Jan 10, 2020

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back for a Thursday edition of Axios World. We've got the 1,685 words (6 minutes) you need to catch up on this week's global news.

1 big thing: Evidence of a deadly Iranian error

A child's shoe among the wreckage. Photo: Borna Ghassemi/ISNA/AFP via Getty

Iran faced a growing chorus of international accusations today that it shot down Ukraine Airlines Flight 752 over Tehran early Wednesday morning, killing all 167 passengers and nine crew members in the process.

Why it matters: A tragedy that was initially overshadowed in the U.S. by Iran's ballistic missile strikes on Iraqi bases just a few hours earlier has now become a massive international incident.

What they’re saying: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at a press conference today that Canada, which lost 63 citizens in the crash, has “intelligence from multiple sources … that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile.”

  • U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson echoed that statement. Both leaders noted that the strike “may well have been unintentional.”
  • President Trump called the event “tragic” and said “somebody could have made a mistake.” He did not directly blame Iran.
  • Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, said Ukrainian investigators were looking into reports that a Russian-made Tor surface-to-air missile (which Iran uses) had been found near the crash site. He added that other possibilities were being investigated.
  • American satellites “detected the firing of the Iranian short-range interceptor," and U.S. intelligence “later intercepted Iranian communications confirming that the SA-15 system brought down the Ukrainian airliner,” the NY Times reports citing U.S. officials.
  • The flight had only been in the air for two minutes when a “the heat signatures of two surface-to-air missiles were detected” another official told Reuters.
  • Tehran has vehemently denied such suggestions, which a government spokesman labeled “psychological warfare against Iran.” The head of Iran’s aviation authority said it was “impossible that a missile hit the Ukrainian plane.”

There were 82 Iranians, 11 Ukrainians, 10 Swedes, four Afghans, three Germans and three Britons on the flight, which was bound for Kiev. Many of the passengers planned to travel on to Canada.

  • My thought bubble: If this was United Airlines instead of Ukraine Airlines and dozens of Americans had been on board, we could well be in the midst of a rush to war.

As it happens, the U.S. and Iran appear to have stepped back from the ledge after Trump’s White House address yesterday, in which he said Americans should be "extremely grateful and happy" that Iran’s strikes resulted in no casualties, and that Iran was “standing down.”

  • On Capitol Hill, at least, that relief was paired with growing skepticism about the administration's claim that Gen. Qasem Soleimani posed an "imminent threat" to American personnel and interests.
  • Democrats and some Republicans left an intelligence briefing yesterday far from convinced.

Driving the news: The House passed a symbolic war powers resolution tonight, by a 224-194 vote, calling on Trump to halt the use of military force against Iran unless he obtains approval from Congress.

  • Three Republicans and independent Rep. Justin Amash voted in favor, while eight Democrats voted against.

Go deeper: Trump administration's mixed messages on the Soleimani strike

2. Trump tests America's superpower status

Trump's White House address on Iran. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Trump has shrunk America's global presence in many ways, but he has also at times placed high-risk bets on its superpower status.

Driving the news: Trump didn't want war with Iran, yet he ordered the killing of Iran's top commander. That requires enormous faith in the shield of American military superiority.

  • Engaging China in a trade war requires a belief that the world’s second-largest economy will blink first in a showdown with the largest.
  • The “maximum pressure” campaigns — first on North Korea and then on Iran — were testaments to American economic might and to Trump’s confidence that countries and companies would fall in line, even when reluctant to do so. 

The results of Trump’s geopolitical muscle-flexing are uneven. 

  • China has not made anywhere near the model-shifting concessions Trump has demanded.
  • North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are more formidable than before “fire and fury.” 
  • Crippling sanctions on Iran have led not to a tougher deal but to a series of escalations. Asymmetric retaliation for Soleimani’s death remains likely. 
  • Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro is still in power after a year of American insistence that his days were numbered. 

Closer to home, Trump’s threats yielded significant tweaks to NAFTA and a pledge from Mexico to hold tens of thousands of U.S.-bound asylum-seekers.

  • Holding NATO hostage over defense spending infuriated allies, but budgets have nonetheless increased.
  • And Iran’s military retaliation to Trump’s audacious strike in Baghdad came with an early warning and was clearly designed to avoid a showdown with the world’s most powerful military. 

The bottom line: Trump's America isn't much liked, and it certainly isn't trusted, as new Pew data shows. But it can't be ignored.

3. Africa: A ray of hope in Sudan's Nuba Mountains

Brother and sister in a Nuba Mountains village in 2018. Photo: Paul Jeffrey/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty

Today was a remarkable day in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains, with senior officials including Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok visiting the rebel stronghold for the first time in a decade alongside officials from the UN, which was itself forced out of the area in 2011.

The big picture: The region remained a part of Sudan after South Sudan broke away in 2011. That led to a rebellion that was put down through a relentless bombing campaign. The war-ravaged area remained almost entirely cut off from international aid until now.

  • That all happened on the brutal watch of dictator Omar al-Bashir, who was toppled last April after a popular uprising and replaced by a government that includes both generals and civilians.

What they're saying: David Beasley, chief of the UN’s World Food Program and a former South Carolina governor, helped facilitate dialogue between that government and rebel leader Abdel-Aziz al-Hilu, who joined Hamdok today for a meeting that was rich in symbolism and hope.

  • “It’s earth-breaking, it’s historic, it’s remarkable to see these two leaders who represent such a history of war, conflict and division come together with a new spirit. It was so great to see this take place today,” Beasley told Axios in a phone interview after taking part in the meeting.
  • “When you think about how much has been achieved in the last 90 days, we really are on the right track. It’s unprecedented."

Where things stand: The political situation remains precarious, as does access to food and other resources.

  • “The next 12 months are going to be critical to Sudan,” Beasley told Axios. “They're going to need the international community to step up in a significant way. And I believe Sudan, they will make the changes that need to be made. But in this economic transition, there’s going to have to be substantial humanitarian support.”

Go deeper: Heroic doctor on the need for help in the Nuba Mountains

4. Data du jour: Distrust, fire, war and oil

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

1. Confidence in Trump to "do the right thing regarding world affairs" sits at 13% in Germany, 20% in France, 20% in Russia, 28% in Canada and just 8% in Mexico, per a Pew survey.

  • He fares better in Nigeria (58%), India (56%) and the Philippines (77%).
  • Overall, his -35 trust/distrust rating ranks behind Germany's Angela Merkel (+17), France's Emmanuel Macron (+5), China's Xi Jinping (-5) and Russia's Vladimir Putin (-24). Go deeper.

2. More than 1 billion mammals, birds and reptiles have died in Australia's horrific bushfires, according to a University of Sydney estimate.

  • Australia has more than 300 native animal species, but the world's fastest rate of extinction for mammals.
  • We could see extinctions tied directly to this year's fires. Go deeper.

3. War is horrible for the world. But it just may be good for the U.S. stock markets, Axios' Felix Salmon writes:

  • The Dow rose 43% during World War I, despite the destruction of much of Europe, and it rose 50% during World War II, which was bloodier still.
  • Mark Armbruster, president of Armbruster Capital Management, ran the numbers for the 1926–2013 time period and found that, in wartime, risk goes down while returns go up.

4. Average U.S. gas prices remained under $3 a gallon as war with Iran loomed over the past week, Axios' Amy Harder writes:

  • That shows the remarkable cushion created by the booming domestic oil production, which has doubled over the last decade.
5. World news roundup: Vlad the kingmaker

Angela Merkel meets Epiphany singers in Berlin. Photo: Michele Tantussi/Getty Images

1. Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called during a summit yesterday for a ceasefire in Libya, a conflict in which they’ve found themselves on opposite sides.

  • Forces loyal to renegade Gen. Khalifa Haftar — backed by Russia in addition to the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan — took the coastal city of Sirte earlier this week.
  • Turkey sent troops last week in support of the UN-backed government in Tripoli.

2. Putin is set to host Merkel this weekend, having invited her to Russia to discuss the Iran crisis.

  • A German government spokesperson said Russia, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, remains "indispensable" in solving global conflicts, per Deutsche Welle.

Elsewhere in Europe...

  • Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has at last won approval to form a government. He’ll govern alongside the hard-left Podemos party and have to navigate the thorny issue of Catalan independence.
  • The U.K. House of Commons easily passed Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit bill today, making it all but certain that Brexit will officially happen on Jan. 31.
  • Tens of thousands of French workers today joined strikes — now in their sixth week — over planned pension reforms. Once again under pressure from the streets, Macron has called for compromise but been unable to reach a deal with the unions.
6. What I'm reading: The silent prince

Raise your hand if you hate political Islam. Photo: Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

Robert Worth portrays UAE ruler Mohammed bin Zayed as silent, cunning and extraordinarily powerful in a fascinating NYT Magazine profile out today.

The big picture: MBZ's campaign against Islamists has in the past several years brought him into an alliance with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, conflict with the Obama administration, enmity with Qatar and wars in Yemen and Libya.

  • A former diplomat told Worth "there’s every reason to believe [MBZ] staged a coup" to install Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt.
  • He has built an exceptionally well-funded and trained military, led by the former head of Australia's special operations forces.

Key excerpts:

  • "Instead of an illiberal democracy — like Turkey’s — he would build its opposite, a socially liberal autocracy, much as Lee Kuan Yew did in Singapore in the 1960s and ’70s."
  • "Unlike in the West, private cameras in the U.A.E. can be co-opted by the government, giving the authorities extraordinary surveillance over what goes on everywhere in the country. A widely adopted message app introduced in the U.A.E. last year, ToTok, was recently unmasked as a spying tool for Emirati intelligence."
  • "Weighed against the standards of Western human rights groups, the U.A.E. can easily look like a hyper-capitalist slave colony whose leader wants to crush all dissent. When you compare it with Syria or Egypt, the U.A.E. is almost a model of enlightened liberalism. ... Surveys have shown that most young Arabs would rather live there than anywhere else."
7. Stories we're watching

An almost mythical scene in the ancient city of Bagan, Myanmar. Photo: Shwe Paw Mya Tin/NurPhoto via Getty

  1. U.S. commission: China may be guilty of "crimes against humanity"
  2. Podcast: Carlos Ghosn unboxed
  3. Wine industry begs Trump to forgo tariffs
  4. Despite trade war, large-scale farmers optimistic
  5. Israel expecting U.S. peace plan; Gantz calls "interference"
  6. How Iran's disinformation threat differs from Russia
  7. 23% of U.S. voters can identify Iran on map


“They plan to shoot the camels from helicopters, and have promised they’ll be killed humanely.”
— BBC World Service radio on Australia's plan to cull animals due to the fire crisis
Dave Lawler