at the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012, has repeatedly denied the allegations and refused to travel to Sweden for questioning, fearing he might then be deported to the U.S. to face charges over the secret diplomatic cables published on Wikileaks. Assange’s lawyer said his client would cooperate with the investigation.
MY GRAND-PÈRE’S WORLD
ICELAND WITHDRAWS EU BID
Iceland has dropped its bid to join the European Union, saying the country’s “interests are better served outside.” The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy was one of the obstacles for the Nordic island, which will continue to cooperate economically with Brussels.
MEAN TWEETS FOR OBAMA
U.S. President Barack Obama was on Jimmy Kimmel’s show yesterday and, like other celebrities, wasn’t spared the mean-tweet treatment. Watch expand=1] the video here.
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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