Is Yemen’s new president up to the challenge?

President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Picture: Yemen Embassy NetherlandsBy Jan Raudszus, Research Assistant, Armed Conflict Database

Yemen’s new president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, was formally inaugurated at the start of this week, following his swearing-in on Saturday. When he won last week’s election, he was the only candidate on the ballot and his victory was a foregone conclusion. But while Hadi’s accession to power brings to an end 33 years of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule, a peaceful future for his country is less certain.

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FARC renounces kidnapping, turns to cattle rustling

The decline in kidnappings in Colombia

By Antônio Sampaio, Research Assistant, Survival and the Armed Conflict Database

The announcement by Colombia’s FARC rebels on the weekend that they were giving up kidnapping civilians for ransom has a couple of possible causes. Clearly, Latin America’s largest guerrilla group is on the back foot, but new leader ‘Timochenko‘ also reportedly wants to shift the group back towards its ideological roots.

Under pressure from successive Colombian governments, FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) has been in decline for several years. The 2008 death of Manuel Marulanda was a major blow, as was the death earlier the same month of Raul Reyes. The Reyes operation led to the capture of computer disks that formed the basis of The FARC Files, a IISS Strategic Dossier that caused something of a sensation on its release in 2011. Last November leader Alfonso Cano was killed by government forces at the end of a daring intelligence operation. (Local magazine Semana ran a report of the operation, which the IISS republished in English.)

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The Arctic ‘race for cooperation’

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt speaks on Arctic security

By Sarah Johnstone, Assistant editor, online

Russia’s planting of a flag under the North Pole in 2007 was a ‘magnificent’ bit of PR, Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said at the IISS this week, but it wasn’t typical of international relations in the Arctic.

At the launch of the institute’s Forum for Arctic Climate Change and Security, Bildt highlighted the need for nations and companies to work together in the polar region. Rapid climate change – twice as fast in the Arctic than elsewhere – was opening up new maritime routes and opportunities for resources exploration. However, he insisted, it remained a harsh environment that made cooperation necessary.

This relatively benign assessment surprised some of his London audience, one of whom said the issue of Arctic security normally in the UK focused warily on what the Russians were doing. Bildt admitted that Vladimir Putin’s election manifesto was ‘not entirely in tune with what I’m saying’. However, he stuck by his earlier assertion that the Arctic region had become much less militarised since the end of the Cold War.

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Saving Somalia

Somali PM Abdiweli Mohamed AliBy Hanna Ucko Neill, Global Conflicts Analyst

On the eve of today’s London conference on Somalia, the country’s prime minister, Dr Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, laid out at IISS his vision for a secure, stable and prosperous Somalia. Without a functioning national government since 1991, the country has become a haven for pirates and al-Shabaab Islamist insurgents. However, the Western-backed transitional government in Mogadishu hopes to take advantage of several recent changes on the ground to consolidate a working federal state.

The prime minister admitted it was an ‘unspeakably ambitious’ goal, but took heart in the old proverb that ‘if Somali people come together, they can even mend a crack in the sky’. He hoped today’s conference would be a ‘game-changer’ for his country, and welcomed international assistance – even ‘targeted’ air-strikes against al-Shabaab, provided these did not harm innocent civilians.

However, he stressed that the only long-term solution was a Somali one, with a robust national army, police force and coastguard.

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What is Iran hiding at Parchin?

Map of Iran nuclear sites © IISS. Click for larger view

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors on their second visit to Iran in a month have been turned away from a military base in Parchin, immediately raising questions about the activities being carried out there.

The IAEA last had access to Parchin, about 30km southeast of Tehran, in early 2005. According to the 2011 IISS dossier on Iran’s nuclear capabilities: ‘The site contained test bunkers and diagnostic buildings, which US officials suspected might be used for high-explosive tests related to nuclear weapons development. Such tests are commonly used to develop the high-explosive lens system for implosion designs [ie. bombs].

‘In January 2005, Iran allowed the IAEA to visit and take samples at one of four locations in Parchin to which it had requested access. In March 2005, the IAEA reported that it “saw no relevant dual-use equipment or materials in the location visited”. Environmental samples taken at the selected site did not indicate the presence of nuclear materials.’

The director of the IISS non-proliferation programme, Mark Fitzpatrick, has said today that it is ‘very disappointing’ for the IAEA to come back from Tehran with nothing to show for it for a second time – and an ‘own goal’ by the Iranians.

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Greece: one more step towards stability

Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, and Lucas Papademos, Greek Prime Minister (Photo: The Council of the European Union)
By Alexander Nicoll, Director of Editorial

Step by step, the eurozone debt crisis is being dealt with. During the market hysteria of the second half of 2011, the very survival of the euro as a common currency seemed to be in doubt. That is not being questioned today. The €130bn bailout deal reached in all-night talks by Greece, its fellow eurozone members, the International Monetary Fund and private creditors is one more step towards stability.

For months, it seemed that governments were fumbling in the face of the crisis that was engulfing them. If Italy and Spain had been forced to join Greece, Ireland and Portugal in needing rescue finance, then the consequences for the euro and Europe would have been severe. But, as the IISS wrote in a recent Strategic Comment, a combination of measures has eased the tensions:   changes of government in Greece, Italy and Spain; a ‘fiscal compact’ agreed by 25 European Union members, holding the promise of greater harmony in economic policies; and the European Central Bank’s injection of unlimited three-year finance into the banking system.

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The myth of ‘Tal-qaeda’

Felix Kuehn and map of al-Qaeda's globalist struggle

By Sarah Johnstone, Assistant editor, online

The poetry of the Taliban. The concept seemed to capture the audience’s imagination and may have derailed a less well-chaired discussion. Felix Kuehn and Alex Strick van Linschoten came to the IISS this week to discuss the ‘Myth of the Taliban/al-Qaeda merger’, but after they mentioned they would soon publish an English volume of translated Mujahadeen verse, several extra questioners raised their hands.

The book’s cover is semi-psychedelic, and the speakers’ central argument – that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are less inter-connected than often believed – was cleverly illustrated, too.

The Taliban, Kuehn and Strick van Linschoten said, projecting a photo of the dilapidated White Mosque in Kandahar where founder Mullah Omar taught during the late 1980s, was an insular group. The product of a city with then just two newspapers and one radio station, these relatively young followers of the hierarchical, literalist Hanafi tradition had ‘a very limited concept of the wider world’ and a ‘very nationalist outlook, even to this day’.

Al-Qaeda founding members, by contrast, tended to be older and much better educated. Engineers, architects, doctors, they saw themselves involved in a pan-Arab, pan-Islamist globalist struggle. This was depicted by a network of lines criss-crossing a world map (above), slightly reminiscent of the infamous McChrystal Afghanistan slide. ‘Fairly confusing,’ Kuehn conceded, to laughter.

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Iran defiant

President Mahmoud Amadinejad speaks at 33 anniversary of Iranian Revolution. Photo Office of the Iranian PresidentBy Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Today Iran announced three advances in its nuclear programme, calculated to show that it won’t be impeded by sanctions, sabotage or assassinations. Two of these announcements were about progress in gas centrifuge technology, heightening concerns about Tehran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities. Iran supposedly has increased the number of working centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment plant from 6,000 to 9,000. It also claims to have produced a ‘fourth-generation’ centrifuge.

If both of these announcements are true, then the timeline will be significantly shortened for Iran to be able to build nuclear weapons, if a decision were made to do so. But it will be important to know how many of those 3,000 additional centrifuges will actually work, and how well. The same applies for the supposed fourth-generation model. Iran has been working for more than 15 years on various second-generation models that it still has not perfected, in part because sanctions and other restrictions have impeded its ability to acquire the necessary material from abroad. Two years ago Iran unveiled a ‘third-generation’ model, but then said nothing more about it.

These announcements will further enflame talk of military options, which has reached feverish pitch in some quarters in Israel and the US. But even in the highly unlikely event that everything Iran has announced is true, it would still take Iran a couple of years to produce a handful of weapons. Any such decision to dash for weapons would surely be noticed by the international inspectors.

The remaining announcement – Iran’s claim that it’s now fuelling its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) with domestically produced fuel plates, using 19.75% enriched uranium – is benign, except in terms of nuclear safety for Iranians themselves. The reactor is used to make medical isotopes for cancer patients, an eminently peaceful purpose. But enrichment at this level is very close to being weapons usable, so it has been one of the most worrisome aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme.

Until now, the fact that Iran could not actually manufacture the fuel gave the lie to this excuse for the 19.75% enrichment. Making the fuel is not actually that difficult, but the new fuel needs to be tested for a considerable period in an operational reactor to be sure it is safe, especially since Iran does not have the fuel specifications from the original manufacturers in Argentina.

If Iran is really running the reactor with untested fuel plates, then it will be terribly unsafe for the nearby residents, as explained in the IISS Strategic Dossier on Iran’s Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Capabilities published last year. More likely, Iran is testing the fuel plates, rather than using them to power the TRR. But saying otherwise is a way for Iran to say that it is no longer interested in making any concessions to obtain foreign-supplied reactor fuel.

No peace to keep in Syria

Press conference Navanethem Pillay. UN Photo

By Brigadier Ben Barry, Senior Fellow for Land Warfare

In her short but outspoken briefing to the UN General Assembly this week, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay (pictured) said the Security Council’s failure to ‘agree on firm collective action appears to have emboldened the Syrian Government to launch an all-out assault in an effort to crush dissent with overwhelming force’. She described the suffering and potential humanitarian crisis resulting from escalating regime attacks on Homs. Since the conflict began a year ago, she said, ‘crimes against humanity are likely to have been committed’.

The Arab League has now withdrawn its observer mission to Syria, and at a meeting in Cairo on Sunday passed a resolution asking the Security Council to authorise a joint UN–Arab peacekeeping mission. However, the resolution did not make clear whether that would involve armed troops; it could well be an unarmed observer mission.

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Rafale’s gain is Typhoon’s loss in India

A Rafale. Base aŽrienne de Sigonella en Sicile. Photo: French Ministry of DefenceBy Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace

The omens were not good when Britain’s Minister for International Security Strategy, Gerald Howarth, led a defence trade delegation to India last week. Days before Delhi had chosen to buy the French Rafale fighter aircraft, instead of the Eurofighter Typhoon in which the UK is a partner.

The decision came five years after India began its quest for an extra strategic alliance to complement Russia in the combat-aircraft arena (releasing a request for proposals for a new fighter). The Rafale (pictured) was selected to meet the India air force’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft programme for 126 fighter aircraft to replace its ageing MiG-21s. Delhi’s choice is reportedly based on the Rafale being less expensive; the overall cost of the acquisition may be around US$14 billion.

If completed, this will be a significant deal for Dassault as the first export sale for the Rafale – which for one reason or another has previously been left at the altar. For example, just when Dassault seemed on the brink of securing the United Arab Emirates as a customer in late 2011, Crown Prince Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed, in an uncharacteristic outburst, criticised the company for its ‘uncompetitive and unworkable commercial terms’. Dassault has also come tantalisingly close to a Rafale sale in Brazil, but none has yet been secured.

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