Fortnightly Review & Analysis: USA, Russia & EU (Vol 2 Issue IX)

Oct 1-15, 2017

USA

Las Vegas Shooting

The US witnessed its deadliest shooting on the night of October 1, 2017, when a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concert goers at the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas Strip in Nevada, leaving 59 people dead and 546 injured. Within a short span of about 15 minutes, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock of Mesquite, Nevada, fired hundreds of rifle rounds from his suite on the 32nd floor of the nearby Mandalay Bay hotel. About an hour after Paddock fired his last shot into the crowd, he was found dead in his room from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The incident is the deadliest mass shooting committed by an individual in the United States. The shooting reignited the debate about gun laws in the US with attention focused on bump fire stocks, which Paddock used to allow his semi-automatic rifles to fire at a rate similar to that of a fully automatic weapon.

In the wake of the event, Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate have proposed banning bump stocks. Police found 12 bump stock devices in the hotel room the Nevada gunman shot from, an explanation for the rapid gunfire at the incident. The push has come from Democrats, like Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) in the Senate and in the House, a bipartisan effort from Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) and Seth Moulton (D-MA), but Republicans at large have signaled they are open to similar legislation. “Fully automatic weapons have been banned for a long time,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said, “apparently this allows you to take a semiautomatic and turn it into a fully automatic, so clearly that's something we need to look into."

But there are already signs that this push could be all talk. The National Rifle Association, which originally said bump stocks should be “subject to additional regulations,” is now saying any action should come from the Trump administration — not from Congress — a distinction that will likely muddy hopes of any action on Capitol Hill. With each mass shooting, Congress reignites a longstanding debate on gun control. But it’s largely fizzles out over time, resulting in little or no legislative changes. This time Democrats might have found the narrowest version of gun control legislation that could conceivably bring Republicans on board. But less than a month after the incident the debate has already become a non-starter, it shows just how unlikely any gun reform legislation is under a Republican-led Congress.

Trump and the Iran Nuclear Deal

On October 13, President Donald Trump announced his plans to "decertify" the international nuclear deal with Iran, saying it is not in the national interest of the United States and kicked the issue to a reluctant Congress. The move would mark the first step in a process that could eventually result in the resumption of U.S. sanctions against Iran, which would blow up a deal limiting Iran's nuclear activities that the country reached in 2015 with the US and five other nations.

Trump announced the major shift in U.S. policy in a speech in which he detailed a more aggressive approach to Iran over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and its support for extremist groups in the Middle East. He accused Iran of “not living up to the spirit” of the nuclear agreement and said his goal is to ensure Tehran never obtains a nuclear weapon, in effect throwing the fate of the deal to Congress. He singled out Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for sanctions and delivered a blistering critique of Tehran, which he accused of destabilizing actions in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. “We will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more terror and the very real threat of Iran’s nuclear breakout,” Trump said. Trump’s hardline remarks drew praise from Israel, Iran’s arch-foe, but was criticized by European allies. The move by Trump was part of his “America First” approach to international agreements which has led him to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks and renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. His Iran strategy angered Tehran and put Washington at odds with other signatories of the accord - Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union - some of which have benefited economically from renewed trade with Iran.

Responding to Trump, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on television that Tehran was committed to the deal and accused Trump of making baseless accusations. “The Iranian nation has not and will never bow to any foreign pressure,” he said, “Iran and the deal are stronger than ever.” European allies have warned of a split with the United States over the nuclear agreement and say that putting it in limbo as Trump has done undermines US credibility abroad, especially as international inspectors say Iran is in compliance with the accord. The chief of the U.N. atomic watchdog reiterated that Iran was under the world’s “most robust nuclear verification regime.” “The nuclear-related commitments undertaken by Iran under the JCPOA are being implemented,” Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency said, referring to the deal by its formal name.

U.S. Democrats expressed skepticism at Trump’s decision. Senator Ben Cardin said, “At a moment when the United States and its allies face a nuclear crisis with North Korea, the president has manufactured a new crisis that will isolate us from our allies and partners.”

Russia’s Diplomatic Row with the US

The chair of the Russian State Duma Committee for International Relations, Leonid Slutsky said that Russia could take additional reciprocal measures “at a legislative level” in reply to fresh sanctions and unlawful treatment of Russian diplomatic property in the US. “I really do not rule out a scenario in which Russia, in reply to the US law tightening the anti-Russian sanctions and absolutely unlawful actions targeting our diplomatic property, apart from all measures taken on the diplomatic level could develop a special draft law,” TASS quoted Leonid Slutsky, “as current geopolitical realities become tougher, when the United States start an unprecedented enlargement of anti-Russian sanctions and fixed this move in the form of a law it would be very logical from our side to introduce some counter-measures,” he added. The MP noted that, when Russia had told the United States to cut the numbers of its diplomatic mission’s staff, it reserved the right for additional reciprocal measures. He also said that the Russian parliament already had experience with a ‘legislative response’ to unfriendly actions of other nations, such as with the 2012 Dima Yakovlev law banning the adoption of Russian children by US citizens or by proxy of US organizations, and introducing asset freezes and entry bans targeting particular US officials who had violated the rights of Russian citizens.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has blasted US action as a declaration of a fully-fledged economic war, adding that barring a miracle, the law would have a decades-long negative effect on Russia-US relations. Moscow also demanded that the United States cut the numbers of its diplomatic and technical staff to 455 people – the number of Russian personnel at US diplomatic missions and in the UN headquarters in the New York City.

Matters have been on the boil since September when US authorities ordered the closure of three Russian consular offices, including the consular office in San Francisco and launched major searches in the buildings once they were vacated. In October US authorities removed Russian flags from the roofs of the San Francisco consular office and the office of the Russian Trade Representative in Washington, DC. The Russian Embassy in Washington has forwarded an official protest to the US authorities with a demand to return Russian state symbols to their flag poles.