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Sensemaker: New deal?

Sensemaker: New deal?

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Two teenagers were arrested in Manchester after a Briton from Blackburn took four people hostage in a Texas synagogue and was killed in the ensuing siege.
  • Sweden sent troops to the island of Gotland in the Baltic, saying a Russian attack could not be ruled out.
  • Antonio Horta-Osorio resigned as chairman of Credit Suisse after admitting to breaking Covid rules last year.

New deal?

All is not lost in Vienna. Before Christmas, efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal looked likely to founder on mutual mistrust between Tehran (under new hardline management) and DC (where old hawks on Capitol Hill have the whip hand). But dogged diplomacy and a convergence of interests may have shifted the roadblock. Hopes are rising of progress on uranium enrichment, sanctions relief – and hostages:

The optimists: 

  • “Reaching an accord is possible,” Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, said on Friday. 
  • “Good progress” was made thanks to the efforts of all parties, Iran’s foreign ministry said earlier last week.
  • Russia’s deputy foreign minister said the chances of reaching a solution had risen.
  • And relatives of hostages being held in Iran have spoken of fresh hopes since Christmas; of the basics of a deal being assembled late last year; and of a moment of truth approaching in Vienna within the next few weeks. 

The reality checks:

  • France and the US continue to express misgivings – the former worried about time running out for negotiations and the latter conscious that any deal that appears soft on Iran might founder in the Senate.
  • Substantive sticking points remain on sanctions relief, which will be hard to prove because some sanctions unrelated to nuclear activity will remain in place; on American guarantees, which aren’t worth much following Trump’s withdrawal from the deal in 2018; on how far Iran will have to roll back its enrichment programme; and on how to verify Iranian compliance.

But there’s little doubt the mood music in Vienna has changed. Aras Amiri, a British Council employee held hostage in Tehran since 2018 was released last week. Iran’s leadership knows its chances of significant US sanctions relief will shrink sharply from early November if Republicans take back control of the US Congress in the midterms, as expected. And negotiators in the Austrian capital have started talking about practical alternatives being floated to western powers’ original demand that Iran’s uranium centrifuges be destroyed. There is “a range of intermediate solutions,” one diplomat tells AFP, including locking up rather than breaking up the hardware at enrichment facilities at Natanz and elsewhere. 

Where does this leave Richard Ratcliffe, husband of Nazanin Zagari-Ratcliffe, the British hostage held in Tehran since 2016? Cautiously optimistic. Amiri’s release was “a good sign for the rest of us,” he said last week. But only if Iran and the P5 + 1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Russia) decide to seize the moment. 

A window has opened. There are signs that, for now, Iran’s need for sanctions relief outweighs its leaders’ mistrust of the US, and that the Biden administration might have more luck selling an Iran deal than its own Build Back Better agenda at home. The window could slam shut at any time, and that, too, will focus minds. 

Know more

On March 23 2020 Boris Johnson told the country: “From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home. Because the critical thing we must do is stop the disease spreading between households.” He is now understood to have pre-recorded this broadcast and then moved, against his own freshly issued guidance, to his second home. Downing Street have refused repeatedly to deny to Tortoise that is what happened, and when pressed on this period again today at a lobby briefing, a spokesperson failed to give a clear answer. Read more

covid by numbers

1 billion – vaccine doses delivered through COVAX as of Saturday.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Macron’s boom
Macron is running a pocketbook reelection campaign. Stick with me, he’s telling France, and I will be a conduit for investment and jobs. He visits Alsace today to trumpet a €300 million investment by BASF, the German chemicals giant, which will be presented as part of a slate of investments worth €4 billion and 10,000 jobs. An aide tells Reuters this pre-election period would ordinarily be considered dicey by investors but “instead we see very strong confidence in the president’s economic policy”. The strategy is to take voters’ minds off immigration and the cultural battlegrounds where Macron’s right-wind challengers want to fight him. It could work. French GDP grew by 6.7 per cent last year, compared with 6.4 per cent for the UK (estimated in October, before Omicron hit) and 2.9 per cent for Germany.

belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Australians on vaccines 
Novak Djokovic is back in Belgrade, regrouping with family after a sobering lesson in plebiscitary epidemiology. He flew home from Melbourne after the Australian government rejected his lawyers’ final appeal and revoked his visa a second time. Looked at from close up, the whole affair was an avoidable mess. Tennis Australia and the government of Victoria gave him a medical exemption from normal Covid vaccination requirements without checking first with the federal government, which had to a) check its rules and b) take account of a furious public backlash against double standards for celebrities while Djokovic was in the air. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was accused, not least by Serbia, of pandering to the mob. But take a step back and this was a simple, crowd-sourced answer to an important binary question: should there be consequences for people who put others at risk by refusing to be vaccinated? The answer was yes.

New things technology, science, engineering

Hypersonic weapons
North Korea claimed its latest ballistic missile tests included a new kind of hypersonic weapon. The missile is suspected to be an “advanced boost-glide vehicle,” launched by a rocket before gliding to a target. It’s not the most advanced kind of hypersonic missile, but it can still fly faster – at least five times faster than the speed of sound – and manoeuvre in ways that make it more difficult to detect and destroy than the missiles that Pyongyang normally tests during periods of heightened tension with the US and South Korea. US security experts have been more sanguine, saying the technology is still not advanced enough to pose an immediate threat. But North Korea’s intentions are clear: it will continue to develop more dangerous weapons, which may soon be capable of breaking through American and South Korean missile defence systems.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

China’s zero Covid problem
About 20 million Chinese people are under strict lockdown, mainly because of an Omicron outbreak in Xi’an. It’s another example of a supremely efficient response to the virus, but one that could bring the economy to a shuddering halt if the lockdown has to expand. This is the paradox China is wrestling with having adopted a zero-Covid strategy while at the same time hosting the Winter Olympics and presuming to continue with its role as a manufacturing hub to the world. The strategy served it well at the start of the pandemic but now threatens its supply chains, and those linking it to the rest of the world, just as countries that have let Omicron wash through them start to declare the outbreak nearly over. Case numbers are falling fast in the UK and India, and rates of increase are slowing in the US and EU. All these places have the advantage of widespread immunity bestowed by the variant. China doesn’t. 

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

What is a tsunami?
An underwater volcano eruption triggered tsunami waves causing “significant damage” to the Pacific island of Tonga. Waves up to four feet high hit the shore near the country’s capital, Nuku’alofa, on Saturday. Four feet may not sound like much, but six inches of fast-moving water can knock you off your feet and 12 inches can carry away a small car. This was also a particularly violent explosion: when Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai erupted it sent a plume of ash 19 miles high, one of the highest ever observed. The sound of the explosion was heard as far off as Alaska, 5,800 miles away. This video from the Honolulu National Weather Service gives an idea of the scale of the event. For now, a key concern for Tongans will be getting their communications back online after an important undersea cable was damaged by the eruption. Thick ash clouds above the island are also hampering aid efforts by neighbouring New Zealand. 

The week ahead


17/1 – Covid self-isolation period cut from seven days to five, 18/1 – Richard Meddings, incoming chair of NHS England, questioned by health and social care committee, 19/1 – Visa credit cards no longer accepted by Amazon; Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey gives evidence to Treasury on financial stability, 20/1 – Crown Prosecution Service to publish quarterly performance statistics, 21/1 – Consultation closes for London draft Police and Crime Plan


17/1 – World Economic Forum begins virtually with Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi, Anthony Fauci to speak on opening day; Australian Open begins in Melbourne; election to replace European Parliament president David Sassoli, 18/1 – Ecofin Council of economic and finance ministers to meet in Brussels; most expensive home ever sold, the Villa Aurora, to be auctioned in Rome, 19/1 – Barbados holds general election after becoming a republic, 20/1 – Atomic Scientists announce minute hand location on Doomsday Clock; Sundance Film Festival begins in Utah, 21/1 – Annual Roe v Wade March for Life rally in Washington, Adele’s Las Vegas residency begins, 23/1 – First round of voting in Haiti presidential election. 

Thanks for reading. Do share this around, and let us know what we’ve missed.

Giles Whittell

With additional reporting by Paul Caruana Galizia and Phoebe Davis.

Edited and produced by Phoebe Davis

Photographs Tom Pilston for Tortoise, Shutterstock, Getty Images

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