U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is expressing grave concern about the safety of international inspectors overseeing the destruction and removal of Syria's chemical weapons program -- just as the project enters its riskiest phase yet.
Ban voiced his concerns in a letter to the U.N. Security Council, which provides fresh details on international plans for the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons. A copy of the letter, which had not been made public yet, was posted on the web site of a reporter from Arab language broadcaster Al Hurra. Sigrid Kaag, a Dutch* national who heads the U.N.-backed joint mission overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, will brief the Security Council on Wednesday on Ban's letter.
The joint mission, comprised of 15 experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and 48 U.N. personnel, is preparing the ground for the latest and most perilous phase of the operation: transporting large quantities of chemical agent through a war zone to the Syrian port of Latakia, where they will be shipped by Norwegian and Danish vessels, and then transferred to American vessels for destruction at sea, according to diplomats.
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Iran's potential rehabilitation comes at an awkward time for OPEC, the elite club of petroleum-producing states that controls the flow of oil to the world market. The cartel's dominance is already threatened by a boom in oil extracted from shale in the United States, and now the potential return of millions of barrels of Iranian oil to the market looms over Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries as they meet in Vienna this week.
While the global power shift brought on by the U.S. shale boom threatens OPEC from the outside, member countries are threatening it from the inside. Iraq, and now Iran, both want to increase production at a time when global supply is already high, raising the specter that OPEC won't be able to marshal its members into line to control prices. The end result could be lower oil prices next year, according to many analysts.
"OPEC's relevance is waning in our view," said Eric Lee, an oil analyst with Citigroup. Lee said the increased supply from non-OPEC countries has created a disruptive shift in the oil markets that reduces the cartel's control of the market.
That includes the United States, where a boom in oil and gas extracted from shale rock has changed the dynamics of the international energy market. The innovations in extraction methods that led to the boom, including horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, are still under scrutiny for their effects on the environment, while U.S. domestic production continues to grow. The United States produced more crude oil than it imported in November for the first time since 1995. The shift means the United States is less reliant on oil from the Middle East, which could have wide-ranging effects on global politics and markets.
This week in Vienna, Iran is laying the groundwork for a potential increase in oil production, pushing other countries to make room for Iranian oil to come back to the market in the event that a long-term deal to lift U.S. sanctions can be negotiated.
"Other OPEC countries would have to cut to make room for Iran," said Trevor Houser, partner at Rhodium Group, an economic research firm.
But it's unclear whether other countries will want to reduce production in order to make way for Iran.
"This could be a difficult moment for OPEC, a difficult year," said Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Iran is going to be very resentful of anyone saying they should hold back their increase," Clawson said.
That's the way a cartel works. When global oil production is up, the cartel imposes quotas so that an increase in supply doesn't cause the price of oil to drop. The 12 OPEC countries get together and decide to hold back some oil from the market. Each country takes the short-term setback in order to keep the price of oil up, which ultimately benefits all the countries in the club.
Though OPEC is not expected to change its policy this week in Vienna, the prospect of more Iranian oil coming into the market could mean that the cartel might have to move sooner than expected to lower quotas.
"There are two problems: Can you get agreement to reduce the quotas, and can you get countries to abide by the reduced quotas," said Houser. "I think both are going to be pretty challenging."
The struggle will be keeping everybody in line.
"The history of OPEC has been frustrated by sometimes formal agreements that never materialize in practice; many countries accept reducing their own production, but then continue to sell oil under the table," said Leonardo Maugeri, an associate of the Harvard Kennedy School and former executive of Italian oil company Eni. Maugeri said that he expects OPEC to meet again in early 2014 to settle on a new policy. If it can't, oil prices could collapse.
While some analysts have heralded the end of OPEC, others have warned that it could lead to greater volatility.
"Volatile oil prices are especially damaging because people have less ability to make decisions about what kind of car to buy and where to live based on how much oil will take up in their budget," said Jason Bordoff, director of Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy and a former senior advisor in the Obama administration.
OPEC helps dampen volatility. In addition to intervening when oil prices are falling, it also ramps up production when supply is suddenly cut, in an effort to keep prices from spiking.
"Over the last couple years the Gulf states have increased their production when there have been disruptions in, say, Libya," Richard Mallinson, a geopolitical analyst with energy markets consultancy Energy Aspects, said. Mallinson said OPEC has weathered many challenges and will likely survive this one as well.
And while Iran is warning OPEC countries this week that they may have to make room for Iranian oil, some experts think that is still wishful thinking on Iran's part.
"The Iranians have an interest in actually creating this kind of perception, and that is to lure oil companies, the big international companies, to see the potential in coming back to the Iranian market," said Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst for International Crisis Group. Since Iran doesn't have lobbyists in Washington, Vaez added, Tehran is hoping to convince international oil companies to argue that sanctions should be rolled back.
Despite repeated objections from the White House, Senate Democrats and Republicans are charging ahead with plans to pass new sanctions legislation against Iran.
Though some Democrats fear burning bridges with the White House, aides tell The Cable that negotiations between senators in both parties are closing in on legislation that would impose new sanctions on Tehran after six months -- the length of the preliminary nuclear deal recently hammered out in Geneva. The bill would include an option to delay the punitive action if U.S. talks on a final deal appear promising. Despite earlier reports that Republican hawks would dismiss such legislation as overly lenient, a Senate aide says that's not the case.
Like perhaps no other foreign policy issue, Iran sanctions have pitted President Obama against a sizeable portion of his own party. In the last week, powerful Democrats such as Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Chuck Schumer of New York have openly defied the White House and advocated for new sanctions legislation.
On Friday, the administration attempted to demonstrate support for its Geneva deal by circulating a handout of lawmakers saying positive things about the agreement. But out of 535 members of the House and Senate, the White House only collected statements from 17 lawmakers -- in a list that counted mildly supportive tweets as endorsements.
In the latest sign of Democrats' open willingness to cross the administration, Menendez accused the White House of "fear-mongering" in its claims that new sanctions legislation would kill the nuclear deal and lead to war with Iran.
"As one of the architects of the sanctions regime we've had on Iran, this is exactly the process that has brought Iran to the negotiating table," Menendez told Face the Nation on Sunday. "While we have heard naysayers in the past say, no, we shouldn't pursue those sanctions, it seems to me that prospectively looking for sanctions that are invoked six months from the date of enactment ... sends a message to Iran, as it has throughout this process, that there is a consequence if you don't strike a successful deal."
Sources say a version of that proposal is currently being hammered out between Democrats and Republicans despite White House opposition. The law would work like this: If after six months, when the current interim deal with Iran is set to expire, no deal is made, then new sanctions against Tehran will take effect. However, if at that juncture, the White House needs more time to finish negotiating a final comprehensive deal, the bill gives the administration more flexibility.
How much flexibility is precisely what Democrats and Republicans are trying to work out. "The assumption that hawks would oppose this is only true if this latitude to delay for further talks is indefinite," a Senate aide tells The Cable. "If it's like 30 days because they think a deal is imminent, not sure hawks would object to that as long as [the administration] doesn't get endless 30-day renewals for talks to drag on forever."
The big unknown in these negotiations is Senate Majority Harry Reid, who is now caught between his Democratic Caucus and President Obama.
After a new sanctions bill passed by a landslide in the House, a bipartisan group of 76 senators including Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) penned a letter advocating for a tougher stance against Iran. Importantly, the call for a harder line came after the charm offensive by the newly-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Where Reid stands is unclear. Prior to the Nov. 23 deal with Iran, Reid said the Senate "must be prepared" to add new sanctions in December. In a more recent appearance on the Diane Rehm Show he said members would need to talk it over. "If we need more work on this, we need to do stronger sanctions, I'm sure we will do that," he said. "So I look forward to input from both the majority and the minority."
Meanwhile, he continues to face bipartisan pressure in Congress's march to add sanctions. "It will be up to Senator Reid to decide whether we have that opportunity on the floor over the next two or three weeks or whether he's going to continue to block for the administration so that that doesn't occur," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn) told Face the Nation. " I know Senator Menendez and I both will be working to try to figure out some way of ensuring that we get to the appropriate end game."
When asked if it it would veto legislation on new sanctions, administration officials have declined to comment.
The Dutch military is planning to deploy a team of dozens of military intelligence operatives in Mali in the coming weeks, part of a U.N. peacekeeping mission charged with stabilizing the terror-afflicted northern part of the country and preventing the resurgence of Islamist militants that only year ago held sway over much of the country, according to the Dutch military.
The Dutch contribution -- which will also include a team of special-forces troops and four Apache attack helicopters -- marks a rare return by a European power to a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Africa, where debacles from Somalia to Rwanda triggered a retreat in the late 1990s. But what is perhaps even more striking is that the U.N.'s top brass are privately acknowledging that the U.N.'s blue helmets will be engaging in the business of spying.
Since the birth of U.N. peacekeeping in Egypt's Sinai intelligence has been a dirty word in U.N. quarters, feeding suspicion among poor countries that Western spooks were secretly using the United Nations as a cover to spy on them, and giving fright to right wing Americans who fretted that U.N. storm troopers in black helicopters might swoop down to occupy the American prairie. In 1960, then U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold declined to establish a U.N. intelligence agency on the grounds that the U.N. "must have clean hands." In a sign of the enduring anxiety over big power espionage, Brazil and Germany this week pressed through a U.N. General Assembly resolution aimed at constraining massive data collection and digital eavesdropping, a move aimed at constraining the National Security Agency and other foreign intelligence outfits.
But in the U.N.'s far flung peacekeeping missions intelligence is no longer a dirty word. Herve Ladsous, the U.N.'s French chief of the U.N. peacekeeping department, will visit the Democratic Republic of Congo early next month to launch the flight of two U.N. surveillance drones -- the U.N. prefers to call them Unmanned Aerial Vehicles -- to keep track of potential threats from armed militias. If all goes well, these flying cameras could be introduced into peacekeeping missions in Mali, and possibly Ivory Coast and South Sudan.
The Dutch unit in Mali will operate electronic eavesdropping - or signals intelligence - operations targeting Islamic militants. But it will also engage in gathering human intelligence - low tech spying involving the cultivation of paid informants. "I would say this is precedent setting," Walter Dorn, a Canadian professor of Defense Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMCC), who has written extensively on U.N. intelligence gathering, told Foreign Policy. "The United Nations has been hesitant to use the word intelligence and engage in intelligence activities. But the necessity of being informed in situations where you have the fog of war, or the fog of peacekeeping, means that you have to have an accurate and timely information gathering and analysis units."
The actual threat to U.N. peacekeepers is by no means greater today than it has been in the past. So far this year, 82 U.N. blue helmets died serving in U.N. missions, fewer than half of the 173 fatalities suffered in 2010, and only a fraction of the 252 who died in 1993, when the U.N. was running high risk missions in Bosnia and Somalia. But the U.N.'s key powers, Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, agree on the need to confront the rising threat to U.N. personnel by Islamic extremists.
The Islamist militant group, Al Shabab, has been targeting U.N. personnel in Mogadishu, Somalia, mounting a bold terror attack against the U.N.'s humanitarian compound in June that left eight people employed by the U.N. dead.( In that case, a U.N. intelligence unit actually received a tip that the attack would occur, but it was still unable to stop it.)
For instance, in Mali, where the U.N. is facing a challenge by Islamist insurgents, suicide bombers last month attacked a U.N. peacekeeping unit in the town of Tessalit, Mali, killing two Chadian blue helmets and a civilian.
The Malian crisis began in the beginning of 2012 when a coalition of Tuareg separatists and foreign Islamist extremists linked to Al Qaeda, reinforced by arms from the fallen former Libyan leader Moammar Ghadafi's arsenals, seized control of key cities in northern Mali. Malian army officers, citing the governments' failure to adequately equip its troops in the battle against the insurgents, staged a military coup that sent the country into a state of chaos.
Fearing an Islamist offensive against the capital of Bamako, the French government launched a military offensive in January that routed the militants out of northern Mali. The French then helped organize a coalition of African countries that helped Mali drive the insurgents into retreat in the north. In July, the African troops were integrated into a new U.N. peacekeeping mission - the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stablization Mission in Mali(MINUSMA). The mission - which is headed by a Dutch politician, Bert Koenders- is serving along-side a separate French force of some 3,000 troops.
Earlier this month, the Dutch Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert announced that some 380 Dutch military personnel would serve in the U.N. mission, aiding an increasingly well-armed mission - which includes a combat-ready Chinese guard force - to restore security and stability in northern Mali. They will be headquartered in Bamako and Gao, where their primary job will be gathering, processing and analyzing intelligence. "In addition to special forces, we will deploy our sensor capability, unmanned systems and 4 Apache attack helicopters," she said. "We will be the eyes and ears of the U.N., enabling them to operate more effectively.
Jean Marie Guehenno, a French national who headed the U.N. peacekeeping department from2000 to 2008, said that the move to formally integrate intelligence gathering activities into U.N. peacekeeping missions reflects a growing recognition of the dangers facing blue helmets, particularly from an array of terrorist organizations and non-state armed militias.
"Traditionally, [U.N.] member states have been a bit reluctant to permit intelligence gathering activities because of concerns over the potential violation of a country's sovereignty," Guehenno said, noting that revelations of NSA spying has in some way reinforced those concerns. "Spying makes people nervous."
"On the other hand, there is a mounting sense that the safety and protection of troops benefits a lot from effective intelligence," he said. "It's harder for the members' states to say it's horrible to collect intelligence if you have human lives lost. So, I think the U.N. is in a stronger position to say you put us in a dangerous environment we need to cope with it and the only way to cope is to have some kind of intelligence. I'm convinced there were a few situations where peacekeepers died and their lives might have been saved with better situational awareness intelligence."
Despite the political constraints, U.N. commanders, including those serving in Hammarskjold's day, have long recognized the importance of tactical intelligence gathering in complex missions, erecting make-shift intelligence units to spy on potential enemies. In early 1961 in the Congo, the U.N. set up its first serious intelligence unit -- known as Military Information Branch - the word intelligence was "banned from the U.N. lexicon," to oversee aerial surveillance, radio intercepts, and of informants, Dorn wrote in a history of the Congo operation. The practice was largely suspended in the ensuing Cold War decades, only to resurface after the Cold War ended, giving way to a major surge in U.N. peacekeeping operations.
Since the turn of the century, U.N. personnel in places like Sierra Leone and Somalia largely relied on foreign government spooks to supply them with tactical intelligence on enemy intentions. But more recently the U.N. has begun to formalize intelligence collection in missions in Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where units with names like the Joint Mission Analysis Centers and Joint Operations Centers - collect information the old fashion way: through the cultivation of spies. In Port au Prince, U.N. blue helmets paid Haitian informants to expose the hideaways of famously unpopular gang leaders' in the deepest slums. Even their lovers could be relied upon to reveal the location of where they were sleeping for arrest. Informants were sometimes dressed in U.N. uniforms but with their faces covered to avoid detection.
"The U.N. was able to tap into the wide-ranging disaffection with the gangs in order to procure plenty of actionable information," Dorn wrote in a study of the U.N. mission in Haiti."Intelligence-led operations helped the United Nations to take the initiative, to control the "battle-space' and minimize the risks to both its own personnel and innocent bystanders. The mission was successful in overcoming gang rule of entire districts, but not without initial opposition from within the emission, from Haitian officials and, of course, from the gangs themselves."
Patrick Cammaert, a retired Dutch general who served as the U.N. Secretary General's chief military advisor from 2002 to 2005, said it was a "un uphill battle" to convince the U.N. political leadership, and member states, to collect intelligence. In 2003, Cammaert urged the U.N. peacekeeping department to contract a private company to conduct aerial surveillance for a newly established mission in Liberia. Two years later, when he was reassigned as the U.N.'s eastern division commander in eastern Congo, Cammaert finally succeeded in securing funding, around $5 million, in the mission's budget to conduct aerial surveillance missions to track the movement of militias and human rights violators, including Bosco Ntganda and Laurent Nkunda. It never happened. "All the documents were cleared, but the proposal was firmly killed in DPKO[The U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations] because people didn't like it,"he said.
The constraints forced him to improvise, cultivating a team of informants. "You had to be creative; I sometimes had to pay informants from my own daily subsistence allowance because we didn't have funds for that," he said. "I managed to get a number of people trust worthy people -- don't ask I how I found them - but I'd put them on a Moped and tell them to drive somewhere and come back and tell me what you saw."
Cammaert said the recent change in attitude reflected a growing recognition that U.N. peacekeepers "are dealing with a threat that is asymmetric, much more sophisticated, and much more dangerous, not only to local population but to peacekeepers was well " As a result, he said, "the word intelligence is not such a dirty word anymore."
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After reaching an interim deal this weekend to halt the development of Iran's nuclear program, U.S. officials have gone to great pains to emphasize that the United States will continue to take a hard line on enforcing sanctions, most of which remain in place. But in at least in one area -- getting medicine to Iranians -- sanctions might have been too successful, discouraging companies and banks from engaging even in approved trade.
Though humanitarian products like food and medicine are already exempted from the sanctions, banks and companies that facilitate the transactions have been hesitant to get involved, for fear of ending up being sanctioned themselves. Companies also avoid doing even permitted business with Iran because it often requires a special license from the Treasury Department office that handles financial sanctions.
"Really this is tied to the medicine shortage in Iran and the fact that there were very few banking channels through which to sell medicine to Iran," said Jamal Abdi, the policy director for National Iranian American Council.
The United States agreed over the weekend to "establish a financial channel to facilitate humanitarian trade," but it isn't yet clear how it will work. Lawyers who work on trade deals for humanitarian products say it isn't yet clear whether the agreement will change the status quo.
"It's way too early to determine how successful this new financial channel will be in practice," said Doug Jacobson, a sanctions attorney in Washington, D.C. Jacobson said he expected the overall agreement's effect on sales for U.S. companies to be "extremely limited."
Humanitarian and trade groups have criticized the Obama administration over how the sanctions have affected the Iranians' access to medicine.
"Their handling of the humanitarian trade issue has been a disaster," said Bill Reinsch, the president of the National Foreign Trade Council. "They grant licenses, but no one can use them because they can't get financing, because they've gone around and intimidated the banks into not doing business."
In addition to fear of sanctions, companies could also avoid facilitating humanitarian trade because it's not worth risking the stigma attached to working with Iran. Public companies that do business with Iran have to file a public notice with their financial documents, sometimes even for approved humanitarian transactions.
The United States and Iran, having clinched a landmark interim deal suspending some aspects of Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, turned their attention this week to addressing the humanitarian crisis in Syria.
The long-standing adversaries were scheduled to attend a dinner tonight hosted by Britain's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva and participate tomorrow in U.N.-sponsored conference at the Palais de Nations aimed at persuading Syria's combatants to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid.
The conference -- which will bring key regional and international powers together -- will provide the first major test of whether progress on the nuclear front can be converted into political progress and an improvement in living conditions for millions of needy civilians in Syria.
Syria is coping with one of the worst humanitarian crises in decades, with more than 9 million civilians in need of assistance, and more than 2.5 million people largely cut off from aid. Nearly 300,000 civilians are living under a state of siege, mostly at the hands of government forces, forced to forage for leaves to survive.
Humanitarian relief advocates expressed hope that the diplomatic progress in Geneva, combined with a recent pact to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons, can refocus international attention on the plight of Syrian civilians. "The diplomatic breakthrough, first on chemical weapons, and now on nuclear energy demonstrates a political solution is possible," said Noah Gottschalk, senior humanitarian policy advisor at OxFam, America. "And it gives us hope that they can reach a deal on a cease fire and improve humanitarian access and ultimately achieve a political solution to the conflict."
But other observers cautioned that Iran's diplomats can only go so far without provoking hardliners at home who view the country's alliance with President Bashar al-Assad as vital to Tehran's national security interests. "Iran can score some easy points with the West by showing flexibility on issues like humanitarian access, but Tehran is not going to desert Assad completely," said Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations at New York University's Center on International Cooperation. "That would alienate hardline critics of the recent opening to the West inside Iran."
In advance of the meeting, Syria pledged for the first time during the conflict to allow the U.N. to run aid convoys from Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon without having to channel them through the capital of Damascus. But Syria has refused to permit goods to enter through southern Turkey, a conduit for the rebels' military supplies, but also one of the most concentrated areas of civilian humanitarian need. It remained unclear whether the aid would be delivered directly to the needy along the border or would have to be delivered through Damascus first, a condition Syria had previously placed on the United Nations.
"The Syrian government has formally notified the [U.N.] resident coordinator of its decision to allow the entry of humanitarian aid through official border crossings with Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq," according to an unpublished copy of a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council from Syria's U.N. envoy Bashar Al Ja'afari. "In the case of the border crossings with Turkey, however, it has been impossible to open an official crossing because armed terrorist groups are active along most of the border with the support of the Turkish authorities," the letter said.
The Syrian envoy accused anti-government "terrorists" with responsibility as being responsible for the humanitarian crisis, and pledged to streamline its own procedures for issuing visas for international aid workers and approving tours by U.N. aid convoys.
"There has been increasing discussion regarding cooperation between the government of the Syrian Arab Republic and the United Nations in order to deliver humanitarian assistance to civilians affected by events in Syria," Ja'afari wrote. "At the meetings, an agreement was reached to intensify cooperation by overhauling administrative procedures and removing so-called bureaucratic obstacles. The Syrian government affirmed that it would make every possible effort to facilitate the humanitarian work of the United Nations and international organizations."
The United Nations has faulted both sides in the conflict for denying humanitarian relief to civilians. But they have accused the Syrian government of preventing the delivery of medicines to rebel-controlled areas, imposing siege conditions on civilians, and enforcing a range of bureaucratic impediments that severely restrict the delivery of aid. One U.N. diplomat said that Syria's latest offer of cooperation reflects its concern that the U.N. Security Council may impose tougher measures on the government if it fails to expand humanitarian access. "They fear a resolution," the official said.
The humanitarian aid conference will open one day after Ban and the U.N. Arab League special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, announced plans to schedule a long-anticipated Jan. 22 peace conference between the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition. The aim of the meeting (referred to as Geneva 2) is to implement a June 30, 2012 political communique (known as Geneva 1) calling for the establishment of a transitional government in Syria, including representatives from the government and opposition.
"At long last and for the first time, the Syrian government and opposition will meet at the negotiating table instead of the battlefield," Ban told reporters in New York today. "Even though the conference will take place in about eight weeks, all parties can and must begin now to take steps to help the Geneva conference succeed, including toward the cessation of violence, humanitarian access, release of detainees and internally displaced people to their homes."
But shortly after Ban's announcement, Brahimi acknowledged that he has yet to secure commitments from two of the rival combatants' key supporters, Iran and Saudi Arabia, to attended the peace conference. The United States and other Western powers have insisted that Tehran only be invited to the political meeting if it endorses the Geneva Communique, and its proposal for a political transition in Syria. Saudi Arabia has refused to discuss the political conference with Brahimi, fearing the peace conference would grant legitimacy to Assad's government.
But it remained unclear whether Saudi Arabia, which has drafted a Security Council resolution compelling Syria to grant unfettered access throughout the country to humanitarian aid workers, will attend tomorrow's session.
Tuesday's talks, which will be chaired by the U.N., Australia, and Luxembourg, includes a growing roster of foreign governments (including the five permanent members of the Security Council: the United States, Britain, China, France, and Russia), key regional powers (Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, and Kuwait), and European governments (Norway, Germany, and Italy).
The meeting will open with a speech by Valerie Amos, the U.N. relief coordinator, and involve a more detailed briefing on the situation by John Ging, the director of operations for U.N. relief efforts. "If Amos's intention is to bring all these countries together to put pressure on the Syrian regime to lift the siege then we welcome it," said Najib Ghadbian, the U.S. and U.N. representative of the Syrian National Coalition. "But ideally we would have liked to see a Security Council resolution on humanitarian access [that threatened] consequences for non-compliance. Period."
A mounting bipartisan effort to impose additional sanctions on Iran was sent into disarray on Monday following the weekend's announcement of a deal on Iran's nuclear program. Although some hawks in Congress want to charge ahead with additional sanctions against Tehran, that effort has taken a backseat to legislation that will let the Geneva deal play out -- an important victory for the White House.
Much was made of the bipartisan outrage Sunday over the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) called the deal "disappointing," Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said it gave too much away and Republicans called it a "blow to our allies." Media reports warned that the lawmakers may propose a new round of deal-killing sanctions. But if you listen to what the Iran hawks are now proposing, it's exactly what the White House wants: a hold on additional sanctions with the promise of new sanctions if the deal falls apart.
"I expect that the forthcoming sanctions legislation to be considered by the Senate will provide for a six month window to reach a final agreement before imposing new sanctions on Iran," Menendez said in a statement Sunday.
Democratic whip Rep. Steny Hoyer described similar legislation in an interview on Face the Nation. "I think it is appropriate that we wait six months to implement those, which will say to the Iranians, we need a final deal, and if not a final deal, these tougher sanctions are going to go in place," he said.
Republican Senator Mark Kirk, one of Congress's most vocal Iran hawks, also suggested that Iran be given the chance to comply with the deal before further sanctions are enacted.
Almost any interpretation of President Obama's remarks on Saturday night conveys the exact same position. "If Iran does not fully meet its commitments during this six-month phase, we will turn off the relief and ratchet up the pressure," Obama said with regards to sanctions.
The reason the White House took so much friendly fire on its Geneva deal is not a mystery. A number of top Democrats have taken heat from pro-Israel constituents during the last several weeks of P5+1 negotiations. That lobbying effort culminated in a flurry of press releases and Sunday talk show appearances in which Democrats blasted the administration's deal. But as much pressure as Democrats are under, they're not willing to sabotage the Obama administration's painstaking, year-long diplomatic efforts at striking a deal with Iran.
In an interview on CNN, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) acknowledged the impossible politics of voting for additional sanctions in open defiance of the White House. "I think [this deal] makes it very difficult to continue the sanctions," he said. "I have been in favor obviously ... Congress really believes that sanctions should happen. I think it's difficult for the Senate to do sanctions now."
Some lawmakers such as Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Steve Israel, and Rep. Kevin McCarthy believe new sanctions should be passed despite the deal. However, such an effort would require the support of Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid and most likely Sen. Tim Johnson, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. And since the deal was finalized on Saturday night, Reid's attitude has shifted from advocating immediate sanctions to "considering" new sanction following a round of hearings. Meanwhile, a Johnson spokesman tells The Cable that he will first consult with the Obama administration before considering further sanctions.
"Chairman Johnson has always supported a diplomatic solution that would set Iran on a path to fully and verifiably abandon its illicit nuclear activities. So he is encouraged by President Obama's announcement on Saturday regarding the interim agreement in Geneva," Johnson spokesman Sean Oblack said. "He wants to be fully briefed by Secretary Kerry on the details of the agreement and its implementation, and to consult with colleagues, before making decisions about any committee action on new Iran-related legislation."
Given the administration's insistence that any new sanctions now would implode the Geneva deal, Johnson is not likely to walk out of those briefings in support of such action.
Meanwhile, all the doom and gloom in Congress has mystified nuclear non-proliferation advocates who see the agreement as an historic opportunity to curtail Iran's nuclear program.
"I don't get these guys in Congress," Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, told The Cable. "In the word's of Joe Biden, this is a big fucking deal. It's not too often you can watch the hinge of history move. Every president since Jimmy Carter has tried to get a deal with Iran. This is the first president to actually do it."
Cirincione caught the news of a deal during a meeting at the Halifax International Security Forum, a gathering of hundreds of policy wonks, administration officials, lawmakers and journalists in Canada. The conference attracted foreign-policy minds across the political spectrum, but as news trickled out of Geneva, left-leaning security experts erupted in celebration.
"It's only the first step, there's a lot of hard work to do, but it is huge," said Cirincione
Heather Hurlbert, a former State Department and White House official and senior advisor at the National Security Network, applauded after watching the president's Saturday night address on a hotel flat screen TV.
"You've got to credit the president on this," she told The Cable. "I recently went back and was looking at his campaign speeches, and he did what he said he was going to do. And that's not something people get a lot of credit for in our politics right now."
Hurlbert doubted that Reid would cross the administration on this issue. "I feel quite confident that Harry Reid is not going to blow up his president's deal," she said. "Which has nothing to do with what Harry Reid might or might not say publicly."
Some right-leaning experts expressed skepticism over the deal. "As much as we all hope we can stop Iran's progress toward WMD peacefully, I think we have to worry that what we are doing is freezing some capacity while other development goes on," said the McCain Institute's Kurt Volker.
GENEVA - The historic nuclear deal Iran signed with the United States and five other world powers early Sunday morning represents the biggest gamble of President Barack Obama's presidency, and the success or failure of that bet will have serious repercussions for the administration's standing on Capitol Hill, Washington's relationships with Israel and other Middle Eastern allies, and the national security of the United States itself.
The deal painstakingly assembled during four days of marathon negotiations at a luxury hotel here calls for Iran to halt most of its uranium enrichment efforts, eliminate its stockpiles of uranium already purified to near weapons grade quality, open its facilities to daily monitoring by international inspectors and significantly slow the construction of the Arak plutonium reactor. Nuclear weapons can be assembled using either enriched uranium or plutonium, and the new pact is designed to make it difficult, if not impossible, for Iran to gain enough of either material for a bomb.
In exchange, Iran would gain some relief from the punishing economic sanctions that had been leveled by Washington and its allies in recent years, freeing up roughly $6 billion. Tehran also won a commitment that the so-called P5+1 nations -- the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain -- wouldn't impose any new sanctions for the next six months. That was an important win for the Iranians since the existing measures have cut its oil exports in half and driven the price of its currency down to a historic low.
The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.