GENEVA - The historic nuclear pact with Iran that was signed shortly before dawn Sunday was a personal and professional triumph for Secretary of State John Kerry, who invested enormous amounts of his political capital in the on-again, off-again talks with Tehran. But the bigger winner may be a low-profile British diplomat who shuns the press and had long been derided as a lightweight.
Lady Catherine Ashton, the European Union's top diplomat, spent the past few days locked in round-the-clock negotiations with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. When the two sides finally agreed to a deal, it was Ashton and Zarif who met at Geneva's Palais des Nations to formally sign the pact. Ashton, who has long been wary of the media, insisted that the event be closed to all but a handful of reporters and took no questions.
That was very much in character for Ashton, an unassuming former member of the British House of Lords who got her job four years ago because of a byzantine political dispute involving former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Here in Geneva, though, she's been on center stage. The foreign ministers of the so-called P5+1 countries -- the U.S., Russia, Germany, China, France and Britain -- held brief meetings with Zarif this weekend, but Ashton led the talks and was Zarif's primary counterpart. Most of the time, she was the only one in the room with him as the deal slowly came together.
"Ashton has pleasantly surprised," said Charles Kupchan, a Europe expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior official on the National Security Council. "She has turned out to be a reasonably effective behind-the-scenes negotiator."
The success of her efforts won't be known until Kerry and the other foreign ministers formally sign an interim agreement with Zarif that would temporarily halt, or slow, Iran's nuclear program while giving Tehran access to roughly $7 billion in frozen assets. Western diplomats cautioned that the deal could still fall through -- as they did two weeks ago -- but it's highly doubtful that Kerry would be traveling to Geneva if an agreement wasn't extremely close to being finalized.
The talks in Geneva this week have veered from optimism Wednesday that an agreement was close to a grim sense Thursday that the two sides were drifting further and further away from a deal. The main sticking points were disagreements over whether Iran had the "right" to enrich uranium and whether it would have to stop, rather than simply slow, the construction of its Arak plutonium reactor. The Iranian media, much of which functions as a semi-official mouthpieces for the Iranian government, reported throughout the day that the two sides had resolved both issues.
Leading successful nuclear talks with the Iranians would mark a remarkable turnaround for Ashton, whose initial appointment had been greeted with skepticism, and in some cases derision, because she had specialized in domestic issues during her time in the British House of Lords and had no real experience in foreign policy. Ashton was also a complete unknown -- which was, paradoxically, one of the primary reasons she got the job.
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BEIRUT — Lebanon celebrated the 70th anniversary of its independence today with a parade of marching soldiers, sword-wielding cavalrymen, and camouflage green tanks in downtown Beirut. But the scene a 15-minute drive away presented a stark reminder of the central government's limited power. The Iranian embassy remained pockmarked from the Nov. 19 double suicide bombing, which killed 25 people and wounded 147 more, while the façade of the adjacent building was torn to shreds.
The attack was likely the handiwork of al Qaeda-linked militants -- just one of the many radical Sunni groups that are viewed as an increasingly dangerous threat by American intelligence officials and mainstream Sunni Lebanese politicians alike. Bolstered by the raging violence in Syria, these jihadist groups pose a mounting danger to the tenuous peace that has prevailed in Lebanon since the beginning of the uprising next door.
Lebanon's mainstream Sunni leadership, while condemning the Iranian embassy attack, also deplored Hezbollah's decision to intervene militarily on the side of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, which has led to an increase in Sunni-Shiite tensions and radicalization that made the bombing possible.
"I believe that if the situation will stay like this for another year, there will be no role for moderates" in either Syria or Lebanon, said Nohad Machnouk, a member of parliament aligned with the anti-Hezbollah Future Movement. "The radicals will be in the front because they are ready to die, they are ready to kill, they are ready to do anything."
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The United States and its key intelligence allies are quietly working behind the scenes to kneecap a mounting movement in the United Nations to promote a universal human right to online privacy, according to diplomatic sources and an internal American government document obtained by The Cable.
The diplomatic battle is playing out in an obscure U.N. General Assembly committee that is considering a proposal by Brazil and Germany to place constraints on unchecked internet surveillance by the National Security Agency and other foreign intelligence services. American representatives have made it clear that they won't tolerate such checks on their global surveillance network. The stakes are high, particularly in Washington -- which is seeking to contain an international backlash against NSA spying -- and in Brasilia, where Brazilian President Dilma Roussef is personally involved in monitoring the U.N. negotiations.
The Brazilian and German initiative seeks to apply the right to privacy, which is enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to online communications. Their proposal, first revealed by The Cable, affirms a "right to privacy that is not to be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with their privacy, family, home, or correspondence." It notes that while public safety may "justify the gathering and protection of certain sensitive information," nations "must ensure full compliance" with international human rights laws. A final version the text is scheduled to be presented to U.N. members on Wednesday evening and the resolution is expected to be adopted next week.
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Geneva — American and Iranian negotiators settled into a luxury hotel here for several days of talks designed to hash out the final details of what could be a historic nuclear deal. Secretary of State John Kerry and other foreign secretaries are watching the talks closely, ready to fly to Geneva at a moment's notice if an agreement is reached.
U.S. officials say they're cautiously optimistic these talks will pan out. The two sides came exceptionally close to a deal earlier this month, but those negotiations ended with Kerry and his colleagues boarding their planes and flying home without an agreement. This time around, officials from both sides believe that many of the disputes that gummed up the last round of negotiations have been at least partially resolved.
Don't take out the champagne just yet, however. Some significant differences remain, and it's not at all clear that the negotiators will be able to bridge all of them. Below are three key issues worth watching as the talks get underway.
United They Stand. The negotiations are being led by the so-called P5+1 -- a grouping of the United States, England, Russia, France, China, and Germany -- and the success of any deal will depend on whether all of the countries will be willing to sign off on it. The last time around, France refused, effectively vetoing the proposed agreement. Paris felt that the deal didn't do enough to reduce Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium or stop the construction of the plutonium enrichment facility at Arak. The key question now is whether the current talks will produce a deal that can go as far as France wants without demanding concessions that go beyond what Tehran can accept.
Nuclear Rights. It may seem small in the scheme of things, but one of the biggest remaining disagreements between the two sides concerns the question of whether Iran has the "right" to enrich uranium. Tehran has long demanded what would amount to a Western stamp of approval of sorts for its nuclear efforts. The United States has refused to grant it for just as long. Part of the disagreement is practical: Acknowledging that Iran has a right to continue enriching uranium would allow Iran to keep much of its current nuclear infrastructure intact, albeit under strict international supervision. The other aspect is legal: Tehran could use Western acknowledgement of its right to enrich uranium to argue that the United States and its allies have no legal standing for sanctioning its nuclear program. On Wednesday, a senior administration official said the Non-Proliferation Treaty is "silent" on the issue. "It neither confers a right nor denies a right," the official said. "We do not believe it is inherently there." The official expressed optimism that the two sides could find common ground, but the wording issue has stymied previous attempts at a deal.
Tehran's "Rabid Dogs." Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, raised eyebrows Wednesday when he told members of a paramilitary group that Israel was "a rabid dog" and accused the United States of harboring "warmongering" policies. Khamenei also mocked Washington for the recent government shutdown, telling the crowd that "instead of using threats, go and repair your devastated economy so that your government is not shut down for 15 or 16 days." It's easy to listen to those comments and conclude that Khamenei is simply uninterested in a deal, which is a definite possibility. Some administration officials take a different view, however. They say that Khamenei might have been directing his comments at a domestic audience that remains deeply skeptical of U.S. intentions after decades of hostility. The more important aspect of the supreme leader's comments, they argue, were his continued public support of the ongoing nuclear talks. The success of the current negotiations will come down to which interpretation of Khamenei's words is correct.
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The United States and Iran, enemies in a proxy war in Syria, now appear likely to come together at an upcoming U.N.-sponsored meeting to try grapple with the worsening humanitarian crisis there. It's the most visible sign yet of the rival powers willingness to work together to resolve the crisis in Syria, according to several U.N.-based diplomats and officials. And it's another indication of the emerging thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran.
The U.N. chief relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, recently sent invitations to at least a dozen countries -- including the United States, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia -- to participate in a high level meeting in Geneva aimed at prodding Syria's warring parties to provide relief workers access to more than 2.5 million people who have been cut off from the U.N. aid pipeline. Invitations have also been sent to Australia, Britain, China, France, Luxembourg, Russia, Kuwait, Qatar, and a representative of the European Union.
"The humanitarian situation in Syria is deteriorating on a daily basis," according to a confidential U.N. paper describing the initiative. "The objective of the high level humanitarian group is to foster and maximize cooperation among those countries with influence over parties to the Syrian conflict to address humanitarian challenges."
It remains unclear precisely when the U.N. meeting, which was initially planned for the middle of November, will take place. But a diplomat from a country on the invitation list said it would likely be scheduled within about two weeks.
U.S. and Iranian diplomats responded favorably to the request, according to diplomats. But one official said it was unclear whether Saudi Arabia, which has clashed with the United States over its approach to Syria and Iran, would join the group.
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President Bashar al-Assad's government has presented the United Nation's chemical weapons watchdog with a detailed plan for the transfer of chemical materials abroad for destruction. And according to a confidential account of the plan reviewed by Foreign Policy, it includes 120 Syrian security forces, dozens of heavy, armored trucks, and an advanced communications network linking Damascus to the Mediterranean Sea. The extensive request for equipment with both civilian and military applications has already triggered expressions of alarm from Western diplomats. "Let's just say we will be looking at this list very skeptically, particularly items that could be diverted to a military program," said one Security Council diplomat.
The Syrian plan calls for equipping at least eight platoons of up to 35 soldiers each to secure the road between Damascus to the port city of Latakia, from which the weapons would be shipped overseas for destruction. The most likely destination: Albania, which got rid of its own chemical stockpile in 2007. The United States is nearing agreement with the Albanian government to destroy Syria's chemicals and nerve agents, according to two U.N. Security Council diplomats. According to the American proposal, which has not been made public, the United States would supply the Albanian government with mobile labs capable of destroying Syrian nerve gas through a process known as hydrolysis -- essentially bombarding it with water and caustic reagents like sodium hydroxide.
The Cable first reported last week on aspects of the Syrian destruction plan, including a proposal to convert 12 chemical weapons plants into commercial factories. But The Cable has since obtained a far more detailed account of the plan, including requests for tens of millions of dollars worth of equipment, including 40 armored transport trucks, advanced cameras, computers, radios, 13 power generators, five construction cranes, five forklifts, packing materials, and 20 Teflon-lined 2,000-liter metal crates for storing controlled chemicals, including phosphoryl chloride and phosphorus trichloride, a precursor chemical used in the production of sarin and tabun.
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Bashar al-Assad has signed onto a decades-old international treaty banning chemical weapons. Now comes the hard part: making sure he doesn't exploit its loopholes to find ways of holding onto the weapons anyway.
On its face, the decades-old Chemical Weapons Convention seems fairly straightforward. Signatories agree to halt the production of new chemical weapons, allow international inspectors to visit all of its storage sites, and then begin to gradually destroy them. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is responsible for implementing the treaty, estimates that 57,740 metric tons of chemical agents, or 81.1 percent of the world's declared chemical weapons stockpiles, have been destroyed since the agreement went into effect in 1997.
The problem is that the treaty wasn't designed to deal with situations like the current crisis in Syria. To succeed, it will require the full and ongoing cooperation of the Assad government, which is obviously far from guaranteed. If Assad changes his mind or is caught cheating, the treaty's sole enforcement mechanism is a referral back to the U.N. Security Council, where the chances of getting an agreement authorizing punitive measures against Damascus for its poor behavior are virtually non-existent. For all intents and purposes, the treaty is toothless.
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Secretary of State John Kerry said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could avoid an American military strike by giving up his chemical weapons, an unscripted and off-handed remark that triggered a mad day of diplomatic scrambling and raised the first real prospect of a peaceful end to the Syrian crisis.
Speaking in London this morning, Kerry said Assad had one way, and one way only, of preventing the Obama administration from launching a military intervention into his country.
"Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week -- turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting," Kerry said. "But he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done."
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki tried to walk back Kerry's comments almost immediately after he uttered them, describing the remarks as a "rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used."
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Aspen, CO. - Turmoil in the nascent Libyan government is likely frustrating the FBI's attempts to capture the five men suspected of playing a key role in the attacks on the U.S. consulate and CIA facility in Libya that left four Americans dead last September, according to former U.S. Africa Command chief, Gen. (ret) Carter Ham.
"It's more the dealing between the government of the United States and this emerging yet fragile government of Libya that has impeded any significant progress on bringing to justice those who killed our friends," said Ham during a talk at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado last night.
"All politics are local, and in Libya that is very much the case," said Ham. "The Libyan government has to wrestle with this idea of ‘do we apprehend this guy and what would that mean to us if we apprehended some of these people, if we tried them, if we handed them over [to the U.S.],' it's a very, very complex issue."
While the U.S. made some progress initially in working with the Libyan government that has emerged in Tripoli since Muammar al Qaddafi was overthrown in late 2011, that stalled as senior officials in the Libyan government came and went.
"This is one of the consequences of the fragility of the Libyan government," said Ham. "Progress was made initially but then the government changes, key leaders change."
He went on to say that "so much of this is relationships, so much of this is trust and if the person you're used to working with is now out of office and suddenly you've got a brand new person . . . it just frustrates, it complicates the process."
Some have criticized the Obama administration for not capturing the five suspects identified by the FBI in May via military means, despite claims the U.S. has evidence to justify such actions. The White House maintains that it is treating this as a law enforcement case and is trying to work with the Libyan legal system to extradite the attackers and try them in a U.S. criminal court. One of the suspects, Faraj al Chalabi, was reportedly detained by the Libyan government in March -- only to be released in June by Libyan authorities who said they didn't have enough evidence to warrant holding him.
The FBI, with the help of U.S. intelligence agencies, is keeping the suspects under electronic surveillance as it tries to gather up more evidence -- such as videos of the men at the scene of the attack -- for use in a criminal trial.
This is just one example of what may be many of how tough it will be for the U.S. to form working relationships with the new, often fluid and shaky governments that are emerging from the political upheaval in the Arab world. It also shows that it may be a while before the U.S. is able to put the Banghazi attack behind it. Let's hope America's can get better at building relationships with other new governements popping up in the Arab world.
Sen. John McCain sounded a civil note at the beginning of his remarks at a Center for a New American Security event on Thursday, April 18. "What Republicans need now is a vigourous contest on ideas on national security and foreign policy," he told a group of military, foreign policy, and business professionals. "This contest can and should be conducted respectfully and without name-calling, which is something an old wacko-bird like me must remember from time to time."
Though he didn't resort to epithets, the rest of the speech featured a series of broadsides against isolationists and non-interventionists of both parties, but especially senators on McCain's own side of the aisle. "When it comes to the politics of national security," McCain said, "my beloved Republican Party has some soul-searching to do."
In particular, McCain singled out his "libertarian friends" who participated in Sen. Rand Paul's filibuster against John Brennan's confirmation as CIA director. "Rather than debate the very real dilemmas of targeted killing," McCain said, "my colleagues chose to focus instead on the theoretical possibility that the president would use a drone to kill Americans on U.S. soil even if they're not engaged in hostilities. As misguided as this exercise was, the political pressures on Republicans to join in were significant, and many ultimately did -- including many who know better."
As a compromise, McCain suggested revising the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which provides the legal justification for the targeted killing program, and codifying drone policy "to preserve, but clarify the commander-in-chief's war powers, while insisting on greater transparency and broader congressional oversight of how these war powers are employed."
He inveighed against the "emergence of a military-industrial-congressional complex that has corrupted and crippled the defense acquisition process," though his critique focused on the runaway costs of projects like the F-35 and Littoral Combat Ship rather than the defense budget writ large, which he has pushed to maintain. He also went after colleagues who have tried to slash foreign aid, pointing out that, "It now seems that every piece of legislation that the Senate considers faces an inevitable amendment that would cut off all our assistance to Egypt or some other critical country. And unfortunately, these kinds of provisions keep winning more and more votes." McCain sounded downright weary as he described "explaining" and "reminding people" of the purpose of foreign aid. "While foreign aid might not make its recipients love us," he noted, "it does further our national security interests and values."
McCain went after colleagues' knee-jerk opposition to the United Nations as well. When asked about the Law of the Sea Treaty, he said, "It's probably not going to come up. Not with the makeup of this Senate, that's the reality. We couldn't even do a disabilities treaty, for God's sake." The problem? Here, McCain got sarcastic. "It's just, you know, it's the 'U.N.' It's the 'U.N.,'" he exclaimed, making air quotes and shrugging.
Despite the critiques of sequestration and U.S. policies on Syria and Iran, President Obama got off pretty easy by comparison. "Right now, the far left and far right in America are coming together in favor of pulling us back from the world," McCain observed. "The president and I have had our differences, many of those differences will persist, but there are times these days when I feel that I have more in common on foreign policy with President Obama than I do with some in my party."
And while McCain seemed uncomfortable with the many rounds of nuclear negotiations with Iran, he said he didn't envy the president's decision on the use of force. "It's going to be probably one of the most difficult decisions the president of the United States has ever had to make," he argued, "and it's very rarely that I'm glad that I'm not the president of the United States, but this is one of [those times]."
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Four different Senate Republicans have four different ideas on how to alter U.S. aid to Egypt, in a struggle that is also becoming about the future of Republican leadership on foreign policy.
The Senate is working now on the next Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government from April until October -- and aid to Egypt is the main foreign policy issue likely to be attached to the funding measure. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), John McCain (R-AZ), James Inhofe (R-OK), and Rand Paul (R-KY) all have introduced amendments to the CR dealing with Egypt aid, but they all have competing ideas on how to condition it in light of Egypt's changing security challenges and the fragile path to democracy under the government led by Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsy.
Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has also introduced an amendment on Egypt aid, making it five total amendments that are now the subject of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations.
"We have five different amendments that have been offered on Egypt," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said on the Senate floor Thursday, lamenting that the Senate was confronted with tackling the Egypt aid issue in a rush on a temporary funding bill. Reid doesn't really want to do Egypt policy on this bill at all.
"This is a CR for six months. We have a functioning Foreign Relations Committee. That's where this should take place," he said. "We all have concerns about Egypt. Our funding in Egypt, maintaining stability in the region, supporting Israel. We have, as I've indicated, five senators who have filed five separate, distinct amendments. And literally staffs with senators have worked all day coming up with an amendment that Democrats and Republicans could agree on. It hasn't been done. Doesn't mean it can't be done, but it hasn't been done. I would again remind senators that this is a Continuing Resolution. The long-term solution to the situation in the Middle East is not a short-term CR. Whatever we do on this bill would expire in six months anyway."
But despite Reid's reluctance, senators are likely to coalesce around one or two Egypt aid amendments that could get a vote on the Senate floor next week. The first senator to introduce an Egypt amendment was Rubio, who spoke about it in an interview this week with The Cable.
"This is not about cancelling foreign aid to Egypt per se. This is about restructuring it in a way that lines up with the interests of the taxpayers of the United States of America," Rubio said. "Their real security needs are largely internal and we want to recalibrate our military aid to Egypt to meet their actual needs. Egypt doesn't need tanks, it doesn't need jet fighters, it's not going to be invaded by neighbors in the near future."
For Rubio, the Egypt amendment is his opening salvo in what promises to be a year of increasing involvement in an array of foreign policy issues. He promised he would have similar amendments in the future on aid to other countries as well.
"Foreign aid is important because it increases our influence and in particular our ability to influence things around the world to advance our interests. But foreign aid is not charity.... That means that every single dime we give in foreign aid should be conditioned," he said.
Rubio is also concerned about the Morsy government's commitment to the Camp David accords, their unwillingness or inability to maintain security in the Sinai Peninsula, and their treatment of opposition parties and non-governmental organizations.
"We've heard some of the comments of the president of Egypt and some of the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. It's downright offensive, and that's their ideology and we've seen some of that come through in their public policy," he said.
Rubio's original amendment would have blocked disbursements of economic support funds (ESF) and new foreign military financing for Egypt until the administration could certify that the Morsy government was enacting economic and political reforms, not restricting religious and human rights, not undermining free and fair elections, improving its treatment of foreign NGOs, fully implementing the peace treaty with Israel, taking all available actions to end smuggling into Gaza and combat terrorism in the Sinai.
The Rubio amendment required the administration to certify that the government of Egypt had apportioned specific amounts of aid to counterterrorism and the Sinai but gave the administration the authority to waive the new aid restrictions every six months.
The McCain amendment takes a different, less confrontational approach. It only would impact foreign military financing, not economic support funds, and clearly states that any change in Egypt military aid should only affect new contracts, not existing contracts for items already in the manufacturing pipeline.
The McCain amendment requires the administration to report back to Congress about how the Egyptian military is spending the money and how it might be spent better in the security interests of both Egypt and the United States. But there's no cut off of aid and no waiver authority. Last year, Egyptians got angry when Congress imposed new restrictions on military aid to Cairo, only to see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waive them anyway.
After McCain filed his amendment, Rubio made some changes to his amendment to bring it closer in line with McCain's. Rubio's new amendment now conditions ESF funds in a way that's closer to what's already in present law. Backroom negotiations between the two offices are ongoing.
The Leahy amendment is seen as the Democrats' attempt to take what they liked of the Republican amendments and try to reach a compromise text. It most closely follows McCain's approach by requiring the administration to report on the military aid spending but also requires the administration to report on political reform, human rights, and NGO treatment in Egypt.
Paul's amendment would cut off all assistance to Egypt until Morsy says in English and Arabic that he intends to uphold the Camp David accords. Inhofe's amendment would conditionally suspend the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Egypt. Inhofe has also co-sponsored the Paul amendment.
"For months, I have been calling for President Obama and his administration to hold president Morsy accountable for failing to promote promised democracy in Egypt and for the instability in the region," Inhofe said on the Senate floor this week. "Under President Morsy and his radical Muslim Brotherhood, the United States' historically good relationship with Egypt is at a standstill."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in South Sudan and Uganda on Friday with Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, and Counselor and Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills. Clinton met with President Salva Kir and Foreign Minister Nhial Deng in Juba, South Sudan, before meeting with President Yoweri Museveni in Kampala, Uganda.
The Senate approved a bill on Thursday that includes a provision reauthorizing the U.S. ban on imports from Burma by a unanimous vote.
The bill reauthorizes the ban on U.S. imports from Burma for three years, with a caveat whereby the president or his delegee, the secretary of state, could decide to wave that prohibition for one year.
Undersecretary of State Robert Hormats, who was in favor of the legislation, said on Tuesday during a speech in Washington that he expected the bill to pass and that it would provide an incentive to the Burmese government to continue with its democratic reforms.
"What we have said all long is that it's action for action," Hormats said about the process of easing sanctions on Burma, which began when President Barack Obama lifted the ban on investing in the country.
"I would find it very surprising if Aung San Suu Kyi and the other reformers thought this was a good idea and Congress got much support for repealing [the lifting of sanctions]," said Hormats.
Senate leaders such as John McCain (R-AZ) are concerned that the state-run Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), which controls all of Burma's oil and gas assets, is notoriously opaque and is known to funnel money to a select few people. In order to increase transparency and reduce corruption, Hormats noted that Burma has agreed to join the Extraction Industries Transparency Initiative, which monitors industry practices and revenue flow. Suu Kyi has frequently cautioned the United States against cooperating with MOGE.
If the Burmese government wants more sanctions lifted, it will have to resolve issues related to the treatment of cultural minorities and release more political prisoners, said Hormats.
"They've released 500," Hormats said. "But there are more."
The undersecretary, who returned from a trip to Burma just over a week ago, emphasized that he saw much cause for optimism about the country's democratic transition.
"The members of the junta who previously ran Burma in a very authoritarian way are now for the most part the vanguard of the reform effort," he explained. "This time, the old guard is the new guard."
Still, there are no guarantees. Escalating tensions and recent violence between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists in Burma's Rakhine state has displaced about 80,000 people and killed 78.
"As the president and secretary have said, this is still fragile -- there's no guarantee it's going to continue, but ... we got quite a good feeling that they are committed to doing this," Hormats said about Burma's transition process.
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is traveling to Senegal, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, and South Africa through August 10. Wednesday, the Secretary met with Senegal President Macky Sall in Dakar. She is accompanied by Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, Assistnat Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, and Counselor and Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills.
Deputy Secretary Bill Burns discussed the U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship and opportunities for international cooperation with Mexican government officials Sunday in Mexico City. Today Burns is in Bogota, Colombia, to lead the U.S. delegation in the third round of the U.S.-Colombia High-Level Partnership Dialogue, where he will be joined by Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Affairs Carlos Pascual, and Assistant Secretary for Economic and Business Affairs Jose Fernandez. Discussions will cover democracy, human rights, energy, economic opportunities, climate change, culture and education, and science and technology.
Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Phil Gordon is traveling to Greece and Turkey until July 31. In Athens, he will discuss economic reforms and foreign policy issues with senior government officials, political party leaders, and members of the business and think tank communities. On July 29, he will arrive in Istanbul, where he will meet with senior Turkish government officials to discuss various bilateral and global issues.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will speak at the second annual Global Diaspora Forum in Washington, which will focus on how the U.S. government and diaspora communities are partnering to further investment and trade, philanthropy, volunteerism, and social innovation around the world. She will also meet with World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim, Luxembourg Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean Asselborn, and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Slovak Republic Miroslav Lajcak.
Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Tom Countryman is in New York for the final week of the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty Conference, which ends Friday. Conventional arms trading is estimated to be worth more than $70 billion a year, and the conference is still behind schedule. According to AFP, discussions are still hindered by disagreements between the main powers and a "small but determined minority of states who oppose the treaty."
The top Kurdish representative in Washington on Friday pushed back against Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's attempt to encourage U.S. President Barack Obama to stop U.S. oil companies -- particularly ExxonMobil -- from investing in the Kurdish area of Iraq following Chevron's recent purchase of 80 percent of two blocks in the autonomous region.
The Kurdish representative, Qubad Talabani, the Kurdish Regional Government's representative in Washington and the son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, was responding to Maliki's claim that Obama had sided with Baghdad in the escalating dispute in a recent letter.
"We would like to confirm that the letter was positive and convincing and stresses its respect for the constitution and Iraqi laws, in the same manner as the Iraqi government is seeking," read a statement from Maliki's office on Thursday.
On Friday, in a short interview with The Cable, Qubad Talabani shot back: "Every U.S. company that is working in Kurdistan today is working under the Iraqi constitution, so the notion that Obama has sent a letter to Maliki supporting his position on Exxon is misleading because the U.S. reaffirmed their support for the Iraqi constitution, and expressing their support is not contradictory to ExxonMobil working in Kurdistan."
But the dispute is not simply a legal matter. Baghdad is concerned that the KRG's cooperation with oil companies threatens its authority, since Article 112 of Iraq's constitution states that the management of the country's oil and gas fields and Iraq's energy policy are responsibilities of the federal government. "Firstly, the prime minister of Iraq should know that private U.S. companies ... don't act on the behalf of the U.S. government," Talabani said, "and they certainly don't take their orders from the U.S. government."
Baghdad banned ExxonMobil from bidding at a recent auction for exploration blocs after the company signed a 25-year exploration deal with the KRG last year. The KRG drew the ire of the Iraqi federal government earlier this month when it announced that it had exported some crude to Turkey, which gave the KRG refined product in return.
"This is an illegal and unconstitutional business that we will take the right decision against," a spokesman for Hussein al-Shahristani, Iraq's deputy prime minister for energy, said at the time. "The [Iraqi government's] oil ministry solely reserves the right to export crude oil, gas, or oil products to other countries."
American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Michael Rubin told The Cable on Monday that KRG president Massoud Barzani had also raised the issue with President Obama, which The Cable was unable to confirm.
"It's my understanding that Barzani walked away with the perspective that Obama was favoring Maliki's claims over Barzani's, so it seems already that the U.S. is siding with the Iraqi central government on this issue at least," he said. "We can't pressure Iraqis because we have no leverage left."
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will speak at the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington. USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Political Affairs Tara Sonenshine, and Ambassador-At-Large and U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Eric Goosby will also attend the conference of 20,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries. With the theme of "Turning the Tide Together," AIDS 2012 aims to increase global awareness through convening a group of scientific experts, community leaders, and policy leaders.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet with World Bank president Dr. Jim Yong Kim in Washington.
House Rules Committee chairman David Dreier (R-CA) announced last week during a visit to Tunis that he intends to head an initiative to propose a free trade agreement between the United States and Tunisia, which experienced a popular uprising in 2010 and held democratic elections in October.
"One of the most effective ways the United States can offer support to the Tunisian people as they work to solidify democratic gains is by expanding trade and commercial ties," Dreier, who is also the founding chairman of the House Democracy Partnership, said in an emailed statement yesterday. "Spurring economic growth through increased trade would ... help to create the resources necessary for sustainable democratic development and prosperity in Tunisia."
According to congressional sources, Dreier first discussed the topic with Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali at the Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum in March, just months after Dreier introduced a bipartisan resolution calling for a free trade agreement with Egypt and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative relaunched Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) talks with Tunisia. Even though Dreier's proposal has yet to gain a substantial congressional base, he is partnering with House Committee on Foreign Affairs senior member Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Ways and Means Committee member Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-MN).
As Brookings Institute Saban Center on the Middle East director Tamara Wittes noted, there's a growing feeling of congressional support for Tunisia.
"I think there's a tremendous amount of support on the Hill for Tunisia," she told The Cable. "I think members of Congress understand how important it is to have a successful model in North Africa for the other countries struggling with democratic reform."
U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president of Middle East and North Africa affairs Lionel Johnson agrees that Tunisia has a lot of potential.
"The Tunisian government is the one in the region that shows the most promise," he told The Cable. "We'd like to see talks begin in early 2013."
Washington has already pledged to help Tunisia with short-term economic problems like debt and unemployment. In March, it was announced that the United States would transfer $100 million to Tunisia, which faces a $25 billion debt, and in June the parliament in Tunis voted in favor of a bill allowing for a $400-450 million sovereign bond issue "with up to 100 percent of the principal and interest guaranteed by the U.S. government," enabling Tunisia to "borrow at almost risk-free rates." The State Department's Middle East Transitions office is pursuing a series of "smaller but important steps."
"There are investment regulations, border controls, and other regulatory changes that could help facilitate trade between the U.S. and Tunisia," Middle East Transitions program director William Taylor told The Cable. "What we're hoping is that by taking some of these steps earlier on, they might get some of these trade benefits sooner than if they were wrapped into one large negotiation for a free trade agreement."
Ultimately, though, a free trade agreement stands to make a significant economic impact on Tunisia, which counted the United States among its top five trading partners in 2010.
"There's a lot that the U.S. is already doing with economic and technical assistance to support the growth of the private sector in Tunisia, so an FTA would complement that because it would be mutually beneficial," Wittes explained. "Over the long term, we know that Tunisian economic health is going to come through a robust private sector that will help to cement a democratic transition. This is not an FTA that's going to have a massive impact on the U.S. economy. It will, however, have an important impact on the Tunisian side."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) says he thinks Tunisia will become a strong economic partner for the U.S.
"Most successful middle-income countries want deeper bilateral trade relationships," he said at an event on Wednesday. "Countries that undergo successful transitions often ... become our best allies and trading partners."
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On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Vietnamese Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong in Hanoi, and discussed issues including Agent Orange, soldiers missing in action, and deepening cultural and economic bilateral ties with Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh. "The United States greatly appreciates Vietnam's contributions to a collaborative, diplomatic resolution of disputes and a reduction of tensions in the South China Sea," said the secretary, who is accompanied by Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Robert Hormats, Chief of Protocol Ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan. Tomorrow Clinton will arrive in Vientiane, Laos, for meetings with Prime Minister Thonsing Thammavong and other senior government officials, making her the first secretary of state to visit the country in 57 years.
In Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Monday with President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, Prime Minister Sukhbaatar Batbold, spoke at the Community of Democracies Governing Council and the International Women's Leadership Forum, and participated in the Leaders Engaged in New Democracies Network launch. Clinton praised post-Soviet Mongolia as a democratic model for Asia, calling it "an inspiration and a model" that stands "in stark contrast to those governments that continue to resist reforms" -- a none-too-subtle dig at neighboring China. Although Mongolia held parliamentary elections on June 28, the results are still being disputed as no major party was able to form a government.
Secretary Clinton, who is accompanied by Chief of Protocol Ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, Ambassador-At-Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer, and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, will travel next to Hanoi, Vietnam, to meet with senior Vietnamese leaders.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Paris with Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Phil Gordon and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, where she participated Friday in the third meeting of the Friends of the Syrian People group, an international forum attempting to end Syria's 16 months of violent conflict. Clinton called on member countries to "demand implementation" of the Annan plan, impose "real and immediate consequences" for non-compliance, and make it clear that Russia and China will "pay a price" for "standing up on behalf of the Assad regime."
She also met with Syrian opposition leaders, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, and President François Hollande. Her discussion with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas focused on Israeli and Palestinian "efforts to pursue a dialogue." On July 8, Secretary Clinton and Ambassador-At-large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer will attend the Conference on Afghanistan in Tokyo, where donors are "expected to pledge a total of $35 billion in development aid through 2015," according to Agence France Presse. For details on the rest of Clinton's trip to Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, check out yesterday's Cable preview.
Assistant Secretary Gordon will also travel to Croatia, Serbia, Kosvo, and Cyprus, to attend the Croatia Summit, meet with senior government officials, and work with EU partners.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Latvian president Andris Berzins, Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, and Foreign Minister Edgar Rinkevics in Riga. She will depart for St. Petersburg later today to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation's Women and the Economy Forum with Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer and hold a bilateral meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Clinton is accompanied by Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Phil Gordon and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan. She then heads to Geneva for an emergency meeting on Syria.
U.S. senators grilled Derek Mitchell, nominated by President Barack Obama on May 17 as the first U.S. ambassador to Burma in two decades, in a confirmation hearing Wednesday, but they used the session primarily to urge the administration to allow American investment in the country's oil and gas sectors.
Mitchell has served as special coordinator for Burma policy since last year, but democratic reforms and the election of opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament have prompted the Obama administration to step up its diplomatic engagement with the Burmese government.
Although the State Department has proposed a "sector by sector" plan to renewing private sector relations, the White House has not decided if it will lift sanctions on Burma's notoriously opaque and abusive energy industry.
"There's nothing I can say here definitively on this, because it is an ongoing internal, interagency discussion," Mitchell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "But ... we are not looking to exclude any sectors from this."
Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), addressing "rumors" that the administration plans to "exclude oil firms from new rules allowing U.S. investment in the country," argued that such a policy would be detrimental to U.S. companies as foreign firms continue to sign oil and gas exploration agreements with Burma.
"This or any other ‘carve-out strategy' would be a strategic mistake," he said. "I believe that U.S. companies including the oil and gas companies can play a positive role in the effort by demonstrating high standards or responsibility, responsible business conduct, and transparency -- including respect for human rights in Burma."
Suu Kyi, on the other hand, is not as optimistic, and cautioned foreign firms against partnering with the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise earlier this month during a speech in Geneva.
In January, Burma's Energy Ministry estimated its natural gas reserves at 22.5 trillion cubic feet, and the international bidding process for 25 offshore oil and gas blocks is scheduled to take place within two to three months.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen, and Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomoja in Helsinki to discuss issues including Russia, energy and the environment, and women in Afghanistan. Clinton, who is accompanied by Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Phil Gordon and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, also attended a Climate and Clean Air Coalition event and toured the Marimekko Factory and Design Space. Next stop: Riga, Latvia.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton departs today for Europe, where she will travel to Finland, Latvia, and Russia through June 30. Tomorrow, Clinton will hold bilateral meetings with senior Finnish officials in Helsinki to discuss foreign-policy issues including Syria, Iran, and the European economy. On June 28, Clinton will travel to Riga to meet with senior Latvian officials about NATO missions and the country's economic recovery. From there, the secretary will go to St. Petersburg, where she will lead the U.S. delegation to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation's Women and the Economy Forum. Clinton, who is accompanied by Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Phil Gordon and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, is also scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and civil society leaders.
Assistant Secretary for Conflict and Stabilization Operations Rick Barton is in Central America through June 29, where he will travel to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to meet with embassy partners and key stakeholders about issues related to the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), such as violence, corruption, human rights, and criminal organizations. The U.S. has allocated $260 million to CARSI as the proliferation of narcotics, weapons, and gangs has destabilized the region's local and national governments.
The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.