The Week of February 13th, 2012

Iran-Israel covert war, Germany and Kazakhstan, Greek riots, Yemen, Russia and Syria, and contraception.


Indian police examine the wreckage of an Israeli embassy vehicle in New Dehli, India. © Reuters.

1. Iran Responds to Israel in Growing Covert War
Bombers struck near Israeli embassy buildings in Georgia, Thailand, and India this week and while no one was killed, several people were injured. The Israeli government decried the attacks as terrorism and pointed to Iran as the culprit. Thai authorities confirmed that the culprits were Iranian citizens. These attempting bombings come on the heels of several attacks this year in Iran, in which over half a dozen nuclear scientists have died in various unexplained explosions. One of the most recent died as a result of a bomb which had been attached magnetically to his car-- the exact same approach used against the Israeli embassy personnel in Thailand

While the international community remains hesitant to implement more than sanctions to halt Iran's nuclear development, Israel is widely seen as relying on a covert campaign of targeted killings and computer viruses, like Stuxnet, to delay or even halt the program. These most recent attacks against Israeli targets indicate that Iran is willing to fight back in what could rapidly become a widespread covert war between the two nations. In the midst of diplomacy and sanctions, attacks by both sides show that while they are avoiding open war, they appear willing to escalate the conflict.

2. Germany Circumvents China in Deal with Kazakhstan
On February 8th, Germany and Kazakhstan signed a package of deals giving German firms access to raw materials in the Central Asian country. In total, the 50 contracts involved are worth 3 billion Euros and are concentrated in Kazakh industries that supply strategic rare earth minerals. Kazakhstan has been under the rule of autocratic President Nazarbayev for 22 years, and Germany’s deal has been criticized by some because it establishes an important trade agreement with an non-democratic country. But because of the tightening supply of rare-earths from China, German industries have been keen to establish an alternate supply.

Beyond the economic interests at work, this deal is a heavy dose of geopolitics. Continuing the contest for influence in Central Asia-- often termed the New Great Game-- Russia, China, and Western nations are all vying for influence in the resource-rich Central Asian countries. Up to this point, Kazakhstan has primarily looked to China and Russia for large trade deals, composed primarily of oil exports. The deal with Germany indicates that Kazakhstan has fast learned the importance of its resources on the world stage and understands how to take advantage of globalization to find the best deals for its resources in places beyond China and Russia.

3. Greek Government Will Hold...Barely
The Greek parliament approved another round of austerity measures Monday, which provoked riots in Athens and other cities. The Greek government is stuck between the anger of the Greek public on the one hand and growing skepticism from the rest of the Eurozone on the other. Austerity measures have been unpopular, especially in the midst of a five-year recession. For Greek citizens, decreased wages and reduced public services--combined with a 7% drop in GDP this past fourth quarter--fail to inspire hope that the government is rectifying the situation. Although the rioters cannot be seen as expressing a national consensus on the issue, their presence should also not be discounted.

Eurozone nations, led primarily by Germany, are also beginning to doubt the ability of the Greek government to control the situation. With elections in Greece in April, European officials seem uncertain whether the austerity measures will continue. Greek political leaders from several parties have written pledges not to undo any budget cuts. Meanwhile, German officials have made statements that Greece should give up some of its sovereignty or postpone elections in order to deal with the crisis. These statements have been controversial among the Greek public and there are reports that rioters have burned German flags. The Greek government is now in the precarious situation of having to satisfy the “troika” of institutions that are offering it loans--the European Central Bank, the European Union, and the International Monetary Fund--while simultaneously not alienating completely their own population. Greece will likely remain in the EU but suffer incredibly to do so as the demands of creditors have overtaken domestic political interests.

4. Yemen May be Headed for Anarchy
In Yemen this past Wednesday, five government officials were killed in an attack by separatists. The next day tribal infighting sparked a gunfight that left 17 more dead. Both of these attacks highlight the rising level of disorder and violence in Yemen since the Arab Spring began last year. Yemen is a key ally in the United States’ war against Al-Qaeda and has long received military aid and specialized training from American Special Forces. The nation receives hefty annual sums to allow CIA operated Unarmed Aerial Vehicles (UAV) to fly above the country. Furthermore, when former President Ali Saleh barely survived a rocket-propelled grenade attack late last January, he was admitted into the United States for medical treatment.

Since November, Vice President Abd Mansur Al-Hadi has served as acting president and organized an upcoming presidential election. The fairness of this election is in doubt, however, as both competing parties nominated Al-Hadi as their consensus candidate for the election. Attacks like those which killed more than 20 this week are increasingly common and may come from a variety of sources; Islamist groups which oppose the United States or are attempting to use the country as a home base as are prevalent as secessionist groups opposed to the ruling party. This instability has also caused great anxiety among those who are dependent on shipping running through the Gulf of Aden, which Yemen borders. Across the gulf from Yemen is Somalia, a state whose anarchic political scene has given rise to large pirate gangs which prey on shipping around the Horn of Africa. While a collapse into Somali style chaos is not yet certain, Yemen’s descent into madness would be a major problem for an already troubled region.

5. Russia Demonstrates Significant Influence in Syria
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced on Wednesday that a constitutional referendum would be held on February 26th, despite the country’s deteriorating stability. The referendum-- which changes articles protecting the current ruling Baath Party’s dominant role as “the leader of the state and society”-- is purported to permit political pluralism. The constitutional changes prohibit the formation of religious or regional parties, a move many experts see as a method of excluding the potential formation of Muslim Brotherhood or Kurdish party. The referendum vote is expected to be followed up with parliamentary elections within 90 days.

While a clever public relations move, the referendum is unlikely to represent real change on the part of a government that continues to massacre its citizens. Nor will the referendum likely mollify a movement intent on full-scale regime change. The referendum is, however, indicative of the influence that the Russia government has in Syria. The announcement comes shortly after the arrival of Russian envoys to Syria and is a concrete result of their efforts. Russia has a variety interests in Syria that rely on a stable and friendly government. The referendum is likely intended to buy the Assad regime time to continue its crackdown on the opposition and regain solid control. Assad’s announcement is a testament to the influence of Russian power in the upper echelons of Syrian decision-making, influence which may have a sizable effect on the future of the country.

0. White House Contraception Announcement Changes Little
The past couple weeks have seen America’s editorial writers thrown into a tizzy over the issue of birth control. On January 20th, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that employers would be required to provide coverage for birth control in the healthcare plans they offer their employees. Various groups, including pro-life organizations and Catholic groups, were upset by this new rule and the Catholic Bishops argued that it was an attack on religious liberty. Several days later, President Obama announced that employers would not have to directly provide coverage for birth control if doing so would offend their religious sensibilities, but in those cases the insurance providers would have to pay for and provide the coverage.

Rather than focus on the substantive question of access to contraceptives, both parties have essentially used this debate as a political tool. In issuing the initial rule (as required by the new healthcare law), the President likely sought to shore up support among women and pro-choice groups who may have been upset by the ruling last year that limited access to Plan B contraceptives. Similarly, Republicans and their allies forcefully spoke out against the policy in order to whip up support among pro-life and Catholic voters. However, because the debate attracted mostly those who are either polarized on the left or right, rather than the more politically malleable moderates, it likely did not change many votes for the 2012 elections. Additionally, the “change” in the policy that the President presented is really not a change at all; employees will still receive insurance coverage for birth control because it is still mandatory in all insurance plans. Furthermore, the distinction between employers paying for coverage or insurers doing so is essentially meaningless; either way, employers and employees will eventually pay for the coverage in the form of higher premiums and deductibles.