IT’S the first bit of good news from the region in a while. With the warring neighbours of Russia and Ukraine having signed a deal that will help free up grain exports from Black Sea ports there is sure to be a collective sigh of relief from the international community.

Both countries are among the world’s biggest exporters of food and the months long Russian blockade of Ukraine’s ports was beginning to bite hard on global food supplies.

If all goes according to plan – and I stress if – then a joint command and control centre will be set up in Istanbul to oversee smooth operations and resolve disputes. Its participants will include the two warring sides and officials from Turkey – who helped broker the deal – and the United Nations (UN).

In stressing a certain apprehension over things going smoothly, it’s because the operation is likely to take anything up to a month to set up and things as we know can pivot in a moment on the ground in this conflict.

Apart from several politically charged issues with the agreement such as ship inspections to check for possible weapons deliveries and navigating safe passage through heavily mined waters, hovering over all of this is talk of a possible southern counter-offensive by Ukrainian forces.

It goes without saying that any major escalation like this, especially in Ukraine’s south runs a serious risk of scuppering any agreement. With the battle for Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region far from over, analysts say this next chapter of the war in the shape of a Ukrainian counter offensive could come within weeks or months.

Russian forces certainly take the threat seriously with reports indicating that they have assigned at least 10 battalion tactical groups (BTG’s) to the area round Kherson which has become the increasingly obvious target for a Ukrainian counterstrike beyond Donbas.

Writing in The Kyiv Independent newspaper recently its defence and security correspondent Illia Ponomarenko detailed how experts across the world agree that “the retaking of Kherson from Russian forces is the most feasible way for Ukraine to score a major victory over Russia and turn the tide of the war”.

That Kyiv is likely to target the south derives from several factors says Mick Ryan an analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

The first of these is that it constitutes a significant source of Ukrainian GDP as well as being the location of the ports from which those goods – including grain – are dispatched.

In short, they supply goods amounting to over half Ukraine’s export earnings. Given how significant this makes the area, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government is unlikely to put all its strategic eggs in one basket based on the deal.

Zelenskyy’s government too is no doubt influenced by the fact Russia appears to be preparing for an annexation of parts of the country it occupies including the south.

All of this does not augur well for Friday’s agreement which could collapse quickly under the enormous pressure any battlefield escalation in the south would inevitably bring to bear on the diplomatic front.

The fact is that although Russia has agreed not to attack cargo ships or Ukrainian ports as part of the deal, considerable doubts remain in Kyiv as to Russia’s motives and the viability of its security guarantees. As ever the devil is in the detail including for example the fact that Ukraine’s main port city of Odesa will not be protected from hostilities but the parts of it needed for the export of grain will be.

No doubt Moscow also has scepticism of its own, not least if evidence of continuing preparations for a Ukrainian counter offensive grow.

Trust is vital for this agreement to work and sadly that is in short supply right now.

That said, what occurred in Istanbul on Friday, with grain prices falling almost immediately, was by any standards a remarkable piece of diplomacy.

Even UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, admitted that it was probably the most important thing he has done in his time heading the UN.

For now, it gives grounds for optimism after five bleak long months and might even lead to wider deals. Good news as it is though it’s mighty hard to see it stopping the war.


The National:

IT’S as if a giant shadow looms over the American political landscape right now. Ever since the deadly insurrection that took place at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, that shadow has lingered and lengthened settling last month on the hearings by the House committee investigating the attack.

On Friday, Steve Bannon (above), Donald Trump’s former political adviser, was convicted of contempt of Congress after failing to comply with a subpoena issued by the committee probing the attack on the US Capitol.

Bannon who will be sentenced on October 21, faces a fine of between $100 and $100,000 as well as a minimum of 30 days and a maximum of one year in jail for each count.

Echoing the views of other American political observers, Norman Eisen, executive chair of the States United Democracy Center, told CNN on Friday that Bannon’s conviction marks an important moment.

For not only does it hold him individually accountable, but also points the way in bringing to justice those who plotted to undermine the results of the 2020 presidential election. As such, it is the first trial involving a member of former president Trump’s inner circle at the time of the assault on the 2020 elections.

Clearly all this has serious implications for Trump himself whom the House committee hearings showed conspired to seize the elections. According to the latest PBS NewsHour/NPR/Maris poll, about half of Americans think Trump should face criminal charges for his role in the Capitol insurrection. That said, far fewer it would seem – roughly a quarter – think Trump will actually be prosecuted.

Certainly, there’s no doubt that the hearings have dented the former president’s approval ratings while at the same time elevating Republican politicians potentially seeking nomination in 2024.

In fact, overall, Republican unease has grown as the hearings continue to bite. According to the results of a two-day Reuters/Ipsos poll completed just hours before a scheduled eighth hearing of the congressional probe, 40% of Republicans now believe Trump is at least partly to blame for the deadly riot, up from 33% in a poll conducted six weeks ago.

The same poll, however, also revealed that a majority of Republicans – or 55% – continue to believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

But with Trump still regularly hinting that he will run for president again in 2024, one third of respondents to the latest poll now thought it would be a mistake for him to stand.

All these results provide a telling snapshot barely three and a half months out from November’s midterm elections the prospects for which look increasingly bleak for the Democrats.

The Republicans might have their problems, but right now Joe Biden is running lower in the polls at this point in his presidency than any elected president since the Second World War.

In short, barring a dramatic turn of events, Biden is more likely to damage rather than help the chances of Democratic congressional candidates.

Then again, the impact of the House committee hearings has yet to run its full course, and who knows what surprise revelations might still lie in store for the Republicans and US electorate.


The National:

IF Donald Trump is still hogging some of the headlines in the United States, then his Latin American counterpart in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro (above), will do so today when he launches his candidacy for re-election as president ahead of a vote in October.

On more than one occasion the man dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics” has taken a leaf out of the former US president’s playbook. The past few days Bolsonaro was at it again by questioning Brazil’s electronic voting system in a briefing to foreign diplomats.

Speaking to some 40 members of the diplomatic corps in Brasilia, Bolsonaro, right, claimed the voting system was vulnerable to fraud, an allegation he has repeatedly made to cast doubt on the October poll that he looks set to lose. Keen to allay fears, the US embassy in Brasilia quickly described Brazil’s elections as a “model for the world”.

“Elections conducted by Brazil’s capable and time-tested electoral system and democratic institutions serve as a model for nations in the hemisphere and the world,” a US State Department response stated.

The US statement signalled a reiteration of confidence in Brazil’s electoral process. At the same time, it also reflected a certain impatience with Bolsonaro made clear a few months ago when Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Burns told senior Brazilian officials that the president should stop casting doubt on the country’s voting system.

As an article in The Economist magazine earlier this month highlighted, some suspect Bolsonaro is afraid of defeat and is setting the scene to challenge the result.

Headlined “Might Jair Bolsonaro try to steal Brazil’s election?” the article pointed out that “losing the presidency would mean losing presidential immunity, along with control over the federal police”.

“This would expose him to myriad lawsuits and threats of criminal prosecution for such things as misuse of public funds (which Bolsonaro denies)”.

The stakes could not be higher for Bolsonaro who is currently lagging in the polls behind Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the left-wing former president and Workers’ party leader. Fears over how the election will be conducted also rose after the recent killing of Lula’s party treasurer Marcelo de Arruda who was shot at his own 50th birthday party after a Bolsonaro supporter invaded the event.

In the aftermath of the killing Lula called for “dialogue, tolerance and peace,” but few observers believe the remaining run up to and election itself will be conducted under such terms. Bolsonaro is not the kind of man to accept defeat gracefully.


The National:

"A SYMBOL of the West,” they have been dubbed, according to ultra-conservative Iranian politicians who recently introduced a bill in parliament against keeping pets, including cats and dogs.

It’s a far cry from the days back in 1948 when Iran was one of the first countries in the Middle East to pass animal welfare and protection laws. Back then, even the royal family owned dogs, but then along came the Islamic revolution of 1979, and since then, the controversial issue of banning such pets has never really gone away.

“Debates around this bill started more than a decade ago, when a group of Iranian MPs tried to promote a law to confiscate all dogs and give them to zoos or leave them in deserts,” Dr Payam Mohebi, president of the Iran Veterinary Association and opponent of the bill, was quoted by the BBC as saying.

Traditionally in Islam, keeping a dog in the house is considered “unclean”, but the new bill is aimed against all pets.

Entitled Protecting Public Rights Against Dangerous Animals, the bill targets people who keep and breed “crocodiles, snakes, lizards, mice, monkeys, turtles, cats, rabbits and dogs”.

According to the proposals, raising, breeding or selling the “dangerous” animals, or taking them out on the streets or in cars, will be considered in violation of the law. There would also be a minimum fine of around £670, and pet ownership would be subject to a permit issued by a special committee.

The bill has angered both ordinary people and celebrities, with some repeatedly posting pictures of their pets in defiance of the proposed law. Well-known Iranian actress Hanieh Tavassoli took to social media to express her disapproval, publishing a picture of her cat and calling it “my dangerous darling”.

The London-based online news outlets Middle East Eye, said that already Iran’s Society of Veterinarians has issued a statement warning about the “uncontrollable social repercussions” of the bill.

“The bill’s text as it is written is anti-animalist and far from the customary and religious laws common between humans and other creatures of God Almighty,” a statement from the society read.

As Iranians wait to see if the bill will be approved, they can only ponder the penalties and what might become of their beloved pets. For many though, it will be the least of their worries in a country where executions, arrest and human rights abuses are increasingly commonplace.