A poll of Egyptians conducted last month shows that they have increasingly positive views of Iran, believe that both Iran and Egypt should obtain nuclear weapons, and still trust their own military more than any other institution in Egypt.
The poll of 812 Egyptians, half of them women, was conducted in a series of in-person interviews by the firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and sponsored by the Israel Project, a pro-Israel advocacy organization with offices in Washington and Jerusalem. According to the poll, Iran is viewed favorably in Egypt, with 65 percent of those surveyed expressing support of the decision to renew Egypt-Iran relations and 61 percent expressing support of the Iranian nuclear project, versus 41 percent in August 2009.
Sixty-two percent of those polled agreed that "Iran and its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are friends of Egypt," though 68 percent held unfavorable views of Shiite Muslims.
Iran's deputy defense minister said recently that the Iranian regime is seeking more military cooperation with Egypt. "We are ready to help Egypt to build nuclear reactors and satellites," he said on the occasion or Egyptian President Mohammed Morsy's meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last month. Morsy's office has said the two didn't discuss military cooperation.
Eighty-seven percent of respondents want Egypt to have its own nuclear bomb.
Israel Project CEO Josh Block told The Cable that the statistics show the effect of Morsy's outreach to Iran and the danger of regional proliferation of nuclear weapons if Iran is successful in obtaining a nuclear bomb.
"Very scary to people opposed to proliferation of nuclear weapons, let alone to unstable countries in the world's most turbulent part of the world, is the 87 percent who want Egypt to build nuclear weapons," he said. "Morsy's dangerous embrace of Iran is leading a surprising shift in favor support for Tehran, which has for decades been seen by Egyptians as their top threat, as well as for their work on nuclear weapons."
Egyptians are overwhelmingly focused on the dire state of their domestic economy. Only 2 percent of those polled said that "strengthening relations with other Muslim countries" should be one of Morsy's top two priorities, and 45 percent agreed with the statement that "Egypt needs to focus on things at home and should be less involved in regional politics."
Nevertheless, 74 percent of those polled said that disapprove of Egypt having diplomatic relations with Israel -- an increase from 26 percent in August 2009 -- and support for a two-state solution to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at only 30 percent. Seventy-seven percent agreed that "The peace treaty with Israel is no longer useful and should be dissolved."
Block blamed that result at least partially on the stance of leading Egyptian politicians like President Morsy, who has indicated recently he does not plan to abrogate the Israel-Egypt peace treaty but whose Muslim Brotherhood party identifies Israel as a racist and expansionist state.
"The fact that Morsy and other leading politicians in Egypt regularly express disdain for the peace treaty leads to such decay in public attitudes," Block said. "Then again, nearly half the public voted for a presidential candidate who openly declared his intent to travel to Israel and support for the Camp David accords."
Block was referring to retired Air Force general Ahmed Shafiq, who served as prime minister under Hosni Mubarak and was defeated narrowly in a runoff election earlier this year.
The poll found that 64 percent of Egyptians still feel warmly about the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which ran Egypt in the interim period before Morsy was elected, and 81 percent approve of the job they are doing. Forty-nine percent of Egyptians polled felt warmly about Morsi, and 43 percent felt warmly about the Muslim Brotherhood.
Forty percent felt warmly about the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, but only 11 percent felt warmly about the Salafist Nour Party, a hard-line Islamist party that fared well in the parliamentary elections.
American politicians fared poorly in the poll, but among them Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the most popular at 25 percent favorability. President Barack Obama scored 16 percent and Republican nominee Mitt Romney only 8 percent, although only half of Egyptians polled knew who Romney was. (Ahmadinejad's favorability rating? Forty-three percent.)
Most Egyptians don't seem to buy Romney's line that Obama has "thrown Israel under the bus," but they're not too happy about his handling of the region, either.
Asked, "Do you think that President Barack Obama is more on the side of Arabs or more on the side of Israel?," 68 percent of Egyptians said Israel, and 60 percent said that Obama's presidency had been "a negative thing" for the Arab world.
39% of the Egyptians polled expressed interest in learning more about Israel, especially it's political system. The Israel Project runs an outreach program to the Arab world, focusing on social media. Its Facebook page is called "Israel Uncensored."
On a conference call with American rabbis Thursday evening, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney altered his position on what "red lines" he would set for Iran before deciding military action was necessary.
"Your good friend Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu says that the international community needs to draw a red line for Iran. Do you agree that a red line needs to be drawn, and where would you draw it?," Rabbi Efrem Goldberg asked on the call, a recording of which was provided to The Cable.
"With regards to the red line, I would imagine Prime Minister Netanyahu is referring to a red line over which if Iran crossed it would take military action. And for me, it is unacceptable or Iran to have the capability of building a nuclear weapon, which they could use in the Middle East or elsewhere," Romney said. "So for me, the red line is nuclear capability. We do not want them to have the capacity of building a bomb that threatens ourselves, our friends, and the world."
"Exactly where those red lines [should be drawn] is something which, I guess, I wouldn't want to get into in great detail, but you understand they are defined by the Iranian capability to have not only fissile material, but bomb making capability and rocketry," Romney said.
Romney's remark that the United States should take military action if Iran develops nuclear weapons "capability" matches what many GOP leaders and pro-Israel groups have publicly stated, but it stands in contrast to the "red line" Romney set out in a Sept. 14 interview with ABC News.
"My red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon," Romney told network host George Stephanopoulos. "It is inappropriate for them to have the capacity to terrorize the world. Iran with a nuclear weapon or with fissile material that can be given to Hezbollah or Hamas or others has the potential of not just destabilizing the Middle East. But it could be brought here."
Asked if his red line was the same as President Obama's, Romney told ABC, "Yes."
Rabbi Goldberg also asked Romney what exactly he would do differently than the current administration to prevent a nuclear Iran. Romney offered few specifics. He referenced his January 2007 speech at the Herzliya Conference, where he called for several specific measures.
"We recently have done one of them, which is getting crippling sanctions. It's taken a long time to finally come around to that, but that is one of the key elements to changing Iran's course," Romney said. "Sanctions are having an impact on their economy. Unfortunately, they took so long to be put in place that I think Iran is racing forward with their nuclear plans."
He said he would increase the credibility of the military option and U.S. support for dissidents in Iran.
He also called for the indictment of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for "genocide."
"I think we should indict Ahmadinejad under the Genocide Convention for incitation of genocide," Romney said. "I think that he and the diplomats in Iran should be treated like the pariah[s] they are ... I believe they should be treated the same way we treated South Africa during apartheid."
In the call, Romney did not address the controversy over his remarks at a May fundraiser where he all but counted out the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In a hidden camera video posted by Mother Jones magazine, Romney told a group of donors in May that Palestinians "have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace," and that a two-state solution is "almost unthinkable to accomplish."
"We have a potentially volatile situation but we sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it," Romney said.
"But I always keep open: the idea of pushing on the Israelis to give something up to get the Palestinians to act is the worst idea in the world. We have done that time and time and time again. It does not work," Romney said to the donors. "So the only answer is show them strength. American strength, American resolve, and the Palestinians will some day reach the point where they want peace more than we're trying to force peace on them. Then it's worth having the discussion. So until then, it's just wistful thinking."
Addressing the tension between the Obama and Netanyahu governments, Romney said Thursday, "Our relationship with Israel should be one which the world sees as being extraordinarily close ... and if per chance there are disagreements, we keep those disagreements to ourselves and in private, as opposed to airing them out in public."
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Two top foreign-policy advisors to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney laid out policies for dealing with Iran this week and neither matches what the former Massachusetts governor has said on the issue.
Former senior National Security Council aide Elliott Abrams, who has been rumored as a potential top official in a future Romney administration, wrote on the Weekly Standard's website Aug. 21 that now is the time for Congress to authorize the use of military force against Iran as a means of preventing Israel from striking Iran's nuclear facilities.
"Why would Israel, with so much less power than the United States, decide to take on a task at the far outer edge of its military capacities? Why not leave that task to the superpower, which would do a much better job? The answer is simple: Israelis do not believe the United States will perform the task-will ever use military force, even as a last resort, to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons," Abrams wrote.
Abrams said that Israel does not trust President Barack Obama's repeated assurances, including at the AIPAC conference in March, that he will not allow Iran to get the bomb and that he is prepared to use military force. Abrams quotes Gen. Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence who said last week that many Israelis don't believe Obama.
"There is a certain feeling in Israel that perhaps the president's declaration at AIPAC is not sufficient, and that maybe much more binding and stronger steps need to be taken," Yadlin said.
Congress is unlikely to pass an authorization to use force in Iran before the election. There are only a handful of legislative days in September and before lawmakers left town for the August recess, the Senate wasn't even able to pass a highly touted bipartisan resolution stating the sense of the Senate that containment of a nuclear Iran is not acceptable.
On Wednesday, another senior Romney foreign-policy advisor, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, laid out a different policy prescription for Iran in the Washington Times. He agrees with Abrams that Obama's assurances about preventing a nuclear Iran are not credible, but suggests that Israel must be allowed to strike on its own if necessary.
"The hard reality, therefore, is that Israel must make its own military decision, preferably one based on physics, not politics. Israel most likely still has time if it wishes to act independently, but there is no guarantee how long," he wrote.
One line in particular caught the attention of Obama campaign national security advisory team spokeswoman Marie Harf: "Even if Mitt Romney wins, there is no guarantee U.S. policy could change quickly enough to stop Iran." She tweeted: "John Bolton, off msg?"
Bolton's line seems to contradict the line Romney used in primary debates, when he said, "If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. If you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon."
Asked about the discrepancy by The Cable, the Romney campaign referred back to the candidate's speech in Jerusalem, in which he affirmed his opposition to the idea of containing a nuclear Iran and stressed that the threat of a nuclear Iran is urgent and is a top national security priority.
"It is sometimes said that those who are the most committed to stopping the Iranian regime from securing nuclear weapons are reckless and provocative and inviting war. The opposite is true. We are the true peacemakers. History teaches with force and clarity that when the world's most despotic regimes secure the world's most destructive weapons, peace often gives way to oppression, to violence, or to devastating war," Romney said.
"We must not delude ourselves into thinking that containment is an option. We must lead the effort to prevent Iran from building and possessing nuclear weapons capability. We should employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course, and it is our fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will do so. In the final analysis, of course, no option should be excluded. We recognize Israel's right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with you."
The Obama campaign told The Cable that Romney hasn't put out a policy plan for Iran that is substantively different from what the current administration is doing now.
"Mitt Romney continues to engage in reckless rhetoric on Iran, while failing to outline any policy ideas to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon beyond what President Obama has already done - including implementing crippling sanctions, increasing diplomatic pressure, and putting a credible military option on the table," said campaign spokesman Adam Fetcher. "Gov. Romney owes it to the American people to say whether he thinks there's still time for diplomacy to work or if he thinks it's time to take military action against Iran - but he's been silent."
The Obama administration decided Tuesday to allow Americans to send hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash to Iran to help with earthquake relief in a rare relief of tight financial sanctions imposed on the country in response to its controversial nuclear program.
The Treasury Department issued a 45-day general license to allow officially registered NGOs to send up to $300,000 to Iran for humanitarian relief and reconstruction activities related to two Aug. 11 earthquakes that struck northern Iran and killed more than 250 people. Food and medicine aid is already exempted from sanctions against Iran. The George W. Bush administration took a similar action in 2003.
Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough explained on the White House blog that the Iranian government had refused to accept offers of official help for earthquake victims from the U.S. government, so the administration decided this was the best way to facilitate aid to the disaster area.
"In a disappointing decision, the government of Iran has chosen not to accept our offer of humanitarian assistance," he wrote. "This step allows the American people to support organizations providing humanitarian relief activities, including the distribution of emergency medical and shelter supplies, as well as those pursuing broader efforts to rebuild affected areas."
McDonough emphasized that the move was a temporary one and does not alter the administration's approach to sanctioning Iran writ large.
"We remain committed to rigorously implementing the measures and sanctions in place to increase the pressure on the Iranian regime, and to continue increasing the costs of Iran's non-compliance with its international obligations related to its nuclear program," he said.
Iran watchers have noted the delay in issuing the license, which came 10 days after the earthquake. When the Bush administration took a similar action, it did so just 4 days after the 2003 Bam disaster. Sources close to the administration told The Cable that there was significant debate about whether or not to issue the license.
State Department officials argued in favor of granting the license, while the White House resisted the move, worried about how even a temporary and limited relief of sanctions against Iran would play in the media so close to the presidential election. Eventually, with the support of top State Department officials, the White House was persuaded to agree to the move, these sources said.
The National Iranian American Council, a group representing Iranian-Americans, was also heavily involved in pushing for the issuance of the license. NIAC founder and president Trita Parsi told The Cable that his organization mobilized parts of the Iranian-American community, which sent more than 3,000 letters to the White House asking officials to allow more earthquake relief.
"Last time Bush did it, the U.S. won a tremendous amount of goodwill. And every time humanity trumps politics, the entity that takes the initiative wins a lot of soft power and political capital," Parsi said.
The obstacles facing NGOs who want to send cash to Iran are daunting, Parsi cautioned. He said that NIAC contacted 15 banks about wiring the money into Iran and 14 of them resisted the idea because working with Iranian banks is too risky, even when dealing with transactions that are exempted by sanctions.
"From their perspective, it's not worth the risk," he said. "We hope the banks will take note of this and start doing things that are permissible, because otherwise this general license may have no effect at all."
There is also some concern, including on Capitol Hill, as to whether the money sent to Iran might somehow find its way into the wrong hands. "While all Americans support the Iranian people in this time of distress, we need to make sure assistance sent to Iran is not diverted or misused by the Iranian government," a senior Senate aide said. "When you allow cash transfers rather than monetizing aid, that's a recipe for disaster."
Parsi said the best way to prevent the money from getting into Iranian government hands is to work through respected NGOs that are based in the United States and have a presence in Iran.
There are some checks on the aid, Treasury officials say.
"The license specifically forbids any dealings with entities on the OFAC SDN list such as the IRGC," Treasury Department spokesman John Sullivan told The Cable, referring to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. "There is also a mandated report to the Treasury and State Departments so we can make sure the money does not end up in the wrong hands."
Now that President Barack Obama has signed the latest new sanctions bill on Iran, lawmakers are urging him to enforce it, starting with penalties against governments that reflag Iranian tankers, namely Tuvalu and Tanzania.
House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) responded to reports that the government of Tuvalu has reflagged 36 Iranian tankers by writing to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner yesterday that they should enforce the new law and punish the Tuvaluans.
"The legislation makes clear the Congressional intent that sanctions are to be used to counteract Iran's shipping operations that help support its weapons program and terrorism," Berman wrote.
On July 9, Berman wrote to the Tuvalu prime minister to urge him to stop reflagging Iranian ships. The Tuvalu government responded with a letter saying its actions didn't violate U.N. sanctions and that the reflagged ships were only for storing oil and shipping to countries exempted by sanctions.
The Tanzanian government, which has also come under fire for reflagging Iranian tankers, announced this week that it would de-register 36 Iranian ships that had been reflagged. But Berman said that while Tanzania has made progress, Tuvalu is still ignoring the pressure from the international community.
"The U.S. has had some success, most recently with the announcement by the Government of Tanzania that it is de-registering NITC vessels," Berman wrote to Clinton and Geithner. "However, with other governments, the U.S. must take more robust action."
Section 202 of the law, the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act, calls for sanctions against any entity that assists Iran in concealing the identity of its vessels. Executive Order 13608 also authorizes sanctions and penalties against such entities.
Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) wrote to Obama today to call on the administration to use both tools now to increase the pressure on countries that may be aiding Iran in reflagging its ships. They want Treasury to designate the Tanzania Zanzibar International Register of Shipping, based in the United Arab Emirates, and the Tuvalu Ship Registry, based in Singapore, for helping conceal the identity of ships belonging to the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC), a sanctioned entity.
"The actions of the Tanzanian and Tuvaluan ship registries directly undermine the international community's ongoing diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear and ballistic missile technology, and appear to be in violation of the legislation you just signed into law," the senators wrote.
The Treasury and State Departments announced Friday that the U.S. government is sanctioning Hezbollah for supporting the Syrian regime, even though the Lebanese militia is already sanctioned for being a terrorist group and the new announcement doesn't actually change those sanctions at all.
"This action highlights Hezbollah's activities within Syria as well as its integral role in the continued violence being carried out by the Assad regime against the Syrian population," Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen said on a Friday afternoon conference call.
He noted that Hezbollah is already sanctioned as a terrorist group, since 1995, for numerous terrorist acts including the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon that killed 241 Marines. Hezbollah has perpetrated attacks in South America, Southeast Asia, Europe, and various countries in the Middle East, and tried to carry out attacks in Azerbaijan, Egypt, Thailand, and Cyprus, Cohen said.
The Assad regime has given the group weapons, money, and safe haven for training camps, and now Hezbollah is repaying the favor by providing training, advice, and logistical support to the Syrian government, he said, especially in how to wage a counterinsurgency.
"Since the start of the unrest in Syria in early 2011, Hezbollah has directly trained Syrian government personnel inside Syria and has facilitated the training of Syrian forces by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qods Force," said Cohen. "Hezbollah has also played a substantial role in efforts to expel Syrian opposition forces from areas within Syria."
State Department's counterterrorism czar Amb. Daniel Benjamin said that Hezbollah is coordinating directly in Syria with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force. He pointed to press reports that Hezbollah was behind recent terrorist attacks on Israelis in Thailand and Belgium, and accused the group of narcotics trafficking and international money laundering.
"Hezbollah believes that there have been sustained Israeli and Western campaigns against the group and its primary backers, Iran and Syria, over the past several years. And this perception is unlikely to change," he said. "Both [Hezbollah and Iran] remain determined to exact revenge against Israel and to respond forcefully to the Western-led pressure against Iran and Syria."
The Cable asked both officials if designating Hezbollah for sanctions, which freezes the group's U.S.-based assets and bars Americans from doing business with Hezbollah, has any added concrete effect if done twice. They said the added effect is in the court of public opinion.
"It will put the group in a more difficult situation, and, I think, will make them think long and hard before they continue this campaign in which the Syrian people are being brutalized. So we do see very concrete benefits coming from this designation," said Benjamin. "Whether they will be in the area of financial sanctions or not remains to be seen, but in terms of casting a bright light on what the group is doing, I think that's vitally important."
So the Treasury Department doesn't have to actually do anything to enforce the new designation it wasn't doing already, and Hezbollah doesn't feel any additional direct pain. Cohen said the Hezbollah's assets should already be frozen but there is additional impact in adding the new designation.
"The purpose of our designations, whether it's the Hezbollah action today or any of our other designations under our authorities, is not solely focused on the immediate financial impact, but as Ambassador Benjamin just expressed, to expose the activity of the party that is being designated for the conduct that has led to the designation," he said.
Benjamin said that the Obama administration hopes other countries will follow suit, not mentioning the European Union specifically, but he wouldn't say there is any indication other countries are planning any such announcement any time soon.
Cohen wouldn't comment on whether or not Hezbollah even has any assets in the United States in the first place.
"As noted before, to the extent that they are here, they should have already been frozen, and anyone who has Hezbollah assets in their possession is required to report those to OFAC. But beyond that, I can't comment," he said.
For those on Capitol Hill who are skeptical of the administration's sanctions and diplomacy-based approach toward pressuring the Assad regime to stop killing its own people, today's action seemed less than consequential.
"Today's announcement appears more about politics than policy, style more than substance," one senior Senate aide told The Cable. "This hollow designation may be pleasing to Obama strategists in Chicago, but it won't do a thing to help the people dying in the streets of Syria."
In a separate action today, the administration also sanctioned the Syrian state-run oil company Sytrol under the Iran Sanctions Act as amended by the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act.
"These sanctions are because of transactions that Sytrol engaged in with Iran's energy sector, and I think the action we're taking today highlights the really serious concerns that the United States has about the close ties shared by the Iranian and Syrian regimes and the fact that we, the United States, are committed to using every tool available to prevent regional destabilization," a senior administration official said on a different Friday afternoon conference call.
How do you say "chutzpah" in Farsi?
The Iranian government wants the United States to ensure the safety of its nationals abducted by the Syrian rebels, but the Obama administration said Tuesday it's not responsible for their fate.
The State Department can't confirm the identity of the 48 Iranian hostages being held by Syrian opposition fighters in Damascus, who appeared in a YouTube video released over the weekend by the Free Syrian Army.
Three of the hostages have already been killed by Syrian military shelling, according to the rebels, who claim the group are members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. They are threatening to kill the rest if the Syrian government's assault on civilians in Damascus and Aleppo continues.
The Iranian government said that the men were pilgrims and that it had sent an official letter to President Barack Obama through the Swiss Embassy, which represents U.S. interests in Tehran, calling on the U.S. government to ensure their safety.
"Because of the United States' manifest support of terrorist groups and the dispatch of weapons to Syria, the United States is responsible for the lives of the 48 Iranian pilgrims abducted in Damascus," Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian quoted the letter as saying.
The Iranian government routinely refers to the Syrian rebels as "terrorists."
At Tuesday's State Department briefing, Acting Deputy Spokesman Patrick Ventrell turned the tables back on the Iranians.
"We cannot confirm the identity of those reported to be kidnapped, and ... the wider issue of us having deep concerns about Tehran's destructive behavior in Syria continues," he said.
The U.S. government wants everyone in Syria to know American is calling on both sides in the conflict to treat any and all prisoners humanely and in accordance with international law, said Ventrell, but he rejected the idea that the U.S. government is directly responsible for the Iranian hostages' fate.
"Well, that doesn't seem to make sense," he said. "And to us, it's just unconscionable that the Iranian government is ignoring the massacres of civilians in Aleppo and throughout Syria and instead finding new ways to try and prop up a regime who is killing many of thousands of its own citizens."
The U.S. government didn't even receive any letter, he went on, although the administration was aware that the charge d'affairs of the Swiss mission in Tehran had been called in by the Iranian government.
State's bottom line? Not America's problem.
"These are presumably Iranian citizens inside of Syria," Ventrell said. "We in the U.S. government are calling for them to be treated humanely, and we think that's the appropriate, principled stand to take, but beyond that I don't have anything for you."
Late Wednesday evening, the House and Senate both passed new legislation increasing sanctions on Iran, sending the bill to the president's desk for his signature.
The Senate passed the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act by unanimous consent and the House passed it 421-6. The bill closes several loopholes in the current sanctions regime and provides for additional penalties against entities that aid Iran's petroleum, petrochemical, insurance, shipping, and financial sectors. The bill is a compromise of House and Senate versions that was negotiated behind closed doors between Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-SD) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL).
"With passage of this bill, we are taking another significant step to block the remaining avenues for the Iranians to fund their illicit behavior and evade sanctions," Johnson said in a statement. "The sanctions contained in this bill reach more deeply into Iran's energy sector than ever before, and build on the sweeping banking sanctions Congress enacted two years ago to reach to insurance, shipping, trade, finance and other sectors, targeting those who help to bolster Iranian government revenues which support their illicit nuclear activities."
In the Senate, nobody objected, not even Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who had several amendments he wanted to add to strengthen the legislation that the negotiators didn't choose to include in the final version of the legislation. But Kirk did promise to try again.
"I want to commend Chairwoman Ros-Lehtinen for helping us negotiate a tough sanctions bill," Kirk said in a Tuesday statement. "A broad bipartisan coalition overcame objections from some in the administration to ratchet up energy and shipping sanctions to unprecedented levels, expand the Menendez-Kirk sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran, and increase penalties facing those who violate our sanctions. In the coming weeks, should the Iranian regime continue to defy the U.N. Security Council and refuse to halt its uranium enrichment activities, we will build a new bipartisan coalition to impose farther-reaching sanctions."
In the House, Reps. Ron Paul (R-TX) and Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) spoke out against the bill, arguing that it would subject the Iranian people to suffering and increase the likelihood of armed confrontation with Iran.
"It is so similar to what we went through in the early part of this last decade when we were beating the war drums to go to war against Iraq. And it was all a facade. There was no danger from Iraq. So this is what we are doing, beating the war drums once again," Paul said.
House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) defended the bill, saying, "This is not the next step to war. This is the alternative to war. Iran having a nuclear weapon is unacceptable for many, many reasons."
The bill was heavily supported by the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC, which issued a statement praising the passage of the bill and calling on the president to sign it.
"Each passing day affords the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism the ability to advance its illicit nuclear program. America must lead the effort to exert the maximum economic pressure to get Iran to change course," the statement said.
House and Senate negotiators have reached a compromise on a new set of Iran sanctions to be brought to the floor of both chambers this week, but some conservative critics say the compromise isn't strong enough to convince the Iranians to change their nuclear calculations.
The Cable has obtained the latest version of the bill, which has not yet been introduced in the House. The bill could be introduced as early as tonight and could come to the House floor as early as Wednesday.
The Senate could take it up and try to pass it Thursday or Friday, before senators leave town for August recess. This version was negotiated behind closed doors between the staffs of Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-SD) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL).
The bill would sanction anyone who provides Iran with equipment or technology that facilitates censorship or the suppression of human rights, including weapons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and other riot-control equipment -- as well as jamming, monitoring, and surveillance equipment. It also calls on the administration to develop a more robust Internet freedom strategy for Iran and speed related assistance to pro-democracy activists in the country.
The legislation would also formally establish that U.S. policy is intended to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and would require the administration to report extensively and repeatedly on its efforts to increase diplomatic and financial pressure on the Iranian regime.
The bill does not contain proposed language offered by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) in the Senate and Reps. Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Robert Dold (R-FL) in the House that would expand energy-sector sanctions on Iran by declaring the country a "zone of proliferation concern," thus barring any businesses or service providers from dealing with the Iranian petroleum sector in any way. Instead the bill includes a non-binding "sense of Congress" that Iran is a zone of proliferation concern.
The bill also does not provide for penalties on the board of directors of the international financial transaction clearinghouse SWIFT, penalties that would have punished those directors if SWIFT allowed any banks from any countries to aid Iran in evading international sanctions, as the Wall Street Journal editorial board advocated for today.
"We hear the administration opposes this move for fear that it might prompt such banks to create their own versions of Swift. Yet there aren't many banks that would want to be cut off from the international financial system, much less place themselves in a basket of outlaw or shady banks," the Journal editorial said.
The legislation also does not expand existing sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran to apply to all Iranian financial institutions and entities that do business with them, like exchange houses and gold suppliers. Kirk and some House members had been advocating for those provisions.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has been saying that he wants to get the bill passed this month and there's little chance the legislation could be opened up again for changes. The last time Reid brought the bill to the floor, he refused to allow amendments or floor debate and he is expected to try to go for a unanimous consent vote this time as well. AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group, also has been lobbying in support of the new version to various Hill offices.
For experts that follow Iran sanctions, the bill is a good step toward tightening the noose on Iran's economy but not enough to bring the Iranian economy to its knees in a way that would compel Iran's leaders to abandon their nuclear ambitions.
"This bill is a major step towards economic warfare against the Iranian regime. It closes significant loopholes and tightens U.S. sanctions in key areas including shipping. But Iranian nuclear physics is beating Western economic pressure," said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "We need to skip intermediate steps and go to comprehensive economic warfare. Everything must be prohibited unless permitted, and the only transactions that should be permitted are small purchases of Iranian oil and the sale of humanitarian goods. Destroying the regime's energy wealth is the best way to avoid a military confrontation."
"What exactly is this going to do to get the Iranians to the table? This is the time for the mallet, not fine-needle surgery," said Danielle Pletka, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute. "We see this as a do-or-die moment. Our purpose is not to have effective sanctions; our purpose is to bring them to the table to give up their nuclear ambitions."
The House Republican leadership has signed on to the compromise, although the question remains whether all of the Senate GOP caucus will go along. One congressional aide knowledgeable about Iran sanctions defended the compromise.
"We'll inevitably hear voices this week who say this could have gone further on x, y, or z. But it's important not to make the perfect into the enemy of the good, and this sanctions bill is good -- very good, in fact -- and by passing it, Congress can make a real difference," the aide said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta defended the administration's action on Iran sanctions today during a stop in Tunisia. "I think what we all need to do is to continue the pressure on Iran economically and diplomatically, to take the right steps here to negotiate," he said.
UPDATE: Late Monday evening, Johnson and Ros-Lehtinen each issued statements announcing the compromise. Johnson said he will work to ensure the senate passes the legislation this week.
"I am pleased we could come together and find agreement on this bipartisan and bicameral bill," Johnson said in his statement. "These new sanctions will send a clear signal to Iran's military and political leaders, that unless they come clean on their nuclear program, end the suppression of their people, and stop supporting terrorist activities, they will face deepening international isolation and even greater economic and diplomatic pressure."
Ros-Lehtinen also presented the compromise as bipartisan and bicameral and emphasized that many members of both chambers had input into the process. She also defended the strength and impact of the law's provisions.
"If properly implemented, this bill will impose crippling economic pressure on the Iranian regime in order to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear program and other dangerous policies," she said in her statement. "The House and Senate will be taking up the bill this week, and I urge President Obama to quickly sign it and vigorously enforce its provisions."
Kris Connor/Getty Images
A top advisor to Mitt Romney's campaign on Wednesday accused U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon of leaking classified intelligence information to New York Times reporter David Sanger.
The advisor, former George W. Bush envoy to Sudan Richard Williamson, was speaking during a debate at Washington's Brookings Institution with former senior Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy, who has emerged as one of President Barack Obama's top foreign-policy surrogates on the campaign trail.
Williamson was hammering the Obama administration for leaking national security secrets for political gain, a theme of Romney's speech Tuesday before the Veteran of Foreign Wars convention in Reno, Nevada.
"I believe every reporter in this town knows that at least one of the sources is in the White House," Williamson said. "I think the Obama administration has figured out how to do [intelligence sharing]: Have the national security advisor talk to David Sanger and then all intelligence is shared."
"No one is immune. Nothing is off the table," Flournoy responded. "[Obama] has also said he will pursue the investigations to their logical conclusions and he will prosecute anyone who is found to have leaked."
"There's been no administration that has been more aggressive in pursuing leaks than this one," she added, pointing out that the administration has appointed two U.S. attorneys to investigate the leaks.
That apparently is not enough to satisfy Romney, who on Tuesday called for "a full and prompt investigation by a special counsel" into what he called "a national security crisis."
"Whoever provided classified
information to the media, seeking political advantage for the administration,
must be exposed, dismissed, and punished," he said.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said Monday that the White House should understand the leaks were coming from within its own ranks, but she retracted that comment Tuesday and said she did not know who the leakers were.
Arming the Syrian rebels
Williamson also said Wednesday that Romney firmly supports direct U.S. aid to the Syrian rebels.
"[Romney has] said we should be willing to arm the moderate opposition," Williamson said. "He's said repeatedly he'd be willing and support arming the moderate factions within the opposition."
In fact, Romney has often said that he supports "working with partners" to arm the Syrian opposition, but Williamson was clear that Romney supports the U.S. government directly providing American weapons to Syrian rebels fighting against the Assad regime.
Williamson ripped the Obama administration for being slow to work with the Syrian opposition, leaving the United States largely in the dark and impinging on the U.S. ability to work with rebel leaders now.
Romney does not support the idea of "safe zones" to protect Syrian civilians and rebel fighters, however, and idea championed by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) as well as several of the former Massachusetts governor's own foreign-policy advisors.
"He's said that's not his position, but he feels we should be arming the opposition, but more importantly we shouldn't be leading from behind," Williamson said.
Flournoy countered that the administration has been working with the Syrian opposition for many months, even if it wasn't in the news. But she said that the administration's emphasis has been on diplomacy and sanctions, not adding fuel to what many are now describing as an incipient civil war.
"The way change will ultimately happen in Syria is if you can get parts of the inner circle around Assad to defect, and they're beginning to do that," she said. "Working the political dimensions of this are the most important piece and that's what the administration has been focused on from the get-go."
The debate touched on a range of other international issues, and moderator Marvin Kalb tried to tease out the differences between Romney and Obama on each.
On Iran, Williamson said that Romney does not support any deal that would allow Iran to enrich uranium at even low levels, while administration officials have said Iran has the right to limited uranium enrichment for civilian purposes.
"That would be unacceptable to Romney," Williamson said. He also said Romney would create a "credible threat" of military action against Iran that Obama has not.
"There is no credible threat of force. No one in Tehran or in the region feels that the Obama administration will use force," Williamson said.
Flournoy replied that Obama is serious when he says Iran will not be allowed to go nuclear, but that there is a year or more at least before Iran could reach the nuclear threshold that would trigger any military action.
"He doesn't bluff. That is the policy," she said. "Pentagon planning for this is very robust ... the military option is real. The president's judgment is now is not the time."
On Israel, Flournoy tried to counter Romney's critique that Obama has not visited Israel in his first term. Romney will visit Israel this week as part of his three-nation foreign trip that also includes stops in the United Kingdom and Poland.
"When you judge a president's commitment to Israel, you have to look beyond the itinerary," she said. "Does anybody question Ronald Reagan's commitment to Israel? He never went to Israel."
Williamson responded that Obama's treatment of Israeli leaders has been insulting and he referenced the March 2010 incident when Vice President Joe Biden delayed his arrival at a dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to protest the announcement of new settlement construction in East Jerusalem on the day of Biden's arrival.
"The vice president of the United States kept the Israeli head of state waiting 90 minutes for dinner because he was having a temper tantrum. You don't treat any head of state that way, let alone your friend," Williamson said.
The two advisors also clashed over the merits of Obama's "reset" policy with Russia and whether China is being held to account for manipulating its currency.
But Williamson praised Obama's handling of the relationship with India and said, "The president has made good progress [on Chinese human rights] in the governor's opinion."
The Cable asked Williamson to respond to Republican complaints that the Romney campaign has been light on details about its foreign policy and has even downplayed the importance of national security during the campaign. The Weekly Standard's William Kristol wrote Wednesday that the Romney campaign should stop talking about national security as if it's a low priority for a candidate and a president.
"There's an understandable desire to have more and more details," Williamson said. "But in the end what he needs to do is try to present a world vision that is dramatically different from President Obama's, and a thrust of how he would approach it ... and he's done that."
"Bill Kristol will never be satisfied that there are enough details and he's paid to be provocative, but we feel we are laying out a vision for where America should go."
The State Department said Tuesday that the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a U.N. agency, didn't violate sanctions by giving U.S. technology to Iran and North Korea, rebutting a charge by top lawmakers in both parties that the agency is stifling congressional attempts to investigate the matter.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and her Democratic counterpart Howard Berman (D-CA) cancelled a scheduled committee briefing today on the matter and accused WIPO Director-General Francis Gurry of refusing to allow to senior WIPO staffers to testify.
"Director-General Gurry is obstructing this Committee's investigation of WIPO's transfer of U.S.-origin technology to rogue regimes under international sanctions-a transfer that occurred on his watch," both lawmakers said in a joint statement. "By refusing to commission an independent investigation and by obstructing an investigation by the Congress of the United States, whose citizens provide so much of the funds that keep WIPO operating, Director-General Gurry sends the message that he is not committed to transparency, accountability, and reform."
Questioned about the situation at today's State Department press briefing, Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the Obama administration shares congressional concerns about the alleged transfer of U.S. technology to Iran and North Korea. But she also said that the administration doesn't think WIPO broke U.N. rules.
"Our own preliminary assessment -- but we are still seeking more information from WIPO -- is that there doesn't appear to have been a violation of U.N. sanctions," she said. "However, this has now been referred to the sanctions committee for them to make their own determination."
WIPO shipped 20 Hewlett-Packard Compaq desktop computers to Iran in either late 2011 or early 2012 and gave North Korea more advanced computers and data storage devices. The transfers were financed through the Beijing office of the U.N. Development Program.
Nuland said the administration couldn't determine whether the WIPO transfers had violated U.S. law until WIPO comes back to the administration with more information. She also said the administration does not agree with Ros-Lehtinen that WIPO is stonewalling on the issue.
"We have seen a number of positive steps from WIPO with regard to their procedures going forward that are important. For example, they have agreed to a commission that will have an external and independent auditing ability with regard to their projects to try to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future," Nuland said.
Last week, Ros-Lehtinen and Berman wrote to the administration to say that WIPO's own internal investigations would not be enough to satisfy congressional concern over the technology transfers.
"We will accept nothing less than an independent investigation, full cooperation, and complete accountability," Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Berman wrote in the July 20 letter.
"We have written to WIPO demanding an independent, external investigation of how WIPO could have provided sophisticated U.S.-origin technology to rogue regimes like North Korea and Iran. Instead, the WIPO leadership has announced that it will institute a mere 'review,' which falls far short. What's needed is an immediate and credible investigation," they wrote.
In a July 19 statement, WIPO's Gurry reiterated that the transfers were being referred to the U.N. sanctions committee for guidance and that new measures would be put in place to examine future transfers before they take place.
"While the legal advice received with respect to the technical assistance provided to DPRK [North Korea] and Iran was that the technical assistance was not in breach of U.N.sanctions, it is hoped that the measures outlined above will provide assurance that the organization is treating this matter with the seriousness that it warrants," he said.
The State Department is growing increasing frustrated with the MEK and its American lobbyists, and now with two leading lawmakers who are injecting themselves into the cause of the Iranian dissident group.
Tensions between Foggy Bottom and supporters of the Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK), a State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization opposed to the Iranian regime, have been building for months. The plan to relocate 3,200 members of the group from its compound in Iraq to a former U.S. military base appear stalled as the group lobbies to be taken off the list of terrorist organizations.
A federal court has ordered the State Department to make a decision on delisting the MEK by October, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has indicated that the group's willingness to complete the move to the former base, Camp Liberty, will be a key factor in the department's decision. State Department officials, however, now believe the MEK is stalling.
"It is past time for the MEK to recognize that Ashraf is not going to remain an MEK base in Iraq," Daniel Benjamin, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, told reporters on a conference call earlier this month. "The Iraqi government is committed to closing it, and any plan to wait out the government in the hope that something will change is irresponsible and dangerous."
Administration officials believe the MEK is getting bad advice and unhelpful support from its team of American advocates, some of whom are paid handsomely to advise the MEK and lobby the administration on its behalf (though all insist they are promoting the MEK's cause out of sincere conviction). The Treasury Department has opened an investigation into the funds paid to these activists, which often come from Iranian-American groups in the United States and are paid through a speakers' bureau.
An administration official told The Cable that the efforts on behalf of the MEK of Americans like Rudy Giuliani, Tom Ridge, Ed Rendell, James Jones, Mitchell Reiss, and now Newt Gingrich represent "sheer irresponsibility and greed which puts people's lives at risk,"
The Brunswick Group, the firm representing the advocates, declined to comment.
The MEK seems to believe it can keep control of Camp Ashraf, its longtime compound near the Iran-Iraq border, and Clinton will still be under pressure to delist the group, this official said.
"What bothers all of us working for a peaceful solution is that the MEK seems to believe all they have to do is hold firm and do whatever they want. They are being encouraged in this view by some of their American supporters," the official said. "If you are [MEK leader Maryam] Rajavi and are surrounded by all these people, you may think they can actually deliver and that is just terrible."
This week, the MEK got the support of two new powerful Americans, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA). The pair are circulating a letter this week to Clinton asking her to improve the conditions in Camp Liberty for the MEK.
"We respectfully request that the Department of State seek the Iraqi government's agreement to and implementation of a number of humanitarian measures. Until these measures are implemented, further voluntary relocation of Camp Ashraf residents would only exacerbate the current dreadful living conditions in Camp Liberty," the lawmakers wrote in the draft letter, obtained by The Cable.
Specifically, the lawmakers are requesting that the MEK residents in Camp Liberty be connected to the Iraqi main water system, be given more power generators, and be given new cars and trucks and other supplies. The administration official said that some of the requests are valid but the characterization of the conditions in Camp Liberty as "dreadful" is unfair.
"Really, are new cars a basic human right?" the official said.
Ambassador Dan Fried, the State Department official in charge of aiding the relocation of the MEK from Camp Ashraf, held a conference call with congressional staffers Tuesday, having just returned from Iraq. One staffer on the call said Fried was "furious" over congressional attempts to interfere in the transfer of MEK members to Camp Liberty. The Iraqi government has set a July 20 deadline for closing Camp Ashraf but the MEK are refusing to go, Fried told the staffers.
Fried said the Ros-Lehtinen letter was deeply unhelpful in that it further hardened the MEK's attitude against compromise, according to one witness sympathetic to his argument.
"From my perspective, these congressional attempts to placate the MEK's refusal to leave Ashraf is nothing short of irresponsible," this staffer said. "It's pandering of the worst sort and completely undermines U.S. policy. It's clear that Ros-Lehtinen and Sherman aren't actually interested in resolving the standoff, but posturing for political purposes by carrying the MEK's water."
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said June 30 that Iran will successfully develop a nuclear weapon in "several years" if the international community doesn't stop it.
"In my judgment ... if nothing will be done about it, within several years Iran will turn nuclear," Barak said during his featured interview at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival, conducted by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times.
The estimate appeared more distant than other recent statements by top Israeli leaders. "They are getting there, and they are getting very, very close," Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu said in March about Iran's nuclear clock.
Barak repeated the Israeli government's insistence that Israel reserves the right to strike Iran to prevent Iran from going nuclear, even without the cooperation or approval of the United States.
"We cannot afford delegating the decision even into the hands of our most trusted allies, which are you," he said to applause.
But he also said that there are no differences between U.S. and Israeli intelligence estimates on the progress of Iran's nuclear program.
"Several years ago the [2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate] raised some questions. Now there are no differences between our intelligence," Barak said.
When asked by Friedman if U.S. President Barack Obama is a friend of Israel, Barak said, "Yes, clearly so."
Friedman also asked Barak why the Israeli government doesn't just institute a new settlement freeze as a means of restarting the defunct peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Barak said that wasn't going to happen.
"The Palestinians under Abu Mazen refused once and again to get into the room without a precondition... I believe that most of the responsibility is on their shoulders," he said.
Barak said he respects the Egyptian people's decision to elect Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi as their new president and he expects the new Egyptian government to live up to all its international commitments, including the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. But he said that the new government could align itself with Hamas.
"Mubarak despised them. But the new regime might find some a certain kind of brotherhood and have a different kind of relationship (with Hamas)," he said. "A child cannot choose its parents; a country cannot choose its neighbors."
On Syria, Barak said that the U.S. needs to do more to push Assad from power more quickly, working with Russia and Turkey.
"The longer it stretches, the more chaotic the morning after will be," he said. "There is a need for American leadership, from wherever you choose to lead."
The Obama administration announced Thursday that it will exempt China and Singapore from economic sanctions for the next 180 days because the two countries have significantly decreased their crude oil imports from Iran.
An authoritative statement published on a China energy website on June 27 indicated a structural change in China's crude oil imports due to the downward pressure on the economy, including a 25 percent year-on-year reduction between January and May of crude oil imports from Iran to China and a prediction that crude oil imports from Iran would decrease for 2012 relative to last year.
"A total of 20 world economies have now qualified for such an exception," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's official statement reads. "Today marks an important milestone in the implementation of the NDAA[National Defense Authorization Act] and U.S. sanctions toward Iran."
Iran estimates that sanctions have caused a 20 to 30 percent reduction in oil exports so far, and the International Energy Agency calculates that reducing crude exports will cost Iran at least $8 billion in lost revenue each quarter. The growing impact of sanctions has also caused massive inflation and a sharp increase in unemployment. Substantial sanctions on 24 Iranian banks will also make it increasingly difficult for Iran to support the rial and conduct international trade.
A new round of technical talks under the auspices of the "P5+1" are scheduled for July 3 in Istanbul, but the State Department plans to forge ahead with applying additional pressure on Iran.
As a third round of nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers ended conclusively Tuesday, Israeli vice prime minister and Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz called on the so-called P5+1 to focus on stopping Iran's uranium enrichment during a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Peace.
"Such an agreement we didn't see in the last meetings," he said. "Not in Baghdad, Istanbul, and in Moscow ... [A deal] should be based on stopping all continued enrichment activity, removing all enrichment materials, and inspecting and dismantling all underground facilities, mainly Qom."
Mofaz, a former defense minister and Israel Defense Forces chief of staff who was recently brought into Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government, added that while now is the time for diplomacy and sanctions, Israel along with the United States and other Western countries should prepare all options.
"From my best view, the use of military power should be the last option, and if necessary should be led by the U.S. and Western countries," he said. "We should ask ourselves how much we would delay the Iranian program -- for how many months, for how many years -- and the second question is what will happen in our region the day after."
Diplomacy, though, is only good for so long, he stressed.
"When you say that this is the time for diplomatic activity and sanctions, it doesn't mean that you have two, three, or five years," he explained. "We have a limit of time, and the limit of time is until the Iranian leader will take the last step to having a bomb."
Mofaz also addressed the ongoing crisis in Syria, where well over 10,000 people have been killed and thousands more driven from their homes since the uprising began in March 2011.
"My expectations are that the Western countries should give humanitarian support to the Syrian people," he said. "We cannot be part of it, and it is clear why."
Mofaz was more optimistic about Israel's strained relationship with Turkey, which he believes will be resolved "in the coming months" because it is strategically necessary for both parties
On the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Mofaz says he does not support Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon's recently proposed program of coordinated unilateralism, in which Israel would not attempt to annex any territory east of the security fence and the Knesset would pass a law encouraging settlers to move to the other side of the fence.
Mofaz said that Israelis and Palestinians must "break the ice" and get back to the negotiating table. The future permanent border between Israel and a Palestinian state should be determined by the settlement blocs that house more than 250,000 settlers, he said, adding that Israel should continue to build in those blocs.
Nearly half the Senate told President Barack Obama today that unless Iran gives three specific concessions at this weekend's talks with world powers in Moscow, he should abandon the ongoing negotiations over the country's nuclear program.
"It is past time for the Iranians to take the concrete steps that would reassure the world that their nuclear program is, as they claim, exclusively peaceful," wrote 44 senators in a Friday bipartisan letter organized by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Roy Blunt (R-MO). "Absent these steps, we must conclude that Tehran is using the talks as a cover to buy time as it continues to advance toward nuclear weapons capability. We know that you share our conviction that allowing Iran to gain this capability is unacceptable."
The senators wrote that the "absolute minimum" Iran must do immediately to justify further talks is to shut down the Fordo uranium enrichment facility near Qom, freeze all uranium enrichment above 5 percent, and ship all uranium enriched above 5 percent out of the country.
"We understand that this was the very proposal that the P5+1 advanced during the Baghdad meeting," the senators wrote, referring to the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany. "Were Iran to agree to and verifiably implement these steps, this would demonstrate a level of commitment by Iran to the process and could justify continued discussions beyond the meeting in Moscow."
Few expect the Moscow meeting to yield unilateral steps by Iran of the nature sought by the senators. The letter also makes no mention of what confidence-building measures the United States or the international community could or should take in exchange for Iran's own steps.
On June 11, the P5+1 held a meeting in Strasbourg at the political directors' level to prepare for the upcoming Moscow talks.
The senators urge the president not to ease or delay the embargo, writing that only when the Iranian government believes the sanctions are to be "unremitting and crippling" will a diplomatic breakthrough will be possible.
"On the other hand, if the sessions in Moscow produce no substantive agreement, we urge you to reevaluate the utility of further talks at this time and instead focus on significantly increasing the pressure on the Iranian government through sanctions and making clear that a credible military option exists," they wrote. "As you have rightly noted, ‘the window for diplomacy is closing.' Iran's leaders must realize that you mean precisely that."
The letter is also signed by Charles Schumer (D-NY), Susan Collins (R-ME), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), James Risch (R-ID), Ron Wyden (D-OR), David Vitter (R-LA), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Mark Pryor (D-AR), John Cornyn (R-TX), Robert Casey Jr. (D-PA), John Boozman (R-AR), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Scott Brown (R-MA), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), John Hoeven (R-ND), Jeff Merkeley (D-OR), Daniel Coats (R-IN), Christopher Coons (D-DE), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Ben Nelson (D-NE), Patrick Toomey (R-PA), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Mike Lee (R-UT), Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Rob Portman (R-OH), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Dean Heller (R-NV), Jon Tester (D-MT), Kay Hagan (D-NC), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Mark Warner (D-VA), Carl Levin (D-MI), and Mark Begich (D-AK).
"The message of this letter is that Congress' patience is running out when it comes to meetings that don't yield results," said a senior Senate aide. "The Iranians have been given every last opportunity to demonstrate their good faith and step back from the brink. Instead, they keep pushing forward with their nuclear program, and we keep asking for yet another round of talks. This is not sustainable."
On the eve of a fresh round of nuclear talks with Iran, the Senate on Monday passed by unanimous consent a bill imposing harsh new sanctions on Iran, sending it to a conference with the House, where the debate will move behind closed doors.
The legislation, the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, would punish any entity that provides Iran with equipment or technology that facilitates censorship or the suppression of human rights, including weapons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and other riot control equipment -- as well as communications jamming, monitoring, and surveillance equipment. It also calls on the Obama administration to develop a more robust Internet freedom strategy for Iran and speed new assistance to pro-democracy activists in the country.
The legislation, named for Senate Banking Committee heads Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), would formally establish that U.S. policy is intended to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and would require the administration to report extensively and repeatedly on its efforts to increase diplomatic and financial pressure on the Iranian regime.
The passage of the legislation in the Senate comes one day before international negotiators meet in Baghdad for another round of discussions with Iran over its nuclear program. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) tried to move the bill through the Senate late last week, but Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) objected, arguing that the GOP hadn't had enough time to review Reid's manager's amendment, a claim Reid's office denies.
Kyl was objecting on behalf of several GOP senators who wanted the bill to explicitly mention that military options were on the table to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Kyl's demand last week to include such language was new, a response to Reid's decision to add language explicitly stating that nothing in the bill authorized U.S. military action in Iran. Reid added the new text to appease Sen. Ron Paul (R-TX), who objected to unanimous consent on the bill in March.
Here's the new language Reid added to the bill Monday:
"It is the sense of Congress that the goal of compelling Iran to abandon efforts to acquire a nuclear weapons capability and other threatening activities can be effectively achieved through a comprehensive policy that includes economic sanctions, diplomacy, and military planning, capabilities and options, and that this objective is consistent with the one stated by President Barack Obama in the 2012 State of the Union Address: ‘Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.'"
With the addition of that language, Kyl lifted his objection.
As noted in the Washington Post's Right Turn blog, the House version of the Johnson-Shelby bill, passed in December, contains neither the language Reid added for Paul nor the language Reid added for Kyl, and has several other provisions not found in the Senate bill. The conference over the bill hasn't been scheduled and will occur in secret, per traditional congressional practice.
The conferees have not yet been named.
The most contentious part of the conference could be how to deal with a series of punitive measures proposed by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) in his own amendment to the Johnson-Shelby bill, parts of which Reid added to the Senate bill in a non-binding form.
Kirk's allies in the House have introduced separate bills containing the Kirk sanctions, which expand sanctions to include all Iranian banks and larger swaths of other Iranian corporate sectors and those bills are likely to be brought into the House-Senate conference over the Johnson-Shelby bill.
In April, House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), joined with Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) to introduce the Iran Financial Sanctions Improvement Act, which contains many of the sanctions measures that Kirk proposed. Other measures found in the Kirk amendment were included by Reps. Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Robert Dold (R-FL) in a bill they introduced in March called the Iranian Energy Sector and Proliferation Sanctions Act.
In a statement late Monday, Kirk praised the passage of the Johnson-Shelby bill and indicated that Reid had made some commitment to strengthen the bill inside the secret conference.
"Today the U.S. Senate put Iranian leaders on notice that they must halt all uranium enrichment activities or face another round of economic sanctions from the United States," Kirk said. "I thank Leader McConnell and Senator Menendez for their support in moving this important legislation forward, and I appreciate Leader Reid and Chairman Johnson's commitment to negotiate even tougher sanctions in conference."
Neither Kirk nor Reid has explained the details of that commitment or responded to questions about it today. The administration has taken no position on the bill or on the Kirk amendment to date.
When alleged terrorist Ali Musa Daqduq was transferred from U.S. to Iraqi custody last December, many in Washington worried that the Iraqi government would release him back to the battlefield. This week, Daqduq was acquitted in an Iraqi court and now the administration is trying to figure out how to keep him behind bars.
Daqduq, who U.S. military officials claim is a Hezbollah commander, had been imprisoned by U.S. forces in Iraq for leading a team that kidnapped and killed five U.S. soldiers in Iraq in January 2007. Twenty-one senators had drafted last December a letter urging the administration not to hand him over out of concern that the Iraqi government might release him.
"Failure to transfer Daqduq to Guantanamo Bay or another American military-controlled detention facility outside the United States before December 31st will result in his transfer to Iraqi authorities, potential release to Iran and eventual return to the battlefield," the senators wrote in the letter, which was never sent because the administration handed over Daqduq first, on Dec. 16.
"Daqduq's Iranian paymasters would like nothing more than to see him transferred to Iraqi custody where they could effectively pressure for his escape or release. We truly hope you will not let that happen."
At the time, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told the New York Times, "We have sought and received assurances that he will be tried for his crimes."
An Iraqi court determined on May 7 there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute Daqduq -- even though he apparently confessed to the crimes against U.S. soldiers -- and ordered his release. That order is now being appealed automatically under Iraqi law. The United States has also charged Daqduq with war crimes under the military commission system, but those charges will be impossible to enforce unless Daqduq somehow winds up in U.S. custody.
So what is the administration doing about it? The Cable obtained the internal talking points prepared by the National Security Council and approved by Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough just yesterday.
"Daqduq should be held accountable for his crimes. Period," the talking points read. "While we strongly oppose his acquittal, protections for the accused are built into all judicial systems, including our own. We transferred Daqduq to Iraqi custody out of respect for, and obligation to, the rule of law in Iraq, and while we disagree with this decision, we respect the independence of the Iraqi judiciary. We will continue to work closely with the Iraqi government to explore all legal options to pursue justice in this case."
The administration won't say if they have filed an extradition request for Daqduq, but the talking points instruct any official speaking on this to say, "I can assure you that we have explored a wide range of legal options to effectuate Daqduq's transfer to the United States."
The talking points go on to praise the Iraqi government for its handling of the Daqduq case and emphasized that Daqduq has stayed in prison this long.
"Our Iraqi partners worked to ensure that he was brought to trial and that the strongest case possible was brought against him, despite Iranian pressure for his immediate release without trial. Iraq has already kept Daqduq in custody for more than four months, despite predictions by many that he would be released far earlier," the document reads.
The talking points then proceed to list a number of arguments for administration officials to use when trying to assert that the Iraqi government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is not doing favors for Iran.
"A wide range of examples illustrate that Iraq is not in strategic alignment with Iran: Iraq continues to increase its oil production, making sanctions against Iran more effective and sustainable. Iraq has worked with the United States to prohibit the transport of lethal aid from Iran to the Syrian regime. Iraq has resisted Iranian pressure to arrest the MEK and deport them to Iran, and has instead worked with the UN to peacefully relocate the MEK. Iraq continues to work with the United States to protect U.S. personnel from the threat of Iranian-backed militants. Iraq is a major security partner with the United States, having spent $8.2B on U.S. weapons and equipment to date."
The document argues that the administration simply had no choice but to hand over Daqduq to the Iraqis, rather than send him to Guantanamo Bay or Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, or somewhere else.
"Under the [2008 U.S. Iraqi] Security Agreement, any transfer of Daqduq out of Iraq requires the consent of the Iraqi government, and, to be blunt, a transfer to Guantanamo or Bagram was a non-starter for the Government of Iraq," it reads.
Finally, on what the administration is doing now, the talking points say only, "As with other terrorists who have committed crimes against Americans, we will continue to pursue all legal means to ensure that he is punished for his crimes."
That's not going to be enough for the U.S. lawmakers and officials who are angry that the administration didn't figure out a way to keep Daqduq in U.S. custody and are worried that he will return to the battlefield soon.
"The administration really thought if we gave our evidence to the Iraqis, they would hold him under the rule of law, but the Iraqis had a different understanding of the judicial process than we do," said one administration official who is critical of the overall handling of the case.
"At the end of the day, if this guy is released, they will be releasing a man with the blood of five Americans on his hands," the official said. "This guy deserves a term much longer than five years.
"This guy has been responsible for the death of five Americans and this is another indication of the unraveling that's taking place in Iraq since we do not have a residual force there," Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable in an interview.
"There's a lesson here for another conflict that Mr. Obama is eager to wind down," read a Wednesday editorial in the Wall Street Journal. "As part of the plan to pull U.S. forces from Afghanistan, Washington has agreed to transfer control over detainees in U.S. custody to the Kabul government. Now would be a good time to make the proper future arrangements for any terrorist we don't want to walk free."
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
A new set of sanctions against Iran is pending in the Senate, but the Obama administration refuses to say whether or not it supports the legislation as negotiations with Tehran resume.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said today that he still intends to move as soon as possible to pass the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, named for Finance Committee heads Sens. Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), that was approved by the committee in February. The bill would pile on more punitive measures against Iran's energy, shipping, and mining sectors, while punishing a broader range of Iranian government officials for their involvement in human rights violations.
Before the latest Senate recess, Reid attempted to pass the bill by unanimous consent, but Republicans objected because several senators want to offer amendments to strengthen the bill. Lawmakers from both chambers and both sides of the aisle want the bill to go through the regular legislative process so that changes can be made before passage, but Reid says the bill should be passed as is.
Reid told reporters today that his staff would be meeting today "to see if something could be worked out," regarding a way forward for the legislation. (After the meeting, a Reid spokesman told The Cable that "nothing" was worked out at today's meeting and there is no definitive schedule for moving ahead with the bill.)
"I think the best thing to do is to move forward with the bill that was reported out of committee on a bipartisan basis, unless we can get agreement from basically everyone," Reid said. "Each day that goes by without Iran feeling more of our sanctions, that's too bad for the world and helpful to Iran. We need to move forward on this as soon as possible."
The Obama administration hasn't said anything positive or negative about the legislation, even though it has been vocal about other Iran sanctions bills being debated in Congress. Administration officials met with Iranian negotiators as part of the P5+1 group in Turkey last weekend and more talks are scheduled for next month in Baghdad.
If the administration supports the new sanctions, it risks upsetting the new negotiations just as they are beginning. If the administration doesn't support the new sanctions, it leaves them open to GOP allegations of weakness towards Iran in the midst of the presidential election season.
National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor did not respond to requests for comment today on whether or not the White House supports quick passage of the Johnson-Shelby bill. Late last month, a senior administration official told The Cable, "We're not just taking a position on that particular bill at this point."
House Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Adam Smith (D-WA) told The Cable Monday that he supports moving forward with the bill quickly.
"I think it's perfectly appropriate to keep up pressure with the sanctions. I think you've got to keep ramping up the pressure," he said. "If we want to add to the options the president has, I think that's a good idea."
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) said today that without the administration's green light, the bill probably would not move quickly through Congress.
"Unless the administration advocates for that, I think it's less likely," he said.
The United Nations and the State Department have been struggling to convince the Iranian exile group the Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK) to move to a former U.S. military base in Iraq, but the real need is for third countries to accept MEK "refugees" on a permanent basis, according to the top U.N. representative in Iraq.
The MEK is a State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization opposed to the Iranian regime that has been living in a closed compound in Iraq called Camp Ashraf for years. The Iraqi government has pledged to close Camp Ashraf, using force if necessary, so the U.N. and the State Department are slowly but surely cajoling Ashraf's 3,200 residents to move to Camp Liberty, a former U.S. military base near the Baghdad airport.
But that's only a temporary solution. Unless other countries start accepting MEK members for relocation, they could face the prospect of being returned to Iran, where they could face retribution from the Iranian regime they have been fighting for decades.
"I have the feeling that the Camp Ashraf residents have made peace with the idea to go to Camp Liberty and they've made peace with the idea that there is no future in Iraq and they will leave Iraq," Martin Kobler, the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), told The Cable.
But finding homes for the MEK members when they leave Iraq "is the most difficult part of the story," he said. "The whole process only will succeed if all the 3,200 find countries who will take them into their borders."
The U.N. held a resettlement conference on March 27 in Geneva and the response was "not overwhelming, to say the least," Kobler said.
Part of the difficulty of dealing with the MEK group members at Camp Ashraf is that they have been cut off from the world for years and little is known about their individual histories or whether they would qualify for refugee status. Some reports say that MEK members are still conducting violent attacks inside Iran at the behest of the Israeli government.
The United States is legally barred from accepting any refugees from members of a foreign terrorist organization. There is also no plan for what happens to those MEK members who do not qualify for refugee status.
"We will find a solution then," Kobler said. "Everybody has Iranian nationality and on a voluntary basis can go back to Iran... The question is what happens to them then."
Kobler disputed the claims made by the MEK and its long list of American advocates that the Camp Liberty site is not fit for human occupation.
"Camp Liberty is a place where 5,500 American soldiers lived for many, many years... What worked for 5,500 people should also work humanitarian wise for 3,200 Camp Ashraf residents," he said.
Kobler declined to comment on reports that the MEK is involved in ongoing attacks on the Iranian nuclear program and its personnel inside Iran. He also declined to confirm that U.N. reports have stated that MEK members were intentionally sabotaging the facilities in Camp Liberty in order to make the camp look worse than it is, saying only, "There were big initial difficulties and a lack of cooperation. However this has improved over the last weeks."
Some advocates of the MEK, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, have called Camp Ashraf a "concentration camp," a reference Kobler said is insulting and offensive.
"I am a German citizen. To compare the situation of Camp Ashraf residents to the systematic extermination of European Jews during Nazi dictatorship, this is not only historically totally absurd but is an insult to the victims," he said.
"My message to these supporters is, spend your energies not so much on attacking the United Nations or others. Spend your energies to convince your governments to take them into your countries," he said.
While in Washington, Kobler met with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, Assistant Secretary of State for Refugees, Population, and Migration Anne Richards, and Ambassador Daniel Fried, the State Department official in charge of the Camp Ashraf issue.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Several top members of the House of Representatives are fighting for expanded sanctions on Iran, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) opposes any changes to the bill currently before the Senate.
House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), has joined with Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) to introduce a bill of Iran sanctions measures they want to see added to the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, which is currently pending before the Senate. Reid has said there is no time to debate or consider amendments to the bill and wants to pass it as is. But Ros-Lehtinen, Sherman, and a slew of senators including Joe Lieberman (I-CT) are urging Reid to allow lawmakers to offer amendments that would strengthen the bill.
Ros-Lehtinen and Sherman's bill, the Iran Financial Sanctions Improvement Act, contains many of the sanctions measures that Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who is recovering from a stroke, included in his proposed amendment to the Johnson-Shelby bill. The Ros-Lehtinen Sherman bill would expand financial sanctions to all Iranian banks, authorize the president to sanction any entity that works with any Iranian bank, expand sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran beyond oil, and expand sanctions on the Iranian insurance sector.
"In particular, I urge Senate leadership to allow a version of an amendment authored by Senator Kirk to be considered by the Senate," Sherman said in Tuesday statement. "After the current district work period the Senate should pass the toughest possible Iran legislation, and it is critical that the Kirk-Sherman language be part of the bill when it leaves the Senate."
Senators come back from their "state work period" on April 16.
Last week, Ros-Lehtinen publicly called on Reid to open up the Senate bill to amendments. The Senate GOP leadership is also calling on Reid to allow limited amendments to the Johnson-Shelby bill.
Today, in a statement to The Cable, House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) said he also supports the Kirk amendmnet.
" I support any proposal, including the Kirk amendment, to tighten sanctions on Iran that will contribute to preventing the regime from developing a nuclear weapons capability - an urgent national security priority for the United States," Berman said.
Other measures found in the Kirk amendment were included by Reps. Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Robert Dold (R-FL) in a bill they introduced last week called the Iranian Energy Sector and Proliferation Sanctions Act. That bill would expand energy-sector sanctions on Iran by declaring the country a "zone of proliferation concern," thus barring any businesses or service providers from dealing with the Iranian petroleum sector in any way.
"As the Mullahs face an unprecedented level of economic pressure and international isolation, now is the time to intensify this pressure," Deutch said in a statement, referring to Iran's clerical leaders. "This legislation will put the world on notice that Iran's entire energy sector is off limits so long as this regime continues to defy the international community in pursuit of an illicit nuclear weapons program."
Last December, the House passed another Iran sanctions bill, the Iran Threat Reductions Act, which was sponsored by Ros-Lehtinen and Berman. That bill contains a host of sanctions, including another piece of the Kirk amendment that stipulates the president must investigate allegations of sanctions violations made by U.S. government organizations such as the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Research Service, and the Energy Information Agency.
The Ros-Lehtinen Berman bill could be combined with the Johnson-Shelby bill in a House-Senate conference, if and when the Senate passes its bill. The language from these various other House bills that seek to add more Iran sanctions into the mix could be added in conference, but they have a much better chance of becoming part of the final law if they are added to the Senate bill as part of an amendment and through a vote.
Senator Reid's office told The Cable that despite the growing number of lawmakers calling for votes on measures to amend the Johnson-Shelby bill, he has no plans to alter his position.
"Sounds like enough House members to round out a research document from a Republican office like Senator Kirk's, but not enough to change Senator Reid's stance on this issue," said Reid's Communications Director Adam Jentleson.
The Obama administration has no position on the Johnson-Shelby bill and no position on the Kirk amendment, a senior administration official told The Cable. Kirk's office is hoping that by the time the Senate gets back to town, Reid will decide to open up the bill to debate.
"Senator Kirk remains committed to a bipartisan process that would allow Democrats and Republicans to come together to strengthen our sanctions against Iran," said Kirk's spokesperson Kate Dickens.
President Barack Obama issued a determination Friday that there are enough sources of oil around the world to allow all Iran's customers to stop buying its crude.
The decision was required by a section of the latest defense authorization bill, which included new sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran and any other country that does business with Iran. Countries can be exempted from those sanctions if they "significantly reduce" their oil business with Iran, and the president was required to decide if the world oil market could absorb that demand before the sanctions could be fully implemented.
"[A]fter carefully considering the report submitted to the Congress by the Energy Information Administration on February 29, 2012, and other relevant information, and given current global economic conditions, increased production by certain countries, the level of spare capacity, and the existence of strategic reserves, among other factors, I determine, pursuant to section 1245(d)(4)(B) and (C) of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, Pub1ic Law 112-81, that there is a sufficient supply of petroleum and petroleum products from countries other than Iran to permit a significant reduction in the volume of petroleum andpetroleum products purchased from Iran by or through foreign financial institutions," Obama wrote in a Friday memorandum.
"I will closely monitor this situation to assure that the market can continue to accommodate a reduction in purchases of petroleum and petroleum products from Iran."
The State Department exempted 11 countries from the Central Bank sanctions earlier this month and has until June 28 to decide whether to sanction the other 12 countries that buy crude oil from Iran, a list that includes China, India, South Korea, and Turkey. This determination allows that process to continue moving forward.
Today's determination was not a surprise. A Feb. 29 report from the Energy Information Agency stated that Saudi Arabia was pumping more oil than usual but also found that spare capacity in the oil market was modest by historical standards. Energy Secretary Steven Chu seemed to preview the determination March 1 when he said, "There is spare capacity and we believe -- we'll see -- but I think there is sufficient spare capacity."
In a conference call with reporters Friday afternoon, two senior administration officials touted the administration's effort to use the sanctions to persuade other countries to wean themselves off of Iranian oil and said the administration expected South Korea to move away from Iranian oil purchases soon and Turkey announced related moves today.
"It's our belief that these sanctions are having a significant impact on the Iranian government and the Iranian economy and that therefore they present the strongest pressure we've placed to date to effect Iran's political calculus about pursuit of nuclear program, particularly as we move toward P5+1 negotiations," one senior administration official said.
The official neglected to mention that the administration publicly opposed the legislation that created the sanctions, written by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), which was added to the defense authorization bill over administration objections and passed by the Senate by a vote of 100-0.
In a statement Friday, Menendez praised Obama's determination.
"Today, we put on notice all nations that continue to import petroleum or petroleum products from Iran that they have 3 months to significantly reduce those purchases or risk the imposition of sanctions on their financial institutions," Menendez said. "It is my opinion that most countries will significantly reduce their purchases by the June 28 deadline -- either because of the sanctions or because they share the U.S., EU, and IAEA's grave concerns about Iran's verified effort to acquire nuclear weapons capability."
The Cable asked the officials whether they supported the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) tried to speed through the Senate this week without any debate or amendments.
"We're not just taking a position on that particular bill at this point," the official said.
We then asked whether the administration had a position on the right of senators to offer amendments to the Johnson-Shelby bill, in light of Reid's position that there is simply no time to offer amendments to the legislation.
"We've not made any specific determinations with regard to that amendment," the official said.
We didn't ask about any specific amendment, but it's possible the official was referring to a new amendment from the office of Kirk, which would expand sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran to include all Iranian banks and would threaten sanctions on any international firms that facilitate those banks' transactions, including the EU-based international transactions facilitator SWIFT and Clearstream, a firm that works with SWIFT to process worldwide money exchanges. Swift announced it would stop processing transactions with Iran's Central Bank earlier this month.
Kirk's new amendment would also target the Iranian insurance industry, expand sanctions against the Iranian energy sector, target Iran's high-tech and telecommunications sectors, and try to narrow the conditions under which the administration can exempt third countries who are still buying oil from Iran from existing sanctions.
"We welcome the president's determination and applaud the administration's faithful implementation of the Menendez-Kirk amendment," a Kirk spokesperson told The Cable. "To build on this momentum, we hope the Senate will consider amendments to the pending Iran sanctions bill that would continue to increase the economic pressure on the Iranian regime."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has no intention of entering into negotiations that would allow senators to offer amendments to the Iran sanctions bill facing the Senate, according to his communications director Adam Jentleson.
On Wednesday, Reid attempted to bring up the bring up the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012 for Senate passage by unanimous consent (UC), meaning there would be no debate and no chance for senators to offer amendments. Reid claimed there was no time to consider amendments. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) blocked the move by objecting to the unanimous consent request because he wanted to offer an amendment to the legislation.
Several other senators from both parties also said Wednesday they wanted to offer amendments. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) called publicly for Reid to allow a vote on an amendment by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who caucuses with the Democrats, called on Reid to negotiate with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to allow a package of amendments to the bill to include a bill he is co-sponsoring with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bob Casey (D-PA).
"We're having a discussion with Senator Reid about when to take it up and how many amendments to allow," Lieberman said. "We are a little bit concerned. I'd really prefer to have a bipartisan agreement with a limited number of amendments on both sides. I think that's Senator McConnell's position. So I'm going to talk to Senator Reid and try to work that out."
But in an e-mail to The Cable, Reid's spokesperson Jentleson said that Reid is not planning to negotiate over an amendments package, meaning that senators will have to either pass the bill as is or, barring a floor vote, see it permanently fail on the Senate floor.
"The parties already negotiated the bill during the bipartisan committee process and there are no plans to re-open negotiations," Jentleson said. "This is a routine way for sanctions bills to be passed."
Noting that the bill was reported out of committee on a unanimous vote, Jentleson said that Kirk and others had had ample time to offer amendments in committee, and pointed out that an amendment had been offered on Kirk's behalf and accepted during committee consideration, one that considered penalties on financial transactions firms that do business with sanctioned Iranian entities.
Jentleson also said that "there had been an understanding among stakeholders for weeks that this bill would come to the floor under a UC agreement." But a Senate GOP leadership aide told The Cable that McConnell wasn't aware of any UC agreement on the bill and would still prefer to allow amendments in some form. "We've all known for quite some time that Senator Kirk was intent on offering an amendment," the aide said. "Senator Lieberman said his preference was to have amendments. And we were not approached about a UC."
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) issued a statement Wednesday directly calling on Reid to allow amendments to the Iran sanctions bill.
"It is important that Senate leadership allow senators on both sides of the aisle the opportunity to offer amendments to strengthen the bipartisan Iran sanctions legislation currently making its way to the Senate floor, rather than passing a weaker measure. It is clear that bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate want a stronger bill," she said.
Kirk's office still hopes it will have the chance to offer an amendment to the bill. According to his spokesperson Kate Dickens, "We know that senators on both sides of the aisle have long been urging consideration of amendments that would help strengthen Iran sanctions and we remain committed to moving forward in that kind of bipartisan process."
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images
the U.S. Treasury Department today announced sanctions on a major Iranian cargo airline, an Iranian trading company, and a Nigerian shipping agent that facilitates Iranian arms exports.
Treasury designated Yas Air, Behineh Trading, the Ali Abbas Usman Jega shipping agent, and three Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) officials for sanctions, meaning they are all immediately cut off from doing business in the United States or with the U.S. financial sector. Treasury alleges that the airline, the trading company, and the IRGC-QF officials were involved, respectively, in shipments of weapons "to the Levant and Africa, further demonstrating Iran's determination to evade international sanctions and export violence and instability throughout the Middle East and beyond."
"Today's action again exposes Iran's malign influence in the Middle East, Africa and beyond. As the Iranian regime exports its lethal aid and expertise to foment violence in Syria and Africa, Treasury will continue to expose the officials and companies involved and work to hold them accountable for the suffering they cause," said Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen.
Yas Air has been directly involved in arms shipments to Syria under the cover of humanitarian assistance, the Treasury Department said, and IRGC officials oversaw several shipments of arms via Yas Air in March 2011, working with the Syrian regime and Hezbollah.
"A Turkish inspection of one of the Yas Air flights bound for Syria -- which listed ‘auto spare parts' on its cargo manifest -- found weapons including Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles, machine guns, nearly 8,000 rounds of ammunition, and an assortment of mortar shells," according to the Treasury Department release.
In October, 2010, the Iranian trading company and the Nigerian shipping agent worked together to smuggle Iranian arms to Gambia, but that shipment was intercepted in Nigeria, according to Treasury, and included grenades, rockets, mortars, and ammunition.
"While Iran publically downplays Iranian government involvement in the lethal aid shipment, the highest levels of the IRGC-QF were involved," the release stated.
The three IRGC officials designated for sanctions today were Esmail Ghani, the deputy commander of the IRGC-QF, Sayyid Ali Akbar Tabatabaei, the commander of the IRGC-QF Africa Corps, Hosein Aghajani, who allegedly has ties to the Gambian smuggling operation.
Initial reactions to the moves on Capitol Hill were positive, even as a fight brewed between lawmakers and the administration over a new round of Iran sanctions legislation.
"It's these kind of moments that build up a bipartisan trust in the Treasury Department and in people like David Cohen and Danny Glaser," one senior GOP Senate aide said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is trying to pass a new Iran sanctions bill through the Senate without any amendments or debate in a legislative move many see as designed to prevent both Republicans and Democrats from adding even more sanctions to the legislation.
Reid announced on the Senate floor Tuesday morning that he wanted to bring up the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, a new set of sanctions that would punish anyone who provides Iran with equipment or technology that facilitates censorship or the suppression of human rights, including weapons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and other riot control equipment -- as well as jamming, monitoring, and surveillance equipment. It also calls on the Obama administration to develop a more robust Internet freedom strategy for Iran and speed related assistance to pro-democracy activists in the country.
The legislation, named for Senate Banking Committee heads Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), would formally establish that U.S. policy is intended to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and would require the administration to report extensively and repeatedly on its efforts to increase diplomatic and financial pressure on the Iranian regime.
But here's the rub: Reid wants to bring up the bill for passage by unanimous consent, meaning there would be no debate and no amendments offered. The bill could be passed by a simple voice vote if nobody objects, but Reid said the Republicans won't let it happen.
"I'm going to ask consent soon to moving forward on this unanimously reported bill out the Banking Committee. Unfortunately, I have been told that my Republican colleagues will object to moving forward with these new sanctions because they want to offer additional amendments," Reid said on the Senate floor Tuesday morning.
"I have Democrats who want to offer additional amendments also, but we don't have the time to slow down passage of this legislation," he added. "When we put this away, we're not going to be finished with Iran. ... But in an effort to get sanctions in place now, Democrats have agreed to streamline the process and refrain from offering their amendments. We can't afford to slow down the process."
Senate aides from both parties told The Cable that Reid's office is working behind the scenes to prevent more amendments that would strengthen the sanctions in ways the administration and Reid are resisting. The Cable has obtained the text and a detailed summary of one lengthy amendment that would add several new punitive measures to the bill.
The amendment isn't signed but it appears to come from the office of Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) because it contains expanded sanctions against all Iranian banks that matches legislation Kirk had already been working on. An aide to Kirk declined to comment on the amendment.
The summary of the proposed amendment includes a direct rebuttal to Reid's argument that the Johnson-Shelby bill should be passed quickly and that there will be plenty of other chances to sanction Iran after that.
"As Iran continues inching closer to ‘red lines' surrounding its illicit nuclear weapons program, S. 2101 will likely serve as the last legislative vehicle to impose further economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic until December," the summary reads. "Therefore, as long as opportunities exist to incorporate new ideas and creative sanctions into the legislation, we should seize upon those opportunities in overwhelming bipartisan fashion. In this way, we keep our promise to the American people and support the President's stated objective to exhaust every available diplomatic option."
The proposed amendment would expand sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran to include all Iranian banks and would threaten sanctions on any international firms that facilitate those banks' transactions, including the EU-based international transactions facilitator SWIFT and Clearstream, a firm that works with SWIFT to process worldwide money exchanges. Swift has already taken some actions to cut off Iran's Central Bank.
The amendment would also target the Iranian insurance industry, expand sanctions against the Iranian energy sector, target Iran's high-tech and telecommunications sectors, and try to narrow the conditions under which the administration can exempt third countries who are still buying oil from Iran from existing sanctions. The State Department exempted 11 countries from Iran sanctions last week and has yet to make a determination on 12 others.
There are plenty of other potential amendments out there as well. For example, a bill ruling out containment of a nuclear Iran led by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Bob Casey (D-PA), could also become an amendment.
By calling for unanimous consent on the Johnson-Shelby bill today, Reid is trying to portray the GOP as objecting to quick passage of Iran sanctions. It's likely that after he files for unanimous consent today and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) objects, the two will retreat behind closed doors and negotiate a compromise way forward. A similar dynamic played out over the last round of sanctions when Kirk and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) wanted to sanction the Iranian Central Bank over the administration's objections.
"Sooner or later -- and most likely it will be sooner -- both sides are going to sit down together and figure out a way forward that everyone can live with -- reflecting the overwhelming bipartisan consensus that exists in support of additional Iran sanctions," one senior Senate aide told The Cable.
"Hopefully calm will prevail on all sides after today and the Majority Leader will authorize Chairman Johnson to negotiate with key Democrats and Republicans on the contents of a manager's amendment that includes everyone's best ideas," another senior Senate aide said. "In the end, the president says the window of diplomacy is shrinking and we owe it to the American people to consider every available non-military option."
UPDATE: In a short interview, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) said he does want to offer an amendment to the Johnson-Shelby bill and does not want to see it go through the senate via unanimous consent.
"Senator Graham and I are the lead sponsors of a bipartisan resolution that says containment is not an acceptable policy against Iran. With regard to the bill coming out of the banking committee, we're having a discussion with Sen. Reid about when to take it up and how many amendments to allow," Lieberman said.
"We are a little bit concerned. I'd really prefer to have a bipartisan agreement with a limited number of amendments on both sides. I think that's Sen. McConnell's position. So I'm going to talk to Sen. Reid and try to work that out."
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) said this afternoon that Republicans will continue to object to moving forward on the bill until Kirk's amendment gets a hearing.
"I just wanted to say that Senator Kirk is doing a lot of homework but he's not here, would like to add an amendment -- a change to the proposal and therefore, would hope that we could work out something with the leader so that we could accommodate Senator Kirk's desire in that regard," Kyl said.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) filed the formal objection to unanimous consent on the Johnson-Shelby bill, due to his desire to be able to offer an amendment of his own.
It's not every day that groups supporting a State Department-listed foreign terrorist organization hold a party in the U.S. Congress, but that's exactly what happened today when the friends of the Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK) threw their Nowruz party in the hearing room of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"Members of Congress will join Iranian Americans in wishing the Iranian people a Happy Nowrouz and address the humanitarian rights of Iran's main opposition in Camp Ashraf and Camp Liberty, in Iraq," reads the flyer for the party, which was held Thursday at the Rayburn building in room 2172, where the foreign affairs committee holds all of its public events.
The flyer says that the event is sponsored by "Iranian American communities" from around the United States, but the mention of Camp Ashraf and Camp Liberty is a clear reference to the MEK, a group designated by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization that has about 3,000 members living in the secretive Ashraf compound in Iraq.
The U.N. and the State Department are working to move them to Camp Liberty, a former U.S. military base near the Baghdad airport, but the MEK is resisting that move, and has enlisted its many supporters in the United States to decry the conditions at the former military base. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani even went so far as to call Camp Liberty a "concentration camp."
House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) spoke at the event and discussed human rights in Iran, but did not mention the MEK by name. Former Homeland Security secretary and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, a paid advocate of the MEK, also spoke.
"The event was not sponsored by the MEK," Ros-Lehtinen's spokesperson Brad Goehner told The Cable. "The room was requested by the Iranian-American Society of South Florida and sponsored by the Iranian-American communities of 39 cities for an event commemorating the Iranian New Year. Space in Congressional office buildings is routinely made available to organizations wishing to hold events on issues important to members of Congress."
The flyer doesn't say the party is being thrown by or for the MEK, and aides who attended told The Cable that there were no MEK signs or banners at the event, as one usually sees wherever the MEK is camped out.
That could be a result of the revelation that the Treasury Department's counterterrorism unit has issued a subpoena to former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell for records related to his paid advocacy of the MEK, as part of an investigation into the web of organizations that support the terrorist group.
There is a long list of Iranian-American organizations that fund pro-MEK events and pay speakers fees to MEK supporters. Many of these organizations - such as the "Global Initiative for Democracy, whose homepage is entirely devoted to the MEK's concerns and who hosted an MEK conference in January -- seem to have no other function other than to advocate for the MEK, and the actual sources of their money is unclear.
Receiving funding from a terrorist organization or even providing it with "material support," which could include advocacy, is a crime.
The campaign by the MEK's supporters to disparage Camp Liberty and lobby for the MEK's removal from the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations has included huge rallies outside the State Department, massive sit-ins at Congressional hearings, and an ongoing vigil outside the State Department's C Street entrance.
Those supporters, many of them paid, include Giuliani, Rendell, Vermont Governor Howard Dean, Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz. John Lewis (D-GA), former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former Sen. Robert Torricelli, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, former National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers, former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, former CIA Director Porter Goss, senior advisor to the Romney campaign Mitchell Reiss, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, and former Sen. Evan Bayh.
Congressional aides attended the event on Thursday in the hearing room both out of curiosity and hunger for free food. But multiple aides told The Cable the event was bizarre, even by Congressional standards.
"Looks like you just have to be the ‘right' terrorist organization to hold a fancy party in the halls and hearing rooms of Congress," one House aide told The Cable. "Hope everyone who ate their kabobs doesn't get hit with material support subpoenas."
The State Department announced on Tuesday that it would exempt 10 European countries and Japan from penalties for doing business with Iran's central bank, because those countries are making significant progress toward weaning themselves off of Iranian oil.
"I am pleased to announce that an initial group of eleven countries has significantly reduced their volume of crude oil purchases from Iran -- Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and the United Kingdom. As a result, I will report to the Congress that sanctions pursuant to Section 1245 of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012 (NDAA) will not apply to the financial institutions based in these countries, for a renewable period of 180 days," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a Tuesday statement. "The actions taken by these countries were not easy. They had to rethink their energy needs at a critical time for the world economy and quickly begin to find alternatives to Iranian oil, which many had been reliant on for their energy needs."
The European Union banned all new purchases of Iranian crude oil as of Jan. 23 and will phase out existing contracts by July 1, Clinton said. Japan was able to reduce its dependence on Iranian oil even despite energy shortages created by the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
"We commend these countries for their actions and urge other nations that import oil from Iran to follow their example," said Clinton. "Diplomacy coupled with strong pressure can achieve the long-term solutions we seek and we will continue to work with our international partners to increase the pressure on Iran to meet its international obligations."
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who co-authored the sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and those who do business with it, praised the State Department's move in a Tuesday statement of his own.
"The sanctions are working," he said. "Countries and companies are stepping up in recognition of the real threat that Iran poses to its neighbors and the global community and are terminating business relationships with Iran. On Saturday, SWIFT - the financial messaging service provider - cut off services to the Central Bank of Iran and 30 designated Iranian banks, and as a result -- for the first time -- we are seeing a real impact on the Iranian economy."
A senior State Department official said Tuesday that there are 12 countries left who import Iranian oil and could be sanctioned but didn't get exemptions today. Butthe official said that if those countries are going to be sanctioned, it won't be for a while.
Since the CBI sanctions didn't actually go into effect until Feb. 29, any case for implementing sanctions against those 12 countries would have to be based on evidence from that date forward, which would take time.
On March 30, President Barack Obama will have to make a determination as to whether price and supply conditions in the energy market allow for countries to switch from Iranian crude oil to other suppliers. If he determines they do, then a new set of harsher sanctions would go into effect on June 28 against any countries that don't have exemptions by then.
The main countries that the United States might be forced to sanction at that time include China, Turkey, India, and South Korea, none of which received exemptions today. The State Department official admitted that the conditions for receiving an exemption are vague.
"On the case of the other countries, the legislation specifies ‘significantly reduce.' It doesn't define what ‘significantly reduce' is," the official said.
The official said that Japan represents a model for how other countries could act to avoid sanctions. But under questioning, the official refused to say exactly how much Japan has committed to reducing its dependence on Iranian oil, calling that "commercially protected information." He said Japan reduced its intake of Iranian oil between about 15 to 22 percent over the last half of 2011, depending on how you look at the data.
One senior Senate aide called into question the State Department's decision to issue Japan an exemption. The aide pointed out that the law requires countries to reduce their intake of Iranian oil in 2012, not 2011, and it's not clear if Japan is going to continue that trend ahead of the June 28 deadline.
"The bottom line is that if Japan has in fact committed to reducing their purchases of Iranian oil by 15 to 22 percent in 2012, this exemption is fully warranted. But if this is just a get out of jail free card issued on the basis of past performance alone, this would not be a faithful application of the law," the aide said.
The aide also pointed out that the 10 EU countries are no-brainers for exemptions, because the EU is in the process of implementing a full Iranian oil embargo anyway.
"This is no diplomatic success, this is just cover to make sure that those EU countries that are complying with the embargo have cover from the sanctions."
For years, a slew of advocates - many of whom have been paid for their services -- have flooded U.S. airwaves on behalf of the Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK), a State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization opposed to the Iranian regime.
After months of difficult negotiations, the MEK has finally begun moving out of its secretive Iraqi home near the Iranian border, called Camp Ashraf. But the group's American advocates have now become a major obstacle in the international effort to move the MEK to a new home in Iraq and avoid a bloody clash with the Iraqi military, officials say.
U.N. special representative in Iraq Martin Kobler, with help from the U.S. Embassy in Iraq and the State Department, has organized efforts to relocate the MEK to Camp Liberty, a former U.S. military base near the Baghdad airport. The first convoy of about 400 MEK members arrived there last month. The second convoy of about 400 MEK members arrived Thursday at Camp Liberty, Reuters reported.
The United Nations and the U.S. government have worked tirelessly in recent months to avoid a violent clash between the MEK and the Shiite-led Iraqi government, which is determined to oust the MEK from Camp Ashraf, where more than 3,000 members of the group, many of them suspected to be armed, have lived for years. Two previous attempts by the Iraqi government to enter the camp resulted in bloody confrontations.
But the U.N. and the State Department's efforts have been made exponentially more difficult due to the MEK's surprisingly strong base of support in Washington. In recent weeks, retired U.S. officials and politicians -- many of whom admit to being paid by the MEK or one of its many affiliates -- have mounted a sophisticated media campaign accusing the U.N. and the U.S. government of forcing the group to live in subhuman conditions against its will at Camp Liberty, an accusation U.S. officials say is as inaccurate as it is unhelpful.
"This is tough enough without paid advocates making it worse," one official told The Cable.
"Camp Liberty: A Prison For Iranian Dissidents in Iraq," reads a March 3 full-page ad in the New York Times, leveling the surprising accusation that the former U.S. military base is unfit for human occupation. The ad quotes former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani calling Camp Liberty "a concentration camp" -- a charge Giuliani made at an MEK-sponsored conference late last month in Paris. The ad also quotes former Democratic National Committee chairman and Vermont Governor Howard Dean, former Homeland Security secretary and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, and Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz trashing Camp Liberty.
However, according to an Obama administration official who works on the issue, it's actually the MEK that is trashing Camp Liberty -- literally. According to this official, the U.N. has reported that MEK members at Camp Liberty have been sabotaging the camp, littering garbage and manipulating the utilities to make things look worse than they really are. While there are some legitimate problems at the camp, the official admitted, the U.N. has been monitoring Camp Liberty's water, sewage, and food systems on a daily basis and the conditions are better than the MEK is portraying.
The New York Times ad is only the latest in a years-long, multi-million dollar campaign by the MEK and its supporters to enlist famous U.S. politicians and policymakers in their efforts to get the group removed from the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations and resist Iraqi attempts to close Camp Ashraf, which the new government sees as a militarized cult compound on its sovereign territory.
The campaign has included huge rallies outside the State Department, massive sit-ins at congressional hearings, and an ongoing vigil outside the State Department's C Street entrance. MEK supporters there tout the support of a long list of officials, including Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former Sen. Robert Torricelli, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, former National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers, former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, former CIA Director Porter Goss, senior advisor to the Romney campaign Mitchell Reiss, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, and former Sen. Evan Bayh.
The administration official told The Cable that, as delicate negotiations between the U.N., the United States, the Iraqis, and the MEK continue, the role of these often paid advocates is becoming even more unhelpful and potentially dangerous.
"The Americans who ought to know better and claim to be on the side of good solutions are really damaging it. Either they are too lazy or too arrogant to actually do their homework. They don't spend the time to learn facts, they just pop off. They accept the MEK line without question and then they posture," the official said. "We have a plan that has a chance to work and the Iraqis want it to work. The MEK ... it's not clear. And in this situation they are being badly advised by the people whose names appear in these ads."
"Whether the MEK wants a resolution or wants a confrontation is something we're still debating. It's that bad," the official said.
The relationship between the American advocates and the MEK leadership, led by the Paris-based Maryam Rajavi, has led both to pursue strategies that neglect the dire risks of sabotaging the move from Camp Liberty to Camp Ashraf, the official said. Rajavi is said to have created a cult of personality around herself and to rule the MEK as a unchallenged monarch.
"The not-too-stable Queen [Rajavi] hired a bunch of court flatterers to tell her that she's great, which is fine, except that she has now forgotten that these are hired court flatterers. She thinks they are actual advisors," the official said. "Meanwhile her wise counselors are being marginalized by those who are saying ‘Oh Queen, your magnificence will cause your enemies to fall on their knees.' And she's beginning to believe them."
"By enabling Rajavi to indulge her worst instincts and encouraging her to think she has more power and leverage she does, they may precipitate a crisis, which is exactly what we are trying to avoid," the official said.
Another example of the American advisors' unhelpfulness was the MEK's recent public call to be relocated en masse to Jordan, an idea the U.S. official said came from the group's American friends. There was just one problem: Nobody had asked the Jordanians.
"To announce it publicly as a demand without checking with the Jordanians is the sort of thing you do to destroy it," the official said. "Why the hell should the Jordanians buy trouble like this by giving these people an autonomous militarized camp?"
U.N. and U.S. officials had been hoping to keep discussions open with Jordan about the possibility of hosting some MEK members in the event of an emergency, such as a renewed outbreak of violence. But U.S. officials now think that the MEK's actions have made that much more difficult.
"Whoever advised them has done actual demonstrable damage to a possible humanitarian solution. They're not helping. It's remarkable," the official said.
The arrival at Camp Liberty Thursday of the second convoy may signal that the MEK is coming around to the realization that the Iraqi government will never allow it to stay at Camp Ashraf. But the U.S. official warned that the group may have more tricks up its sleeve.
"The MEK will delay, confuse, deny, and spin until faced with an imminent disaster, and then they give only enough to avoid that disaster," the official said. "And the problem is: If you play chicken enough, eventually you will get into a head-on collision."
JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
If the Obama administration wants to enter new talks with Iran, that's fine -- but they had better keep ramping up the pressure on the Islamic Republic during negotiations and not trade sanctions for piecemeal concessions from the Iranians, 12 U.S. senators said Wednesday.
"As the P-5+1 prepares to resume talks with Iran, we strongly believe that any hope for diplomatic progress with Iran depends upon a continuing and expanding campaign of U.S. and international pressure on the regime and that such pressure must continue until there is a full and complete resolution of all components of illicit Iranian nuclear activities," said Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Jim Risch (R-ID), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), John McCain (R-AZ), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Pat Toomey (R-PA), Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in a joint statement Wednesday.
"As we recently wrote to President Obama, we remain extremely concerned that the Iranian government will seek to buy time or otherwise dilute the focus of our diplomacy through proposals that either suspend or reverse the current momentum of the pressure track in exchange for partial measures that fail to address the totality of their nuclear program," the senators' statement continued. "Such tactical maneuverings are a dangerous distraction and should not be tolerated. For instance, we would strongly oppose any proposal that caps or limits sanctions against the Iranian regime in exchange for anything less than full, verifiable, and sustained suspension of all enrichment activities, including both 3 percent and 20 percent enrichment."
When Iran offered to come back to talks last month, these 12 senators were quick to put together a letter outlining their precise concerns and what they wanted to see President Barack Obama's administration do.
In addition to continuing along the pressure track, they want the administration to insist that Iran suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities "for the foreseeable future," cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and resolve all outstanding questions about military dimensions of its nuclear program. The Obama administration has said repeatedly that Iran has the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, but these 12 senators don't agree.
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, in her March 6 letter welcoming new talks, acknowledged that the P5+1 countries - Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States, and Germany -- will engage in discussions over confidence-building measures to the Iranian government.
"We remain convinced that initially we could work towards the shared objective to engage in a constructive dialogue on the basis of reciprocity and a step by step approach based on practical and specific suggestions for confidence building measures," she wrote.
But the senators think that is foolish, and want to emphasize that the administration should not trade the relaxation of sanctions for partial measures by the Iranians, which they see as a delaying tactic.
"Such tactical maneuverings are a dangerous distraction and should not be tolerated," the senators wrote. "For instance, we would strongly oppose any proposal that caps or limits sanctions against the Iranian regime in exchange for anything less than full, verifiable, and sustained suspension of all enrichment activities, including both 3 percent and 20 percent enrichment. The time for confidence building measures is over."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) took to the Senate floor Tuesday to pick apart Mitt Romney's latest op-ed on Iran.
"The United States cannot afford to let Iran acquire nuclear weapons. Yet under Barack Obama, that is the course we are on," Romney wrote in Tuesday's Washington Post. "As president, I would move America in a different direction."
Romney said he would increase the Navy's shipbuilding rate from 9 to 15 ships per year and pledged to "press forward" with ballistic missile-defense systems aimed at Iran and North Korea. He also promised to press for "ever-tightening sanctions," to speak out in support of democracy in Iran, visit Jerusalem on his first trip as president, place aircraft carrier groups in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, and increase coordination with Israel.
"Most important, I will buttress my diplomacy with a military option that will persuade the ayatollahs to abandon their nuclear ambitions. Only when they understand that at the end of that road lies not nuclear weapons but ruin will there be a real chance for a peaceful resolution," Romney wrote. "Either the ayatollahs will get the message, or they will learn some very painful lessons about the meaning of American resolve."
Kerry said on the floor today that Romney's op-ed troubled him and he said Romney's attack on the administration's Iran policy was "as inaccurate as it was aggressive." The timing of the op-ed, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Washington, was additionally unfortunate, in Kerry's view.
"We should all remember that the nuclear issue with Iran is deadly serious business that should invite sobriety and serious-minded solutions, not sloganeering and sound bites. This can't become just another applause line on the Republican presidential stump," Kerry said. "Talk has consequences, and idle talk of war only helps Iran by spooking the tight oil market and increasing the price of the Iranian crude that pays for its nuclear program. And to create false differences with the president just to score political points does nothing to move Iran off a dangerous nuclear course."
"Worst of all, Governor Romney's op-ed does not even do readers the courtesy of describing how a President Romney would do anything different from what the Obama administration has already done," Kerry said. "Just look at this op-ed. From his opening paragraphs, Romney garbles history."
Kerry disputed Romney's assertion that President Jimmy Carter's efforts to negotiate the release of U.S. hostages in Iran in 1981 was "feckless," and his claim that Obama was the most "feckless" president since Carter, considering he ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
"I don't know if Governor Romney has checked the definition of the word ‘feckless' lately, but that ain't it," Kerry said.
Kerry then goes point by point through Romney's op-ed to argue that Obama has basically the same Iran policy Romney is proposing. Kerry even quotes Ambassador Nick Burns, President George W. Bush's lead negotiator on Iran, who said, "The attacks on Obama basically say, ‘He's weak and we're strong.' But when you look at the specifics, you don't see any difference."
"So when you add it all up, Mitt Romney is just trying to ignore, twist, and distort the administration's policy to drive a wedge in our politics," Kerry said. "We're going to have a bruising election season. And so we should. That's how we decide big issues in the United States. We always have. But let's have an honest debate, not a contrived one. Governor Romney can debate the man in the White House instead of inventing straw men on the op-ed pages."
Obama himself criticized the GOP presidential candidates for their rhetoric on the possibility of a war with Iran during his press conference today.
"You know, those folks don't have a lot of responsibilities. They're not commander in chief. And when I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I'm reminded of the costs involved in war. I'm reminded that the decision that I have to make in terms of sending our young men and women into battle and the impact that has on their lives, the impact it has on our national security, the impact it has on our economy," Obama said.
"This is not a game. And there's nothing casual about it. And, you know, when I see some of these folks who have a lot of bluster and a lot of big talk, but when you actually ask them specifically what they would do, it turns out they repeat the things that we've been doing over the last three years, it indicates to me that that's more about politics than actually trying to solve a difficult problem."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.