On 10:50 Tuesday night, Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri boarded Qatar Airways flight 52, bound for Doha. When he arrives at 6:30 Wednesday evening Qatar time, he'll board another plane to Tehran, his home.
The details of Amiri's life since the last time he was in Iran, 14 months ago, are sure to remain in dispute for some time. In an interview aired on Iranian state television Wednesday, Amiri accused U.S. and Saudi agents of kidnapping and drugging him while he was on pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, eventually taking him to the United States. In another video released last month, however, Amiri claimed he was in the United States voluntarily and studying for a doctorate.
According to one source who spoke extensively with Amiri before he left the United States, his current story is the following: When he was in Medina, Saudi Arabia, in June 2009, a van pulled up as he was leaving his hotel room on the way to the mosque, and men he didn't know forced him into it.
The next sequence of events is hazy, according to Amiri's account. He says he must have been drugged, because the next thing he remembers is being in Washington, D.C., and in the custody of unspecified American intelligence organizations. They allegedly moved him around the country over the next 14 months, and he says that he spent much of his time in Arizona as well as Washington.
Amiri claims that he didn't give U.S. intelligence officers any information, and was caught by surprise when, on Monday night, he was taken out of his secret hiding location and put in a cab. The cab drove straight to the Iranian interests section in Georgetown, which is supervised by the Pakistani Embassy. A U.S. government car trailed the cab, he claims.
Amiri's alleged captors did not torture him physically, he now says, but they did abuse him "emotionally," placing him under great mental strain during his captivity. He did not talk about how or why he was able to produce three YouTube videos and publish them on the Internet.
According to two diplomatic sources close to the issue, the most plausible explanation is that Amiri defected willingly to the United States, but at some point decided he wanted to return to Iran. U.S. intelligence officers may have also decided that holding him was not yielding the benefits commensurate to the costs, and put him out. Under this theory, Amiri is now trying to restore his place in the system of the country he betrayed, while concocting a cover story about being kidnapped.
Amiri has a wife and son who still live in Iran. One source speculated that the Iranians could be threatening his family in order to coerce him to relate his current version of events. That would at least explain why Amiri is taking the huge risk of placing himself back into the hands of the Iranian regime.
Surrounded by Iranian minders during his meetings Tuesday with foreign officials who visited the interests section before going to the airport, Amiri told them he was happy to be going back to Tehran and relieved to be joined again with his Iranian friends. Appearing upbeat but nervous, he answered questions on Tuesday carefully and denied that he was being coerced to tell this latest version of the events surrounding his disappearance.
Our source said he got tripped up on questions that he wasn't prepared for, which some in the room took as a signal he wasn't being honest, and was trying hard to avoid contradicting himself as he told his tale.
Amiri's story conflicts with what little information the State Department has released regarding the case. For example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday that Amiri came to the U.S. of his own free will and leaves on his own accord. "He's free to go, he was free to come, these decisions are his alone to make," she said.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that Amiri got to the Iranian interests section on his own. What seems clear is that the Iranians were ready for him: His travel back to Tehran was already being planned when he arrived.
In the absence of hard facts, rumors regarding Amiri's return to Iran continue to swirl. One source speculated that there may have been a swap deal between Iran and the United States, whereby Amiri would return to the Islamic Republic and then, sometime in the near future, Iranian officials would release the three American hikers they have held since July 2009, or even ex-FBI agent Robert Levinson, who went missing in Iran in 2007.
Until the Obama administration gives a full account of its side of the story, Amiri's tale of the last 14 months of his life will be the only version of events that the public will hear. State Department officials continue to dance around the U.S. government's connection with him, and the circumstances leading to his departure.
"He has been in the United States, you know, for some time," Crowley said at Tuesday's briefing. "The United States government has maintained contact with him. I can't tell you specifically when he made this decision to return, you know, to Iran, but as we indicated today and as the secretary mentioned a bit ago, he's here of his free will and he's -- this is his decision to depart, and we are helping to facilitate that departure."
"We didn't seize him and bring him here, and we're not preventing him from returning to Iran," Crowley said. "That is how we do things here in the United States."
A behind-the-scenes clash is playing out over President Obama's nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to Turkey, a key Middle East post at a time of tense relations between Washington and an increasingly independent-minded Ankara.
The would-be envoy, Francis J. Ricciardone, Jr., is a 32-year veteran of the Foreign Service who most recently served as the deputy ambassador in Kabul. He's served in Ankara in the past and speaks fluent Turkish. Ricciardone also played a role in organizing the Iraqi exile community before the 2003 U.S. drive to Baghdad.
But it's his tenure as George W. Bush's envoy to Egypt that has provoked the most criticism, particularly among neoconservatives who are hoping to persuade Republican senators to torpedo his nomination.
Ricciardone served as the U.S. ambassador in Cairo from 2005-2008. Activists and journalists dubbed those first few years the "Arab Spring," when street demonstrations, political ferment, and contested elections in Baghdad, Beirut, and other Arab capitals inspired hope that the Middle East's stagnant authoritarian regimes -- including that of Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt with an iron fist since Anwar Sadat's assassination in 1981 -- might finally fall.
The Bush administration exerted special efforts to promote democracy and human rights in Egypt, a longtime recipient of billions in military and economic aid, and a close U.S. partner on regional security matters. U.S. officials repeatedly raised human rights concerns with Mubarak's government, including the case of dissident political leader Ayman Nour. Then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered a ringing 2005 address on democracy at the American University in Cairo, calling on Mubarak to embrace political reform.
Those efforts came crashing down months later, amid the widespread fraud and violence of Egypt's parliamentary elections. The opposition Muslim Brotherhood performed surprisingly well in the early rounds, prompting a harsh government crackdown that continues to this day. When Hamas shocked the world by winning the Palestinian elections the following January, the Bush administration appeared to lose its appetite for promoting Arab democracy altogether.
Former top National Security Council aide Elliott Abrams blames Ricciardone.
"Especially in 2005 and 2006, Secretary Rice and the Bush administration significantly increased American pressure for greater respect for human rights and progress toward democracy in Egypt. This of course meant pushing the Mubarak regime, arguing with it in private, and sometimes criticizing it in public. In all of this we in Washington found Ambassador Ricciardone to be without enthusiasm or energy," Abrams told The Cable.
Ricciardone's supporters counter that he is a distinguished diplomat with a history of serving in tough parts of the world. Some former officials maintain he forged close working relationships across the interagency, worked effectively with the military, and argue that his past experience in Turkey makes him ideal to advance that relationship and U.S. interests across the region as a whole.
"He's an outstanding and extremely dedicated Foreign Service officer who has served his country in some very delicate and dangerous postings," said Mitchell Reiss, who served at the State Department's director of policy planning under Bush,
But other former Bush administration officials are circulating stories they believe show Ricciardone in a negative light.
In one of them, before Rice's Cairo speech, she had a particularly nasty press conference with Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit, where Gheit defended his regime's conduct by criticizing U.S. conduct in the war on terror. Sitting next to Rice following the press conference, Ricciardone blurted out "the problem is that fucking Patriot Act," one senior Bush administration official said, adding that Rice was incensed.
Egyptian officials have cited the Patriot Act in explaining the continued need for their own much-criticized Emergency Law, which contains loopholes that facilitate far-ranging restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly.
"Putting aside the language, this seemed to those in the secretary's party to be yet another case of our ambassador's unwillingness even to see bad conduct by the government of Egypt, and to blame any case of it on Washington," the official said.
Ricciardone's critics claim that his strong personality and often blunt speaking style are the wrong mix for the current task at hand -- and that he has a tendency to get too close to his foreign interlocutors.
"Now is not the time for us to have an ambassador in Ankara who is more interested in serving the interests of the local autocrats and less interested in serving the interests of his own administration," said Danielle Pletka, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute.
Aides from two GOP Senate offices said that while it's too early to say there is firm opposition on the Hill, their bosses have reservations about Ricciardone that could complicate his confirmation process. They plan to not only examine his time in Cairo, but his stints as deputy chief of mission in Turkey once before and his time serving as an official in Baghdad and in Kabul.
"Ricciardone has a lot to answer for on his record in Afghanistan, Egypt and on Iraq policy. What's more, his temperament and professionalism are in serious doubt," said one senior GOP aide. "It's unclear why the administration would send this FSO [Foreign Service officer] to such an important country given the tenuous state of Turkey's relationship with the West."
For all of Riccardione's detractors, he seems to have at least as many supporters. Experts, former officials, and diplomats from across the political spectrum have contacted The Cable in recent days to express their support for him and push back against what they see as the criticisms of a few. They say Ricciardone was made the scapegoat for a flawed Bush administration democracy push that never really had the financial commitment or follow-through it would have needed to be successful.
Steven Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that there was never real consensus inside the Bush administration as to how to implement the pro-democracy push Rice highlighted in her Cairo speech, and that Ricciardone was put in the impossible situation of having to manage a complex relationship with a supposed ally while implementing a new policy that was aimed at his overthrow.
"He was quite effective as a U.S. ambassador at a time when the Bush administration and the Egyptian government were at loggerheads. There needed to be someone who could continue the conversation on a range of other things, not just democracy promotion," said Cook.
Ricciardone was tasked with doing two things that seem to be in direct contradiction: Pushing Egypt to help the United States on a host of regional issues, such as the war in Iraq and the fracturing of the Palestinian government, while also pushing Cairo to make reforms it was severely resisting.
"The Bush administration was saying ‘Carry our water while reforming yourself out of power,'" Cook explained, adding that Bush's Egypt democracy initiative never had the financial backing it would have needed to succeed, especially in light of the fact that meanwhile, the U.S. was giving Egypt more than $1 billion in military aid.
Actually, Ricciardone had a solution for that as well. In Cairo, he worked with Faiza Abu El Naga, who runs Egypt's Ministry of International Cooperation, to propose a huge new aid endowment for Egypt, under the thinking that by institutionalizing non-military aid to Egypt, democracy promotion could escape the annual tribulations of the often complicated congressional appropriations process. The fight over that endowment continues to this day.
The nomination fight over Ricciardone will likely become a debate over how best to approach Turkey during this delicate stage. For those who want to use the stick, he's destined to be the wrong choice. For those who think carrots are preferable, Ricciardone's extensive knowledge, fluent Turkish, and reputation for getting heavily involved in public diplomacy make him the perfect selection.
"Let's face it, there hasn't been much of an Obama effect in Turkey, so having an ambassador there who can get out among the people could be very useful," Cook said.
When push comes to shove in the Senate, the main question will be whether the Obama administration is willing to make that case and use some of its political capital to push the nomination through. They haven't always been eager to do so, as with the nomination of Robert Ford to be ambassador to Syria. Ford is well-liked by everybody, but the administration hasn't been active in pressing for his confirmation, potentially because it isn't eager to have a public debate about its policy of engaging Syria -- which has yet to show results.
Another Senate GOP aide who is critical of Ricciardone predicted that the administration won't want to make an issue of the Ricciardone nomination and anticipated that if they don't press it, his confirmation process could languish. "We don't need to put up much of a fight because things are moving so slowly anyway," the aide said.
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President Obama called on the Arab states this week to immediately play a more constructive role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But when Jordan's foreign minister visited Foggy Bottom Thursday, the space between how Washington and Arab states view the conflict was vividly on display.
Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judah agreed that the Israelis and Palestinians should move to direct talks quickly. They didn't agree on much else. For example, Judah flatly rejected Obama's call for help in nudging the Palestinians to the table.
"Jordan and other Arab states are crucial to this effort, to foster conditions for further progress," Clinton said during a mini press conference at the State Department.
"I think once direct negotiations are resumed, you'll see an engagement by the overall Arab context, and the tangible support that you refer to. But let's not put the cart before the horse," Judah responded.
That wasn't the only gap between the two foreign ministers.
For example, Clinton foresaw a two-state solution that "reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent, viable and contiguous state based on the 1967 lines -- with agreed swaps -- and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements"
In Judah's vision, the Palestinian state "emerges on the 1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital."
Judah also backstopped the Palestinian position on moving to direct talks, emphasizing that face-to-face negotiations must address "all final-status issues -- including borders, security, Jerusalem, and refugees," and must be "time- bound, benchmarked, and conducted in good faith."
Clinton agreed that "we believe that all the issues that need to be resolved between the parties must be discussed in direct negotiations." But she didn't touch on the issues of Jerusalem or refugees specifically, two sensitive topics Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said are not on the table.
Judah reaffirmed his commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative, which also contains items that are nonstarters for Israel, such as a strict commitment to the 1967 borders and Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state.
"Let's try to get the process going -- not another open-ended process, not another timeless kind of engagement," he said. "We need to see benchmarks and we need to see traction on the ground."
As this week's warm Washington welcome for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was clearly intended to show, U.S.-Israeli relations are certainly on the mend. But President Obama's new deadline for moving the Israeli and Palestinian sides to direct talks is looming large over the peace process -- setting the stage for a summer of frantic diplomacy after 18 months of little discernable progress and raising the risks of a dramatic failure on one of his signature diplomatic priorities.
Obama announced the deadline after meeting privately with Netanyahu Tuesday, saying he wants the direct talks to begin "well before" Israel's 10-month settlement freeze expires at the end of September.
An Israeli official told The Cable that Obama and Netanyahu discussed specific confidence-building measures that Israel could take to help get to the direct talks by the deadline. The details of those measures are being closely held, but they are intended to show tangible evidence that Israel really wants to move the peace process forward.
The Israelis see Obama's deadline as a useful tool to press the Palestinians to move to direct talks -- but warn that if face-to-face negotiations don't start by the time the settlement freeze expires, it will be difficult for Netanyahu to justify extending it.
"If it was up to the prime minister, it would have happened yesterday," the Israeli official said. "There's only so much that can be demanded of Israel for just sitting down and talking," the official said. "There should be now a lot of pressure on Palestinians."
Obama didn't bring up the settlement freeze in his meeting with Netanyahu. "It wasn't discussed," the official said, "but obviously it's going to be an issue in three months' time."
For their part, the Palestinians see a continuation of the settlement freeze as a precursor to serious face-to-face negotiations, not a reward.
"I hope [Obama's deadline] is not an attempt to pressure the Palestinians that if they don't move to the direct talks, there will be a resumption of settlement construction in the West Bank," PLO representative Maen Rashid Areikat told The Cable.
Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that Obama is trying to delink the settlement freeze from the move to direct negotiations. The thinking is that if direct talks begin first, "by the time the Israeli government reaches the decision point [on extending the freeze], there will already be a different context."
But Netanyahu will have trouble justifying an extension of the settlement freeze either way, Satloff argued, and the Palestinians could manipulate the situation by accepting direct talks in some sort of symbolic way while keeping the U.S. heavily involved and making few concessions. This would shift the pressure back to Netanyahu, who would then have little progress he could use to convince the Israeli public that the settlement freeze worked.
Netanyahu had lunch Tuesday with almost the entire Obama Israel team, including Vice President Joseph Biden, National Security Advisor Jim Jones, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Special Envoy George Mitchell, Ambassador James Cunningham, U.S. Representative Susan Rice, and NSC staffers Tom Donilon, Dennis Ross, and Dan Shapiro.
Among those on the Israel side of the table were National Security Advisor Uzi Arad, Ambassador Michael Oren, policy advisor Ron Dermer, and special advisor Isaac Molcho, who has served as an important go-between in recent months.
The kosher lunch menu included chopped White House garden salad with honey-apple cider dressing, thyme-roasted chicken with spring peas, leek puree and potato croutons, with apricot torte with White House honey ice cream for dessert (dairy-free, of course).
On Tuesday afternoon, Clinton, Mitchell, Cunningham, and Assistant Secretary Jeff Feltman went to see Netanyahu at Blair House for a 45-minute working meeting that largely tracked Netanyahu's White House meetings. Gates came to Blair House Wednesday morning for a one-on-one with Netanyahu that focused on bilateral defense cooperation.Netanyahu traveled to New York Wednesday afternoon to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He will address the Conference of Major Jewish Organizations Wednesday night and give a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations Thursday before heading back to Jerusalem.
Amid all the efforts Tuesday to project a warm and friendly relationship between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the two leaders did manage to announce some real news; Obama said he wants to see direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians in the next few weeks.
While all sides have talked about the need to move from the proximity talks now being led by Special Envoy George Mitchell to direct talks between the two sides, Israel has been accusing the Palestinians of avoiding those talks by setting preconditions that would prejudge the talks' outcome. The Palestinians want to ensure that the talks would cover all the final-status issues on the table, something the Netanyahu government has resisted.
Today, during a short press availability in the Oval Office after his meeting with Netanyahu, Obama for the first time said that he wanted the direct talks to start before a temporary settlement freeze by the Israelis ends in September.
"My hope is, is that once direct talks have begun, well before the moratorium has expired, that that will create a climate in which everybody feels a greater investment and success and not every action, by one party or the other, is taken as a reason for not engaging in talks, so there ends up being more room created by more trust," Obama said. "And so, you know, I want to just make sure that we sustain that over over the next several weeks."
There have been five meetings related to the proximity talks thus far. The rough understanding was that they would last for four months or so, but no deadline had yet been announced. Obama's statement could put pressure on both the Israelis and the Palestinians to move to the direct talks faster. Obama said both sides should initiate confidence-building measures, and he also spoke about what he wants each government to do on that front.
"I think it's very important that the Palestinians not look for excuses for incitement, that they are not engaging in provocative language; that at the international level, they are maintaining a constructive tone as opposed to looking for opportunities to embarrass Israel," Obama said. He added that Israel should allow the Palestinians more autonomy in the West Bank and further ease restrictions on the flow of goods to Gaza.
With the September deadline for the expiration of his 10-month settlement freeze looming, Netanyahu is clearly in support of finishing up the proximity-talks process. "I think it's high time to begin direct talks," he said
In an interview, Palestine Liberation Organization representative Maen Rashid Areikat told The Cable that the Palestinians will not move to direct talks until they receive concrete assurances from Netanyahu that all final-status issues are on the table, including borders.
He also warned the Israeli side against linking its settlement policy to the resumption of face-to-face negotiations.
"Everybody's trying to link the moratorium to the four-month period of the proximity talks. I hope that is not an attempt to pressure the Palestinians that if they don't move to the direct talks, there will be a resumption of settlement construction in the West Bank," he said.
Palestinian leaders do not believe Netanyahu's claims that he wants to do what's necessary to forge a comprehensive peace. "He has not shown that he is willing to engage genuinely with the Palestinians on all of these issues," Areikat said.
The position of key regional players such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, remains unclear, but Obama called on Arab states to play a more supportive role in the peace process. "They can't succeed unless you have the surrounding states having a greater investment in the process than we've seen so far," he said of the negotiations.
Obama was clear to reaffirm U.S. support for Israel's right to have an undeclared nuclear weapons program, despite the critical statement that came out of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty Review Conference in May.
"We strongly believe that given its size, its history, the region that it's in, and the threats that are leveled against it that Israel has unique security requirements," Obama said, "and the United States will never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine their security interests."
Obama sought to dispel the notion -- widely held in Washington -- that his administration does not see Netanyahu as committed to the peace process. "I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace. I think he's willing to take risks for peace," he said.
The two leaders' comments after the 22-minute meeting were meant to repair the damage done by the last Obama-Netanyahu meeting, when no pictures or statements were released. But the press availability in the Oval Office was tightly controlled, with only pool reporters allowed inside and only one question permitted from each country's press corps.
Obama challenged a reporter who asked him if he made a mistake by giving Netanyahu the "cold shoulder" at their last meeting.
"Let me, first of all, say that the premise to your question was wrong, and I entirely disagree with it. If you look at every public statement that I've made over the last year and a half, it has been a constant reaffirmation of the special relationship between the United States and Israel; that our commitment to Israel's security has been unwavering," Obama said, not mentioning the private statements.After the presser, Obama and Netanyahu went into the Cabinet Room for a working lunch. Netanyahu is staying at Blair House, right across the street from the White House, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was scheduled to visit him this afternoon and Defense Secretary Robert Gates will meet him Wednesday morning
The White House confirms that President Obama will sign into law Thursday sweeping new measures to impose unilateral penalties on companies that contribute to broad swaths of Iran’s energy and banking sectors.
The signing will take place in the East Room of the White House, and will include "members of Congress, leaders of organizations that worked to pass the bill," and U.S. officials including U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, according to an adminstration official.
The legislation, led by Senate Banking Committee chairman Chris Dodd, D-CT, and House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Howard Berman, D-CA, was passed by the House and Senate last week by votes of 408-8 and 99-0, respectively.
The administration has said repeatedly that implementing the sanctions does not signal an end to its two-track policy of mixing engagement and pressure. The White House hopes the measures will convince Iran to come back to the negotiating table.
Meanwhile, Iran is planning to meet again with Brazil and Turkey to follow up on the nuclear fuel-swap deal the three countries announced just before the U.N. Security Council voted to impose its own new sanctions on Tehran. The Obama administration has been clear that it considers the Brazil-Turkey deal insufficient and inadequate in dealing with international concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.
The Obama administration is still not saying what it will do if and when the U.N. calls for another international investigation into the Gaza flotilla incident.
That subject was the focus of meetings this week between Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in New York. But before he went up to Turtle Bay, Barak came to Washington to see Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. After his U.N. meetings, Barak came back to D.C. and met with Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Advisor Jim Jones.
Both the U.S. and Israeli administrations are working to head off the prospect of another international investigation, which would come on top of the Israeli probe that the U.S. worked so hard to ensure had a measure of international participation and credibility -- but would fundamentally remain in Israeli hands.
But the U.S. and Israeli approaches right now, while having the same goal, are not totally in synch. The uncertainty is whether the Obama administration is willing to actively oppose a new investigation. This uncertainty is compounded by the mixed messages coming from senior officials like Jones, as well as the Obama team's apparent unwillingness to brush Secretary-General Ban off the plate.
"The Americans at the moment agree that our investigation right now should be the only game in town," an Israeli official told The Cable. "What they would be willing to do if this issue comes up in the U.N. is still unclear."
In fact, when Ban convened a meeting of all 14 U.N. Security Council countries last week to discuss the issue, only one country representative declined to speak at all: U.S. Deputy Ambassador Alejandro D. Wolff.
"The fact that they did not choose to speak can be seen not as all enthusiastic [about a new investigation] but also not wanting to get into any confrontation with Ban Ki-moon," the official said.
Barak's message to Ban this week was twofold: The easing of the Gaza blockade should prevent the need for more flotillas, and a new investigation would only encourage those who want to send more ships to provoke another confrontation.
Ban heard Barak out but didn't commit one way or the other, the official said. Ban has previously said he is considering endorsing a new investigation, something the Turks are still pushing hard, but for now the U.S.-Israeli effort to convince him to stall is working.
Most observers see Ban as not willing to go out on a limb one way or the other without assurance that he has support from either the Security Council or a large portion of the General Assembly. He is caught between the strong urging of the U.S. and the prospect that if he does nothing, the Turks or someone else might just launch something on their own, outside of his control.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration's Israel team, led by Jones, Special Envoy George Mitchell, and the National Security Council's Dennis Ross and Daniel Shapiro, spent the last couple of weeks working with Israel on the easing of the Gaza blockade. Their efforts in shaping the Israeli investigation clearly indicate they do not want a competing international inquiry to pop up.
But if a new investigation does surface, the Obama administration's quiet diplomacy might have to come to an end.
"Their hope is that by addressing the question of Gaza in some measure, they can diffuse the whole question of both the last flotilla and any future ones as well," said Rob Malley, Middle East Program Director at the International Crisis Group.
Either way, the close cooperation of the U.S. and Israel on both crafting the investigation and working on the blockade issue has brought both camps back into the constructive rhythm they lost after Biden's trip to Israel in March erupted into an ugly public spat.
Even though the U.S. and Israel aren't entirely in lockstep, "from their respective vantage points, they felt that they were at least able to work out solutions that both sides could live with on both issues. And that's more how relations have traditionally been," Malley said.
This week's events have also cemented Barak as the key Israeli interlocutor with the Obama administration, which is of course what the White House would prefer, considering that he is closer to the U.S. side than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on crucial issues.
For example, this week he was quoted as backing the U.S. position against a controversial development project in Israel. "The King's Garden project, which has waited for 3,000 years, can wait another three to nine months if government policy considerations necessitate it," Barak was quoted as saying.
He was also in Washington discuss to Iran, Syria, U.S. military assistance to Israel, the peace process, and many other issues.
Compare that to the recent visit of Israel's hard-line foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who came to New York the week before Barak but didn't visit Washington at all. Lieberman met with U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, but didn't request and wasn't invited to any meetings with any U.S. officials in Washington. Insiders say Lieberman and Clinton have a "Don't ask, don't tell" policy: He doesn't push her to establish a close relationship and she doesn't say what she thinks of his views.
Meanwhile, some potential flash points for the renewed comity between Washington and Jerusalem loom large. What will Israel do when its current settlement freeze expires? Where exactly does the Israeli government stand on many final-status issues that will need to be discussed in order to move from proximity talks to direct talks?
The Obama team will want some answers from Netanyahu when he comes to Washington and meets with Obama July 6."These issues are coming up fast," said Malley. "Whether they erupt or get resolved, nobody knows."
On Capitol Hill, it's senior Democratic lawmakers who have the harshest words for General Stanley McChrystal, the Afghanistan commander who is racing back to Washington to meet with President Obama in the wake of the embarrassing profile of him coming out in Rolling Stone magazine.
"I thought his comments were inappropriate... the problem is that personality differences effect the successful implementation of policy," said Carl Levin, D-MI, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "That's why you can't allow these things to happen."
Levin said it was President Obama's decision whether of not to sack McChrystal and argued "there don't seem to be differences in terms of policy" in the article, but said "it doesn't help the war effort." A change in military leadership in Kabul could be done smoothly, if the President chooses someone who has broad based support, he said.
According to Levin, McChrystal will first meet with Defense Secretary Robert Gates before facing the entire Afghanistan team at the White House on Wednesday. Gates' statement on the article showed that he is playing an important role in the McChrystal flap.
"I have recalled Gen. McChrystal to Washington to discuss this in person," Gates said, showing that it is his job, not the president's, to order McChrystal to come home. "I believe that Gen. McChrystal made a significant mistake and exercised poor judgment in this case."
House appropriations chairman David Obey, D-WI, who holds the keys to the war money McChrystal badly needs, openly called for his ouster. "If he actually said half of what is being reported, he shouldn't be in the position he is in," he said in a statement.
"This clearly is bad judgment," said Senate Armed Services member and former Navy Secretary Jim Webb, D-VA, who added that he had problems with McChrystal's behavior all along and this was just another in a string of incidents. He referred to McChrystal's role in the cover up of the death of football star Pat Tilman in Afghanistan.
An official investigation said McChrystal made "inaccurate and misleading assertions" when putting up Tilman for a silver star. "He was in the middle of that process, he knew it was a friendly fire incident," Webb said.
Webb also pointed to the last time McChrystal seemingly got ahead of the president in talking about the war strategy, when he spoke to the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the media in London late last year and then was summoned for a private scolding from Obama.
"Last October, I raised the question about him being in London making a speech and doing 60 minutes while there was a careful evaluation of the policy going on," Webb remembered. "I thought that was inappropriate."
"Anybody, including a U.S. Army General, is entitled to making a damn fool of themselves once. But General McChrystal hasn't appeared to learn from his mistakes," said Obey.
Meanwhile, Republicans are holding their fire, for now. A joint statement by Senate Armed Services ranking Republican John McCain, R-AZ, and committee member Joe Lieberman, I-CT, made no judgment on his future and said, "We have the highest respect for General McChrystal and honor his brave service and sacrifice to our nation."
Senate Foreign Relations committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar, R-IN, said, "I'm very hopeful that the General and the president have a good meeting tomorrow."
The disruption of the war effort that both Democrats and Republicans fear would come from McChrystal's firing was at the top of the mind of one senior lawmaker who spoke to McChrystal this morning.
"What's most important is the 94,000 American troops serving in harm's way in Afghanistan. Their safety and their mission should be the priority we stay focused on above all else," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-MA. "Now is not the time for Washington to be sidetracked by chatter. Everyone needs to take a deep breath."
Congress on Monday unveiled a tough new package of unilateral sanctions against Iran's financial and petroleum sectors, expanding previous measures targeting top regime figures to include a much broader swath of the Iranian economy.
Capitol Hill sources said the legislation was likely to become law, despite the Obama administration's previous statements objecting to some of the bill's harsher provisions.
"This is a very strong bill," said one congressional aide working on the issue. "On every major substantive dispute with the administration, the tougher congressional standard won out."
Lead sponsors Sen. Chris Dodd, D-CT, and Howard Berman, D-CA, have been working very closely with the administration on the legislation behind closed doors, so most on Capitol Hill believe that the conference report that was unveiled today will pass overwhelmingly in both chambers and be signed by President Obama.
"If applied forcefully by the president, this act will bring strong new pressure to bear on Tehran in order to combat its proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, support for international terrorism, and gross human rights abuses," Dodd and Berman said in a statement.
The unofficial deadline for sending the bill to the White House is the July 4 recess. Under Secretary of State Bill Burns and Under Secretary of the Treasury Stuart Levey are set to testify Tuesday morning on the administration's Iran policy in the wake of the U.N. sanctions passed earlier this month.
Sources said the lawmakers in effect traded sequence for substance, agreeing to let the administration first go to the U.N., then allowing the EU to announce measures, and then finally moving forward and getting what they wanted.
For example, there is no explicit exemption in the bill for countries that are closely cooperating with the U.S. sanctions, something the administration has always pushed for. There is a waiver authority that mentions cooperating countries and the administration can consider a government's cooperation when considering a specific company for such a waiver.
But the conference report details a totally new set of penalties for foreign banks and financial entities doing business with the IRGC or any of its shadow companies.
"It's putting teeth behind what Stuart Levey is doing," said another congressional aide. "It's saying if you do business with the IRGC or any of its companies, you are essentially cut off from the U.S. financial system."
Another brand new provision is language that requires the president to compile a list of Iranians who are complicit in human rights abuses and imposes a whole new set of financial and other restrictions on those individuals.
Many are sure to be critical of the tough sanctions the bill places on Iran petroleum industry, a tactic that could cause problems for the entire Iranian economy, not just the regime. But that's intentional.
"This is a bill designed to put pressure on Iran's economy and the petroleum sanctions are a part of that," one aide said. "The people who are against tough sanctions are not going to be thrilled with this bill."
As for the refined petroleum sanctions, the bill takes a "Chinese menu" approach. The administration can choose any three of nine options for sanctions measures. This would allow the Obama folks to choose based on circumstance and also allow them to avoid problems if a country wanted to object to something specific through the WTO.
In another tweak, when a company is suspected of violating the energy-related sanctions, the new version says the U.S. government "shall" investigate, rather than "should" investigate, as the bill originally stated. But the president can delay the investigationfor six months while he tries to persuade the country diplomatically to stop selling gasoline to Iran. After six months, if the president can show progress on that diplomacy, he can delay the petroleum-related sanctions another six months.
The U.S. taxpayer-funded Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, led by former Congressman Lee Hamilton, is giving out its annual award for public service Thursday, and the winner is ... Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu!
Davutaoglu "personifies the attributes we seek to honor at the Woodrow Wilson Center," Hamilton said in announcing the event, adding that his "contributions have been numerous and significant."
The Turkish foreign minister has been in the news a lot lately, such as when he said the Israeli incident aboard the Gaza flotilla "is like 9/11 for Turkey."
He was also a key figure in the Brazilian-Turkish drive to head off new U.N. sanctions on Iran by striking an 11th-hour fuel-swap deal, an agreement the Obama administration has dismissed as inadequate and unhelpful.
House Foreign Affairs Middle East subcommittee chairman Gary Ackerman, D-NY, wrote to Hamilton Wednesday to express his "deep concern and dismay" over the award to Davutoglu.
"Turkey's foreign policy under Foreign Minister Davutoglu's leadership is rife with illegality, irresponsibility and hypocrisy," he wrote, citing Turkey's denial of the Armenian genocide, its occupation of northern Cyprus, Turkey's vote against new Iran sanctions, and what Ackerman described as the ongoing "demonizing" of Israel as exhibited during the flotilla crisis.
"A foreign leader who represents and defends this kind of foreign policy, one who has championed Turkey's most odious efforts to deny to others the human dignity that Turkey rightly expects for its own people, is not a worthy recipient of the WWC Public Service Award," Ackerman wrote.
The center was created in 1968 by an act of Congress as a private/public partnership, and U.S. taxpayers contribute about a third of the center's annual revenue.
Many lawmakers are fed up with what they see as Turkey's unhelpful actions in the international arena.
"There will be a cost if Turkey stays on its present heading of growing closer to Iran and more antagonistic to the state of Israel," Rep. Mike Pence, R-IN, told a news conference Wednesday. "It will bear upon my view and I believe the view of many members of Congress on the state of the relationship with Turkey."
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-NY, called recent actions by Turkey "disgraceful."
In an emailed statement, the Wilson Center explained, "Awardees are selected based on a collective body of their lifelong career and achievements ... Awardees are not chosen for their political views ... and we do not endorse the views of Woodrow Wilson Awardees on specific issues."
The statement also said that the event was a fundraising event and that Congress has been pushing the center to find more private sources of funding. "These Awards Dinners have been critical for helping to raise some of the funding the Wilson Center needs," the statement said.
"Mr. Davutoglu has had a diverse career as a scholar, a professor, a political scientist, an author, a civil servant, an international diplomat, and currently as Turkey's Minister of Foreign Affairs... He also fits the Wilsonian mold of being both a scholar and a policymaker," the statement reads, noting that Davtoglu was invited to accept the award in August 2009.
Typically, lawmakers are wary of encouraging the Obama administration to depend on the United Nations when it comes to Iran, but in a resolution passed just now, Congress urged the administration to initiate a case against Iran at the controversial Human Rights Council.
The bipartisan resolution, which passed with a unanimous voice vote, was brought to the Senate floor Monday to mark the one year anniversary of flawed Iranian presidential elections that sparked widespread violence and repression throughout Iran. It notes that the "Government of Iran has systematically undertaken a campaign of violence, persecution, and intimidation against Iranian citizens who have peacefully protested the results of the deeply flawed Iran presidential elections."
But later on, the resolution "encourages the President and Secretary of State to work with the United Nations Human Rights Council to condemn the ongoing human rights violations perpetrated by the Government of Iran and establish a monitoring mechanism by which the Council can monitor such violations."
Critics say the 47-member Human Rights Council, which the Obama administration signed America up for after a long absence, has been hijacked since its inception by notorious human rights violators such as Cuba, China, and Egypt.
Established in March 2006 to replace the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, George W. Bush's administration refused to join, citing the council's nondemocratic makeup and its frequent criticisms of Israel, but the Obama administration reversed that decision last spring.
Their most recent act was to call for an investigation into the Israeli actions regarding the Gaza flotilla incident.
The council is also currently reviewing Iran's human rights record as part of its Universal Periodic Review process, but nothing close to a harsh condemnation is expected. To see how the Human Rights Council is treating Iran in the review, read this.
So now that the full Senate has called on the administration to use the Human Rights Council to initiative new action against Iran, what does that mean?
The lead sponsors of the resolution are Ted Kaufman, D-DE, Bob Casey, D-PA, Joe Lieberman, I-CT, John McCain, R-AZ, Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, Russ Feingold, D-WI, Sam Brownback, R-KS, Bob Menendez, D-NJ, Lindsey Graham, R-SC, and Carl Levin, D-MI, and Jon Kyl, R-AZ.
Are they all now supporting the Obama administration's joining of that group?
Separately, McCain called on Obama to get more personally involved in Iranian democracy promotion in a speech last week.
"The United States has never had a president whose personal story resonates as strongly overseas as President Obama's does -- whose ability to inspire, to move people, to mobilize them on behalf of democratic change is one of the greatest untapped sources of strength now available to Iran's human rights activists," he said. "If the president were to unleash America's full moral power to support the Iranian people -- if he were to make their quest for democracy the civil rights struggle of our time -- it could bolster their will to endure in their struggle, and the result could be historic."
"Tonight the Senate spoke with one voice to condemn ongoing human rights abuses in Iran and mark one year since the flawed Iranian election," Kaufman told The Cable, "I hope the Iranian people know America stands by their side in their struggle for democracy, freedom, and human rights. A year may have passed, but the unconscionable events of June 12 and its aftermath have not been forgotten."
The Obama administration, led by National Security Advisor Jim Jones, was heavily involved in the Israeli government's decision to appoint an "independent public commission" to investigate the Gaza flotilla incident and pushed Israel to speed up the process in order to head off any attempts for increased pressure at the United Nations.
Over the last week, there were a flurry of high-level interactions between top administration officials and their various Israeli interlocutors. A State Department official told The Cable that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and that Deputy Secretary Jim Steinberg, Special Envoy George Mitchell and others were working the phones as well. Barak also spoke with Vice President Joseph Biden, who was traveling in the region.
But in last couple of days, the final details were worked out between the White House and Prime Minister's office, specifically by Jones and Israeli national security advisor Uzi Arad, according to an Israeli official. The National Security Council was much more involved than the State Department, with NSC Director Dan Shapiro in Israel to help and Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren playing a role as a go-between as well, the official said.
The message Obama officials delivered was twofold. First, they wanted to make sure Israel appointed international members to the commission who were credible. William David Trimble from Northern Ireland and Ken Watkin, a former judge advocate general of the Canadian Armed Forces, will be on it.
The other Obama message to the Israelis? Speed it up. They wanted Israel to get the commission members settled on and announced as much as a week before the Israelis were ready. The Israeli official said that the detailed and extensive consultations with the Obama people are why it took so long.
"Our sense was that they were hopeful this commission announcement would come speedily and get this issue off the agenda so we could put it behind us," the official said. "Now, nobody can complain that Israel hasn't established a committee with international representation."
The direct and pivotal involvement of Jones is telling because he is also the official widely suspected (but not confirmed) to have been the source of the reports that the White House was telling foreign leaders it planned to support a separate international investigation if one was initiated at the U.N.
That story, put out by Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol and denied by the White House, caused significant angst inside the Israeli government and diplomatic sources said it could have been an attempt to put pressure on Israel to speed things up.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley spoke about Kristol's allegation Monday. He promised the U.S. would support the Israeli investigation but refused to forswear U.S. support of whatever U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon might propose in the coming weeks.
"We stand by Israel and we'll voice our strong views against any action that is one-sided or biased by any international organization," Crowley said. "I'm not aware that the secretary general has yet made any decisions on steps the UN might take. We'll listen to what the secretary general has in mind and make a judgment then."
That type of hedging is exactly what many Israel supporters, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), are concerned about.
"AIPAC calls on the Obama administration to act decisively at the United Nations and other international forums to block any action -- including alternative investigations supported by the Secretary General -- which would isolate Israel," the group said in a statement.
They also point to the White House's statement Sunday on the commission, which they see as tepid because it included a terse warning to Israel along with word of support.
"While Israel should be afforded the time to complete its process, we expect Israel's commission and military investigation will be carried out promptly. We also expect that, upon completion, its findings will be presented publicly and will be presented to the international community," the statement said.
Going forward, there is still a lot of concern among Israelis about the prominent role Jones is playing in the shaping of the administration's Israel policy. The conventional wisdom is that Jones, along with U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, are the ones inside the administration pushing for a harder line vis-à-vis Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, while Biden, the NSC's Dennis Ross, and to an extent Special Envoy George Mitchell are said to advocate a position more sensitive to Netanyahu's own political situation.
Former Middle East Negotiator Aaron David Miller said that it's natural for the NSC, and therefore Jones, to manage U.S.-Israeli issues that involve the overall tone and "high politics" of the relationship, as opposed to Mitchell, who handles issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian talks.
"When it comes to the overall relationship, the NSC is in charge," Miller said, adding that top administration officials seem to be converging around the realization that public pressure on Netanyahu can only be so effective.
"Those divisions have somewhat surrendered to reality, because in the end to get anywhere you have to work with the Israeli government," he said.
The government of Turkey is not satisfied with Israel's commission and is pledging to do its own investigation. Crowley said that was Turkey's right. The Israeli official said Israel's commission was not crafted "in any way to appease Turkey."
The White House is pushing back hard against a claim by Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol that the administration is preparing to support an independent U.N. investigation into the Gaza flotilla incident.
Kristol, writing on the Weekly Standard blog, claimed he had heard, "the administration intends to support an effort next week at the United Nations to set up an independent commission, under UN auspices, to investigate Israel's behavior in the Gaza flotilla incident."
The White House quickly and sharply denied that account.
A White House official told multiple reporters, "We've said from the beginning that we support an Israeli-led investigation into the flotilla incident that is prompt, credible, impartial, and transparent. We are open to different ways of ensuring the credibility of this Israeli-led investigation, including international participation."
The official also said, "We know of no resolution that will be debated at the U.N. on the flotilla investigation next week."
Kristol's allegation, and the White House's rebuttal of it, is further illustration of the ongoing tension between some in the pro-Israel advocacy community and the administration over how strongly and aggressively to defend Israel in the international arena.
While it's true there is no specific resolution expected, sources close to the issue say, what pro-Israel leaders like Kristol are worried about are continuing calls for tougher measures against Israel, such as the vote in the Human Rights Council, and whether or not the administration will really oppose them with vigor.
That point is made clearly in the first line of a letter addressed to the president that is currently being finalized by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY. In a rare show of bipartisan comity, the two Senate leaders are calling on Obama not just to oppose new efforts to isolate Israel at the U.N., but to openly declare America's support for the Jewish state.
"We write to affirm our support for our strategic partnership with Israel, and encourage you to continue to do so before international organizations such as the United Nations," the letter reads.
Commending the administration for working to craft a presidential statement by the U.N. Security Council that didn't call for an international investigation in the first place, the senators asked him not to support any new ones.
has announced its intention to promptly carry out a thorough investigation of
and has the right to determine how its investigation is conducted," they wrote. "In the meantime, we ask you to stand firm in the future at the United Nations Security Council and to use your veto power, if necessary, to prevent any similar biased or one-sided resolutions from passing."
Nearly a year after a disputed election sent tens of thousands of Iranians into the streets to protest against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's return to power, Sen. John McCain praised President Obama and said that his personal narrative and sparkling personality gave him the unique ability to make progress toward overthrowing the clerical regime in Tehran.
"The United States has never had a president whose personal story resonates as strongly overseas as President Obama's does -- whose ability to inspire, to move people, to mobilize them on behalf of democratic change is one of the greatest untapped sources of strength now available to Iran's human rights activists," he said. "If the president were to unleash America's full moral power to support the Iranian people -- if he were to make their quest for democracy the civil rights struggle of our time -- it could bolster their will to endure in their struggle, and the result could be historic."
McCain's speech to the National Endowment of Democracy (NED) was a full-throated call for regime change in Iran, in addition to being a call for increased administration support for Iranian democracy advocates.
"I believe that when we consider the many threats and crimes of Iran's government, we are led to one inescapable conclusion: It is the character of this Iranian regime -- not just its behavior -- that is the deeper threat to peace and freedom in our world, and in Iran," McCain said. "Furthermore, I believe that it will only be a change in the Iranian regime itself -- a peaceful change, chosen by and led by the people of Iran -- that could finally produce the changes we seek in Iran's policies."
NED Thursday gave its 2010 Democracy award to the Iranian Green Movement in a ceremony including NED Chairman Richard Gephardt and Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen R-FL.
McCain implored the audience not to believe the conventional wisdom in Washington that the Green Movement is waning.
"The Green Movement lives on. Its struggle endures. And I am confident that eventually, maybe not tomorrow or next year or even the year after that, but eventually, Iranians will achieve the democratic changes they seek for their country," he said. "The Iranian regime may appear intimidating now, but it is rotting inside."
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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can't seem to unify the political factions within his own community, but there is one disparate group that he does have the ability to bring together: the American Jewish community.
Representatives from all sides of the pro-Israel NGO world all came together to meet with Abbas at a private dinner at the Newseum last night. The groups put aside their differences over Israeli tactics, U.S. pressure, treatment of Gazans, and treatment of the Israeli human rights community to show a united front to the Palestinian leader and get him to answer the questions on their mind.
Leaders of more hawkish groups like AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, the Conference of Presidents, Mort Zuckerman, Elliott Abrams, and Dov Zakheim broke bread with the more dovish likes of J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and Hillel.
The Cable spoke got the readout from multiple participants. Here's how it went:
Host Robert Wexler, president of the S. Danial Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and rumored next ambassador to Israel, opened with some short remarks. Abbas made a quick speech, and the rest of the two-and-a-half-hour session was all questions and answers.
Three topics dominated the questioning: how and when to move to direct talks, Palestinian "incitement" and how far Abbas would be willing to show both sides he was serious about peace, and to a lesser degree, what to do about Hamas.
The Gaza flotilla incident was not discussed. Nobody, including Abbas, brought it up.
Most participants we spoke with said Abbas gave mostly constructive answers, went further on explanations that he ever has before, and sometime gave as good as he got.
"I've never seen him as impressive," said one conservative participant. "You have to give the guy credit. He handled himself well in a den of lions."
Another participant, however, called Abbas "evasive" and said he failed to answer key questions.
But the Palestinian leader did relay the message from his meeting with Obama, which is that everyone must push faster toward direct talks. When participants asked him why he won't just agree to direct talks now, Abbas pointed back to the White House.
"He said, ‘This is what the administration asked me to do. How can I go further than the Obama administration?'" one participant remembered.
Abbas took the same tack regarding the fraught issue of Israeli settlements, saying the White House has asked the Israelis to stop settlements and defending his position as supporting Obama's.
"That's basically calling for preconditions again that the administration has rejected," one participant said, expressing skepticism that Abbas is really pushing for direct talks now.
Abbas did say something to the effect of, "nobody knows better than I that final peace can only be negotiated face to face."
Abbas continued to insist that the settlements issue is not a precondition to direct negotiations, but said that there needs to be progress made on core issues before he's ready to move forward with direct talks.
He also got in a couple good jabs, such as when he was asked why he won't do more to convince Israelis he's serious about peace. He pointed out that he had appeared on Israeli television, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to appear on Palestinian TV.
When asked if he would acknowledge Israel as a "Jewish state" as part of a peace deal, Abbas hedged, saying that Israel could identify itself however it wanted to, after the two states had been separated.
At one point, he said, "I recognize that West Jerusalem is the capital of Israel," a comment that perked up the ears of several participants.
Attendees asked Abbas why he hadn't done more to curb incitement against Israel among his own people. He defended a law passed against incitement, acknowledged it wasn't being well enforced, and then criticized Netanyahu for refusing to join his proposed trilateral commission on the issue.
"He didn't always give a straight answer; he didn't always give answer that people wanted to hear," one impressed participant admitted. "But I think he had a lot of guts for doing this. Would Bibi do the same thing with Palesinian community leaders?"
Leading Jewish Americans are reportedly just about fed up with the government of Turkey, but many of them are still very much interested in working with the Palestinian Authority and will meet with President Mahmoud Abbas tonight.
The S. David Abraham Center for Middle East Peace is hosting a private dinner for Abbas this evening that will bring together more than 30 Jewish community leaders and former officials to schmooze with Abbas, including former national security advisors Stephen Hadley and Sandy Berger and former White House Middle East hand Elliott Abrams. The event's host is the center's president, former Florida Congressman Robert Wexler, who is widely rumored to be soon appointed the next U.S. ambassador to Israel.
"The meeting tonight, it's all for the purpose of supporting the administration's effort to enable the Palestinians and Israelis to come together to engage in direct talks in a serious fashion about substantive issue related to final status issues," Wexler told The Cable.
Regarding the Gaza flotilla incident that has dominated the headlines for weeks, Wexler said the Jewish community's message will be: "It cannot or should not be an excuse or the mechanism in which to undermine the proximity talks."
The Obama administration has fought hard to protect those indirect talks, led by Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell, from becoming a casualty of the flotilla affair, but is growing impatient about what has been nearly a year and a half of little progress. President Obama echoed Wexler's call for constructiveness in comments after meeting with Abbas, and urged the Palestinian leader to come to the table and negotiate with Israel.
"President Abbas and I spent most of our time discussing how do we solve the problem. One of the things that we see is that so often rhetoric, when it comes to issues in the Middle East, outstrip actually solving issues," he said. Regarding Gaza, he said, "the status quo that we have is one that is inherently unstable."
Abbas also argued that the Palestinians want to move to direct talks and don't have any preconditions.
"We are not saying that we have conditions. What has happened is that we agreed that should progress be achieved, then we would move on to direct talks," he said. "We are working in order to make progress."
According to comments yesterday by the PLO's representative in Washington, however, the Palestinian side will not move to direct talks with the Israelis until they engage on "fundamental issues" -- meaning borders, Jerusalem, and the right of Palestinian refugees to return.
Regarding anger in the Jewish-American community at how Turkey has handled the Gaza flotilla crisis, Wexler said it was nothing compared with Turkey's vote against the U.N. Security Council resolution on Iran sanctions today.
"I respect and admire the American Jewish community's engagement over the years with the government of Turkey. But I regret deeply the vote that Turkey made at the U.N. Security Council today," he said. "It is a significant setback in American-Turkish relations. It cannot be sugar coated."
Wexler declined to comment in any way about his rumored appointment to Tel Aviv.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Now that the U.N. Security Council has passed its new sanctions resolution against Iran, the path is clear for Congress to move forward with its own, tougher set of sanctions.
Lead sponsors Sen. Chris Dodd, D-CT, and Rep. Howard Berman, D-CA, had agreed to give the administration more time to complete the U.N. track before reconciling the Senate and House versions of Iran sanctions legislation. After an unusually public first session of the conference committee, work has been quietly proceeding at the staff level and is finishing up now.
The sequencing here is important. Congress is also waiting until the European Union has a chance to meet and announce its own set of measures. That meeting will happen June 16 and 17 in Brussels. After that, Congress will have two weeks to unveil its bicameral bill before lawmakers leave town for the July 4 recess.
"We now look to the European Union and other key nations that share our deep concern about Iran's nuclear intentions to build on the Security Council resolution by imposing tougher national measures that will deepen Iran's isolation and, hopefully, bring the Iranian leadership to its senses," Berman said Wednesday. "The U.S. Congress will do its part by passing sanctions legislation later this month."
Hill sources say that it's still unclear whether Congress will be able to pass the conference report out of both chambers before the July 4 recess, as Dodd and Berman promised. But they see the passing of the U.N. resolution as the needed signal to move the conference process to its final conclusion.
"Now that the U.N. vote is behind us, there is a strong case to be made that the sanctions should be as strong as possible," said one congressional aide working on the issue. "We've now begun the process of what is essentially the last, best hope of stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program."
Still, even among sanctions advocates, there's great skepticism that Iran can be convinced to change course.
"The good news is that everything is going according to plan," the aide said. "The bad news is that the plan might not work."
Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, alluded to that Wednesday when calling for continued diplomatic engagement with the Iranian regime.
"Iran's nuclear program cannot be peacefully resolved without direct dialogue with the leadership in Tehran," Kerry said. "While today's action puts wind in the sails of this process, it is only the first step. We need more diplomatic creativity, energy and a clear vision of what is possible."
Kerry's committee will hold a hearing June 22 on the U.N. sanctions with the under secretaries of state and Treasury, William Burns and Stuart Levey, two of the administration's top point men on Iran.
The main issues inside the conference still include whether and how to meet the Obama administration's demand for an exemption from new sanctions for countries that are deemed to be "cooperating" with U.S. efforts. Republican lawmakers worry that the White House will use that to broadly exempt some of Iran closest business partners, such as Russia and China.
"It is clear the president's policy has failed. It is now time for the Congress to approve the Iran sanctions bill currently in conference committee, without watering it down or plugging it full of loopholes, and then the president should actually use it," said Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-AZ.
The fact that the U.N. resolution does not include language to restrict China's oil business with Iran or Russia's nuclear assistance and possible anti-aircraft system sales to Tehran elicited scorn from multiple leading GOP senators.
"I wish I could say that today's Security Council resolution is worth the more than six months it took to produce, but that is just not the case. The resolution is a lowest-common-denominator product," said Sen. John McCain, R-AZ.
We're told that McCain's proposal to target regime leaders accused of human rights abuses is set to be included in the conference report. We're also hearing that inside the conference, some new sanctions imposing mandatory penalties against international banks that do business with Iran are under discussion.
As far as we know, neither the House nor Senate leadership has allotted floor time for the bill yet, but that shouldn't be too much of a burden. The Iran sanctions legislation is expected to be passed relatively quickly and with broad bipartisan support.
When President Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meet in the Oval Office Wednesday, they will have a largely shared albeit astoundingly ambitious agenda: to show movement on the peace process after nearly a year and a half of little progress and to craft a way forward on Gaza in the wake of last week's deadly flotilla incident.
"We look forward to engaging with President Abbas to move the process forward so that we can get to direct talks to address all the final-status issues, and to ensure that neither side take provocative steps that could stand in the way of progress," said a White House official, adding that the two leaders "will discuss steps to improve life for the people of Gaza, including U.S. support for specific projects to promote economic development and greater quality of life, as well as a long-term strategy for progress."
Moving forward to direct talks also means that both sides must "address all the final-status issues, and ensure that neither side take provocative steps that could stand in the way of progress," the White House official said.
That tracks largely with what Abbas said he wants to focus on in an op-ed Tuesday and what other Palestinian leaders are saying is on Abbas's agenda when he gets to the White House. The difference is that Abbas will tell Obama that it's the Israelis who need to change their tone and actions to make it happen -- and it's the Americans who need to push them to do so.
"The president [Abbas] is going to stress in the process the importance of accelerating these efforts in order to end the Israeli occupation," PLO representative Maen Rashid Areikat told The Cable in an exclusive interview. "And he is going to urge the administration to use whatever leverage they have with the Israelis in order to end this inhumane blockade and siege of the Gaza strip."
Areikat said that it was too early to know if the proximity talks are bearing fruit. But he warned that the Palestinian Authority will only move to direct negotiations when Israel engages on "fundamental issues," meaning final-status issues such as borders, the status of Jerusalem, and the longstanding Palestinian demand for the right of return of refugees.
The Obama administration, which has said it wants to find ways to increase assistance getting into Gaza but not at the expense of Israel's security, will also want to know what the delegation Abbas sent to Gaza following the flotilla incident heard from Hamas, which controls the impoverished coastal strip.
That delegation was sent, Areikat said, because "some believe that there is an opportunity to try to speed up these efforts to reach reconciliation." He didn't, however, say that Hamas should be included in the peace process or that the Obama team should engage with the militant group, which the United States and Europe have designated a terrorist organization.
Experts said that the Obama administration needs Abbas to try to get past the flotilla incident, which should be in the interests of both the White House and the Abbas government. Abbas needs to show that his faction, not Hamas, is the center of gravity in Palestinian politics.
"I think Fatah was getting increasingly optimistic about where they were standing relative to Hamas in terms of popular support," said Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, program officer in the U.S. Institute of Peace's Center for Mediation and Conflict Resolution. "So I think that one of Abbas's challenges here is to take back some spotlight here, and take back the reins in terms of being in control."
If Abbas is really serious about reconciliation, he'll have an uphill climb convincing the Obama administration that goal is achievable in the short term.
"Part of his job on this visit will be to convince the administration why it's important, how he plans to do it and how somehow they can strike a deal behind the scenes that fits with the quartet's conditions," said Scott Lasensky, a senior research associate at USIP, referring to the group of four Middle East players that includes the European Union, Russia, the United Nations, and the United States.
The Israelis have criticized Abbas for refusing to come to the table for direct talks; the Palestinians, for their part, insist they won't negotiate with the Israelis until they freeze settlements completely and indefinitely.
So Obama's Middle East peace envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, has been shuttling between the two camps in what are effectively negotiations about ... negotiations.
The White House wants direct talks "because there's no way they get anywhere unless the format of the talks change, and they want to find out what [Abbas] needs to get into direct talks," Lasensky said.
On this trip, Abbas will meet with Obama, State Department officials, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and will also give a speech at the Brookings Institution.
Meanwhile, the State Department said today that about $45 million of America's $400 million in aid to Palestinians this year was designated for Gaza, with a strong effort to make sure none of that money went to strengthening Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist, renounce violence, or commit to respecting past international agreements, as the U.S. insists.
"We will engage with any political group that is willing to meet our basic red lines for playing a constructive role in the region," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley,."Those red lines are clear. Hamas has made clear they have no intention at the present time of agreeing to those. And as a result, we do not have a political relationship with Hamas."
As the crisis over a deadly Israeli commando raid on a vessel carrying Turkish activists continued to command the attention of top officials in Washington, Jerusalem, and Istanbul, Namik Tan, the Turkish ambassador to the United States, called Friday for engaging Hamas in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But in an unfortunate turn of phrase, Tan twice said Friday that the militant Palestinian group, which the United States and Europe have designated a terrorist organization, is a necessary and important part of the "final solution" to the conflict.
"For a final solution, you cannot ignore Hamas. That's what we are saying," said Ambassador Namik Tan. "This is not the first time that we are trying to bring this into the discussion. We have told this to the Israelis, to our American friends, to our international interlocutors, everyone. How could you imagine a final solution without Hamas?"
Tan's choice of words aside, he was calling for Hamas to be included in final-status negotiations -- a prospect many Israelis would find even more objectionable than his language. The U.S. position is that Hamas must recognize Israel's right to exist, respect international agreements, and reject violence before it can be considered a legitimate player.
The ambassador's comments highlighted the yawning gap between the positions of the Turkish government and that of the American and Israeli administrations, as tensions linger following this week's Gaza flotilla incident.
Only yesterday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, "I do not think that Hamas is a terrorist organization. I said the same thing to the United States. I am still of the same opinion. They are Palestinians in resistance, fighting for their own land."
As the Obama administration continues to try to calm the situation and contain emotions following the Gaza flotilla incident, the Turkish government is doing exactly the opposite, raising the volume of its public calls for actions by both Washington and Jerusalem.
At his embassy Friday afternoon, Tan railed against Israel, made broad threats about the Turkish-Israel relationship, and professed deep disappointment with the Obama administration and its handling of the crisis.
"Israel is about to lose a friend ... This is going to be a historical mistake," he said, calling on Israel to make a public apology if its wishes to keep its ties with Turkey. "The future of our relationship will be determined by Israel's action."
Calling the Israelis "criminals," he reiterated Turkey's call for an international investigation. "It's all criminal ... Can you imagine a criminal investigating its own wrongdoing?"
The Obama administration has made clear it supports Israel conducting its own investigation, albeit with some unspecified international participation. "Can Israel, as a vibrant democracy, with strong institutions of government, conduct a fair, credible, transparent investigation?" State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Thursday. "The answer is yes. It is fully capable of doing that."
President Obama spoke with Erdogan by phone and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a two-and-a-half hour face-to-face meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Tuesday. But while the two long interactions were helpful in getting Israel to release Turkish citizens, they didn't produce any agreement on the overall issue, said Tan.
"There is no word of condemnation nowhere, at all levels. So we are disappointed," Tan said. "We want to encourage the United States to take certain decisions in that regard."
He also revealed that Davutoglu had been scheduled to have a meeting in Washington with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before Netanyahu canceled his visit to deal with the fallout from the flotilla incident.
Asked about the next flotilla, currently headed to Gaza, Tan said that Turkey was not discussing it with either the U.S. or Israel. In fact, he professed not to be aware of it. "Is there another flotilla? Are there even any Turkish citizens on it? I have no idea."
ANATOLIA NEWS AGENCY/AFP/Getty Images
As the Obama administration prepares to receive the leaders of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority over the next two weeks, the White House is doing a lot of legwork to try to keep lines of communication with Jewish groups and lawmakers open, to build as much local support as possible for its approach to ending the Middle East conflict.
But not all Jewish groups and lawmakers are on the same page. Most are uncomfortable with President Obama's policy of placing pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and want to make sure that the administration's efforts to bring the two parties to the negotiating table doesn't come at the expense of the U.S.-Israel alliance.
Other Jewish lawmakers openly support pressuring Netanyahu, and take a stance that diverges from the Israeli government's approach to key issues. One of them is Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, who is circulating a letter supporting the proximity talks around the Senate this week, obtained by The Cable.
The letter, addressed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, hasn't been sent and is still open for signatures. But a couple of its lines are already raising eyebrows in Senate offices on both sides of the aisle.
"We strongly believe that a permanent peace agreement ... can only be achieved with the United States bringing the parties together and driving them to a settlement," the letter states (emphasis added).
Later on, it argues, "While the Israeli Government has announced a moratorium on settlement activity, for too long the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem undermined confidence."
The Netanyahu government vigorously disputes that building in East Jerusalem should be deemed as "settlement" activity. The approval of construction on 1,600 new residences in East Jerusalem during U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel is what kicked off the whole fracas between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations in the first place.
Senators including Charles Schumer, D-NY, and Lindsey Graham, R-SC, have been very vocal about their view that building in Jerusalem should not be considered "settlement" activity. Schumer even called the Obama approach to Netanyahu "counterproductive" before he backed off those comments.
Netanyahu is certain to be irked by the letter's language. "Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital," he told the recent AIPAC conference. "Everyone knows that these neighborhoods will be part of Israel in any peace settlement. Therefore, building them in no way precludes the possibility of a two-state solution."
Whether or not the U.S. should "drive" the two parties to make peace is another point of contention. The Palestinians see the proximity talks as a great way to keep the Obama administration actively involved, while the Israeli government and its supporters feel that although the U.S. has an important role to play, the Obama administration shouldn't be pushing Netanyahu to do things he doesn't want, or isn't able, to do.
"It's unclear what more Senator Feinstein wants to push Israel to do," said one GOP Senate aide. "At what point do we really want to force democracies to do things their people don't support?"
"I can't see how this letter is at all helpful for the administration or the peace process right now," said a Democratic Senate aide working on the issue, who feared the letter could damage whatever trust the administration has worked to rebuild with the Israelis over the past several weeks.
During the recent powwow between the president and 37 Jewish members of Congress, Feinstein was among the only members that expressed agreement with Obama's view that confrontation with Netanyahu was the right approach, according to one Hill source who was briefed on the meeting.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, struck a different tone in a letter he sent to Clinton last month, when he said, "I hope that the Obama Administration will do everything possible to reduce recent tensions with Israel while reaffirming the need to move forward with the peace process."
Despite repeated proclamations by senior leaders in both chambers of Congress and on both sides of the aisle that nothing could stop the Iran sanctions bill, its two lead sponsors announced today that they would delay the conference meant to iron out differences between the House and Senate versions.
"With the progress in negotiations at the Security Council, we believe that our overriding goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability is best served by providing a limited amount of time for those efforts -- and expected follow-on action by the EU at its mid-June summit -- to reach a successful conclusion before we send our bill to the president," Sen. Chris Dodd, D-CT, and Rep. Howard Berman, D-CA, said in a statement Tuesday.
It was only last week that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, promised to get it done before the Memorial Day recess.
"International sanctions make a lot more sense than unilateral" Dodd said at the time. "But we're not going to retreat from the unilateral sanctions effort."
But today, Dodd and Berman claimed that last week's unveiling of the draft U.N. sanctions resolution by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had convinced them that the Security Council process was actually making progress. They now expect to bring the conference report to be voted on by the entire Congress "in the latter half of June."
The delay represents a retreat for the lawmakers and a victory for the Obama administration, which had warned Congress that passing the bill could upset delicate U.N. negotiations. But inside the conference, serious disputes between lawmakers and the administration remain, such as whether to grant broad exemptions for countries that are deemed to be "cooperating" with the United States.
A U.N. official told The Cable that Security Council members are still pouring over the draft resolution and the reams of documents and annexes that accompany it. Those consultations are expected to go on for weeks.
Outside groups that have been pushing for the legislation, such as the American Israel Public Action Committee, were quick to say they are OK with the delay.
"AIPAC supports this decision and endorses Chairmen Dodd and Berman's firm, public commitment to get tough, comprehensive Iran sanctions legislation on the president's desk before the July 4th recess," the group said in a statement.
What's not clear is whether Republicans will suffer Dodd and Berman's delay quietly. "I didn't see any Republican names on that statement by Dodd and Berman," one GOP congressional aide remarked.
House GOP leaders had agreed not to bring up procedural motions to protest the lack of a conference report if the bill was completed by May 28. But now Berman will have to convince them that the delay is in the best interests of getting a stronger bill whenever it's completed.
As Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri makes the rounds in Washington today and tomorrow, he faces deep questions in Congress and in the Defense Department about the future of the U.S. military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces.
Supporters of the funding, mostly at the State Department and the White House, argue that strengthening the Lebanese military is the best way to bolster Hariri against the mounting influence of both Syria and Hezbollah, the radical Shiite militant group, inside Lebanon. The Lebanese military, this faction argues, is the most representative of the country's civic institutions and continuing the funding can help convince Hariri that working with the U.S. is a beneficial and defensible strategy.
But many lawmakers and some at the Pentagon, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, are extremely skeptical that continuing to funnel large amounts of cash and supplies to the LAF is really a good way to approach the Lebanon problem. They are angry about statements Hariri has made about Syria's alleged transfer of long-range missiles to Hezbollah, and question whether the military aid to Lebanon is part of a coherent strategy.
"Threats that Lebanon now has huge missiles are similar to what they used to say about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," Hariri reportedly said last month. "These are weapons that they did not find and they are still searching for."
But Hariri's reaction to the alleged arms transfers has given many inside the administration pause. There's also a concern he could let U.S. weapons slip into the hands of Hezbollah, although the track record of the LAF in that regard has been solid so far.
"The number one issue now is arms transfers from Syria to Hezbollah and this confounds our policy of supporting the Lebanese military," said Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The Obama administration wants Hariri to use the state's instruments of power, such as the LAF, to confront Syria over the alleged arms transfers, but Hariri is in no position to confront Damascus.
Hariri has been careful not to upset Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is widely thought to have ordered the 2005 assassination of his father, former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.
"It would be hard for anyone not to take note that he visited Damascus before he visited Washington," said long-time Lebanon hand Firas Maksad, who said that Hariri is walking a very thin line as he tries to placate the United States and Syria at the same time.
Overall, the arms transfers are on balance a good idea, said Maksad. "We need to think about how we can strengthen our leverage in Beirut. At the end of the day, that's the only hope for a counterbalance to Hezbollah."
But lawmakers, always looking to pinch pennies, and Pentagon officials, who are most concerned about the Hezbollah-Israel tensions, aren't satisfied that strategic hedging is enough of a justification for continued military assistance like on the order of $500 million since 2006.
"The Defense Department has always asked the question: Why are we doing this, what are the objectives, what is the end state we are trying to achieve in Lebanon?," said Aram Nerguizian, visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's an idea that is not linked to an end state. We like the process, but ultimately, what is it that the U.S. is trying to do in Lebanon? That's what hangs in the balance."
Mona Yacoubian , who just released a new report on the Syria-Lebanon situation for the U.S. Institute of Peace, said that there is growing concern inside the administration that the shift of power inside Lebanon toward Hezbollah suggests that it may not be wise to put more resources into the Lebanese military. She argues, however, that the best way to deal with Hezbollah is to help build and strengthen the Lebanese state.
Meanwhile, Hariri is faced to deal with the facts on the ground, which are clearly tipping toward a negative direction, she said.
"He's coming to Washington with a very difficult task. He's got to balance day-to-day concerns with the broader concerns of his ally, the U.S. If he moves to please us, he angers Syria, Hezbollah, and others. If he seems to mimic the U.S. position, he suffers at home. He's in a no-win situation."
The White House readout of Hariri's meeting with President Obama gave little inkling of these tensions, and said the meeting focused on Arab-Israel peace effort, the suspected transfer of Syrian weapons to Hezbollah, and Lebanon's role as rotating president of the U.N. Security Council, which is currently mulling over new sanctions against Iran. But the statement also pointed to President Obama's "determination to continue U.S. efforts to support and strengthen Lebanese institutions such as the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Internal Security Forces."
Privately, the White House was sending a much tougher message, however. Hariri brought so many officials into his bilateral with Obama, sources say, there was no way to speak frankly about subjects of real contention, like U.S. military support and Hariri's unhelpful statements regarding the alleged Hezbollah arms transfers. So Obama and Hariri had a separate, private meeting amongst themselves, where we hear the tough messages were really delivered.
Hariri also met with Gates, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, and Middle East Special Envoy George Mitchell today. Feltman, who was the U.S. ambassador in Beirut at the time of Rafiq al-Hariri's assassination, released a statement citing Lebanon's role in promoting international security and "the key role of Lebanon in the long-term effort to build a lasting, comprehensive peace in the Middle East."
But Feltman didn't mention Lebanese military assistance, which will be at the top of lawmakers' agendas Tuesday.
"His meetings went very well today," David Schenker, director of the Arab politics program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said of Hariri. "I don't think that's going to be the case when he goes to Capitol Hill tomorrow."
The administration has requested $100 million for the LAF in its Fiscal 2011 budget request.
Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images
The Syrians may be arming Hezbollah with long range missiles, but don't let it be said that Uncle Sam isn't providing material help to the Lebanese government. The U.S. Embassy in Beirut dropped off 20 Harley Davidson motorcycles to the Lebanese police today.
U.S. Ambassador Michele Sison, who has been intimately involved in the diplomacy surrounding alleged Syrian arms transfers, presented the motorcycles as a gift to Lebanon's Internal Security Forces (ISF) as part of the United States' ongoing effort to support the Lebanese government, a policy dating back to George W. Bush's administration.
"Today, we add another iconic American vehicle to the ISF arsenal," Sison said at the handover ceremony in Beirut. "These impressive and easily recognizable motorcycles will certainly assist the ISF in projecting its presence in the eyes of the Lebanese citizens, and if I might add -- doing so with great style."
The Lebanese government, of course, might be less concerned about looking good and more concerned about whether violence will break out in the historically war-torn country. But hey, these aren't just your everyday motorcycles: They've go specialized police equipment, including enhanced steering and braking capabilities and lights and sirens with mounted microphones and speakers, the State Department said.
But what if the Lebanese police want to haul some cargo? Not to worry. U.S. taxpayers have already given them 480 Dodge Chargers, 60 Ford Explorers, and some new parts for the 24 Harleys America gave them already. The new motorcycle gift cost a total of about $500,000, the State Department said, part of more than $100 million that State's International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau, known as "Drugs and Thugs," has spent on the ISF since 2007.
On the military side of the equation, the U.S. has given the Lebanese Army more than $400 million in military assistance since 2006, and Vice President Joseph Biden promised Lebanon a new military aid package valued in the hundreds of millions when he visited Beirut last year, to include 42 fighter jets, helicopters, unmanned aerial drones, and tanks. The Lebanese complained recently that much of this aid has not yet been delivered, especially the highest technology stuff, like the fighter jets. Of course, the Russians already gave Lebanon 10 MiG fighter jets, and last week pledged to arm Syria with its own jets, anti-aircraft, and anti-tank weapons.
As for the bikes, "the capability that these Harley Davidson motorcycles will provide the ISF is something that the ISF officers who enforce the law in Lebanon have been asking for," Sison said. No word on whether they came with matching leather jackets.
Twelve Republican senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Friday to let her know they intend to block the nomination of Robert Ford, whom President Obama has named to become the first U.S. ambassador to Syria in five years.
In the letter (pdf), 12 Republican senators, any one of whom could hold up the Ford nomination, said they weren't satisfied with the State Department's latest attempt to alleviate their concerns about sending an envoy to Damascus amid allegations that the Syrian government may have sent Scud missiles to the terrorist group Hezbollah.
The senators aren't buying State's argument that sending an ambassador to Syria is not a reward, but rather a smart way to engage and perhaps even persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop taking provocative actions.
"If engagement precludes prompt punitive action in response to egregious behavior, such as the transfer of long range missiles to a terrorist group, then it is not only a concession but also a reward for such behavior," the letter reads.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said recently that "Syria and Iran are providing Hezbollah with rockets and missiles of ever-increasing capability," but did not confirm that Syria had sent Scuds to the Lebanese militant group.
Not only have U.S. officials said they aren't sure whether Syria actually did make such a transfer (nor has the Israeli government presented evidence to back up its allegations, which Syria denies) but the administration contends that the lack of a U.S. ambassador is actually making it very difficult to talk to Assad on a daily basis. A recent State Department inspector general's report found that the embassy isn't getting much face time with senior Syrian officials.
High-level visits, such as the recent ones by Undersecretary Bill Burns and Assistant Secretary Jeffrey Feltman, are actually more of a reward, administration officials say, because they always make news. An ambassador can do the quiet unglamorous diplomacy that's called for in Damascus, they argue, without the fanfare.
The GOP senators don't see it that way, however, and won't budge until State tells them what "new sanctions" it will place on Syria, or alternatively, when the deadline for engagement to show results will be. They also want State to send over congressionally mandated reports on sanctions that State has simply never completed.
Indicating some pique that Clinton didn't respond to their last letter on this subject, they write tersely, "We would appreciate a response from you personally." The department's previous response came from Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Richard Verma.
Meanwhile, Ford languishes at home, having given up his previous gig at the Baghdad Embassy but unable to start something new while this drama plays out.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
As the sanctions drama at the U.N. moves into what the Obama administration hopes are its final stages, the Iranian government is busily trying to conduct its own diplomatic outreach, including an attempt to convene an international meeting of some Security Council members in Tehran.
U.S. officials are arguing that after hearing Iran's pitch, those council members still resisting sanctions -- a group that includes nonpermanent members Turkey and Brazil -- will have no more excuse to hold up the process. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to make that case Thursday morning.
"During the call, the secretary stressed that in our view, Iran's recent diplomacy was attempt to stop Security Council action without actually taking steps to address international concerns about its nuclear program," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. "There's nothing new and nothing encouraging in Iran's recent statements."
A State Department official, speaking on background basis, explained that State expects Iran to try to convene an international meeting of sympathetic countries in Tehran to coincide with the upcoming visit of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva.
"It's possible that a high-level Turkish official might go," the official said. "We wanted to make sure Turkey understood exactly how we view recent actions and statements by Iran."
After Lula's visit, expect the U.S. message to be: The engagement track has all but failed.
"At that point, we'll understand what Iran is either willing or unwilling to do, and at that point we believe that there should be consequences for a failure to respond," Crowley said.
Iran has been stepping up its anti-resolution diplomacy of late, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki making the rounds of relevant countries. Mottaki even hosted an impromptu dinner for all the Security Council members in New York last week. (He served leftovers, Crowley tweeted.)
We are hearing that the U.S. goal is to pass a sanctions resolution by the end of May, but most diplomats don't expect it to get done until at least mid-June. U.S. officials are expressing increased confidence that the resolution will pass and will not get vetoed.
"[U]nless Iran does something significant that demonstrates that it is taking confidence-building measures, I am very confident we will get a Security Council resolution that is supported by the majority of the U.N. Security Council," White House WMD czar Gary Samore said Tuesday.
The so-called P5+1, the permanent five members of the Security Council plus Germany, met in New York Wednesday on the issue. Clinton discussed Iran with Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo for more than an hour Wednesday. "They acknowledged that good progress has been made, talked about a couple of technical issues in the drafting of the draft resolution, and pledged that both sides would continue to work hard within the P-5+1 to resolve remaining questions," Crowley said.
President Obama spoke over the phone with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev Thursday morning and discussed Iran as well. "The presidents also discussed the good progress being made by the P5+1 towards agreement on a U.N. Security Council resolution on Iran and agreed to instruct their negotiators to intensify their efforts to reach conclusion as soon as possible," according to White House readout of the call.
Add the Obama administration's WMD czar Gary Samore to the growing list of top officials who believe that Middle East peace is a necessary precursor to solving wider regional problems, including the drive to curb the spread of nuclear weapons.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday afternoon, Samore tied the peace process to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, currently ongoing in New York, by saying that one of the key signs of success would be if "at least some progress" can be made toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.
"We recognize and I frankly think everybody recognizes that in the absence of a comprehensive and endurable peace settlement, achieving the zone... is just not likely to be the outcome any time soon."
He then took the argument one step further and said, "The Obama administration is working very hard to try to push the peace process forward and it seems to me that's an essential element to making progress in any of these zones... It's hard to imagine how you could have an arms control regime in the Middle East without having peace and diplomatic recognition... it's a precursor to negotiations."
It's longstanding U.S. policy that Israel should eventually join the NPT, but it's also longstanding U.S. policy not to push Israel to change its stance of neither confirming nor denying its estimated stockpile of 100-plus nuclear weapons. Samore said he does not personally support Israel changing its policy of ambiguity and that no such discussions were taking place that he was aware of.
He also sought to set clear expectations for what might come out of the four-week conference, namely that the administration was not expecting all of the conference members to sign onto any agreement together.
"We believe that if a strong majority of countries support an outcome that pledges support for the treaty and supports practical steps for all of the three pillars plus language on the Middle East, that would be a successful outcome... even if that document is not accepted by the conference as a whole."
Samore also defended the U.S.-Russia civilian nuclear agreement, which the White House sent over to Congress Tuesday. Some lawmakers see the agreement as an undeserved reward to Russia, before that country has publicly committed to signing onto a strong Iran sanctions resolution at the UN.
He said the deal, known as the 123 agreement, won't come into force until later this year and he predicted a UN sanctions resolution would materialize well before then. And he doubted that Russia would go through with the delivery of the S-300 air defense system to Iran, which could also provoke opposition to the deal.
"We've made it very clear to the Russians that would have a very significant impact on bilateral relations and the Russians understand that the consequences would be very severe... I'd be surprised if those transfers take place," said Samore, declining to specify exactly what those consequences would be.
He also headed off another potential concern about the deal by saying, "As long as I've been in this job, there's been no concern about Russian entities providing nuclear assistance to Iran."
Samore said the START treaty with Russia will probably be submitted to Congress this week.
Tonight in New York, representatives of all the United Nations Security Council members will meet and break bread at the Iranian mission, a dinner called at the last minute by Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice won't attend, instead sending deputy permanent representative Ambassador Alejandro D. Wolff. "She has prior obligations," a U.S. official told The Cable. Our UN sources said that although every Security Council country will be at the table, none of the P5+1 countries are sending their top UN diplomats.
That may be a sign that that they don't see the dinner as substantive, but rather as one more attempt by Iran to defend whatever it is doing on the nuclear front and argue why they shouldn't be sanctioned.
"We see this as yet another opportunity for Iran to show the council that they are prepared to play by the rules and meet their international obligations," the U.S. official said, "That being said, they have not shown any recent indications that they are ready to do so and we come in with a realistic set of expectations."
The U.S. is prepared to portray the event as a sign that Iran is feeling the heat, is actually more worried about the UN sanctions resolution currently under negotiation, and it scrambling to turn the momentum back their way.
"This dinner, which is unusual, is a good indication to the lengths that Iran is going right now to combat the sanctions effort and that they recognize how isolated they have become," the U.S. official argued.
So where is that UN sanctions resolution right now? Our UN sources report that the relevant delegations are going through the proposed provisions line by line and are having extremely detailed negotiations, but there is still no timeline for when the text might surface.
And while the U.S. side doesn't expect much to come out of the dinner, their role tonight will be to play defense, making sure Mottaki doesn't sway any of the other council members by bending the truth, the U.S. official said.
"We want to be there to make sure the facts are represented and there is no opportunity for obfuscation."
The National Security Council's Dennis Ross is the latest U.S. official to link the Obama administration's drive to secure peace between Israelis and Arabs to the overall goal of bringing greater stability to the region and combating the threat from Iran.
"In this region, pursuing peace is instrumental to shaping a new regional context," Ross said in remarks Monday evening. "Pursuing peace is not a substitute for dealing with the other challenges ... It is also not a panacea. But especially as it relates to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, if one could do that, it would deny state and non-state actors a tool they use to exploit anger and grievances."
Ross was speaking at the closing dinner for the Anti-Defamation League annual conference, where attendees also heard from the NSC's Daniel Shapiro, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin, special envoy for monitoring anti-Semitism Hannah Rosenthal, Israeli Amb. Michael Oren, and others.
Ross, whose exact portfolio at the NSC has been the subject of much speculation outside the administration, noted that "the greatest challenge for peace, for security in the Middle East, lies in Iran" and tied the Israeli-Arab conflict to the Islamic Republic.
"Clearly one way that Iran is increasing its influence in the region is by exploiting the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians," Ross said, echoing statements made by U.S. Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus in a report (pdf) submitted to Congress back in March.
"The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests," Petraeus wrote. "The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas."
Conservative hard-liners ripped Petraeus for the statement, linking the report to a story on Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel (some elements of which are in dispute). The National Review's Andrew McCarthy even accused the general of "echoing the narrative peddled incessantly by leftists in the government he serves and by Islamists in the countries where he works."
But Ross, who is not often accused of being too hard on Israel, made similar comments Monday. "The continuation of the conflict strengthens Iran's rejectionist partners and also Hezbollah. Iran deliberately uses the conflict to expose even the moderates in the region by stoking the fears of its populations and playing the worst most anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist prejudices," he said.
Ross also had some harsh words for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose government the Obama administration believes may have considered transferring sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah.
"By transferring weapons including long-range weapons to Hezbollah, Syria is engaging in provocative and destabilizing behavior," said Ross, borrowing language from earlier remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "President Assad needs to make a decision whether he wants war or peace in the region."
Clinton made also linked the peace process to Iran in remarks last month when she said, "Those who benefit from our failure of leadership traffic in hate and violence and give strength to Iran's anti-Semitic president [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad]and extremists like Hamas and Hezbollah."
At Monday's dinner, ADL Executive Director Abe Foxman defended Ross from a recent attack by an anonymous administration source quoted by Politico's Laura Rozen.
"He [Ross] seems to be far more sensitive to Netanyahu's coalition politics than to U.S. interests," the source told Rozen, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"Ambassador Dennis Ross has been advancing U.S. interests in national security for over 25 years," Foxman said. "He's a gifted statesman who is trusted by people on different sides of the negotiating table and on both sides of the aisle here at home."
While the State Department works to combat Iran's nuclear propaganda at the UN, back in Washington a group of bipartisan senators are doubling down on their promise to push for tough Iran sanctions legislation that does not include "cooperating country" exemptions that State wants.
The House and Senate began conference on the two bills last week, one led by Senate Banking Committee chairman Chris Dodd, D-CT, and the other led by House Foreign Affairs chairman Howard Berman, D-CA. The main change that State wants the conference to make to the legislation is to have the bill waive corporate sanctions for countries that are deemed to be "cooperating" with the new sanctions regime.
According to Deputy Secretary James Steinberg (pdf), the waiver is needed to avoid upsetting countries the U.S. needs to bring along on its push for multilateral action. Critics fear it will be used to exempt some of Iran's biggest trading partners, Russia and China, in exchange for their support for a new U.N. resolution
"We would find it difficult to support any conference report that would weaken the House and Senate passed sanctions by providing exemptions to companies or countries engaged in the refined petroleum trade with Iran," reads the May 3 letter from Sens. Jon Kyl, R-AZ, Chuck Schumer, D-NY, John Cornyn, R-TX, Dick Durbin, D-IL, Susan Collins, R-ME, Kent Conrad, D-ND, Evan Bayh, D-IN, Sam Brownback, R-KS, John McCain, R-AZ, and Kit Bond, R-MO.
"In particular, we are skeptical about any revision to the legislation that would exempt countries engaged in otherwise engaged in sanctionable activities because they are incorporated in so-called ‘cooperating countries.'"
The senators also expressed their opposition to any changes in the legislation that would weaken sanctions of Iran's energy sector at all and made an argument supporting the inclusion of new language from McCain targeting Iranian officials guilty of human rights abuses. McCain was promised strong support for that in exchange for him allowing the original Senate bill to move off the Senate floor.
The senators wrote that the administration's ongoing drive to seek a new sanctions resolution at the UN Council was "complementary" to Congressional action but that the conference must be completed as soon as possible, "regardless of progress at the UN."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to press in New York Monday, rejected the claims by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Iran had accepted the IAEA's proposal for transferring its nuclear material to a third country. Clinton reiterated that the U.S. is pursuing the "pressure track" but declined to use the term "crippling sanctions" as she has done in the past.
"For all the bluster of its words, the Iranian Government cannot defend its own actions, and that is why it is facing increasing isolation and pressure from the international community," she said.
The State Department didn't hold a press briefing Monday, as many top officials including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are in New York for the kickoff of the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.
So the only official readout from State's press shop today comes from official statements mailed from the press office and the brand new Twitter account of Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley. (@pjcrowley)
Crowley is only the latest administration official to take to Twitter, and we hope his feed won't become a replacement for direct interactions with the public and the press. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs (@presssec) has come under criticism for seemingly bypassing the White House press corps by breaking news on his Twitter account, such as the announcement that President Obama was delaying his trip to Indonesia.
So far today, Crowley has four tweets, including reiterating the administration's position on Iran's nuclear program. Here are his first day's tweets:
2:53 PM: Hello world. Excited to be here on Twitter. Looking forward to our global conversation.
3:08 PM: At #UN, President Ahmadinejad claims that #Iran accepted TRR offer. But Iran has yet to respond to #IAEA. The ball remains in Iran's court.
4:03 PM: At #UN, rather than answer questions about his nuclear program, President Ahmadinejad tried to hide the ball. We aren't playing his game.
4:04 PM: At the #UN, #SecClinton pledged the U.S. will do its part to strengthen the #NPT. Didn't see anyone walk out in protest.
One of the State Department's e-mail fact sheets on the NPT review conference contains Clinton's announcement Monday that she is starting a campaign that seeks to raise $100 million over the next five years "to broaden access to peaceful uses of nuclear energy," with $50 million to be raised from outside the U.S.
"The funds are to significantly expand support for projects sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), addressing energy and important humanitarian purposes, such as cancer treatment and fighting infectious diseases, food and water security, and the development of infrastructure for the safe, secure use of civil nuclear power," State's fact sheet reads, "These efforts will be aimed to assist developing countries."
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