Under the Gun, Iran Reaches Out to Trump

It's been an interesting few days in ever-turbulent relations between Iran and the United States. Last week, President Trump announced the US would up the pressure on Iran's economy by removing waivers that have allowed China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey to continue to buy Iranian crude oil despite US sanctions.

How has Iran responded to this aggressive move? With an offer.


Over the weekend, Foreign Minister Javid Zarif said in an interview that Iran is willing to sit down with the Trump administration to negotiate the release of Americans imprisoned in Iran in exchange for the release of Iranians held in the US or in other countries on US charges. Iran had previously refused to speak with the US following the Trump's exit from the nuclear deal.

So what does Zarif's offer tell us?

Trump's pressure campaign is working, at least well enough to bring Iran to the negotiating table. Zarif isn't (yet) offering to rework the nuclear deal that President Barack Obama signed and President Trump has sought to dismantle or renegotiate. But an offer to talk about anything of substance is better for both sides than radio silence or an exchange of threats.

Iran's economy is forecast to contract by 6 percent this year, and inflation is expected to rise to 50 percent. Iran's oil exports have more than halved since the US announced its decision to abandon the nuclear deal last year. China and India may continue to buy small amounts of Iranian crude, but the loss of Iran's other customers can only make a bad situation worse. Talking with Trump might bring Iran some relief.

Iran is appealing directly to Trump. The US president tweeted recently about his success in winning the release of Americans held in other countries. With this new offer, Zarif is talking past Trump's advisors to offer the president another political win in exchange for the return of some Iranians and a willingness to open a new diplomatic dialogue.

One overture won't change hearts and minds in Washington or Tehran. There isn't enough trust or good will on either side to quickly advance from a prisoner swap to talks on the restoration of a nuclear deal. Iran is still a useful political villain for Trump, and the US remains an easy target for hostility inside Iran.

But keep an eye on this story. Zarif is probably hoping he can appeal to Trump's vanity as an expert negotiator to kickstart talks that might (eventually) lead to a new opening on the nuclear deal. Think of it as Zarif's long-term investment. After all, Trump proved willing to support a reworked North American Free Trade Agreement and has sat face to face with Kim Jong-un after having threatened to destroy North Korea.

Can the US and Iran find their way back to a nuclear deal? We should be skeptical—but not cynical.

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.