SPOTLIGHT: OBAMA VIETNAM PIVOT
Following last yearâ€™s diplomatic breakthrough on Cuba and ahead of an unprecedented trip to Hiroshima, Japan, U.S. President Barack Obamaâ€™s announcement this morning of an end to the longstanding weapons embargo on Vietnam can be quickly dropped into the â€œhistoricâ€ file of his presidency. The presence of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran, in Hanoi added a touch of poignancy to the news.
Still, to observers of the region, the breakthrough is much more about the future than the past. The closer ties of the former enemies reflect simmering fears the two countries share about the extent of Chinaâ€™s military ambitions. In some sense, the end of the embargo marks a symbolic late-term bookmark on Obamaâ€™s declaration early in his presidency of Washingtonâ€™s diplomatic â€œpivotâ€ towards Asia, and away from historic areas of focus in Europe and the Middle East.
On the eve of Obamaâ€™s visit to the region, a sharply worded piece in the Singapore-based Straits Times from top Chinese diplomat Xu Bu offered a view of how Beijing sees Washingtonâ€™s presence in the region. American officials, Xu writes, â€œrepeatedly made irresponsible remarks about China's policy, rendered support to the countries having disputes with China, and (have) gone even further to drive wedges between China and Southeast Asian countries.â€ Yes, in Hanoi today, history was made â€" with plenty more to come.
BOMBS KILL MORE THAN 100 IN ASSAD STRONGHOLDS
More than 100 people have died in multiple bomb attacks in the Syrian coastal cities of Tartus and Jableh, two Syrian government strongholds, Reuters reports, citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks, the scale of which was "unprecedented", according to the head of the Observatory. This part of Syria had been largely quiet despite the chaos engulfing most of the country. Tartus is also home to a Russian naval base.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR TODAY
- Austrian election results (see below)
- First ever World Humanitarian Summit opens in Istanbul.
OPERATION TO RETAKE FALLUJAH FROM ISIS
The Iraqi army has launched a vast offensive to retake Fallujah, a city located 40 miles west of Baghdad and held by ISIS terrorists for more than two years, Al Jazeera reports. The offensive, which started overnight, is expected to last several weeks.
TALIBAN LEADER KILLED
U.S. President Barack Obama confirmed the death of Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, in a drone strike on Saturday, The New York Times reports this morning.
â€" ON THIS DAY
Bonnie and Clydeâ€™s adventure ended 82 years ago today. This and more in your daily 57-second shot of history.
AUSTRIAN PRESIDENTIAL SHOWDOWN TOO CLOSE TO CALL
Far-right candidate Norbert Hofer came out on top of yesterdayâ€™s presidential election in Austria, with 51,9% against 48,1% for his Green Party opponent Alexander Van der Bellen, but postal votes, which are being counted today, could decide the result, Kurier reports. Final results will be announced this evening.
BAYER MAKES OFFER TO BUY MONSANTO
German drugs and chemicals company Bayer has made an all-cash $62 billion offer for Monsanto, Bloomberg reports. If it goes through, the deal will create the worldâ€™s biggest supplier of farm chemicals and genetically modified seeds.
DEATH TOLL RISES IN FLOODED SRI LANKA
At least 92 people have died in Sri Lanka in the worst floodings and landslides the country has seen in the last quarter of a century. The national website Adaderana also reports that 109 are still missing.
Tunisiaâ€™s Islamist ruling party Ennahda is moving away from â€œpolitical Islamâ€ and aims to put Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, on the path â€œtoward a more mature society.â€ In an exclusive interview with Le Monde, the groupâ€™s leader Rached Ghannouchi explains the reasons behind this groundbreaking shift. â€œPolitical activism has no place in a mosque. It is a place where Muslims can come together, and should not be used by any political party as a means to preach its own ideas. We want religion to be a way for Tunisians to come together, and not to be divided.
This is why we donâ€™t want imams to become political leaders, or even party members in the long run. We want our party to tackle daily issues that are important to families. We donâ€™t want a party that focuses on Day of Reckoning Day, Reaching Paradise, and so on.â€
Read the full article: Tunisiaâ€™s Ennahda Movement Redefines Muslim Democracy.
GREECE PASSES MORE AUSTERITY BILLS
Greek lawmakers approved a new series of austerity measures to unlock more loans from the countryâ€™s creditors, Kathimerini reports. The bills include new tax hikes.
KEN LOACH WINS PALME Dâ€™OR IN CANNES
British director Ken Loach has won his second Palme dâ€™Or at the Cannes Film Festival for his movie I, Daniel Blake. See all winners (and losers) here.
FRENCH FESTS BAN EAGLES OF DEATH METAL
Two French music festivals cancelled performances by Eagles of Death Metal, the band that was playing at the Bataclan concert hall when Islamist militants struck the venue on Nov. 13 last year, after the bandâ€™s frontman made controversial remarks about Muslims allegedly celebrating the terror attack.
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The International Olympic Committee is planning to distribute a record 450,000 condoms to the 10,500 athletes expected to take part in this summerâ€™s Olympic Games in Rio, amid worries over the Zika virus, which can be sexually transmitted. It represents an average of 42 condoms per athlete, three times more than for the London Olympics.
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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