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Thursday, August 1, 2013

The House Votes to Curb Iran’s Oil Exports Ahead of Rouhani Taking Office

The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly yesterday to approve increased sanctions against Iran, just days before that nation welcomes a new, politically-moderate, president in Hassan Rouhani. The measure, dubbed the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act, was approved by a vote of 400 to 20, putting in place new restrictions on Iran’s ability to export oil. The restrictions are likely to have a significant impact on the Iranian economy, which is heavily dependent on oil exports.

Iran’s president-elect Rouhani is a moderate cleric who rode a wave of voter dissatisfaction with hard-line conservatives to win the June election. Following his victory, a number of western nations expressed renewed interest in engaging diplomatically with the Iranian government. The White House issued a statement in mid-June, saying that they remain “ready to engage the Iranian government directly in order to reach a diplomatic solution that will fully address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.” The House vote, however, may undermine that diplomatic outreach.

Representative Ed Royce (R-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was a sponsor of the legislation. “Iran may have a new president, but its march toward a nuclear program continues,” he said. “The economic and political pressure on Tehran must be ratcheted up.”

Washington state Democrat Jim McDermott was one of only 20 members of the House to vote against the measure. He argued that rushing to sanction Iran before Rouhani assumes the presidency could hurt efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. McDermott told reporters “It’s a dangerous sign to send and it limits our ability to find a diplomatic solution to nuclear arms in Iran.”

U.S. Keeps Joint Military Exercise in Egypt

Plans for Bright Star, a major joint military exercise with Egypt, are still on track for September, despite the turmoil caused by the Egyptian military’s overthrow of democratically-elected president Mohammed Morsi last month. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told reporters at a Pentagon press briefing this week that the joint program was moving ahead as scheduled. Bright Star is a long-standing annual exercise, dating back to the Camp David Peace Accords in 1981.

The U.S. has been navigating a diplomatic tightrope since Morsi’s overthrow, avoiding calling it a ‘coup’. Officially acknowledging that label would trigger an automatic cut-off in financial aid. Egypt benefits significantly from U.S. support, to the tune of $1.3 billion annually. The repeated, violent crackdowns by the Egyptian military on pro-Morsi demonstrators, however, threatens to further strain relations. Last week, President Obama halted delivery of four F-16 fighter jets to the Egyptian government, one sign of the growing strain between the two governments.

U.N. Moves to Disarm Congo’s M23; Rwanda Cries Foul

The United Nations (U.N.) has warned that it may forcibly disarm rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo unless they voluntarily turn in their weapons. If not, the groups would be deemed “imminent threat[s] to civilians.” The tough talk is the first step in a more aggressive approach by the U.N. to its peacekeeping mission in Africa. Rebels have been given 48 hours to disarm, or they’ll be targeted by a new multinational brigade of troops that has been tasked with ending violence in the region. U.N. efforts are initially focused around the city of Goma, a strategically important area, rich in minerals, that’s been a hub of violence for more than a decade. The Congolese army has been battling members of the rebel group M23 in and around Goma for the past year, and faced an embarrassing setback last fall when the rebels briefly took control of the city.

Rwanda called out the U.N. Wednesday, declaring that the ultimatum toward rebels would undermine peace talks. The Rwandan government is widely believed to be in support of M23, though they officially deny backing the group. Other regional diplomats note that previous peace talks had stalled, opening the door for the U.N.’s planned intervention.

Snowden Granted Short-Term Asylum by Russia

Despite continued pressure from President Obama and other top-level American emissaries, Russia has granted a one-year temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the former defense contractor who has leaked numerous classified documents describing the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs. Snowden left Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow earlier today, and can now freely move, and even potentially work, anywhere in Russia for up a year.

White House press secretary Jay Carney expressed the administration’s frustration with the announcement. “We are extremely disappointed that the Russian Federation would take this step. Obviously, this is not a positive development.”

Scientists May Turn to Genetic Engineering to Save Florida Citrus

A bacterium is rapidly spreading through Florida’s millions of acres of commercial citrus groves, leaving fruit half-green, sour, and drastically undersized. And there is no known cure, or any naturally occurring resistance to citrus greening within the industry. Now, scientists and growers are considering genetically altering commercial citrus plants in order to make them resistant to greening. The move is seen as a last resort, but one that be the only way to prevent a collapse of the citrus market. According to one University of Florida scientist, people are either going to drink transgenic orange juice or they’re going to drink apple juice.”

Development of a so-called “transgenic tree” could take up to a decade, and cost upwards of $20 million. That investment could prove to be a drop in the bucket in terms of the potential financial impact of a collapse of the citrus industry. Florida is the world’s second largest citrus producer (behind only Brazil). The local industry is valued at $9 billion and employs 76,000 in the state.

Advocates say that numerous crops could benefit from genetic alterations to increase their resistance to diseases, pests, droughts, and other risk factors. Convincing the general public of that, however, has proven exceedingly difficult. Genetically-altered crops, called GMOs (genetically modified organism), are already a part of our food supply, but backlash again them has been growing. Critics say that such crops may well have long-term side effects that have so far gone undetected. Earlier this year, national food retailer Whole Foods announced their intentions to clearly label all GMO foods in their inventory within the next five years.

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