Despite pandemic, global geopolitical currents stay strong

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In this photo released Wednesday, April 22, 2020, by Sepahnews, an Iranian rocket carrying a satellite is launched from an undisclosed site believed to be in Iran’s Semnan province. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said Wednesday it put the Islamic Republic’s first military satellite into orbit, dramatically unveiling what experts described as a secret space program with a surprise launch that came amid wider tensions with the United States. (Sepahnews via AP)

Pandemic or not, are there some global currents whose flows are too strong to stop? This week would suggest yes.

Most countries in the world have been consumed with how to contain the coronavirus, including hard-hit Iran and its enemy, Israel. North Korea has closed the country to foreign travel while it claims no infections — something that defectors and experts have strong reason to doubt.

The three nations have been recurring geopolitical pressure points for decades, be it because of conflict erupting or unexpected diplomacy flowering. Recent days have been no exception.

When Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump gripped and grinned for the first time in Singapore two years ago, the world stopped and watched the jaw-dropping moment. Three summits later, progress on nuclear issues and lifting sanctions has stagnated. Now, the most pressing questions this week have become: Where is Kim, and what’s the status of his health?

When the United States killed Iran’s most senior military man, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, as the year dawned, some wondered if global conflict was just around the corner. It was averted, but not without a death toll also claiming civilians on an accidentally downed airliner.

But tensions between Tehran (suffering the outbreak acutely atop an economy already broken by sanctions) and Washington (itself dealing with the most virus infections and deaths in the world), have become febrile again this week. The rhetoric of threat and counter-threat is back.

And when Trump backed Benjamin Netanyahu over annexation of the West Bank earlier this year, delighting the Israeli leader’s pro-settler base, many considered it to be the final death knell for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Israel had been beset by political paralysis for 16 months until a unity government was agreed this week by once sparring rivals, bringing the push for annexation back to the fore as calls for political unity to fight the pandemic promptly faded.

That these long-running tensions still exist is not a surprise amid the pandemic, said Ariane Tabatabai, a Middle East fellow who studies Iran at the Washington-based German Marshall Fund.

“Once a crisis begins,” Tabatabai said, “it’s not going to stop unless the different parties have the political will to put an end to it. And something with deep national- and international-level implications will inevitably further exacerbate existing issues.”

Some of what’s percolating:

WHERE IS KIM JONG UN?

After a frenzy of unsubstantiated news reports earlier this week that painted a grave picture, South Korea said the North Korean leader appeared to be handling state affairs as usual after rumored surgery. Where? At an unspecified location outside of Pyongyang, with some close confidants, Seoul said. Washington said it was closely monitoring the situation but professed to have no hard intelligence. North Korea watchers saw red flags when Kim missed the celebration of his late grandfather Kim Il Sung on April 15, the country’s most important holiday. His last public appearance was April 11 at a political meeting where his sister Kim Yo Jong was named as an alternate member of the body. Bloodline is a central fact of ruling North Korea, and Kim’s seeming absence has fueled talk of succession.The Kim dynasty has ruled for seven decades.

VIRUS-HIT IRAN FLEXES ITS MILITARY MUSCLE

The Revolutionary Guard caught world powers by surprise this weekwhen they launched a military satellite as part of a secret space program as Trump threatened to sink any Iranian vessel harassing U.S. forces. Iran has suffered one of the world’s worst outbreaks of the virus. Experts both inside and outside of Iran believe Tehran also is underreporting the scale of the crisis. “Iran, of course, has seized the opportunity presented by COVID-19, which is what’s preoccupying Americans at the moment,” Tabatabai said. “In part, it’s trying to distract from its own botched response to the pandemic and partly, it sees the United States at its weakest in a while and so it’s using this to raise the cost of the maximum pressure campaign to force the U.S. to end it.”

ISRAEL EYES ANNEXATION OF OCCUPIED WEST BANK

‘’Bribery suspect Netanyahu and vote thief Gantz form an alliance of scoundrels,” one headline in the Israeli daily Haaretz offered this week, referring to the prime minister and his onetime chief rival’s power-sharing agreement . A critical litmus test for the alliance will be the annexation of large parts of the West Bank. Such a move would destroy hopes of creating an independent Palestinian state and draw widespread international condemnation. Although their government is to focus on coronavirus issues for its first six months, Netanyahu persuaded Benny Gantz to allow him to raise annexation plans in the Cabinet from July 1.

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Tamer Fakahany is AP’s deputy director for global news coordination and has helped direct international coverage for the AP for 17 years. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/tamerfakahany. Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai contributed to this report.

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