Overtures From Despots Pose
Test to Obama Administration
Human rights groups warn that talks between the U.S. and nations like
Iran, Cuba and Syria still have a long way to go, despite recent
From Syria's Bashar al-Assad to
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Fidel Castro — the world's despots think they
found a new listener-in-chief in the White House.
FOXNews. April 08, 2009. There's something about Barack.
Not three months into his term, President Obama has drawn overtures from
top U.S. adversaries that would have been unthinkable under George W.
Bush -- whose last official trip abroad was marred by an Iraqi
journalist chucking his shoes at the outgoing president.
The gestures from Cuba, Syria and Iran appear a response to appeals from
Obama himself. He's presented his presidency as the mark of a new era in
which adversaries can approach the U.S. with a clean slate if they drop
their hostile ways.
With the new administration striking an open-door policy with democratic
leaders and despots alike, human rights groups warn that talks between
the U.S. and these nations have a long way to go before they're
Cuba's Fidel Castro, Syria's Bashar al-Assad and Iran's Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad may see a friendly face in Obama, but the sticking points
between the U.S. and these countries are still many.
Neil Hicks, international policy adviser for Human Rights First, said
repression continues to be a serious problem in these countries and
should be a "primary concern" for the United States.
"It's short sighted ... to build these relations and try to sweep human
rights under the rug," said Hicks. He urged the administration to use
this opportunity to seek human rights reform, something the U.S. has not
done with allies like Saudi Arabia.
Those concerns, of course, would be on top of those over Iran's nuclear
program and anti-Israel threats, as well as Syria's suspected
involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik
Hariri (Syria denies involvement) and other issues.
On top of that, the three countries compose three-quarters of the four
nations listed by the State Department as state sponsors of terrorism
(the other country is Sudan).
The prelude to potential high-level talks with Cuba and Iran took big
steps this week. Openings for talks with Syria have been growing.
Three members of the Congressional Black Caucus met with Castro, the
ailing former Cuban president Tuesday, as part of a seven-member trip to
the communist nation. According to Rep. Laura Richardson, D-Calif.,
Castro told them, "How can we help President Obama?" The meetings come
as Obama prepares to ease restrictions for Cuban-Americans who want to
visit family and remit money to relatives.
Ahmadinejad reportedly gave a televised speech Wednesday in which he
said his country "welcomes a hand extended to it should it really and
truly be based on honesty, justice and respect."
He gave a more receptive message to the U.S. than Supreme Leader
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who dismissed Obama's videotaped outreach
message to Iranians last month. But Ahmadinejad still warned that Obama
would "meet the same response the Iranian nation gave to Mr. Bush" if he
is not honest.
The U.S. State Department announced Wednesday that it will reverse Bush
policy and participate in groups talks with Iran over its nuclear
Al-Assad also has given indications he is open to U.S. engagement, as
the U.S. renews low-level diplomatic talks with the country.
Iran's and Syria's support for, or at least tolerance toward, groups
like Hamas and Hezbollah is a major factor in their icy relationship
with the U.S. Changing that dynamic would be a key aim of U.S. talks
with those countries.
But national security issues should just be one component of talks with
these countries, human rights activists say.
Reporters Without Borders ranks all three nations at the very bottom of
a list measuring press freedom in countries around the world. The group
found in its latest assessment of Iran that more than 50 journalists
were prosecuted in 2007 --- and that the government shut down at least
four publications, in addition to dozens of Web sites.
The jailing of U.S. journalist Roxana Saberi, who was charged with
espionage in Iran, is just the latest example. Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton is calling for her release.
Reporters Without Borders also noted that Syria has blocked access to
100 Web sites, including Hotmail, Facebook, YouTube and human rights
Matt Easton, director of the Human Rights Defenders Program at Human
Rights First, said more than 50 activists and journalists rounded up by
Cuba in 2003 are still imprisoned.
"It's certainly a problematic country in human rights," Easton said.
"There's ... widespread prohibition of freedom of expression and freedom
Human Rights Watch wrote in a report in February that even though Castro
has resigned, his "abusive machinery" remains in place with brother
Raul's presidency. Abuses range from surveillance to house arrests to
prosecutions to unjust court trials.
A report this year by the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National
Reconciliation said Cuba still has 205 political prisoners, though that
number is lower than in previous years.
Human Rights Watch also reported late last year that the human rights
"crisis" in Iran has only escalated. According to the report Iran leads
the world in executing juveniles -- with the country accounting for 26
of the 32 juvenile executions worldwide since 2005.
But potential pay-offs to restoring relations with these countries are
significant, say analysts.
The U.S., for instance, may be poised to peel Syria away from Iran and
other anti-Western Middle Eastern nations, reducing Iran's influence in
the region. Such a move could also ease the road to peace for Israel and
the rest of the region.
Repairing relations with Iran could ease the U.S. war effort in
neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan.
A number of U.S. officials simply see the half-century long embargo on
Cuba as pointless.
Advocates for dropping the embargo say it would also mitigate Castro's
ability to exploit tensions between the U.S. and Cuba in his country.
"We could talk about what happened 50 years ago or we could talk about
what's happening today," Richardson told FOX News Wednesday. "Having a
50-year-old embargo is not helping America. Every other country is
working with Cuba except us and that should change."
Richardson said she observed a "tremendous amount of freedom" during her
five-day stay in Cuba.
"I experienced the freedom to travel. There were no police, you know,
following us around," she said. "We had the freedom of speech. There
were press conferences every single morning. There was no demonstration
Castro wrote in a newspaper column after the congressional visit that
Obama's intentions are "sincere" and he described the meeting as
"excellent." But he questioned what initiative the U.S. expects Cuba to
"We have never been aggressors nor do we threaten the United States," he
A Cuban official in D.C. told FOX News the country's hope is the lifting
of U.S. embargoes on Cuba.
"We have the same position, to talk with mutual respect," the official
said. "Let's see what happens."
FOXNews.com's Judson Berger and FOX News' Nina Donaghy contributed to