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Iran Watch: Is the United States waivering?

The United States is betting that increasingly biting sanctions against Tehran -- including new penalties for foreign institutions that continue to buy Iranian oil through its central bank -- can compel Iranian leaders to make concessions on their nuclear program and avert a military confrontation.

So the news yesterday that the Obama administration was issuing Japan and 10 European nations six-month waivers from these very sanctions seemed odd -- as if the United States was taking its foot off the gas pedal just ahead of nuclear talks with Iran next month. In fact, that's exactly how Iranian officials are spinning the news. Here's a read of the Iranian press today from the Los Angeles Times:

Fars News headlined its story on the sanctions, "U.S.A. backs down against Iran."

"Such a move is an overt retreat from their earlier stances," the head of the parliament foreign policy commission, Aladin Borujerdi, told the Iranian Students News Agency. He said it was "due to decisive stances taken by the Islamic Republic" defending its nuclear program.

Borujerdi also argued that the U.S. had exempted the countries to stop oil prices from rising further, a bid to spare "the tumbling economies of the West."

"Exempting 11 countries show that sanctions were the results of impulsive decisions," Kazam Jalali, the Iranian deputy head of national security, told ISNA.

Iran meter: If the United States is indeed watering down its sanction effort to avoid destabilizing the global oil market and alienating its allies, that could heighten the risk of a military confrontation and push our dial to the right. But Iranian officials may be misreading the situation, deliberately or not.

For one thing, the United States is granting the 11 countries exemptions because they have significantly cut their purchases of Iranian oil -- not because they refused to budge on their commercial dealings with Iran and Washington backed down. True, Japan, a top Iranian oil importer, has been vague about how far it's willing to go to wean itself off Iranian crude, but its oil imports from Iran fell 12 percent in January compared with a year earlier -- even as it struggled to recover from last year's earthquake and nuclear crisis. The ten European nations who received waivers had already agreed to stop importing Iranian oil beginning in July.

What's more, the exemptions don't apply to China and India, which, along with Japan, buy roughly half of Iran's crude exports. And while the Chinese and Indians haven't yet turned their backs on Iran, they're not embracing Tehran either. China's largest bank recently backed out of a deal to finance an Iran-to-Pakistan gas pipeline, and China's imports of Iranian oil dropped by 45 percent in February from a month earlier, though this mainly stemmed from a business dispute. 

This week's exemptions also omitted Turkey and South Korea -- two U.S. allies who also happen to consume a lot of Iranian oil. "It is out of the question for us to stop buying oil from Iran unless the supply is replaced," Turkey's energy minister declared today.

In other words, if you want to get a sense of whether the sanctions regime U.S. officials are constructing will work, don't focus on the list of countries who now have exemptions. Keep your eye on those that didn't make the cut.

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

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Libya shockwaves felt in Mali?

During the uprising in Libya, I wrote a couple of posts speculating on whether the Tuareg mercenaries hired and armed by Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime would return to destabilize Niger and Mali, where they had been fighting a long-simmering, but lately mostly dormant, insurgency for years.

The intensity of the fighting has indeed increased. But interestingly, today it appears that the greatest threat to the government of Mali is not the rebels but the soldiers tasked with fighting them. Mutinous soldiers attacked the presidential palace in Bamako today and cut-off broadcasts by the state-run TV and radio networks. For now, this doesn't appear to be a full-fledged coup attempt, but, as Reuters reports, the military's grievances are directly linked to the Qaddafi armed rebellion:

Anger has been growing within the army at the handling of a Tuareg-led rebellion that has killed dozens of people and forced nearly 200,000 civilians to flee their homes.

While soldiers had been urging the government to provide better weapons to fight the rebels, bolstered by fighters who had fought in Libya's civil war, one of the mutineers said they now wanted to oust President Amadou Toumani Toure.[...]

Bamako was briefly paralysed last month as hundreds of Malians put up street barricades and burned tyres in the streets to protest at the government's handling of the rebellion.

Tuareg fighters seeking to carve out a desert homeland in Mali's north have made advances in recent weeks, including the seizure this month of the key garrison town of Tessalit by the Algerian border.

The MNLA rebel movement has been bolstered by heavily armed Malian Tuareg returning from fighting alongside Libyan forces who tried in vain to prevent Muammar Gaddafi's overthrow last year.

The clashes have added a new layer of insecurity to a zone awash with smugglers and plagued by fighters linked to al Qaeda and is expected to complicate presidential elections in April.

The situation still seems pretty fluid, but it's certainly a sign that even in death, Qaddafi can sow instability across the region.