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.
GENEVA - The historic nuclear pact with Iran that was signed shortly before dawn Sunday was a personal and professional triumph for Secretary of State John Kerry, who invested enormous amounts of his political capital in the on-again, off-again talks with Tehran. But the bigger winner may be a low-profile British diplomat who shuns the press and had long been derided as a lightweight.
Lady Catherine Ashton, the European Union's top diplomat, spent the past few days locked in round-the-clock negotiations with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. When the two sides finally agreed to a deal, it was Ashton and Zarif who met at Geneva's Palais des Nations to formally sign the pact. Ashton, who has long been wary of the media, insisted that the event be closed to all but a handful of reporters and took no questions.
That was very much in character for Ashton, an unassuming former member of the British House of Lords who got her job four years ago because of a byzantine political dispute involving former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Here in Geneva, though, she's been on center stage. The foreign ministers of the so-called P5+1 countries -- the U.S., Russia, Germany, China, France and Britain -- held brief meetings with Zarif this weekend, but Ashton led the talks and was Zarif's primary counterpart. Most of the time, she was the only one in the room with him as the deal slowly came together.
"Ashton has pleasantly surprised," said Charles Kupchan, a Europe expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior official on the National Security Council. "She has turned out to be a reasonably effective behind-the-scenes negotiator."
The success of her efforts won't be known until Kerry and the other foreign ministers formally sign an interim agreement with Zarif that would temporarily halt, or slow, Iran's nuclear program while giving Tehran access to roughly $7 billion in frozen assets. Western diplomats cautioned that the deal could still fall through -- as they did two weeks ago -- but it's highly doubtful that Kerry would be traveling to Geneva if an agreement wasn't extremely close to being finalized.
The talks in Geneva this week have veered from optimism Wednesday that an agreement was close to a grim sense Thursday that the two sides were drifting further and further away from a deal. The main sticking points were disagreements over whether Iran had the "right" to enrich uranium and whether it would have to stop, rather than simply slow, the construction of its Arak plutonium reactor. The Iranian media, much of which functions as a semi-official mouthpieces for the Iranian government, reported throughout the day that the two sides had resolved both issues.
Leading successful nuclear talks with the Iranians would mark a remarkable turnaround for Ashton, whose initial appointment had been greeted with skepticism, and in some cases derision, because she had specialized in domestic issues during her time in the British House of Lords and had no real experience in foreign policy. Ashton was also a complete unknown -- which was, paradoxically, one of the primary reasons she got the job.
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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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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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A U.S. government-funded foreign aid organization is considering sending hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to countries whose flawed, corrupt or undemocratic governments should almost certainly be ineligible for the money according to the agency's own internal guidelines.
The Millennium Challenge Corporation, or MCC, is an independent U.S. foreign aid agency dedicated to "advancing American values" by reducing poverty, advancing good governance, and weeding out corruption. But people familiar with the matter say that the MCC -- led by Colorado banker Daniel Yohannes (pictured above, left) -- is seriously contemplating giving money to Sierra Leone and Benin, which fail to meet its "control of corruption" requirements, and Liberia and Morocco, which meet less than half of the organization's 20 requirements for civil liberties, sound economic policies, and other measures. If approved, each country could receive hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. government funding over the next few years.
At least one member of the MCC's eight-person board of directors has argued against giving money to the four countries, but it's not clear if that opposition will be enough to sway the rest of the board, which meets next month to review all of its current and potential projects. This is the first time in the MCC's nine-year history that so many potential recipients of its money have failed to meet the grant requirements. And it comes at a sensitive time for Yohannes; on Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is considering his nomination to be America's representative to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
It's far from a simple issue of bureaucratic infighting. If everything breaks right, the MCC money could give a quartet of poor countries the money they need to build new airports and take other steps to juice their economies. If the MCC bets on the wrong countries, by contrast, huge amounts of American money could disappear into the pockets of corrupt government officials or business leaders.
New revelations that the U.S. has been eavesdropping on world leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel aren't simply straining Washington's relationship with Berlin. They're also sparking an increasingly public fight between the State Department and the NSA, with the nation's spies and the nation's diplomats trading shots about who's responsible for the mess.
"This is a pretty serious embarrassment for the U.S., and as top officials try to protect their agencies and their reputations, they are not sticking with their talking points," a former senior U.S. official told The Cable.
Secretary of State John Kerry touched off the furor when he said some of the NSA's overseas surveillance efforts -- which also included tapping into tens of millions of calls in France and Spain -- had been carried out without the Obama administration's knowledge or explicit approval. The remarks highlighted what appears to the White House's emerging strategy for dealing with widespread public fury over the programs: blame it on the NSA.
When Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki begins a three day official visit to Washington today, he'll face predictable questions about Iran, Syria, and Iraq's own political instability and soaring violence. Top lawmakers, however, will press him on a very different issue: the recent killings of dozens of members of a former terrorist group that the Iraqi government had promised -- and failed -- to protect.
The Mujahedeen-e Khalq, or MEK, is the most powerful lobby you've never heard of, and probably the most unusual. It has used a combination of political savvy and seemingly bottomless pools of money to persuade many prominent lawmakers and former officials from the Bush and Obama administrations that it has broad support within Iran and could help turn the country into a democracy. Along the way, it's gone from being as seen as a group responsible for the deaths of at least six Americans to one that is a vital partner in the effort to overthrow Iran's theocratic regime.
MEK supporters like New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, say they want to punish the Maliki government for an attack on an MEK compound called Camp Ashraf last month that left that killed at least 50 of its members. During an October 3rd hearing, Menendez told Wendy Sherman, the number three official at the State Department, that he would suspend U.S. weapons sales to Iraq until more was done to protect the MEK members at the base.
Vice President Biden discussed the MEK issue when he spoke with Maliki Wednesday morning, according to a senior administration official. The official said Baghdad wanted the MEK to leave Iraq, but said the U.S. government had no credible information that the Iraqi government was involved in the September attack on Camp Ashraf. Still, the official said that Washington worried that the group’s roughly 2,900 members would be in danger until they could be moved to new homes in other countries. The problem, he said, was that Albania and Germany were the only nations that have so far been willing to take in even small numbers of MEK followers.
Menendez aides say the senator, for his part, plans to specifically raise the Iraqi government’s treatment of the MEK members, along with his concern that Baghdad is allowing Iran to use its airspace to fly weapons and fighters to Syria, when he sits down with Maliki later Wednesday.
"It is unacceptable to lose one more life when American commanders gave these individuals a written guarantee toward their safety and it sends a message to others in the world that when we say that we are going to do that and we do not, that they should not trust us," he said at the time. "I doubt very much that we are going to see any approval of any weapons sales to Iraq until we get this situation in a place in which people's lives are saved."
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Secretary of State John Kerry is at odds with several senior State Department officials over whether to press ahead with plans for a high-profile peace conference next month that is designed to put negotiators from Syria’s main opposition groups and the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad into the same room for the first time.
Kerry is strongly committed to holding the talks and has spent the past several days prodding key Syrian opposition figures to take part in the negotiations. But according to several senior State Department officials, some of Kerry's top advisors believe that the conference should be called off because the most important of those opposition leaders are unlikely to come.
“The only person who wants the Geneva conference to happen is the secretary,” a senior U.S. official told The Cable. “Who’s going to show up? Will they actually represent anyone? If not, why take the risk?”
The Geneva conference has been in the planning stages for months, and Western officials have long expressed hopes that it could help pave the way for a negotiated solution to the Syria crisis.
The Obama administration and its top allies believe that the fighting in Syria is largely at a stalemate, with forces loyal to Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad unable to fully vanquish the country’s insurgents and the rebels looking to unseat Assad unable to conquer Damascus or oust him by force. Peace talks, Kerry argues, offer the only realistic chance of ending a civil war that has already claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Syrians and forced millions of others from their homes.
There’s just one catch: a growing number of key Syrian opposition leaders say they won’t attend the conference unless Assad promises to transfer power to a transitional government and then step aside. Assad has rejected both of those demands, and Kerry’s critics within the State Department believe that there is a good chance that the main opposition groups will either boycott the conference entirely or send a delegation that has little to no influence over the rebels who are actually fighting Assad’s forces. Some of the officials said the conference should be postponed or canceled to avoid an embarrassing public failure for the U.S.
The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.