TIME Yemen

Why the U.S. Is Fighting Beside Iran in Iraq and Against It in Yemen

An armed member of Houthi militia (R) keeps watch as people gather beside vehicles which were allegedly destroyed by a Saudi air strike, in Sana'a, Yemen on March 26, 2015.
Yahya Arhab—EPA An armed member of Houthi militia keeps watch as people gather beside vehicles which were allegedly destroyed by a Saudi air strike, in Sanaa, Yemen on March 26, 2015.

Tehran and Washington share an interest in re-establishing state authority in Iraq, but in Yemen their agendas diverge

Just to set the scene: In Iraq on Wednesday, U.S. warplanes began providing air cover to Iranian-backed militias in Tikrit, in a joint effort against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) coordinated through the Iraqi government. On the same day, 1,200 miles to the south in Yemen, the U.S. was providing guidance to Saudi pilots bombing Shia insurgents who are supported by Iran. So the U.S. was bombing Iran’s enemies in one country, and helping to bomb Iran’s allies in another.

Meanwhile, in Switzerland, American and Iranian diplomats were resuming their intense talks about how to contain Tehran’s nuclear program. Both sides insisted the negotiations were confined to matters atomic, nothing else. And that’s a good thing, because the ever-complex Middle East has never looked more so than it does at this moment.

And yet, in an important way, Wednesday’s events are wonderfully clarifying. March 26, 2015 may go down in history as the day that Arab states came out into the open to fight, putting their names and ordnance into a conflict that had been carried out by shadowy armed groups the governments quietly equipped, sheltered and cosseted, previously preserving a deniability that only muddied the situation even further.

Saudi Arabia declared it sent 100 warplanes to strike targets inside Yemen, and now has 150,000 troops standing by at the border. The intervention was backed by nine other nations, and the announced “logistical and intelligence” support of Washington, where the Saudis chose to convene the news conference revealing the campaign. The governments lined up behind the Saudis were all fellow Sunni governments—Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Morocco, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait, several providing planes of their own. Egypt, according to a fresh report, is also preparing to send troops. The only holdout from the Gulf was Oman, which prides itself on maintaining the trust of Iran: the sultan of Oman played the role of mediator when U.S. and Iranian diplomats secretly met there to talk about formally launching the nuclear negotiation.

So the divide is clearly Sunni v. Shia, the same tension that created ISIS and has torn asunder Iraq and Syria. Iran’s foreign minister kindly pointed this out in an interview with Iran’s state-run satellite channel Al-Alam: “We have always warned countries from the region and the West to be careful and not enter shortsighted games and not go in the same direction as al-Qaeda and Daesh,” said Mohammad Javad Zarif, referring to ISIS by its Arabic initials.

The warning was a bit disingenuous, given Iran’s role as overlord of the Shia side of the divide. Tehran has been an essential ally of the Shi’ite-inflected Syrian regime led by President Bashar Assad, and a major player in Iraq, where on Thursday, three of the Shi’ite militias it backs announced they were dropping out of the fight for Tikrit, to protest the new American role in the battle.

In Yemen, Tehran is the primary sponsor of the Houthi tribe, providing training, arms and money. The Houthis were once largely confined to the country’s north, seat of its Zaidi brand of Shi’ism, but in September they took over the capital city of Sana. After linking up with Ali Abdullah Saleh, the longtime Yemeni president who was deposed during the Arab Spring, the Houthis marched on the southern port of Aden, where the elected president, Abed Raggo Mansour Hadi had been holed up before fleeing Yemen by boat ahead of Wednesday’s airstrikes. He was later seen meeting with the Saudi defense minister.

In peace, Yemen is an amazing country to visit. It doesn’t look like anywhere else on Earth, except maybe the illustrations in a storybook. It’s also an ideal example of what happens when a state collapses—or really, never coalesces in the first place. And that lesson really explains what the United States is doing in both Yemen and Iraq.

States were designed to bring coherence to human affairs, first and foremost by monopolizing the use of violence. In Iraq the government of Saddam Hussein used to manage that coherence—albeit brutally. And then the U.S. invasion of 2003 dismantled Iraq’s military, and distributed political power on sectarian lines. Now, in the battle against ISIS, which rushed into the void left by a state that has continued to fail, the U.S. finds itself joining Iran in an effort to re-establish the power of the weak central government in Baghdad. That government is dominated by Iraq’s Shi’ite majority—as well as by Tehran, which does not want chaos on the long border the two countries share.

Yemen, on the other hand, has never really managed to function as a state. It was two countries—plain old Yemen in the north, and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south—as recently as 1990, when the collapse of the Soviet Union brought the cleavage to an end. Tribal authority has often trumped the state’s. And the country’s long border is with Saudi Arabia, that seat of Sunni power, and great regional rival of Tehran. Yemen, known as Arabia Felix, or “Happy Arabia” was so close to the Saudi kingdom that the border was not even demarcated until June 2000, in an agreement signed by Saleh.

So the Iranians are not terribly bothered by turmoil in Yemen, especially if the turmoil ends—as it looked like it might—with the Houthis more or less in charge, by dint of their new alliance with Saleh, and the large sections of the Yemeni military that remain loyal to him. But the end is not yet in sight, and in the meantime, al-Qaeda has maintained its most lethal branch in Yemen, and ISIS has been making its mark, claiming responsibility for the March 20 bombings of Shi’ite mosques that killed more than 130 people. The ensuing chaos forced 100 U.S. advisers off the air base from which they operated the drones that searched for al-Qaeda targets.

Those U.S. advisers are likely to return in some form behind elements of the 150,000 Saudi troops on the Yemen border awaiting orders from King Salman, photographed in his war room surrounded by generals in chocolate chip desert fatigues. The uniforms, pattrened after American combat fatigues, say a lot: First, about where the U.S. is in this fight. “We are establishing a Joint Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate U.S. military and intelligence support,” the White House said in a statement. The other use of uniforms? Making clear, for a change, who’s actually fighting.

Read next: Arab Leaders Inch Closer to Creation of Joint Military Force

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TIME Iran

The Middle East Nuclear Race Is Already Under Way

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, center, and head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi, center right, talk outside with aides after a morning negotiation session with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry over Iran's nuclear programme in Lausanne, Switzerland, March 19, 2015.
Brian Snyder—AFP/Getty Images Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, talk with aides after a morning negotiation session with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry over Iran's nuclear program in Lausanne, Switzerland, on March 19, 2015

While the U.S. and other world powers work to constrain Iran's nuclear program, five rival nations plan atomic programs

One of the most important reasons why the U.S. is trying to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran is to prevent an Iranian bomb from triggering a nuclear race in the Middle East. Yet even as talks continue now in Switzerland, Tehran’s regional rivals have already begun quietly acting on their own atomic ambitions. Nuclear power may be on the wane almost everywhere else in the world, but it’s all the rage in the place with all that oil.

Egypt’s announcement last month that it was hiring Russia to build a reactor near Alexandria made it only the latest entrant in an emerging atomic derby. Every other major Sunni power in the region has announced similar plans. And though none appear either as ambitious nor as ambiguous as what’s taken place in Iran — which set out to master the entire atomic-fuel cycle, a red flag for a military program — each announcement lays down a marker in a region that, until recently, was notable as the one place on the planet where governments had made little progress on nuclear power.

With the exception of Israel, which has never publicly acknowledged its widely known nuclear arsenal, no Middle Eastern country beyond Iran had a nuclear program — peaceful or otherwise — until the wealthy United Arab Emirates began building a reactor in July 2012 (due for completion in 2017). The list now includes, in addition to Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — the last Iran’s archrival, and which last year revealed plans to build 16 nuclear plants over the next two decades. When the President of South Korea — which has 23 nuclear plants of its own — visited the Kingdom earlier this month, leaders of both countries signed a memo of understanding calling for Seoul to build two of the nuclear plants. The Saudis have made similar arrangements with China, Argentina and France.

“It’s not just because nuclear power is seen as a first step toward a nuclear-weapons option,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, a former U.S. State Department nuclear expert who now runs the nonproliferation and disarmament program at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies. “There is also a prestige factor: keeping up with the neighbors.”

Middle Eastern nations may have legitimate reasons to invest in nuclear energy. Jordan, for instance, has almost no oil in liquid form, and almost less water. Saudi Arabia and the UAE possess huge crude reserves, but lose potential export revenue when they burn oil at home to create electricity — huge amounts of which are sucked up by desalination plants. Turkey, despite impressive hydroelectric potential, must import oil and natural gas.

But all that has been true for decades. What’s changed in recent years is the nuclear capabilities of Iran — a Shi‘ite Muslim country Sunni leaders have come to regard as major threat. Jordan’s King Abdullah II famously warned of a “Shia crescent” of Iran-aligned countries reaching from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. The Saudis have made it clear that they will acquire a nuclear weapon should Iran get one.

“This is not the shortest way to a nuclear weapon, by any means,” says Sharon Squassoni, director of the proliferation-prevention program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “But if I put myself in their shoes, I’d think it probably makes sense to start down this path to see if we can develop a civilian nuclear [program], and if we pick up some capabilities along the way, that’s all right.”‘

Suspicion rises with every new announcement partly because the Middle East is bucking a global trend. Worldwide, the number of nuclear plants has declined since the meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011. Reactions differed by country. Germany forswore nuclear energy altogether after the disaster, while China pressed ahead, planning more than 100 new reactors. But in most places, the environmental risks and high costs have turned countries off nuclear power.

“My beef with nuclear energy is that it’s sort of held up as this very prestigious thing,” Squassoni tells TIME. “We do nuclear deals with our best allies … all this stuff about strategic partnership. And really, it’s this extremely expensive, complicated, slightly dangerous way to boil water. And that’s what you’re doing, right? You’re boiling water to turn those turbines.”

The expense alone may prevent some Middle Eastern nations from every actually joining the “nuclear club.” Building an atomic plant costs at least $5 billion, Fitzpatrick notes, and Egypt is desperately poor; Jordan relies heavily on remittances and foreign aid. But the Saudis still have money to burn and, according to former White House official Gary Samore, have consistently rebuffed U.S. imprecations to sign a pledge not to divert any nuclear program toward producing a bomb (a pledge the UAE took). Saudi Arabia has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but then so has Iran, and in the end a race can be run by as few as two: India and Pakistan, bitter neighbors, neither of which are rich, went nuclear in 1974 and 1998, respectively. They’ve gone to war once since, raising anxiety levels around the world.

So the talks in Switzerland are about more than preventing Iran from getting the bomb. They are also about persuading Iran’s neighbors that the nuclear option is effectively off the table. If the talks end with a final agreement that looks like a win for the Islamic Republic, diplomats say its neighbors will fast track their own plans. “If the accord is not sufficiently solid then regional countries would say it’s not serious enough, so we are also going to get the nuclear weapon,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Europe 1 Radio on Saturday. “And that would lead to an extremely dangerous nuclear proliferation.”

Read next: Israel Denies Spying on Iran Nuclear Talks With U.S.

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TIME Venezuela

How Opening Cuba Helped Isolate Venezuela

Nicolas Maduro, Cilia Flores
Fernando Llano—AP Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, center, in Caracas, Venezuela, on Feb. 28, 2015.

President Obama’s decision to reopen relations with Cuba is having an interesting side effect: it’s helping isolate Latin America’s other hard-line leftist regime in Venezuela.

On Monday, Obama signed an Executive Order freezing the U.S. assets of seven midlevel Venezuelan officials over their handling of protests last year. In years past, many Latin American officials would have viewed it as more of the same from America, whose policy of punishing Cuba with sanctions was widely seen as anachronistic at best.

Now, thanks to the ongoing rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba, Washington is less easy to ignore, especially on matters of morality and fair play. So it was that Monday’s executive order naming Venezuelan security officials turned out to be aiming what U.S. officials called “a spotlight” onto a government that other Latin American nations are also watching with concern.

“Until very recently, most countries in the region were reluctant to say anything about Venezuela,” says Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch. “If this is just U.S. sanctions, and the U.S. is doing it on its own, then it’s much easier for Venezuela to play the victim card. That’s why it’s really important for the U.S. government to be working with other democratic governments in the region to make this more of a collective.”

On Friday, the President of Colombia publicly despaired over Venezuela, even though he has staked his legacy on peace talks being hosted by Maduro’s strongest ally in the region, Havana. “It interests, hurts and worries us, all what’s going on in Venezuela,” President Manuel Santos said in a speech.

What’s going on in Venezuela is a mess. The collapse in oil prices last autumn sent the economy into free fall, 95% of its export revenue flowing from petroleum sales. President Nicolás Maduro, who was elected after his mentor Hugo Chávez died in office two years ago, is struggling to remain in control amid economic chaos and shortages of heavily subsidized staples. The cascade of indignities includes a shortage of necessaries that led the government to take over a toilet-paper factory — and the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago to offer an oil-for-toilet-tissue deal.

Maduro, in what economists call a strategy of diversion, blames the U.S. for waging “economic war” on the country. He has ordered most U.S. diplomats out of the country — the ambassador was expelled five years ago — and abruptly required visiting Americans to obtain visas. None of which was lost on the White House, which took pains to emphasize that the new sanctions were aimed at individual officials, and not “the people or the economy of Venezuela.”

“The point of these sanctions or policies is really to shine a light,” a senior Obama Administration official said Monday, speaking in a not-for-attribution conference call shortly after the Executive Order was released. Obama’s actions went beyond the law passed by Congress, the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014, to draw attention to the abuses of Venezuelan officials who authorized surveillance of opposition leaders, “hundreds of forced entries and extrajudicial detentions,” and the use of excessive force, including sexual assault and using live ammunition, against protesters and journalists. Prosecutor Katherine Nayarith Haringhton Padron is named for charging a former lawmaker and the mayor of Caracas with conspiracy “based on implausible — and in some cases fabricated — information.”

“You go back a year ago, when there was this wave or protests that was met with very aggressive and violent response by the government,” says Wilkinson, who was expelled by Venezuelan authorities in 2008. “This was a sustained process over more than a month of nonviolent protesters being severely beaten, in some cases tortured, being shot point-blank range with rubber pellets … Protesters would be held for two days without access to a lawyer, then summoned to a hearing in the middle of the night, with a lawyer having five minutes to prepare.”

Whether the sanctions will work remains to be seen. Under the Executive Order, U.S. financial institutions have 10 days to report any holdings controlled by the seven officials, and longer still to see if freezing them alters the behavior in what Transparency International calls the most corrupt country in the western hemisphere. But in diplomatic terms, the effects might be felt sooner. Before Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced their plans to reconcile, the Summit of the Americas, set to convene April 10 in Panama City, was sizing up as an awkward occasion for the U.S. leader. Instead, it may be Maduro who draws the sideways glances.

TIME Iraq

Turkey PM Warns That Assault on ISIS in Tikrit Could Ignite Sectarian Tensions

Shi’ite fighters launch a rocket towards ISIS militants during heavy fighting in Salahuddin province, Iraq, March 4, 2015.
Mahmoud Raouf—Reuters Shi’ite fighters launch a rocket towards ISIS militants during heavy fighting in Salahuddin province, Iraq, March 4, 2015.

Warnings that a defeat for ISIS could lead to bloody Sunni-Shi'ite warfare in Iraq

By sending Shi’ite militias and Iranian forces to battle ISIS in Tikrit, Iraq risks stoking the sectarian divide that nourishes the extremist group. So warns Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

“If Daesh is a big threat in Iraq, another threat is Shi’ite militias,” Davutoglu told TIME in a Wednesday interview, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria by its Arabic initials. “This is very important. If Daesh evacuates Tikrit or Mosul and if Shi’ite militias come in, then there will be sectarian war. Therefore all these cities, Sunni populated areas, should be liberated by the inhabitants of those cities.”

Davutoglu’s warning raises the question of whether Iraq’s leadership has changed as much as U.S. officials hope. ISIS swept up the city of Fallujah last spring, and Mosul, Tikrit and other Sunni regions in June, in part by offering itself as protector of a minority Sunni population that had been excluded and even persecuted by the central government in Baghdad, which is dominated by autocrats who have overtly favored the country’s Shi’ite majority. Iraq’s corrupt and poorly led military, also dominated by Shi’ites, fled the battlefield en masse as ISIS advanced last summer, while many Sunni tribes essentially welcomed ISIS. The first major stand government troops made was at Samarra, home of a major religious shrine revered by Shi’ites.

The offensive on Tikrit, which began just days ago, is the first major counterattack aimed at ISIS, and observers are concerned that two-thirds of the force of 30,000 attackers are Shi’ite militia. They are backed by Iranian warplanes, artillery, rockets and advisors, including Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, who was photographed near the front line on Wednesday, drinking tea with beaming members of the Badr Brigades—a militia trained and equipped by Iran. “This is the most overt conduct of Iranian support, in the form of artillery and other things,” Joint Chiefs of Staff chair General Dempsey, told a Senate committee on Tuesday, noting that U.S. warplanes are playing no role in the Tikrit assault. “Frankly, it will only be a problem if it results in sectarianism.”

It’s a big if. Turkey’s Davutoglu notes there is scant evidence of the local Sunnis who are supposedly being trained for a later assault on Mosul, the Iraqi government having promoted legislation that allows Sunnis to form “national guard” units that amount to militias of their own. “[The Sunni guards] should have a role,” the Turkish premier said. “In Iraq the government passed a new law forming national guards. But unfortunately now Shiite militias form national guards, while Sunnis in Anbar or in Tikrit and in Mosul, they were not allowed to. For us, Sunnis and Shiites are our brothers, we don’t make any difference. But we don’t want to see another wave of sectarian war.”

Davutoglu said he voiced the warning to Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi in a conversation 10 days earlier. Al-Abadi has cast himself as a more moderate and inclusive Shi’ite leader than the highly sectarian premier he replaced, Nour al-Maliki. But the country remains sharply divided on ethnic and sectarian lines: Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the west, and Shi’ites everywhere else. The danger is of a wholesale sectarian blood-letting like the civil war that left tens of thousands dead in 2006 and 2007, when U.S. troops were still in the country. ISIS, with its extremist Sunni orientation, is both a product and an agent of the strife, having slaughtered thousands of Shi’ites during its summer blitzkrieg, including more than 1,000 recruits at a military base outside Tikrit in June. The men were lined up, made to lie in freshly dug trenches, and executed on camera.

Human rights group warn that Shi’ite militias are already exacting revenge, burning down buildings and carrying out extrajudicial killings in Sunni areas taken back from ISIS. “The day of judgment is coming,” Badr Brigades commander Hadi al-Ameri (who was transport minister under al-Maliki) warned residents of the Diyala Province town of Muqdadiyaa on Dec. 29. “We will attack the area until nothing is left. Is my message clear?” Clear enough. The question is whether anyone beyond Iraq was listening.

 

TIME Foreign Policy

A Speech That Fell Short and Tied Netanyahu in Knots

No one sets the table better than Benjamin Netanyahu. With Ehud Barak, his defense minister at the time, the Israeli prime minister pushed the matter of Iran’s nuclear ambitions to the front of the global agenda three years ago by threatening to launch military strikes against Tehran. And he spent the last month or so — while running for re-election back in Israel, no less — stoking the keen, keen anticipation that awaited Tuesday’s joint address to Congress.

By the time he took the rostrum in the House at ten minutes after 11, the drumroll was almost deafening; on Fox News a half hour earlier, the camera was trained on the empty hallway outside the Capitol office of Speaker John Boehner, empty of human traffic but every molecule of air charged.

So perhaps a letdown was inevitable. Going by the speech itself, though, the problem was more that Netanyahu no longer seems entirely certain what he wants, or at least how to put it. He spoke against the agreement that appears to be taking shape between Iran and six world powers, led by the United States. But at one point in the speech he seemed to concede that the agreement would go forward — calling for its final draft to include language that would extend it beyond ten years unless Iran “changes its behavior by the time the agreement expires. If Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, let it act like a normal country,” Netanyahu said.

Nor was it clear whether Netanyahu’s words were backed by the possibility of an Israel military strike, the barely veiled threat that had proved so effective in galvanizing world attention to Iran’s pursuit of the atom. Halfway through the speech, he essentially took the gun off the table by suggesting the next step would be another round of talks: “Now we’re being told, the only alternative to this deal is war,” Netanyahu said. “That’s not true. The alternative to a bad deal is a much better deal!”

Why would that be? It turns out the country that Netanyahu passed almost all of 40 minutes describing as single-mindedly obsessed with achieving nuclear weapons, may, he said, want something else as well: “If Iran threatens to walk away form the deal – and this often happens in a Persian bazaar — call their bluff. Because they need the deal a lot more than you do.”

The observation, puzzling only in the context of the speech, may well be correct. Even before plummeting oil prices delivered another staggering blow to the petroleum exporter, Iran’s economy was crippled by the array of economic sanctions that President Obama rallied world powers to impose on Tehran (operating on the logic that peaceful coercion was better than the military option Israel appeared poised to exercise). The problem is that Israel no longer appears poised to launch air strikes, yet its leader appears trapped in the rhetoric that made the threat of them credible. It’s a binary equation, where Netanyahu reliably offers the negative to whatever the question at hand: warning that sanctions won’t work, then that they must be left in place, that an interim agreement must be avoided lest it become permanent, then that talks continue beyond the March deadline both sides say they want to honor.

MORE: Why Bibi and Barack Can’t Get Along

It’s a rhetorical trope that may or may not become a trap, but certainly becomes predictable, which in speeches may be as bad. As the prime minister’s address wore on, the applause in the chamber appeared to drift into the dutiful.

Only when he turned to the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel (the Holocaust survivor Netanyahu tried in vain to persuade to run for the largely ceremonial office of Israel’s President) did the response reach the tumult that greeted his March 24, 2011, address, a frankly cocky appearance that cemented Netanyahu’s mastery of The Hill.

The Wiesel introduction came amid the customary expression of defiance — “Never again” — and vow that Israel would protect itself, which Netanyahu immediately walked back with the observation that the United States of course could be counted upon to do the same. Left unsaid, as always, amid the talk of an existential threats is the matter of Israel’s own nuclear arsenal, and its refusal to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that is providing so much leverage against signatory Iran.

Speeches may be what the man does best; Netanyahu cut his teeth in politics as Israel’s videogenic spokesman in America, where he attended high school and college, and Hebrew-speakers say he is every bit as effective in that language. But having assigned himself the mission of derailing the negotiations he had basically set in place, then warned against, then said must continue, Netanyahu had to thread a needle, and could not help ending up in a bit of a snarl.

TIME Cuba

Cuba Talks Turn Awkward Over Terror Listing

President Obama Holds End-Of-Year News Conference At The White House
Alex Wong—Getty Images WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 19: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during his speech to members of the media during his last news conference of the year in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House December 19, 2014 in Washington, DC. President Obama faced questions on various topics including the changing of Cuba policy, his executive action on immigration and the Sony hack. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Another round of talks, another round of smiles Friday, as negotiators for Cuba and the United States joined in stepping carefully around the first obvious obstacle to emerge in their joint effort to re-establish diplomatic relations.

The latest meeting was only their second, this time in Washington. Diplomats from both countries crowded around an array of tables at the State Department for what U.S. officials cautioned in advance would be a more “workmanlike” session, less dramatic than the historic inaugural session in Havana in January. That was the first since Presidents Obama and Raúl Castro surprised the world by announcing an intention to reconcile in parallel announcements Dec. 17.

At the time, Obama signaled what sounded very much like an inclination to remove Cuba from the short, brutish roll of nations the State Department lists as official sponsors of terror: The only other countries saddled with the designation are Iran, Syria and Sudan. “At a time when we are focused on threats from Al Qaeda to ISIL, a nation that meets our conditions and renounces the use of terrorism should not face this sanction,” Obama said. But actually removing a nation from the list, and freeing it from the attendant sanctions, turns out to be taking longer than expected. “On why it’s taking so long, I’ve got to tell you it’s just these processes tend to be a little bit more complicated than they seem, and that’s all I’m going to say,” a senior State Department official said in a telephone briefing with reporters on Wednesday.

The consequences of the delay may only be atmospheric, but mood has been one of the things the Obama administration has had going for it on this story. The head of the Cuban delegation, Josefina Vidal, said at the close of Friday’s session that removal from the list was not a strict precondition to resuming ties, but repeated that it is “a very important issue” to Havana, which has harped on it both publicly and privately. And privately,the terror list may indeed have been mentioned as a precondition to re-opening embassies: “It would be very easy to restore diplomatic relations,” the State Department official said in the background briefing with reporters, “if they would not link those two things.”

What’s more, a 45-day interval built into the assessment process means that Cuba will still carry the designation when Castro and Obama meet at the Summit of the Americas, set for the second week of April in Panama City. The confab was envisioned as a celebratory session that marked the end not only of the 50-year cold war between countries, but also of Washington’s estrangement from a Latin American establishment that largely esteems Havana.

The delay clearly pleases Congressional critics of the reconciliation, led by favorites of the Cuban exile community based in Miami. “President Obama and his negotiating team need to stop looking so desperate to secure a deal with the Castro regime to open an embassy in Havana, at any cost, before this April’s Summit of the Americas,” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who also noted the arrest of 200 dissidents in Cuba the previous two weeks. Detentions of activists, often held only a short time, remains routine in Havana, the State Department has noted, and U.S. officials take pains to pay respectful visits to some of the island’s most prominent dissidents.

But on the narrow question of re-establishing diplomatic ties, the nominal point of the talks, both sides appear to be on the same page. “On the issue of the themes on the agenda that were of concern to us, I think we did make progress on a number of them,” said Assistant Secretary of State Robert Jacobson after the meeting. “Some of them, quite honestly, are close to resolution.” Vidal said much the same in a separate news conference. And the negotiators, at least, appeared intent on sustaining the gestures of good will that began in December with an exchange of prisoners, and is supposed to proceed to an exchange of ambassadors. Said Jacobson, in answer to question: “I do think we can get this done in time for the Summit of the Americas.”

TIME

Don’t Take the Bait: The U.S. Should Not Send Troops to Fight ISIS

Karl Vick is a TIME correspondent based in New York. From 2010 to the autumn of 2014 he was the Jerusalem Bureau Chief, covering Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories with occasional forays into other lands. He came to the magazine after 16 years with the Washington Post, in its bureaus in Rockville, MD, Nairobi, Istanbul, Baghdad and Los Angeles. Also spent a lot of time in Iran, and a year at Stanford as a Knight Fellow.

The group was, after all, spawned by the occupation of Iraq

In December 2001, when the war on terrorism was only weeks old, victory appeared at hand with the fall of Kandahar, the southern Afghanistan city Osama bin Laden had called home. Now that the question is how best to confront a fresh horror, it’s worth noting that the city was taken not by U.S. troops but by the same tag team that liberated the rest of the country: scruffy Afghan militias advancing in pickup trucks behind U.S. air strikes. As Christmas approached, there couldn’t have been more than 50 Americans in town, most of them Special Forces so at home in local clothes that they were easier to spot by the bumper stickers on their pickups: I ♥ NY. The rest of us were reporters haunting public venues like the central market, where one morning I noticed a man standing apart. He wore a black turban and a knowing look, both markers of the Taliban, and had a question. “Why didn’t you come on the ground?” he said. “It would have been lovely if you came on the ground.”

I knew what he meant, but not nearly as viscerally as I did two years later, in Iraq, where we came on the ground. Why we came at all is a bit of a mystery, but it was pretty clear pretty early that our physical presence created its own reality, armored up yet vulnerable both to labels–“occupier” at best, but also “crusader”–and constant ambush. “If you’re trying to win hearts and minds,” a Marine major told me in Najaf, “maybe sending 100,000 19-year-olds with machine guns isn’t the best way to go about it.”

Not massing U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 9/11 was a masterstroke, even if it came about mainly because the Pentagon lacked a ready war plan for the country that had sheltered bin Laden. It’s not just that Afghanistan has a way of swallowing armies. (Ask the British; ask the Russians.) There is an essential elegance to using what the military calls standoff weapons in a fight made infinitely more difficult by your actual presence. Which is why it’s fortunate that Americans have shown little appetite for a large-scale ground war against ISIS.

The group was, after all, spawned by the occupation of Iraq. Many of its leaders are veterans of the U.S. military prisons that turned out to double as universities for jihad. But their aim is no longer to expel the invader. Just the opposite. Now they want to lure us in. The fundamentalist narrative embraced by ISIS calls for a return of U.S. forces to Iraq, modern legionnaires fulfilling the role of “Rome” in the end-time narrative the group believes it has set in motion. It’s a millennialist vision as complicated as the Book of Revelation, but the U.S. role is pretty simple: show up. For anyone seeking a logic behind the gruesome decapitations of American journalists and aid workers, there it is–provoke a reaction.

The bloodletting does summon the associations of terrorism, barbarity and peril that have beset Americans for more than a decade now. But associations are almost all they are. To date, ISIS has demonstrated no particular ambition to attack the West at home. (That remains the raison d’être of al-Qaeda, whose Syria affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra harbors the elite al-Qaeda bombmakers dubbed the Khorasan group.) ISIS eyes another prize. Having declared a caliphate on the river valleys and desert land it has conquered in Syria and Iraq, it aims to turn the clock back to the 7th century. It functions both as a government and as a sectarian killing machine, slaughtering Shi’ites and many others in the name of purification.

To retain its sense of inevitability, however, ISIS must expand–something it’s been unable to do in Iraq since U.S. air strikes began in August. Recent growth, such as it is, has all been virtual, via pledges of fealty from existing jihadi groups in Sinai, Libya and other ungoverned dots on the map. The mother ship itself is hemmed in. Shi’ites and Kurds man the bulwarks to the east. To the west lie Syrian state forces that ISIS–nominally a rebel group–has mostly left alone.

What to do? The U.S. clearly has a national interest in preserving Iraq. (We broke it; we bought it.) But sending Americans back into Anbar and Saladin provinces would provide ISIS with pure oxygen and fresh waves of volunteers, while feeding the narrative that the U.S. is in a war against Islam. We have the planes, but this looks like a fight for guys in pickups who want to take their own country back.

Vick is a TIME editor at large and was previously the Jerusalem bureau chief

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Congress

What Nancy Pelosi’s Visit to Havana Means

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi
Bill Clark—CQ Roll Call/Getty Images House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi holds her weekly news conference in the Capitol in Washington D.C. on Dec. 5, 2014.

Members of Congress have been traveling to Havana for a while, preparing the ground for the coming rapprochement between Cuba and the United States. But Nancy Pelosi’s arrival on the island Tuesday adds a certain weight to the process. Pelosi, the San Francisco Democrat who leads the House minority, has become the most senior congressional leader to visit Cuba, a nominal milestone in every sense of the word but one that nonetheless helps to sustain the momentum begun with the Dec. 17 joint announcements of Presidents Obama and Raul Castro.

And momentum matters on the Cuba question. Obama has moved with real dispatch, first with the surprise announcement that he intended to re-establish diplomatic ties with a state that has been regarded as an outlaw by previous administrations dating to 1961 and then by taking less than four weeks to publish new rules allowing U.S. citizens to travel to the island and send money there. But there’s a limit how much any president can do. The matrix of legislation that together are known as the Embargo can be undone only by Congress, a constitutional reality not lost on the Cuban officials working closing with the Obama administration to sustain the sense the countries stand on the cusp of a new era.

“The power in the United States is not the President,” a senior Cuban official informed me late last month, in the corridor of the Havana hotel and convention center where a U.S. Assistant Secretary of State and her Cuban counterpart had just concluded a day of talks on re-opening embassies. “Don’t be fooled,” the official said with a knowing look. “There’s what he’s allowed to do.”

Re-opening embassies is one thing a president is allowed to do, and the talks aimed at doing that had evidently gone well, not least because the Cubans themselves gave every indication of understanding that the real challenge was not about ambassadors but the congressional battle that lay ahead. U.S. policy on Cuba had been largely dominated by the Cuban exile community that fled the island after the 1959 revolution. And if Obama’s overture to Havana was based on a calculation that the exiles’ time has come and mostly gone, the lobby’s clout remains a formidable thing on Capitol Hill, where, for instance, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee is New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the son of Cuban emigrants.

In meeting with government officials, Pelosi’s codel, or Congressional Delegation, will no doubt be quizzed on the prospects for rolling back the Embargo. The answer is partly evident in the presence of a Democratic with a reputation as partisan as Pelosi’s: Support for the outreach to Cuba, while not defined cleanly on party lines, skews Democrat. But part of the answer lay in list of non-official Cubans the five House Democrats meet with on their visit. One stop will be Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, the local leader of the Catholic Church whose leader, Pope Francis, played a crucial role in persuading the longtime enemies to come together, and afforded an ecclesiastical cover for a political change.

More importantly, the Americans will also meet with what Pelosi’s news release referred to as “members of civil society,” code language for political dissidents who cycle in and out of detention in Cuba, a one-party state that insists that criticism can occur only “inside the system.” Hence the inclusion of Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, co-chair of the congressional Human Rights Commission. Conspicuous demonstrations of support for these lonely dissenters were a key element of the State Department delegation, and will be for all U.S. officials — not only out of principle, but to show skeptics watching on the Hill that renewing ties to Havana does not meaning letting the Castros declare victory. And since the next round of talks is slated to take place in Washington next week, Pelosi’s visit also offers the opportunity to keep the focus on the island in question.

With reporting from Dolly Mascareñas in Mexico City.

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