US-Russian tensions over Ukraine threaten cooperation on Syria, Iran

(By Deutsche Welle) US-Russian relations have reached one of their lowest points since the end of the Cold War. The question is, as Moscow and Washington face off over Ukraine, can they continue to cooperate on Syria and Iran?

Barack Obama was going to be the president who salvaged Washington’s deteriorating relationship with Russia. Ties between the two countries had frayed during the Bush administration over Moscow’s intervention in Georgia and US plans to deploy a missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe.

In 2009, then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with a red “reset” button. The gesture symbolized the Obama White House’s desire to clear the slate and build a more cooperative relationship with the Kremlin.

Fast forward five years and Washington is now threatening Moscow with economic sanctions over the crisis in Ukraine. It’s the most serious confrontation between the two powers in the past two decades, according to Jeffrey Mankoff, an expert on Russian foreign policy with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.

“There’s not going to be a walking back from the confrontation that’s been unleashed by this crisis, at least as long as Russia is what it is, which is to say an increasingly authoritarian and revisionist power,” Mankoff told DW.

But from the Syrian civil war to Iran’s nuclear program, the US needs Russian cooperation to resolve a host of international problems. In Washington, the Republican opposition believes that President Obama’s unwillingness to adopt a more aggressive posture has only emboldened Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran.

“We are almost rudderless as far as our foreign policy is concerned,” Senator John McCain told DW at the Munich Security Conference in February.

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Trade ties expose EU, US rift over Russia sanctions

(By Deutsche Welle) The EU and the US have threatened Russia with punitive measures if Moscow does not reduce tensions in Ukraine. But some European countries are reluctant to impose sanctions due to close trade ties with Russia.

Scrambling to react to the crisis in Crimea, the Obama administration has threatened Russian officials with visa bans and asset freezes, if the Kremlin refuses to roll back its military intervention in the Black Sea peninsula. But the European Union has proven reluctant to follow suit, holding out hope that diplomacy can resolve the Cold War-style crisis on its doorstep.

The White House has already suspended military ties and trade talks with Moscow, while the entire Group of Seven (G7) industrialized nations have agreed to not participate in preparations for their summit in Sochi this June. Meanwhile, EU foreign ministers met in Brussels on Monday, where they strongly condemned “the clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity by acts of aggression by the Russian Federation.”

Although the EU threatened to suspend bilateral talks with Moscow on trade and visa liberalization and “consider further targeted measures,” the bloc did not explicitly place the threat of economic sanctions on the table. The EU’s 28 leaders are scheduled to meet for an emergency summit on Thursday, where they will consider whether or not to impose punitive measures.

“It’s clear that everybody would like to see this crisis solved politically without imposing sanctions, because those would severely damage bilateral relations,” Paul Ivan, an expert on EU sanctions with the European Policy Center, told DW.

“Sanctions are the most serious measure you can take before going to war,” he said.

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Iranian banks fight sanctions in European court

(By Deutsche Welle) The West has sought to impose a watertight sanctions regime against Iran over its nuclear program. But a European court has ruled against targeted sanctions in several cases, ordering some banks removed from blacklists.

Following Washington’s lead, the European Union has sought to impose tough sanctions against Iran over the years, targeting 180 Iranian entities with asset freezes and travel bans. But Iranian financial institutions are increasingly fighting back, filing – and winning – lawsuits in European court to be removed from blacklists.

The British Supreme Court overturned sanctions in June against Bank Mellat, Iran’s largest private bank. In 2009, the UK Treasury used counterterrorism laws to ban Mellat from the British financial system, alleging that the bank had helped finance Iran’s nuclear program.

But Supreme Court Judge Jonathan Sumption ruled that the British sanctions were “arbitrary,” “irrational,” and “disproportionate.” Bank Mellat could seek damages to the tune of 500 million pounds (574 million euros, $761 million), according to a bank spokesman quoted by Reuters news agency.

The ruling by Britain’s top court came after two similar decisions by the European General Court, the second highest judicial body in the EU. In January, the General Court had moved to overturn EU sanctions against Bank Mellat. A week later, the court ruled against sanctions imposed on Saderat Bank. Currently, both Mellat and Saderat remain blacklisted pending appeal by Brussels.

“The main reason that is given [for sanctions] is that they [banks] support nuclear proliferation,” Nigel Kushner, who represents Iranian clients in sanctions cases, told DW. “It’s not enough to say that we think they support proliferation, the EU must check the relevance and validity of that evidence.”

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Dealing with dictators: Why the West sanctions some and rewards others

(By Deutsche Welle) The US and EU have long condemned the dictatorship in Belarus. Yet Arab strongmen like Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gadhafi received military support from the West. How should Washington and Brussels deal with dictators?

Grassroots uprisings have gripped not just the Arab World as of late. Last December, around 15,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Minsk to challenge the manipulated presidential election that awarded long-time Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko another term in office with 80 percent of the vote.

The Belarusian security apparatus struck back and effectively decapitated the opposition. Around 600 protesters were arrested as well as eight of the nine candidates who ran against Lukashenko. In a little over a month, the EU and the US had imposed travel restrictions and asset freezes on more than 150 members of the country’s political elite.

But as uprisings spread across North Africa and the Mideast, both the EU and the US responded tepidly as friendly dictators like Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gadhafi used violence against peaceful protesters to maintain their grip on power. In the case of Mubarak, sanctions were not imposed at all. And although the US and EU condemned the recent violence in Libya, imposed sanctions and have now launched military action, they have a history of cooperating with Gadhafi’s now embattled dictatorship.

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