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US, Europe urge Iran to ease world concerns about its nuclear program; Tehran hits out at West
The United States and Europe urged Iran on 7 May to use upcoming talks with world powers to ease international worry that it may be aiming to develop nuclear arms, but Tehran said such concerns were based on “fake evidence” concocted to cause it political and economic harm. The statements at a 189-nation meeting looking for ways to strengthen the Nonproliferation Treaty reflected the divide over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activities. The divisions threaten the success of the talks with six world powers and a separate meeting between Iran and the U.N. nuclear agency. Iran and the six come to the table in Baghdad on 23 May to build on admittedly meager progress made last month in Istanbul when the parties agreed there may be enough common ground to try and focus on specifics in Iraq. The United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany will try to secure an Iranian pledge that it will curb its production of higher-enriched uranium, which can be turned into fissile warhead material within months. Before that, Iran’s chief envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency meets 14-15 May with senior officials of the U.N. agency, which has long been trying to probe Tehran’s atomic secrets. IAEA officials say they will use that encounter to press for renewed access to the Parchin military site to look for signs of covert work on a nuclear weapons program. Tehran has denied that request as well as deflecting bids by the IAEA to interview scientists suspected of involvement in alleged covert research and development work into nuclear arms. Both the United States and the European Union laid out Western expectations on 7 May for the Baghdad meeting. They urged Tehran to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding an end to uranium enrichment and other activities that Iran says are for peaceful use but which can be turned toward weapons making. (Washington Post)
NATO Hopeful as Missile Shield Tension Builds
NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow is optimistic that the missile shield talks currently on in Moscow can yield positive results. Moscow’s criticism of NATO’s missile defense plans is overblown and based on false assumptions, but both sides can still clinch a deal on cooperation, the Western alliance’s second-highest civilian official said on 3 May. “When it comes to science, there is a broad consensus among Western experts that the Russian case is exaggerated,” Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow told The Moscow Times in an interview. Vershbow spoke on the sidelines of a Defense Ministry-sponsored conference on missile defense, in which Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said talks had reached a dead-end and General Staff chief Nikolai Makarov warned that Russia might even launch a preemptive strike against NATO. “A decision to use destructive force preemptively will be taken if the situation worsens,” Makarov was quoted as saying by RIA-Novosti. Moscow has balked at the NATO-backed U.S. plans to deploy a system of radars and interceptors to protect European allies from attacks by states like Iran, saying it could neutralize Russian military capabilities. Makarov also renewed threats about placing short-range Iskander missiles in southern and northwestern Russia to counter the system’s “destabilizing” effect. But Vershbow, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2001 to 2005 and was assistant defense secretary before moving to NATO in February, said a much-touted digital presentation by the Russian military’s top brass at the conference failed to convince him. “It was very professionally done, but we still do not find it convincing because it is clear that the Russians are using false assumptions to prove their case,” he said. One of those assumptions is that NATO could shoot down a Russian rocket before it has spent its fuel. Vershbow explained that this would not be possible even after the European missile shield is fully in place. He added that the shield’s size and quality would never reach proportions necessary to threaten Russia’s capacities. (…) But Makarov reiterated the official position on 3 May by saying Defense Ministry research showed that once the shield reached its third and fourth stages, “the capability to intercept Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles will be real.” At a later news conference, U.S. State Department special envoy Ellen Tauscher played down Makarov’s comments on preemptive measures. “We’ve heard it before,” she said. “We think that’s off on the horizon. We think they were showing us what could happen. I think we’re far from there, but we’re aware of what they’re saying.” Vershbow also said he saw no dead-end in the talks. (Moscow Times)
Challenge to Austerity, And Germany, Is Sharpened
Europe’s voters delivered another rebuke to their leaders on 6 May for failing to overcome a debt crisis that has thrust much of the region into an economic tailspin. Less obvious is what Europeans expect their governments to do differently. From Greece to France, incumbents lost power—joining a long list that includes the former leaders of Spain and Italy. But their successors will likely find it difficult to pursue policies that deviate much from the austerity-focused course championed by Germany, Europe’s paymaster. As Europe’s only healthy large economy, Germany’s support would be essential for any change. And Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government, fearful of popular resistance in Germany, have made clear in recent weeks that they wouldn’t soften their austerity demands, no matter who won the 6 May elections. (…) Markets present another challenge. As renewed turbulence suggests, investors continue to ask whether Europe can overcome its debt woes and keep its currency intact. (…) Turning away from austerity could trigger a further selloff in credit markets. If François Hollande, whom France elected president, were to embark on a Keynesian stimulus program, for instance, investors could doubt France’s commitment to fiscal discipline. That would put its credit rating—key to keeping its cost of borrowing down–at risk. (…) Even as the political lineup changes, Ms. Merkel and her hawkish allies at the European Central Bank remain firmly in control of European economic policy. Like Ms. Merkel, ECB President Mario Draghi and the influential Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann oppose any moderation of European structural reform, fiscal stimulus or the creation of common European bonds. (WSJ)
New attempts to criminalize extremism in the Balkans
During the past month, the governments of Serbia and Croatia have stepped up their efforts to ban extremist groups and rallies. While some welcome both governments’ tougher stances on extremism, others have questioned the motives behind the bans. On 12 April, Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milovanovic announced that he was banning a rally of extreme-right European parties in Zagreb. The event was organised by the Croatian Pure Party of Rights, a group notorious for celebrating Croatia’s World War II-era pro-Nazi Ustashe regime. Participants had planned to rally in support of Mladen Markac and Ante Gotovina, two former Croatian generals convicted of war crimes last year. In a public statement condemning the rally, the prime minister announced that “calling for the persecution of Serbs and Roma, and for the seizing of territories … will not pass in Croatia.” Yet some activists say the ban was only implemented after they had pressured the government through an ad hoc initiative comprised of NGOs and citizens. (…) Elsewhere, the public prosecutor’s office in Serbia called on the Constitutional Court to ban the ultranationalist groups Nasi and Serbian People’s Movement (SNP) 1389. In a public hearing on April 17th, the public prosecutor’s office described the groups’ alleged participation in the violence and destruction of property that followed Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 and the Belgrade pride parade in 2010. In addition, the public prosecutor’s office alleged that SNP 1389 had recently celebrated the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in which more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed. Gordana Janicijevic, deputy state prosecutor, summarised the groups’ activities before the court as having “consistently threatened human rights and freedoms” and “incited hatred of other peoples.” Danijela Lombarda, spokesperson for the constitutional court, told SETimes that the court’s decision would likely be pending until July. (SETimes)
Countries in Southeast Europe address weapons surplus
Although the conflict in the former Yugoslavia ended more than 15 years ago, a significant surplus of weapons, state-owned and in personal possessions, remains. But the regional countries started a partnership with the US government and the UN Development Program (UNDP) towards solving the problem. According to the defense ministries of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and Croatia, the two countries have the most surplus of ordnance, about 18, 000 tons. Serbia has about 12,000 tons of ammunition stored in open air. As of last June, military material is being kept in appropriate storage areas, which now counts for about 8,000 tons of ammunition. In the early days of its independence, Montenegro counted around 9,700 tons of ammunition deemed highly destructive, including large amounts of light and heavy weapons such as T55 tanks. The number has since been cut in half, to about 4,100 tons. Although defense ministries’ data of regional countries is official, there is speculation that the countries do not have actual numbers of weapons on their territory, since acquisition of military equipment and arms went unsupervised during the conflicts. (…)The Croatian Defense Ministry said it is continuously working on the problem, in co-operation with the US government and the NGO Norwegian People’s Aid. The US donated 3.4m euros for the purpose. (…) Montenegro is managing its weapons surplus threefold: through the preventive destruction of ammunition using its own resources; the MONDEM program for demilitarization — a joint program of the Montenegro government, the OEBS, UNDP and partnering countries; and through an agreement for the destruction of small weapons and various types of ammunition in partnership with the US government. Regional co-operation is made possible through co-operation with the US, EU, and other organizations especially because Southeast Europe is one of the main routes for illegal weapon trade and transport. (SETimes)