Argentina's Politicians Latch On To Homegrown Pope

Argentine politicians may not all have liked Jorge Bergoglio when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. But from President Kirchner to her potential successors, all want a piece of the pontiff.

Pope Francis and Cristina Kirchner on Monday
Pope Francis and Cristina Kirchner on Monday
Julios Blanck

BUENOS AIRES — It may sound harsh to accuse someone of hanging onto the Pope’s cassock, but when it comes to Argentina’s top politicians, it’s hard to put it any other way.

And why not? After a year in the papacy, Pope Francis’ moral stature is a new north star for politicians back here in his native country. His personal approval rating in Argentina — 93%, according to the recent poll by Poliarquía — is something other public figures can only dream about. What politician could refuse a little extra sheen for his or her lackluster image, cast by a brilliant sun shining on Argentina and the world?

The more tricky question, of course, is will the Pope let them? President Cristina Kirchner was the first to try it, even if her reported immediate reaction was fury at the election of the man reputed not to appreciate her Peronist politics when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

But while she went looking this week in Rome for a little papal light and succor to help make a dignified exit from the presidency, her potential successors are even more eager to bask in Francis’ glow.

Former presidential ally who has since become a presidential rival, Sergio Massa, of the Frente Renovador movement, met March 13 with two Catholic bishops. It was a meeting carefully organized Massa aide Joaquín de la Torre and held, emblematically, in the Jesuit college where Pope Francis lived and worked for years.

Massa spoke of poverty, corruption, family life — the Pope’s favored themes when speaking of a better life for Argentines. Yet, let’s remember, Massa was cabinet chief in Cristina Kirchner’s first government, when her party had the worst relations with the then-Cardinal Bergoglio. He’s busy doing some repair work now, though he has yet to obtain a private audience with His Holiness.

One old ally

Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, a government opponent, has also vowed his “respect and affection” for the Pope, trying to put behind him poor relations when Francis was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. In fact, the Pope privately received Macri in Rome when the mayor visited as part of the Argentine president’s delegation. A senior city official was also present when the Pope anointed the city’s new archbishop, Monsignor Mario Poli.

The presidential hopeful closest to the Pope may be the Buenos Aires provincial Governor Daniel Scioli. Their relationship has been built over time and their loyalty proven amid adverse times. While the governor has avoided flaunting his favored position, his religious fervor is not in doubt — and viewed by some as “obsessive.”

Last week Scioli eagerly voiced support for the bishops’ warning about drug trafficking. And he has signed a cooperation document with the Catholic University run by one of the Pope’s close collaborators — “Tucho” Fernández, who was promoted to archbishop soon after Francis became Pope.

Yet the outsized celebrations the governor planned for the Pope’s anniversary somewhat betrayed his supposed down-to-earth style and spirit, and his specific recommendations against any “personalized” homage to himself in Argentina.

Argentine bishops have, meanwhile, echoed the Pope, calling for “politics as service to the common good” and urging politicians to “administer” power, not possess it.

These are the types of ideas the Argentine Church will continue to preach, taking its cue from the Argentine-born Bishop of Rome. In the earthly realm of politics, the Pope’s actions are as prudent as they are impossible to ignore.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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