For years, the U.S. government has insisted that a planned missile defense system in Europe served to protect America's allies against attacks from Iran. Now that the nuclear threat from Iran may be receding, Russia, which has always seen the system as a menace to its own security, has suggested scrapping the program. But the White House on Thursday said the missile shield, otherwise known as the European phased adaptive approach (EPAA), isn't going anywhere.
"Our plans regarding missile defense in Europe and our commitment to EPAA as the U.S. contribution to NATO missile defense remain unchanged," National Security Council spokeswoman Laura Lucas Magnuson told The Cable.
The idea of scaling back NATO's missile defense system was floated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday following a meeting with Russian and NATO counterparts. "If the Iranian nuclear program is placed under the complete and tight control of the IAEA, the reasons that are now given for the creation of the European segment of the missile defense system will become invalid," said Lavrov.
"They've helped sell my books," Max Blumenthal said Wednesday about the critics of his controversial and newly-published book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel.
Blumenthal was smiling before a seated audience at the New America Foundation, a prominent Washington think tank, which itself came under attack for hosting the event for Blumenthal's book. To critics, Blumenthal is an anti-Israel smear artist. The Nation's left-wing scribe Eric Alterman called his work the "‘I Hate Israel' Handbook" and labeled him a "profoundly unreliable narrator." Commentary's right-wing writer Jonathan Tobin called the book "trash" and ripped New America's president Anne-Marie Slaughter for associating her institution "with a book that smears Israelis as Nazis." In the mainstream American press, Goliath's detractors outnumber its supporters. But Blumenthal isn't bothered.
"The fact is, a balloon needs hot air to rise," he told the crowd. "I thank them on some level."
The "hot air" Blumenthal spoke of has followed him across the country as he supports his book -- a 500-page indictment of Israel's treatment of Palestinians based on four years of research and reporting in the country. To supporters, Blumenthal is an unapologetic truth-teller.
"The only worthwhile, honest discussion of Israel can come from someone who possesses two attributes: fearlessness and expertise," wrote former Guardian journalist and provocateur Glenn Greenwald in praise of Goliath. "Max Blumenthal wields both in abundance, and the result is an eye-opening and stunningly insightful book."
But praise from established Israel critics hasn't made the book tour any less rocky. Goliath has ruffled D.C.'s foreign policy establishment and reaffirmed the radioactive nature of the Israel-Palestine debate in the U.S.
In October, the conservative Florida Family Association called on members to flood the inbox of an Arizona hotel hosting an event featuring Blumenthal. "Americans who are concerned about Max Blumenthal's propaganda ... have the First Amendment Right to complain about this event," read an FFA bulletin. (The group also organized against Electronic Arts for allegations about gay stormtroopers appearing in a Star Wars video game).
In a November book event at the Dallas World Affairs Council, Blumenthal said event staffers told him that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee "called and demanded the event be shut down." A representative for AIPAC tells The Cable the charge "is not true -- completely false."
Last week, Tobin attempted to shame the New America Foundation out of hosting Wednesday's book chat. "NAF has crossed a line that no decent individual or group should even approach," he wrote. "By doing so they are also sending a dangerous signal in the world of D.C. ideas that talk about doing away with Israel is no longer confined, as it should be, to the fever swamps of the far left or the far right."
That the book is controversial is unsurprising. With chapter titles such as "Concentration Camp" and "Night of the Broken Glass," critics charge that Blumenthal is implying an equivalence between the Jewish State and Nazi Germany. That the book would be deemed unfit for public events, however, strikes some as overly-zealous.
"If a think tank can't have a book event, we're not doing what we're supposed to be doing," Peter Bergen, the event's moderator, told The Cable. "It was a public event and if they wanted to challenge [the book], it was open to anybody who wanted to come."
Bergen characterized the controversy surrounding the book as one of style versus substance. "The critiques of your book seem to be not as much about the facts," he said during the event, "it's more about the tone in the book."
But that doesn't mean the think tank wasn't prepared for significant or even violent blowback. On Wednesday, NAF sent out an all-staff e-mail notifying employees "we are hosting an event which requires additional security." Elevators up to the event required a key swipe.
Surprisingly, Blumenthal didn't take any flack during the event's Q&A segment, which attracted a sympathetic crowd of Middle East enthusiasts who commended Blumenthal on his dedication to the topic. The kumbayas ended during the book signing when a reporter for the right-wing news site Washington Free Beacon asked Blumenthal if he was concerned about a positive review of his book by a white supremacist -- an endorsement Blumenthal did not solicit.
"I am not answering your questions or speaking to you," Blumenthal told the reporter. "I'm not speaking to you."
The Free Beacon has made the controversy surrounding the book an editorial priority, including one article centered on Blumenthal's father, a longtime Bill and Hillary Clinton confidante. "I don't consider them to be a site that wants to do anything but smear me or publish one derogatory post after another," Blumenthal told The Cable. "It just shows how desperate they are."
Though Blumenthal brushed off criticisms of his book with humor, he pushed back hard against the perceived double standard of acceptable Israel-focused discourse in Washington.
"Naftali Bennett just spoke at the Brookings Institute and there was no effort to prevent him from speaking at the premier think tank in Washington," he said, referring to Israel's economy minister and leader of the right-wing Jewish Home. "I don't know that there necessarily should be [an effort to censor him] even though Naftali Bennett recently endorsed the decision ... to bar religious Jewish women from volunteering in hospitals after 9 p.m. for fear that they would date Arab doctors."
He went on to list the various book events in which Israel advocates protested his presence. "I'm not surprised by it," he said. "But I am impressed by anyone who stands up to this suppression as the New America Foundation has done."
New America Foundation
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.
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 - 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.
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.
Getty Images / The Cable
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 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 Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.