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Washington’s World: January 26th, 2015 – February 1st, 2015

As President Obama leaves Washington en route to India and Saudi Arabia following his State of the Union Address, the foreign policy landscape is a lively one.  On two issues – Cuba and Iran – the Administration is hopeful of achieving breakthroughs that have eluded successive previous presidents. The signs are slightly more hopeful on the former than on the latter. Travel restrictions have already been eased and some US airlines are already expressing interest in regular flights between the US and Cuba. US agricultural exporters are looking forward to expanding sales to the island. None of this will happen overnight. US officials tell us that, with the Cuban side demanding that all economic sanctions be lifted before other matters can be engaged, tough negotiations lie ahead before diplomatic relations can be normalized. Nonetheless, the opening to Cuba enjoys sufficiently broad support – opposition is in evidence only in specialist quarters where there is a large émigré community – that this is a policy that should succeed. The same cannot be said over Iran. Even as negotiations are making slow but steady progress, opposition is mounting in Washington. As evidenced by the invitation from House Speaker Boehner to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress in early March, the forces arrayed against any agreement with Iran are significant. A parallel bipartisan initiative to ramp up additional sanctions against Iran in the event of the failure of the talks threatens the viability of the talks. Obama has promised to veto any new sanctions legislation, but State Department officials tell us that they are deeply concerned that the Iranian side could use this as a pretext to abandon the talks. One commented to us: “Just when we seem to be within reach of an agreement with Tehran, the most powerful enemy of an agreement appears in the shape of political dynamics in Washington.” On other fronts, the US continues to assert that it is making progress in the conflict with ISIS. An offensive is in preparation to retake Mosul from ISIS by the summer. Lastly, the death of Saudi King Abdullah was not a surprise – we mentioned it as one of our “drivers” for 2015 – but contrary to some commentary US officials anticipate a stable succession, even if the new King Salman himself passes on at an early stage, with few if any changes in US-Saudi relations. Congressional sources involved with intelligence and national security matters as well as senior defense contacts are particularly pleased to note the involvement of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in the succession line up.

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