Morning news brief
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
President Biden is at the United Nations in New York today.
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
He's giving his annual address, laying out his foreign policy agenda to a global audience, and top of mind is support for a Ukraine defending itself against Russia. But there are big questions about how long U.S. support can continue.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith is there. So let's start with a bit of a roll call. China, Russia, France and the U.K. are not attending this year. So, Tamara, it sounds like President Biden has the U.N. stage pretty much to himself.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Yeah, this does mean he has less competition for his message, and what he's planning to share is his vision about U.S. leadership in the world and also what global cooperation should look like. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan characterized the U.S. role this way.
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JAKE SULLIVAN: We see at this point a strong demand signal for more American engagement, for more American investment, for more American presence across all continents and all corners of the world.
KEITH: But of course, the 2024 presidential campaign is heating up, and many of Biden's would-be opponents, including the front-runner, former President Donald Trump, have very different views about the value of U.S. engagement in the world and even what American democracy should look like.
MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, and certainly Ukraine is one of those areas. What do you expect to hear from the president on Ukraine?
KEITH: Well, this time last year, when President Biden spoke at the U.N., the war in Ukraine was still relatively new. Now he's speaking as it has dragged on for another year with no end in sight. And he's going to make a strong pitch to the nations of the world to remain resolute in support of Ukraine's right to sovereignty. But as Leila said, there are questions hanging over the sustainability of U.S. support in terms of weapons and economic aid.
MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, 'cause there's an outstanding request to Congress for more funding for Ukraine.
KEITH: Yeah, that's right. The White House has asked Congress for another $24 billion in support of Ukraine's war effort. And White House officials insist that there really is a bipartisan coalition that exists to keep that funding coming, but have you seen Congress lately? House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is facing open threats from within his conference to oust him from leadership. The government is set to run out of spending authority at the end of the month. There is no clear path to passing a budget at this point, and many far-right House Republicans are balking at the idea of giving additional money to Ukraine. All of that puts President Biden in this awkward and yet quite familiar position of standing up on the world stage and saying, don't worry, guys, America is good for it, when all signs point to instability and uncertainty on the domestic political front. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is going to be speaking to the U.N. today, and then he's heading to Washington later this week to make his own pitch for continued funding.
MARTÍNEZ: So already, that's a lot, but there is more on the president's plate while he's in New York.
KEITH: That's right. He will be the first U.S. president to meet with the leaders of the nations known as the C5 - that is the Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. They are neighbors of Russia and China, and this is all about the U.S. signaling that it wants to be engaged in that neighborhood too. There are also a couple of interesting leader meetings happening on the sidelines. Biden is set to meet with the Brazilian president and labor leaders right in the midst of this United Auto Workers strike. And then President Biden is also meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, someone he hasn't met with since Netanyahu won election again with a new, more conservative coalition.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Tamara Keith. Thanks a lot, Tamara.
KEITH: You're welcome.
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MARTÍNEZ: After seeing their first moments of freedom yesterday, five Americans who had been detained in Iran will soon be reunited with their families in the U.S.
FADEL: Yeah, the Biden administration officials say negotiations to free these people went on for years. They tossed out a number of Iranian demands. In the end, five Iranians were freed from U.S. custody, and the U.S. gave Iran access to $6 billion of its own oil revenues that had been frozen in a bank in Korea. It's that money prompting most of the debate.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Peter Kenyon covers Iran, joins us from Istanbul. Peter, as they're coming back home, remind us what these Americans have been through.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, the group includes the American held the longest in Iran in more than four decades, 51-year-old businessman Siamak Namazi. He was held for some eight years. As the detainees reached Doha yesterday, Namazi released a statement thanking all those who'd fought for his release. Now, he also said his joy at being free was mixed with sorrow for those still being held in Iranian prisons. He said, quote, "All the political prisoners of Iran, a country where the indomitable courage of women leaves us in awe, deserve their liberty." That was a reference to women defying headscarf rules in Iran, and that includes 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody last year after being detained by the morality police in Iran. Now, other detainees include Morad Tahbaz, a businessman and conservationist, and Emad Shargi, who was detained on what the U.S. called bogus espionage charges. There are two other detainees. Their families requested at this point that their names not be disclosed.
MARTÍNEZ: OK. What's Iran been saying?
KENYON: Well, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is saying Iran and the U.S. could have completed this prisoner swap much sooner, quote, "if the U.S. had not pinned its hopes on last year's riots." Now, he's also referring to the unrest that followed Amini's death last year. Raisi, who is in New York for the U.N. General Assembly gathering - he added that the prisoner swap was done purely on humanitarian grounds.
MARTÍNEZ: Now, by most accounts of what we know, the five Iranians in the U.S. that are being released - they're not major figures. Most are facing - what? - charges of convictions for trade sanctions violations. That money, though, that's getting all the attention - how is that going to be handled?
KENYON: Well, this is $6 billion that was already Iran's money. Everyone agrees to that. It was transferred to bank accounts in Qatar. And the U.S. Treasury Department says it will be closely monitored. It's intended to be used for things like food, agricultural products, medicine, things like that. The U.S. says if Iran tries to purchase material covered under sanctions with this money, Tehran's access to that funding can be cut off once again at any time. Now, critics say that still leaves Iran free to spend other money on weapons and other things. They also say making these deals sends Iranian leaders the clear message that grabbing Westerners can be very lucrative. And the White House is again warning Americans considering travel to Iran to think again and avoid going there at this time.
MARTÍNEZ: So on that, Peter, can anything be done then to keep Iran from detaining another American?
KENYON: Well, that's a question a lot of people have been asking. It's very hard to answer. There have been several U.S.-Iran swaps over the years under both Democratic and Republican U.S. presidents. But there's also an effort by the U.S. and Canada at the U.N. to unite countries in a deal to act together against any country that detains people, takes hostages. And there are more hostages in Iran, including Westerners. This may be an effort to make them pay a price. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says he's talking about that this week in New York at the U.N. General Assembly.
MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Thanks for your reporting, Peter.
KENYON: Thank you.
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MARTÍNEZ: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is accusing India's government of ordering the killing of a Sikh leader in British Columbia. Canada has expelled an Indian diplomat who'd been described as the head of Indian intelligence in the country.
FADEL: Now, Trudeau's explosive comments in Parliament came after Canadian national security officials said they had credible intelligence that India was behind the assassination in June.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam has been following the developments. Jackie, first, tell us about the alleged assassination. Who was killed?
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Well, it was a man named Hardeep Singh Nijjar, and he was a prominent leader in the Sikh community in Surrey, which is a suburb of Vancouver. Nijjar was considered really an outspoken advocate for creating an independent Sikh state in India's Punjab region. And the Indian government called him a terrorist. He was shot dead just outside one of the main Sikh temples in Surrey, and two masked gunmen were seen running away. You know, his killing really sent a shock wave of - you know, of fear through the Sikh community because it did appear to be targeted.
MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And now the Canadian government is accusing India of it being behind it. And, I mean, that's a big deal for the leader of a G-7 country to openly accuse another government of assassinating one of its own citizens. I mean, what did Trudeau have to say?
NORTHAM: Well, he said for the past few weeks, Canada's security agencies have been investigating the killing and have come to the conclusion that agents of the government of India - his words - were responsible. Let's have a listen to him talking in Parliament.
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PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty.
NORTHAM: And, A, Trudeau said steps will be taken to go after those responsible for killing Nijjar.
MARTÍNEZ: What's India's response been?
NORTHAM: Well, India has dismissed the allegations and is calling them absurd, and it's also expelling a Canadian diplomat. It's voiced concerns about what it calls anti-India activities in Canada. But Trudeau told Parliament that he personally and directly brought up the allegations of Nijjar's killing when he met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this year at the G-20 summit in New Delhi. Here's Trudeau again.
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TRUDEAU: In the strongest possible terms, I continue to urge the government of India to cooperate with Canada to get to the bottom of this matter.
NORTHAM: And Trudeau said Canada has been working closely and coordinating with its allies on this, and the National Security Council, a spokesperson, said it's deeply concerned about the allegations of the assassination and is remaining in contact with its Canadian partners about it.
MARTÍNEZ: So I'm guessing relations between India and Canada aren't too good right now.
NORTHAM: No. You know, relations were already rocky before this, you know, just about Sikh separatists in Canada, and India has complained about demonstrations outside its high commission in Ottawa and elsewhere in Canada. You know, and earlier this month, Canada suspended trade negotiations with India, and these were supposed to have been wrapped up this year. You know, with these tit-for-tat expulsions and now this allegation of assassination, it's hard to imagine relations are going to improve anytime soon.
MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. NPR's Jackie Northam. Jackie, thanks.
NORTHAM: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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