January 24, 2019

Opinion: Why Obama is right about Cuba and Iran

Presidents often have trouble getting much accomplished during their last year in office. Barack Obama has managed to achieve two major foreign policy changes in his final year as president.

Decades of tension with Cuba and Iran have been eased with diplomacy. The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner has finally lived up to the hope and change message of his 2008 campaign.

Obama’s promises of ending the Iraq War and reaching out to our adversaries is what led me to support him in 2008. I had an “Obama for Peace” bumper sticker that year, but I was soon disappointed with the foreign policy decisions of his first term. I was not expecting Obama to escalate the war in Afghanistan, dramatically increase drone strikes and topple Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. To date, Obama has bombed seven countries in the Muslim world.

Cuba had been ruled by several dictatorships before Fidel C


Illustration by Amber Williams

astro’s revolution of 1959. U.S. corporations had control over much of Cuba’s resources. The Cuban people had quite enough of Wall Street and United Fruit exploiting them. After the Communist Castro overthrew the U.S.-backed regime of Fulgencio Batista, the U.S. slapped a trade embargo on Cuba.

In 1961, the U.S. attempted to remove Castro from power in the ill-fated Bay of Pigs incident. Soon after, the Soviet Union deployed tactical nuclear missiles to Cuba which caused the Cuban Missile Crisis. Coming close to a nuclear war, cooler heads prevailed and the missiles were removed after a tense negotiation. While the rest of the world now does business with Cuba, the U.S. still maintains an embargo.

Just recently, the U.S. lifted the travel ban to Cuba and opened an embassy in Havana. At the urging of Pope Francis, Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro met last year at the Summit of the Americas. This March, Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. Obama wants to completely lift the embargo, but Congress blocked his proposal. The U.S. already does business with communist regimes in China and Vietnam, so why can we not open up relations with Cuba?

Obama met more resistance in agreeing to a nuclear deal with Iran. Republicans, along with the governments of Israel and Saudi Arabia, tried everything they could to scuttle the deal. Partnering with Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom and Germany, the U.S. agreed to lift economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for inspections and limitations on Iran’s nuclear program. Iran said it was not seeking nuclear weapons, and this deal ensures they will not.

As with Cuba, there has been mutual hostility between Iran and the U.S. for decades. In 1953, the CIA overthrew Iran’s democratically elected government and installed a dictator. The U.S. destroyed a secular democracy in the Middle East to ensure the interests of a oil company now known as BP. During the Iranian revolution, students took American diplomats hostage. The U.S. responded by backing Saddam Hussein during the Iran/Iraq War in the 1980s.

Iran has insisted that its nuclear program is only for civilian purposes. Contrary to mainstream belief, Iran is not an irrational country hell bent on destruction. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2012 that the CIA had confirmed that Iran was not in pursuit of nuclear weapons. The seven-party agreement opens up Iran to the rest of the world, and allows them to sell their oil on the open market.

Given that Iran and the U.S. share common enemies in al Qaeda and ISIS, there could be future collaboration between the two countries in combating terrorism. The success of the deal has made reformist President Hassan Rouhani very popular in Iran. Last month, the reformers beat out the hardliners in Iran’s parliamentary elections. Iran is becoming a younger, less conservative country. Engaging Iran is not only beneficial in preventing war, it could change the human rights conditions within the country.

The Ayatollah Khomeini is rumored to be in poor health, and it is possible his successor may be more moderate if Iranians believe they can partner with the West. Not engaging with Iran now would be a huge mistake.

The U.S. has a very checkered record in both Latin America and the Middle East. We have initiated wars and sponsored military coups that have alienated local populations. Mending fences with Cuba and Iran is already helping solve other problems. Iran has been fighting ISIS, and was involved in the Syrian cease fire.

According to The Guardian, Cuba and the U.S. have been working together to end the conflict in Colombia between the government and leftist FARC guerillas. It is clear that the rest of the world is no longer going to isolate Cuba and Iran. The upcoming election could determine if the U.S. will be left to stand alone with these policies.

The militaristic tone of 2016 presidential candidates Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton have towards diplomacy must be rejected. Re-applying sanctions on Iran and keeping the trade embargo on Cuba has no international support. Reversing Obama’s gains would affirm the belief around the world that the U.S. cannot be trusted.

Obama is reversing bad policies that have been in place for a long time. We have been in conflict with Cuba since Eisenhower’s administration, and Iran since Carter’s. We are not benefitting from these divisions. It is time that this country moves past the Cold War era. If Obama’s successors follow his lead, the image of the United States around the world will greatly improve.

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