US tries to salvage the ailing Iran nuclear deal. Jordan’s King Abdullah moves against rival half-brother. New Zealand agrees to travel bubble with Australia from April 19.

By Jonathan Pearlman.

Landslides, floods cause havoc in Timor-Leste

A road outside the Presidential Palace in Dili, Timor-Leste, following floods and landslides last weekend.
A road outside the Presidential Palace in Dili, Timor-Leste, following floods and landslides last weekend.
Credit: AAP / Antonio Dasiparu

Great power rivalry

Austria: At the 151-year-old Grand Hotel in Vienna, officials from Iran and five world powers met for a summit in the ballroom on Tuesday to try to salvage the ailing Iran nuclear deal.

The meeting was described as valuable but the main work occurred elsewhere, as officials shuttled between officials from Iran and the United States to explore the possibility of a revived deal. Donald Trump withdrew from the pact in 2018, saying its restrictions on Iranian nuclear fuel production were too weak and that it did not curb ballistic missiles or Iranian support for militants across the region. Instead, Trump imposed additional sanctions to try to force Tehran to agree to new terms.

Iran remained in the deal, along with Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, but has enriched nuclear fuel beyond proscribed levels and limited access to weapons inspectors.

The new US president, Joe Biden, has promised to revive the deal and says he is willing to lift sanctions, but wants Iran to act first.

At this week’s talks, European diplomats met with Iranian and American officials, eliciting support for further discussions on preparing a list of sanctions that Washington could drop and a set of actions that Iran could take to wind back its nuclear program.

Biden’s special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, was in Vienna and fed input into the negotiations through the European delegations. Iran has refused to hold direct talks with the US.

A revived nuclear deal would have repercussions across the Middle East, where Iran’s nuclear ambitions have exacerbated tensions between Iran and Israel, Saudi Arabia and other American allies.

Following the initial meetings on Tuesday, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araghchi, described the talks as “constructive”, as did US State Department spokesman Ned Price.

The neighbourhood

Timor-Leste: Authorities were urgently searching this week for more than 100 people who remained missing after heavy flooding and landslides in Timor-Leste and Indonesia that killed at least 120 people.

The floods were caused by torrential rains last Sunday from tropical cyclone Seroja. On Tuesday, authorities in Indonesia said more than 100 people remained missing. Dozens were still unaccounted for in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste.

At least 10,000 people were forced to evacuate in the two countries as rushing water, mud and debris swept away houses, bridges and roads. In Dili, an estimated 8000 people took refuge in crowded shelters, raising concerns about the spread of Covid-19.

On the Indonesian island of Lembata, entire villages were flattened. Eliyaser Yentji Sunur, a district official from the village of Waimatan, told AFP: “This area will never be inhabited again. We won’t let people live here. Like it or not, they’ll have to relocate.”

In Timor-Leste, 27 people were confirmed dead as of Wednesday, including 13 in Dili. A government minister, Fidelis Leite Magalhães, told ABC News authorities were still assessing the damage and were likely to request international support for the relief effort.

Democracy in retreat

Jordan: When Jordan’s King Hussein died in 1999, he was succeeded by his eldest son, Abdullah, and the title of crown prince was given to Hamzah bin Hussein, who was widely viewed as the favourite of the late king’s 11 children.

Five years later, King Abdullah stripped his half-brother of the title, saying he wanted to free Hamzah to “work in any tasks I assign to you”. The move was widely seen as an attempt by the new king to consolidate power and demote a potential rival. Hamzah, who is publicly popular, resembles and dresses like his father, who ruled Jordan for 46 years.

The feud between the half-brothers is believed to have quietly continued for years, but it spilled into the open last weekend when Hamzah, now 41, was put under house arrest. He was accused of plotting with foreign parties to destabilise the country, though few details were released. At least 16 other people were arrested, including a former cabinet minister. In videos obtained by the BBC, Hamzah said he was accused of attending tribal meetings where concerns about the king were raised. He also claimed the government was corrupt and incompetent.

Jordan, a country of 10 million people, is typically regarded as a source of much-needed stability in the Middle East, despite its fragile, aid-dependent economy. It has close ties with the US and a peace treaty with Israel, and its royal family has tended to enjoy relatively strong public support.

On Monday, Jordan’s royal court said Hamzah had signed a letter promising loyalty to the king. Queen Noor, Hamzah’s mother, described the alleged coup as a “wicked slander”.

A friend of the family, Malik R. Dahlan, said the ordeal occurred due to the “clumsy actions of a senior security official and misrepresentation by a government official”. “It should have remained a family matter,” he said in a statement.

Spotlight: NZ travel bubble

New Zealand agreed this week to open a travel bubble with Australia that will allow quarantine-free travel from April 19 for all those, except Western Australians, travelling between the two countries.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed that her government had agreed to the travel bubble, though she noted it may be suspended if further outbreaks occur in Australia.

“The trans-Tasman bubble represents the start of a new chapter in our Covid response and recovery,” she said.

But the move raised questions about Australia’s current travel and quarantine measures, which vary by state and can be difficult for potential visitors to navigate. An article on New Zealand’s Stuff website noted Western Australia’s 14-day quarantine rule still applies to all foreign arrivals, asking: “Will Western Australia let Kiwis in?”

For now, the answer is no, although the WA government said it was seeking public health advice and will then review its rules.

“It’s about what other travellers come into New Zealand and where they come from, how they are treated,” said the state’s Health minister, Roger Cook. “We don’t want to see a situation where someone can essentially use New Zealand as a bunny-hop situation.”

Australia and New Zealand have been among the world’s most successful countries in combating Covid-19 but have imposed some of the harshest travel restrictions. Most Australian states and territories have allowed people to enter from New Zealand without quarantining since October, though entry has been restricted several times following NZ outbreaks.

The creation of the travel bubble immediately prompted Qantas and Air New Zealand to add flights and include new routes. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said further travel bubbles with countries such as Singapore, Japan and South Korea have been explored but there were no current plans to introduce further quarantine-free destinations. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 10, 2021 as "Floods, landslides cause evacuations in Timor-Leste".

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