Obama swaps letters with Iran’s new president

By Danielle Wiener-Bronner
September 17, 2013

Iran and U.S. open a rare line of communication, U.N. report reveals unspeakable atrocities in North Korea, Muslim guerrillas flee Philippine battle. Today is Tuesday, September 17, and this is the World Wrap, brought to you by @dwbronner and @clarerrrr.

Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani gestures to the media during a news conference in Tehran, June 17, 2013. REUTERS/Fars News/Majid Hagdost

Letters from Tehran.  Iran’s Foreign Ministry confirmed on Tuesday that recently-elected President Hassan Rouhani has been exchanging letters with President Obama, opening communication channels that have been closed since Washington cut off diplomatic ties after the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980:

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said on Tuesday that Obama had sent Rouhani a message of congratulations on the occasion of his election. “As we have seen in news reports, this letter has been exchanged,” Afkham said, according to the ISNA news agency. “The mechanism for exchanging these letters is through current diplomatic channels.” Obama said in an interview broadcast on Sunday he had exchanged letters with Rouhani. The two men will speak on the same day at the U.N. General Assembly next week, though there are currently no plans for them to meet.

In a shift from his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s new president has signaled that he is eager to end the nuclear dispute with the West. On Monday, Iran’s new atomic energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi promised greater cooperation with the U.N. nuclear watchdog. Another flicker of hope for restored communications arose yesterday as many Iranians found they could access previously-blocked social media sites. “Is Iran’s Berlin Wall of internet censorship crumbling down? I am tweeting from Tehran from my cell without restrictions,” The New York Times’ Thomas Erdbrink wrote. The government quickly put the speculation to rest:

Access was being blocked again on Tuesday and an official involved in controlling Internet usage said the brief lifting of the embargo at some Iranian Internet service providers was probably caused by a technical malfunction. “The lack of a filter on Facebook last night was apparently due to technical problems and the technological committee is investigating this issue,” Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, secretary of a state panel that filters sites, told Iran’s Mehr news agency.

However, one Iran expert noted that the new administration may be considering lifting restrictions on Facebook and Twitter.

Shin Dong-hyuk, a former North Korean defector, attends a public hearing at Yonsei university in Seoul, August 20, 2013. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

U.N. Sees Nightmare in North Korea. The U.N. issued its first report on human rights abuses in North Korea on Tuesday, based on testimony from witnesses whose reports included seeing a mother forced to drown her baby and being tortured for watching foreign soap operas:

There have long been concerns about reports of atrocities including executions and torture, but they have largely been overshadowed by international alarm about North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Tuesday’s report came after pressure by Japan, South Korea and Western powers to investigate and begin building a case for possible criminal prosecution. Inquiry head Michael Kirby said the findings were based on testimony from North Korean exiles, including former political prison camps inmates, given at public hearings in Seoul and Tokyo last month. “They are representative of large-scale patterns that may constitute systematic and gross human rights violations,” Kirby added.

North Korea quickly denied the allegations. China, Belarus, and Syria, came to Pyongyang’s defense, saying the accusations were politicized. Kirby said the independent inquiry will attempt to find which officials and institutions were responsible for the abuses. The report did not specify whether or how they would be prosecuted.

Government soldiers wear ammunition bandoliers on their shoulders as they prepare to attack the positions of Muslim rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) amidst smoke from burning houses, during a gunbattle in Zamboanga city in southern Philippines, September 13, 2013. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Fight respite. After weeks of battle that left nearly 100 dead and displaced 80,000 people, Philippine forces freed civilian hostages held in a port city where hundreds of Muslim guerrilla troops have been fighting for weeks:

The fighting… has highlighted lingering grievances in the Catholic-majority country despite its growing economy and an agreement with the biggest Muslim rebel group that was meant to bring peace. … While the army had freed about 200 hostages since late on Monday, the fleeing rebels had taken captive a team of police officers, including the Zamboanga City police chief, police said. Armed forces spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala told reporters the army had killed 34 rebels in the past 24 hours.

The guerrillas, a breakaway faction of the Moro National Liberation Front, are attempting to derail a peace deal signed last October by the Philippine government and the main Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Hundreds of homes and several other structures were destroyed over 9 days of fighting.

Nota Bene: In a shift from its noncommittal stance on Syria, Israel says it wants to see Assad fall.

Standouts:

Step back - Reuters columnist David Rohde explains Obama’s Middle East strategy. (Reuters)

Tipsy Kitty - Chinese beer makers use Hello Kitty cans and fruity flavors to market potent brews to women. (The Atlantic)

Kantian contention - A Russian man is shot over a philosophical argument. (The Guardian)

Stop that shot - The Hong Kong marathon bans selfies to avoid pedestrian crashes. (BetaBeat)

Used-to-bee - Short-haired bumblebees return to the UK after they were thought to have gone extinct in 2000. (BBC)

From the File:

  • Germans ponder life after Merkel.
  • Syria - A chemical crime, a complex reaction.
  • Wrecked cruise ship Costa Concordia raised off Italian rocks.
  • Contentious Turkish mosque project stirs unrest.
  • Netanyahu, Obama to meet in Washington.
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