Editor's Note: The following is reprinted with the permission of the Council on Foreign Relations.
The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama used a secret channel of communication (NYT) to warn Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, against closing the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, government officials reportedly said. Iran threatened to close the strait–a vital shipping lane for transporting the world's oil–as the United States and Europe moved to sanction Iran over its nuclear program, which the West says is intended for manufacturing a nuclear weapon.
At the same time, Iran shifted course and said it would allow inspectors (WSJ) from the UN International Atomic Energy Agency to visit the country later this month. The move came on the heels of the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist in Tehran on Wednesday, for which Iran has blamed the United States and Israel.
"Pro-democracy forces in Iran, which have been under extreme pressure since the disputed 2009 presidential election, say the assassinations are likely to backfire against the West–enhancing the military state by legitimizing the nuclear program in the eyes of the Iranian people," writes Omid Memarian on the DailyBeast.com.
"While Washington leads the global effort to press economic sanctions on Tehran, Israeli leaders frequently make thinly veiled suggestions that it may not be able to restrain itself from launching military action on Iran; they also never bother to deny a leading role in covert efforts to slow the nuclear program," write TIME's Karl Vick and Aaron J. Klein.
"Like every other government, Iran's ruling elite are interested in self-preservation and those that are bellicose are always looking for reasons to justify their hostility toward the U.S. and its allies. The only thing that's almost certain now is that Iran's hardliners will feel emboldened by more punitive U.S. measures and rhetoric," writes Jasmin Ramsey for al-Jazeera.
Syria Blocks Aid Convoy; Activists Call for Nationwide Rallies
Syrian border guards blocked a convoy of 150 expatriates from crossing the Turkish border to deliver food and medical aid to anti-government protesters (al-Jazeera) who have been under assault by Syrian security forces.
Meanwhile, Syrian activists called for nationwide anti-government rallies in support of the Free Syrian Army (VOA), an armed rebel group comprised of army defectors.
Syria's regime appears increasingly isolated and erratic in response to civil unrest, posing a challenge to the Arab League to prevent a spread of conflict, says CFR's Robert M. Danin in this interview.
Myanmar Frees Political Prisoners
Myanmar's military-backed civilian government released hundreds of political prisoners today–including prominent activists that led the country's 1988 pro-democracy uprising–as part of an ongoing effort to institute political reforms (NYT) and engage with the international community.
In this Policy Innovation Memorandum, CFR's Joshua Kurlantzick argues that the United States should play a much larger role in shaping Myanmar's reforms by launching a new strategy of engagement, including a sizable aid package, upgraded diplomatic relations, and an end to U.S. sanctions.
CHINA: In a shift of tactics, Chinese authorities allowed dissident author Yu Jie to seek asylum (WSJ) in the United States. Yu Jie said he had been repeatedly denied permission to leave China after being beaten by security agents in late 2010.
SOUTH AND CENTRAL ASIA
Marines Identified in Afghanistan Urination Video
The Pentagon identified two of four U.S. marines who appeared in an online video that apparently showed themurinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters (Guardian). The incident comes ahead of planned peace talks between the United States and the Taliban.
PAKISTAN: Amid mounting tensions between the civilian government and the military (ExpressTribune), U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton encouraged Pakistan to resolve the situation according to the country's democratic laws and constitution.
Nigerian Unions Suspend Protests
Nigerian trade unions announced a two-day suspension of a nationwide strike (BBC) protesting a government decision to eliminate a fuel subsidy. The suspension will allow for continued negotiations with President Goodluck Jonathan.
If Nigeria's oil production is cut off, it could affect the United States, which is an importer of Nigerian oil, writes CFR's John Campbell on his blog Africa in Transition.
KENYA: Somalia's al-Shabaab Islamist rebels (al-Jazeera) killed six people and kidnapped three others in a cross-border raid into Kenya's northeastern Wajir district. The move appears to be a response to Kenya's deployment of troops to southern Somalia last year.
U.S. Officer Recommends Court Martial in WikiLeaks Case
Lt. Col. Paul Almanza, the U.S. military officer who conducted an evidentiary hearing (NYT) over charges against Pfc. Bradley Manning, recommended the private face a court martial. Manning is accused of leaking thousands of government documents to the whistle blowing website WikiLeaks.
ECB Holds Interest Rate at 1 Percent
The European Central Bank left its main interest rate at 1 percent, noting "tentative signs of stabilization" (WSJ)in the eurozone following a move by the bank to provide European financial institutions with $635 billion in new loans.
GREECE: Athens is negotiating with private sector creditors (DeutscheWelle) over an approximately $128 billion debt write down–part of a second EU-IMF bailout negotiated last year–in advance of the country's next bond redemption in March.
The eurozone, once seen as a crowning achievement in the decades-long path of European integration, is buffeted by a sovereign debt crisis of nations whose membership in the currency union has been poorly policed.
Deficit $47 Billion Less in Q1 of 2012
The U.S. federal deficit is $47 billion less in the first quarter of 2012 than 2011 (AP). Government revenues totaled $555 billion in the first quarter, a 4 percent increase from 2011.
The U.S. Congressional Budget Office released its Final Sequestration Report for Fiscal Year 2012. These reports must provide estimates on discretionary budget authority caps for the coming year and each year through 2021.
INFRASTRUCTURE: Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Bill Shuster praised the efforts of both Democrats and Republicans in passing the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011 (The Hill).
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