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If you have not, then you’re in luck because AIDemocracy has made it very easy to contact your Senator and urge them to ratify New START without delay!

New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) is the first treaty in more than a decade that calls for significant reductions in the strategic nuclear arsenals of both the United States and Russia, the two nations that possess over 95% of the world’s nuclear weapons. And it also provides for intrusive inspections and verification that each party to the treaty is holding up their end of the bargain. The treaty has received overwhelming support by both Democrats and Republicans, and it is a key first step towards achieving a world without nuclear weapons, a goal that President Obama has explicitly set for the United States.

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This past month, authorities in Moldova (a former USSR territory) arrested a group of traffickers who were trying to smuggle two kilograms of highly radioactive uranium, specifically uranium 238 for the price of $11 million US dollars. Although this type of uranium is not what would be needed to be used for the production of nuclear weapons (nor is it even enough), it nevertheless could still produce a so-called “dirty bomb,” spreading radiation in concentrations above what is considered safe for humans to be exposed to. You can find out more about this arrest and arrests similar to it here.

From my perspective, these incidents tell me several things. The first is that the ease of access to nuclear material in the territories of the former Soviet Union is a security issue that needs to be addressed immediately. The second is that the black market for these materials is thriving and shows no sign of stopping, which is certainly aided by how freely available the materials are to gain access to. The third is that nuclear terrorism needs to be recognized as the number one national security threat the US and the world faces. The reason being because the people most likely to purchase this smuggled nuclear material are terrorists themselves who seek to use a “dirty” bomb, or worse, a nuclear bomb, against their enemies. The fourth and final observation I gleamed from these various smuggling incidents is the need to expedite the process towards getting to nuclear zero (a world without nuclear weapons).

The elimination of nuclear weapons will undoubtedly require the halting of the production of new nuclear materials and the safe storage and/or reprocessing of old nuclear material, like that stored all over the territories of the former Soviet Union. Taking these steps will dramatically reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism. However, in the current political environment, the successful negotiation of an FMCT (Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty) is still a long way off. However, we do have an immediate step that we can take. We can ratify New START. Ratifying New START will not only reduce the threats posed by nuclear weapons, but it will also be an enormous step in building trust again between the US and Russia, which may go a long way to also helping Russia secure the nuclear materials that smugglers seem to so easily get their hands on. President Obama has already made a commitment to secure all loose nuclear materials across the globe by 2013. An ambitious goal to be sure, and only attainable if a first step is taken to START the process.

We should help in this critical effort, so if you would like to take action on getting New START ratified, follow this link to our action page where you can write and/or call your Senators urging them to ratify New START once they return from Congressional recess in September!

Hi all, I’m Erick Ford, the AIDemocracy Southeast Regional Coordinator at George Mason University.  Last Friday – March 26th 2010 – over 100 members of the George Mason University community welcomed Former UN Ambassador Ahmad Kamal of Pakistan to the Fairfax campus for a discussion about building sustainable peace and security for future generations.

This was the second year in a row that Ambassador Kamal made the trip to George Mason. The forum was hosted by GMU’s Global Relations Organization, Americans for an Informed Democracy, the Public and International Affairs Department, Global Affairs Department, and the Office of the Provost, with support from the Student Government President Devraj Dasgupta.  The purpose of the forum was to bring the leaders of tomorrow an opportunity to ask and learn directly from today’s global leaders.

Ambassador Kamal spoke on various subjects including the Middle East peace process, Iran, nuclear proliferation, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Russia, US debt, the WTO, global concentration of wealth, welfare states, access to water, and the role of the US and the UN in maintaining global peace and security.

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Hilary Clinton’s trip to Latin America this week has ended in disappointment after Brazil’s president, Lula da Silva, rejected U.S. pleas to support tougher sanctions on Iran. This firm stance in the face of Western pressure is not simply meant to be a slap in the face to U.S. diplomacy. Rather, it symbolizes a geopolitical power shift where an increasingly important Brazil seeks a central space for itself on the world stage – as a superpower with an equal status to other global giants.

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With the December 6 news that it plans to build twenty new uranium enrichment facilities, Iran has dealt a serious blow to hopes of peacefully resolving its nuclear standoff with the West. After months of courtship by the international community, Iran’s announcement appears to be both a rejection of the West’s advances and a signal of its intent to step up its pursuit of a nuclear program. With the US running out of cards to play, many fear that the two countries are on a collision course to military confrontation.

Much like North Korea, the consequences of an Iranian possession of nuclear bomb are dire. The Obama administration has sought to right the wrong of American Cold War policy, when the US provided its then-ally Iran with nuclear reactors in an attempt to curry favor. Preventing proliferation is a priority for the Obama administration and confirmation that Iran has a nuclear bomb would trigger an arms race in the Middle East, with heavyweights such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia seeking to counter Iranian domination in the region. An Iranian nuclear bomb would also bring Israel and Iran closer to war. Iran’s anti-Semitic leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has publicised his hatred of Israel so often that Israeli leaders deem a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat. Just last year an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear sites was narrowly averted after George W. Bush refused to give Ehud Olmert the green light. The Obama administration has since tried to convince the Israelis of the virtues of diplomacy with Iran, but the latest setback means that hawks in Israel and the US will be circling Iran with greater intensity.

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It was a quintessentially cold night in Moscow when Anna Politkovskaya arrived back at her flat with her shopping on October 7, 2006. As she took the elevator down for the last bag of groceries, she was confronted by a gunman who shot her twice in the chest and once in the head. She died instantly. Ms. Politkovskaya’s murder sparked worldwide outrage because she was a prominent journalist and an outspoken critic of Vladmir Putin, the Russian government and its polices in Chechynya. Her death has come to personify the long, lamentable list of journalists killed in Russia, whose murders remain unsolved.

It is estimated that over 300 journalists have died or disappeared in Russia since 1993 as a result of their work.  This figure is all the more shocking when we consider that the impune murder of journalists is acknowledged as a sign that a country does not observe the fundamental right to freedom of speech and is the reason that Russia is ranked by the CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists) as the third-deadliest country in the world for journalists. Despite the fact that current Russian President Dimitri Medvedev came to power last year promising to end the legal nihilism that peremeates the country’s judicial system, the Russian government’s unwillingness to prosecute many of the cases has persisted. While justice lags, the murders continue unabated, as demonstrated by the murder this year of Stanislav Markelov, and Natalia Estemriova.

The international community has reacted in typically futile fashion. The EU keeps its mouth closed for fear that Russian criticism will adversely affect its gas supply, something Ukraine experienced last winter. Meanwhile, the Obama adminstration is eager to reset relations with Russia and is therefore reluctant to make demands, given that it needs Russia’s cooperation on Iran and nuclear proliferation. On a trip to Russia last month, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was pushed by Russian journalists to make a statement on the Russian Government’s refusal to comprehensively investigate the murders of their colleagues. Clinton responded by commenting that the situation “is a matter of grave concern”.

Yet it is clear that merely paying lip service to human rights groups will not be enough to end this wanton wave of violence. It is high time that the U.S. and the E.U. pressurized Russia into taking action on this matter. Medvedev, Putin and co. must realize that while they may not be pulling the trigger, they are ultimately responsible for the failures of the justice system. Although the days of Gulags and communist repression are long gone in Russia, blood remains on the hands of those in the Kremlin.

Michael Collins, November 2009

michael.mc.collins@gmail.com


President Obama isn’t letting go of the Bush administration’s obsession with defense spending.

Over the past month and a half, we’ve seen our new President alternate between faltering new kid on the block to strong, progressive policy maverick. His foreign policy agenda, especially with respect to foreign aid, fall somewhere in between his dual personalities of tired novice and bold social entrepreneur.

One recent development that has many international aid and foreign policy experts alarmed is Obama’s apparent continuation of sky-high defense spending. A recent article from Foreign Policy magazine reveals the economic downturn has not precluded a quickening arms race, and neither has Obama’s election into office. The magazine claims Obama has released budget figures that allocate a whopping 534 billion for the Department of Defense; Obama’s pentagon budget reportedly falls 1.9 percent above last year’s figures, adjusting for inflation. The United State’s defense expenditures still violently exceed those of China, India, Russia, and Iran, and greatly exceed funding allocation for development agencies such as USAID.

So how does this relate to foreign aid?

In the past decade, the Butroopssh administration utilized the military to conduct many foreign assistance missions, a dangerously inadequate model for aid distribution. For instance, the Bush Administration’s Commander Emergency Response Program authorized the military to provide humanitarian relief to citizens in Afghanistan and Iraq, blurring the distinction between aid workers and army officers. The 2006 National Defense Authorization act contained provisions spearheading joint Pentagon-State Department development missions. Similar military/aid ventures have been conducted in Africa as well.

It is up to Obama to dismantle this misguided, militaristic approach to foreign aid that alienates, incenses, and demoralizes civilians, not to mention fails to establish strong civil societies and solid infrastructure. According to Emira Woods, of Foreign Policy In Focus, allowing for such a fine line between humanitarian assistance and military meddling can create serious complications. While some argue that military presence ensures a peaceful and secure environment in which other goals of economic development, health, education and democracy can be met, Woods warns that “making military force a higher priority than development and diplomacy creates an imbalance that can encourage irresponsible regimes to use U.S. source military might to oppress their own people.”  For further articulation of this debate with regards to AFRICOM, or U.S. Africa Command, check out this transcript from a January episode of “Straight Talk Africa.”

President Obama ran on a platform which championed diplomacy and development as stronger, smarter tools than defense.  But if the numbers don’t match the rhetoric, where’s the change?

The past ten days or so have been a busy period for news on the future of US-Iranian relations.  Here’s a brief summary of what’s been happening:

The New York Times reported on March 2nd that President Obama has sent a letter to Russian President Dimitry Medvedev.  This letter offered the possibility of an exchange: in return for Russia’s help in pressuring Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, the United States will not continue to pursue its missile defense system in Eastern Europe.  American officials have since clarified that this letter was not offering a deal as much as it was explaining that the U.S.’s need for missile defense would be decreased by a diminished chance of a nuclear Iran.

The letter was a subject of discussion in Secretary of State Clinton’s meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday, March 6th.  Russian officials are apparently open to cooperation and some have even suggested that Russia’s delayed delivery of the long-range S-300 missiles that it has sold to Iran are a gesture of goodwill toward the Obama administration.

Secretary of State Clinton has also recently suggested that Iranian officials will be invited to a conference on Afghanistan that will be taking place at the end of this month.  This would be the first face-to-face meeting of American and Iranian officials since Obama’s election.  Iran has not yet stated whether or not it will be attending the United States and Iran share many common interests in Afghanistan and there is hope that these common interests could be the starting point for a constructive dialogue.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan has also offered to work to ease the tension between the U.S. and Iran.  Babacan met with Secretary Clinton on Saturday, March 7th and will be attending an Economic Cooperation Organization meeting in Tehran later this week.  Turkey will not be acting as a mediator, as it recently did for Israel and Syria, but will rather be working to promote a “better understanding” between the two countries, according to Babacan.

The Obama administration has also finally announced the appointment of Dennis Ross as “Special Advisor for the Gulf and Southwest Asia”, a position that will include advising on dealings with Iran.  Many, myself included, have expressed varying degrees of doubt about whether or not Ross is the right person for the job.  Omid Memarian of the Huffington Post, however, has an interesting take in the appointment.  He notes, “Clearly, the appointment of Dennis Ross has more of a domestic consumption for the administration than an actual affect on what Obama’s approach towards Iran” and observes that two other officials, William Burns and Lee Hamilton, will likely play roles any Iran policy.

The Obama administration is clearly making relations with Iran one of its top priorities.  Those hoping for a Nixon-China-style détente will probably be disappointed, but it is encouraging to see that the administration is using a variety of diplomatic methods to tackle this important issue.

It is becoming clear that Iran will not escape the growing global economic crisis unscathed. The LA Times reported on Friday that the Iranian government is seriously considering a $300 million bail-out to help companies that are suffering from the recent drops in oil and commodity prices. The Times reports:

According to a report Tuesday in the daily Kargozaaran, the chief of the Tehran Stock Exchange is pressing the government to put up cash to stop the collapse of the stock market, which has dropped to a five-year low since oil prices began plummeting this fall.

Iran is also struggling with rampant inflation. According to a report by Iran’s Central Bank inflation has risen 25% in the last twelve months and the cost of food and drinks rose 35% in September alone. This rise in the cost of living, combined with wide-spread unemployment, is particularly tough on Iran’s young people. A government report recently found that “a young college graduate had to work and save 40 years in order to be able to afford to buy a first home.”

Economic anxiety among Iranian citizens could play a major role in the upcoming Presidential election. Current President Mahmood Ahmadinejahd has been criticized for his handling of the economy, particularly since up until recently he claimed that Iran would not be affected by the global economic downturn. According to Mohammad Atrianfar, a senior adviser to former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejahd has consistently lied about Iran’s problems with exports, inflation, and employment. Anger over economic mismanagement could definitely hurt Ahmadinejahd at the polls.

Meanwhile, American and European officials are hoping that Iran’s economic troubles will force the regime to take the threat of economic sanctions more seriously. The threat of sanctions, however, is severely undermined by Russia’s opposition to sanctions and its position as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. Without Russia’s support, it is almost certain that the Security Council will not be able to approve new sanctions against Iran. An op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times by Oded Eran, Giora Eiland, and Emily Landau offers an interesting solution: a three-way deal between the United States, Russia, and Iran. They propose that the United States should offer to drop its plans for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe and increased scrutiny for Eastern European NATO candidates, in exchange for Russia support of stricter sanctions and its promise to stop providing Iran with conventional weapons. This deal would give the United States increased leverage that it need to negotiate with Iran and convince the regime to suspend its nuclear enrichment program. Iran would therefore be able to save itself from painful sanctions and rejoin the international community in exchange for putting its nuclear dreams on hold.

This is an interesting proposal but it fails to take in to account how wildly popular Iran’s nuclear program is among Iranians, who believe that they have a right to nuclear energy. If Ahmadinejahd, or indeed any politician, were to agree to such a deal, this could severely hurt their chances in the June election. Rather than asking Iran to completely stop its nuclear program , international pressure would be more effective if it held Iran accountable to the standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency which has demanded more transparency to determine Iran’s nuclear motives.

As Iranian officials are wondering how to stabilize their faltering economy and American and European officials are wondering if the time is right for renewed economic pressure, one thing is clear: the ramifications of the economic downturn are being felt around the globe and Iran is no exception.

Pirates have long been subjects of fascination and intrigue in the Western literary imagination. Authors have published accounts of looting, mustachsomali-piratesed, one-legged bandits toiling over treacherous waters in such epic masterpieces as “Peter Pan.” But in Somalia, where many forge a living by capturing commercial cargo ships in the Indian Ocean, the motives for pursuing a life of piracy aren’t so romantic.

Reports of Somali pirates hijacking foreign ships have circulated through the news quite frequently in the past few months. Last September, for example, the New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman reported a band of Somali pirates snatched a Ukrainian arms vessel headed for Kenya.  Much of the article delved into the details of the attack, the great conundrums that Somali piracy presents for the international community and African law-making bodies, as well as the deviance of the criminals responsible for the attack. Gettleman describes the pirates in the following manner:

“The gun-toting, seafaring thieves, who routinely pounce on cargo ships bobbing along on the Indian Ocean, suddenly found themselves in command of a vessel crammed with $30 million worth of grenade launchers, piles of ammunition, even battle tanks.”

While his word choice certainly grabs the reader’s attention, the analysis provided notably fails to examine driving forces behind the growing trend of Somali piracy. Might there be reasons beyond an assumed natural affinity to  lawlessness and violence?  What of the public perception of piracy as a form of national defense among Somalis?

Much to the ire of the United States and Russia, the pirates refused to turn over the Ukrainian ship, claiming the charged ransom money was to be used to fund public service projects to clean up toxic waste along the Somali coast. That is, uranium radioactive waste European and Asian companies have dumped in Somali waters for over a decade. Yes, the same Europe that is crying foul each time Somali pirates attack. Not to mention that foreign powers have been illegally draining Somali fisheries and other marine resources since 2000.

Mainstream news outlets also fail to mention the devastating poverty and weak rule of law that has drawn many Somalis to piracy as a means of livelihood. Without a reliable government or a functioning economy, most Somalis end up desperate for a means of income.

In other words, it seems convenient for the international community to dismiss Somali pirates as third-rate thugs. But, it would prove more constructive for major world powers to address the bloody conflict with U.S.-backed Ethiopian forces that has been ripping through Somalia for the past nineteen years. A thoughtful letter to the editor for the UK’s Financial Times pointed out that over the past two years, battles between the Somalis and U.S.-backed Ethiopian troops have resulted in the displacement of one million and the death of 10,000 Somali citizens. Locked in violence and pandemonium, Somalis have increasingly turned to less conventional industries, such as piracy, as a means of survival and way to exercise power over the terms of their own lives.

What can the world’s major powers do? For one, the United States should stop its funding and support of Ethiopia’s invasion and violation of Somalia’s territorial integrity. In addition, wildly hazardous, health-threatening toxic waste dumping on the part of European and Asian  companies should cease. Finally, as per usual, diplomatic intervention and humanitiarian aid will go much farther than bellicose rhetoric and short-sighted interventionist policies  in stemming the Somali piracy problem.

Oh, and the illegal usurpation and abuse of a sovereign country’s resources and territory have never been the best way to stamp out crime.

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