Daily Memo: Iran Considers Talks, North Korea Launches Tests, the US and China Mull a Truce

What's geopolitically important today.


Iran talks. Washington and Tehran are inching ever closer to a return to the negotiating table. Thanks to a furious bout of shuttle diplomacy undertaken by French President Emmanuel Macron on the sidelines of the U.N. Global Climate summit last week, the two sides reportedly nearly agreed on a four-point plan that would provide the basis for new negotiations and a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani. According to the draft document, Iran would commit to never acquire a nuclear weapon, fully comply with its nuclear obligations, open talks on a long-term framework for its nuclear activities, and “refrain from any aggression and will seek genuine peace and respect in the region.” Notably, French officials said Iran’s ballistic missile program would also be part of the negotiations. Rouhani was reportedly set to hold a phone call with Trump last Tuesday before balking at the last minute. During a televised Cabinet meeting today, however, Rouhani said the French plan was broadly acceptable. At this point, the main hang-up appears to be Tehran’s demand for a public commitment from the U.S. to lift sanctions – something Tehran would need to keep Iranian hardliners from derailing the talks. As Macron pointed out earlier this week, Rouhani “needs to line up a whole system before negotiating.” It won’t be easy.

North Korea talks. Pyongyang announced Tuesday that it would hold talks this weekend with the U.S. over the North Korean nuclear program, reviving a negotiating process that’s been largely stalled since the summit in Vietnam in February. The U.S. State Department confirmed the meetings. As it is wont to do, North Korea evidently thought this made for a fine time for new missile tests, plopping at least one down in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. The spate of North Korean short-range missile tests over the summer, which did not violate Pyongyang’s tacit deal with the U.S. precluding intercontinental ballistic missile tests, were not intended to pressure the U.S. back to the negotiating table. Rather, their main goal was to drive a deeper wedge between the U.S. and its regional allies, partly by casting doubt on the viability of U.S. missile defense systems deployed in the region. Tuesday’s test was different, but it likely serves the same purpose. Unconfirmed reports suggest it was a submarine-launched medium-range ballistic missile – what would be the North’s first SLBM test in more than three years. If North Korea’s submarine program advanced sufficiently, a viable SLBM arsenal would theoretically allow the North to target the U.S. homeland irrespective of whether its ICBM program remains on ice. In other words, this would cross Washington’s foremost red line with Pyongyang. In reality, though, the North’s subs are a long, long way from ever being able to sneak by their far more advanced U.S. and Japanese counterparts to get close enough to U.S. soil to strike. But a robust SLBM arsenal would significantly complicate Japanese and South Korean missile defense planning.

Trade talks. White House trade adviser Peter Navarro confirmed Tuesday that high-level trade talks with China would resume on Oct. 10, just before U.S. tariffs on some $250 billion worth of Chinese goods are set to increase. Momentum has been gradually increasing over the past month for at least another trade “truce” that delays the next tariff jump, with an outside shot at a skeleton deal that locks in the handful of concessions Beijing is currently prepared to make. Either way, the underlying drivers of the dispute will remain unresolved.

Brexit talks. The British government has proposed a revised Brexit agreement to the European Union, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisting at his Conservative Party’s annual conference that there will not be another offer. The Irish took one look at the proposal, the details of which leaked on Tuesday, and tossed it in the bin. EU diplomats have been a bit more diplomatic with their rejections. Both sides are aware that there’s no agreement acceptable to all that could survive the scrutiny of national parliaments (or the European Parliament, for that matter). Instead, the British offer, and especially the tough talk that accompanied it, is intended for British voters ahead of the almost inevitable election that all sides hope – but only some believe – will break the deadlock. In the meantime, the Europeans are denying a report that they are contemplating granting a time limit on the Irish backstop, an insurance mechanism intended to keep the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic open. The proposal has surely been discussed in some European capitals, but it likely has not been considered at the EU level, where Ireland could veto it. Besides, given the British parliamentary deadlock, Brussels currently has no incentive to offer a colossal concession like a time-limited backstop that it can’t be sure would satiate the withdrawal agreement’s opponents in Westminster.

Ukraine talks. On Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced that Kyiv has agreed to a plan to hold elections in the pro-Russia separatist Donbass region under Ukrainian and OSCE supervision. If the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe determines that the elections were conducted freely and fairly, Donbass would then be given special status. Zelenskiy said the plan, known as the Steinmeier formula, should now be incorporated into a new law on the special status of the Donbass area, which has yet to be written. A Kremlin spokesman said Wednesday that Moscow approved the move and that a date will be set soon for talks involving France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia. There’s still a long way to go here, as the plan is already facing opposition from some separatist factions and some opponents of the Ukrainian president, who himself insisted that Kyiv would not consent to elections “at gunpoint” and without full Ukrainian control of its border with Russia. All this comes amid reports that the U.S. State Department has approved a $39 million sale of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine.

Afghanistan talks? U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad arrived in Pakistan on Tuesday for talks with Pakistani civil and military leaders on reviving peace talks with the Afghan Taliban. Curiously, an Afghan Taliban delegation also arrived in Islamabad today to discuss the talks and status of Afghan refugees in Pakistan. A Taliban spokesman denied speculation that the two sides would meet for the first time since Trump pronounced the peace talks “dead” on Sept. 9. Either way, the U.S. is overdue for a shift from occupation to surgical intervention in Afghanistan – a place where there is no winning, only perpetual engagement, necessitating a much smaller investment.

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