What We’re Watching: Europe vs Iran

Another escalation between the West and Iran – On Tuesday, France, Germany, and the UK formally opened the process, provided for in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, that could re-impose UN sanctions on the Islamic Republic. The deal to freeze Iran's nuclear program has been on life support since the US withdrew from it in May 2018 and slapped unilateral sanctions on Tehran. The Europeans had been working to keep the deal alive, even as Iran expanded its uranium enrichment activities in response to mounting financial pressure from Washington. But after the US drone attack that killed Iranian Quds Force leader Qassim Suleimani last week, Tehran said it would no longer observe any limits to its nuclear program. Now the Europeans are saying that, though they regret the US withdrawal from the deal, they also can no longer ignore Iran's non-compliance. France, Germany, and the UK can extend this process indefinitely to prevent UN sanctions from coming into force. So, the main impact of the move, for now, will be to pressure Iran to come back to the negotiating table. We're watching for Tehran's next move.


France's Sahel summit – At a summit held Monday with West and Central African leaders, France's President Emmanuel Macron pledged to boost the French military presence in the Sahel region, adding an additional 220 troops to the 4,500 already there. The French military presence in the Sahel, a vast semi-arid area stretching across the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, began in 2013 in response to a surge of attacks in Mali by Islamist groups that has since spilled over into the Sahel. However, local African leaders have also had to grapple with the disapproval of communities unhappy with the presence of the former colonial power. Protestors – many inspired by Islamist clerics – have been demonstrating against the French military presence, prompting threats from Macron of a French troop withdrawal. As the recruiting power of local and foreign jihadist groups continues to grow, the threats to the region's people, and beyond, are quickly rising. (See our explainer here on how terrorism came to ravage the Sahel region).

Health challenges of the next decade – The World Health Organization (WHO) – the United Nations' top public health body – has released a list of the most pressing global health challenges that will shape the coming decade. Chief among them, according to WHO, is the climate crisis: "Air pollution kills an estimated 7 million people every year, while climate change causes more extreme weather events, exacerbates malnutrition and fuels the spread of infectious diseases such as malaria." Delivering healthcare in conflict zones and investing in healthcare workers and resources are also listed as health challenges worthy of greater public attention. Responding to the surging death toll from a measles outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, WHO recently issued a stern statement that said lack of funding is "a huge impediment" to disease containment; it asked countries around the world to fork out a collective $40 million over six months to implement elements of the outbreak response.

What We're Ignoring

Birthday greetings from President Trump – North Korea confirmed over the weekend that its leader, Kim Jong-un, had received a letter from President Trump wishing him a happy birthday. But it promptly shot down any hopes that the friendly gesture and Chairman Kim's "good personal feelings" about the US leader would help jumpstart stalled nuclear talks between the two countries. We're also ignoring Trump's birthday greetings, because we're pretty sure that when it comes to the 37-year-old Korean dictator's feelings about holding onto his nukes, the recent US assassination of Iran's second-most powerful man sent a much stronger message.

Amid the current need to continually focus on the COVID-19 crisis, it is understandably hard to address other important issues. But, on March 31st, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed landmark facial recognition legislation that the state legislature passed on March 12, less than three weeks, but seemingly an era, ago. Nonetheless, it's worth taking a moment to reflect on the importance of this step. This legislation represents a significant breakthrough – the first time a state or nation has passed a new law devoted exclusively to putting guardrails in place for the use of facial recognition technology.

For more on Washington's privacy legislation, visit Microsoft On The Issues.

Read our roundup of COVID-19 themes and stories from around the globe.

Europe skirts US sanctions to help Iran: While the US insists on tightening the sanctions noose around COVID-stricken Iran, European countries are now sending medical equipment. To do so, they are using for the first time a system called INSTEX, a back-channel financial mechanism created a year ago that allows Europe to maintain trade ties with Iran despite US sanctions. Recall that in 2018 the US pulled out of the multilateral Iran nuclear agreement and reimposed crippling sanctions – the Europeans stayed in the deal and have tried to salvage it. To date, Iran has suffered more than 3,000 deaths from COVID-19, one of the highest tolls in the world. Some say that Iran's failure to contain the contagion has been complicated further by US sanctions, which have thwarted the Islamic Republic's ability to fund medical imports. Tehran has urged the US to ease sanctions to no avail, but Ayatollah Khamenei has also, citing some wild conspiracy theories about the coronavirus' origin, refused medical aid from Washington.

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Laid-off hospitality workers tell their stories in their own words.

Ian Bremmer breaks down the massive economic toll the COVID-19 pandemic is taking on the hospitality and service industries in America and around the globe. In the U.S. alone, millions could face unemployment as businesses struggle to stay afloat.

Over the past decade or so, the European Union has weathered the global financial crisis, a migrant crisis, and the rise of populist nationalism. Sure, it's taken its fair share of bumps and bruises along the way, but the idea of a largely borderless Europe united by common democratic values has survived more or less intact.

Then came the coronavirus. The global pandemic, in which Europe is now one of the two main epicentres, is a still-spiralling nightmare that could make those previous crises look benign by comparison. Here are a few different ways that COVID-19 is severely testing the 27-member bloc:

The economic crisis: Lockdowns intended to stop the virus' spread have brought economic activity to a screeching halt, and national governments are going to need to spend a lot of money to offset the impact. But some EU members can borrow those funds more easily than others. Huge debt loads and deficits in southern European countries like Italy and Spain, which have been hardest hit by the outbreak so far, make it costlier for them to borrow than more fiscally conservative Germany and other northern member states. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, this imbalance nearly led the bloc's common currency, the Euro, to unravel.

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