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A woman holds a placard as she joins a protest March 24 in Tel Aviv, Israel, against a possible attack on Iran's nuclear facilities (CNS photo/Nir Elias, Reuters)

Iranian Détente

In Geneva last month, U.S. and European negotiators achieved a major diplomatic breakthrough that offers a way out of the state of constant crisis between Iran and the West. American officials and representatives from five other world powers concluded an interim accord that will halt Iran’s nuclear development program for six months, creating breathing room for negotiations toward a more comprehensive, final agreement.

As the talks proceeded, hardliners in Iran were aghast, and Israeli leaders intent on squashing Iran’s rapprochement with the United States did their best to thwart further progress. These two strangest of bedfellows have joined hands in efforts to undermine the continuing negotiations. They have been ably assisted by some late entrants into the game—members of Congress who have taken to throwing last-minute obstacles in the way of this historic opportunity. It is fair to wonder if these members of Congress are more mindful of Israel’s best interests—or, more accurately, what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu erroneously presumes them to be—than the best interests of the nation they purportedly serve. The United States can ill afford another confrontation in the Middle East, and the potential benefits of an Iranian détente are manifold.

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The howling from the sidelines cannot be allowed to throw off negotiators as they attempt to capitalize on the interim agreement. Normalizing relations with Iran is good for the United States; it is good for Iran; and in the long run, it will prove to be good for Israel.

China’s Real Choice

Economic calculus and demographic realities are reportedly behind China’s recent decision to relax its one-child policy to allow couples to have a second child if either parent is an only child. The announcement, along with a resolution to abolish the country’s “re-education through labor” camps, came on Nov. 15, following the annual closed-door meeting of Communist Party leaders. There is no timetable for the implementation of the new policy, which will be introduced by provincial governments.

China’s family-planning regime was put into place in 1980 amid fears that overpopulation would undermine economic growth. Officials boast that it has averted 400 million births and reduced pressure on the environment. But today the policy has become a victim of its own success; a shrinking young labor force will be unable to support a growing elderly population.

Although this reform is a step in the right direction, it does not go nearly far enough in protecting the fundamental human right to decide whether and when to have a child. Since 1971 Chinese doctors have performed 336 million abortions, and though forced abortions are illegal, they are not uncommon. An enduring cultural preference for males leads to millions of sex-selective abortions every year, contributing to one of the most skewed gender ratios in the world; in 2012, 118 boys were born for every 100 girls.

It is not always the case that economic exigency and basic morality point in the same direction. But in the case of China’s birth restrictions, they do. This massive intrusion of the state into a couple’s decision to give and support life must end. The choice between foregoing an “extra” child and paying a fine for having one is no choice at all.

People, Not Prisoners

The United States has been reluctant to take lessons in social policy from our allies in Europe, but on one issue it may be time to pay closer attention. The criminal justice system in the United States is severely overburdened, and for financial if not moral reasons, policymakers have much to learn from societies where incarceration rates are far lower.

Germany jails an average of 79 per 100,000 residents. In the United States the overall rate is 716 per 100,000 residents. There are many reasons for this disparity. Prison sentences are far shorter in Germany, for example, and rehabilitation programs are more widely available. The chief reason, however, is one of principle: Germany and other European countries view imprisonment as a way to help lawbreakers reform themselves and re-enter society. In the United States, retribution takes precedence over rehabilitation.

Prison officials from the United States saw the European approach firsthand on a fact-finding trip sponsored by the Vera Institute of Justice. A report released last month outlined some of the lessons learned. The delegates, representing Colorado, Georgia and Pennsylvania, visited Germany and the Netherlands. They were impressed by the flexible sentencing policies and treatment of the mentally ill in those countries and said they hoped to bring a similar approach to their home states.

The most encouraging insight came from an American observer who, while visiting a German prison, remarked on the practice of permitting inmates to wear their own clothes and prepare their own meals: “If you treat inmates like humans, they will act like humans.”

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