• Friday 20th September 2019

U.S.-Iran ‘game of drones’ and Xi-Kim pow-wow

  • Published on: June 26, 2019



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    By M.R. Josse

    BOSTON, MA: From this eye-catching city along the Charles river, with its rich trove of fabled institutions of higher learning, it is difficult to discern or recollect any recent Nepal-specific development of enormous moment.
    Before leaving New York City, I had noted however that the authorities back home, belatedly but sensibly, decided to rescind their dangerous, ill-conceived attempt to scuttle all ‘Ghuti’ institutions.
    That aside, I have taken cognizance of a news story informing readers that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is currently straining every sinew to secure an official visit to Nepal by India’s new foreign minister – the much-hyped, former bureaucrat S. Jaishankar – as if that, per se, would constitute a magic bullet to iron out all existing wrinkles in the tangled web of Nepal-India relations.
    SEASON 2
    On the broader American canvas, always in bubbly ferment, an important recent landmark was the formal launch by President Donald Trump of his re-election campaign for the presidency, from Orlando.
    The opening lines of an editorial on the subject in the New York Times succinctly summed up its significance, thus: “If the kick-off was any indication, Season 2 of this political reality show promises to be largely a rehash of Season 1 – except darker, whinier, and even more divisive.”
    While time, if nothing else, will tell if that gloomy prediction proves true, last week’s saber rattling, or ‘game of drones’ between the United States and Iran has injected an even more indeterminate element of ambiguity, not merely vis-à-vis Trump’s re-election prospects but across a much wider geopolitical compass.
    To recall briefly, the simmering tensions between Washington and Tehran escalated to a new and sudden high following the shooting down by missile of a U.S. military drone, which the U.S. Central Command described as “an unprovoked attack on a U.S. surveillance asset that had not violated Iranian airspace at anytime during its mission.”
    While no one was taken aback to learn, subsequently, that Trump ordered the launch of military strikes on three Iranian targets in retaliation, what came as a surprise was his canceling of that order just before the strikes actually took effect – reportedly, after being told that 150 civilian casualties would result.
    Notably, the hawkish U.S. national security adviser, John Bolton, while on a visit to Israel, supported Trump’s last minute rescinding of his strike-launch order, thus: “Neither Iran nor any other hostile actor should mistake U.S. prudence and discretion for weakness…No one has granted them a hunting license in the Middle East.”
    For his part, to make his policy clear to Iran, Trump told reporters at the White House: “We are moving forward with additional sanctions on Iran…We are not going to have Iran have a nuclear weapon. And when they agree to that they are going to have a wealthy country, they’re going to be so happy and I’m going to be their best friend.”
    DIPLOMATIC DANCE
    In another part of the globe, diplomatic maneuvers of a different sort were at play. This revolved around Chinese President Xi Jinping’s surprise visit to North Korea – the first visit to Pyongyang by a Chinese president in 14 years – and Trump’s reaction of “rushing to nail down his own date with Mr. Xi – an ‘extended meeting’ in Osaka, Japan a week later.”
    As Mark Lander of the New York Times (NYT) wrote, an “eager” American president disclosed on Twitter that he “had a very good telephone conversation with President Xi.” Lander further explained that “it was only the latest move in what has become a kind of strongmen’s dance, involving a trio of unlikely partners whose motives for getting together are deeply divergent but whose interests occasionally harmonize – depending on the geographical winds and their own domestic political circumstances.
    I found his interpretation of the ‘strongmen’s’ dance’ quite credible, including that Trump’s call to Xi suggested Trump did not want to be left on the sideline in a negotiation that he views as one of his marquee foreign policy projects. “But it also turbo-charged the stock market on the day the president formally opened his re-election bid, since investors viewed it as a sign that the United States and China might settle their debilitating trade war.”
    If anything, Xi faces even greater pressure than Trump from the tariffs, not to mention the angry protestors who have taken to the streets of Hong Kong. For North Korean leader Kim Jong Un – who is still smarting from frustrations in the wake of the failed summit with Trump in February in Hanoi – Xi’s long-sought visit to Pyongyang clearly represented another welcome stage in his return to the world stage.
    It is thus inconceivable, in the face of these cross-currents, that the timing of Xi’s visit to Pyongyang was purely accidental. As Lander disclosed, quoting a North Korean diplomatic source, they specifically expected that the Chinese leader would attempt to make headway with their paramount leader on the expected nuclear talks – and then use that as leverage with Trump in their trade negotiations, when they meet at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June-end.
    Unnamed analysts quoted in the N¬¬¬YT commentary said Xi “will scarcely relish” his visit to North Korea. They pointed out that Xi was staying in North Korea barely two days and avoided scheduling his mission “on dates that would have greater historic resonance, like June 25, the date in 1950 that North Korea invaded the South, or October 10, the date in 1950 when China entered the war on the North’s side.”
    “There’s not a lot of love here, to say the least. In that sense, it is something of a minimalist visit, though Kim will try to milk it for his own purpose.”
    It thus now only remains for us to monitor how the “extended meeting” between Trump and Xi goes but also to assess the impact of the America-Iran tussle in the global G-20 context.

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