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Russia upgrades air defences. UN warns of famine in Yemen. EU seeking sanctions on Poland. By Hamish McDonald.

Trump’s Iran stance silences UN laughter

President Donald Trump addresses the United Nations General Assembly this week.
Credit: UN Photo / Laura Jarriel

As United States president Donald Trump drew laughter and head-shakes at the United Nations this week with his claim to have “accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country”, his antagonism towards Iran was veering closer to a showdown with impact across Europe and Asia.

With US trade and financial sanctions taking full effect on November 4, following Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Iran nuclear restraint agreement in May, the European Union announced a new financial system would be set up to allow European companies to continue dealings with Iran without being penalised.

Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said a new “special purpose vehicle” would “facilitate legitimate financial transactions with Iran and this will allow European companies to continue to trade with Iran in accordance with European Union law and could be open to other partners in the world.”

Iran and the five non-US signatories to the nuclear agreement – Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia – approved the plan. It follows indications by China and India they would continue buying oil from Iran, though two other significant customers in Asia, Japan and South Korea, have agreed to cut their purchases.

In response to the EU move, the US national security adviser, John Bolton, warned of “terrible consequences” for any entity continuing to do business with Iran. “We do not intend to allow our sanctions to be evaded by Europe or anybody else,” he told a pressure group called United Against Nuclear Iran, on whose board he previously sat.

Iran’s economy has been in disarray since early this year as sanctions threatened. Some multinationals such as Total and Volkswagen have already suspended activities in Iran. Last Saturday, gunmen attacked a Revolutionary Guards parade in the city of Ahvaz, killing at least 25 soldiers and onlookers. Local Arab separatists and Daesh both claimed responsibility. Tehran blamed the US, Israel and Gulf states.

If Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani is to be believed, the endgame of inflicting economic pain was “a successful revolution”, as he told a gathering of Iranian exiles in New York. “I don’t know when we’re going to overthrow them,” he said. “It could be in a few days, months, a couple of years. But it’s going to happen.”

US officials said Giuliani was speaking personally. But Trump’s strategy is baffling the experts. “There seems no set of criteria to determine the sanctions’ success,” said Jon Alterman, a Middle East specialist at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Secretary of State Mike Pompeo outlined a list of 12 demands that any new deal with Iran must contain that is as breathtaking in its ambition as it is unachievable. The overt ambition seems to be an Iranian surrender to the United States, which is politically and ideologically unthinkable to the Islamic Republic. If it has a covert intent of collapsing the government, there is little reason to think that the public would support a pivot toward the United States, or that a successor government would seek to do so.”

Syrian shootouts

The endgame in Syria’s civil war is getting more fraught, as the advanced aircraft and missiles of at least five powers strike at targets in overlapping conflicts over a country smaller than Victoria.

Russia announced it was bringing in a powerful S-300 air-defence system to its base near Latakia, after an earlier-model Syrian missile downed one of its surveillance aircraft on September 18, killing its 15 crew members. In addition, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said that “in parts of the Mediterranean adjacent to Syria, there will be radio-electronic jamming of satellite navigation, onboard radars and communications systems used by military aircraft attacking targets in Syrian territory.”

The Syrian air defences had been trying to counter a strike by four Israeli jets close to Latakia. Russia said the Israeli attackers had been hiding behind the larger Russian plane. Israel denied this, saying its aircraft were already back at base when the Syrian missile was fired.

The introduction of the S-300 makes the Israeli modus vivendi with Russian forces more precarious. Benjamin Netanyahu called Vladimir Putin to warn against “providing advanced weapons systems to irresponsible actors” and said Israel was determined to stop Iran from entrenching forces in Syria and supplying weaponry to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia, to use against Israel.

Further north, around the city of Idlib held by Sunni rebel forces against the Russian and Iranian-supported Damascus regime of Bashar al-Assad, Turkey was trying to avert a Russian–Syrian attack by establishing a buffer zone to protect civilians and avert a new refugee outflow.

Yemen famine fear

All this money on weaponry, as civilian misery deepened in conflict zones across that region.

In Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and Emirati forces support one side of a sectarian civil war and Iran the other, the UN’s humanitarian aid chief is warning of a slide into famine with 75 per cent of its 29 million population already needing aid.

Mark Lowcock told the UN Security Council. “We are already seeing pockets ... where people are eating leaves.”

Two developments threaten to overwhelm the UN aid operation, he said. A “dramatic economic collapse” had reduced the value of Yemen’s currency by 30 per cent. Fighting had intensified around the Red Sea port of Hodeida, affecting deliveries of food, medicine and other supplies. The non-government organisation Save the Children said the lives of five million children were at risk.

In Gaza, the World Bank said the local economy was in freefall as a result of the 11-year blockade mounted by Israel because of its hostile Hamas administration and the more recent aid cuts, including by the US directly and to the UN relief agency. Unemployment had reached 50 per cent, and 70 per cent among the young.

Trials for Duda

Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, had a terrific time visiting Australia last month, with not a peep being raised about his controversial judicial “reforms” that brought mass protests in recent months. But he has since run into problems with his European counterparts.

On Monday, the EU’s top executive body recommended referring Poland to the European Court of Justice, for breaching the EU’s “common values”. It said the ruling Law and Justice party had adopted 13 laws in the past two years whereby the state “can systematically interfere with the composition, powers, the administration and the functioning” of the judiciary.

One of the most controversial reforms in Poland, the European Commission said, was the government’s move to grant the president greater powers to appoint judges to the Supreme Court, whose duties include confirming election results. By lowering the compulsory retirement age, Duda gets to immediately replace 27 of the 72 judges.

If the EU’s member states now decide by a two-thirds majority to back the referral, Poland’s voting rights could be suspended, and further off, sanctions applied. So far Duda and his right-wing colleagues are not daunted. Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who is also chief prosecutor under the new system, said the government “must continue the reforms”. Duda himself then went on to sign two of the offending reforms into law, saying they improved “democratic standards”.

He got a promise of support from Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary, which is also fighting sanction moves for violating EU standards on democracy, civil rights and corruption after the European Parliament voted by a two-thirds majority to start the same punitive process being applied to Poland.

The nastiness in Poland and Hungary is meanwhile helping Britain’s Theresa May in her Brexit efforts. Orbán and Duda are peeling off from the tough Franco–German line that the British should not be accorded the soft options she is seeking.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 29, 2018 as "Trump’s Iran stance silences UN laughter". Subscribe here.

Hamish McDonald
is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.