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Washington’s World: October 27th – November 2nd, 2014

While Washington’s foreign policy focus remains locked on the fight against ISIL, the Administration is also taking care to signal that it has not lost sight of other issues, especially those in the Asia-Pacific. After a day-long visit with China’s State Councilor Yang Jiechi (which took place at Secretary of State Kerry’s home in Boston), the 2+2 ministerial meeting with the foreign and defense ministers of South Korea took place against a background of fresh anxieties about North Korea. Although the Pentagon is softening remarks by the top American commander in Korea that North Korea has probably developed a miniaturized nuclear warhead capable of being fitted on a ballistic missile, this, we are told privately, will add urgency to next week’s meeting in Seoul of the South Korean-sponsored Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Forum. This will be attended by the State Department’s Special Envoy for the Six-Party Talks and a senior NATO representative.   Further consultations will take place in Beijing and Tokyo. With accurate information about exact status of the North Korean nuclear program extremely scarce, US officials are reluctant to commit themselves publicly to the most dire interpretation. However, in the words of an experienced Intelligence Community observer, “with North Korea, it’s always best to assume the worst.” The Administration is also gearing up for a final push on the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran, hoping to meet the late November deadline for an agreement. From conversations we have held with senior contacts, there is little doubt that the dividing line runs – as it always has – between the differing US and Iranian requirements for the residual enrichment capability to be left to Tehran post settlement. A senior State Department analyst commented to us: “This is more a political problem rather a technical one. It depends entirely on what the political leadership in Washington and Tehran can convince themselves that their arguments have prevailed.” The US is making sure that it is keeping top Israelis officials, for example the defense minister, fully informed about the negotiations, but our sense is that Tel Aviv now exercises less of a veto over the talks. Returning to ISIL, the Administration’s message is that this will be a long engagement, with little expectation of rapid breakthroughs.  Indeed, we are advised that Pentagon pessimism about this operation is at an all-time high.

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