Congressional leaders are warning international oil companies looking to invest in Iran that severe financial penalties await them if they move too soon.
The ink is barely dry on world powers' interim deal with Iran to ease sanctions in exchange for a slowdown of Tehran's nuclear program. The primary sanctions on Iran's oil business remain in place. That hasn't stopped petro-giants like Royal Dutch Shell, Italian company Eni, and Austrian oil and gas company OMV from exploring the possibility of renewing their operations in Iran. And those moves have both Democratic and Republican lawmakers livid.
"Companies examining their options for resuming business relationships with the Iranian regime are acting prematurely at best," Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told Foreign Policy.
The Obama administration and its allies are struggling to find a safe place to store Syria's chemical weapons after they've been shipped out of the country, raising new questions about when the U.S. military will actually begin destroying the deadly munitions.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has set an ambitious Dec. 31 deadline for Syria to hand over the deadliest of its chemical armaments, which are supposed to be packed into roughly 150 shipping containers, driven to the Syrian port city of Latakia, loaded onto Norwegian and Danish cargo ships and then transported to a location outside of Syria. Once there, they will be transferred to an American vessel called the Cape Ray for destruction. Senior American defense officials stressed Thursday that the Cape Ray itself won't dock at Latakia and that no U.S. personnel would set foot in Syria.
That, at least, is how the plan is supposed to work in theory. In practice, the effort faces an array of technical, diplomatic, security, and financial challenges. The disposal equipment being installed onto the Cape Ray has never been tested at sea, and it's not clear that it will be capable of operating continuously for months without breaking down. The U.S. and its allies will also need to find a way of ensuring that none of the weapons are stolen or damaged on their way to the Cape Ray or during the actual destruction work. To say it will be a challenge is the grossest of understatements.
"I know we have a deadline in three weeks but the operations have not yet started," said one diplomat familiar with the U.N.'s internal discussions. "It's never going to happen."
The Obama administration's more immediate task is to find an allied government willing to allow the ship from Latakia to land at one its ports and unload the weapons before they're transferred to the Cape Ray. It would take roughly two days to load the weapons onto the American vessel, which means they'd need to be stored at the port temporarily, posing a potential security risk to the host country. Not surprisingly, it's been hard to convince a government to let a weapons-laden cargo ship unload at one of its ports. That makes it highly unlikely that the U.S. and its allies will be able to meet the Dec. 31 deadline, set by the OPCW, to remove Syria's chemical arsenal.
Washington recently informed one ally that it was considering using a port servicing a U.S. naval base in Naples, Italy. Talks are also underway with Morocco and Spain to see whether the materials could be unloaded there. Sigrid Kaag, the Dutch head of a joint mission of experts from the United Nations and the OPCW overseeing the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons, said she wouldn't speculate about whether the armaments would be transferred to American custody in a Mediterranean port. Pentagon officials said negotiations with foreign governments were ongoing but declined to comment on which countries could ultimately take the weapons before they were transferred to the Cape Ray.
There's also considerable uncertainty about how the materials will get to Latakia in the first place. The U.S. and other Western powers responded coolly to a Syrian request for armored vehicles and other protective equipment Damascus claimed it needed to carry out a successful operation. In a November 15 letter to the Security Council, Kaag said that Syria would have to reach out to friendly countries for assistance in securing the route. Russia, one of Syria's closest diplomatic allies, is looking into the possibility of supplying up to 200 trucks to transport the materials. A spokesman for the OPCW, Christian Chartier, said Kaag was trying to act as a "go between" to encourage other states to help Syria with its security needs.
Renewed combat along the route to the port city poses another challenge. During a recent visit to Syria, Kaag told the U.N. Security Council in a closed-door briefing, she was not able to reach Latakia by the main road from Homs -- a key hub on the chemical weapons route -- because of fighting, forcing her to travel by helicopter from Beirut.
"It's a main artery, as you know. If we cannot travel there, it's a real issue," said Kaag, who is required to travel in the region with a Romanian close protection detail. Kaag insisted that the mission was "all very manageable," but conceded she could not certain it would go smoothly.
"I'm not aware that this operation has ever been carried out in this way," she said.
Sending the chemical weapons out of Syria marks the most dangerous, and the most expensive phase of a landmark Sept. 14 pact between U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov calling for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons program by the middle of 2014. (Merely destroying the waste products could cost an estimated 35 to 40 million Euros; the full cost of transporting the armaments out of Syria and destroying them is likely to be exponentially higher).
The accord -- which averted a U.S. strike against Syria in retaliation for using sarin to kill hundreds of its own civilians in late August -- has proceeded smoothly. On October, 31, Syria effectively destroyed its declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing and filling plants, the OPCW confirmed.
The U.N. has said the chemical weapons should be packed for transport by Dec. 13 and then moved out of Syria altogether by Dec. 31. A senior U.S. defense official called that timeline "ambitious," but expressed confidence that it could be met. The destruction efforts would begin aboard the Cape Ray in early January.
Senior defense officials said it would take 45-90 days to turn the weapons into non-harmful waste using two of the so-called "Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems" that are being installed in the Cape Ray's cargo holds. The equipment will operate inside of a sealed tent to prevent any of the chemical agents from being accidentally dispersed while they're being turned into waste. The resulting sludge, in turn, will be brought to a commercial destruction facility elsewhere in the world and then incinerated.
Beyond the difficulty in finding a port where the weapons can be unloaded, U.N.-based diplomats say the United States has also been unable to help secure sufficient funding to hire companies to dispose of the toxic waste products.
"The U.S. or Paris can say that we need to make the deadline but will they ensure they can make it possible?" another official asked, adding that governments "have to be realistic and feasible about the deadlines they impose."
As of Nov. 30, 35 companies had submitted expressions of interest in securing a contract to collect the waste product from the United States and transfer it to a facility for incineration. But OPCW officials noted that there isn't enough money in a trust fund established for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons to put out formal requests for bids from the firms.
"What I know is that what we have by now is just not enough; it's far away from being enough," said Chartier, the organization's spokesman. "We need to be certain of our financial commitments in order to start the tender process."
Iran's potential rehabilitation comes at an awkward time for OPEC, the elite club of petroleum-producing states that controls the flow of oil to the world market. The cartel's dominance is already threatened by a boom in oil extracted from shale in the United States, and now the potential return of millions of barrels of Iranian oil to the market looms over Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries as they meet in Vienna this week.
While the global power shift brought on by the U.S. shale boom threatens OPEC from the outside, member countries are threatening it from the inside. Iraq, and now Iran, both want to increase production at a time when global supply is already high, raising the specter that OPEC won't be able to marshal its members into line to control prices. The end result could be lower oil prices next year, according to many analysts.
"OPEC's relevance is waning in our view," said Eric Lee, an oil analyst with Citigroup. Lee said the increased supply from non-OPEC countries has created a disruptive shift in the oil markets that reduces the cartel's control of the market.
That includes the United States, where a boom in oil and gas extracted from shale rock has changed the dynamics of the international energy market. The innovations in extraction methods that led to the boom, including horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, are still under scrutiny for their effects on the environment, while U.S. domestic production continues to grow. The United States produced more crude oil than it imported in November for the first time since 1995. The shift means the United States is less reliant on oil from the Middle East, which could have wide-ranging effects on global politics and markets.
This week in Vienna, Iran is laying the groundwork for a potential increase in oil production, pushing other countries to make room for Iranian oil to come back to the market in the event that a long-term deal to lift U.S. sanctions can be negotiated.
"Other OPEC countries would have to cut to make room for Iran," said Trevor Houser, partner at Rhodium Group, an economic research firm.
But it's unclear whether other countries will want to reduce production in order to make way for Iran.
"This could be a difficult moment for OPEC, a difficult year," said Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Iran is going to be very resentful of anyone saying they should hold back their increase," Clawson said.
That's the way a cartel works. When global oil production is up, the cartel imposes quotas so that an increase in supply doesn't cause the price of oil to drop. The 12 OPEC countries get together and decide to hold back some oil from the market. Each country takes the short-term setback in order to keep the price of oil up, which ultimately benefits all the countries in the club.
Though OPEC is not expected to change its policy this week in Vienna, the prospect of more Iranian oil coming into the market could mean that the cartel might have to move sooner than expected to lower quotas.
"There are two problems: Can you get agreement to reduce the quotas, and can you get countries to abide by the reduced quotas," said Houser. "I think both are going to be pretty challenging."
The struggle will be keeping everybody in line.
"The history of OPEC has been frustrated by sometimes formal agreements that never materialize in practice; many countries accept reducing their own production, but then continue to sell oil under the table," said Leonardo Maugeri, an associate of the Harvard Kennedy School and former executive of Italian oil company Eni. Maugeri said that he expects OPEC to meet again in early 2014 to settle on a new policy. If it can't, oil prices could collapse.
While some analysts have heralded the end of OPEC, others have warned that it could lead to greater volatility.
"Volatile oil prices are especially damaging because people have less ability to make decisions about what kind of car to buy and where to live based on how much oil will take up in their budget," said Jason Bordoff, director of Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy and a former senior advisor in the Obama administration.
OPEC helps dampen volatility. In addition to intervening when oil prices are falling, it also ramps up production when supply is suddenly cut, in an effort to keep prices from spiking.
"Over the last couple years the Gulf states have increased their production when there have been disruptions in, say, Libya," Richard Mallinson, a geopolitical analyst with energy markets consultancy Energy Aspects, said. Mallinson said OPEC has weathered many challenges and will likely survive this one as well.
And while Iran is warning OPEC countries this week that they may have to make room for Iranian oil, some experts think that is still wishful thinking on Iran's part.
"The Iranians have an interest in actually creating this kind of perception, and that is to lure oil companies, the big international companies, to see the potential in coming back to the Iranian market," said Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst for International Crisis Group. Since Iran doesn't have lobbyists in Washington, Vaez added, Tehran is hoping to convince international oil companies to argue that sanctions should be rolled back.
After reaching an interim deal this weekend to halt the development of Iran's nuclear program, U.S. officials have gone to great pains to emphasize that the United States will continue to take a hard line on enforcing sanctions, most of which remain in place. But in at least in one area -- getting medicine to Iranians -- sanctions might have been too successful, discouraging companies and banks from engaging even in approved trade.
Though humanitarian products like food and medicine are already exempted from the sanctions, banks and companies that facilitate the transactions have been hesitant to get involved, for fear of ending up being sanctioned themselves. Companies also avoid doing even permitted business with Iran because it often requires a special license from the Treasury Department office that handles financial sanctions.
"Really this is tied to the medicine shortage in Iran and the fact that there were very few banking channels through which to sell medicine to Iran," said Jamal Abdi, the policy director for National Iranian American Council.
The United States agreed over the weekend to "establish a financial channel to facilitate humanitarian trade," but it isn't yet clear how it will work. Lawyers who work on trade deals for humanitarian products say it isn't yet clear whether the agreement will change the status quo.
"It's way too early to determine how successful this new financial channel will be in practice," said Doug Jacobson, a sanctions attorney in Washington, D.C. Jacobson said he expected the overall agreement's effect on sales for U.S. companies to be "extremely limited."
Humanitarian and trade groups have criticized the Obama administration over how the sanctions have affected the Iranians' access to medicine.
"Their handling of the humanitarian trade issue has been a disaster," said Bill Reinsch, the president of the National Foreign Trade Council. "They grant licenses, but no one can use them because they can't get financing, because they've gone around and intimidated the banks into not doing business."
In addition to fear of sanctions, companies could also avoid facilitating humanitarian trade because it's not worth risking the stigma attached to working with Iran. Public companies that do business with Iran have to file a public notice with their financial documents, sometimes even for approved humanitarian transactions.
The United States and Iran, having clinched a landmark interim deal suspending some aspects of Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, turned their attention this week to addressing the humanitarian crisis in Syria.
The long-standing adversaries were scheduled to attend a dinner tonight hosted by Britain's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva and participate tomorrow in U.N.-sponsored conference at the Palais de Nations aimed at persuading Syria's combatants to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid.
The conference -- which will bring key regional and international powers together -- will provide the first major test of whether progress on the nuclear front can be converted into political progress and an improvement in living conditions for millions of needy civilians in Syria.
Syria is coping with one of the worst humanitarian crises in decades, with more than 9 million civilians in need of assistance, and more than 2.5 million people largely cut off from aid. Nearly 300,000 civilians are living under a state of siege, mostly at the hands of government forces, forced to forage for leaves to survive.
Humanitarian relief advocates expressed hope that the diplomatic progress in Geneva, combined with a recent pact to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons, can refocus international attention on the plight of Syrian civilians. "The diplomatic breakthrough, first on chemical weapons, and now on nuclear energy demonstrates a political solution is possible," said Noah Gottschalk, senior humanitarian policy advisor at OxFam, America. "And it gives us hope that they can reach a deal on a cease fire and improve humanitarian access and ultimately achieve a political solution to the conflict."
But other observers cautioned that Iran's diplomats can only go so far without provoking hardliners at home who view the country's alliance with President Bashar al-Assad as vital to Tehran's national security interests. "Iran can score some easy points with the West by showing flexibility on issues like humanitarian access, but Tehran is not going to desert Assad completely," said Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations at New York University's Center on International Cooperation. "That would alienate hardline critics of the recent opening to the West inside Iran."
In advance of the meeting, Syria pledged for the first time during the conflict to allow the U.N. to run aid convoys from Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon without having to channel them through the capital of Damascus. But Syria has refused to permit goods to enter through southern Turkey, a conduit for the rebels' military supplies, but also one of the most concentrated areas of civilian humanitarian need. It remained unclear whether the aid would be delivered directly to the needy along the border or would have to be delivered through Damascus first, a condition Syria had previously placed on the United Nations.
"The Syrian government has formally notified the [U.N.] resident coordinator of its decision to allow the entry of humanitarian aid through official border crossings with Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq," according to an unpublished copy of a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council from Syria's U.N. envoy Bashar Al Ja'afari. "In the case of the border crossings with Turkey, however, it has been impossible to open an official crossing because armed terrorist groups are active along most of the border with the support of the Turkish authorities," the letter said.
The Syrian envoy accused anti-government "terrorists" with responsibility as being responsible for the humanitarian crisis, and pledged to streamline its own procedures for issuing visas for international aid workers and approving tours by U.N. aid convoys.
"There has been increasing discussion regarding cooperation between the government of the Syrian Arab Republic and the United Nations in order to deliver humanitarian assistance to civilians affected by events in Syria," Ja'afari wrote. "At the meetings, an agreement was reached to intensify cooperation by overhauling administrative procedures and removing so-called bureaucratic obstacles. The Syrian government affirmed that it would make every possible effort to facilitate the humanitarian work of the United Nations and international organizations."
The United Nations has faulted both sides in the conflict for denying humanitarian relief to civilians. But they have accused the Syrian government of preventing the delivery of medicines to rebel-controlled areas, imposing siege conditions on civilians, and enforcing a range of bureaucratic impediments that severely restrict the delivery of aid. One U.N. diplomat said that Syria's latest offer of cooperation reflects its concern that the U.N. Security Council may impose tougher measures on the government if it fails to expand humanitarian access. "They fear a resolution," the official said.
The humanitarian aid conference will open one day after Ban and the U.N. Arab League special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, announced plans to schedule a long-anticipated Jan. 22 peace conference between the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition. The aim of the meeting (referred to as Geneva 2) is to implement a June 30, 2012 political communique (known as Geneva 1) calling for the establishment of a transitional government in Syria, including representatives from the government and opposition.
"At long last and for the first time, the Syrian government and opposition will meet at the negotiating table instead of the battlefield," Ban told reporters in New York today. "Even though the conference will take place in about eight weeks, all parties can and must begin now to take steps to help the Geneva conference succeed, including toward the cessation of violence, humanitarian access, release of detainees and internally displaced people to their homes."
But shortly after Ban's announcement, Brahimi acknowledged that he has yet to secure commitments from two of the rival combatants' key supporters, Iran and Saudi Arabia, to attended the peace conference. The United States and other Western powers have insisted that Tehran only be invited to the political meeting if it endorses the Geneva Communique, and its proposal for a political transition in Syria. Saudi Arabia has refused to discuss the political conference with Brahimi, fearing the peace conference would grant legitimacy to Assad's government.
But it remained unclear whether Saudi Arabia, which has drafted a Security Council resolution compelling Syria to grant unfettered access throughout the country to humanitarian aid workers, will attend tomorrow's session.
Tuesday's talks, which will be chaired by the U.N., Australia, and Luxembourg, includes a growing roster of foreign governments (including the five permanent members of the Security Council: the United States, Britain, China, France, and Russia), key regional powers (Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, and Kuwait), and European governments (Norway, Germany, and Italy).
The meeting will open with a speech by Valerie Amos, the U.N. relief coordinator, and involve a more detailed briefing on the situation by John Ging, the director of operations for U.N. relief efforts. "If Amos's intention is to bring all these countries together to put pressure on the Syrian regime to lift the siege then we welcome it," said Najib Ghadbian, the U.S. and U.N. representative of the Syrian National Coalition. "But ideally we would have liked to see a Security Council resolution on humanitarian access [that threatened] consequences for non-compliance. Period."
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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BEIRUT — Lebanon celebrated the 70th anniversary of its independence today with a parade of marching soldiers, sword-wielding cavalrymen, and camouflage green tanks in downtown Beirut. But the scene a 15-minute drive away presented a stark reminder of the central government's limited power. The Iranian embassy remained pockmarked from the Nov. 19 double suicide bombing, which killed 25 people and wounded 147 more, while the façade of the adjacent building was torn to shreds.
The attack was likely the handiwork of al Qaeda-linked militants -- just one of the many radical Sunni groups that are viewed as an increasingly dangerous threat by American intelligence officials and mainstream Sunni Lebanese politicians alike. Bolstered by the raging violence in Syria, these jihadist groups pose a mounting danger to the tenuous peace that has prevailed in Lebanon since the beginning of the uprising next door.
Lebanon's mainstream Sunni leadership, while condemning the Iranian embassy attack, also deplored Hezbollah's decision to intervene militarily on the side of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, which has led to an increase in Sunni-Shiite tensions and radicalization that made the bombing possible.
"I believe that if the situation will stay like this for another year, there will be no role for moderates" in either Syria or Lebanon, said Nohad Machnouk, a member of parliament aligned with the anti-Hezbollah Future Movement. "The radicals will be in the front because they are ready to die, they are ready to kill, they are ready to do anything."
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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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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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Western and Iranian negotiators were putting the finishing touches on a far-reaching nuclear deal. Then, at virtually the last minute, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius joined in the talks. It didn't take long for the negotiations to unravel -- and for Fabius to publicly declare this round of the talks to be over.
It wasn't the answer U.S., European or Iranian teams had been expecting. One Western official said Paris hadn't been particularly involved in the painstaking negotiations that had taken place in the run-up to this weekend's talks in Geneva. "The French were barely involved in this," one Western diplomat said. "They didn't get looped in until a few days ago."
Yet the French response shouldn't have been a total surprise. The socialist government of French President François Hollande has adopted a muscular foreign policy that has put it to the right of the Obama administration on Libya, Mali, Syria and now Iran. Along the way, it has also become Israel's primary European ally and -- after the U.S. -- arguably its closest friend in the world.
Fabius, echoing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is said to have had two serious concerns with the deal. First, the agreement failed to prevent Tehran from continuing construction on its nuclear reactor at Arak. Once the facility is operational, a key part of Iran's nuclear program would be immune to airstrikes because bombing the plant would lead to massive, deadly, radiation leaks. Fabius was also upset that the deal didn't require Iran to reduce its stockpiles of 20% enriched uranium, which is approaching weapons-grade. The Hollande government, Fabius told French radio, would not be part of a "fool's game."
Publicly, Secretary of State John Kerry refused to say anything critical about the French, emphasizing instead that Iran and the so-called "P5+1" had made substantial headway towards a deal and would continue the talks later this month. "I’d say a number of nations – not just the French, but ourselves and others – wanted to make sure that we had the tough language necessary," Kerry said on the Meet the Press. In the French media, there were reports that the big powers were united -- and that it was Iranian negotiators who ultimately balked at making a deal in Geneva. Privately, though, many diplomats were fuming at the French.
President Bashar al-Assad's government has presented the United Nation's chemical weapons watchdog with a detailed plan for the transfer of chemical materials abroad for destruction. And according to a confidential account of the plan reviewed by Foreign Policy, it includes 120 Syrian security forces, dozens of heavy, armored trucks, and an advanced communications network linking Damascus to the Mediterranean Sea. The extensive request for equipment with both civilian and military applications has already triggered expressions of alarm from Western diplomats. "Let's just say we will be looking at this list very skeptically, particularly items that could be diverted to a military program," said one Security Council diplomat.
The Syrian plan calls for equipping at least eight platoons of up to 35 soldiers each to secure the road between Damascus to the port city of Latakia, from which the weapons would be shipped overseas for destruction. The most likely destination: Albania, which got rid of its own chemical stockpile in 2007. The United States is nearing agreement with the Albanian government to destroy Syria's chemicals and nerve agents, according to two U.N. Security Council diplomats. According to the American proposal, which has not been made public, the United States would supply the Albanian government with mobile labs capable of destroying Syrian nerve gas through a process known as hydrolysis -- essentially bombarding it with water and caustic reagents like sodium hydroxide.
The Cable first reported last week on aspects of the Syrian destruction plan, including a proposal to convert 12 chemical weapons plants into commercial factories. But The Cable has since obtained a far more detailed account of the plan, including requests for tens of millions of dollars worth of equipment, including 40 armored transport trucks, advanced cameras, computers, radios, 13 power generators, five construction cranes, five forklifts, packing materials, and 20 Teflon-lined 2,000-liter metal crates for storing controlled chemicals, including phosphoryl chloride and phosphorus trichloride, a precursor chemical used in the production of sarin and tabun.
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Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has asked international inspectors to spare a dozen of its chemical weapons factories from the wrecking ball, The Cable has learned. The Syrians say they want to convert the plants into civilian chemical facilities. But the move is fueling concern among some non-proliferation experts that Damascus may be seeking to maintain the industrial capacity to reconstitute its chemical weapons program at some later date.
The Syrian request -- which was contained in a confidential letter from Muallem to Ahmet Üzümcü, the director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons -- has also raised concern among some Western governments that Syria may seek to entangle the inspection agency in lengthy negotiations that could drag out the process of destroying Syria's chemical weapons.
The OPCW -- which, along with the United Nations, is overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons program -- has frequently allowed states that volunteer to eliminate their nerve agent plants to convert the facilities into a production for vaccines, medicines, and other life-saving products. But states must first make a "compelling" case to justify the preservation of such a facility. The Syrian letter does not detail how the civilian chemical plants would be used, according to an official that has been briefed on its contents. Any exception to the Syrian chemical destruction program would have to be ratified by the 41-nation OPCW executive council, which counts the United States as a member. Such decisions are typically made by consensus.
Amy Smithson, a non-proliferation expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, noted that the OPCW’s executive council will have to seriously weigh what the Syrians intend to produce. "If they want to make bubble gum or humanitarian products that are essential for the well-being of Syria's citizens, that's one thing," she said. "But if they ask to make pesticides and fertilizers, normally those plants are a hop, skip, and a jump away from the ability to make warfare agents."
The request comes as the OPCW announced that it had visited 21 of Syria's declared chemical weapons sites and found that Damascus had completed the destruction of all of its chemical weapons filling and mixing equipment a day ahead of schedule. "The government of the Syrian Arab Republic has completed the functional destruction of critical equipment for all of its declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing/filling plants, rendering them inoperable," the OPCW said in a statement today. "The Joint [UN/OPCW] Mission is now satisfied that it has verified -- and seen destroyed -- all of Syria's declared critical production and mixing/filling equipment."
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.
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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Saudi Arabia took the extraordinary step Friday of refusing to take its seat on the U.N. Security Council -- despite pursuing the position for years. It's an unprecedented protest over the council's failure to take firmer action in Syria and Palestine. And it comes at a time of growing Saudi frustration with American-led policies across the Middle East.
The decision, which came in an announcement from the Saudi Foreign Ministry, came one day after Saudi Arabia was elected for the first time in its history to the United Nations' most powerful body. And it reflected deep resentment over China and Russia's blockage of steps by the Security Council to restrain President Bashar al-Assad's military and to force him from power. The announcement left many regional specialists shaking their heads, saying the move may run counter to Saudi interests and would deny the Saudis an opportunity to use the high-profile position on the council to promote a tougher line on Syria and other issues.
"This strikes me as bizarre; I've got no good explanation for it," said F. Gregory Gause, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and an expert on Saudi Arabia. "I know the Saudi diplomats at the mission were preparing for this; they were taking courses at Columbia University to get ready." Gause said that Saudi foreign policy has a deeply personal quality to it and that the Saudi leadership sometimes has "fits of pique and then backs down. I don't know if this is a fit of pique."
In awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), an often-obscure disarmament agency in the Netherlands, the Norwegian Nobel Committee was promoting its aspirations for international harmony as much as it was rewarding achievement.
Sure, the organization, which is responsible for implementing the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, has a long track record of accomplishments. Since its establishment, the agency, which is based in The Hague, has conducted thousands of inspections and has verified the destruction of more than 80 percent of the world's declared chemical weapons.
The Nobel Peace Prize committee said that the award was being granted in part to reward yesterday's cleanup, but that the main purpose was to encourage the inspectors to address today's crisis in Syria. And that is a mission that is very much incomplete. Yes, the OPCW's technical specialists, along with experts from the World Health Organization, braved sniper fire as they helped the United Nations determine that chemical weapons had been used in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. And yes, a team of OPCW inspectors, backed by the United Nations, entered Syria last week to begin the ambitious work of overseeing the elimination of one of the world's deadliest chemical weapons programs. But it's an open question whether that goal can be reached in a timely fashion; this week, the U.N. and United States were scrambling to find a taker for Syria's deadly agents, without much luck.
"By means of the present award to the OPCW, the Committee is seeking to contribute to the elimination of chemical weapons," according to a statement issued by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. "Recent events in Syria, where chemical weapons have again been put to use, have underlined the need to enhance the efforts to do away with such weapons."
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Having secured Syria's pledge to give up its stores of more than 1000 metric tons of chemical weapons, nerve agents, and precursors, the United Nations is struggling to find a place to dispose of them.
Much of the legwork is being carried out by the United States, which has been sounding out governments from Europe, the Middle East, and Russia about the prospects of taking on the task. So far, there are no apparent takers.
U.S. officials have even approached Norway about disposing of the agents -- even though the country has neither the technology nor the expertise to do so.
The search for a chemical weapons dump is under way as the U.N. has already started to oversee the dismantling of Syria's chemical weapons program. Earlier this week, a U.N.-backed team of weapons inspectors began the work of supervising the destruction of equipment and mixing machines linked to Syria's chemical weapons program. "Syrian personnel used cutting torches and angle grinders to destroy or disable a range of materials, including missile warheads, aerial bombs and mixing and filling equipment," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote the Security Council this week.
But the destruction of the vast majority of Syria's most lethal agents and weapons has yet to begin.
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The Obama administration is trying to send a message to Egypt's generals by cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S aid. The only problem is that it isn't entirely clear what the message actually is.
U.S. officials said Wednesday that the administration would delay planned deliveries of F-16 fighter jets, Apache attack helicopters, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, and M1A1 tanks. The officials said they would also suspend a planned $260 million cash transfer to the Egyptians; Congresional aides briefed on the matter said that a $300 million loan guarantee would also be held back. (The U.S. gives Egypt roughly $1.5 billion per year in total aid.)
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. was "recalibrating" its aid to Egypt in response to the military's continued killing of unarmed protesters demanding the reinstatement of ousted President Mohamed Morsy as well as the arrests and detentions of key opposition leaders. General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the Army chief who has ruled the country since removing Morsy from power, has promised to hold new elections and take other steps to restore Egypt's nascent democratic system, but the officials said the military was taking too long to follow through on its assurances.
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U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon tonight outlined his ambitious plan to oversee the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons,relying on 100 technical specialists, administrators, and security officers to eliminate Bashar al-Assad's unconventional arsenal by next summer. It won't be an easy task, Ban admitted in a 10-page letter to the U.N. Security Council. Not only is it the first time the U.N. has carried out such a task in the midst of a civil war. The advance team that's in Syria has already had mortars and car bombs go off right around their makeshift headquarters.
The team, which will be comprised of U.N. political and security officers and technical experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, will set up its headquarters in Cyprus, maintaining "'a light footprint' in Syria, only deploying to Syria those personnel whose presence is necessary in the country to perform tasks," Ban wrote.
The 100-member team will be far smaller than some outside experts suggested it ought to be. David Kay, a former weapons inspector in Iraq, suggested the task of eliminating Syria's unconventional stockpile could take "well over 1,000 people." And the U.N. team won't have much time to get its job done. Ban believes his crew can supervise the destruction of more than 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons, agents, and precursors -- by June 30, 2014. Cheryl Rofer, a Los Alamos National Laboratory specialist in chemical weapons destruction, told Foreign Policy last month that she "wouldn't be surprised to see this [Syria cleanup effort] last as long as ten years."
For weeks, Iraqi officials have been publicly floating the idea of using American drones to hit the increasingly lethal al-Qaeda-affiliated militants on their soil. But the ordinarily drone-friendly Obama administration is apparently in no mood to open up a new front in global campaign of unmanned attacks. An administration official tells The Cable that American drone strikes in Iraq are now off the table.
Though neither Iraqi nor U.S. officials will say who called off the drones, it's no secret who began discussing them in the first place. In an August 17 trip to Washington, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters that Baghdad is seeking U.S. advisers, air surveillance or drone strikes to combat al-Qaeda's grip on the country. "We cannot fight these increasing terrorist" threats alone, he said. Speaking of drone strikes specifically, he said as long as they were used to "target al-Qaeda and their bases," without "collateral damage," Iraqis would welcome them.
That same month, Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. Iraq Lukman Faily reiterated Iraq's interest in drones. "The reason we're now considering drone support is because we need to get better control of the sky so we can track and destroy al-Qaeda camps in the country," Faily told The Cable.
It's not hard to understand why they'd be interested in the unmanned aircraft. On Monday, the detonation of 15 car bombs in Baghdad left dozens dead in an event that would've shocked any other country not embroiled in a civil war. However, in Iraq, it was only the 38th such atrocity in the last 12 months. In 2013 alone, Iraq is averaging 68 car bombings a month. The United Nations reports that 5,740 civilians were killed since January, which is almost two times more deaths than recorded in all of 2010.
Despite the staggering numbers, the U.S. isn't about to open up a new drone war in Iraq. An administration official tells The Cable the use of lethal drones has not been discussed nor is it even under consideration for Iraq.
Correction 10/2/13 11:50 A.M.: An earlier version of this story noted that the mention of "Israel" was the first by an Iranian leader in decades. This is incorrect; in fact, even hardline Iranian leaders like Mahmoud Admadinejad have done so from time to time. We regret the error. And we thank Adam Kredo and Noah Pollak for bringing this to our attention.
Israel and Iran closed this year's U.N. General Assembly session today with a flurry of rhetorical thrusts, threats, and warnings that grabbed headlines around the globe. Overlooked in the commotion was a small, but potentially important turn of phrase: the Iranians actually acknowledged their Israeli sparring partners as "Israelis" -- not members of some mythical "Zionist entity" -- and admitted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was Israel's political leader.
Netanyahu went first, all-but-accusing Iranian President Hasan Rouhani of being a serial liar and warning that Israel would act alone, if necessary, to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon. "Israel will never acquiesce to nuclear arms in the hands of a rogue regime that repeatedly promises to wipe us off the map," Netanyahu told a gathering of U.N. dignitaries at the General Assembly. "I want there to be no confusion on this point. Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone."
Iran's representative shot back. A relatively junior Iranian diplomat, Khodadad Siefi, warned that "the Israeli prime minister had better not even think about attacking Iran, let alone planning for that." Netanyahu, Siefi said, "should seriously avoid a miscalculation about Iran. Iran's centuries old policy of non-aggression must not be interpreted as its inability to defend itself."
The feisty exchange reflected the deep animosity that still exists between the two Middle East rivals, despite a new diplomatic effort by Iran to repair its relations with the West. But obscured by the rhetorical skirmish was the fact that an Iranian diplomat had just referred to an Israeli leader as, well, the Israeli leader. Not only that. He had repeated the word Israel several times in the course of his rebuke of Netanyahu. Iranian leaders haven't done that very often, since the 1979 revolution in Tehran.
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The negotiations had been dragging on for days, and no deal was in sight. It was December 2001, and Afghan leaders were deadlocked over how to share power in post-Taliban Afghanistan. The victorious Northern Alliance insisted on taking 18 of the country's 26 ministries, a demand immediately rejected by all of the country's other factions. U.S. officials worried that the fragile calm in Afghanistan would unravel if no agreement was reached.
It was just after 4 a.m. when an unlikely savior emerged. Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's deputy foreign minister, had watched as Western officials spent two hours unsuccessfully pressing the Northern Alliance's representative, Yunus Qanooni, to accept fewer ministries. Zarif finally took him aside and whispered in his ear for a few minutes. Qanooni then came back to the table and said the Northern Alliance would accept five fewer ministries. James Dobbins, who had represented the U.S. at the negotiations, recalled in 2007 Congressional testimony that Zarif had almost single-handedly saved the talks.
"Zarif had achieved the final breakthrough without which the Karzai government might never have been formed," Dobbins said then.
President Obama's Friday phone call with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani made headlines worldwide, but Zarif, now Iran's foreign minister, will be the one actually leading the negotiations with the U.S. over his country's nuclear program, including the high-level negotiations scheduled for next month in Geneva. The success of those talks, like the ones in Bonn more than a decade ago, will depend on how successfully Zarif -- an American-educated diplomat whose children were born in the U.S. -- can bridge the seemingly intractable differences between the two sides.
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The Syrian government is required to provide international chemical weapons inspectors "immediate and unfettered" access to any site in Syria starting Oct. 1 and complete the destruction of its chemical weapons production and mixing equipment by Nov. 1, according to a decision to be voted Friday afternoon by the executive council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
The arrangements and timetables are part of a U.S.-Russian proposal to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons program by the middle of 2014. The U.N. Security Council is expected to endorse the technical procedures on Friday night.
The deal marks the culmination of several days of intensive negotiation between Washington and Moscow over the details of a chemical weapons inspection. It sets the stage for a dramatic scene in the U.N. Security Council, where U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will cast their vote on the first major Security Council resolution to be adopted by the Security Council following more than two years of violence in Syria.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani demanded on Thursday that Israel to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a step that would require Israel to dismantle the nuclear weapons it has never publicly acknowledged that it possesses.
It's a time-honored talking point from Tehran's leaders. But it comes with an ironic twist. A significant number of Israelis kind of agree Rouhani's demand -- or, at least the part about Israel finally owning up to its nuclear arsenal.
Tel Aviv has for decades maintained a policy of deliberate ambiguity about its nuclear stockpile, believed to be one of the largest in the world. Earlier this month, nonproliferation experts at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists estimated that Israel had 80 nuclear warheads and enough fissile material to build as many as 190 more.
Generations of Israeli leaders have refused to utter a word about those weapons, and an Israeli nuclear technician who leaked details about the program in the 1980s before fleeing overseas was arrested by Mossad agents, brought back to Israel, and ultimately sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison. Today, though, there's a little-noticed debate raging within the country about whether the time has come to drop the facade and simply admit to being a nuclear power.
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Bashar al-Assad has signed onto a decades-old international treaty banning chemical weapons. Now comes the hard part: making sure he doesn't exploit its loopholes to find ways of holding onto the weapons anyway.
On its face, the decades-old Chemical Weapons Convention seems fairly straightforward. Signatories agree to halt the production of new chemical weapons, allow international inspectors to visit all of its storage sites, and then begin to gradually destroy them. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is responsible for implementing the treaty, estimates that 57,740 metric tons of chemical agents, or 81.1 percent of the world's declared chemical weapons stockpiles, have been destroyed since the agreement went into effect in 1997.
The problem is that the treaty wasn't designed to deal with situations like the current crisis in Syria. To succeed, it will require the full and ongoing cooperation of the Assad government, which is obviously far from guaranteed. If Assad changes his mind or is caught cheating, the treaty's sole enforcement mechanism is a referral back to the U.N. Security Council, where the chances of getting an agreement authorizing punitive measures against Damascus for its poor behavior are virtually non-existent. For all intents and purposes, the treaty is toothless.
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U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday that U.N. weapons inspectors have obtained "overwhelming" evidence that chemical weapons were used in an Aug. 21 attack that killed large numbers of civilians in the suburbs of Damascus, Syria. The inspection team, according to a U.N.-based diplomatic source, has uncovered traces of the nerve agent sarin, a key agent in the chemical weapons arsenal of President Bashar al-Assad's government.
"I believe that the report will be an overwhelming report that chemical weapons were used, even though I cannot say it publicly at this time," Ban said. Ban -- who made the remarks in a speech before the Women's International Forum -- thought he was speaking in a closed-door meeting. But the session was being broadcast live on an internal U.N. television feed.
It's the first time the United Nations has officially declared that chemical weapons have been used in Syria. And the acknowledgment comes two days before the U.N.'s chief weapons inspector, the Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, is scheduled on Sunday to present the U.N. chief with a report on his team's findings in Syria. Ban will present a briefing on the team's finding to the U.N. Security Council on Monday morning at 11 a.m.
U.N. inspectors have collected a "wealth" of evidence on the use of nerve agents that points to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons against his own people, according to a senior Western official.
The inspection team, which is expected on Monday to present U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon with a highly anticipated report on a suspected Aug. 21 nerve agent attack in the suburbs of Damascus, will not directly accuse the Syrian regime of gassing its own people, according to three U.N.-based diplomats familiar with the investigation. But it will provide a strong circumstantial case -- based on an examination of spent rocket casings, ammunition, and laboratory tests of soil, blood, and urine samples -- that points strongly in the direction of Syrian government culpability.
"I know they have gotten very rich samples -- biomedical and environmental -- and they have interviewed victims, doctors and nurses," said the Western official. "It seems they are very happy with the wealth of evidence they got." The official, who declined to speak on the record because of the secrecy surrounding the U.N. investigation, could not identify the specific agents detected by the inspector team, but said, "You can conclude from the type of evidence the [identity of the] author."
One of the Senate's most powerful Democrats has some advice for top Obama administration officials: take your collective feet out of your collective mouths when you're talking about Syria.
Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said recent comments by Secretary of State John Kerry and Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken undercut the Obama administration's negotiating position with Damascus and made it even harder for the White House to sell a war-weary American public on potential military strikes against Syria.
"There are a number of things that have been said that I think are not helpful at all, including some by Kerry," Levin told reporters today.
The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.