Biden team considers options on Iran nuclear deal

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On the virtual campaign trail, US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden promised to rein in tension with Iran with an approach he argued would be instantly distinguishable from Donald Trump’s: Mr Biden’s would be the “smart way”. 

The quip formed part of his argument that Mr Trump’s hardline approach — withdrawing from an Obama-era nuclear accord between Iran and global powers, piling on punitive sanctions and coming close to war — had momentously backfired, putting Tehran just “a few months” away from having enough nuclear material for a bomb.

Mr Biden has said he will return to the multi-party 2015 deal that limited Iran’s nuclear programme, as long as Iran also returns to strict compliance, as a “starting point for follow-on negotiations”. But while the president-elect has promised to offer Iran “a credible path back to diplomacy”, the task is fraught with complexity and Biden advisers are playing down expectations of a deal.

While analysts say the multi-party deal could be resurrected, it is a less straightforward undertaking than rejoining other multilateral forums ditched by Mr Trump, including the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization.

If the US raises issues such as Iranian ballistic missiles or its support for militias in the region — which did not feature as part of the original deal — or Tehran demands compensation for US withdrawal from the accord, then the talks immediately become more difficult.

“As soon as you start opening anything up . . . you complicate it and by definition then you’re in a longer negotiation and you run the risk of during that period of seeing things go sideways,” said Robert Malley, former Middle East director at the Obama White House who leads the International Crisis Group.

While Mr Biden is unlikely to agree to pay Iran compensation or immediately remove all Trump-era sanctions, observers say there are some significant moves he could make quickly. These include reinstating sanctions waivers for Iranian oil exports and removing the designation of the country’s central bank as a financer of terrorism.

Since Mr Trump abandoned the deal two years ago, the three European signatories — France, Germany and the UK — have tried to keep it alive and Mr Biden’s advisers have been clear they will work out a joint approach with European powers over the US return to the JCPOA, the initials by which the deal is known.

The Biden administration “at a minimum” could remove obstacles placed by the Trump administration to European efforts to maintain economic benefits granted under the deal, said Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank. These include existing or proposed mechanisms to offer credit lines to Tehran backed by Iran’s crude production, and trade finance for deals between European and Iranian companies.

Talks on an expanded deal to cover Iran’s ballistic missile programme and regional behaviour might be a way off. Iran has increased its nuclear activity in response to Mr Trump’s punitive measures, but Tehran insists it is committed to the deal. Analysts say it is possible to envisage “compliance for compliance”, “calm for calm” or “freeze for freeze” measures, in which both sides move back to the terms of the deal over time and avoid confrontational behaviour in the Middle East.

“People who are around Biden and will be part of his foreign policy team are personally invested in the success of the JCPOA, having had a hand in it,” Ms Geranmayeh said. “If you accept that the strategic logic of the nuclear deal is still valid and that there are interests for both sides to get it back on track, then all the problems are manageable.” 

Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at Brookings Institution, said she thought there would be an early diplomatic push to get both sides back into “greater compliance” with their obligations, “but not necessarily a full-fledged, full-footed, jump back into the JCPOA entirely”. “An interim nuclear deal” might be on the cards, she said. 

Much could hang on who Mr Biden appoints as his secretary of state. While Susan Rice, a former US ambassador to the UN, is among those who would potentially seek a quick return to the deal, former deputy secretary of state Bill Burns and US senator Chris Coons — who have also been tipped for the role — might seek something less ambitious, such as reducing US sanctions in exchange for Iran limiting its nuclear activity. A third group of Democrats would push to strengthen the deal by seeking to address Iran’s ballistic missile programme and its regional behaviour.

Iran has previously said that it would not compromise over its strategic regional and military policies, notably its support for Lebanon’s Hizbollah and the missile programme. “This [nuclear] agreement is done and sealed off. Iran has repeatedly said that the nuclear accord belongs to the past and cannot reopen for new considerations,” said Saeed Khatibzadeh, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, on Monday. 

Mr Khatibzadeh also indicated that Iran could seek compensation, raising concerns that the incoming US administration’s clear commitment to rejoining the deal has given Iran an advantage. “It makes no sense to cede leverage prematurely and then expect to persuade them to change their policies,” an informal Iran adviser to Mr Biden told the Financial Times.

For now, Mr Biden’s victory has emboldened Iran’s pro-reform politicians, who have long been advocates of detente in foreign policy, ahead of presidential elections expected in June next year. While Iran’s powerful hardliners do not oppose the resumption of talks, they hope to delay negotiations to avoid any electoral windfall for reformists. 

Sadegh Zibakalam, a reform-minded professor of politics at Tehran University, said he expected Iran’s hardliners to win the presidency and then enter into negotiations by showing “heroic flexibility” — a term they used in 2013 to justify nuclear negotiations to their radical supporters.

“The victory of Biden will not lead to the victory of reformist or moderate forces,” he said. Iran’s hardliners “cannot afford to give up their anti-US stances . . . But there is a prospect for negotiations,” he said.

Ultimately, given the long list of domestic priorities, Mr Biden’s team has little capacity for complex foreign policy initiatives. And Mr Trump may yet use his remaining weeks in office to introduce more sanctions — his hawkish envoy Elliott Abrams is in the region this week to discuss Iran. 

But Iran’s oil minister, Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, who the Trump administration put on its long sanctions list last month, shrugged off that possibility.

“Nothing [significant] remains to go on the sanctions list,” he said in an energy conference in Tehran on Monday. “Unless they put sanctions on our colleagues in the service sector [drivers, janitors, cleaners] and those who work in the kitchen . . . We are neither scared of their sanctions nor think they have any impact on our work.”

US election results 2020: Trump refuses to concede – live

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Demetri Sevastopulo

Joe Biden has won the hard-fought battle for Pennsylvania, according to the Associated Press, giving the Democratic nominee enough electoral votes to become the next president of the United States.

Mr Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania came after President Donald Trump’s sizable election day lead was whittled away as the former vice-president scored huge margins of victory in ballots counted in the urban centres of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh over the last 48 hours.

With the Pennsylvania victory, Mr Biden now has 284 electoral votes, well above the 270 needed to win the presidency. Mr Trump’s legal team has challenged the Pennsylvania count in court, however.

The AP declaration that Mr Biden had won the presidency came roughly an hour after Mr Trump arrived at his golf course in Virginia, just across the Potomac river from the White House.

While Democrats were euphoric, some Republicans continued to hold out the possibility that Mr Trump could win. “From the Republican point of view, we’re not convinced it’s over yet,” Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania Republican senator said on CNN.

Ethiopian fighting breaks out after federal troops sent to quell rebellion

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Fighting has begun in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray after prime minister Abiy Ahmed sent federal troops to quell a rebellion in a move that threatens to bring Africa’s second most populous country to the brink of civil war.

According to the prime minister’s office military operations began in Tigray on Wednesday afternoon. A western diplomat in Addis Ababa also said that “people have been killed” but that the death toll is “uncertain”.

Mr Abiy took to social media early on Wednesday morning to say that a “red line” had been crossed, accusing the armed forces of Tigray’s regional government of attacking a federal army base and “arming and organising irregular militias”.

Mr Abiy, whose government has been struggling to control ethnic-nationalist violence around the country, said his patience had run out with Tigray, which had pressed ahead with elections in September in defiance of a national postponement attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The prime minister’s office said in a statement that the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, had attacked a federal army base in Tigray and “attempted to rob the northern command of artillery and military equipment”. The TPLF, the political party that controls the region of Tigray and lost much of its power nationally after Mr Abiy became prime minister in 2018, viewed the Ethiopian army as an occupying force, the statement said, adding: “The TPLF has chosen to wage war.” 

Tigray’s local government said on a TPLF-associated television station that the northern command of the federal Ethiopian military had defected to their side, but the prime minister’s office denied that was the case.

The confrontation with Tigray is the most serious of several ethno-nationalist conflicts that have flared up since 2018 when Mr Abiy became prime minister of Ethiopia, a country of 110m people divided into 10 ethnically based autonomous regions.

Mr Abiy’s appointment had been meant to resolve tensions between the then TPLF-dominated government and those from the Oromo and Amhara regions who felt excluded from power. Instead, it has triggered a wave of ethno-nationalist sentiment as groups long-suppressed by the previous authoritarian government assert their rights and the TPLF fights back after being ejected from power.

“The conflict is not the people of Tigray versus the rest of Ethiopians. It is about reversing the unprovoked assault [by the Tigrayan forces] against the National Defence Forces and upholding the constitutional order,” said Redwan Hussein, spokesman for a newly established State of Emergency Task Force.

The tensions, which some have compared to former Yugoslavia, threaten to derail one of Africa’s most promising economic experiments. Under a state-led development model, the economy has grown at close to 10 per cent for much of the past two decades. Mr Abiy had promised sweeping liberal reforms, including privatising the huge telecoms monopoly, to take the economy towards middle-income status, but political tensions have slowed his plans.

Map of Tigray region in Ethiopia

With phone lines and the internet cut in Tigray, according to NetBlocks, which tracks internet blockages around the world, TPLF officials could not be reached for comment. But Debretsion Gebremichael, Tigray’s regional president, was quoted on Tuesday as saying: “We have prepared our military of special force not in need of a war, but if the worst comes, to defend ourselves.” On Wednesday, the federal council of ministers in Addis Ababa declared a six-month state of emergency in Tigray.

Diplomats in Addis Ababa called the fighting a “civil war”. Analysts believe it halts the political and liberal economic reforms that Mr Abiy — who last year won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending a 20-year conflict with neighbouring Eritrea — had been championing.

Another commentator, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it looked as though Mr Abiy had been planning the clampdown for weeks and timed it to coincide with the US elections when the world was distracted. In a statement, the US embassy in Addis said it “urges an immediate de-escalation of the current situation in Tigray and a measured response by both sides”.

Tigray’s well-organised armed forces have their roots in the rebel army that overthrew a Marxist regime in 1991 and brought the Tigrayans to the centre of power for 27 years until Mr Abiy took over two years ago.

To the Tigrayan leadership — as well as many from other ethnic groups, including Mr Abiy’s own Oromo — the prime minister’s emphasis on national unity and a pan-Ethiopian identity undermines a federal system that guarantees significant autonomy for ethnically defined territories.

The regional government of Oromia accused the TPLF of supporting a militia group, the Oromo Liberation Front-Shane, which it alleged played a role in a massacre on Sunday that killed at least 54 people.

After Mr Abiy came to power, the TPLF refused to merge into his new unitary Prosperity party, which replaced the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a four-party coalition that had run the country for three decades.

Armenia calls for Russian help as fight with Azerbaijan intensifies

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Armenia has requested urgent talks with Russia over security assistance in response to intensified fighting with Azerbaijan over control of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Prime minister Nikol Pashinyan’s request at the weekend to Russian president Vladimir Putin is the first time Armenia has formally asked for help under the terms of a 1997 mutual defence and security assistance pact between the two countries, and comes as Azerbaijani troops threaten a critical Armenian-controlled town after making significant territorial gains.

The war, which has killed more than 5,000 people since erupting five weeks ago, risks a wider regional conflagration, given Russia’s defence pact with Armenia and Azerbaijan’s strong backing from Turkey.

The mutual assistance treaty covers attacks on Armenia’s sovereign territory but does not include Nagorno-Karabakh or the other occupied regions of Azerbaijan.

Moscow has sought to remain neutral during the conflict, while consistently stressing its strong ties with Azerbaijan. Russia is resistant to intervention given its divided loyalties and the risks of a broader clash, but is also wary of Ankara’s desire to expand its clout in the Caucasus.

Azerbaijan has vowed to recapture Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region inside the country but populated by ethnic Armenians, and seven districts surrounding it — all of which have been controlled by a Yerevan-backed administration since a previous war between the countries ended in 1994.

On Sunday, Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s president, told Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu that Mr Pashinyan’s letter was an “acknowledgment of defeat” because Russia had “no basis” to come to Armenia’s aid so long as the fighting remained confined to Nagorno-Karabakh and the occupied Azeri territories surrounding it.

“We want the issue of the withdrawal of Armenian armed forces from other occupied territories to be resolved at the negotiating table as soon as possible,” Mr Aliyev said. “Otherwise, we will continue to restore our territorial integrity by any means and, as I said, we will go to the end.”

Baku has captured more than 1,500 sq km of territory south of Nagorno-Karabakh and on Thursday Armenian officials warned that Azerbaijani troops were about 5km from Shusha, a critical town on the road linking the capital of the region with Armenia.

Ankara’s support has been crucial to Azerbaijan’s battlefield successes, where Armenia’s Soviet-era air defence systems have proved no match for high-tech Azerbaijani drones bought from Turkey and Israel.

Mr Cavutoglu told Mr Aliyev: “We’re proud of your victories on the battlefield. With God’s help, you’ll get your lands back by this successful operation.”

Mr Pashinyan wrote to Mr Putin on Saturday, Armenia’s foreign ministry said in a statement, detailing “the Azerbaijani-Turkish military aggression and the challenges it has caused”.

“Taking into account the facts of the approaching of hostilities to the border of Armenia and the encroachments on the territory of Armenia, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia addressed the President of the Russian Federation to launch immediate consultations to define the type and the scale of assistance which the Russian Federation can provide to the Republic of Armenia for ensuring its security,” the statement said.

In response, Russia’s ministry of foreign affairs released a statement that did not confirm talks would begin but stated: “In accordance with the treaty, Russia will provide Yerevan with all the necessary assistance if the clashes are transferred directly to the territory of Armenia.”

Armenia and Azerbaijan on Friday pledged to cease shelling of residential areas following talks between their foreign ministers in Geneva. The agreement comes after three arranged ceasefires collapsed amid mutual accusations of shelling.

On Sunday, however, the separatist government of Nagorno-Karabakh claimed Azerbaijan had used aerial bombardments and missile strikes on the town of Martuni overnight and throughout the morning.

Azerbaijan claimed Armenia shelled army positions in the towns of Tovuz, Gadabay, and Qubadli, as well as settlements in Terter and Aghjabedi.