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What We’re Watching: Iranian cat cornered on nukes, Italy’s political maneuvers, Asian Americans targeted

Iran says "fine, we'll just get nukes then, are you happy?" Iran has threatened to openly pursue the development of nuclear weapons unless the United States removes the sanctions that it has placed on the Islamic Republic. The threat, which came from Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi, raises the stakes as Tehran and Washington explore ways to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which the Trump administration left in 2018. Since then, the US has piled on more sanctions while Iran has breached limits on uranium enrichment. Now both sides are deadlocked over who should climb down first: Iran says the US has to drop sanctions, while Washington insists Tehran resume compliance with the original deal again before that can happen. Iran has for years officially, if not totally convincingly, denied that its nuclear program is for military use — but "if a cat is cornered," Alavi warned, "it may show a kind of behavior that a free cat would not." We were disappointed to learn that Mr Alavi passed up the opportunity to make this statement while using a cat filter on Zoom.

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What We’re Watching: Suu Kyi charged, Draghi back in Italy, Russian jabs for (some) Ukrainians

Myanmar junta charges Suu Kyi: Days after taking over in a coup, the newly minted military rulers in Myanmar have slapped Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's recently deposed de facto leader, with a flurry of frivolous charges. Among other grave offenses, the Nobel laureate is accused of a vague conspiracy to illegally import walkie-talkies for legal cover to justify her long-term arrest pending an eventual trial. Meanwhile, Western countries are calling for her release because they are "concerned" about the erosion of democracy in Myanmar. But virtue-signaling and even threats of new international sanctions from the US and the EU are unlikely to move the generals, who can look to their trusted allies in China and Russia after they both blocked a UN condemnation of the putsch. We're watching to see how long the West will continue to be interested in Suu Kyi and Myanmar, and how the junta balances forging stronger ties with Beijing without becoming China's puppet.

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Xi Jinping's WEF speech on China's global leadership falls flat; Italy PM resigns over stimulus

Ian Bremmer shares his perspective on global politics on this week's World In (More Than) 60 Seconds:

What did you think of Xi Jinping's speech at the virtual World Economic Forum?

Well, his last speech at the real World Economic Forum in Davos, I remember being there four years ago, and given that Trump had just been elected, Xi Jinping gives this big, "We want to stand up and be leaders while the Americans are doing America first." And generally speaking, was probably the most important speech of the week. People liked it. This is a pretty different environment, not so much because Trump has gone, but rather because support and belief in Xi Jinping is pretty low. I will say one thing that was generally well responded to was the call not to enter into a new Cold War. Anybody in the business community generally supports that. There's so much integration and interdependence between the US and the Chinese economies that when Xi Jinping says, "We need to find ways to continue to work together," I mean, this is the pro-globalization audience he's speaking to. They generally agree. But otherwise, the message fell pretty flat. So, the idea that China is going to be globally useful on issues of leadership, especially when it comes to anything that might threaten Beijing's sovereignty, they check global norms at the door. And a few examples of that, when Xi called for support for the rules-based international order, that's in obvious contrast with China's violation of the one country, two systems framework in Hong Kong. And they said, "Well, that's a domestic issue." Well, actually that's not what your agreement was with the British handover. And just because you're more powerful doesn't mean that norm doesn't matter anymore.

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Why did Italy's PM resign in the middle of a crisis?

When Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned Tuesday — plunging the country into chaos as it faces once-in-a-generation public health and economic crises — he became the fourteenth Italian to vacate the prime ministership in three decades. (For contrast, Germany has only had three chancellors since 1982, and France has had five presidents.)

But Conte, who had no previous political experience until he was tapped for the top job in 2018, is not so much throwing in the towel as he is taking a massive gamble that President Sergio Mattarella will again appoint him to head Conte's third coalition government in less than three years.

The recent dysfunction is unique even within the context of instability-prone Italian politics. How did Italy get here, and what might come next?

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What We’re Watching: Tunisian protests, Navalny vs Putin, Italian government survives

Tunisians demand change: Marking ten years since Tunisians sparked the Arab Spring by taking to the streets to demand the ouster of longtime autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, a fresh generation is now protesting the country's dire economic and social crisis. Security forces responded with a heavy hand, using tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters who hurled gas bombs, and over 600 demonstrators were arrested. As Tunisia descends further into economic ruin, with youth unemployment hovering at 30 percent, protesters demand a new election (they have not been placated by Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi's recent attempt at a government reshuffle.) Demonstrators say that the political class has failed to follow through on pledges of reform made during the 2011 revolution: since then, living standards for most Tunisians have plummeted while poverty has soared. While Tunisia is the only state involved in the Arab Spring that became a democracy, the political elite has largely failed to root out corruption and inequality. Last year, the government responded to similar protests by creating more public sector jobs, but options are limited now due to pandemic-fueled economic stagnation.

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What We’re Watching: Navalny’s return to Russia, Italian PM in the hot seat, COVID probe begins

Kremlin critic heads home: Leading Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny plans to return to Russia on Sunday from Germany, where he has been recovering from an August 2020 assassination attempt in Russia widely attributed to agents of the Kremlin. The stakes are high: for one thing, the moment he lands, Navalny faces up to 3.5 years in prison for failing to comply with the terms of a suspended prison sentence he received in a 2014 graft trial. But the Kremlin will have to tread carefully. Navalny, a charismatic, nationalistic anti-corruption crusader with a sizable following among Russia's urban elite, has long been a thorn in President Vladimir Putin's side. But jailing him could turn him into a political martyr (as opposed to a literal martyr, which seemed to be the plan back in August) right as Russia heads towards legislative elections this winter. Those elections could prove dicey for the Kremlin: the Russian leader's popularity is near historic lows and the country is reeling from coronavirus. Putin also remembers that it was the rigged elections of 2011 that provoked the largest street protests in Russia's post-Soviet history. Who led them? Alexey Navalny.

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