Iran and the US: No Exit

Early this morning the US government hit Iran with a raft of sanctions that make it illegal for companies to do any business with Iran involving precious metals, sovereign debt, airplanes, or cars. It also outlaws Iranian purchases of US banknotes and, for American lovers of Iranian pistachios and carpets, this is a very bad day – importing those is now forbidden again.


 

These sanctions, to refresh your memory, had been suspended under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal which President Trump ditched earlier this year.

Now they are back in place, and they’ll contribute to an economic crisis that could see Iran’s GDP shrink as much as 8% this year, a far cry from earlier expectations that fresh economic opportunities under the nuclear deal would boost growth. And greater pain awaits the Islamic Republic: in November, the US is set to reimpose a much harsher set of sanctions that target Iran’s energy sector, which is crucial for the economy.

Is this economic pressure from the Trump administration the prelude to a breakthrough between Iran and the US? Don’t bet on it.

First, Trump is demanding things that Tehran can’t realistically give. Leaving aside President Trump’s seemingly instinctive revulsion at anything that bears his predecessor’s fingerprints, Washington’s had three specific beefs with the Iran deal (which Tehran was adhering to, according to international inspectors and the US Defense Secretary): it expires; it allows Iran to test new ballistic missiles; and it doesn’t stop Iran from supporting proxy fighters in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq.

Now, even if Tehran were willing to discuss the first two – which is somewhere between implausible and impossible -- the third would amount to a complete reorientation of Iran’s foreign policy and an inconceivable humiliation for a regime that bases its legitimacy in large part on resisting the historic, and continuing, attempts by Washington to alter Iran’s politics.

In short, there isn’t a snowball’s chance in Ahvaz of Iran agreeing to what Trump (along with the Saudis and the Israelis) would want. Moreover, why, Iran’s president has already asked, should Tehran believe any commitments that Trump makes to a new deal after tearing up an old deal that was working?

Second, domestic pressures aren’t going to change Iran’s position. It’s true that economic protests (a longstanding tradition in Iran) have recently intensified and taken on a political coloring, but the regime can still rely on loyal, efficient, and ruthless security services to keep things in check. What’s more, sanctions by the US give the government a convenient, if certainly not inexhaustible, excuse for the economic crisis.

In short, unlike the Trump administration’s other major foreign policy tangles, there is no conceivable exit from the deadlock with Iran right now. Trade spats with China and the EU can, in principle, be resolved with deftly-packaged concessions and proper massaging of the relevant ego(s), not least because in each of those cases, both sides have lots to lose if things truly go off the rails. With North Korea, meanwhile, Trump and Kim seem committed to reaching some accommodation, even if that means artfully redefining terms like “denuclearization.” And even without a deal, the diplomacy can remain stalled indefinitely as both sides have already gotten a bit of what they want (Trump the pomp and splash, Kim the legitimacy and a fresh start with South Korea.)

But with Iran, there’s no clear way out. In fact, all signs point to a sharper escalation of tensions between the US, its regional allies, and Iran… Want to guess one area where that might happen sooner rather than later? My pal Kevin Allison will have some thoughts on that in tomorrow’s edition…

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.