The United States and Iran have confirmed the exchange of letters between new President Hassan Rouhani and President Obama. The Iranian Foreign Ministry says Obama initiated the exchange to congratulate Rouhani on his election victory in June. In a rare interview to an American broadcaster, Rouhani told NBC News he thought Obama’s letter was "positive and constructive." Rouhani also vowed Iran will never seek nuclear weapons, and is committed to reaching a diplomatic solution.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani: "We have time and again said that under no circumstances would we seek any weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, nor will we ever. In its nuclear program, this government enters with full power and has complete authority. I have given the nuclear negotiations portfolio to the Foreign Ministry. The problem won’t be from our side. We have sufficient political latitude to solve this problem."
In a televised address, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested he supports new engagement with the United States, saying Iran’s diplomacy should have "flexibility." Khamenei also said Iran does not want nuclear weapons because it believes no state should have them.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: "We don’t want nuclear weapons, not because of pressure from the U.S. or others, but because of our belief that no one should have nuclear weapons. When we say no one should have nuclear weapons, that means not for them and not for us either."
Both Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and President Obama will address the U.N. General Assembly in New York next week, but no talks are on deck.
Ahead of President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to the United Nations, the Iranian government has released a number of political prisoners, including the leading human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. Sotoudeh was serving a six-year sentence after representing other political activists and campaigning against the execution of juveniles. She has held two long hunger strikes during her time behind bars. At least seven other women political prisoners have also been freed.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is rejecting U.S. claims that the threat of force spurred his decision to abandon chemical weapons. Speaking to Fox News, Assad said Syria proposed a chemical-free zone in the Middle East a decade ago, but the United States was opposed.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: "No, actually, it’s not now. If you go back 10 years ago, when we were a non-permanent member of the Security Council in 2003, we proposed to the United Nations, to the Security Council, Syrian proposal is to get rid of the WMD from the Middle East, to have a free — chemical-free zone or WMD-free zone in the Middle East. And, actually, the United States opposed that proposal."
In his comments, Assad also again denied carrying out last month’s chemical attack in Ghouta that killed hundreds of people. A U.N. report this week said the attack came from areas controlled by Assad’s regime, but Assad says Russian intelligence reports reached an opposite conclusion. Assad also said the disposal of Syria’s chemical weapons will take about one year and cost around a billion dollars.
President Obama’s approach to Syria has came under criticism from his first two defense secretaries. At a public event in Dallas, Leon Panetta said Obama should have followed through on a threat of U.S. military attack, while Robert Gates called for increased military aid to Syrian rebels.
Leon Panetta: "My view would have been that once the president came to that conclusion, that he should have directed limited action going after Assad to make very clear to the world that when we draw a line and we give our word, dammit, we back it up."
Robert Gates: "My view is significantly increasing the amount of covert assistance to selected rebel groups, opposition groups. I would not provide them with surface-to-air missiles, but I would give them heavier weapons, and more of them."
House Republicans have moved the nation closer to a potential government shutdown. On Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner vowed to hold a new vote tying money for federal agencies to the defunding of "Obamacare."
House Speaker John Boehner: "We’re going to continue to do everything we can to repeal the president’s failed healthcare law. This week, the House will pass a CR [continuing resolution] that locks the sequester savings in and defunds 'Obamacare.'"
The Republican move would tie two-and-a-half months of government funding after October 1 to the stripping of all funds for the healthcare law. The House will hold its vote on Friday. If Democrats and Republicans cannot come to an agreement by September 30, almost every federal agency will at least be partially shut down. Boehner also says he will seek a one-year delay of "Obamacare" when the House takes up the federal borrowing limit next week. The United States is facing a deadline of around mid-October to extend the Treasury’s borrowing limit or default on its debts. On Wednesday, President Obama accused Republicans of extortion by using the threat of economic disaster.
President Obama: "You have never seen in the history of the United States the debt ceiling or the threat of not raising the debt ceiling being used to extort a president or a governing party and trying to force issues that have nothing to do with the budget and have nothing to do with the debt."
The Federal Reserve has announced plans to continue its economic stimulus program indefinitely. Under a policy called "quantitative easing," the Fed is spending $85 billion a month buying up Treasury and mortgage bonds in a bid to trigger economic growth. On Wednesday, Fed Chair Ben Bernanke said the unemployment rate remains too high despite some gains.
Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke: "Conditions in the job market today are still far from what all of us would like to see. Nevertheless, meaningful progress has been made in the year since we announced the asset purchase program. For example, the unemployment rate has fallen from 8.1 percent at the time of our announcement to 7.3 percent today. And about 2.3 million private sector jobs have been created over the same period."
Bernanke’s announcement sparked a rally in Wall Street trading, with both the Dow Jones Industrial Average and Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index closing at record highs.
A storage tank damaged in Colorado’s record-breaking flooding has spilled in the state’s South Platte River. Around 125 barrels of oil from the company Anadarko Petroleum have leaked so far. Meanwhile, a new estimate from the disaster modeling firm EQECAT says the flood’s property damages will total around $2 billion.
In Mexico, at least 80 people are dead amid massive flooding brought by tropical storms, including one that transformed into a hurricane Wednesday. Hurricane Manuel is expected to bring more devastation to the northwestern state of Sinaloa. In the southern resort city of Acapulco, some 40,000 tourists have been left stranded. North of the city, a mudslide inundated a coffee-growing village where 58 people are now missing.
Arctic sea ice has hit its sixth-lowest point on record. The figure is an improvement over last year’s record low, but still marks the latest in an overall trend of long-term decline caused by global warming. The Arctic has lost around 40 percent of its ice sheet since 1980. On Wednesday, Russian coast guards arrested two activists with the group Greenpeace after they tried to scale an oil platform in the Arctic’s Barents Sea. A Greenpeace member spoke out from the group’s ship, the Arctic Sunrise.
Faiza Oulahsen: "We’re here in the Russian Arctic taking action against the first Arctic oil platform to go into production, which pose a huge threat to the fragile environment. Gazprom is known for its poor safety standards, and we’ve seen Shell screw up in the Alaskan Arctic last year, and now these two reckless oil companies are teaming up. It’s a disaster waiting to happen. We can see the Arctic sea ice melting in front of our own eyes, and instead of seeing that as a huge threat to mankind and the planet, oil companies are rushing into the Arctic to drill for the oil that caused climate change in the first place."
Bahrain’s top opposition party has suspended talks with the government following the arrest of its deputy leader. Al Wefaq says it will halt a national dialogue with the Sunni monarchy over the detention of Khalil al-Marzouq on charges of inciting terrorism. The Bahraini government has waged a crackdown on opposition protesters since an uprising broke out in February 2011. In an audio message to supporters released this week, the jailed Bahraini human rights activist Zainab Alkhawaja recited a passage from a poem in dedication to her father, human rights attorney Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, who is serving a life sentence.
Zainab Alkhawaja: "If one day, the people desire to live, then fate will answer their calls, and the night will begin to fade away, and their chains to break and fall."
A pair of Canadians detained in Egypt have launched a hunger strike after over a month in prison without charge. John Greyson, a Toronto filmmaker, and Tarek Loubani, a doctor, were arrested in Cairo after reportedly asking police for directions. The two were slated to visit Gaza, where Greyson was to film Loubani as he trained emergency room doctors. Their detention has been extended for another 15 days.
Seven people were arrested outside the White House on Wednesday protesting the record deportation of undocumented immigrants. The group held up a banner reading "Mr. President, Stop Deportations," before chaining themselves to the White House fence. The action came one day after President Obama vowed to continue deporting the parents of undocumented children who were granted a reprieve last year. In a statement, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network said more civil disobedience actions will be held in Phoenix over the weekend of October 12th. Arizona has just confirmed plans to expand a ban on issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants to all those granted relief from deportation.