What We're Watching: Putin's pasta concerns, Iran's mixed signals on nuclear deal, US-UK try for mini trade deal

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Putin's pasta woes: In his annual press conference on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin tackled a wide range of issues of interest to his country — and the world. As expected, Putin denied that his government meddled in the recent US election or poisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Putin also demurred on whether he'll run again for president in 2024, called on the US to extend the New START treaty on nuclear arms reduction, confirmed he hasn't taken the Sputnik V vaccine against COVID-19, and said that US President Donald Trump won't seek asylum in Russia because over 70 million Americans voted for him. Interestingly, throughout the four-hour live Q&A session the Russian leader seemed more upset about the rising prices of certain food items like pasta, which Putin had been ranting about all week (possibly to deflect attention away from a damning news report claiming that he has a 17-year-old daughter from an extramarital affair with a former cleaner who now has $102 million in assets). In the months to come, we'll be keeping a close eye on the price of spaghetti as a window into Putin's state of mind.


Iran's mixed signals on the nuclear deal: In a rare sign of unity between two leaders who often disagree on tone and policy, both Iran's President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei expressed willingness this week to reenter the Iran nuclear deal should the US agree to remove crippling economic sanctions. It's the first indication that Khamenei, who calls the shots in Iranian politics, would be willing to resume direct negotiations with the West. Still, there are several domestic factors that might complicate efforts to return to the nuclear accord, abandoned by the Trump administration in 2018. First, hardliners in Iran's parliament recently passed a bill suspending UN inspections of its nuclear sites and giving the go-ahead to massively increase uranium enrichment unless the US lifts its sanctions by February. If this goes ahead, it's unlikely to inspire much goodwill from the incoming Biden administration, which will reenter the agreement, it says, only if the Iranians are fully transparent and cooperative. Additionally, Iranians head to the polls in June, which could give rise to a much more extreme executive body that rejects dialogue with the US entirely. The Supreme Leader, who has issued conflicting messages on the prospects of reentering the nuclear deal in recent months, clearly wants to keep his options open.

US-UK "mini" trade deal? As the UK and the EU continue to run out the clock on a Brexit trade deal, another agreement — albeit a somewhat pared-down version — could be in the works for Great Britain with its top trading partner: the United States. Both sides are now negotiating a compromise that involves reforms to the way the NHS pays for US medications, as well as other conditions. The move comes after the Brits last week broke with the EU on subsidies for European aerospace giant Airbus — a symbolic gesture since the UK is no longer part of the EU and therefore cannot put retaliatory tariffs of its own on the US for its assistance to its aerospace company, Boeing. Either way, the UK and its "cousins" on the other side of the Atlantic seem to be making progress on cutting mutual tariffs just weeks before the Trump administration gives way to President-elect Joe Biden. But that progress is no indication that a future US-UK trade agreement will be any easier under Biden, who's not eager to cut a quick deal and has four years to negotiate with London.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

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Listen: Stanford historian Niall Ferguson joins Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast to talk about the geopolitics of disaster. Throughout human history we seem to be unable to adequately prepare for catastrophes (natural or human-caused) before they strike. Why is that? And as we emerge from the greatest calamity of our lifetimes in the COVID-19 pandemic and look to the plethora of crises that climate change has and will cause, what can we do to lessen the blow?

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

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In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

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When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

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YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

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Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

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