Escalation: Trump vs. Iran

The US and Iran are headed down a dangerous path.

On April 22, President Donald Trump tightened the screws on Iran's economy by announcing that China, Japan, India, South Korea, Turkey, and others would no longer be granted exemptions from US sanctions to continue buying Iranian oil, the country's most important export.

On May 5, US National Security Advisor John Bolton announced the deployment of a carrier strike group and bombers to the Middle East in response to "indications and warnings" that Iran threatened US forces.

Iran then announced this week that it would mark Wednesday's one-year anniversary of Trump's decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal by ending compliance with two provisions of that agreement.

In particular, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani warned that if the five other countries who signed that agreement—France, Germany, the UK, China, and Russia—don't act within 60 days to help Iran weather the economic storm created by US sanctions, Iran will ignore the deal's limits on uranium enrichment, setting it on the path, once again, to acquire a nuclear weapon.

A few things to keep in mind as you follow the progression of this story:


  • Trump has avoided aggressive military action, because he knows it has undermined the popularity of past presidents. He's made plenty of threats—against North Korea, Venezuela, and Iran, for example—but he's avoided ambitious commitments that come with high risk and long-term costs.
  • The president's national security advisor does not share his reluctance to use military force. John Bolton has been calling for regime change in Iran for more than a decade, and he authored a New York Times op-ed in 2015 under the headline "To Stop Iran's Bomb, Bomb Iran."
  • Trump may be suspicious of Bolton. A piece in Wednesday's Washington Post reported that anonymous "administration officials and White House advisers" claim that Trump has complained aloud that Bolton is pushing him toward military action in Venezuela. If nothing else, this story suggests that some in the White House are worried about Bolton's influence–on Venezuela, if not Iran. On Thursday, Trump said this to describe his relationship with Bolton: "John has strong views on things… I actually temper John, which is pretty amazing. Isn't it?
  • Iran's economy is in real trouble. Its leaders may feel they have little to lose by pushing the Europeans to provide an economic lifeline by threatening the nuclear deal. Trump's decision to reimpose sanctions has pushed the country into a deepening recession. GDP is projected to fall 6 percent this year, according to the IMF, making it one of the toughest periods since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Its currency has lost nearly 60 percent of its value since sanctions were reimposed. Price inflation topped 30 percent last year and will rise even more quickly this year.
  • Europeans will do little to help Iran. The UK, France, and Germany have made clear they believe Iran has kept its end of the nuclear deal and that Trump was wrong to withdraw from it. In January, they created a payments system to help maintain trade in non-sanctioned food, pharmaceutical products and consumer goods with Iran. But Europe is struggling to convince companies more worried about losing access to US consumers than Iranian markets to keep operating there. And they warn they can't continue to abide by terms of the nuclear deal if Iran renounces important parts of it.

The bottom line: Tensions are rising quickly, and for now there is little ground on which the US, Iranian, and European governments can compromise.

Technology has played a big role in accelerating globalization. While it's our business to advance technology, we also believe that technology should respect and even help protect the world's timeless values. That conviction has led us to announce a new and fourth pillar to Microsoft's AI for Good portfolio – our $125 million, five-year commitment to use artificial intelligence to tackle some of society's biggest challenges. This new pillar will focus on AI for Cultural Heritage. Read more at Microsoft On The Issues.

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This Saturday, July 20, will mark the 50-year anniversary of the day a human being first stepped onto another world. A moment born out of Cold War political pressures, it's easy to forget a half century later how much bitter controversy the project provoked at home and the intensity of the worldwide fanfare that followed its success.

The moon mission's primary purpose was to defeat the Soviet Union. By the time John Kennedy became president in 1961, the Soviet Union had advanced far ahead of the United States in the race for achievement in space. In October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite. A month later, a dog named Laika became the first living creature to travel beyond Earth's atmosphere. In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth, the first human to do so.

In early May, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, spurring Kennedy to announce a far more ambitious plan. On May 25, Kennedy famously pledged that by the end of the decade Americans would go to the moon and return safely to the Earth.

Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, but new President Lyndon Johnson quickly signaled his intention to see the promise kept. The Soviets held their space lead through 1965, by landing an unmanned craft on the Moon.

The moon mission stoked controversy in the United States. A review of polls reveals that only in 1969 did a majority of Americans support the project. Many people argued that the billions spent on a moonshot should go toward the war in Vietnam or to fight poverty in America's inner cities. "No hot water, no toilets, no lights. But Whitey's on the moon," sang musician and activist Gil Scott Heron. It didn't help when a fire during the Apollo 1 mission killed three astronauts and destroyed their space module.

But when Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the moon on July 20, 1969, the event took on a life of its own. It was a decade framed by two images of respected TV anchorman Walter Cronkite—shaken to the core on air by the 1963 murder of President Kennedy and then speechless with awe as Americans bounded across the surface of the moon.

A decade that included confrontation with the Soviets in Cuba, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, a failing war in Vietnam, race riots in American cities, and violent chaos at the 1968 Democratic Party convention ended with an accomplishment a quarter million miles away, that was watched live by 94 percent of Americans who owned a TV.

Americans weren't the only ones watching. About 650 million people around the world watched the moon landing live on TV, making the event the first truly global televised event. Nine weeks later, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins began a world tour.

Concerns that planting an American flag on the moon's surface would seem an act of obnoxious nationalism faded as the three men were greeted by overflow crowds in 27 cities in 24 countries over 39 days. An estimated one million people greeted them in Dhaka (then Pakistan) and some 1.5 million turned out in Mumbai (then Bombay).

Fifty years later, moon missions are still a mark of national prestige. Russia, China, India, the EU, Japan, and Israel have all sent probes to orbit the Moon or landed vehicles on its surface. But none of them matches that first "giant leap for mankind."

Next up: Mars? For thoughts on the next space race, click here.

Bonus fact: An iPhone has more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon.