Friday, April 15, 2016

If GBSN hits $6.00/share, It would likely be the best short sell Intraday imaginable

Today's Stock In Play is Sprint (Symbol S)

Krauthammer: Clintonism, RIP

By Charles Krauthammer
The National Review
April 15, 2016

How far they’ve come. And I’m not talking about the GOP, whose front-runner representing 37 percent of the Republican electorate has repudiated post-Reagan orthodoxy on trade, entitlement reform, limited government, and Pax Americana (and possibly abortion, but who knows?). I’m talking about the Democrats.

The center-left, triangulating, New Democrat (Bill) Clintonism of the 1990s is dead. It expired of unnatural causes, buried — definitively, if unceremoniously — by its very creator.

The final chapter occurred last week when, responding to Black Lives Matter hecklers denouncing his 1994 crime bill, Bill Clinton unleashed an impassioned defense. He accused the protesters of discounting the thousands of lives, mostly black, that were saved amid the crack epidemic of the time because gang leaders and other bad guys got locked up.

Yet the next day, the big dog came out, tail between his legs, saying he regretted the incident and almost wanted to apologize. It was a humiliating, Soviet-style recantation obviously meant to protect his wife’s campaign, which depends on the African-American vote to fend off Bernie Sanders.

You know Bill Clinton still believes his crime bill was justified. One cannot definitively prove causality, but it certainly contributed to one of the most radical declines in crime ever recorded in this country.

Moreover, the Black Lives Matter charge that the 1994 law was an inherently racist engine for the mass incarceration of young black men is belied by the fact that it was supported by two-thirds of the Congressional Black Caucus (including civil-rights pioneer James Clyburn, D., S.C.), justly panicked at the time by the carnage wrought by the crack epidemic ravaging the inner cities.

It’s one thing to argue that the law overshot and is due for revision with, for example, a relaxation of its mandatory-sentence provisions. It’s quite another to claim, as does Black Lives Matter, that it was a vehicle by which a racist criminal-justice system destroyed the lives of young black men. Hillary Clinton, catching up to Sanders, has essentially endorsed that view, demanding an end to “the era of mass incarceration” and the underlying maltreatment of blacks by police and the courts.

For the man who changed the image of the Democratic party 25 years ago by daring to challenge the reverse racism of Sister Souljah to have to bow to this new — false — orthodoxy, symbolizes perfectly how far the Democratic Party has traveled since the Clinton era.

But the 2016 undoing of classic Clintonism hardly stops there. Take trade. It was Bill who promoted and passed NAFTA. Although Hillary criticized NAFTA when she ran in 2007–08, as secretary of state she returned to her traditional free-trade stance, promoting and extolling the Trans-Pacific Partnership as trade’s “gold standard.”

Now dross, apparently. She came out against the TPP, once again stampeded by Sanders and the party’s Left, i.e., its base. She may not have sincerely changed her view, but there are only so many times you can flip-flop. She’s boxed into the party’s new anti-trade consensus.

Other pillars of her husband’s internationalism were already toppled, pre-2016, by the Obama presidency, often with her active collaboration. At the core of Bill Clinton’s foreign policy lay the notion of America as the “indispensable nation.” It is today quite dispensable, indeed a nation in retreat — from (Hillary’s) reset with Russia to the Iranian nuclear negotiations (which Hillary initiated with secret meetings in Oman in 2012) to the disastrous evacuation of Iraq in 2011.

As has happened with another of Bill’s major achievements: welfare reform. President Obama has essentially dismantled its work requirements (with Bill Clinton’s acquiescence, a sign of things to come). No need for Hillary to repudiate her husband’s legacy. It’s been done for her.

How far has the party moved left? Under Bill Clinton, it gave up on gun control after stinging defeats in the 1994 midterms. Today, Hillary Clinton delights in attacking Sanders for being soft on gun control. Malleable she is. And she sure knows her party.

It is nothing like her husband’s party. Which is why she campaigns as Bernie lite — they share the same goals, she says, but she can get things done. Hence the greatest irony of all: For the last decade and a half, the main propellant for the Hillary-for-president movement has been the rosy afterglow of Bill’s 1990s, the end-of-history era of peace, prosperity, and balanced budgets.

Want it back? Vote Hillary. That’s the tease. Yet a Hillary victory would yield a Clinton Redux animated not by Bill but by Bernie.

Article Link to the National Review:

North Korea's failed missile launch prompts 'saber-rattling' jibe from China media


April 15, 2016

North Korea attempted and failed to launch what experts believe was an intermediate-range ballistic missile on Friday in defiance of U.N. sanctions and in an embarrassing setback for leader Kim Jong Un, drawing criticism from major ally China.

The failed launch, as the reclusive country celebrates the "Day of the Sun" on the birthday of Kim's grandfather, follows the North's fourth nuclear test in January and a long-range rocket launch in February, which led to new U.N. sanctions.

But the North has nevertheless pushed ahead with its missile program, supervised by Kim, in breach of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

The U.S.-based 38 North website, which specializes in North Korea, said there has been activity at the country's nuclear site based on satellite imagery and on Wednesday said the possibility of a fifth nuclear test "could not be ruled out".

China, North Korea's most important economic and diplomatic backer, has been angered by Pyongyang's nuclear tests and rocket launches in the face of U.N. sanctions that China has also backed.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the U.N. Security Council was clear on North Korean rocket launches.

"At present, the situation on the peninsula is complex and sensitive," he told reporters. "We hope all parties can strictly respect the decisions of the Security Council and avoid taking any steps that could further worsen tensions."

Chinese state media was more direct.

"The firing of a mid-range ballistic missile on Friday by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), though failed, marks the latest in a string of saber-rattling that, if unchecked, will lead the country to nowhere," China's official Xinhua news agency said in an English language commentary.

"...Nuclear weapons will not make Pyongyang safer. On the contrary, its costly military endeavors will keep on suffocating its economy."

Friday is the anniversary of North Korean founding president Kim Il Sung's birthday which is widely celebrated. In 2012, it was marked by a long-range rocket launch attempt which also failed.


The U.S. Defense Department said in a statement the launch at 0533 Korea time (2033 GMT Thursday) was detected and tracked by the U.S. Strategic Command which also assessed it had failed.

"We call again on North Korea to refrain from actions and rhetoric that further raise tensions in the region and focus instead on taking concrete steps toward fulfilling its international commitments and obligations," a U.S. State Department official said.

It was likely a Musudan, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said, an intermediate-range ballistic missile with a design range of more than 3,000 km (1,800 miles) that can be fired from a road mobile launcher but which has never been flight-tested.

The United States, which has 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea, said on Thursday it was aware of reports that North Korea was preparing to test intermediate-range missiles and was closely monitoring the Korean peninsula.

"Timing wise, today's missile was a cannon salute on the Day of the Sun, leading up to the party congress, but now that it has failed, it is an embarrassment," said Chang Gwang-il, a retired South Korean army general.

The North is scheduled to hold its ruling party congress in early May, the first such meeting in 36 years.

The North could not completely ignore the sanctions, but considered it the right time to attempt a missile launch to send a message to the world "we don't surrender to sanctions", Chang said.

Some experts had said North Korea may choose to test-fire the Musudan as it tries to build an intercontinental ballistic missile designed to put the mainland United States within range.

North Korea, which regularly threatens to destroy South Korea and the United States, often fires missiles during periods of tension in the region or when it comes under pressure to curb its defiance and abandon its weapons programs.

The North and rich, democratic South are technically still at war since their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

Article Link to Reuters:

Ukraine Just Got a New PM. What It Needs Is Reform.

A fresh face isn't enough to fix corruption.

By Matthew Rojansky
The National Interest
April 15, 2016

The resignation on Sunday of Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the man who became Ukraine’s “kamikaze” prime minister in the aftermath of the 2014 Maidan Revolution, created an immediate power vacuum in Kyiv. But that vacuum was filled predictably quickly with the parliament’s approval of Volodymyr Groysman as the new prime minister Thursday. In the quarter century since Ukraine’s post-Soviet independence, a revolving clique of no more than a few dozen top figures has occupied key political posts, notwithstanding two popular revolutions, a swinging pendulum of privilege among the country’s major industrial clans, and constant geopolitical ping-pong between East and West.

Groysman most recently served as chairman of the Verkhovna Rada since 2014, and is a loyalist to President Petro Poroshenko, one of Ukraine’s wealthiest businessmen. From 2006 to 2014, Groysman served as mayor of Vinnytsia, where he was known for running a reasonably clean administration and even implementing transparency-oriented reforms in local government services. During his time in the Rada, he has shepherded through two major legislative reform packages, but has been hamstrung by a fractious governing coalition and pressed on all sides by competing oligarchic interests.

The much harder but ultimately more important issue is what the new prime minister must do to get Ukraine back on track. The economy has suffered double-digit declines since the Maidan Revolution and the Russian invasion in 2014, with unemployment well over 10 percent. Ordinary Ukrainian households watch as their wages and pensions decline, while prices climb for everything from heating fuel to imported goods.

Without the lifeline of a $40 billion bailout package from the IMF and Western governments, Ukraine would be unable to cover its budget expenditures and would default on its debts, sparking a panic and further economic collapse. The price of this Western assistance is Ukraine’s progress on an anticorruption reform path, to which President Poroshenko and his political allies are publicly committed, but on which there has been disappointingly little progress in the past two years.

Successful reform begins with robust, consistent and transparent rule of law, which in turn depends on effective courts, prosecutors and police. So far, Ukraine has gussied up its police force with a few thousand new recruits, trained by U.S., Canadian and European counterparts, and equipped with shiny new Toyota Prius squad cars, donated by Japan. But the overwhelming majority of Ukrainian police still practice the old ways, including extortion and collusion with powerful local business and political interests.

Reform in Ukraine’s courts is also bogged down by the sheer scale of the problem. From the country’s three top bodies for hearing constitutional, civil and general jurisdiction appeals, down to local district and city courts, Ukraine’s nearly ten thousand judges are simply too close to their patrons in business and the political branches of government. Firing corrupt judges would be an obvious good start, but Ukraine does not have thousands of qualified candidates waiting to pick up their caseload, even if President Poroshenko could be trusted to appoint them.

The most prominent test case for Ukraine’s rule-of-law reforms has been the drama around the prosecutor general’s office. Since Soviet times, prosecutors have had near-unchecked authority to intervene in court cases or to launch criminal proceedings, which they have used to amass huge fortunes. The most recent occupant of the office, Poroshenko ally Viktor Shokin, was finally fired last month for glaring abuse of office and corruption. Yet young reformers like Vitaly Kasko and David Sakvarelidze, brought into the prosecutor’s office after the Maidan Revolution to clean house, have also been booted, and the powerful institution remains under the control of Poroshenko’s political loyalists and cynical timeservers from the Yanukovych era.

Without visionary leadership and good governance at the top, it is impossible to implement reforms throughout Ukraine’s vast and complex bureaucracy. But where does such leadership come from, in a system where everyone assumes that political power is a vehicle for enrichment and protection of privilege? To Ukrainians expecting to finally see tangible positive results more than two years after the Maidan Revolution, and to Ukraine’s grumbling creditors and allies in the West, this is becoming a frustratingly circular problem.

Article Link to the National Interest:

Why Xi is Purging the Chinese Military

China's president pulls a page from Mao's little red playbook.

The National Interest
April 15, 2016

Much has been made of the flurry of announcements in recent months by Xi Jinping—China’s president, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC)—signaling major structural reforms to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), scheduled for completion by 2020. Veteran China watchers have diligently catalogued what is known and unknown at this point from authoritative pronouncements, and what is speculated on the basis of unofficial sources. Observers, for example, have paid especially close attention to Xi’s establishment of the PLA Strategic Support Force and ruminated over its stature in the PLA vis-à-vis the services, as well as its precise role and mission. Analysts have also pondered questions such as the future membership of the CMC and how cooperative the traditionally army-dominated top levels of the PLA’s leadership will become under the reforms.

While understanding the details of Xi’s reforms is critical to assessing the direction of PLA modernization going forward, it is also necessary to consider the broader implications of Xi’s apparent relationship with the military. Many observers have stated the obvious: Xi is as “large and in charge” in military circles as he is in Chinese politics generally. This is true, but his control over the PLA deserves more attention than it has received. That is the subject of this article. We argue that Xi is reviving Maoist-style tactics—including purges of corrupt officers, forced public displays of respect for Mao and support of Maoist thinking, and a formidable internal monitoring system—to ensure his personal dominance over the military. Xi’s leadership style vis-à-vis the military will have profound implications for civilian-military relations in China.

Purging the Military

When Xi assumed power in November 2012, he vowed to fight both “tigers” and “flies”—a reference to taking on corrupt leaders as well as lower-level bureaucrats engaged in corrupt practices throughout the Chinese system. The PLA would be no exception.

The first warning shot was aimed toward the tigers. In 2014, Xi arrested a former CMC vice chairman, Xu Caihou, for participating in a “cash for ranks” scheme. After expelling Xu from the party, Xi followed up in 2015 with the arrest and purging of another former CMC vice chairman, Guo Boxiong, on similar charges. The arrests were unprecedented in that Xu and Guo were the two highest-ranking officers in China’s military when they served as CMC vice chairmen, and their arrests marked the first time the PLA’s highest-level retired officers faced corruption charges. As of early March 2016, Xi’s anticorruption campaign had resulted in the arrest of at least forty-four senior military officers, although the actual numbers could be higher.

Xi did not forget about the flies, either. At least sixteen lower-level military officers are facing punishment for corruption charges as well. The military anticorruption drive is part of a much broader dragnet: all told, nearly 1,600 individuals throughout China’s government are either under investigation for corruption, or have been arrested, purged or sentenced since Xi came to power.

The only other PRC leader that resorted to purges at such a high level—and so routinely—was Mao. After the establishment of the PRC in 1949, there were at least four major purges; two of these episodes involved military leaders. Mao first purged his defense minister Peng Dehuai in 1959 for questioning the disastrous Great Leap Forward. Peng’s purge was more about leadership politics than it was a struggle between Mao and the PLA, but Peng was also known as an advocate of Soviet-style military modernization and professionalization, which Mao believed ran contrary to his own emphasis on political indoctrination. Mao’s second purge of the PLA occurred in 1971, against the lieutenants of Peng’s replacement Lin Biao, who was widely viewed as Mao’s heir apparent during the tumultuous years of Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Although historical accounts differ on the details, it appears that Mao suspected Lin was involved in plotting a coup against him, perhaps impatient to replace the “Great Helmsman” as China’s supreme leader. Whatever Lin’s knowledge or involvement, he suffered the consequences when he died in a plane crash as he was supposedly fleeing China en route to the Soviet Union. A substantial number of Lin’s supporters were reportedly purged following his mysterious death.

According to one recent assessment, Xi’s anticorruption campaign represents the largest systematic purge since Lin’s death and, according to newanalysis from noted China scholar David Shambaugh, the largest in PRC history. Xi’s immediate predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, both used such purges sparingly. More to the point, neither Hu nor Jiang ever used them against the PLA in so daring a manner, probably because neither had the stature among top brass to do so. Even Deng Xiaoping, who like Mao was a paramount leader himself, never technically purged the PLA in the way Xi has done. It is often said that Deng “purged” fellow communist revolutionaries General Yang Shangkun and General Yang Baibing (the “Yang brothers”) after suspicions that they were trying to depose Jiang Zemin, who was then Communist Party general secretary. Deng forced Yang Shangkun to retire, and sidelined Yang Baibing by removing him from the CMC, in effect ending their influence over the PLA. But it is important to note that neither was arrested or expelled (i.e. purged) from the party. In fact, in the case of Yang Shangkun, he retained ceremonial honors until his death.

In contrast to Jiang’s approach, Xi’s anticorruption campaign has regularly featured expulsion from the party and harsh punishment. To be sure, Xi seems focused on cleaning up rampant corruption when deciding whether to purge military officers, whereas mere disagreement with Mao was often sufficient for removal—and in some cases far worse, with punishment so severe that it resulted in the demise of some of Mao’s ousted rivals. It would also appear that purges might not be the first go-to option, as Xi has relied on massive reshufflings of military officials to reduce their influence, echoing tactics that Deng Xiaoping employed as China’s top leader.

Returning Mao to the Forefront of Thought

Since Mao’s death in 1976, his successors have tended to emphasize pragmatic and scientific thinking over conducting daily business in the spirit of Maoist thought. Xi, however, believes that a lack of civilian leadership intervention, especially under Hu and Jiang, has resulted in a substantial drift of the PLA away from party oversight. This, in Xi’s view, explains why the PLA has become so pervasively corrupt. Xi therefore instills fear in his senior military officers by reminding them that his “core” leadership status allows him to intervene at will to curb the PLA’s excesses. Regardless of whether Xi finds any truth in Maoist thought, he appears to see some utility in exploiting a supposed lack of adherence to it as a way to cow the military.

Xi drew a direct line between Mao and the present at a major meeting in November 2014. In commemoration of the eighty-fifth anniversary of the so-called Gutian Congress, at which Mao first affirmed the party’s absolute control over the military in 1929, Xi convened 420 of his most senior officers to meet in the small town of Gutian in southeastern Fujian Province. To our knowledge, this was the first time a PRC leader reconvened military leadership at Gutian since Mao—symbolism that was certainly not lost on the top brass.

The atmospherics of the 2014 Gutian meeting was perhaps best captured by Dr. James Mulvenon, vice president for intelligence at Defense Group, Inc., who describes scenes of military officials who “gazed upon a statue of Mao Zedong ‘with reverence,’ dined on a likely Spartan representation of something called the ‘Red Army meal,’ studied historical documents, listened to lectures about ‘tradition,’ and saw ‘red movies.’” Mulvenon goes on to detail a scene in which “Xi climbed the 151-flight staircase of the Chairman Mao Memorial Garden, ‘respectfully laid a floral basket at Mao Zedong statue, personally smoothed out the ribbons on the floral basket, led the people to bow three times to Mao Zedong statue, paid homage to the statue, and deeply remembered the great exploits of the revolutionaries of the older generation.’”

Besides the obvious deference to Mao, Gutian’s message was also very much derived from Mao’s notion of the proper balance between the party and military. Prior reading material, for example, reaffirmed the unassailable and preeminent position the party has over the military. This set the stage for Xi to implicitly convey to all in attendance that they, too, could become victims of his anti corruption campaign, just as General Xu had a few months earlier, if they refused to “deeply reflect on the lessons learned and thoroughly exterminate its influence.” According to Mulvenon, Xu’s successful purge probably contained enough incriminating material to be used against everyone present at Gutian, which may be the most important source of Xi’s power over the PLA.

Establishment of the CMC Chairman Responsibility System

Finally, Xi replaced the “CMC Vice Chairman Responsibility System” with a new “CMC Chairman Responsibility System.” From Xi’s perspective, the CMC Vice Chairman Responsibility System featured Hu and Jiang as figureheads while the PLA itself handled most decisions, particularly important administrative and personnel issues, which were the genesis of precisely the types of corruption scandals that involved former CMC vice chairmen Xu and Guo. Formally announced as part of Xi’s structural military reforms in January, the new system grants Xi full authority to manage the PLA and to intervene personally when deemed necessary. According to one source, Xi spends a half a day per week on average in his CMC office addressing military affairs—a stark contrast to Hu Jintao, who rarely worked there.

Xi’s new, self-appointed direct involvement moves him one step closer to acquiring Mao’s unfettered access to and influence over the PLA. Because the CMC Chairman Responsibility System and the PLA’s organizational reforms abolished the PLA’s four general departments, this means that the CMC now has direct control over the PLA’s top commanders, making resistance to Xi’s directives, or perhaps even feigned compliance, more of a challenge. In addition, the system will include a new disciplinary committee charged with monitoring and punishing corrupt PLA officials.


Xi’s tactics for handling the PLA, which echo Mao in certain respects, could have several significant consequences. First, Xi’s approach is not without its risks. The intense pressure wrought from Xi’s anticorruption campaign could foment rising dissatisfaction with and opposition to Xi’s leadership. Last month, for example, disaffected Communist Party members reportedly penned an open letter to Xi calling for his resignation. It was published briefly online and then removed by authorities. Hostility toward Xi’s style of rule seems real, and some observers have speculated that in an extreme but highly unlikely event, Xi might even become the victim of a coup attempt. After all, it was Mao’s defense minister Lin Biao who allegedly considered removing Mao because of the dire conditions created by the ideological witch hunt of the day—the Cultural Revolution. It would be extremely difficult, however, to muster enough credible opposition to Xi given his robust monitoring of corruption and disloyalty in the PLA ranks. Even if a coup is far-fetched, however, tensions could rise between the PLA and Xi in the coming years if officers perceive that his approach to the military is aggressive and high-handed.

It will also be instructive to see how Xi’s reassertion of paramount leader-type power over the PLA plays out for his successor. The general trend after Deng had been to increasingly leave the PLA to its own devices. Jiang ordered the PLA to get out of business and focus on improving its professionalism and combat capabilities, but by the time the torch had passed to Hu, he had very little leverage over the military and had to find ways to work with senior military officials that were mutually beneficial in nature. Like Jiang, Hu lacked any military experience and did not have anything approaching the stature of Mao and Deng, who were vaunted communist revolutionaries. This made his time as China’s commander-in-chief exceptionally challenging.

The trend has certainly reversed under Xi, but will more personalized control over the PLA continue after him? The critical factor in answering this question may be whether Xi’s successor is the scion of a well-respected communist revolutionary or otherwise possesses ties to the PLA. Xi is the son of a former revolutionary and served briefly in a secretarial position for a top CMC official. It is difficult to imagine that a future leader would have such personal control over the military without connections to it or the PRC’s revolutionary past.

Another important question that we can probably put to rest, at least for now, is whether the PLA is a rogue actor in the Chinese system. Clearly, the military is more closely managed under Xi than at any time since Mao. And now that the general departments have been reconstituted and placed directly under the CMC, commanders may have to respond directly to a new joint staff or even the CMC itself. On its face, this new chain of command might be a hindrance to decisionmaking downrange, whether pertaining to the South China Sea, Taiwan or elsewhere. To be sure, Xi’s new war zone commands—announced as part of the sweeping military reforms—are supposed to empower, not limit, commanders to make critical decisions. We will have to wait and see how this dynamic progresses.

Finally, despite some speculation to the contrary, Xi’s assertion of control over the military is unlikely to negatively impact the PLA’s ongoing modernization efforts. Part of Xi’s “China Dream” is to produce a strong military capable of deterring, or if necessary taking on powerful potential adversaries including even the United States. Xi seems intent on keeping his anticorruption campaign and homage to Mao severely circumscribed, to focus on combating the problem of corruption and rooting out any disloyalty or opposition to reform within the ranks. Mao, on the other hand, sought ideological purity as defined by him at the expense of PLA modernization and professionalization efforts.

To date, there is no evidence that Xi is considering this path. In fact, his military reforms suggest quite the opposite: Xi wants a PLA that demonstrates utmost loyalty to the party, but he also wants a far more competent and operationally capable PLA by 2020—one that is commensurate with China’s status as a major world power and capable of protecting China’s regional and global interests.

Article Link to the National Interest:

Will Iran and Russia join forces on Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict?

The renewed fighting over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region has allowed Iran to present itself as a responsible and peace-seeking actor in its northern neighborhood.

By Hamidreza Azizi
April 14, 2016

TEHRAN, Iran — More than two decades have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Moscow’s domination over vast territories in the Caucasus and Central Asia. One bitter legacy of the Soviet era is the continued existence of “frozen conflicts” in these areas, conflicts that every now and then flare up for various reasons. During the past two weeks, the eruption of a new wave of fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region has shown that this legacy still has serious destabilizing potential, at least in the South Caucasus.

Although the clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops that began April 2 have been temporarily halted, with a truce implemented after three days of fighting, the death of dozens of soldiers and civilians from both sides has caused serious concern among neighboring countries as well as regional and outside powers. After the eruption of clashes, Iran — which due to various economic and security considerations has always been concerned about stability in its northern regions — urged the two sides to show restraint and refrain from further escalation. It also called for resolving the issue through diplomatic means. At the same time, Tehran declared its willingness to mediate to end the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in an April 5 phone conversation with his Armenian counterpart, Edward Nalbandian, emphasized the need to stop the clashes in the disputed region while declaring Iran’s readiness to play a role in this regard, should the two involved parties consent to such an undertaking. Zarif, who traveled to the northern Iranian city of Ramsar the same day to participate in a trilateral meeting with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, emphasized to Mammadyarov “Iran’s full readiness to resort to good offices with the aim of resolving the conflict peacefully.”

The next day, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani held separate phone conversations with his Azerbaijani and Armenian counterparts in which he stressed Iran’s readiness to play an active role in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. “The Islamic Republic of Iran is very upset about the killing of civilians and troops of the two friendly, neighboring countries,” Rouhani said, adding that Iran is ready to use all of its capacities to achieve a peaceful settlement of disputes between the two sides through political dialogue.

The fact of the matter is that Iran, for a variety of reasons, is opposed to an escalation of conflict in the South Caucasus. A rise in tensions in the region could lead to an increase in the military presence of countries from outside the region in support of the opposing sides. This has always been a primary regional security concern in Tehran. Furthermore, due to the economic and social ties Iran has with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, an escalation of conflict between the two could pose serious challenges for Iran. Thus, senior Iranian officials’ emphasis on the need to prevent an escalation is rather logical and understandable. The real question, however, is given the present circumstances, could Iran act as a mediator between Azerbaijan and Armenia, or more generally, play an active and distinct role in this regard? To answer this question, two points must be considered.

First, in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has sought to keep the former Soviet republics within its political and economic orbit and to maintain control over what it calls its “near abroad.” In this context, Moscow has always been wary of any role, whether negative or positive, played by external actors in the former republics, especially in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Thus, Moscow has attempted to direct all political, diplomatic, economic and security initiatives through its own channels. In regard to Iran, this was demonstrated when Tehran made efforts to mediate in the Nagorno-Karabakh War and Tajikistan civil war in the early 1990s. Because of Russian considerations, Iran was never able to stake out an independent role in either instance. Iranian mediation initiatives in Tajikistan could, at best, have led to a “joint” Iranian-Russian solution, and in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, Moscow preferred to pursue the issue through an entirely different track, namely, theMinsk Group of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Second, in the current situation and with the recent round of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Moscow is pursuing an agenda that makes the role of external actors, including Iran, an even more sensitive matter. On the one hand, during the past two years in the wake of the Ukraine crisis — which has led to the most serious confrontation between Russia and the West in more than two decades — Moscow has been trying to further strengthen its ties with the former Soviet republics. The most obvious manifestation of this trajectory is the proposition to create a Eurasian Economic Union. In this context, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is an opportunity for Moscow to, by playing an active role, persuade both Baku and Yerevan to accept Russia’s special role in the region. On the other hand, given the current unfriendly relations between Russia and Turkey and Ankara’s public expression of support for Azerbaijan in the conflict against Armenia, the Nagorno-Karabach clashes have turned into a Russian-Turkish face-off, and thus, grown in importance for Moscow.

Considering these factors, one cannot expect an Iranian willingness to mediate between Azerbaijan and Armenia to result in Tehran actually playing an independent role in the current crisis. Rather, the best possible outcome for Iran could be its potential engagement in efforts to find a diplomatic solution through partnership with Russia and within the framework of a multilateral mediation process. In practical terms, however, by pursuing a policy of positive neutrality or active neutrality, Iran has already scored diplomatic points in the region. By avoiding taking sides and emphasizing a diplomatic settlement to the clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh, Tehran has presented itself as a responsible and peace-seeking actor in its northern neighborhood.

Article Link to Al-Monitor:

Saudi Arabia and Turkey Casting New Strategic Partnership

By Oliver Tempest
The Asia Times
April 15, 2016

ISTANBUL–Turkey and Saudi Arabia took another step forward this week in preparing a strategic alliance which, if successful, could play a key role in the future of the Middle East. Talks on the strategic partnership — first announced on a visit to Riyadh last December by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — dominated the first two days of a return visit to Ankara and Istanbul by King Salman.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are fairly recent partners in the Middle East and bilateral relations until a decade ago were focused almost exclusively on trade and energy. But there was no mistaking the unusual importance both sides attached to King Salman’s visit — a fleet of 500 Mercedes was placed at the disposal of his delegation; he was swiftly awarded Turkey’s highest order of distinction, and most unusual of all President Erdoğan turned up in person at the airport to welcome his guest, instead of leaving the task to his foreign minister as protocol would usually require.

Details scant

Neither Turkey nor the Saudis are giving away many details of the form that they hope their strategic cooperation will take. (Apart from military cooperation it will also included economic and trade relations.)

The alliance – generally known as the Islamic Force Against Terrorism officially comprises 39 nations, all predominantly Sunni, and will have its command centre in Riyadh. Turkey – with 410,000 men under arms and 185,000 reservists, all trained according to NATO standards and equipped with modern weaponry—looks likely to provide the operational backbone.

But so far the messages coming out of Ankara are NATO will remain Turkey’s main alliance and the pact with Saudi Arabia is not intended to supplant it.

Saudi planes detour Russians

Saudi jet fighters have been deployed in Turkish airbases since January and are said to have been used sorties against ISIL though little information is available. Jets apparently are unable to fly over Syrian airspace because of the hostilities between Turkey and Russia and instead travel from Diyarbakir airbase in Eastern Turkey to strike at ISIL targets in Iraq.

Speaking at the opening of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Istanbul, President Erdoğan appealed for greater solidarity and collaboration against terrorism among Muslim countries. This follows several months of similar calls by Saudi Arabia for joint action by Muslim countries against terrorism.

But it is no secret that if they were able, both countries would also like to do other things. Chief of these, if it was only possible, would be a military intervention against Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Earlier this year there was short-lived speculation that there could be a Saudi-Turkish ground operation against Assad — something which would almost certainly have led to a swift military collision with Russia forces.

Though Turkey seems eager for closer cooperation with Saudi Arabia, it doesn’t want this at the price of confrontation with Russia or Iran. Saudi Arabia for its part is probably unwilling to be drawn into Turkey’s confrontation with Kurds both in Syria and on its own territory — though given that President Erdoğan regards Kurdish militants as terrorists, and fighting terrorists is the main aim of the alliance, he may argue Kurds should be among its targets.

Turkey, Egypt at odds

However, there are still regional differences to overcome, the most significant of these being the rift between Turkey and President al-Sisi’s regime in Egypt — a dispute which now goes back five years to Sisi’s coup against the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, Mohammad Morsi, early in 2011. King Salman spent five days in Egypt before coming to Turkey. Saudi Arabia emerged from them with a clear diplomatic victory, gaining two islands and agreeing to build a bridge to Egypt over the Red Sea. It would like to see similar détente taking place between Cairo and Ankara.

While Mohammad Morsi is still in prison and officially still awaiting a death sentence, President Erdoğan will probably not be willing to normalize relations with Egypt fully. But there is something of a compromise in the air: Turkey agreed to allow the Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry to attend the OIC summit in Istanbul. It seems unlikely that Turkey would be willing to make operational concessions to Egypt over the Islamic Force against Terrorism, not least because the two countries were long-standing regional rivals long before 2011 and are likely to remain so.

Ultimately for the Turks, the question is whether or not the “Islamic Army” can evolve into a credible and effective regional fighting force. If it does, it may well play a major part in Middle East politics — and perhaps shoulder some burdens which the US no longer wants to carry there.

To give credibility to the alliance, Turkey and other countries have put out reports of large-scale joint exercises, said to be the largest ever carried out in the Middle East. But so far, actual details seem to be scarce.

Article Link to the Asia Times: