US-Iran: de-escalation amid tensions

People participate in a protest in Times Square against military conflict with Iran on Thursday in New York City. The “No War With Iran” protest follows the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani by the Trump administration. - AFP

The situation in the Middle East has eased to some extent but the tension in the region prevails following the confrontation between the US and Iran over the killing of a top Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani, by a US attack in Baghdad last week, and the response by Iran this week.

Shortly after the funeral of Qassem Soleimani in Iran, attended by millions, Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles from its territory against at least two Iraqi facilities hosting US-led coalition personnel, hitting two bases: Ain al-Asad in Anbar province and a facility in Erbil. Iranian state television said on Wednesday at least 80 “American terrorists” were killed in attacks involving 15 missiles launched on US targets in Iraq. In a speech in Tehran after the attack, Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei said: “The corrupt presence of the US in the region should come to an end”, calling the missile attack a “slap in the face” of the US.

However, US President Donald Trump, in a televised address from the White House, said no US or Iraqi lives were lost in the attacks and the bases suffered only minimal damage. He said Iran “appears to be standing down” after it fired missiles at air bases housing US forces in Iraq.

The US drone strike targeting General Soleimani and Iran-backed militia figures in the Iraqi capital Baghdad was a major escalation amid already deteriorating relations between Iran and the US.

The president has previously threatened military action against Iran if it were to target US personnel and bases, but he did not announce any military action, saying Iran's attack had caused no casualties.

“No Americans were harmed in last night's attack by the Iranian regime,” he said. “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned,” he added.

He also said that “American strength, both military and economic, is the best deterrent”. “The fact that we have this great military and equipment, however, does not mean we have to use it.”

Mr. Trump also said the US would immediately impose additional financial and economic sanctions on Iran, which would remain until it “changed its behaviour”.

“Iran must abandon its nuclear ambitions and end its support for terrorism,” he said. “The civilised world must send a clear and unified message to the Iranian regime. Your campaign of terror, murder and mayhem will not be tolerated any more. It will not be allowed to go forward.”

British warships, helicopters and several hundred military personnel have been put on standby of 48 hours or less for deployment in or near Iraq, to respond if there is military escalation of the Iran crisis.

The backup forces – including a handful of twin-engine Chinook helicopters – could be used to evacuate British troops if the security situation in Iraq dramatically worsens in the current situation.

Germany is reducing its troop numbers in Iraq for security reasons after the death of General Suleimani. This is the first western coalition withdrawal since the Iraqi parliament voted on Sunday to call for the withdrawal of US forces from the country.

The German decision underlines the extent to which the assassination may have weakened the years-long efforts of the coalition forces to fight Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. NATO has already announced that all training of Iraqi forces has been suspended.

Germany said its two bases in Baghdad and Camp Taji, north of the Iraqi capital, in particular would be “temporarily thinned out”, with the forces transferred to Jordan and Kuwait. It said the transfer had been agreed with the US-led coalition.

NATO also announced it was moving an unspecified number of its troops out of Iraq temporarily. NATO had announced on Monday it was suspending operations training Iraqi forces.

Canada also announced it was moving some of its 500 troops based in Iraq out of the country and sending them to Kuwait. The Canadian chief of defence staff, Gen Jonathan Vance, said in a letter to families of Canadian service personnel that it was best to pause work in Iraq to concentrate its efforts on the security of its soldiers.

Meanwhile, following the increased tension over the killing of General Soleimani, Iran has also announced that it is wholly moving away from the restrictions on nuclear material enrichment, under the JCPOA - Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action - or the Iran nuclear deal agreed between Iran and the US, UK, France, Russia, China and the European Union signed in July 2015. In May 2018 President Trump announced the UDS withdrawal from the JCPOA, and reinstate nuclear sanctions against the Iranian regime.

This has led to Iran steadily moving away from the nuclear deal and enriching nuclear material, with increasing fears of it moving towards a nuclear arsenal. The European Union and other members of the deal have been taking measures to move Iran away from this situation, and also bring relief to Iran from the mounting US sanctions.

The immediate relief brought to the tensions in the Middle East, with no immediate confrontation between the US and Iran, has not removed the major issue of mounting anti-US feelings in both Iran and Iraq, with the decision of the Iraqi parliament for all foreign troops to be removed from the country. The currently subdued tensions in the Middle East poses the danger of quick eruptions into violence as the regional forces move in support of the US and its allies in the region, and the forces aligned with Iran and the anti-US and western powers.

India - student protests

Students across India were demonstrating against an attack at New Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on earlier this week, when masked men wielding sticks and iron rods beat up teachers, students, and activists gathered on campus. Protests were held in the cities of Bengaluru, Chandigarh, Hyderabad, Kolkata, and Mumbai.

There are allegations of Police complicity in the attacks at JNU. Observers report that New Delhi’s police largely watched as the mob entered the JNU campus and attacked reporters and activists. There are competing claims over who was responsible for the attacks, a sign of how divided India has become. Several reports from the scene say the attackers as members of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a student group affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The group denies involvement, instead blaming the violence on left-wing activists.

Observers see the Police inaction as they come under India’s home ministry, run by Amit Shah, the president of the BJP.

The countrywide protests stem from concerns over the controversial new law that provides a fast track to citizenship for non-Muslim religious minorities from nearby countries - Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The student and other protesters see this as undermining the country’s secular foundations. The continuing protests and political unrest are problems for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, with foreign leaders also cancelling visits due to the protests.

PM Modi remains India’s most popular leader, with a hugely fractured opposition. But the rival opposition parties and groups are showing new alignments which could be a force against the BJP government. The coming elections to the state government in New Delhi - in February - could be a major challenge to the BJP, which was hugely defeated in the 2015 election, and another loss in the national capital would be a major setback.

The increasing student and trade union protests also show major issues on the national economy, the rise of unemployment, and the rising fuel prices due to international tensions.

Australia fires

Australia’s bushfire crisis has already burned through 8.4 m hectares of land, destroyed thousands of homes and killed at least 26 people, including three volunteer firefighters, as the fires continue. After milder weather at the start of this week, conditions worsened in parts of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia from Thursday. Temperatures of 40C and unpredictable winds are set to sweep through a range of fire zones.

An extreme fire danger rating has been issued by the Bureau of Meteorology for the northern county region of Victoria on Friday, and severe danger ratings for the Mallee and north-east.

Residents in fire affected and threatened areas are being told to leave as the danger heightens. The Victoria state’s emergency services minister, said the conditions this week would be “very similar” to the conditions that forced an evacuation of East Gippsland on December 29. People are urged to leave the fire-impacted areas. "The safest place to be is outside those areas and to be in built-up areas,” the minister said.

“For those who aren’t choosing to leave, again the message is absolutely follow the warnings, follow the advice, sit on your Vic Emergency app, follow your local radio stations, get the most up-to-date information,” it was said.

Authorities are concerned that fires in the alpine region and East Gippsland could merge during the weather change. There are expectations of wind gusts as high as 70km/h to 80km/h move through with the west to south-westerly change.

There is also a strong focus on Kangaroo Island where fires have burned through 160,000 hectares. Extra volunteer fire crews are moving in all affected areas, and relief facilities and funds are also being increased, with large voluntary contributions too.

There are increased criticism of the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on delayed action against the fires, and the strong opposition to the Climate Change impact that many believe has led to these huge fires.

Camel killing: In a related move about 10,000 camels are at risk of being shot and killed in a drought ravaged region of Australia, after complaints that the thirsty animals are endangering locals as they desperately search for water.

Aboriginal officials in the remote northwest of South Australia approved the cull, which is expected to last for five days. It is reported that “extremely large groups of camels and other feral animals in and around communities” are “putting pressure on the remote Aboriginal communities” as they search for water. “With the current ongoing dry conditions the large camel congregations threatening the communities and infrastructure, camel control is needed.

The cull will see professional shooters kill thousands of the creatures, with 10,000 at risk.

Like most of the country, South Australia has been sweltering under extremely high temperatures for weeks. Though not as badly hit as neighbouring New South Wales, the state has suffered from the bushfires tearing through the country, blanketing cities in smoke and decimating native wildlife populations.

Venezuela

The opponents of Venevuelan President Nicolas Maduro took new action by storming the country’s parliament and reinstalled his key opponent Juan Guaido as the Speaker and their leader.

Troops loyal to Maduro had surrounded the palm-dotted national assembly compound in Caracas in a bid to keep Guaidó and his supporters out, after President Maduro’s attempt to seize control of the parliament.

Juan Guaido and his supporters forced their way amidst shouts of ‘Viva Venezuela”. He was sworn in for a second term as Venezuela’s caretaker leader, even though the auditorium’s electricity had been cut.

“In the name of those who have no voice, of the mothers who weep in the distance, of the teachers who are battling and the nurses and the students, of the political prisoners … in the name of Venezuela, I vow to fulfill the duties of interim president,” said Guaidó, who is recognized by more than 50 governments including the United States and the United Kingdom but has little concrete power in the country.

This saw a revival Guaido’s year-long campaign to topple President Maduro, following the weakening of Guaido’s popular in recent months.

Last week saw the first anniversary of Maduro’s swearing-in, Maduro’s swearing-in, after allegations he had stolen the 2018 presidential election, and coming January 23 marks a year since Guaido publicly declared himself president. He is now calling for fresh protests against Maduro and his overthrow by the public.



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