Exclusive: Rift Opens In U.S.-Russia Relations Over Dueling Blacklists

Russia has drawn up a list of Americans who will be banned from entering Russia. The move comes as a response to Washington’s blacklisting of Russian officials linked to suspected human rights violations.

Happier times? U.S. Secretary of State Clinton with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in February.
Happier times? U.S. Secretary of State Clinton with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in February.
Vladimir Solovyev

MOSCOW - Barack Obama's much vaunted ‘reset" of relations between the United States and Russia has suddenly hit a major snag. Sources say Moscow has drawn up a draft list of Americans who will be banned from entering Russia, in direct response to Washington's blacklisting of officials linked to the case of Sergey Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in Russian police custody in 2009.

Supporters of Magnitsky say the lawyer for UK-based Hermitage Capital Management was tortured and killed by corrupt law enforcement officers. Magnitsky was jailed after he alleged widespread tax fraud by public officials. Supporters have called on Western governments to impose sanctions on officials involved, including one Magnitsky had accused of stealing 230 million dollars in government funds.

When reports surfaced two weeks ago that Russian officials had been banned by the United States over the Magnitsky affair, President Dmitry Medvedev tasked the Foreign Affairs ministry to respond in kind.

A source tells Kommersant that the list was actually being drawn up before Medvedev's request, and includes dozens of names, most notably U.S. agents responsible for the arrests of Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko, two cases that Russia has vehemently contested.

Yaroshenko was arrested in Liberia for cocaine smuggling, and Bout in Thailand for illegal arms trading. Both face trials in New York courts. The Russian foreign ministry had reacted furiously to their capture and subsequent deportation to the United States, accusing Washington of serious violations of the Vienna Convention by capturing Yaroshenko in a third country, and secretly transporting him to the United States. Moscow also says Bout's human rights were violated.

Crossing out names

On the latest Russian response to the United States, the source tells Kommersant: "There is a huge data base that lists everyone entering Russia at any time. A cross will simply be put next to the name of those who have been blacklisted. And when they apply for a visa, they will be refused and the consulate may not know the reasons for the refusal."

One of Bout's lawyers, Viktor Burobin, believes that employees from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (D.E.A.) will be on the list.

"They illegally put a wire on Viktor and also tried to take him from Thailand without going through extradition proceedings. If we talk about international relations and international law in their broadest sense, our position is that someone who has not committed a crime on U.S. soil, or against a U.S. citizen or their property, should not be tried in that country."

Russia makes similar claims about the case of Yaroshenko, who was spied on and arrested by DEA officers, though the bans would extend beyond that agency.

"Our claims against the United States are much wider, and are not restricted to the cases of Bout and Yaroshenko." the source said.

The deputy head of the Foreign Affairs Ministry Sergey Ryabkov confirmed Moscow's readiness to start a ‘war of lists' with Washington.

"We will respond, but not exactly copy what they have done. Lists can be comprised of different kinds of people. We have repeatedly expressed our dissatisfaction with the Americans' initiative to introduce a visa regime for Russians working in government agencies," he said.

Ryabkov called Washington's reaction to the Magnitsky case "an attempt to profit from an extremely difficult question," adding that considerable damage had already been done to U.S-Russian relations.

"Whoever goes on the list is up for discussion, it is still at a draft stage," Ryabkov said. "But any American affiliated with Russian-U.S. relations could be on it, including those from the humanitarian sector."

Read the original article in Russian

photo - US Mission Geneva

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

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.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


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.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

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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