GENEVA - U.S. and Iranian diplomats failed to meet at the negotiating table together Thursday. Top Iranian and Western officials are trading public barbs. And back in Washington, senators conspired to impose another round of sanctions on Tehran. It's all raising fears that the historic nuclear deal which seemed so close just a few days ago might be slipping away.
Wendy Sherman, the chief American nuclear negotiator held a brief meeting Wednesday night with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, but a senior State Department official said that Catherine Ashton, the European Union's top diplomat, was the only leader to hold direct and formal talks with the Iranians Thursday at the high-end Intercontinental Hotel here.
The State Department official said leaders from the so-called P5+1 -- the U.S., Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China -- held bilateral talks throughout the day and stressed that Ashton was negotiating on behalf of the entire group. Despite the darkening atmosphere, it's too soon to conclude that the talks are unraveling. The current talks are designed to freeze -- or at least slow -- Iran's nuclear program for roughly six months while the two sides work towards a comprehensive agreement. The U.S. and its allies would give Tehran access to roughly $7 billion in frozen assets as part of any interim deal. Privately, two Western officials said Thursday's talks had been fairly productive and that there was still a decent chance of a deal. The officials said Iran might have been posturing to show their domestic audience back home that they were taking a hardline with the P5+1 rather than simply agreeing to every Western demand.
Still, the lack of any direct contact between American and Iranian negotiations on the second day of what is supposed to be a three-day conference was striking. American officials say the talks can be extended through the weekend if a deal was close at hand, but the talks could also come to an abrupt halt Friday if the remaining differences between the two sides can't be bridged.
The United States and its key intelligence allies are quietly working behind the scenes to kneecap a mounting movement in the United Nations to promote a universal human right to online privacy, according to diplomatic sources and an internal American government document obtained by The Cable.
The diplomatic battle is playing out in an obscure U.N. General Assembly committee that is considering a proposal by Brazil and Germany to place constraints on unchecked internet surveillance by the National Security Agency and other foreign intelligence services. American representatives have made it clear that they won't tolerate such checks on their global surveillance network. The stakes are high, particularly in Washington -- which is seeking to contain an international backlash against NSA spying -- and in Brasilia, where Brazilian President Dilma Roussef is personally involved in monitoring the U.N. negotiations.
The Brazilian and German initiative seeks to apply the right to privacy, which is enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to online communications. Their proposal, first revealed by The Cable, affirms a "right to privacy that is not to be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with their privacy, family, home, or correspondence." It notes that while public safety may "justify the gathering and protection of certain sensitive information," nations "must ensure full compliance" with international human rights laws. A final version the text is scheduled to be presented to U.N. members on Wednesday evening and the resolution is expected to be adopted next week.
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Geneva — American and Iranian negotiators settled into a luxury hotel here for several days of talks designed to hash out the final details of what could be a historic nuclear deal. Secretary of State John Kerry and other foreign secretaries are watching the talks closely, ready to fly to Geneva at a moment's notice if an agreement is reached.
U.S. officials say they're cautiously optimistic these talks will pan out. The two sides came exceptionally close to a deal earlier this month, but those negotiations ended with Kerry and his colleagues boarding their planes and flying home without an agreement. This time around, officials from both sides believe that many of the disputes that gummed up the last round of negotiations have been at least partially resolved.
Don't take out the champagne just yet, however. Some significant differences remain, and it's not at all clear that the negotiators will be able to bridge all of them. Below are three key issues worth watching as the talks get underway.
United They Stand. The negotiations are being led by the so-called P5+1 -- a grouping of the United States, England, Russia, France, China, and Germany -- and the success of any deal will depend on whether all of the countries will be willing to sign off on it. The last time around, France refused, effectively vetoing the proposed agreement. Paris felt that the deal didn't do enough to reduce Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium or stop the construction of the plutonium enrichment facility at Arak. The key question now is whether the current talks will produce a deal that can go as far as France wants without demanding concessions that go beyond what Tehran can accept.
Nuclear Rights. It may seem small in the scheme of things, but one of the biggest remaining disagreements between the two sides concerns the question of whether Iran has the "right" to enrich uranium. Tehran has long demanded what would amount to a Western stamp of approval of sorts for its nuclear efforts. The United States has refused to grant it for just as long. Part of the disagreement is practical: Acknowledging that Iran has a right to continue enriching uranium would allow Iran to keep much of its current nuclear infrastructure intact, albeit under strict international supervision. The other aspect is legal: Tehran could use Western acknowledgement of its right to enrich uranium to argue that the United States and its allies have no legal standing for sanctioning its nuclear program. On Wednesday, a senior administration official said the Non-Proliferation Treaty is "silent" on the issue. "It neither confers a right nor denies a right," the official said. "We do not believe it is inherently there." The official expressed optimism that the two sides could find common ground, but the wording issue has stymied previous attempts at a deal.
Tehran's "Rabid Dogs." Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, raised eyebrows Wednesday when he told members of a paramilitary group that Israel was "a rabid dog" and accused the United States of harboring "warmongering" policies. Khamenei also mocked Washington for the recent government shutdown, telling the crowd that "instead of using threats, go and repair your devastated economy so that your government is not shut down for 15 or 16 days." It's easy to listen to those comments and conclude that Khamenei is simply uninterested in a deal, which is a definite possibility. Some administration officials take a different view, however. They say that Khamenei might have been directing his comments at a domestic audience that remains deeply skeptical of U.S. intentions after decades of hostility. The more important aspect of the supreme leader's comments, they argue, were his continued public support of the ongoing nuclear talks. The success of the current negotiations will come down to which interpretation of Khamenei's words is correct.
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In 2005, the U.S. State Department banned the controversial Indian politician Narendra Modi from coming to the United States for his bigoted views and his role in riots that claimed over 2,000 lives. Earlier this fall, Modi was invited to participate in a Capitol Hill event anyway.
A flyer for the event displayed the official seal of the House of Representatives and identified "the House Republican Conference" as the host. The top congressional Republican in charge of that conference, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), says the flyer is a fraud drafted without the permission of Republicans. But correspondence between the congresswoman and Modi suggests the two politicians had a recent falling out after anti-genocide groups protested Modi's participation.
Scheduled for this Tuesday, the event billed as "India Day on Capitol Hill" boasted the attendance of House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) McMorris Rodgers and other top Republicans. The flyer was created by the National Indian American Public Policy Institute (NIAPPI), which also sponsored the event as a way of bringing more Indian-Americans into the Republican fold. The flyer noted that Modi, now a leading prime ministerial candidate, would attend "via Satellite video."
After The Cable obtained a copy of the flyer, it raised the issue with representatives for McMorris Rodgers. Despite repeated requests, no one from her office was willing to speak on-record. One aide familiar with the situation denied the congresswoman's involvement in the event. "She did not invite him to participate in any activity that took place today," said the aide. "[Modi and McMorris Rodgers] don't have a relationship."
The fact that McMorris Rodgers is now distancing herself from Modi is, perhaps, unsurprising. Currently the chief minister of Gujarat, a region in India's northwest, Modi was banned from the United States for his role in the 2002 communal riots there that claimed over 2,000 lives. The Hindu nationalist was accused of stoking ethnic tensions and failing to protect Gujarat's Muslim residents -- hundreds of whom were massacred in the streets. The State Department revoked his visa under Section 212 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which makes any foreign official who was responsible or "directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom" ineligible for a visa.
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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 Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.