TIME Iran

The 3 Things the Ayatullah Wanted to Achieve in His Defiant Speech

Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking to crowds during a ceremony in Tehran on April 9, 2015.
Official Supreme Leader Website/EPA Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking to crowds during a ceremony in Tehran on April 9, 2015.

The Supreme Leader appealed to hard-liners while leaving the door open to the U.S.

Ayatullah Ali Khamenei broke his silence on the outline of a nuclear deal with the West on April 9, in a speech widely understood to be a buzzkill. “I have told the officials to not trust the opposing side,” he said, “to not be fooled by their smiles, to not trust their promises because when they have achieved their objectives they will laugh at you.”

But was it really a nail in the coffin for the negotiations? There’s no one answer, not least because over the week that followed it has become clear Iran’s Supreme Leader was trying to do several things at once:

1. Take control of the narrative.

By the time Khamenei, 75 and ailing, took the stage in Tehran in April, it was clear Iran’s right-wingers needed to be let out of their cage. At that point, all the skepticism toward the outline agreement seemed to be coming from the U.S. Congress, and in these negotiations, skepticism back home serves to improve one’s bargaining position. Every harsh appraisal from the Hill — which appears poised to demand review of any final deal — arms Western negotiators with new leverage to push even harder for Iranian concessions, as the two sides seek to nail down specifics before the June 30 deadline for a final pact.

But American politicians outshouting Iranians in opposition to a nuclear deal is a strange and rare dynamic, like McDonald’s hawking the Whopper, with Iran in the role of Burger King. The Leader set out to right the universe. Three times in his speech Khamenei called on negotiators to heed or answer “critics,” conspicuously lifting the ban on smack talk. He also directed them to address two specific points that apparently remain outstanding: the timing of lifting all sanctions, which Khamenei said should be immediate, and access of U.N. inspectors to Iranian military facilities, which he at least appeared to forbid.

2. Quiet the crowds.

Iran’s theocratic government is not a monolith, and the unpleasant political reality was that the factions least identified with Khamenei received all the acclaim for the prospective deal announced on April 2. Cheering reformist Foreign Minister Javad Zarif upon arrival from Switzerland, the crowd at the airport chanted, “Kayhan, Israel, our condolences,” naming a hard-line newspaper (whose editor Khamenei appoints) as a loser. Khamenei used his speech to declare that there’s nothing to cheer yet. “Nothing has yet been done and no binding topic has been brought up between the two sides,” he said, in the transcript posted on his personal website, www.leader.ir. “Therefore, extending congratulations is pointless.”

Abbas Milani, who runs the Iranian studies program at Stanford, tells TIME that while President Hassan Rouhani was elected on the platform of striking a deal, Khamenei “doesn’t want Rouhani to get too much credit. He’s very clear: If there’s a deal, it’s because I wanted it. And if there’s not, it’s because these guys were too frivolous to understand they were giving away too much.”

3. Keep the door open.

Khamenei may well loathe and distrust America, but along with the usual name-calling (“obstinate, unreliable, dishonest and into backstabbing”), his speech made clear his willingness to seal a deal — and even work with Washington on future projects, should this one end well. “Of course, the negotiations on the nuclear issue are an experience,” he said. “If the opposite side gives up its misconduct, we can continue this experience in other issues.” He even raised the possibility of extending the talks beyond the June 30 deadline, one more measure of how badly Iran needs a final pact. The regime Khamenei inherited in 1989 from Grand Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini may or may not want a nuclear weapon, but without relief from economic sanctions it will be in continuing danger. It’s not only a matter of the hardship born by ordinary Iranians, but by the state itself. Iran’s public sector accounts for perhaps three-quarters of the national economy, directly employing 80% of the Iranian workforce. Small wonder that Khamanei authorized the nuclear negotiations with a call for “heroic flexibility.”

The Supreme Leader’s speech can be seen as a kind of “Rorschach test,” Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has written extensively on Khamenei, tells TIME. “He throws a lot of red meat to his hard-line base to reassure them he’s still an anti-American revolutionary. But careful readers also notice that underneath all the vitriol, he leaves the door of compromise with the U.S. slightly ajar. Given how badly the Iranian people want this deal to happen, Khamenei doesn’t want to be seen in their eyes as the obstacle.”

All of which, when the dust has cleared, looks like a stronger position for the West as the next round.

TIME Cuba

Obama’s Move to Drop Cuba From Terror List Sets Up Showdown With Congress

PANAMA-AMERICAS-SUMMIT-CUBA-US-OBAMA-CASTRO
Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images Cuba's President Raul Castro, left, speaks during a meeting with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas at the ATLAPA Convention center on April 11, 2015 in Panama City, Panama.

Four months after promising to review Cuba's place on the terrorism list, Obama aims to remove the main obstacle to reopening a Havana embassy

President Obama formally moved on Tuesday to remove Cuba from the short, brutish list of states supporting terrorism. The technical finding — that Havana had not offered material support to terrorists in the previous six months — is likely to trigger the first substantial political challenge to Obama’s decision to end the half-century of U.S. efforts to isolate the regime that has ruled Cuba since 1962. By law Congress has 45 days to pass a joint resolution blocking the change, a challenge that anti-Castro lawmakers and Republican critics indicated they would take up. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen promptly declared, “This unwise decision to remove Cuba from the State Sponsor of Terrorism list illustrates that the Obama Administration is willing to concede to the demands of the Castro brothers in order to set up an embassy in Cuba.”

Indeed, if the removal stands, Havana and Washington will likely reopen embassies in each other’s capitals in short order. The terrorism listing was the main obstacle in negotiations aimed at exchanging ambassadors, according to Cuban officials, who urged Obama to make good on his December vow to reconsider the designation. Last weekend at the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, where President Raúl Castro heaped scorn on the American history of interference in Latin American affairs — and praise on Obama, whom Castro called “an honest man” — the Cuban leader offered thanks in advance for Obama’s efforts to remove the designation, which prevented many firms from doing business with Cuba, and Cuban diplomats from opening bank accounts in the U.S.

“They say we’re terrorists,” Raúl Castro said on Saturday, citing the 1982 State Department finding that Havana had provided aid and arms to guerrilla groups in Latin America and Africa. “And we indeed have acted in solidarity with many peoples that may be considered terrorists” from the viewpoint of “imperialism,” Castro added. But that support largely vanished with the end of the Cold War. The last State Department justification for Cuba’s place on the terrorism listing cited previous support for the leftist insurgent guerrillas known as FARC in Colombia and the regime’s sheltering of Basque separatists. But Havana is currently hosting peace talks between FARC and Colombia’s government, and some of the Basques have returned to Spain.

“Circumstances have changed since 1982, when Cuba was originally designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism because of its efforts to promote armed revolution by forces in Latin America,” the State Department said in a statement. “Our hemisphere, and the world, look very different today than they did 33 years ago.”

The meeting between U.S. and Cuban officials in Panama, where Cuba was for the first time attending the Summit of the Americas, ended on a hopeful note, with vows that the embassy negotiations would resume in Havana very soon. “Our embassy personnel have had to use cash for everything and that complicates matters,” one senior Cuban official told TIME. “Having us on the terrorist list is ridiculous, but being part of the list complicates our day-to-day operations.”

Cuban officials noted that there were serious differences in the hour-long talk between Castro and Obama on April 11, mostly about human rights and elections. But, like their American counterparts, the Cubans emphasized that despite the remaining differences the two countries could start cooperating in areas of shared concern, mainly international human trafficking, drug trafficking, cybercrimes, the environment, energy and health.

Being removed from the terrorism list would also open Cuba to investors deterred by the strict U.S. censures awaiting firms doing business with listed nations. “The removal of Cuba from the list works on two levels,” said Pedro Freyre, an internationalist law specialist at Akerman LLP in Miami. “As a symbol, Cuba is removed from the list of bad actors, which now only includes Syria, Sudan and Iran. On a practical level, the ability of U.S. financial institutions to consider transactions with Cuban institutions is now facilitated. The compliance burden of engaging in transactions with countries on the list has made banking with Cuba prohibitively risky up until now. We should begin to see some movement on that front.”

First, though, it has to get past Congress. Obama’s rapprochement with Havana defied the Miami-based lobby of Cuban exiles that long dominated, if not dictated, U.S. policy toward the island, and its strength on Capitol Hill has not been tested since the new policy was announced on Dec. 17. That lobby suffered a loss with the recent indictment of Robert Menendez, the Cuban-American U.S. Senator from New Jersey who was the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Policy Committee. But another opponent of rapprochement, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, yesterday announced that he is running for the Republican nomination for President. So it’s safe to say the issue will not die for lack of attention. — With reporting by Dolly Mascareñas / Panama City

TIME Cuba

Obama Pivots to Latin America With Cuba on His Mind

Cuban President Raul Castro (2-R) and US President Barack Obama (L) shaking hands as Castro's grandson and bodyguard Raul Rodriguez Castro (2-L), Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez (C) and United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon (R) look on, moments before the opening ceremony of the VII Americas Summit, in Panama City on April 10, 2015.
AFP/Getty Images Cuban President Raul Castro (2-R) and US President Barack Obama (L) shaking hands as Castro's grandson and bodyguard Raul Rodriguez Castro (2-L), Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez (C) and United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon (R) look on, moments before the opening ceremony of the VII Americas Summit, in Panama City on April 10, 2015.

Obama and Castro share the limelight at summit of the hemisphere that usually gets half a loaf

The pivot to Asia may not have worked out terribly well, but spending spring break in Panama City turns out to be a welcome change of pace for President Obama. Every president says he’s going to pay more attention to Latin America, then ends up taking the region largely for granted while immersed in tar babies like the Middle East, which re-asserted itself with a vengeance after Obama’s heralded 2013 attempt to spend more time on China and Asia.

But the historic rapprochement with Cuba has brought breathless attention to, of all things, the Summit of the Americas, a largely ceremonial, traditionally moribund gathering of the leaders of the Organization of American States, the 35 countries of North and South America. The prospect of Obama shaking hands with Cuban President Raul Castro — realized at the Friday night official opening of the Summit, and confirmed by a statement from the National Security Council —made irresistibly personal the end of more than a half-century of official enmity, in a setting that let the entire hemisphere share the spotlight. (The White House confirmed on Friday that Obama had telephoned the Cuban leader.) Latin America may be staggering economically, and many of its prominent leaders tattooed by corruption scandals, but this weekend, at least, no one was pretending there was anything even remotely bigger at hand on foreign policy than the reunion of Washington and Havana.

The opening with Cuba animated the otherwise bland presentation to CEOs that was Obama’s first event in Panama City. “We want to congratulate you on your policy towards Cuba,” the moderator told the American President, to a round of applause. Obama himself seemed caught up in the energy at his next event, a speech to civil society groups. “I’m pleased to have Cuba represented with us, for the very first time,” Obama said, of Havana’s presence at the summit, from which it was barred (at Washington’s insistence) between 1962 and 2009.

He then delivered an ardent appeal for ordinary citizens to involve themselves in public policy, citing his debt to the American civil rights movement for the changes that led to his own historic election. Obama brought up Cuba again, asserting that the U.S. goal was not to “impose” change on the island but to empower Cubans to improve their own lives.

The loudest applause, however, followed Obama’s statement that, “The days in which our agenda in this hemisphere so often presumed that the United States could meddle with impunity, those days are past.” As the applause continued, he held up a finger. “But we have to be very clear,” he said, that U.S. support for groups who “spoke truth to power” should be viewed as altruistic rather than hegemonic. “We have a debt to pay, because the voices of ordinary people made us better,” Obama concluded. “That’s a debt I want to pay in this hemisphere and around the world.”

Resentment over the United States’ sometimes heavy-handed history in the hemisphere remains one of the engines of politics in the region. Anti-Americanism has proved a handy cudgel for leaders such as Nicolas Maduro, the embattled Venezuelan president who was a protege of the late, and much more effective Hugo Chavez. Venezuela has been a huge patron of Cuba, and Maduro arrived at the summit with a petition signed by several million Venezeulans protesting the threatening language in a recent Obama executive order imposing sanctions on Maduro officials implicated in abusing protesters and political opponents. Maduro’s first stop in Panama City was a memorial to the more than 500 civilians killed in the 1989 U.S. invasion of the city. He was greeted with chants of “Maduro, stick it to the Yankee!”

Just so the U.S. still knows where it is.

TIME Cuba

How Obama Is Readying the Way to Meet Castro

The U.S. prepares to remove Cuba from the terror list, paving the way for normalized relations

The United States is not hosting the Summit of the Americas; the meeting of Organization of American States members convenes on Friday in Panama City. But the Obama administration has spent the days leading up to it in a flurry of straightening, smoothing and generally endeavoring to assure that things go smoothly—especially for the newest guest: Cuba.

On Wednesday, Obama received a long-awaited report from the State Department on whether Cuba should be removed from the list of states supporting terrorism. Speaking in Jamaica, where he stopped on Thursday en route to Panama, Obama said he cannot act on the report until other executive agencies review it, but he has repeatedly made it clear that he believes Cuba no longer belongs on the terror list with Iran, Sudan and Syria. That in turn should clear the way for Havana and Washington to re-open embassies. A Cuban official last month told TIME the negotiations over exchanging ambassadors and more fully normalizing relations had stalled over Havana’s inclusion on the terror list.

Meanwhile, a senior State Department official made a surprise visit to Venezuela, which has been Cuba’s strongest supporter, and a target of sharp criticism from the U.S., which recently slapped sanctions on seven senior officials for abusing protestors and opposition leaders. And while no explanation was offered for the discreet visit on Tuesday by Thomas A. Shannon Jr., a veteran diplomat who holds the title of State Department counselor, the White House has been making it clear that it is not looking to escalate tensions with Caracas, where President Nicolas Maduro has capitalized on the language contained in the executive order announcing the sanctions (and on Tuesday promoted two of the sanctioned officials).

“The United States does not believe that Venezuela poses some threat to our national security,” Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters in a conference call on Tuesday. The language in the order declaring Venezuela to be even worse—”an unusual and extraordinary threat”—was, Rhodes said, boilerplate legalese not intended to make an enemy state of the fourth-largest foreign supplier of oil to the United States. “Completely pro forma,” Rhodes said.

And so the way is smoothed and the air freshened for the kind of meeting both Washington and Havana had in mind on Dec. 17, when Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro jointly announced they would renew relations after half a century of estrangement. The men shook hands at the December 2013 funeral of Nelson Mandela, and spoke by phone to cement the December announcement. But the Summit in Panama has been held out as the venue that would showcase the countries’ long-awaited rapprochement.

“In general, but particularly at this summit, symbolism matters,” says Shannon O’Neil, senior fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Castro’s presence is news in itself—this is the first time Cuba has attended an OAS summit since it was suspended in 1962, following its embrace of the Soviet Union. Castro stayed away even after the suspension was lifted in 2009, as Latin American countries rallied around the country the United States had tried to isolate for so long, and with steadily diminishing results. By the time of December’s announcement, Rhodes noted, U.S. policy on Cuba was having the perverse effect of isolating Washington, not the other way around.

So removing Cuba as a polarizing issue should help relations across Latin America, O’Neil says. “For so many years, this U.S.-Cuba standoff has been an overriding difficulty with all sorts of countries, not just the ones we have chronic difficulties with like Venezuela,” says O’Neil. And if Venezuela appears poised to replace Cuba as an polarizing topic, the State Department outreach may serve to temper that, taking Maduro almost instantly up on his reported willingness to smooth out relations with Washington rather than escalate. “The worry here is that all the other good change with Cuba might be overshadowed by Venezuela,” says O’Neil.

Not all see the change with Cuba as good, of course. Polls show a majority of Americans and almost every Cuban favors the opening, but much of the Cuban exile community based in south Florida oppose the reconciliation, and the anti-Castro titans of Congress warn that they will try to block any effort to remove it from the terror list. Passions run high—and in Panama City exploded into fisticuffs when pro-Castro and anti-Castro protestors encountered one another Wednesday in front of the Cuban embassy. A video of the brawl, with grown men struggling to both land blows and hold their sports coats, might be the cartoon version Clauswitz’s observation that war is a continuation of politics by other means.

— With reporting from Dolly Mascarenas in Panama City

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 Defense Minister Mohammad bin 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.

 

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