It’s been an interesting week in the news. While the domestic political scene has been dominated by President Barack Obama’s comments regarding the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, the real issues of health care reform and reforming the U.S. financial regulatory system appear to have fallen by the wayside, at least temporarily.
In news from outside the United States in the last week:
1. George Mitchell, President Barak Obama’s special Middle East envoy, met with Syrian officials on Sunday. Although no specifics of the meeting were reported, it is believed that Mitchell’s visit is part of Obama’s strategy of improving relations with Syria as part of the broader goal of achieving a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute. The visit was Mitchell’s second trip to Syria in two months.
2. The political situation in Iran appears ready to destabilize, as the government faces both opposition from opposition political parties as well as a standoff between fundamentalist elements within President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad’s cabinet. On Monday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned opposition leaders that they faced “collapse” if they continued protests over last month’s disputed presidential elections. Last week, Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Iran’s former president, lent support to the opposition, speaking at a protest against Ahmadi-Nejad’s re-election. Rafsanjani’s position was closely watched, particularly given his position as head of two powerful conservative bodies in Iran, the expediency council and the experts assembly.
In other developments, over the weekend, President Ahmadi-Nejad fired two cabinet ministers, Hossein Saffar-Harandi, culture minister, and Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, intelligence minister. The firings, which are rare in Iranian politics, represent the latest developments in a political standoff between Ahmadi-Nejad and conservative forces in his government. It was reported on Wednesday that four ministers, including the two fired over the weekend, debated the president’s decision to name Esfandir Rahim Mashaei as first vice president. Mashaei is a close ally of the president, but managed to draw the criticism of conservatives when he argued last week that the position of the Iranian government should maintain a friendly disposition towards the Israeli people. After the appointment was made public, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who as the country’s supreme leader has the final word in governmental affairs, wrote to Ahmadi-Nejad, urging him to fire Mashaei. Ahmadi-Nejad initially refused, but Mashaei nevertheless stepped down over the weekend.
3. The International Monetary Fund approved a new $2.6 billion loan for Sri Lanka on Friday. The loan is intended to help Sri Lanka rebuild after its 25 year civil war, which ended several months ago after the government launched a series of attacks which incapacitated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebel group. Despite the end of the fighting, however, the government continues to hold thousands of ethnic Tamils displaced by the fighting in detention camps. The detention of so many people led some human rights groups to condemn the IMF’s decision, arguing, as Human Rights Watch did, that the loan “is a reward for bad behavior, not an incentive to improve.” The United States and the United Kingdom both abstained from the decision, an unusual move for the two countries which collectively control almost 22 percent of the voting shares in the organization.
4. Government services in townships across South Africa have been disrupted by a strike by municipal workers demanding higher pay. The strike follows weeks of protest by residents of poor black urban areas in South Africa, who are demanding improvement of water and electricity delivery, better government housing, and reductions in corruption. The protests represent the most significant political challenge to President Jacob Zuma’s government, which came to power on the platform of reducing poverty and addressing corruption. Zuma promised last week to crack down on protestors, but such a strategy appears likely to exacerbate the political crisis facing the government.
5. The standoff in Honduras continued to develop last week, as ousted President Manuel Zelaya visited the Honduran border on Friday. Zelaya vowed to return to power and symbolically crossed the border, briefly stepping in to Honduras before quickly stepping back into Nicaragua to avoid arrest. Talks between Zelaya and the interim government of Honduras appeared to break down this week, as both sides have refused to cede any ground on the most fundamental question: who should be president. Meanwhile, western governments have stepped up pressure on the interim government of Honduras. On Monday, the European Union announced it was suspending all aid to Honduras while the United States has suspending military aid to the country and has threatened to suspend economic aid if progress is not made. Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, heavily reliant on coffee for export earnings.