Putin’s Syria intervention isn’t grand, brilliant strategy. It’s an act of fear. – Updated by Amanda Taub on September 30, 2015, 9:20 a.m. ET `

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military intervention in Syria, and then his call at the United Nations for a global “anti-Hitler coalition” to fight ISIS there, can certainly look, from the American perspective, like a power grab. Putin’s boldness seems like a sign that President Obama’s passivity has allowed the Russian leader to run roughshod over US interests in the Middle East — particularly to hawks already frustrated that the US has refused to do more in Syria.

But don’t be taken in by Putin’s carefully cultivated image of strength and decisiveness. His intervention in Syria is most likely driven not by boldness but by reactiveness and, most of all, by fear. Fear of anarchy, fear of populist uprisings, fear of Western meddling, fear of any weakening of strong government rule, and fear that he himself could succumb to these forces.

(Putin’s Syria strategy is also unlikely to be very effective: Propping up Assad and partnering with Shia Hezbollah and Iran seems likely to worsen the sectarianism and anti-Assad sentiment that is driving much of the war. And Russian airstrikes aren’t likely to rally Syrians around Assad.)

To understand how Putin sees Syria, and why he’s getting himself into this mess, you have to understand how he looks at Libya, the lessons he drew from its collapse, how it led him to misunderstand the West — and why both Libya and Syria are the sum of many of his worst foreign policy fears.

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Fidel Castro chides US ahead of embassy reopening – BBC News Aug 14 2014

Venezuelan and Bolivian presidents Nicolas Maduro (left) and Evo Morales (centre) visited Fidel Castro on his birthday

Venezuelan and Bolivian Presidents Nicolas Maduro (left) and Evo Morales (centre) visited Fidel Castro in Cuba on his birthday

Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro has published an open letter to the nation in which he makes no mention of the historic reopening of the US embassy.

Mr Castro instead criticises American foreign and economic policies since World War Two and accuses the US of owing Cuba millions of dollars.

The letter was published to mark Mr Castro’s 89th birthday.

The US embassy will be reopened in Havana on Friday, with US Secretary of State John Kerry attending.

Mr Castro said the US owed Cuba money because of the trade embargo the US imposed on the communist-run island in 1960.

Cuba says the embargo – which it calls a blockade – is hugely damaging to its economy.

It says relations will only be fully restored once it is lifted.

Three marines who lowered the American flag for the last time on 4 January 1961 will raise it again during Friday’s ceremony in Havana.

They are now retired and in their late 70s.

“I’m gonna love seeing that flag go back up,” said former marine Jim Tracy, 78, on a US State Department video.

Cuba reopened its embassy in Washington last month.

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Dollar Diplomacy in Tehran – By Eric Lorber and Elizabeth Rosenberg July 14, 2015

How Promoting Business in Iran Boosts the Nuclear Agreement

The United States and international partners have signed a historic agreement with Iran on its nuclear program, but they still face important choices about just how far to go in allowing Iran back into the global economy. In the short term, U.S. companies will be limited in their ability to join the corporate march back to Iran when sanctions are lifted, and many in the West who have advocated for Iran’s isolation for decades do not want to see their nations’ companies and banks participate in Iran’s economic reintegration. Keeping Western companies on the sidelines, however, would be a strategic mistake. Allowing—or even encouraging—Western companies to invest in Iran provides Tehran with incentives to abide by the deal and gives Washington more leverage over Iran in the future.

The new nuclear accord lays out a path for international companies to initiate broad new trading and investment activities once Iran meets key nuclear commitments. For the private sector, this relaxation presents significant opportunities as well as a minefield of commercial risks. The sanctions on Iran for state-sponsored terrorism, regional destabilization, and human rights violations will remain in place. Investors thus face tremendous uncertainty in balancing an emerging market opportunity with the potential for expensive, damaging business losses if they inadvertently violate remaining sanctions. Over the past few years, regulators in the United States have already imposed billions of dollars in fines against Western companies for violating sanctions, even when they have done so unintentionally. This precedent might lead many European and Asian businesses to conclude that Iran’s potential financial rewards are simply not worth the risks. U.S. corporations are even more cautious. For many global companies and banks, hanging back will be the easiest and safest course of action.

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The thrill of the thaw – The Economist Apr 11th 2015 | MIAMI

American business is eager to cross the Florida Strait, but obstacles remain

And they’re off, again

IN THE late 1950s, when the Fabulous Rockers were hitting the big time, their hometown of Ybor City, near Tampa, Florida, was like Havana today: run down, its hand-rolled cigar industry an historic relic. In those days, the place to be was not Tampa or Miami, but Havana, which for Florida bands was as tantalising as Las Vegas.

They never made it. In 1959 Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries took power. Less than two years later Dwight Eisenhower imposed an embargo, and most ties were severed for the next 54 years. The band’s members did not give up on their dream. On May 15th they hope to fulfil it by headlining at the celebrated Hotel Nacional, on the seaside Malecón in Havana. “We’re very excited,” says Manuel Fernandez, who plans to lead 60 ageing groupies to Cuba to hear the band, now called the Ybor City Rockers. “It’s monumental.”

Rock gigs are not the only opportunities that have been opened up by President Barack Obama’s dramatic announcement on December 17th that restrictions on travel to and trade with Cuba would be eased. Lawyers, travel executives, bankers, farmers and tech moguls, among them Google’s top brass, are heading to the island to scope out business opportunities in a post-embargo future. Their excitement has mounted further with the approach of the Summit of the Americas in Panama City on April 10th and 11th, where Mr Obama and Raúl Castro, the Cuban president, are expected to meet for the first substantive discussions between American and Cuban leaders in more than 50 years (see article).

Although the mood is giddy, the obstacles to trade and investment remain formidable. The December 17th agreement opened a chink in the trade blockade: it allowed more Americans to visit Cuba without special permits, enabled them to spend more money there and to send more remittances. It also permitted banks and telecoms firms to take steps toward operating in Cuba. The State Department’s designation of Cuba as a sponsor of terror subjects the country to sanctions that terrify banks. It is likely to be taken off the list soon.

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US and Cuba hold highest-level meeting in over 50 years – BBC News April 10 2014 4:20am PST

US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) shakes hands with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez in Panama City
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez (left) and US Secretary of State John Kerry met in Panama

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez have held talks, in the highest level meeting between the two countries in more than half a century.

The two held closed-door discussions after arriving in Panama for a summit.

Meanwhile, the US state department has reportedly recommended that Cuba be removed from its list of states said to sponsor terrorism.

Such a move could pave the way for the two countries re-opening embassies.

US President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro are also due to meet on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Panama over the coming days.

“Secretary Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Rodriguez had a lengthy and very constructive discussion this evening. The two agreed they made progress and that we would continue to work to resolve outstanding issues,” a senior US official said.

The last comparable high-level meeting was in 1959, when Fidel Castro met then Vice-President Richard Nixon.

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Iran will only sign nuclear deal if sanctions lifted ‘same day’: Rouhani – ANKARA | BY PARISA HAFEZI Thu Apr 9, 2015 4:23am EDT

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani prepares to depart after the end of a press conference on the sidelines of the 69th United Nations General Assembly in New York September 26, 2014.   REUTERS/Adrees Latif

(Reuters) – Iran will only sign a final nuclear accord with six world powers if all sanctions imposed over its disputed atomic work are lifted on the same day, President Hassan Rouhani said in a televised speech on Thursday.

Iran and the powers reached a tentative agreement last week in the Swiss city of Lausanne aimed at restricting Tehran’s nuclear program in return for removing the economic penalties.

All sides are working toward a June 30 deadline for a final deal on the nuclear work, which Western powers fear is aimed at developing an atomic bomb but Tehran says is purely peaceful.

“We will not sign any deal unless all sanctions are lifted on the same day … We want a win-win deal for all parties involved in the nuclear talks,” Rouhani said.

Since the preliminary agreement was reached, Iran and the United States seem to have different interpretations over some issues, including the pace and extent of sanctions removal.

“Our goal in the talks (with major powers) is to preserve our nation’s nuclear rights. We want an outcome that will be in everyone’s benefit,” Rouhani said in a ceremony to mark Iran’s National Day of Nuclear Technology.

“The Iranian nation has been and will be the victor in the negotiations.”

Iran insists all nuclear-related United Nations resolutions, as well as U.S. and EU nuclear-related economic sanctions, will be lifted immediately once a final accord is signed.

But the United States said on Monday that sanctions would have to be phased out gradually under the comprehensive nuclear pact.

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Iran nuclear deal: US there for Israel, warns Obama – BBC News April 7 2015

US President Barack Obama (3 April 15)

Mr Obama said Israelis “have every right to be concerned about Iran”

President Barack Obama has moved to reassure Israel that the US remains its staunchest supporter, amid Israeli fears over last week’s outline agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme.

He said Iran and the rest of the region should know that “if anybody messes with Israel, America will be there”.

But he rejected a call by Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu that any deal be conditional on Iran recognising Israel.

Mr Obama said such a condition would be “a fundamental misjudgement”.

The president, speaking in an interview with National Public Radio, said that it would be akin to saying the US would not seal a deal unless the Iranian regime completely transformed.

“We want Iran not to have nuclear weapons precisely because we can’t bank on the nature of the regime changing. That’s exactly why we don’t want to have nuclear weapons,” he said.

“If suddenly Iran transformed itself to Germany or Sweden or France, then there would be a different set of conversations about their nuclear infrastructure.”

On Monday, President Obama also sought to reassure Oman about the effects of a nuclear deal with Iran.

In a phone call, he told Sultan Qaboos that the US would work “with Oman and other regional partners to address Iran’s destabilising activities in the region”.

‘Right to be concerned’

Critics have accused President Obama of conceding too much ground to Iran and endangering Israel’s security.

But in an interview with the New York Times, Mr Obama firmly denied this.

“I would consider it a failure on my part, a fundamental failure of my presidency, if on my watch, or as a consequence of work that I had done, Israel was rendered more vulnerable,” he said.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is also Iran's top nuclear negotiator, waves to his well wishers upon arrival at the Mehrabad airport in Tehran, Iran
Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, was given a hero’s welcome on his return from the talks

Mr Obama said he recognised the concerns raised by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a fierce critic of the deal along with the president’s Republican opponents in the US Congress.

He said Israelis “have every right to be concerned about Iran”, a country that had threatened “to destroy Israel, that has denied the Holocaust, that has expressed venomous anti-Semitic ideas”.

But he insisted that the preliminary agreement with Iran – a forerunner of a comprehensive deal, due to be agreed before 30 June – was a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to curb the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

Under the terms reached last Thursday, Iran must slash its stockpile of enriched uranium that could be used in a nuclear weapon, and cut by more than two-thirds the number of centrifuges that could be used to make more.

In return, UN sanctions and separate measures imposed unilaterally by the US and EU will be gradually suspended as the global nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), confirms Iranian compliance.

Speaking on Sunday on CNN, Mr Netanyahu said: “Not a single centrifuge is destroyed. Not a single nuclear facility is shut down, including the underground facilities that they build illicitly. Thousands of centrifuges will keep spinning, enriching uranium. That’s a very bad deal.”

But Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a possible Republican presidential candidate, said it was “probably the best deal that Barack Obama could get with the Iranians” and that he would wait to see how the final agreement looked before passing judgement.

“I don’t mind giving the administration the time between now and June to put this deal together,” he told CBS.


Iran’s key nuclear sites

Analysis: A deal which buys time


On the Front Lines with the Ukrainian Army: Russian Roulette (Dispatch 89) – Published on Jan 30, 2015

Since mid-January, fighting between the Ukrainian military and Russian-backed rebels in Eastern Ukraine has escalated. Dozens of civilians have died due to the heavy shelling.

The rebels of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) have been attacking Ukrainian Army positions in an effort to reach the city of Sloviansk. In this dispatch, VICE News travels to the Ukrainian Army’s front lines in the village of Kodema to see how soldiers there, clad in German and British gear that has been donated to them, are preparing for the much talked-about DNR offensive.

We also visit the Ukrainian-controlled mining town of Dzerzhynsk to see firsthand what effects the fighting between the two sides has had on the local population.

Watch “Trapped by Artillery Fire: Russian Roulette (Dispatch 88)” – http://bit.ly/1zoiCuY

US official meets Cuban dissidents – BBC News 23 January 2015 Last updated at 20:15 ET

The highest US official to visit Cuba in more than 30 years has met leading Cuban dissidents in Havana.`

Cuban pro-democracy activist Jose Daniel Ferrer talks with journalists after meeting with Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson at the Residence of the Chief of Mission of the U.S. Interests Section 23 January 2015

Cuban pro-democracy activist Jose Daniel Ferrer talks with journalists after the meeting`

Roberta Jacobson, the state department’s top Latin American official, held the meeting after two days of historic US-Cuba talks.

One dissident called the meeting “a very human coming-together”, but not all who were invited attended.

Many Cuban opposition leaders are sceptical about the rapprochement.

They fear the US will turn a blind eye to allegations of human rights abuses in Cuba.

On Thursday, officials from the US and Cuba said the talks about establishing diplomatic relations had ended “positively”.

The US did not provide an official list of those who met Ms Jacobson at the mansion of the head of the US Interests Section in Havana.

But the Washington Post reported that seven dissidents, many of whom have spent time in Cuban prison, attended.

US assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson speaks during a press conference

Roberta Jacobson is the most senior US official to visit Cuba since 1980

The Ladies in White leader Berta Soler, an opposition group, marches during her group"s weekly anti-government protest in Havana 4 January 2015

Berta Soler leads weekly marches against the Castro government

“We told her what we tell every foreign government official with whom we speak, which is the importance of solidarity with the Cuban dissidents and people,” said Daniel Ferrer, a member of opposition group Cuba’s Patriotic Union (Unpacu).

Berta Soler, the head of the Ladies in White group of spouses of political prisoners, turned down the invitation.

BBC’s Barbara Plett Usher at the US-Cuba talks

“Whatever the public sparring, the decision to engage with Cuba is not preconditioned on the communist state’s human rights record”

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Iran fight tests Obama’s clout – By Kristina Wong – 01/19/15 08:32 PM EST

Supporters of Iran sanctions legislation are betting they can secure the 67 Senate votes needed to override a veto from President Obama.

Supporters of Iran sanctions legislation are betting they can secure the 67 Senate votes needed to override a veto from President Obama.

Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) are moving quickly to bring their bill to the floor, defying warnings from administration officials who say the legislation could blow up the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.

“We have a fighting chance of getting strong, overwhelming support as we have in the past,” a senior congressional aide said Monday.

The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee is planning to debate and vote on the sanctions bill Thursday. While it’s not clear when the bill could come up for a floor vote, senators say Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wants to act on it “very quickly.”

White House officials vehemently oppose the legislation, fearing it could sink the chances of reaching a long-term deal to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program.

Proponents of the sanctions bill have taken issue with the White House’s arguments, noting that the punishments would only take effect if Iran walked away from the talks or violated the terms of a deal.

The White House might have to exert heavy pressure on Senate Democrats when the Iran bill hits the Senate floor.

If all 54 Senate Republicans voted for the sanctions bill, they would need only 13 Democrats to secure a veto-proof majority. Twelve Democrats, including Menendez, co-sponsored an earlier version of the legislation and still serve in the Senate.

The legislative fight has stoked tensions between Obama and Menendez, the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, who was angered by the president’s move last year to ease travel and trade restrictions on Cuba.

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