Munich 2024: Protecting Elections in the Age of AI
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Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi speaking during a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the killing of Gen. Qassim Soleimani, at the Imam Khomeini Grand Mosque in downtown Tehran, Iran, on January 3, 2024.

Morteza Nikoubazl/REUTERS

Islamic State group spoils efforts to blame Israel for deadly Iran blasts

Just as Iranian hardliners sought to pin blame on Israel for Wednesday’s deadly attack in the Islamic Republic, the worst since 1979, the Islamic State group swooped in and claimed responsibility.

On Thursday, the militant group said two of its suicide bombers carried out the Kerman attack, which killed at least 89 people and injured roughly 280 near the grave of Qassim Soleimani, the Iranian general killed by a US drone strike four years ago. Islamic State group, a Sunni terror organization, has also been linked to past terror attacks in Iran, a Shiite-majority country.

Security gaps. The attack was a “massive security failure” for Tehran, and it will be “under intense pressure to respond” to restore faith in its ability to protect the public, says Gregory Brew, an expert on Iran at Eurasia Group.

“There is likely to be a thorough national investigation and a wave of arrests, coupled with action against terrorist groups active inside Iran, with potential spillover into Afghanistan or Syria, where ISIS and its affiliates are known to be active,” Brew adds.

A region on edge. The fatal explosions in Kerman couldn’t have come at a more precarious time. The brutal Israel-Hamas war in Gaza has ratcheted up tensions across the region – particularly between the Jewish state and other Iranian proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon. There are growing concerns that the Middle East will soon face a broader, messier conflict.

But the Iranian government’s top priority is survival, so it isn’t particularly interested in becoming entangled in such a fight. And though Islamic State claiming responsibility for the attack “likely won’t stop figures in Iran’s political spectrum from implying an Israeli connection,” Tehran’s desire to avoid a regional conflict means it’s unlikely to formally blame Israel, says Brew.

“Escalation, when it comes, is likely to come through conflict between Israel and the US and Iran's proxies, rather than against Iran itself,” says Brew.

Residents use vehicles to leave the city of Stepanakert following a military operation conducted by Azerbaijani armed forces in Nagorno-Karabakh


Hard Numbers: Armenians flee Nagorno-Karabakh, Terrorists detained in Tehran, Philippines condemns China's coastguard, Assefa races past records

120,000: The leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh announced that 120,000 Armenians will leave Azerbaijan for Armenia, after their fighters were forced to accept a ceasefire last week by the Azerbaijani military. While Azerbaijan has promised to guarantee Armenian rights as the region is integrated, most do not accept this claim.

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French President Emmanuel Macron at a polling booth during the first round of French parliamentary elections

Ludovic Marin via Reuters

What We're Watching: France's final round, ISIS leaders caught

Voters decide Macron’s future

On Sunday, France’s election season comes to a close with the final round of parliamentary elections. The big question: Can President Macron’s Ensemble! Party win a majority of the National Assembly’s 577 seats? If so, or if it gets close enough that a few willing partners from other parties can lend votes on individual pieces of legislation, then he’ll have a chance to advance his ambitious reform agenda. If not, his second-term plans will quickly stall. Macron’s best hope is that a few right-wing voters fearful of potential victory for Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s leftist coalition will limit the number of seats it’s able to win, and that a few leftist voters who adamantly oppose far-right opposition leader Marine Le Pen will back Macron’s centrists for control of seats since there’s no left-wing candidate. Macron has long pledged to boost the government’s financial health by pushing the standard retirement age from 62 to 65. But without at least a near-majority, Macron and his prime minister will struggle even to pass basic reforms meant to cut government spending and help businesses weather tough economic times.
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A Taliban fighter stands guard at the site of an explosion in Kabul.


In spring offensive, the Taliban get a taste of their own medicine

After months of tense calm, a fresh wave of terror attacks by insurgents and airstrikes by Pakistan have killed dozens across Afghanistan, exposing the inability of the Taliban to secure a country already suffering from the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and an economic free fall.

The spate of violence is intense, escalating, and widespread. The attacks have mostly targeted the Hazaras, Afghanistan’s Shia minority, but Sunni Muslims with liberal leanings have also been hit. ISIS-K, the South Asian branch of the Islamic State, has claimed responsibility for most of the attacks. (A bomber from the same group killed 13 US military personnel and 170 Afghans at Kabul airport last August during the last days of America’s military pullout.)

Meanwhile, the Taliban’s scorched-earth policy of pursuing ISIS-K fighters and sympathizers – including the enforcement of collective punishment – has created further unrest and resistance against the Islamist regime, which prefers to ban social media and prohibit females from attending schools and colleges.

Spring is the fighting season in Afghanistan. During the 20 years of US occupation, the Taliban would always step up their attacks against US, NATO, and former Afghan government forces in what was traditionally known as the “spring offensive.” But this time, the Taliban are the ones being challenged by an insurgency even more extremist than their own.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during their meeting on the sidelines of the 11th BRICS Summit, in Brasilia, Brazil November 13, 2019.

Sputnik/Ramil Sitdikov/Kremlin via REUTERS

Putin meets Xi, US takes out ISIS leader, Costa Rica votes

Putin-Xi Olympic meeting. “It's probably the most important geopolitical summit we've had in years,” says Ian Bremmer. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet on Friday in Beijing, where Putin will also attend the Winter Olympics inauguration. The two have a lot to discuss in their first in-person meeting in two years, including tensions over Ukraine, trade, and lunar exploration. Putin will likely assure Xi that Russian oil and gas will continue flowing to China. Xi, meanwhile, is expected to support Russia’s demand that NATO halt its eastward expansion. China’s leader sees the Ukraine crisis as a welcome distraction from COVID and Xinjiang. On the other hand, Xi doesn’t want a war that will hurt the economy, so he would prefer that Putin find a diplomatic resolution.

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What We’re Watching: Russian and NATO intentions, US strikes Syrian prison, UAE-Houthi escalation

Russian and NATO intentions.To prepare to meet a perceived military threat, planners try to understand both the intentions and the capabilities of the other side. Russia says it does not intend to invade Ukraine, but NATO planners can see it has built the capability for an attack by amassing 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border. In response, the alliance has decided to underline its own capacities. On Monday, NATO announced it had put troops on high alert and ordered the reinforcement of Eastern Europe with additional ships and fighter jets. It has beefed up defense of the Baltic states and is publicly mulling the idea of deploying more troops to southeastern Europe. NATO commanders hope this shift in the alliance’s own capabilities will send Moscow a clear message: Any aggressive military action taken by Russia will come at a steep cost for Moscow. The UK government claims to have exposed a Russian plot to install a pro-Kremlin leader in power in Kyiv in hopes of forcing Russia to abort any such plan. The perceived Russian threat has also reinvigorated debate within Sweden and Finland about possible membership in NATO for those countries. In sum, both sides have boosted their capabilities, and bystanders are considering doing the same. It’s Russian and NATO intentions that Ukraine, and the rest of us, will be watching.

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Protesters gather during the Women's March 4 Justice in Melbourne.

AAP Image/James Ross

What We’re Watching: Australian women demand change, Mexico’s immigration crackdown, US vs ISIS in Mozambique

Australian women are fed up: Australia's conservative government is facing intense scrutiny after tens of thousands of women marched across the country earlier this week to protest sexual abuse and harassment, which they say is rife — including within the "old boys' club" of politicians in Canberra. The protests follow a spate of recent rape allegations made by former staffers against powerful Canberra insiders, including the sitting Attorney General Christian Porter. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has come under fire for siding with Porter, who vehemently denies the decades-old rape allegations, and for initially refusing to back a thorough investigation. The country's next federal election isn't until next year (though it could come sooner) but the opposition Labour Party has already benefited from the outrage at Morrison's Liberal party, and is pulling ahead in the polls.

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What We're Watching: Malaysian PM hopeful, Mozambique needs EU help vs ISIS, Polish fur politics

Malaysian political drama: Malaysia's (eternal) opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim says he finally has enough votes in parliament to be appointed prime minister, seven months after the coalition that was going to support him collapsed amid an internal revolt that also forced out 95-year-old Mahathir Mohamed as head of the government. Two years ago, Mahathir — who governed Malaysia from 1980 to 2003 — shocked the country by running in the 2018 election and defeating his former party UMNO, which had dominated Malaysian politics since independence in 1956. After winning, Mahathir agreed to hand over power to Anwar — a former protégé with whom he had a falling out in the late 1990s — but Mahathir's government didn't last long enough to do the swap. Will Anwar now realize his lifelong dream of becoming Malaysia's prime minister? Stay tuned for the next parliamentary session in November.

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