With American and Iranian negotiators streaming into Geneva for the next round of nuclear talks, there's been no shortage of official rhetoric coming from Washington. The Obama administration argues that the deal wrests real concessions from the Iranians in exchange for only modest sanctions relief. The State Department says an agreement would freeze Iran's nuclear program while buying time to hash out a permanent deal. And the Pentagon -- well, the Pentagon has stayed relatively silent. Which is kind of odd, since the man in charge of the Defense Department is one of Washington's better-known advocates for talks with Tehran.
Secretary of State John Kerry has been the administration's point person on Iran, as he was during September's Syria crisis. He dominated recent joint appearances on Capitol Hill with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, answering questions more forcefully, and with more specificity, than his colleague. Hagel, like his predecessors, has said that all options are on the table when it comes to Iran. But during a recent round of public appearances, Hagel has largely deferred to Kerry when the subject of Iran has come up. "The president has said, Secretary Kerry has said, a bad deal is worse than no deal," Hagel told the Reagan Defense Forum over the weekend. "As we all know, this is Secretary Kerry's area of responsibility," he said during an October joint appearance with the Secretary of State in Tokyo.
More concretely, the Pentagon won't be sending any representatives to this week's talks. The Navy has also begun to quietly redeploy some of the ships it had kept in the Mediterranean Sea during the Syria crisis to other parts of the world.
The Pentagon's reduced public role reflects a pair of factors. First, the administration has worked hard to reduce tensions with Iran and find a way of slowing, and then ending, Iran's push for a nuclear bomb through diplomacy rather than through the use of force. Having Hagel or other Pentagon officials speak publicly about potential military strikes could gum up the fragile talks by making Iranian officials feel like they're being bullied and can't trust that the administration is negotiating in good faith.
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The African Union came to the U.N. Security Council last week in search of a showdown. But its representatives left with little to show for their effort, having failed to persuade the United States and other Western powers to suspend the International Criminal Court's (ICC) prosecution of two African leaders, Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto, who stand accused of orchestrating a frenzy of mass murder during the country's post-election violence in 2007 and 2008.
Securing a delay in the trial, however, was hardly the point of the exercise. The African sponsors of the resolution, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, and the five members of the African Union's ICC contact group -- Burundi, Mauritania, Namibia, Senegal and Uganda -- knew going in that they lacked the votes to prevail in the Security Council. Opposition from the Britain, France, and the United States all but ensured that the initiative was doomed from the start.
The real aim of the AU's offensive was twofold: to register Africa's dismay over the council's refusal to defer to the region's leaders on a highly sensitive issue and to reinforce Kenya's bargaining position on the eve of negotiations at the Hague over possible amendments to the ICC treaty that would prevent Kenyatta and Ruto from having to sit in the Netherlands for a lengthy trial. The Kenyan government is proposing that its leaders be permitted to sit out their trials entirely, leaving their lawyers to represent them instead. (Here's a confidential copy of the main amendments under consideration.)
The International Criminal Court was established in 2002 with the aim of prosecuting the world's most egregious crimes, including crimes against humanity and genocide. The Hague-based tribunal initially enjoyed broad African support, but has since faced scorching criticism in the region following its pursuit of African leaders in Sudan, Libya, and Kenya. Rwanda, which drafted the Security Council resolution requesting at least a one-year delay in Kenyatta's trial, has been among the most vociferous critics of the court, characterizing it as a modern form of Western imperialism.
BEIRUT -- American allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia haven't been shy about criticizing the proposed deal over Iran's nuclear program. But one surprising party has come out in favor of a diplomatic solution: America's foe, the Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah.
"If an understanding is reached between Iran and the West over the nuclear program, our side will be stronger locally, regionally, and internationally," said Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah in a speech in Beirut's southern suburbs last week on the occasion of Ashura, one of the most important holidays of the year for Shiites. "If things go for war, the other camp should be worried."
There is limited but mounting evidence that a U.S.-Iranian agreement over Tehran's nuclear program could help improve the two countries' collaboration on other issues. Washington and Tehran, for example, will likely both participate in a U.N.-sponsored effort to improve the humanitarian situation in Syria. But if Hezbollah's vocal support for a deal is any indication, one issue that will remain unresolved is the role of the militant group, which U.S. officials have condemned in years past as "the A Team of terrorists" - and more recently castigated for lending military support to President Bashar al-Assad's regime. In other words, the "Party of God" isn't afraid that a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement would harm its close political and military ties to Tehran.
It helps, of course, that the war in nearby Syria is increasingly tilting in the direction of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, a staunch ally of both Hezbollah and Iran. The Syrian military -- aided by fighters from Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias -- has recently seized territory back in the Aleppo and Damascus suburbs, while also launching an offensive in the area of Qalamoun, along the Lebanese border. Syria's prime minister responded to these gains on Nov. 13 by saying that the regime "is marching towards astounding victory."
Qassem Qassir, a journalist for the Lebanese daily as-Safir who follows the party closely, said that the movement sees in these military gains a chance to reconstitute its "Axis of Resistance," an array of actors opposed to U.S. and Saudi influence in the Middle East. This alliance had consisted of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, he said -- but had been shattered with the outbreak of unrest in Syria, as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood joined the anti-Assad camp.
Hezbollah sees a chance to rebuild the ties between Hamas and the Assad regime, which were severed after senior Hamas officials left Damascus as the revolt gained pace in early 2012. Iran, which has maintained ties with Hamas even as it disapproved of its stance on Syria, is crucial to that effort - a fact that is unlikely to change with or without a nuclear deal. "[Hezbollah] is confident that they can re-strengthen the Axis of Resistance to the way it was before the Syrian revolt," Qassir said.
Other observers see Hezbollah's public support for a deal in Geneva as an extension of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's orders to Iran's internal factions that they say nothing that could undermine the talks. Iranian diplomats "have a difficult mission and no one must weaken an official who is busy with work," Khamenei said earlier this month. The negotiators, he added, "are children of the revolution."
With such explicit support from Khamenei, Iran's top official and Hezbollah's most important patron, the Lebanese movement has ample reason to throw its weight behind the talks. "[Hezbollah's] views shouldn't be surprising, because it's reflecting current Iranian views," Thomas Pickering, a former U.S. diplomat who served as ambassador to both Israel and Jordan, told Foreign Policy.
Whatever Nasrallah's reasons for supporting the talks, however, the Hezbollah chief did not neglect to use the moment to contrast what he described as America's wavering support for its allies to the firm support of Hezbollah's patrons. "We have two allies - Iran and Syria," he said. "We are sure of that alliance."
Senator Lindsey Graham's vow to bring the Obama administration to a screeching halt over the attacks in Benghazi is turning out to be just a light tap on the brakes.
Last week, the South Carolina Republican renewed his pledge to place a hold on President Obama's appointments with the exception of two State Department employees. He maintained that he wanted to interview more Benghazi witnesses to ask them about what they saw the night of the attack and would continue to place holds on nominees. However, he appears to have quietly released holds on four more Obama nominees, a fact that bodes well for the most anticipated nomination in Washington -- that of Federal Reserve chair nominee Janet Yellen.
The list of newly-confirmed officials includes James Walter Brewster as ambassador to the Dominican Republic, the sixth openly gay ambassador nominated by Obama; Michael Lumpkin, an Assistant Secretary of Defense; Philip Goldberg, ambassador to the Philippines; and Kenneth Mossman, a member of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. The State Department officials he released last week were Anne Patterson, for Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, and Gregory Starr, Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security.
The United States and Iran, enemies in a proxy war in Syria, now appear likely to come together at an upcoming U.N.-sponsored meeting to try grapple with the worsening humanitarian crisis there. It's the most visible sign yet of the rival powers willingness to work together to resolve the crisis in Syria, according to several U.N.-based diplomats and officials. And it's another indication of the emerging thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran.
The U.N. chief relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, recently sent invitations to at least a dozen countries -- including the United States, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia -- to participate in a high level meeting in Geneva aimed at prodding Syria's warring parties to provide relief workers access to more than 2.5 million people who have been cut off from the U.N. aid pipeline. Invitations have also been sent to Australia, Britain, China, France, Luxembourg, Russia, Kuwait, Qatar, and a representative of the European Union.
"The humanitarian situation in Syria is deteriorating on a daily basis," according to a confidential U.N. paper describing the initiative. "The objective of the high level humanitarian group is to foster and maximize cooperation among those countries with influence over parties to the Syrian conflict to address humanitarian challenges."
It remains unclear precisely when the U.N. meeting, which was initially planned for the middle of November, will take place. But a diplomat from a country on the invitation list said it would likely be scheduled within about two weeks.
U.S. and Iranian diplomats responded favorably to the request, according to diplomats. But one official said it was unclear whether Saudi Arabia, which has clashed with the United States over its approach to Syria and Iran, would join the group.
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The Obama administration has spent weeks asking Congress to hold off on imposing new sanctions to avoid giving Tehran a reason to walk away from the current nuclear talks. On Friday, the administration rolled out a new rationale. They warned that the measures could harm Washington's relationships with its key negotiating partners in Geneva as well.
The White House's willingness to unfreeze billions of dollars in Iranian money in exchange for Iranian concessions on its nuclear program has sparked skepticism -- and in some cases outright anger -- on Capitol Hill. The White House has launched a full-on lobbying blitz to reassure wavering lawmakers, and the efforts began paying off Friday as key senators who had either raised skepticism about the wisdom of holding off new sanctions or kept silent came out in support of the administration position.
Sen. John McCain, a leading Iran hawk, told the BBC that he's skeptical of talks with Iran but willing to give the administration a "couple of months" before supporting additional sanctions.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), meanwhile, said she strongly opposed putting additional punitive measures in place against Tehran amid the delicate diplomatic negotiations. "The purpose of sanctions was to bring Iran to the negotiating table, and they have succeeded in doing so," she said. "Tacking new sanctions onto the defense authorization bill or any other legislation would not lead to a better deal. It would lead to no deal at all."
The State Department is planning a new, sprawling embassy compound in Mexico City, but it has quietly scuttled how it was to select a construction firm for it.
The new complex will be erected on eight acres the U.S. purchased in the city's Nuevo Polanco neighborhood, and cost $400 million to $500 million, State Department officials said. The main building will be about 515,000 square feet, making it one of the U.S.'s largest embassies. There also will be a 281,150 square-foot parking garage with space for 665 vehicles, a 70,900 square-foot warehouse and maintenance facility, a 13,850 square-foot residence for Marine Corps embassy security guards, and an 11,300 square-foot facility to securely allow vehicles and pedestrians to enter.
The new embassy will be built in a country in which drug cartels have operated with "near impunity" in recent years, according to newly declassified U.S. documents. They suggest the U.S. is extremely concerned about drug violence, in which more than 100,000 people have been killed or disappeared since 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderón vowed to take on the cartels.
U.S. personnel have come under fire in the process. In one example, two employees from the embassy in Mexico City were wounded about 35 miles south of the city in August 2012 after federal police opened fire on their vehicle. They were reportedly traveling to a Mexican navy base.
In June, the State Department's Bureau of Overseas Building Operations announced that it wanted construction firms to submit qualifications for the new Mexico City embassy in order to pre-qualify them to be involved in the project. It has quietly reversed course, saying its initial solicitation to industry is "cancelled in its entirety" because plans have been altered. The State Department did not explain why in its announcement, but said a new, future solicitation to industry for the project "is under acquisition review.
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The White House and Israel are locked in an information war on Capitol Hill, and right now, Israel may be winning.
All week, the Obama administration has provided facts and figures to lawmakers on its sanctions relief proposal to build support for a deal on Iran's nuclear program. But some members in Congress don't trust the data U.S. officials are providing -- they trust conflicting data provided privately by senior Israeli officials.
According to multiple Congressional aides, Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee are storming Capitol Hill in an effort to discredit the Obama administration's interim nuclear deal with Iran. The effort coincides with a visit by Israel's Minister of Economy Naftali Bennett, who is also speaking with lawmakers on the Hill. The campaign includes one-on-one briefings with lawmakers that provide data that strays from official U.S. assessments.
As a result, lawmakers have begun citing a range of facts and figures the Obama administration says are wildly inaccurate.
For instance, the Obama administration is offering Iran no more than $9 billion in sanctions relief, according to a source briefed by senior officials. But Israeli officials are telling lawmakers the U.S. is offering Iran $20 billion in sanctions relief or, if you ask Israel's Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, up to $40 billion.
Israeli officials are also saying that Iran's concessions would only set back its nuclear program by 24 days -- a fact also disputed by the administration.
"There are very large, inaccurate, false numbers out there in terms of what's on the table," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday. She declined to call out Israeli officials, instead referring to inaccurate "reports." (Some of the reports just so happen to be sourced to Israeli officials.)
The wide discrepancies led to a major clash of viewpoints during Wednesday's classified briefing between Secretary of State John Kerry and members of the Senate Banking Committee. One GOP Senate aide said the administration repeatedly shot down data cited by senators provided by Israeli officials. "You'd raise the Israeli perspective and they'd say, that's wrong -- the Israelis don't know what they're talking about," the aide told The Cable."The administration would interrupt, 'that information is inaccurate.'"
One of the senators citing Israeli data was Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who said Kerry's briefing was "anti-Israeli."
"The administration very disappointingly said, 'discount what the Israelis say," he told reporters on Wednesday. "I don't. I think the Israelis probably have a pretty good intelligence service." Kirk said he had been briefed on Wednesday by a "senior Israeli official," but would not name the individual.
He is not alone in his belief that the Obama administration is misleading lawmakers and undervaluing its sanctions relief offer to the Iranians by at least $10 billion. The rival estimate is $20 billion -- a figure supported by the Israeli government and the think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), which cites Israeli media reports in some of its analysis. During a House Foreign Affairs Committee briefing on Wednesday, a number of Republicans and Democrats nodded in agreement to the $20 billion figure during testimony by FDD's executive director Mark Dubowitz. "The sanctions relief package offered at Geneva, if ultimately approved, will rescue Iran's struggling economy," testified Dubowitz. "The dollar value of the proposed sanctions relief at Geneva could yield Iran a minimum of $20 billion or more."
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) pegged the sanctions relief even higher in his opening statement -- suggesting the figure could be as much as $50 billion.
Dubowitz told The Cable he was not surprised at the discrepancy between U.S. and Israeli assessments on sanctions. "I would say this is not unusual," he said. "I think there have been significant disagreements between the Israelis and the Americans on these sanctions questions. Significant differences on information on research and on the analysis and conclusions."
Other arms control experts were puzzled as to why the Israeli assessment gained any traction at all over the American assessment -- since Israelis are not members of the so-called P5+1 countries negotiating a deal with Iran.
"Personally, I would tend to believe the estimates and figures of the people who are actually at the negotiating table rather than people that are getting this information second-hand, even if they're senior Israeli officials," Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told The Cable. "This is in many cases a distortion of the physics and the reality."
Regardless, the administration is struggling to win over lawmakers. On Wednesday, Republican senators expressed strong disappointment with the administration's briefings on the Hill. Now, critics of the administration's message include an increasing number of Democrats, such as Sen. Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Rep. Steve Israel, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey. On Thursday night, Casey defied administration pleas to halt any additional sanctions on Iran and urged his colleagues to advance sanctions legislation in the Senate Banking Committee. "At this time, I see no reason to let up the pressure," Casey said.
When asked about the "huge gap" between the administration and Congress on the Iran deal on Thursday, Psaki did not exactly beam with optimism. "Look, I'm not here to give you a whip acount of where members of Congress stand," she told reporters. "But as I mentioned a little bit earlier, the secretary felt it was an important conversation he had with members yesterday. He laid out the full construct of our approach ... He doesn't feel that anybody could come out of there without a full understanding of what the approach would be."
Yochi Dreazen contibuted to this report.
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