When Grid launched in January, a looming war in Ukraine was only one among many major global stories on the horizon. Since late February, Ukraine and Russia and the global consequences of the war have consumed much of the world’s attention. No doubt they will continue to do so for some time.
But we wanted to take a moment to catch readers up on some critical global issues and hot spots that may have been overlooked in the two months since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion: two other wars, two crises involving nuclear proliferation, a continuing crackdown on minorities in the world’s largest democracy and a look at “Taliban 2.0″ in Afghanistan.
New deal or no deal?
In March, France’s foreign ministry warned that the “window of opportunity is closing” to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Given that Iran’s own government had warned that the “window is closing” more than a year earlier, this may be one of the world’s slowest-closing windows. It’s still open, but barely.
As if to remind the world of the stakes, in March the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran was nearing the amount of enriched uranium it would need to build an atomic bomb and could soon cross an enrichment threshold that would render talks pointless.
It’s a dangerous moment.
In the original deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran agreed to restrictions on its nuclear program and inspections by international monitors in exchange for sanctions relief. Arguably the most important foreign policy achievement of President Barack Obama’s administration, the deal was scuttled in 2018 when President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out and reimposed sanctions. Since then, Iran has dramatically expanded its nuclear stockpile and escalated proxy attacks on U.S. allies and interests in the Middle East.
President Joe Biden has vowed to restore the deal, and negotiations mediated by European countries began in Vienna last year, but progress has been slow. The two sides have argued over sequencing — the U.S. wants Iran to halt enrichment activities first; Iran says that since the U.S. violated the deal, it should lift sanctions first. Things got more complicated in August 2021, when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who had negotiated the original deal, was replaced by Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-liner and critic of the JCPOA.
But that window remained open, and in February of this year, the parties were reportedly close to a new agreement. A 27-page document, ready for signatures.
Then came the war in Ukraine.
Russia was a signatory to the original deal and involved in the current negotiations; in March, Russia demanded that its existing contracts for nuclear projects in Iran — worth billions of dollars — not be affected by new Ukraine-related sanctions. That demand derailed the talks — and while the issue has been ironed out, momentum hasn’t recovered.
The current stumbling block is Iran’s demand that the U.S. remove its Revolutionary Guard Corps from the U.S. terrorism list — Trump listed the Guard members as terrorists in 2019, the first time that had been done for any branch of a country’s military. Removing the Guard would be a tough sell politically in the U.S., and the Biden administration seems skeptical.
For the moment, the negotiations seem to be in limbo, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken — who now has a major war in Europe on his front burner — said recently he was “not overly optimistic at the prospects of actually getting an agreement to conclusion.”
Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Grid that a key difference from the 2015 negotiations is the relative absence of economic pressure for Iran. “Over the last four decades, the few instances in which Iran has compromised — including the 2015 JCPOA — have been when it faces major, existential economic angst,” he said. “They currently don’t feel this given that existing sanctions aren’t being enforced and their oil exports, mostly to China, have increased several-fold.”
The Iranians are no doubt keeping an eye on U.S. politics. Republicans on Capitol Hill are vowing to block implementation of any deal, which would get easier if they retake the Senate this year. And if the party wins the White House in 2024, they’re likely to tear up any new agreement, just as Trump did.
Sooner or later, that window for negotiators may finally close.
New bluster in the North, new leader in the South
Then there’s the archenemy of the U.S. that already has the bomb.
On the Korean peninsula, the last two months have seen political change in the South and an escalation of nuclear bluster from the North.
Last week, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, used the occasion of a huge military parade to say his country planned to expand its nuclear arsenal “at the fastest possible speed” — and use it if necessary.
“Our nuclear weapons can never be confined to the single mission of war deterrent,” Kim said. “If any forces try to violate the fundamental interests of our state, our nuclear forces will have to decisively accomplish its unexpected second mission.”
In the last two months, Kim has repeatedly upped the rhetorical and military ante. On March 24, North Korea launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017; on April 17, North Korea reported the successful test of a new missile that it claimed would enhance its short-range nuclear capabilities; and earlier this month, satellite images suggested North Korea might be reconstructing its underground nuclear test site, which the regime had partially destroyed prior to Kim’s first summit with Trump in 2018.
In the past, such provocations have been a way for Pyongyang to pressure the U.S. to come to the negotiating table; that strategy worked in the Trump era but shows no signs of bringing concessions from the Biden administration.
John DeLury, a Chinese studies professor at the Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies, told Grid that in the absence of active diplomacy with the U.S., more provocations seem almost inevitable. Beyond the bluster of the missile tests, DeLury noted that “Kim Jong Un’s technicians continue to gain mastery with each effort.” Among capabilities the North Koreans may wish to improve this year, DeLury listed military reconnaissance satellites, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and various nuclear devices.
Overall, the situation in the North appears grim as ever. Kim Jong Un sealed his already tightly controlled borders when the covid pandemic struck; that lockdown has been lifted only for a limited amount of trade with China. The country rejected vaccines offered via a U.N. initiative — leaving North Korea the only nation on earth known to have administered no shots to its citizens.
The other major development on the Korean peninsula has come in the south. Yoon Suk-yeol won a nail-biter of a presidential election in March, vowing a harder line against the North. During the campaign, Yoon said South Korea would consider “preemptive strikes” on the North’s nuclear forces if the South were under nuclear threat.
“The election of a conservative South Korean president means that Seoul is likely to escalate tensions with the North, trying to prove that a hard-line position is superior to the peacemaking efforts of the outgoing liberal president,” DeLury told Grid. But he added that “having won the presidential election by the slimmest of margins, Yoon faces formidable challenges internally and externally in leading Korea in a more conservative direction.”
Can a “Ramadan ceasefire” end an eight-year nightmare?
Roughly 2,500 miles from Kyiv, two other wars have raged for years. One to the south, the other to the southeast. Let’s start with the latter — in Yemen.
After eight years of war and what the U.N. calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, Yemenis found rare cause for celebration on April 2, the first day of Ramadan, when the warring parties agreed to a two-month ceasefire. While there’s been sporadic fighting, the truce has mostly held. But how long can it last?
Yemen has been at war since 2014, when the Houthis, an Iranian-supported rebel group, took over the capital, Sanaa, forcing the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi into exile in Saudi Arabia. In 2015, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia, alarmed at what they saw as Iran gaining a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula, began a military intervention to restore Hadi’s government to power.
The conflict has produced a two-pronged calamity: the war itself and the famine that followed. The U.N. estimates the combination has killed more than 377,000 people; both sides have been accused of war crimes. The U.S. provided logistics and intelligence support to the anti-Houthi coalition under the Obama administration and to a greater extent during the Trump era. That assistance has been highly controversial given widespread reports of coalition airstrikes targeting civilians. Biden formally ended U.S. support for the war after taking office, but the U.S. has continued arms sales to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, another key participant in the coalition.
Prior to the recent ceasefire, fighting centered around the city of Marib, the last major city in northern Yemen outside the Houthis’ control. A pro-government militia backed by the UAE began an offensive to push the Houthis back from the area; the Houthis responded by firing missiles at the Emirati capital, Abu Dhabi, in January. They’ve been taking shots at Saudi Arabia for years but ramped up those attacks as well, including a high-profile strike on the port city of Jiddah, just miles from the venue of a Formula 1 Grand Prix race, on March 25.
Asher Orkaby, an expert on Yemen at Princeton University, told Grid the strikes marked a turning point. “The entire world was watching these images of the bombing and fire in the background and race cars in the foreground. Once that happened, the Saudis were looking for an out. This was impacting their country in a way they never anticipated would happen.”
The first step of this “out” was the ceasefire. That was followed by the surprising news that Hadi, Yemen’s internationally recognized but exiled president, was handing over power to an eight-member Presidential Leadership Council that would be empowered to negotiate with the Houthis. The Houthis, who view Hadi’s government as illegitimate and see themselves as being in direct conflict with the Saudis, reacted with skepticism, and much remains to be worked out, but experts seem cautiously optimistic that this new group will bring more credibility to the table.
In the near term, Yemen badly needs international aid. As part of the ceasefire, the Saudis have lifted a blockade on the port city of Hodeidah, allowing shipments of food and fuel to arrive. An estimated 23 million Yemenis — three-quarters of the population — are in need of humanitarian assistance, and the crisis has been exacerbated by recent spikes in food and fuel prices. Making things even worse, Yemen buys more than a third of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine. Help can’t come fast enough.
No heroes — not even the Nobel laureate
As in Yemen, the war in Ethiopia has been twinned with a humanitarian crisis, and here, too, a truce is in effect. Unfortunately, this one appears fragile — and there are no signs of a long-term settlement on the horizon.
The civil war in Ethiopia pits the regime against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a group born as a rebel movement that became the country’s ruling power for more than two decades, beginning in the 1990s. Eighteen months of war have left tens of thousands dead and forced more than 2 million people from their homes. It has also brought the risk of famine to many parts of the country.
On March 24, Ethiopia’s government announced what it called a “humanitarian truce” with the TPLF to allow aid to reach the northern region of Tigray. Since then, the government has allowed just one relief convoy into the region, saying it will allow more deliveries to flow only when the Tigrayan forces withdraw; the Tigrayans say they will pull back only once more relief has arrived.
It’s the latest setback in a war that — beyond its human toll — has crushed the fortunes of what had been a success story on the continent. Not to mention the standing of a leader who won the 2019 Nobel Prize for Peace.
From the time he took office in 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appeared determined to break the power of the TPLF. After the Tigrayans held regional elections in defiance of Abiy in September 2020, the prime minister ordered a military operation against the group. The violence has spiked and ebbed often since then, with frequent shifts in momentum from one side to the other. At one point last November, it appeared the TPLF might reach the capital, Addis Ababa; Ethiopian government forces stopped the rebels less than 100 miles shy of their goal.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia has shown that Russia’s war on Ukraine has no monopoly on atrocity. This month, a major investigation authored by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International found that Ethiopian government forces and their allies had killed or evicted hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tigrayans from territory seized since war began. The report paints a picture of systemic cleansing of the Tigrayan population: signs ordering Tigrayans to leave, local government officials Tigrayans who refused to leave.
These reports follow others that have blamed both sides for war crimes. Taken together, they have left the warring parties in no mood to make concessions or settle their differences.
Ordinarily, one might invest hope in the fact that one party at the negotiating table is a Nobel laureate; Abiy won the honor for negotiating a landmark treaty with Ethiopia’s neighbor Eritrea in 2018.
But Abiy has referred to the TPLF as a “cancer” and vowed to bury the Tigrayans in “a deep pit.” That rhetoric and the alleged atrocities have set back negotiations and poisoned Abiy’s global reputation. As for the peace prize, earlier this year the Norwegian Nobel Committee took the rare step of publicly warning the Ethiopian prime minister. The committee did not rescind the honor but said he had “a special responsibility to end the conflict and contribute to peace.”
On the freedom index, “a series of setbacks”
No war here, only a series of events that many view as backsliding for rights and tolerance in the world’s largest democracy.
For many liberals in India, the March elections in Uttar Pradesh were a confirmation of their worst fears: a clear victory in the country’s most populous state for a Hindu hard-liner known for a virulent brand of divisive politics.
Yogi Adityanath is a former Hindu monk who was hand-picked to lead Uttar Pradesh by India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, after Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won local elections there in 2017. Over the years, Adityanath has faced criminal charges including attempted murder, rioting and other offenses. In March, he returned the BJP to power in Uttar Pradesh, following a campaign replete with anti-minority rhetoric.
India is majority Hindu, but it is also home to several minority communities, including more than 170 million Muslims. In one case, a local BJP leader promised that, if the party returned to power, Muslims in the state would be forced to “start wearing tilaks” — a reference to a common Hindu religious marking on the forehead. Local media documented scores of other examples of divisive speech as the campaign unfolded.
Modi campaigned extensively in Uttar Pradesh and was often seen at Adityanath’s side. To Modi’s critics, the results confirmed the country’s lurch from its pluralist moorings and a backsliding of democracy.
A key area of concern has been the way the Modi government has targeted its critics. Case in point: news in early April that authorities had banned a well-known critic and rights activist — and chair of Amnesty International’s Indian arm — from traveling abroad. It wasn’t the first instance of a critic being barred from leaving the country. “In the last few years, many human rights activists and journalists have been banned at the last moment from attending international conferences and U.N. events on the human rights situation in India,” said Amnesty’s deputy general secretary, Kyle Ward.
It’s a trend that has been highlighted by other international organizations. Freedom House said in February that India had “suffered a series of setbacks to political rights and civil liberties” since Modi’s reelection as prime minister in 2019. And not long before Adityanath won in Uttar Pradesh, the Swedish think tank the V-Dem Institute, which tracks democracies around the world, put it bluntly. Under Modi’s “anti-pluralist” BJP, it said, India had become a “electoral autocracy.”
Taliban 2.0 = Dashed hopes, broken promises
Just a week before Putin launched his war on Ukraine, Grid published a series of reports on life in Afghanistan, six months after the fall of Kabul and the return of Taliban rule. We looked at the overall humanitarian situation, freedom of the press, and the rights of women and girls. The latter appeared to offer glimmers of hope; in the face of international pressure, the Taliban had pledged to reopen schools for teenage girls in March of this year.
Millions of girls were excited by the prospect; the Taliban had shuttered classrooms after its takeover last year. But when we spoke to Mahnaz, a 17-year-old from Kabul, she was skeptical. She told Grid in February that she didn’t believe Afghanistan’s new leaders would keep their promise.
And in the event, they didn’t.
The Taliban reversed the policy at the last minute, as girls were preparing to return to school. The decision confirmed the fears of Mahnaz and others who have questioned whether the group has changed since its first years in power, two decades before.
Hopes that what some have called “Taliban 2.0″ might prove a kinder, gentler version have been dashed. Millions of girls remain out of school, and female professionals — journalists, judges and others — have either been driven out of work or into hiding amid concerns about retribution.
International condemnation of the Taliban for these measures — including the freezing of some $600 million in World Bank projects — has done nothing to change the group’s behavior. In some ways, it has made the humanitarian situation worse. Because the Taliban refuses to change its ways, the U.S. and other donors are reluctant to free up funding; as a result, Afghanistan remains largely cut off from the global financial system. As Grid has reported, this has triggered an economic crisis. The World Food Programme said at the end of March that severe food shortages were affecting roughly two-thirds of the population — a staggering sixfold increase compared with August 2021, when U.S. troops left the country.
Given these crises, restrictions on the media may seem almost an afterthought; but here, too, the situation has regressed. The Taliban has stepped up its campaign to choke what had been one of the success stories of the last 20 years — the emergence of a vibrant media sector. In March, the new government imposed broadcast bans on various international media, including BBC bulletins in local languages. Taliban intelligence officials also raided radio outlets in the southern city of Kandahar for allegedly violating a ban on music. Human Rights Watch said six journalists were detained. They were released only after promising never to broadcast music again.
It was just the latest sign of the clock turning back in yet another part of Afghan society.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.