Research & Analysis

The World This Week: Disorderly transition in the US, Breakthrough over Qatar, Enrichment in Iran and Arrests in Hong Kong

The US: Senate Elections in Georgia, Violence in Capitol Hill, Congress Certification, and an unstable transition of power

What happened?
On 8 January 2021, Nancy Pelosi, the US House of Representatives’ Speaker, called for Donald Trump’s resignation for inciting violence that led to the mob attack on the Capitol Hill. According to a New York Times report, she has also “instructed the Rules Committee to be prepared to move forward with either a motion for impeachment or legislation…to establish a body under the 25th Amendment” under which the President can be declared that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.

On 7 January, the US Vice President Pence, following the meeting of the Congress to certify the results of November 2020 Presidential and Vice Presidential elections, announced Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the winners of the presidential and vice-presidential elections respectively. Earlier, the process was interrupted as the lawmakers had to be taken to a safe place, following the violence unleashed by the Trump supporters inside the building. 

On 6 January, a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol Hill. It vandalized the historic building, as the US Congress was getting ready to certify the November 2020 Presidential elections results. 

Also on 6 January, in the much expected Senate elections in Georgia, both the Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Rev Raphael Warnock defeated David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler respectively. 

On 7 January, Donald Trump announced that there would be an orderly transition on 20 January. He also has tweeted that he would not be attending the inauguration of the new President – Biden. On 8 January 2021, Twitter has “permanently suspended” Trump’s account; in a note, it has stated: “After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them — specifically how they are being received and interpreted on and off Twitter – we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence.”

What is the background?
First, Trump’s attempts to disrupt the process of certifying the November 2020 Presidential election results were scheduled to take place on 6 January 2021. After the November elections, he has repeatedly refused to accept the results and concede Biden as the winner. After failing to overturn the elections results through a series of legal cases filed in different courts, his next strategy was to undermine the Electoral College’s role. Finally, he aimed to overthrow the election results in the US Congress, as it was constitutionally slated to meet and approve. He was expecting that Vice President would lead this strategy inside the Congress along with the Republican members. Unfortunately for Trump, Vice President Pence has made it clear that he would not do that despite being loyal to him.

Second, Trump’s incitement of violence and building a group systematically before, during and after the elections. Since the Black Lives Matter movement gained ascendancy last year, Trump has been inciting a right-wing group comprising white supremacists, including the “Proud Boys.” What happened in the Capitol Hill on 6 January 2021 was not a single event and did not happen in isolation. This has been building up during 2020.

Third, the collusion of the Republican party on the above two points. While a section of the party seems to be outraged on what had happened on 6 January, until this week, they refused to see the writing on the wall, and what is happening to the American democracy. If the party had accepted the election results in November 2020, the Capitol Hill would not have been desecrated. Numerous editorial and opinions have been pleading the Republican leaders to do the same. The Republicans who are outraged over the Capitol Hill’s desecration should have also raised their voice over the White House during the last few months.

What does it mean?
First, the end of Trump era. Biden should become the American President on 20 January 2021. Though Trump has finally accepted there would be an “orderly” transition, the process would be anything but that. One has to watch out closely for what Trump and his supporters would do between 8 January and 20 January. The Speaker of the House has announced starting a process to use the 25th amendment, though the Vice President may not favour it. How will an angry and upset Trump leave the White House? Will, he further damage, or is he ready to accept what would happen on 20 January?

Second, the turnaround in Georgia. Developments that are taking place in Washington DC have pushed the significance of the election results for the two seats in Georgia. It is more than two Democratic candidates winning; it highlights the change that is taking place in Georgia, which is considered as a Republican stronghold. The win in Georgia would also mean the end of the Republican majority in the Senate. Should be a good omen for the US and the new President.


The GCC Summit and the thaw in Qatar-Saudi Arabia relations
What happened?
On 4 January, the Abu Samra border between Saudi Arabia and Qatar was opened. Subsequently, on 5 January, the Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani headed to Al-Ula in Saudi Arabia to attend the 41st Gulf Cooperation Council Summit, during which, the Al-Ula declaration or the ‘solidarity and stability’ deal was concluded. The deal formally ended the Qatar blockade. The Summit outcome, titled “Summit of Sultan Qaboos and Sheikh Sabah”, aimed to “reinforce the Council’s strengths, realize the aspirations of the citizens of the Gulf, and overcome all obstacles that hinder collaboration among Member States.” 

On the same day, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman expressed hope to witness a unified effort to confront regional challenges, particularly Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programme. Meanwhile, Egypt signed a reconciliation agreement with Qatar at the summit. 

On 5 January, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif congratulated Qatar for its “brave resistance to pressure & extortion”. “To our other Arab neighbors: Iran is neither an enemy nor threat. Enough scapegoating – especially with your reckless patron on his way out. Time to take our offer for a strong region,” he tweeted. Various states of the Arab world welcomed the deal. 

What is the background?
First, the blockade. On 5 June 2017, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain imposed a historic land, air and maritime blockade on Qatar. The corner-stone of allegations was Doha’s alleged support for Islamic extremism in the Middle East. The coalition, or the anti-Qatar quartet, desired to strong-arm Doha into complying with their thirteen demands.

Second, Qatar’s accusations. The Althanis further agitated the Saudis and Emiratis with criticism. In December 2018, Qatari Foreign Minister accused Saudi of destabilizing the region through the Yemeni war, blockading of Qatar and kidnapping of the Lebanese Prime Minister. He condemned the UAE for destabilizing Somalia by supporting Somaliland, paying Al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen and disrupting Libya. 

Third, the US role. The declaration comes ahead of Joe Biden taking over presidentship from Donald Trump on 20 January. The Trump administration had been pushing for the resolution of the blockade to complement the Trump-Jared “deal of the century” which aims to contain and counter Iran. It is a noteworthy achievement for the Trump administration as the US pressure has made conflicting Middle Eastern powerhouses such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel concordant. 

What does it mean?
First, the failure of the blockade. The quartet’s demands included shutting down media outlets allegedly funded by Qatar, including Al Jazeera, expelling Iranian military representatives from Qatar, shutting down the upcoming Turkish military base and ceasing support to regional Islamist groups. Qatar rejected all accusations as baseless and expressed readiness for dialogue throughout the blockade. Today, Doha-Tehran working relationship has bolstered, and none of the objectives against Qatar has been achieved. 

Second, Qatar has emerged stronger. Saudi Arabia’s game plan was to convert Qatar into a vassal state and handicap her independent foreign policy. Riyadh carried out a massive public relations effort for escalating diplomatic pressure on Doha. However, Qatar emerged more self-reliant with flourishing multi-sectoral businesses and global trade.

Third, under the late Emir Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Kuwait had hosted numerous events for the resolution of the crisis, the deepest rift in the GCC in the last four decades. The Al-Ula declaration is a momentous step towards the conflict’s resolution.


Iran: Tehran announces 20 per cent uranium enrichment as a new US administration takes over 
What happened?
On 4 January, the Iranian government’s spokesperson said that the country has started enriching uranium up to 20 per cent purity. “The process for producing 20 per cent enriched uranium has started at Shahid Alimohammadi enrichment complex (Fordow)”, the statement said. 

Earlier, on 1 January, the IAEA released a statement which said: “Iran has informed the Agency that in order to comply with a legal act recently passed by the country’s parliament, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran intends to produce low-enriched uranium (LEU) up to 20 per cent at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant”. 

What is the background?
First, the passing of a law mandating enrichment. In early December, the Iranian parliament passed the Strategic Action to Lift Sanctions law which mandates the government to suspend inspections and enrich uranium to 20 per cent from the current 4.5 per cent level. This came after Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated, for which Iran blamed Israel. It also gave a month’s time to European powers to lift the sanctions, failing to adopt the measures. 

Second, the all-round failure of the JCPOA. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed in 2015 between Iran and the P5 (the US, China, the UK, France and Russia) plus Germany. The deal lifted crippling economic sanctions in return for Iran accepting a set of restrictions on its nuclear programme. The key provisions included: First, limiting the uranium stockpile under 300 kgs with 3.67 per cent enrichment level for 15 years; second, at the Fordow nuclear site, which is in the limelight now, Iran accepted to introduce no uranium for 15 years; third, to remove the core of the Arak reactor which was considered to be capable of producing plutonium. In 2018, the US President Trump withdrew from the deal and re-imposed sanctions as part of “maximum pressure” on Iran. Even as the IAEA certified Iran’s compliance with the deal, other signatories, failed to uphold the provisions of the deal and did not help Iran in addressing the US sanctions.  

Third, Iran’s breaches of the deal after Trump’s withdrawal. In May 2019 Iran announced that it would not observe the 300 kg enriched uranium limit. In July 2019, it announced enriching uranium to 4.5 per cent, overshooting the deal mandated 3.67 per cent. In September 2019 Iran declared starting research on advanced centrifuges. In November 2019 Iran began enriching uranium to 4.5 per cent at Fordow site. In January 2020, Iran said that it is not bound by deal limits, but would maintain with its safeguard applications. The decision to enrich uranium up to 20 per cent purity is the latest breach of the deal.  

Fourth, the Middle East’s geopolitics. The Israel-US relationship has grown stronger; Israel has signed the Abraham Accords and improved relations with the Arab countries, altering the strategic landscape of the region. Iran’s move comes amid this developing Arab-Israeli partnership which is threatening for the former. 

What does it mean?
First, there is a pattern to Iran’s breaches of the nuclear deal. It has gradually upped the ante, giving ample time to the other signatories of the deal to work around the US sanctions. It has not gone about the breaches secretly; rather, has announced all its moves to the world loud and clear. Even though scaling up from 20 per cent to 90 per cent (weapons-grade) is feasible for Iran given its technical capability, it is not the goal. If Iran wanted to build nuclear weapons at this stage, it would have also gone for the immediate revival of its Arak nuclear weapons site. 

Second, by announcing to enrich to 20 per cent, Iran will have a bargaining chip when the Biden administration takes over and renegotiates the deal.

Third, the enrichment announcement is also aimed at satisfying the domestic constituency, which wanted a strong response to the killing of Fakhrizadeh.


Hong Kong: Police arrests dozens of pro-democracy protestors
What happened?
On 6 January 2021, 53 Hong Kong opposition politicians and activists were arrested in a police raid, on suspicion of violating the national security law. Those arrested include 13 former legislative councillors, academicians, district councillors, student activists, and organizers of last year’s mass marches. Li Kwai-wah, a senior police superintendent, also said that they had frozen more than USD 200,000 in funds related to the effort.

On the same day, Hua Chunying, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said that the arrest only impeded the “freedom of some external forces and individuals” in Hong Kong “to collude with each other to attempt to undermine China’s stability and security”. The Hong Kong democracy activists have called for the release of “political prisoners”. 
 
What is the background?
First, China’s imposition of National Security Law in June 2020. The law punishes secession, sedition, and collusion crimes with foreign forces with terms up to life imprisonment. Since then, the Hong Kong authorities have detained dozens of pro-democracy leaders, raided media offices, and ousted opposition lawmakers. China has been using the law to curtail freedom by systematically targeting protestors. Young protestors like Joshua Wong, Ivan Lam, and Agnes Chow Ting were convicted. Political leaders, lawmakers and media institutions have also been targeted. Soon after the law was passed, seven pro-democratic politicians were arrested on charges of “contempt” and “interfering” with the city’s Legislative Council. In November, China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee passed a resolution disqualifying four pro-democracy lawmakers. Jimmy Lai, the founder of an independent media institution Apple Daily, was accused of colluding with foreign powers and was arrested under the new security law.

Second, the pro-democracy protests have largely died down in Hong Kong after Beijing began implementing the law. In June 2019, over a million people took to the streets, clashed with the police, and shut the airports against the law allowing extradition to China. Today, the protests and mass gatherings in public places have ceased.

Third, the international response. The arrest has drawn criticism from the international community. Countries have responded with sanctions and imposed a travel ban on Chinese officials. The US Congress approved a bill in July 2020, penalizing banks doing business with Chinese officials soon after Beijing enacted law in Hong Kong. In July 2020, the UK had offered citizenship to three million Hong Kongers. Citizens with British National (Overseas) or BNO status, will be able to apply from January 2021. In August 2020, the New York Times had announced moving parts of its Hong Kong office to the South Korean capital Seoul. 
 
What does it mean?
First, more than a year after protests started in Hong Kong, it is clear that the protestors have lost out. With these recent arrests, will there be another round of resistance by the young protestors is a question. 

The recent arrest will weaken the opposition within the city’s political institutions because many leaders could be in prison or their arrests would officially lead to their disqualification.


Also in the news…
By Akriti Sharma and Lokendra Sharma

East and Southeast Asia This Week
China: Biggest COVID-19 cases spike in five months
On 7 January, China’s National Health Commission reported 52 local COVID-19 cases, the biggest spike in more than five months. 51 out of the 52 cases were recorded in the Hebei province, which surrounds the capital Beijing. In Hebei, the city of Shijiazhuang, where most cases have been located, announced strict measures to check the spread, including mass testing, banning of gathering and restrictions on movement out of the city. 

Taiwan: Taipei holds dialogue with Washington
On 7 January, Taiwan held an online dialogue with the US on political and military cooperation. This comes two months after the US Undersecretary of State visited Taiwan, becoming the highest-ranking State Department official to do so in four decades. “We demand the US immediately stop all official exchanges and military contacts with Taiwan”, a spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Defence said on the same day. Earlier, on 6 January, the US also announced a visit to Taiwan by the US ambassador to the UN, without specifying the timing and details.

South Korea: Negotiations underway to free oil tanker from Iran 
On 7 January, South Korea’s delegation arrived in Iran for negotiations on freeing the country’s oil tanker which was seized by the latter on 4 January. The seizing comes amid the ongoing tussle between both countries over billions of dollars of Iranian money parked in the South Korean banks, which are struck due to the US sanctions. However, Iran has denied the link between the seizing and the money issue and rather claims the tanker flouted environmental regulations. South Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister is scheduled to visit Iran on 10 January for talks on the issue. 


South Asia This Week 
India: Stalemate between farmers and the government continues
On 8 January, the eighth round of talks between the farmers and the central government ended inconclusively. Both sides reiterated their position. Farmers are demanding the repeal of the three agricultural laws. Earlier, on 30 December 2020, both sides agreed over the decriminalization of stubble burning and safeguarding electricity subsidy.

India: Foreign Minister visits Sri Lanka
On 5 January, the External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar arrived in Sri Lanka for a three-day visit. He said that safeguarding the interest of the Tamil population will advance the prosperity of Sri Lanka. Both countries discussed major development projects, including the East Container Terminal project at Colombo port. India has assured Sri Lanka of the COVID-19 vaccine cooperation and assistance for vocational training of Sri Lankan youth. They also discussed the revival of tourism.

India: Two COVID-19 vaccines approved
On 3 January, the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) approved two COVID-19 vaccines. The Serum Institute of India’s Covishield, based on the vaccine developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca, has been granted a conditional emergency approval. Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin, which the company had jointly developed with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the National Institute of Virology (NIV) Pune, has been granted restricted emergency approval in “clinical trial mode”. Neither of the two companies has made public the data regarding the third phase of trails. The Health Ministry said that the vaccine rollouts would begin by 13 January.

Afghanistan: Resumption of talks with Taliban
On 5 January, an Afghan government delegation arrived in Doha for a new round of peace negotiations with the Taliban. The two sides decided to resume talks after a twenty-day hiatus. The head of High Council for National Reconciliation said: “We are committed to achieving a lasting peace, and we ask the Taliban to do their part”.


Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa This Week 
Sudan: Abraham Accords signed
On 6 January, Sudan announced that it had signed Abraham Accords with the US and normalized ties with Israel. The acting Finance Minister also “signed a memorandum of understanding in Khartoum to provide a same-day bridge financing facility to clear Sudan’s arrears to the World Bank”. This will enable Khartoum to get USD 1 million annual funding from the World Bank. Earlier, Sudan was removed from state sponsors of terrorism list by the US as an incentive to normalize relations with Israel.

South Africa: First batch of vaccine to arrive this month
On 7 January, the Health Minister announced that South Africa would receive the first batch of COVID-19 vaccines by January itself. One million doses will be received in January and the remaining in February. The country will use the vaccine made jointly by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca. Earlier on 4 January, British Health Secretary said that the new South African variant of COVID-19 is more infectious than the UK variant. However, South Africa rejected his claims.

Central African Republic: Incumbent President wins the second term
On 4 January, the Election Commission announced that President Faustin Archange Touadera won a second term, according to provisional result. 800 polling stations out of 5408 did not function because of the armed rebels who attacked the voters and restricted the workers to perform their duties. On 30 December 2020, the opposition called to cancel the elections as many people could not vote because of the violence at the polling stations.


Europe and the Americas This Week 
The UK: WikiLeaks founder denied bail
On 6 January, a UK district judge denied bail to the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. He was ordered to stay in a high-security prison until the court decides to send him to the US, where he faces espionage charges. “Mr Assange still has an incentive to abscond from these as yet unresolved proceedings,” the judge said. WikiLeaks spokesperson called the decision of the court inhumane and illogical.

The UK: Fresh lockdown imposed
On 4 January, PM Boris Johnson announced a new lockdown in the country due to a surge in cases of the new variant of coronavirus. “It’s clear that we need to do more together to bring this new variant under control while our vaccines are rolled out,” he said. A day later, German Chancellor Angela Merkel also announced an extension of the lockdown till 31 January. Italy, Greece and Spain also imposed strict restrictions to contain the new variant.

Brazil: Brasilia defaults on capital instalments for the BRICS bank
On 5 January, Brazil’s economy minister said that the country had defaulted on its capital instalments for the New Development Bank (NDB). The Shanghai headquartered NDB was founded in 2014 at the sixth BRICS summit in the Brazilian city of Fortaleza. The Ministry of Economy cited the failure of the Congress to authorize the outstanding payment of USD 350 million as the reason for default. 

Venezuela: Maduro’s party takes control of the National Assembly
On 5 January, President Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela and its allies took control of the National Assembly (AN). This followed the Supreme Court’s earlier decision on 1 January declaring opposition-controlled AN’s move to extend the tenure as invalid. The AN elections held in December 2020 were boycotted by Juan Guaido led opposition. On the same day, Guaido held a parallel parliamentary session virtually with opposition leaders, decrying the attempt “to annihilate Venezuela’s democratic force”. On 6 January, in a reversal of position, the EU de-recognized Guaido, even as it denounced the elections. 

The US: Democrats secure majority in Senate with wins in Georgia
On 6 January, the Democrats secured victory in the Senate elections in the state of Georgia. Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock defeated incumbent Republican Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. With this win, the Democratic party would enjoy a slim majority in both houses of the US Congress. Rev. Raphael Warnock also became the first African American Senator to get elected from Georgia. 

The US: Trump bans eight Chinese apps including Alipay
On 5 January, the US President Trump signed an executive order banning transactions with eight Chinese apps including Alipay, CamScanner and WeChat Pay. 

The US: Trump pledges “orderly transition”
On 7 January, President Trump tweeted a video statement in which he condemned the “heinous attack on the United States Capitol”. He called for “healing and reconciliation” and restoring “calm”. He acknowledged the certification of the elections by the Congress and pledged a “smooth, orderly and seamless transition of power”. He also said that “our incredible journey is only just beginning”, hinting at staying in national politics after the presidency. 

 

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About the author

D Suba Chandran, Lakshmi V Menon, Sukanya Bali, Akriti Sharma and Lokendra Sharma | NIAS

D Suba Chandran is Professor and Dean, Lakshmi V Menon is a Research Consultant, Sukanya Bali is a Project Associate, Akriti Sharma and Lokendra Sharma are PhD Scholars, at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS.

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