U.S. PONDERS ARMING UKRAINE
The United States may decide soon to equip Ukraine’s armed forces with “defensive weapons and equipment,” The New York Times reports, adding that many military and administration officials “appear to be edging toward that position.” Secretary of State John Kerry, who will travel to Kiev Thursday, is said to be open to discussions about sending lethal equipment after pro-Russian rebels launched a major offensive against army positions in eastern Ukraine. The leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic announced plans to hold a general mobilization in 10 days to recruit up to 100,000 people, just days after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Kiev had recruited 45,000 troops.
“He won't give up until Baher and Mohamed are out of there,” the family of Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste told a news conference after he was released from prison in Egypt, where he spent 400 days behind bars. Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy remain jailed. The three journalists were sentenced to seven to 10 years after being tried for allegedly spreading false news and aiding the Muslim Brotherhood. Their convictions were overturned Jan. 1 after the country’s highest court ordered a retrial.
OBAMA’S $4 TRILLION BUDGET
U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to submit a $4 trillion budget to Congress today, in accordance with what he termed “middle-class economics” during his recent State of the Union address. According to The Washington Post, the 2016 budget features a six-year, $478 billion public works program for upgrading infrastructure such as highways, bridges, railroads and ports, and a 1.3% pay raise for federal workers and troops. Obama expects to finance these measures with a new tax on the wealthiest as well as a one-time 14% tax on the estimated $2 trillion in profits that companies have been keeping abroad.
MY GRAND-PÈRE'S WORLD
According to the Financial Times, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and advertising network Taboola have “quietly” paid the makers of Adblock Plus to stop the popular software from blocking ads on their sites, even as usage of such software increased 70% last year.
JORDAN STILL SEEKS ISIS SWAP
The Jordan government is still seeking proof that a Jordanian pilot ISIS took hostage is alive. Meanwhile, the terrorist group claimed it killed a second Japanese hostage. A government spokesperson said Jordan was still ready to hand over an Iraqi woman jailed there “in return for the return of our son and our hero.” Meanwhile in Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reacted to the death of journalist Kenji Goto by saying, “Japan will never give in to terrorism.” He added that the country would expand its humanitarian assistance in the Middle East. But an editorial in the newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun urges the government to go further and says it’s not “the duty of Japan” to join the anti-ISIS coalition.
As Madr Masr’s Heba Afify writes, Egypt prides itself on having one of the oldest railways in the world, founded in the 1800s. But the railway that was once a source of pride has decayed into an embarrassing testament to negligence and corruption. “Catastrophic train accidents have become regular occurrences, especially on the Upper Egypt line, which is in the worst shape,” Afify writes. “The deadliest was the Upper Egypt train fire in 2002, which killed more than 350 passengers. I have first-hand experience of the incompetence of the system that was behind most of these accidents. Almost every time I take the train to Upper Egypt, it either breaks down or gets delayed because another train has broken down and is blocking the tracks. The latter was the reason for a two-hour delay on the way to Aswan, bringing the time of the trip to 15 hours.
Read the full article, Thirty Hours Aboard The Rickety Upper Egypt Railway.
END TO SOUTH SUDAN WAR IN SIGHT
South Sudan's President Salva Kiir and rebel commander and former Vice President Riek Machar have signed an agreement on a future transition government, a first step towards ending a months-long conflict that has killed as estimated 10,000 people and displaced 1.5 million, The Sudan Tribune reports. But rebel leaders have insisted that “many issues” still need to be negotiated and resolved before a final peace agreement can be reached.
ON THIS DAY
On this day in 1922, James Joyce’s Ulysses was published. Time for your 57-shot of history.
DSK PIMPING TRIAL BEGINS
Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former IMF chief who was forced to resign in disgrace in 2011 amid allegations that he had raped a Manhattan maid, goes on trial today over his alleged “pimping” role in sex parties with prostitutes, Le Monde reports. DSK has repeatedly said he didn’t know the women were in fact prostitutes being paid to attend the parties in luxury hotels in Paris, Washington, Vienna or Madrid. But some of the sex workers have responded that it was impossible for him not to know. Read more from our 4 Corners blog.
"O LUNA MIA
Check out this week's horoscope, straight from the Eternal City.
TABLETS BAD FOR BABIES’ BRAINS
New research suggests that the use of tablets or smartphones to pacify toddlers could damage their brain development and affect their “own internal mechanisms of self-regulation.”
SUPER BOWL — LATE BUT GREAT
An epic final eight minutes saw the New England Patriots make a dramatic comeback last night to secure their fourth Super Bowl win (see photo above) with a 28-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. Once again, the adverts were also among the evening’s highlights as well as one of Katy Perry’s shark-clad dancers.
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.
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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