Iran strikes back

Iran launched ballistic missiles at two US bases in Iraq early on Wednesday, in retaliation for last week's US assassination of a top general, Quds Force commander Qassim Suleimani. Announcing the strikes, Iran's foreign minister said it had "concluded proportionate measures in self-defense" and did not seek a further escalation or war. This is a pivotal moment. Iran was bound to respond in some way to the US strike on Suleimani. Now it has done so, apparently without causing US or Iraqi casualties. This situation is still fluid, but for now, the limited strike and Tehran's careful language makes it look like Iran has given President Trump an opportunity to pocket a big victory in an election year while avoiding a wider conflict.

For his part, President Trump appears ready to take it. Flanked by senior military officials at the White House Wednesday, Trump seemed to backpedal on further military escalation with Iran. "Iran appears to be standing down," he said, noting that this "is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world." Instead, just weeks after France's President Emmanuel Macron said NATO was experiencing "brain death" – a tacit reference to Washington's shakier commitment to NATO – Trump called on NATO allies to ramp up their involvement in the Middle East. He also said that the US would be imposing additional "powerful" sanctions on Iran, which will remain in place until the regime changes its provocative behavior.

Bottom line: Trump appears to be continuing his well-established campaign of "maximum pressure" on the Iranians, while seeking to end this round of tit-for-tat retaliations – and even keeping the option of diplomacy on the table. Speaking directly to the Iranian people, President Trump adopted an uncharacteristically dovish tone: "The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it."

Update: An earlier version of this piece has been updated to reflect new developments.

Amid the current need to continually focus on the COVID-19 crisis, it is understandably hard to address other important issues. But, on March 31st, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed landmark facial recognition legislation that the state legislature passed on March 12, less than three weeks, but seemingly an era, ago. Nonetheless, it's worth taking a moment to reflect on the importance of this step. This legislation represents a significant breakthrough – the first time a state or nation has passed a new law devoted exclusively to putting guardrails in place for the use of facial recognition technology.

For more on Washington's privacy legislation, visit Microsoft On The Issues.

Read our roundup of COVID-19 themes and stories from around the globe.

Europe skirts US sanctions to help Iran: While the US insists on tightening the sanctions noose around COVID-stricken Iran, European countries are now sending medical equipment. To do so, they are using for the first time a system called INSTEX, a back-channel financial mechanism created a year ago that allows Europe to maintain trade ties with Iran despite US sanctions. Recall that in 2018 the US pulled out of the multilateral Iran nuclear agreement and reimposed crippling sanctions – the Europeans stayed in the deal and have tried to salvage it. To date, Iran has suffered more than 3,000 deaths from COVID-19, one of the highest tolls in the world. Some say that Iran's failure to contain the contagion has been complicated further by US sanctions, which have thwarted the Islamic Republic's ability to fund medical imports. Tehran has urged the US to ease sanctions to no avail, but Ayatollah Khamenei has also, citing some wild conspiracy theories about the coronavirus' origin, refused medical aid from Washington.

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Laid-off hospitality workers tell their stories in their own words.

Ian Bremmer breaks down the massive economic toll the COVID-19 pandemic is taking on the hospitality and service industries in America and around the globe. In the U.S. alone, millions could face unemployment as businesses struggle to stay afloat.

Over the past decade or so, the European Union has weathered the global financial crisis, a migrant crisis, and the rise of populist nationalism. Sure, it's taken its fair share of bumps and bruises along the way, but the idea of a largely borderless Europe united by common democratic values has survived more or less intact.

Then came the coronavirus. The global pandemic, in which Europe is now one of the two main epicentres, is a still-spiralling nightmare that could make those previous crises look benign by comparison. Here are a few different ways that COVID-19 is severely testing the 27-member bloc:

The economic crisis: Lockdowns intended to stop the virus' spread have brought economic activity to a screeching halt, and national governments are going to need to spend a lot of money to offset the impact. But some EU members can borrow those funds more easily than others. Huge debt loads and deficits in southern European countries like Italy and Spain, which have been hardest hit by the outbreak so far, make it costlier for them to borrow than more fiscally conservative Germany and other northern member states. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, this imbalance nearly led the bloc's common currency, the Euro, to unravel.

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