On Wednesday, the Obama administration held its first classified briefing with Congress on its high-stakes nuclear talks with Iran. Despite deep skepticism of White House engagement with Iran -- and despite a fresh lobbying effort by AIPAC -- exiting lawmakers appeared mollified by the State Department's chief nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman, who led this month's talks with Iran in Geneva.
The talks between Iran and six world powers this month offer the Obama administration the chance to solve a key foreign policy goal: Preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon without the use of military force. But many in Congress fear Iran's newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani could be using the talks as a stalling tactic to reach breakout nuclear capacity. Despite those concerns, lawmakers expressed a willingness to give the administration's diplomatic efforts a chance.
"All I know is that sanctions seem to be working and that's a positive," Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD), ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, told The Cable. "If they weren't working, Iran would not be reaching out at this point."
"I appreciate the administration coming up and briefing us on what's going on with the talks," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), who rarely misses a chance to attack the administration's Middle East policies. "I fully support efforts at applying pressure and making sure there is a viable military threat so that perhaps a diplomatic resolution can occur ... I remain concerned about the threat of Iran's actions in terms of pursuing its goal of nuclear capability and will remain involved in oversight of that issue."
The African Union and Kenya have formally asked the U.N. Security Council to suspend an International Criminal Court prosecution of the Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy on the grounds that it is undermining the Kenyan leaders' efforts to fight terrorism.
"In light of the peace and security situation in Kenya and the region, the African Union Member States would like to submit a formal request for a deferral of the proceedings initiated by the ICC against the President and the Deputy President of the Republic of Kenya," according to a statement from African Union that was presented today to the 15-nation council by Kenya. The suspension, the letter added, would provide Kenya's leaders with the "time required for the enhancement of the effort aimed at combating terrorism and other forms of insecurity in the country and the region.
The Kenyan leaders have benefited from the public outpouring of support from regional leaders following the devastating terrorist attack by al-Shabab militants on civilians at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, killing at least 67 people over several terror-filled days.
But the Kenyan request to the U.N. encountered sharp criticism from human rights advocates and supporters of the court, who claimed that Kenya's leaders are seeking to use their power to skirt justice for their alleged crimes. "This request comes from out of bounds; the Kenyan president seems determined to forestall his day in court," said Richard Dicker, an expert on the court at Human Rights Watch. "The Kenyan president wants impunity. Full stop."
Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said in an interview that it would be a mistake for the Obama administration to relax its sanctions on Iran or free up tens of billions of dollars in frozen Iranian funds, highlighting Jerusalem’s growing concern that the Obama administration may be willing to make too many concessions to Iran during the current nuclear talks between the two longtime adversaries.
Steinitz, a close political ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told The Cable that the punishing Western sanctions that have been imposed on Iran are the only reason that government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is willing to engage in direct talks with the Obama administration. With the Iranian economy in free fall, Steinitz said the sanctions should be kept in place, or even strengthened, until Iran agreed to fully dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
“Iran is now coming to the negotiating table solely because of the pressure,” Steinitz said in the interview. “They are really on the verge of the collapse and that's the reason they're coming to the negotiating table with some willingness to negotiate.”
There’s no question that the current sanctions have devastated the Iranian economy. The measures have sharply limited overseas investment in Iran’s energy sector, locked foreign financial institutions that do oil-related business with Iran’s central bank out of the U.S. banking system, and required banks around the globe to freeze more than $50 billion of Iranian money. Steinitz said Israeli intelligence estimates that the sanctions have cost the Iranians at least $100 billion over the past 18 months and thrown the country into a deep recession.
As Iraq faces its worst violence in half a decade, retired Marine Gen. John Allen has a message for Washington's chattering classes: It didn't have to be this way.
Speaking at a conference in Washington, the newly-retired four-star general said if U.S. forces had remained in the country, Iraq may not be unraveling to the extent that it is today.
"We weren't there long enough to provide the top cover for the solution of many of the political difficulties that might have resolved itself had we had been there for a longer period of time," he told attendees of the Foreign Policy Initiative forum. "So consequently, as we departed, we have seen those tectonic plates begin to grind against each other and that has created instability and the body count is going up, the bloodletting is going up."
Congress has spent the past three years imposing tough sanctions on Iran that are designed to cripple its economy and force Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. In recent weeks, a parade of congressmen and senators have demanded that those sanctions stay in place, never mind the nuclear talks between Washington and Tehran. Lost in the noise is the fact that President Obama can -- and often does -- lift the measures with a stroke of the pen.
The current sanctions have sharply limited overseas investment in Iran's energy sector, locked foreign financial institutions that do oil-related business with Iran's central bank out of the U.S. banking system, and required banks around the globe to freeze more than $50 billion of Iranian money. In July, the House approved new sanctions by a whopping 400-20 vote designed to effectively make it impossible for Iran to sell any oil abroad; similar legislation will likely be introduced in the Senate before the end of the month.
The measures have devastated the Iranian economy and driven the value of its currency to historic lows. The question now is whether they'll remain in place. Congress can draft any sanctions it wants to, but the White House has tremendous leeway to decide how strictly they get enforced. The legislation that imposed tough sanctions on Iran's central bank gives Obama a "national security waiver" he can use to temporarily soften or lift the measures. The sanctions put in place to punish countries that buy Iranian oil allow the State Department to issue waivers to those that have significantly reduced their purchases. Key allies like Japan and the ten members of the European Union have been protected from the sanctions since the measures were put in place several years ago.
"The sanctions give the president maximum leeway," a senior administration official said. "That's how they were designed from the start."
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It's hardly a secret, or much of a shock, that the United States spies on some of its closest allies. But recent revelations about the National Security Agency hoovering up the telephone calls of French citizens have even surprised officials in that country, one of the world's great bastions of espionage.
According to a report in Le Monde, the NSA has monitored more than 70 million French phone calls in a 30-day period. French officials had initially expressed little shock at a previous report that the United States was spying on its officials -- that is, after all, what intelligence agencies do. But they were taken aback by the scale and scope of the latest revelations about monitoring its citizens, a French official told The Cable.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius condemned what he called the NSA's "unacceptable practices." The government summoned the U.S. ambassador to explain what the spy agency is up to. (It was not clear from the report why NSA was monitoring so many phone calls, and whether the agency was listening to them.)
Following a round of high-stakes talks on Iran's nuclear program in Geneva, the Obama administration is seeking to reassure lawmakers it won't give away the house in its negotiations with Tehran. On Friday, its chief nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman won over a key Iran hawk, Rep. Eliot Engel, during a round of calls to the Hill.
"Under Secretary Sherman told me that the Iranians appeared serious in the recent nuclear talks in Geneva, but cautioned that the devil's in the details, and made clear that U.S. negotiators will remain clear-eyed as they seek to negotiate a deal to end Iran's nuclear weapons program," Engel, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Cable.
A congressional aide said Sherman's assurances dispelled concerns that the White House would scale back its sanctions regime against Iran any time soon. "She was very quick to assuage any concerns that the administration was going to start unilaterally waving sanctions," said the aide. "She made very clear that the sanctions won't be moved until we see verifiable progress. The fears expressed earlier that the administration was going to give away the store don't seem to be well-founded."
Ever since WikiLeaks.org began releasing thousands of classified cables, State Department employees have been forbidden from visiting the website without explicit authorization. (Sure, it was a silly prohibition given the proliferation of mainstream newspaper stories based on the WikiLeaks cables, but them's the rules). So how about viewing WikiLeaks the movie?
Not a problem, the State Department tells The Cable. Watching the hotly anticipated WikiLeaks drama Fifth Estate will not place employees on the naughty list.
"The department hasn't issued any sort of guidance on the movie, so there would be no prohibition against the movie," a State Department official said of the film, which debuts nationwide on Friday. "Employees would be free to watch whatever movie they're interested in."
For foreign services officers taken with Benedict Cumberbatch, the rising-star actor whose portrayal of WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange is earning rave reviews, it's good news.
For Julian Assange, not so much. The mercurial activist has gone out of his way to impugn the film, calling it a failed project based on "discredited and "toxic" books that give a "falsified" version of WikiLeaks. "The result is a reactionary snoozefest that only the U.S. government could love," he told the New York Times. (The movie is based on the books Inside WikiLeaks by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and WikiLeaks by David Leigh and Luke Harding.) Earlier reviews describe the Assange character as "obsessed and arrogant, committed and charismatic."
No friend of the State Department, the 2010 Cablegate disclosures hit Foggy Bottom harder than any other U.S. department. The total number of disclosed files amounted to an unprecedented 251,287 documents, seven times larger than the size of the world's previously largest classified release, "The Iraq War Logs."
Now Assange will have to cope with the fact that America's diplomats -- many of whom were reassigned or negatively impacted by the disclosures -- will be watching Cumberbatch's depiction on the big screen. Enjoy the show.
The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.