The Obama administration will expand sanctions on Iran and countries that do business with it, but new congressional legislation is unnecessary, according to Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg.
The House and Senate have each unveiled a bill that would tighten existing sanctions, compel the administration to enforce penalties already on the books, and levy a host of new sanctions against members of Iran's regime and companies that aid Iran's energy, banking, or arms sectors. The bills are a follow-up to the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act (CISADA) that Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed in July 2010.
Lawmakers are increasingly frustrated that the administration has decided not to use CISADA to penalize many companies from third-party countries such as China that are believed to be violating the sanctions, while only punishing a couple of firms from countries such as Belarus. The new bills are meant to force action on Chinese companies. But Steinberg said that the administration doesn't support another round of sanctions legislation and will proceed with enforcement on its own timeline.
"We think we have powerful tools, and we've welcomed CISADA and we think CISADA is a powerful tool, and what we've seen, not just with China but with everybody, is that the availability of that has caused countries and companies to stop doing things that they might otherwise do," Steinberg told The Cable in a June 6 interview on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Security Dialogue in Singapore.
Steinberg fundamentally disagreed with senators who believe that China has not been adhering to the sanctions and allowing its companies to backfill the business in Iran left open by the departure of firms from U.S. allies such as Japan and South Korea.
"I think the [Chinese] record has been reasonably good in terms of what they've done. It's not perfect, and we continue to work with them, we continue to keep some actions of theirs under investigation and review," he said.
"I think people -- if one would have asked two years ago, for example, on dealing with Iran, how much we would be in sync with China -- I think they would be amazed how well this has worked, both in terms of the formal stuff in the Security Council, but also in the P5+1," said Steinberg. "The Chinese have been fully on board, they haven't undercut it, they've been very clear and consistent with the need for Iran to meet their obligations and they've worked as a partner with us on that. They've been very restrained in their political and economic engagement with Iran."
Will the administration ever sanction Chinese companies for doing business in Iran, which, according to the Government Accountability Office, continues to this day?
"It depends what they do," Steinberg said. "As we've said to the Congress and to everybody, in the first best instance what we want is to see countries do it voluntarily, and we've seen a number of cases where we've raised issues of concern with China, and we've had some progress."
The lawmakers who spent months drafting the new sanctions legislation and who are planning to push it through Congress this summer fundamentally disagree with Steinberg's reading of Chinese behavior.
"I worry that the Obama administration has given Chinese banks and companies a get out of jail free card when it comes to sanctions law, and they should not," Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) said at last month's AIPAC conference in Washington.
In a Tuesday interview with The Cable, Kirk said that the Senate bill has strong leadership from both parties, including lead sponsors Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and many others.
"The hollowness of the administration's enforcement is evident when you compare how much the U.S. and Iranian economies grew last year. Because Ahmadinejad's economic growth was faster than Obama's, that underscores our concern that the results are meager at best," Kirk said.
"We have overwhelming bipartisan consensus here and in the House as well, so I would say to Secretary Steinberg, prepare for incoming legislation."
As the Obama administration struggles to find common ground with the Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership grapples with internal squabbles, one U.S. senator is proposing a host of ways to deepen cooperation between the United States and Israel.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) spent last week on what he calls "an intense fact-finding mission to Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan," where he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Jordan's King Abdullah II, and many others. In a soon-to-be-released report, obtained in advance by The Cable, he proposes a path forward for increased U.S.-Israeli defense cooperation and lays out his views on how Congress should deal with the thorniest issues of the U.S. approach to the Middle East.
Kirk is proposing an increased role for the Israeli Navy in global anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean in cooperation with India. He wants to vastly expand U.S.-Israeli cooperation on cyber security, beyond the suspected cooperation on the Stuxnet worm that has delayed Iran's uranium enrichment program. Kirk is also calling on the Joint Chiefs to review the possibility of adapting Israel's "Iron Dome" short-range missile defense system for use by the United States and NATO.
"We are stretched quite thin in the Indian Ocean and to have Israeli support will be critical in managing and reducing the pirate threat," Kirk said in a Tuesday interview with The Cable.
Regarding the stalled Middle East peace process, Kirk maintains that the United States should reaffirm President George W. Bush's 2004 letter on borders, which somewhat contradicts Obama's May 17 statement that borders should be based on 1967 lines with agreed swaps. Obama's new language for the first time made it official U.S. policy what had long been the Palestinian goal of using the 1967 lines as a basis for new borders.
Kirk's report also states that U.S. funding should not go to a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, nor should the United States give aid to the Palestinian Authority if it seeks a unilateral declaration of statehood at the United Nations in September or fails to curb anti-Israel incitement in Palestinian schools.
"It just seems extraordinarily difficult in the middle of deficits and debt that we should borrow money from China to fund a Hamas-supported government," Kirk said. "We would still support Palestinian schools and hospitals, but the approximately $200 million in direct support to the PA would be in jeopardy."
Kirk also wants the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to start transferring its management of Palestinian health and education services over to the Palestinian government, and for the State Department to designate the Turkish aid organization IHH, which organized the flotilla of ships that tried to breach Israel's Gaza blockade in May 2010, as a terrorist organization.
On his trip, Kirk also met with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, IDF Chief of Staff Benjamin Gantz, Mossad Chief Tamir Pardo, senior advisor to the Israeli Prime Minister Ron Dermer, Israeli Navy commander in chief Vice Admiral Eliezer Marum, Israeli Ministry of Defense Political-Military Bureau Director Amos Gilead, Deputy Israeli Prime Minister and Minister for Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya'alon, Israeli Prime Minister's Office spokesman Mark Regev, Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Jerusalem Post Palestinian Affairs correspondent Khaled Abu Toameh.
Human rights in Iran were also a big focus for Kirk on the trip. The senator made a video with Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident, in which Sharansky recited a list of dissidents who are currently imprisoned by the Iranian regime.
You can watch that video here:
One day after the Senate unveiled its wide ranging new Iran sanctions legislation and on the same day 10,000 AIPAC supporters are on the Hill, the Obama administration announced it would enforce penalties on seven companies doing business with Iran.
Outgoing Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg briefed the press on Tuesday on the administration's move to sanction seven companies under the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA), passed and signed into law last July. For those keeping count, that's a total of nine sanctioned firms since the law has been in place. The companies are: Petrochemical Commercial Company International (PCCI), UK and Iran; Royal Oyster Group, UAE; Speedy Ship, UAE, Iran; Tanker Pacific, Singapore; Ofer Brothers Group, Israel; Associated Shipbroking, Monaco; and Petroleos de Venezuela, sometimes known as PDVSA, in Venezuela.
All of the companies have been involved in the supply of refined petroleum products to Iran, Steinberg said.
"In its struggle to secure the resources it needs for its energy sector, Iran repeatedly has resorted to deceptive practices to evade sanctions... Today's actions add further pressure on Iran to comply with its international obligations," he said. "By imposing these sanctions, we're sending a clear message to companies around the world: Those who continue to irresponsibly support Iran's energy sector or help facilitate Iran's efforts to evade U.S. sanctions will face significant consequences."
Not all the companies were sanctioned in all the same way. For example, PDVSA will no longer have access to U.S. government contracts and U.S. Export-Import Bank financing and technology licenses, but the company can still sell oil to the United States and their subsidiaries are exempt from the sanctions.
Many in Congress are increasingly unhappy with the Obama administration for failing to enforce penalties on companies from countries who are not part of the sanctions team that do business with Iran. CISADA directs the administration to punish all these companies. Last October, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report that identified 16 companies as having sold petroleum products to Iran between Jan. 1, 2009, and June 30, 2010. Of those 16, the GAO reported that five have shown no signs of curtailing business with Iran. Three of those companies are based in China.
But no Chinese companies have been sanctioned by the Obama administration to date for aiding Iran's energy sector.
"I worry that the Obama administration has given Chinese banks and companies a get out of jail free card when it comes to sanctions law and they should not," Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) said Monday at the AIPAC conference.
Steinberg also noted that the administration has separately decided to impose sactions on 16 more foreign firms and individuals for their misbehavior on missile programs or WMD under the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA), three of which are from China.
Initial reaction to the administration's Tuesday announcement was mixed, with some praise and some skepticism that the new sanctions won't go far enough to transform the intent of the legislation into results.
"This sanction is a good first step and shows the importance of deeds, not only words. This step should send ripples of fear throughout the energy sector that Iran sanctions will be enforced," said Mark Dubowitz, executive director and head of the Iran Energy Program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
But multiple Senate aides told The Cable that they would continue to press the administration to enforce energy industry sanctions against third-party countries such as China and Russia.
"The question is, how does this appear to the international community? Do they look at these sanctions and say that the Americans aren't serious about stopping what's going on in the market? Sadly, I think the answer is yes," said one senior GOP Senate aide.
"It's always good when they sanction somebody, but the devil is in the details."
Both the House and Senate are preparing new legislation to increase pressure on Iran, but the House fired the opening salvo on Monday with a new bill authored by both heads of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
"U.S. policy towards Iran has offered a lot of bark, but not enough bite. This new bipartisan legislation would bring to bear the full weight of the U.S. by seeking to close the loopholes in existing energy and financial sanctions laws, while increasing the type and number of sanctions to be imposed," committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said in a statement unveiling the Iran Threat Reduction Act (ITRA).
The bill is meant to close loopholes that Ros-Lehtinen and others believe the administration is using to avoid enforcement of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in July 2010.
"Given the grave nature of the Iranian threat, it is my hope that my colleagues will support further strengthening the bill as it moves through the legislative process and not fall into the trap of enabling the Executive Branch to ignore U.S. law," she said.
To date, only two companies have been sanctioned under provisions in CISADA that were designed to clamp down on Iran's energy sector -- one Iranian state-owned corporation, and one corporation from Belarus. The new bill eliminates some of the waivers available to the president, raises the bar for other waivers, and expands the list of targeted Iranian officials and entities.
Other original co-sponsors are committee ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA), Dan Burton (R-IN), Edward R. Royce (R-CA), Brad Sherman (D-CA), Steve Chabot (R-OH), Gary Ackerman (D-NY), and Ted Deutch (D-FL).
"We must use every economic tool available to force Iran to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons," Berman said in his own statement. "As we await vigorous enforcement by the Obama Administration under CISADA, we must continually look ahead and examine additional means to pressure Iran, and that is exactly what this new legislation is intended to do."
Over in the Senate, top lawmakers are also preparing new Iran sanctions legislation, which could be unveiled as early as this month. Like the House bill, the Senate's version will incorporate ideas from a range of individual lawmakers on how to increase pressure on Iran. However, the Senate bill will likely focus on expanding sanctions rather than tightening enforcement of existing sanctions, as the House has done.
The Senate effort is being led by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Mark Kirk (R-IL), but will likely incorporate ideas from others, such as Robert Casey (D-PA) and Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY).
"The new legislation for the first time targets Iran's crude oil exports and the dominant role played by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the development, production, and distribution of Iran's oil," said Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who helped develop the House bill. "With the introduction of this new legislation, companies now are on notice that ‘buyer beware': If you're buying crude from Iran, you're buying it from the IRGC, and that's bad for business, bad for your reputation and could make you the target of U.S. sanctions."
You can find the bill text here.
Seven Republican senators are demanding that the Obama administration take tougher measures to punish banks still doing business in Iran, and they are threatening to stall the nomination of a top Treasury Department official unless they get their way.
The dispute between the White House and Congress revolves around implementation of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA) of 2010, the wide-ranging law signed into law last year. The Treasury Department issued a draft rule last week that lays out how it intends to implement a key provision of the law, which deals with Iran's banking partners in countries around the world. And that rule raised the ire of seven GOP senators, who expected Treasury to enforce the law much more stringently.
The key provision, section 104(e), directs the administration to punish any international financial institutions still doing business with Iran by cutting them off from the U.S. financial system.
"We were extremely unhappy with the draft rule to implement section 104(e) of CISADA publish by the Treasury Department last week," wrote Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Roger Wicker (R-MS), David Vitter (R-LA), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Mike Crapo (R-ID), and Mike Johanns (R-NE), in a previously unreported letter sent Tuesday, and obtained by The Cable.
The letter was addressed to David Cohen, the acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury Department. Cohen took over for Stuart Levey, the previous sanctions chief at Treasury, who moved on to the Council on Foreign Relations last month after more than 4 years on the job.
The senators are threatening to hold up Cohen's nomination if their demands regarding enforcement of the sanctions provisions aren't met. Cohen had his confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday and, afterwards, Kirk sent Treasury a list of follow-up questions he says must be answered before he'll allow Cohen's nomination to move forward.
"The acting undersecretary's response to our letter and questions for the record will weigh heavily in any confirmation decision," Kirk told The Cable.
Kirk also identified 44 international financial institutions servicing Iranian banks and 18 U.S. institutions that are working with those who do business inside Iran. He got this list from a 2010 report entitled "Iran's Dirty Banking", which sourced the information to the Banker's Almanac.
Kirk wants Treasury to require all U.S. banks to certify that any foreign banks they deal with aren't dealing with Iran. He also wants those foreign banks to certify that any banks they are dealing with aren't doing business with Iran. But Treasury's current plan calls for banks to provide such information only if and when the Obama administration asks for it.
"The object is to make sure we are doing anything and everything we can to drive Iranian business out of our banking system and this is how to do it," one senior GOP senate aide said.
"Large American banks and foreign banks that are operating here have not been hauled before Congress and have not been forced to tell the people and shareholders why they have not complied with the law," said another senior GOP aide.
Specifically, the aide said that the senators who signed the letter want Treasury to publish a final rule on implementation of the provision that requires audits of all banks' interactions with Iran on an ongoing basis. If that happens, the Cohen nomination can go through.
All of the senators who signed the letter, except for Kyl, are on the banking committee.
In his Tuesday testimony, Cohen defended the Treasury Department's efforts to tighten the noose around Iran's banking sector, including the passing of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929 and subsequent successful efforts to convince European and northeast Asian countries to drop their Iranian banking ties.
Since 2006, Treasury has sanctioned 20 Iranian state-owned banks involved in facilitating Iran's nuclear program for penalties, and officials have traveled the world to try to convince foreign governments to take similar actions.
Cohen also said that sanctions against foreign owned banks that are working with Iran aren't necessarily the best tool in all cases, and indicated that there are more penalty decisions coming soon, such as the designation of more third country banks.
"The first best option is to get them to stop. Our second best option is to apply sanctions. And without getting too much into the details of any particular investigation that we're conducting, I can tell you that we are, I would say, close to a decision point on several institutions," he testified.
Matthew Levitt, a former deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the Treasury Department and now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that Treasury was not against congressionally mandated sanctions, but believes they should only be used after all efforts to persuade foreign banks to shape up fail.
"What you have here is a struggle between two branches of government trying to get the same job done, but using two different paths to the same end," he said. "In some instances, it may be, you will get more compliance if you don't hit them with the hammer."
Levitt also defended the Treasury's efforts to put pressure on Iran's financial activities. "It's almost silly for anyone to claim the Treasury Department has been soft on Iran," he said.
The Obama administration and most of Washington may be focused on Libya or Pakistan, but several offices on Capitol Hill are preparing new sanctions bills to increase pressure on Iran.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) will kick off the slew of new Iran sanctions legislation expected to be introduced in May on Wednesday, when he introduces a new bill to promote human rights and democracy in Iran. He is working on a bipartisan and bicameral basis with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Rep. Robert Dold (R-IL), and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL). The bill, called the Iran Human Rights and Democracy Promotion Act of 2011, would force the administration to appoint a special representative on human rights and democracy in Iran and impose sanctions on companies that sell or service products that enable the Iranian regime to oppress its people, such as communications spying equipment.
At a press conference scheduled for Wednesday, Kirk will also host a family member of a Baha'i religious leader imprisoned in Iran.
But Kirk's bill is only one piece of the larger puzzle of Iran bills circulating on Capitol Hill right now. Two senior Senate aides told The Cable that the plan is to compile several Iran bills together into one massive, new Iran sanctions bill to be unveiled by the end of May.
"By the end of this month, there's probably going to be a comprehensive bill that deals with Iran on a variety of levels, including proliferation, human rights, and energy," one senior GOP Senate aide said.
A primary focus of that bill will be ways to increase pressure on companies based in other countries that are still doing business with Iran's energy sector.
Many in Congress are increasingly unhappy with the Obama administration for failing to enforce penalties on companies from third-party countries that are still doing business with Iran. The Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA) of 2010 directs the administration to punish these companies. However, only a few have actually been punished -- and they hail from places like Belarus where the administration has little concern for delicate bilateral relations.
The details of the Senate's new comprehensive Iran sanctions bill aren't worked out yet, but there are several pieces of legislation floating around that could be included. For example, Gillibrand has a bill that would introduce criminal penalties against companies that fail to disclose their business ties with Iran.
Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) introduced a bill last year that would make it harder for Iran to issue energy bonds -- the idea being to make the export of crude oil more costly and difficult. That bill could also reemerge as part of the new Senate comprehensive Iran package.
There's no official leadership for the Senate's new comprehensive bill yet, but the legislators most active on Iran have been Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Kirk. The three wrote a letter March 28 to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on this very issue.
Over in the House, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) could unveil her own version of new sanctions legislation as well. Our sources say that the House is more focused on increasing enforcement of existing sanctions and closing loopholes -- as opposed to introducing new punitive measures -- but nothing is finalized.
But there's one thing both chambers agree on: the need to stop Chinese companies from undermining U.S. sanctions by backfilling the business Iran is losing due to the exit of American and European countries.
"There's just no doubt that China is going to be a big focus of our bill," the Senate aide said.
President Barack Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres discussed how the Israeli-Palestinian peace process fits into the wave of democratization sweeping through the Arab world during a working lunch and then a 40 minute one-on-one meeting on Tuesday..
"We had an extensive discussion about what's happened in the Middle East," Obama said at a press conference after the meetings. "I think he and I both share a belief that this is both a challenge and an opportunity; that with the winds of change blowing through the Arab world, it's more urgent than ever that we try to seize the opportunity to create a peaceful solution between the Palestinians and the Israelis."
At the working lunch, Obama was joined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, NSC Chief of Staff Brooke Anderson, NSC Senior Director Dennis Ross, incoming U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell, and NSC Senior Director Puneet Talwar.
Both presidents expressed the opinion that bringing the Arab-Israeli conflict to a resolution would help the United States and Israel support democratic change in the Middle East.
"We see it as a clash between generations, a clash between those who want democracy and those who want to go backwards," an Israel official who was present at the lunch told The Cable. "One of the ways to make sure the right side wins is if there could be progress in the peace process."
The most immediate issue for Israel how to set good relations with the next government in Egypt. Obama said the two presidents discussed ways for both countries to support Egypt's economic development as a means of supporting the Egyptian youth. Peres believes restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would also help Israel navigate its changing relationship with Egypt.
"Peres' message is that Palestinians and Israel now have a common interest to get to negotiations, because both sides want Egypt to continue to support the peace process," the Israel official said.
But Obama, following the breakdown of the direct negotiations he and Clinton worked so hard to push forward in 2010, warned Peres that he would only try again if he first saw increased commitment from both parties.
"Obama said he's willing to help, he's willing to push forward, but... he wants to see that a serious effort is being made and then he will add his weight," the official explained.
Obama and Peres also addressed the issue of Iran at their meetings. Peres noted that dealing with Iran is also a moral issue, because the Islamic Republic heads the anti-democratic camp in the region. The two presidents also agreed on continuing cooperation on missile defense against the Iranian threat and the necessity of maintaining economic sanctions on Tehran. .
According to the Israeli official, Peres told Obama that Israel is increasingly concerned about the flow of Russian strategic weaponry into the region and said that Israel wants to purchase an additional 20 F-35 fighter jets.
U.S. officials at the lunch raised the touchy issue of continued Israeli settlement building, but Peres didn't give any ground.
"Look, our policy hasn't changed," the official said, referring to Peres's position. "We have our differences with the administration but this has been our policy all along. We don't agree on everything."
Peres also asked Obama to consider clemency for convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, and he reminded the U.S. president that he has an open invitation to visit Israel whenever he wants.
Obama acknowledged both points but gave "no sort of reply one way or the other," the official said.
The State Department announced on Tuesday that it has decided to apply the recently passed Iran sanctions legislation to the Belarusian company Belorusneft. But GOP senators monitoring the implementation of the law said the move was marginal and unsatisfactory.
The action prevents Belorusneft, a subsidiary of the government-owned conglomerate Belneftekhim, from seeking any loans or doing any business in U.S. financial markets. The sanction was implemented under the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) of 1996 as amended by the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA) of 2010. In a press release, the State Department focused on Belorusneft's 2007 $500 million contract with the NaftIran Intertrade Company (NICO), which is also being punished under U.S. sanctions.
"Since President Barack Obama signed CISADA into law on July 1, 2010, Iran's ability to attract new investment to develop its oil and natural gas resources, and to produce or import refined petroleum products, has been severely limited," the release said. "The State Department's direct engagement with companies and governments to enforce CISADA is raising the pressure on the Government of Iran."
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Wednesday that, in practical terms, the action prohibits Belorusneft from seeking assistance from the Export-Import Bank of the United States, obtaining U.S. government export licenses, obtaining private U.S. bank loans exceeding $10 million, and securing any procurement contracts with the U.S. government.
Belarusneft, the largest oil company in Belarus, hasn't actually tried to apply for any of those things, but Toner explained that the new announcement "also sends a message to our partners in Europe as well that this is a company that we've decided to sanction. And I'm sure they have access or would seek access into European markets." Toner didn't say if State was pushing the EU to follow suit.
Three senior senators who have been intimately involved in the Iran sanctions law and its implementation immediately shot off a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, obtained by The Cable, criticizing today's announcement as too weak.
"We are writing to express our disappointment with today's announcement that the administration designated only one additional entity for violating U.S. sanctions with regard to Iran," wrote Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Joe Lieberman (I-CT). "We do not believe this represents full compliance with the sanctions regime put in place by Congress."
"It appears that Chinese firms in the energy and banking sectors have conducted significant activity in violation of U.S. law," ten senators wrote to Clinton on March 10. "We cannot afford to create the impression that China will be given free rein to conduct economic activity in Iran when more responsible nations have chosen to follow the course we have asked of them. We are sure you agree."
The State Department's Bob Einhorn briefed senators on Capitol Hill on this very issue on March 11, but a senior GOP senate aide told The Cable that the meeting was disappointing.
The GOP senate offices in question see today's designation as marginal, especially as the parent company, Belneftekhim, was already sanctioned by the U.S. government in 2007 through Executive Order 13405, which targeted firms connected to President Alexander Lukashenko for human rights violations, and three other subsidiaries were sanctioned in 2008.
"It's a complete disappointment," one senior GOP aide told The Cable. "You would have thought they had already found a way to only designate the lowest hanging fruit when they sanctioned NICO. Alas, they found a lower hanging fruit."
A different senior GOP aide said the move sends the signal that the Obama administration only has the willingness to punish Iranian companies such as NICO and companies from other states that doesn't have close or critical relations with, such as Belarus.
"While the administration is patting itself on the back for its empty action today with Belarus, we can hear the sighs of relief coming from Tehran, Beijing, Ankara and Geneva where bankers, gasoline traders, and oil and natural gas financiers just realized that the Obama administration isn't serious about stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program," the aide said.
Dubowitz, executive director and head of the Iran Energy
Program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told The Cable that today's announcement "is a step in the
right direction for both human rights and national security, but it's only a small
and incremental one."
"The administration should be praised for moving against the energy lifeblood of both Belarus and Iran, two regimes which savagely repress their own people," he said. "But this was only a borderline meaningful designation since Belneftekhim and three other subsidiaries are already subject to designations. While a designation against this fourth subsidiary is helpful, the time for incrementalism is long past as Iran drives towards a nuclear weapon."
The wide-ranging sanctions law passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama last July calls for the administration to punish companies from third-party countries that are still doing business in Iran. However, U.S. senators still aren't sure whether the administration will follow through with this punishment, especially when it comes to companies in China.
A bipartisan group of 10 U.S. senators, led by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-KY) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday to demand an update on the State Department's investigation into these companies' ongoing business with the Iranian regime. Their letter was subsequently obtained by The Cable. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg announced that State's investigation began on Sept. 29, which means that law requires the results to arrive by March 29, the senators wrote.
"It appears that Chinese firms in the energy and banking sectors have conducted significant activity in violation of U.S. law," the senators stated. "We cannot afford to create the impression that China will be given free rein to conduct economic activity in Iran when more responsible nations have chosen to follow the course we have asked of them. We are sure you agree."
The State Department's Bob Einhorn is briefing senators on Capitol Hill on this very issue on Friday, a senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable.
In remarks at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Wednesday, Einhorn addressed the issue directly, saying that "we continue to have concerns about the transfer of proliferation-sensitive equipment and materials to Iran by Chinese companies, there is substantial evidence that Beijing has taken a cautious, go-slow approach toward its energy cooperation with Iran."
That explanation won't be enough to satisfy the senators' demands for more active confrontation if Chinese companies are indeed flouting sanctions.
One of the main concerns on Capitol Hill is that as countries pull out from Iran, other countries will take over contracts, thereby nullifying the effect of the sanctions -- a practice known as "backfilling."
For example, the administration and Congress worked hard to convince Japan and South Korea to impose unilateral measures against Iran. However, there's particular concern that China firms will simply come in and take over those contracts.
Kyl and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) sent a letter to Clinton last October on this very issue, noting reports that China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) replaced the Japanese firm Inpex and agreed to invest around $2 billion to develop Iran's South Azadegan oil fields last year.
One week later, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report that identified 16 companies that sold petroleum products to Iran between Jan. 1, 2009, and June 30, 2010. Of those 16, the GAO reported that five have shown no signs of curtailing business with Iran. Three of those companies are based in China, one in Singapore, and one in the UAE.
Other lawmakers who have pressed the administration to enforce Iran sanctions against China include Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Susan Collins (R-ME), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA).
"Clearly, Congress -- on both sides of the aisle -- is losing patience and expects the administration to act," said Josh Block, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and former spokesman for AIPAC. "If not, what kind of message are we sending to these companies in China and Venezuela and Turkey and elsewhere -- and their governments -- that are helping Iran break international isolation?"
Former FBI agent Bob Levinson is most likely alive and imprisoned in "southwest Asia," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement Thursday.
"As we approach the fourth anniversary of Bob Levinson's disappearance, we have received recent indications that Bob is being held somewhere in southwest Asia," she said. "As the Government of Iran has previously offered its assistance in this matter, we respectfully request the Iranian government to undertake humanitarian efforts to safely return and reunite Bob with his family. We would appreciate the Iranian government's efforts in this matter."
The State Department offered no details on who is holding Levinson or where in "southwest Asia" he is being held. But Clinton's contention that he is alive and somewhere in the region is the first disclosure of new information on the case in quite a long time.
Levinson disappeared during a 2007 visit to Kish Island, a resort island owned by Iran known for its beauty and its status as a free trade zone where no entry visas are required. Levinson checked out of his hotel there March 9, 2007 but did not board his scheduled flight to Dubai.
U.S. officials have repeatedly asked the Iranian government to assist in the return of Levinson, who many believe was arrested by Iranian agents and held in Iran, at least for a time. The Iranian government has repeatedly denied knowing anything about his whereabouts.
While denying that Levinson was still working for the U.S. government, the State Department and the FBI have worked behind the scenes to try to gather information on his situation and secure his return. State Department officials have also met with Levinson's family members several times.
"Our family is tremendously encouraged by the news Bob is alive but remains concerned for his safety and well being," Levinson's wife Christine said in a statement Thursday.
So what was Clinton referring to when she said Levinson is in "southwest Asia?" The term is vague, even by government standards. There was a dispute over its borders in 2009 when Dennis Ross was given "southwest Asia" as his portfolio, leading State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley to define the region as Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Yemen. According to the CIA Fact Book, "southwest Asia" also includes Afghanistan.
The U.S. intelligence community has completed and is circulating a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear weapons program that walks back the conclusion of the 2007 NIE, which stated that Iran had halted work on its covert nuclear weapons program.
Intelligence officials briefed executive branch policymakers on the revised NIE last week. The document is being shared with members of Congress and their staff this week, an administration official and several Capitol Hill sources told The Cable. This is in advance of an early March meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's Board of Governors, where there may be another resolution on Iran's nuclear program, the official said.
The 2007 NIE was attacked in public due to its conclusion: "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program." The new estimate might not directly contradict that judgment, Hill sources report, but could say that while the intelligence community has not determined that Iran has made the strategic decision to build a nuclear weapon, it is working on the components of such a device.
Several sources said they are being told there will be no declassified version of the new NIE, and that only those cleared to read the full 2007 NIE (pdf) will be able to see the new version.
"It does exist," House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) said in an interview with The Cable. Rogers said the administration was right to take its time to revise the 2007 NIE before releasing the updated version. "Intelligence is a fluid thing, sometimes you get great stuff and sometimes you don't get great stuff to make good conclusions. I think they were prudent in what they've done."
House Foreign Affairs ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) told The Cable he had heard the new NIE would walk back the controversial conclusions of the 2007 version, but that he hadn't read it yet. Regardless, he said, the 2007 Iran NIE was now obsolete and discredited.
"Nobody had been paying attention to the older NIE. A few people on the outside focused on it because they didn't want us to go down the sanctions route but neither the administration nor the Congress paid it much attention," Berman said. "I thought the NIE estimate then was a faulty one because it focused on some aspects of weaponization -- even as Iran was continuing to enrich."
Revelations that Iran had a secret uranium enrichment facility at Qom, which occurred after the release of the 2007 NIE, were further proof that the Iranian regime was pursing nuclear weapons, Berman said. Regardless, the Obama administration has disregarded the 2007 Iran NIE, he said.
"For a year and a half the administration has been convinced that Iran has been pursuing a nuclear weapon. That's what they whole sanctions push is based on," Berman said. "There can be no serious doubt that Iran wants to have a nuclear weapons capability."
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), a former intelligence officer for the U.S. Navy, told The Cable, "The 2007 NIE was a mistake," and this document appears to be more realistic. He urged the intelligence community to take a less technical and more comprehensive look at the Iranian leadership's actions when making such judgments.
"My hope is that the current leaders of the intelligence community look not just at technical details and also comment regularly on Iran's leaders," Kirk said. "In Intelligence 101 we are taught to measure both capability and intent politically, and the intent here on the part of the Iranian regime is pretty clear."
Several lawmakers refused to discuss the new NIE because it was classified or because they hadn't read it yet. Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable he had been briefed on the new NIE, but declined to comment on its contents. Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told The Cable she hadn't yet seen the new NIE but planned to review it soon.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI), who supported the conclusions in the 2007 NIE, contended that the old estimate was misconstrued as an attempt by its authors to head off an attack against Iran by the Bush administration.
"I think it was interpreted incorrectly," Levin told The Cable.
The NIE is compiled by the National Intelligence Council, but rollout and classification decisions are ultimately made by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Levey will resign next month and the administration will nominate Cohen to replace him next week, a senior administration official told The Cable. Levey has been serving as the under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence since 2004; Cohen has been assistant secretary for terrorist financing since 2009. The Cable received e-mailed statements from several top Obama administration officials praising Levey's tenure and pledging that the drive will continue unabated to increase and enforce sanctions on Iran, North Korea, and groups that financially support violent extremist groups.
The resignation comes just as the latest round of talks between the P5+1 countries and Iran regarding its nuclear program seem to have sputtered and even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has indicated more sanctions could be in the offing.
"It will have no effect on policy, or on our ability to execute the President's policy," said Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. "David came to Treasury with well established outside expertise and has worked at Stuart's side for the last two years."
Geither said that when the Obama administration took office, Levey had agreed to stay for six months but ended up staying for over two years.
"There's no perfect time for these things. But this is as good a time as any," said Geithner.
Geither called Levey "tremendously effective" and "the best mixture of toughness and creativity," and credited him with convincing a host of public and private actors to join the U.S. government's fight to name and shame organizations that help rogue states and non-government actors finance illicit activities.
For example, Levey's team was instrumental in convincing Japan and South Korea to take step to end their business with Iran's energy sector after President Obama signed new sanctions legislation last July. In 2006, Levey's team led the drive to publicly accuse Macau's Banco Delta Asia of doing laundering money for the North Korean regime.
"Every financial institution anywhere in the world needs to preserve its reputation for integrity in order to do business globally and especially in the U.S....Stuart has been able to use that reality as an incentive to get the private sector to move to reinforce our policies," he said.
White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan said in a statement that Levey's work had directly degraded the capabilities of those who seek to do the U.S. harm.
"Stuart has helped save lives, and our country owes him a strong debt of gratitude," said Brennan. "While we will greatly miss Stuart's involvement in these ongoing efforts, we are very fortunate to have someone of David Cohen's caliber and in-depth experience to build upon Stuart's outstanding work."
National Security Advisor Tom Donilon said that Levey had elevated Treasury's role in the national security sphere and praised his work on devising and enforcing sanctions on Iran.
"Stuart designed and executed innovative financial strategies for targeting terrorists, proliferators, and other illicit actors, and built an international consensus around the use of targeted sanctions as an effective means of combating threats, pressuring regimes, and safeguarding the financial system," Donilon said.
The Wall Street Journal, which first reported Levey's departure, said that Levey had not yet decided what to do next. Here's how the paper described Levey's tenure:
The Ohio native traveled widely across Asia, the Middle East and Europe to press foreign governments and businesses to cut off their financial ties to Iranian and North Korean entities believed to be involved in weapons proliferation and terrorism. Since 2004, he has also built up Treasury's Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence into a major cog in the U.S. national-security apparatus, with more than 700 people involved in activities such as tracking illicit financing and approving export licenses for sensitive technologies.
Treasury officials now have a prominent seat in virtually every national-security debate.
Levey's work on Iran and North Korea sanctions also earned his praise today from Capitol Hill, where sanctions hawk Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) praised Levey's impact on the overall financial sanctions regime.
"Indeed, what David Petraeus has done for counterinsurgency warfare, Stuart Levey has done for economic warfare -- completely rewriting the book on the subject," Lieberman said.
Just before Chinese President Hu Jintao's arrival to Washington, two leading senators accused China of violating sanctions against Iran and sent a warning to President Barack Obama that Congress will go after Chinese companies if the abuses don't stop.
"We appreciate China's decision to support U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929, as well as China's backing of prior U.N. sanctions against Iran. However, we believe that China's record on sanctions enforcement and nonproliferation is inadequate and disappointing," Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) wrote to President Obama on Jan. 14 in a previously unreported letter.
The senators cited numerous reports that China is supplying crucial materials to aid Iran's nuclear and missile programs and alleged that Beijing continues to give monetary and material support to Iran's energy sectors, including the delivery of refined petroleum products, which could provoke penalties under U.S. laws passed by Congress, including the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act that Obama signed into law in July, 2010.
The senators specifically named the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and the China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (SINOPEC) as firms that could come under U.S. penalties.
"We urge you to warn President Hu that the U.S. will be forced to sanction these companies if they do not quickly suspend their ties with Iran," the senators wrote.
Last October, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a new report that identified 16 companies as having sold petroleum products to Iran between Jan. 1, 2009, and June 30, 2010. Of those 16, the GAO reported that five have shown no signs of curtailing business with Iran. Three of those companies are based in China, one in Singapore, and one in the UAE.
Japan and South Korea are among the countries that have scaled back their dealings in Iran in response to U.S. pressure. But analysts fear that Chinese corporations could move to backfill the space left in Iran by countries that are now cooperating with international and U.S. sanctions measures.
Also today, one of the key authors of the bill, former House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Howard Berman (D-CA), also called on Obama to press China to enforce energy sanctions on Iran.
"A key area of concern for the United States is the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran, a threat that would also jeopardize China's long-term security," Berman said in a statement. "As President Obama sits down with President Hu this week, securing greater cooperation from the Chinese government in stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program must be at the top of the agenda."
China is currently Iran's largest trade partner, its largest oil purchaser and its largest foreign investor. China-Iran trade is currently around $30 billion per year and Iranian officials have predicted it could reach $50 billion over the next five years.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves Washington today for a trip to the Gulf, where she will meet with senior Arab leaders and civic groups. Middle East peace, Iraq, and Iran will be at the top of her agenda.
Clinton travels to New York tonight to pay a visit to Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, who has been in New York since November for surgery on his back. She'll also meet tonight with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in New York, before embarking on a six-day trip that will take her to the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar.
"She is going to want to talk about Iraq," a senior State Department official said about the trip. "We obviously want to encourage [regional leaders in the Gulf] to be as supportive as possible to the new Iraqi government."
"On the peace process, I think it's time once again for the secretary to take stock on what is happening in the region," the official said. "She will want to talk a bit about where the Arab peace initiative is and she will want to get a better sense of how the region sees the situation on the ground both in terms of both the Palestinian Authority and also in terms of the talks... We are very eager to see progress made but it's an uphill battle."
Clinton will also sound out the Gulf rulers on their opinions toward Iran's recent actions, said the official. With the "P5+1" countries scheduled to hold another round of talks with Iran in Istanbul, it is an important moment to attempt to "unknot this problem that we find ourselves in with the Iranians and their nuclear ambitions," the official said. "She'll also want to take stock of where we are on the sanctions regime."
Clinton will hold bilateral meetings with senior leaders in all three countries. In the UAE, Clinton will meet with Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince, and his brother Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Foreign Minister.
This will be Clinton's first visit to Dubai, where she will meet with ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. She will also go to Abu Dhabi and visit the "green city" of Masdar, the futuristic neighborhood being built to run completely carbon neutral and waste free.
In Oman, Clinton will help celebrate the 40th anniversary of the reign of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who the State Department official described as "a long time friend of the United States and a valued partner who has made enormous changes on the ground in his country over the last 40 years. "
In Qatar, Clinton will meet with Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir, and participate in the Forum for the Future, a meeting of government, civil society, and business leaders from around the region. There she will participate in a panel with a foreign minister, a civil society representative, and a business leader from the region.
The State Department is billing the trip as "an opportunity to showcase these other dimensions of U.S. engagement in the Middle East and the Gulf, particularly the emphasis we've placed on building partnerships beyond the government to government level, reaching out to civil society, reaching out to the private sector," said another senior State Department official. "That's really the key goal for everything that she's doing on the trip."
The P5+1 talks in Geneva have only just begun, but a bipartisan group of senators is already calling on the Obama administration to resist Iranian attempts at stalling, keep ratcheting up pressure as talks go on, and tell Iran they don’t have the right to enrich uranium for the foreseeable future.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week in Bahrain that Iran does have the right to a domestic uranium enrichment program for civilian purposes, if and when they prove to the international community they can do so transparently and responsibly.
But in a letter (PDF) to President Barack Obama to be delivered on Monday -- but obtained in advance by The Cable -- Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY), Bob Casey (D-PA), and Mark Kirk (R-IL) said that the administration should make clear to Iran that domestic enrichment is not an option.
“We believe that it is critical that the United States and our partners make clear that, given the government of Iran’s pattern of deception and non-cooperation, its government cannot be permitted to maintain any enrichment or reprocessing activities on its territory for the foreseeable future,” the senators wrote. “We would strongly oppose any proposal for a diplomatic endgame in which Iran is permitted to continue these activities in any form.”
The senators also told Obama they want the administration to make clear to Iran that sanctions and other pressures will increase during the negotiations. They also wrote that the administration should not be fooled into accepting “confidence building measures” as substitutes for real negotiations.
Overall, the letter sets down a marker to Obama to remind him that, as the administration heads down the engagement track with Iran once again, Congress will be watching and waiting to criticize any perceived weakness or concession. The negotiations may be taking place in Geneva, but the Obama team has to always keep one eye on Capitol Hill.
MANAMA, Bahrain — International sanctions are not likely to convince Tehran to abandon its nuclear program and Monday’s talks in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 countries are only the first step in a process that could take years to succeed, according to Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.
Bildt, who is considered one of Europe’s leading voices on foreign policy, is no friend of Iran. He’s a vocal critic of Iran’s human rights record and has worked hard to free Europeans held in Iranian prisons. But he gave a speech on Sunday at the 2010 IISS Manama Security Dialogue that included criticism of the sanctions regime the United States and Europe have worked to put in place. He also happened to sit next to Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki at the Dec. 3 gala dinner at which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke.
The Cable sat down with Bildt on Sunday for an exclusive interview about Iran, the nuclear negotiations, and his dinner date with the Iranian leader.
Bildt disagreed with Clinton’s view, expressed in our exclusive interview with her two days before, that the international sanctions regime had brought Iran back to the table and was thus having an effect on the Iranian leadership’s decision making.
“They were at the table one year ago, they were at the table six months ago, and they are at the table again. And I think it’s at the table where the solution can be found. I fail to see any solution that is not at the table,” Bildt said.
“The sanctions are part of the scene but they are not the solution,” he told The Cable. “There are some people that seem to believe sanctions are going to sort out the problem itself, as if you have sufficiently hard sanctions, the Iranians are suddenly going to fold and say, ‘We agree with everything that you’ve said.’ That’s a pipe dream.”
Sanctions might have some effect over the long term, but that could take a very long time, he said.
“You’re talking about a 10, 15, 20 year process,” Bildt said. “The thing that can change things in the near term is the talks.”
But even the nuclear negotiations that begin on Monday in Geneva will need several follow-up sessions before progress is can be made, said Bildt.
“I think we’re talking about a fairly lengthy process. We have a gulf of mistrust between the Iranians and the Americans that is profound. One side is locked into 1979 and one side is locked into 1953,” Bildt said, referring to the dates of Islamic Revolution and the U.S. sponsored coup that overthrew Mohammad Mosaddegh. “It will have to be a step by step approach, where you start by some smaller steps before you’re ready to take some bigger steps.”
Luckily, the West has some more time to negotiate with Iran, Bildt added, because he believes that their nuclear progress is going much slower than anyone anticipated.
And what about his dinner with Mottaki? Bildt said he told Mottaki that Clinton’s speech, which focused on Iran’s right to civilian nuclear development and avoided harsh criticisms, was a huge change in tone from the American side made in the hope of improving relations.
Bildt said that Mottaki agreed, but that the Iranian diplomat doubted it would make much of a difference in the end.
“I said to Mottaki, ‘this is significant,’” Bildt related, referring to Clinton’s direct outreach to the Iranian delegation.
“'Yes, yes,’ he said, ‘it is,’” Bildt quoted Mottaki as telling him. “But there many people in Tehran who don’t believe it,” Mottaki added.
MANAMA, Bahrain—U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to speak with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki twice on Friday, pursuing him both inside and outside the gala dinner here at the Ritz Carlton in Manama. But Mottaki deliberately avoided contact with her both times.
"If he comes to the dinner, I'll probably see him. But he doesn't talk to me," Clinton told The Cable in our exclusive interview just hours before the event.
Turns out she was right. Everybody at the opening dinner for the 2010 IISS Manama Security Dialogue, where Clinton gave the speech, was watching to see if she and Mottaki would trade words. After all, they were seated only five seats apart. Clinton went out on a limb twice to try to make it happen, but the end result was only an unintelligible mutter from the Iranian leader in the general direction of the secretary.
Clinton's first attempt came just as the dinner ended. All the leaders sitting at the head table were shaking each other's hands. Mottaki was shaking hands with Jordan's King Abdullah II when Clinton called out to him.
"As I was leaving and they were telling me, ‘Hurry up, you have to get to the plane,' I got up to leave and he was sitting several seats down from me and he was shaking people's hands, and he saw me and he stopped and began to turn away," Clinton told reporters on the plane ride home.
"And I said, ‘Hello, minister!' And he just turned away," said Clinton, adding that Mottaki seemed to mutter something in Farsi but was clearly trying to avoid her.
In his Saturday morning press conference, Mottaki had a different take on the interaction.
"Some people said that last night at the dinner Hillary Clinton said hello to me as I was greeting the king of Jordan," he said. "According to the Islamic tradition, there is a necessity to respond... The people of this region are very famous for being polite."
But that wasn't Clinton's only try. We're told by a senior member of the U.S. delegation that as Clinton's huge team moved to the door, Mottaki kept his delegation back to avoid having the two delegations converge at the door at the same time.
The next attempt by Clinton came outside the conference space, in the driveway while both leaders were waiting for their motorcades to pull up. Again, Clinton called out to Mottaki with a greeting and again, Mottaki refused to respond.
There's a lot of buzz about this game of cat and mouse between Clinton and Mottaki here at the conference. Most observers said that Mottaki simply was not interested in making any news about a warm interaction with Clinton ahead of the negotiations. It simply would not play well for him domestically.
Several attendees speculated that Mottaki is resisting interacting with Clinton at least in part because she is a woman. Mottaki's behavior at the press conference confirmed that he is distinctly less interested in dealing with women face to face.
But if Mottaki thinks he has gotten away with successfully avoiding any direct contact with the U.S. delegation, he is dead wrong. And the funny thing is, he probably doesn't even know it.
After Clinton left town, the delegation heads sat down for lunch Saturday at a local Japanese restaurant. Two witnesses confirmed that as part of the opening greetings, Mottaki shook hands with Assistant Secretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow. Both witnesses said they were sure Mottaki had no idea at the time that he had just shaken hands with a U.S. government official.
YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images
MANAMA, Bahrain—U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may have tried to tamp down the rhetoric against Iran in her speech Friday night here in Bahrain, but Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki's speech Saturday morning was the same critical and defiant line his government has been taking for months.
Here at the 2010 IISS Manama Security Dialogue, the Clinton and Mottaki speeches were the most closely watched. Clinton's speech was well received; the Arab Gulf country representatives we spoke with all said they thought she projected an open and welcoming message. They noted that she made statements on Iran's right to nuclear energy while avoiding the usual U.S. criticisms of the regime many expected.
Mottaki's speech, however, was devoid of the kind of signals that might reassure Gulf or American diplomats that Iran was moving toward concessions or a warming of ties. The speech came only two days before Iran returns to the table to discuss its nuclear program with the P5+1 countries in Geneva.
Mottaki repeatedly disputed the idea that Arab countries were concerned and opposed to Iran's nuclear program, as was communicated to American diplomats and revealed in the disclosures of diplomatic cables by the website WikiLeaks.
"Muslims must be happy to see other Muslims becoming powerful," he said, rejecting the idea that Arab countries are suspicious of Iran. "Our power is your power," he told the Arab leaders assembled. "We must not allow the Western media to tell us what to think of each other."
He called the government of Israel a "counterfeit regime" and dismissed its establishment as an "excuse to provide a home for the victims of the second WorldWar."
Regarding the nuclear talks themselves, Mottaki questioned whether it would really be a dialogue or just a lecture from the United States. He declared that the U.S.-led international sanctions on Iran are having no effect, directly contradicting Clinton.
"If the other side believes they need more time to see the results of the sanctions, they can have more time. The sanctions have nothing to do with us and don't have an effect on our resolve," he said.
Mottaki pointed back to Iran's agreement with Turkey and Brazil for a fuel-swap arrangement but chastised Obama for rejecting that deal. He also said he saw no signs the Obama administration had done anything different in the Gulf region.
"We believe that the policies of President Obama are the same as President Bush's policies," he said. "We have two years of performance of President Obama in our region. Are we really seeing any kind of changes in the approaches of the Americans?"
In what some saw as a new concession by Iran, Mottaki explicitly endorsed the idea of an international fuel bank to manage and disperse nuclear fuel for civilian uses. But he had one heck of a caveat.
"We're in agreement with the creating of a fuel bank and we support that," he said. "And since we are a fuel producer and we have the technology for that, then in principle a branch of that bank will be established in the Islamic Republic of Iran."
Joshua Rogin / Foreign Policy
MANAMA, Bahrain – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ate dinner on Friday only five seats away from Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. And although Clinton and Mottaki didn’t speak to each other, or even shake hands, Clinton’s speech had a distinctly warmer tone toward Tehran -- only three days before the next meeting between Iran and the P5+1 countries in Geneva regarding Tehran’s nuclear program.
Addressing the Iranian delegation directly during her opening address to the 2010 IISS Manama Security Dialogue, Clinton said, “In Geneva next week, the P5+1 will meet with representatives from your nation, the first such meeting since October of 2009. We hope that out of this meeting, entered into in good faith, we will see a constructive engagement with respect to your nuclear program. Nearly 2 years ago, President Obama extended to your government a sincere offer of dialogue. We are still committed to this dialogue.”
Clinton then spoke about Iran’s right to have a peaceful nuclear program, focusing on the possible end state if negotiations go well -- rather than harping on the international community’s long list of complaints regarding Iranian behavior.
“The position of the international community is clear. You have the right to a peaceful nuclear program, but with that right comes a reasonable responsibility, that you follow the treaty you signed and fully address the international community’s concerns about your nuclear activity,” she said. “We urge you to make that choice … we urge you to restore the confidence of the international community and live up to your international obligations.”
Clinton went on to praise Iran as the home of one of the world’s greatest civilizations, while noting that the latest IAEA report showed that Iran has not yet made clear it intends to pursue a peaceful resolution to the controversy over its nuclear program.
“We continue to make this offer of engagement with respect for your sovereignty and with regard for your interests, but also with an iron clad commitment to defending global security and the world’s interest in a peaceful and prosperous Gulf region,” she said.
When asked at the conference what Clinton expected to come out of next week’s talks in Geneva, Clinton said, “I believe that is largely in the hands of the Iranians.”
In an interview Wednesday with the BBC’s Kim Ghattas, Clinton said that Iran was entitled to enrich its own uranium, after it had satisfied international concerns.
"We've told them that they are entitled to the peaceful use of civil nuclear energy, but they haven't yet restored the confidence of the international community to the extent where the international community would feel comfortable allowing them to enrich," Clinton told the BBC. "They can enrich uranium at some future date once they have demonstrated that they can do so in a responsible manner in accordance with international obligations."
Experts in the audience said that Clinton’s remarks about Iran’s right to enrich uranium didn’t mark a change in policy, but noted that her focus on Iran’s sovereign rights and mention of enrichment did mark a new tone ahead of the negotiations in Geneva.
“This has been policy since at least 2008, when the P5+1 put a package proposal to Iran that asked for a suspension of enrichment until Iran restored confidence,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the IISS non-proliferation and disarmament program. “She wasn’t breaking any new ground in terms of the position, but in tone is was totally positive, setting the right mood music for the Geneva talks beginning Monday.”
Mottaki was seated next to, and seemed to get along famously with, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.
MANAMA, Bahrain—U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Bahrain today, getting ready to deliver the opening address at the IISS Manama Security Dialogue. But before she speaks, she'll attend a dinner along with her Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.
The two leaders cross paths just three days before Iran will meet with the Security Council's big powers in Geneva for the first multilateral discussions on Iran's nuclear program in more than a year. Dozens of governments from around the world are gathered here in Manama, all of them waiting to hear what Clinton and Mottaki will say.
Earlier today, Clinton sat down exclusively with The Cable to lay out her expectations for the Iran meeting and explain what will follow. She said that the Iranian regime is suffering under sanctions and is experiencing new problems with its nuclear program, which is why Tehran has come back to the table now. But the United States is not offering Iranian leaders an extended engagement, as in 2009. This time, they had better be serious about negotiating right away, she suggested.
"We have to see what attitude they bring," Clinton said about the Iranians. "I don't think we can put timetables on it. This is more of a day-by-day assessment. We know where we're headed, and that is to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. We know we have the vast majority of the world with us on that. But I think we're going to have to take stock of where we are after Geneva... The pressure's not lifting because they're coming to the table in Geneva. And then we'll take it step by step."
She said that recent setbacks in the Iranian nuclear program have put the Iranians in a weaker position. "If they're having difficulties, maybe they'll be more responsive, but we won't know until we test it," Clinton said.
If Clinton does get a chance to speak with Mottaki tonight, she wants to convey to him that the administration is serious about this round of engagement and hopes there will be progress, but at the same time, the Obama team believes that Iran is probably coming to Geneva only because sanctions are taking their toll.
"I don't think they ever believed that we could put together the international coalition we did for sanctions," Clinton said. "And from all that we hear from people in this region and beyond, they're worried about the impact. And so they're returning to Geneva and we hope they are returning to negotiate."
But will Clinton actually talk to Mottaki before she leaves for Washington late tonight?
"If he comes to the dinner, I'll probably see him. But he doesn't talk to me," Clinton said.
In a separate interview with the BBC's Kim Ghattas, Clinton said that Iran could be permitted to maintain its own domestic uranium enrichment program, for civilian purposes, if and when it proves to the international community that it can be trusted to do so.
"We've told them that they are entitled to the peaceful use of civil nuclear energy, but they haven't yet restored the confidence of the international community to the extent where the international community would feel comfortable allowing them to enrich," Clinton told the BBC. "They can enrich uranium at some future date once they have demonstrated that they can do so in a responsible manner in accordance with international obligations."
Clinton told The Cable that progress with Iran was linked to the Iranian government's actions on other items on the U.S. agenda.
"We'll have to see how the Iranians respond on other things we've engaged them on, such as the two hikers who are still there in prison and [former FBI agent Robert] Levinson, who is also in Iran in our opinion. So let's see where it goes."
Internal divisions in Iran's government, however, may be complicating its ability to strike a deal, she suggested.
"You're dealing with a regime that has been badly shaken by the events of June 2009, the election, and the decision-making apparatus was knocked off kilter, which meant that trying to get any action step out of them was more difficult than it would have been prior to June 2009. So none of this is a static situation," she said.
On a February trip to the Middle East, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) told Qatari leaders that the Golan Heights should be returned to Syria, that a Palestinian capital should be established in East Jerusalem as part of the Arab-Israeli peace process, and that he was "shocked" by what he saw on a visit to Gaza.
Kerry discussed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in a visit to Qatar during separate meetings with Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani and the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa, as revealed by the disclosure of diplomatic cables by the website WikiLeaks.
The emir told Kerry to focus on Syria as the path toward resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Kerry agreed with the emir that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a man who wants change but pointed out that his arming of Hezbollah and interference in Lebanese politics were unhelpful. Kerry said that Assad "needs to make a bolder move and take risks" for peace, and that he should be "more statesman-like." Kerry also agreed with the emir that the Golan Heights should be given back to Syria at some point.
"The Chairman added that Netanyahu also needs to compromise and work the return of the Golan Heights into a formula for peace," the diplomatic cable reported.
As for the peace process, Kerry defended the Obama administration's drive to use indirect proximity talks (which were only being discussed at that time) as a stepping stone to direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He said the two sides should first agree on the amount of land to be swapped and then work on borders, followed by settlements.
Kerry also said that final agreement would have to include a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem.
"Any negotiation has its limits, added Senator Kerry, and we know for the Palestinians that control of Al-Aqsa mosque and the establishment of some kind of capital for the Palestinians in East Jerusalem are not negotiable," the cable stated, summarizing the meeting with the emir. "For the Israelis, the Senator continued, Israel's character as a Jewish state is not open for negotiation. The non-militarization of an eventual Palestinian state and its borders can nonetheless be resolved through negotiation."
In a separate meeting the day before with the prime minister, Kerry resisted the Qatari leader's assertion that Hamas was ready to accept the existence of the State of Israel, but he agreed that urgent action was needed to rebuild Gaza.
According to the leaked diplomatic cable, the prime minister told Kerry, "We need to broker a quick reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and move forward quickly on rebuilding Gaza… Senator Kerry asserted that HBJ [Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani] was preaching to the converted and told the PM he was ‘shocked by what I saw in Gaza.'"
In a telling exchange at the end of his meeting with the emir, the Qatari ruler gave Kerry some advice for dealing with the Iranian government.
"The Amir closed the meeting by offering that based on 30 years of experience with the Iranians, they will give you 100 words. Trust only one of the 100," the cable said.
KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images
While the White House continues to negotiate with Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) in an attempt to convince him to allow a vote on the New START treaty this year, it is also undertaking a massive effort behind the scenes to rally foreign governments and non-governmental organizations to support the treaty’s ratification and put public pressure on Republicans to yield.
As part of that effort, the White House has been in contact with pro-Israel and pro-Jewish organizations, encouraging them to be vocal about their support for the New START treaty, and warning them that the failure of the treaty could have negative implications for the drive to halt Iran’s nuclear program.
“Certainly we’ve been in touch with all sorts of different groups saying if you feel strongly about the treaty, we hope your voice will be heard,” a senior administration official said when asked about whether Jewish groups had been contacted. The official added that the administration had not asked anyone to contact lawmakers.
Over the last three days, three major pro-Israel organizations issued strong statements of support for New START: the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and the American Council for World Jewry (ACWJ).
"We are deeply concerned that failure to ratify the new START treaty will have national security consequences far beyond the subject of the treaty itself," the ADL said in a Nov. 19 letter sent to all senators. "The U.S. diplomatic strategy to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons requires a U.S.-Russia relationship of trust and cooperation."
The ACWJ said on Monday that Russia's "cooperation is indispensable to assuring global security and American goals, notably in blocking Iran’s dangerous quest for its own nuclear capability."
NJDC President David Harris told The Cable in an interview that he had been in touch with the administration and had meetings that included discussions of New START with officials.
“The White House made it very clear that this was a very high priority of this administration,” Harris said. “They’ve been helpful in providing resources, but they cannot and would not encourage outside the groups to lobby. But we have had conversations about the level of importance of New START.”
“To me the nexus is clear,” Harris said. “Ratifying New START is should be a central objective of the entire pro-Israel community.”
Missing from the list of groups endorsing New START, however, is the largest pro-Israel non-governmental organization, AIPAC. Also missing from the list of endorsements is any public statement from the Israeli government itself, despite the fact that several European leaders have come out strongly in support of New START.
“We have no position on the treaty. We are staying above the political discussion in Washington,” one Israeli official told The Cable. The official could not confirm rumors we’ve heard that the administration asked Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren to speak out, but that Oren declined. Recently, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has been strengthening ties with Russia, even saying in September, “Our views on many challenges of today are close or identical.”
The official said that the Israel government was sensitive to perceptions that they were interfering in American domestic politics, following a meeting earlier this month between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the new House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA).
Vice President Joseph Biden explained why the New START treaty was critical to the effort to isolate Iran in a small roundtable with foreign policy columnists, including your humble Cable guy, at the White House Nov. 19.
“I’m not suggesting that if START fails, all of the sudden we’re back in the Cold War with Russia but I am saying that the things in the margins that make a big difference right now might very well be different,” Biden said, referring to what he called “unprecedented” Russian cooperation on Iran and Afghanistan.
He praised Russia’s decision to forgo selling the S-300 air defense missile to Iran as well as Moscow’s cooperation in bringing new multilateral sanctions against Tehran via the U.N. Security Council. “Absent that cooperation I think [it] is problematic whether or not China or even Europe would have made some of the tougher sanctions decisions that we made,” Biden said.
Back on Capitol Hill, staffers on both sides of the issue are well aware of the administration’s recent activity but had starkly different views on its wisdom and efficacy.
“The idea that this administration, which has manifestly undermined the U.S.-Israel relationship at every turn, would gin up pro-Israel groups to ram this treaty through in the lame duck [session] is a new low, even for an administration that has made a habit of alienating friends and allies,” said one senior GOP Senate aide involved in the issue.
But another Senate aide who is involved in both the New START and Iran issues saw the logic of linking the two.
“It’s politically smart to do this. Once of the central arguments that the administration has been making is that the START treaty is important due to its impact on U.S.-Russia relations and one of the achievements has been to convince Russia to adopt a more cooperative approach on Iran,” the aide said.
But the jury is still out on whether advocacy by pro-Israel groups can cause senior Senate Republicans to rethink their positions. “The center of gravity is still Jon Kyl so I don’t know how it effective it will be in influencing his calculations,” the aide said.
A Democratic congressional staffer who is also a strong supporter of Israel argued that, if it were Democrats holding up the treaty, Republicans would surely be playing the Israel card.
“If the roles were reversed and the Democrats were playing
politics with Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, we’d be eviscerated by the pro-Israel
community,” the staffer said. “We’d be getting our ass kicked about it, no
Now that the Republicans are projected to take control of the House, we here at The Cable would like to introduce you to the next head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Ros-Lehtinen has been a force on the committee for years as the vocal, passionate, sometimes combative ranking Republican. A Cuban-American lawmaker from a heavily Jewish district, Ros-Lehtinen has staked out firm positions on several issues that stand in contrast to now outgoing chairman Howard Berman (D-CA). Her ascendancy as chairwoman will change the tone and agenda of the committee and will pose new challenges for the Obama administration's efforts to advance its foreign-policy agenda.
Over the mid to long term, Ros-Lehtinen is poised to thwart Obama's efforts to move toward repealing sanctions on Fidel Castro and resist any White House attempts to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. She isn't likely to move Berman's foreign-aid reform bill through the committee and she is likely to seek cuts in the foreign-aid budget in her authorization bill.
But most significantly, gone will be the days when the committee deferred to the administration on the order of foreign-policy priorities. The committee will also stop taking the administration's word when it comes to matters of policy oversight.
For example, although Berman and Ros-Lehtinen agreed on the need to push tough sanctions on Iran, Berman delayed action on the bill to allow Obama's engagement effort to play out. Ros-Lehtinen might not be so accommodating.
"The Berman people were ahead of the Obama team on a number of things, but they deferred to the administration on timing. You are going to see more aggressiveness, to push an agenda and not to defer to the administration," said a Republican congressional aide.
We're also told that there's no love lost between the staffs of Berman and Ros-Lehtinen. Ros-Lehtinen's staff is said to be very disciplined and at the same time aggressive. They are not easy to negotiate with, according to our sources, and very effective at achieving their aims.
In the near term, Ros-Lehtinen could cause complications for the administration's foreign policy in a number of ways. She is a Russia skeptic, and wants more investigation into the civilian nuclear agreement with Russia that is currently before the Congress. Congress probably won't move to block this deal, but Ros-Lehtinen is sure to schedule hearings to pick apart future deals planned with Jordan, South Korea, and Vietnam.
Ros-Lehtinen will be pushing the administration to strictly enforce new sanctions law against Iran. If the mere threat of penalties under the law doesn't entice large international companies to leave Iran, she will call for the administration to start punishing those companies, even if they are from China or Russia.
Immediately after the election, Ros-Lehtinen will be leading a bipartisan congressional effort to demand more information about the administration's planned sale of $60 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, the largest arms sale in U.S. history.
In a previously unreported letter, obtained exclusively by The Cable, Ros-Lehtinen joined with Berman to demand that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates answer several outstanding questions about the deal.
"We are writing to raise concerns and pose a number of strategic questions about the impact such sales would have on the national security interests of the United States and our allies," they wrote. The Obama administration defends the deal as vital, and Israel raised few objections.
"There are a lot of questions to be answered on this," a GOP House aide said. "If Israel doesn't strongly object that doesn't mean it's not problematic."
If the GOP is able to exert more control over foreign policy, that will also impact how foreign leaders and foreign governments interact with the United States. Foreign countries will have to pay more attention to Congress, and may further discount President Obama's ability to deliver.
"Gridlock has some implications of its own," said Heather Conley, senior fellow and director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "We're sending a message to international leaders that they will have to work both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue."
AFP / Getty Images
The increasingly bitter Illinois Senate campaign between Republican Congressman Mark Kirk (R-IL) and the Democratic contender, Alexi Giannoulias, spilled over into foreign policy this week, as the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Howard Berman (D-CA) accused Kirk of exaggerating his role in crafting the Iran sanctions law. But who's really spinning the history of the bill for political gain?
Alluding to Kirk's previous misrepresentations about his military service, the Chicago Sun Times broke the story Monday with an article entitled, "Another Mark Kirk 'exaggeration'?" complete with a video of Kirk claiming credit for being a driving force behind what eventually became the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010, which President Obama signed into law in July.
"The Iran Sanctions Bill, it was originally Kirk-Andrews, but if you were going to move it, that means you need to adjust to the power of the House. This legislation eventually became Howard Berman's legislation," Kirk told the Sun Times.
The article then quoted Berman saying that his bill calling for petroleum sanctions against Iran had nothing to do with Kirk's previous bill calling for the exact same thing. "We didn't even look at his legislation at the time. Our bill did so much more and went so far beyond his bill, I would have to put it in the context of an exaggeration," Berman said.
Giannoulias, who enjoys Berman's support, called Kirk's claim that his bill was the framework for Berman's bill "egregious" and demanded an explanation.
But according to lawmakers, Congressional staffers, and outside groups who worked closely on the legislation, Kirk was in fact a key advocate for over four years of using gasoline and refined petroleum restrictions to pressure Iran to make concessions regarding its nuclear program.
In fact, Berman worked so closely with Kirk and others on the idea that media reports at the time acknowledged that Berman's Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, introduced in April 2009, borrowed language from related legislation introduced earlier by Kirk and Rep. Brad Sherman.
Even Democratic Congressional staffers gave Kirk credit for leading on the idea of petroleum sanction for Iran. They said that Berman's bill was clearly built off of Kirk's work, and criticized Berman for politicizing such a sensitive foreign policy issue.
"On this particular issue, Kirk has been a leader, if not the leader. When you talk about Iran petroleum sanctions, you talk about Mark Kirk," said one Democratic Hill staffer who worked on the bill.
"I'm all for a Democrat winning that seat, but this is not the way to do it," the staffer said. "It hurts our standing as Democrats in the pro-Israel community, because when you go to the pro-Israel community and say to them that Kirk didn't play a leading role, it just makes it hard to believe the next statement that comes out of our mouths."
Others who followed the progression of the Iran sanctions legislation closely also credited Kirk with a long history of leadership on this issue.
"There's no question that Mark Kirk was one of the first, if not the first member of Congress to advocate restricting the flow of gasoline to Iran as a way of pressuring Iran on its nuclear program," said Josh Block, who was the chief spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which was intimately involved in the bill's legislative journey.
Block, who now runs a strategic communications firm with Democratic consultant Lanny Davis, said that, after years of building momentum on various versions of Kirk's proposal, the decision was made to transfer ownership of the bill to Berman in order to allow it to garner a vote and pass with leadership support.
"There was a progression of bills that all did virtually identical things," Block said, explaining that this is a normal and commonplace legislative strategy and that Berman does deserve credit for aiding in the final push.
Kirk started his formal advocacy for the petroleum sanctions idea in 2005, when he founded the Iran Working Group, a congressional group that gathered information on sanctions options. In June 2005, he and Rep. Rob Andrews first introduced a resolution calling for restrictions of gasoline to Iran (H.Con.Res.177). In June 2006, they introduced that resolution again (H.Con.Res.425).
In June 2007, Kirk and Andrews introduced a more comprehensive bill, called the Iran Sanctions Enhancement Act, which included restrictions on the importation of refined petroleum (H.R. 2880). In April 2009, after Obama took office, Andrews got cold feet so Kirk moved forward with Sherman and introduced the Iran Diplomatic Enhancement Act (H.R. 1985).
When Berman introduced his Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act at the end of April 2009, its original cosponsors included Kirk, as well as Andrews, Sherman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and others. When the bill passed the House in December 2009, Berman didn't object when Kirk said on the House floor that he and Andrews were "the two grandfathers of this bill and its policy."
Kirk's staffers point out that Berman has a history of cooperating well with Kirk in non-election years and then turning on him when the campaign starts. For example, Berman stumped for Kirk's opponent when Kirk first ran for an open seat in 2000 and then again endorsed his opponent in 2008. Still, they lament that years of cooperation on Iran have been reduced to a war of words over who gets credit.
"This is a desperate move by a desperate candidate with no foreign policy chops of his own," Kirk spokesman Richard Goldberg said about Giannoulias' efforts to make an issue of the Iran bill. "With no record to stand on, Alexi Giannoulias recruited someone with a history of hyper-partisan behavior just before an election to contradict his own previous statements when the legislation passed and level untruths against a well-established leader on the issue of Iran sanctions."
Berman's office did not respond to requests for comment.
The State Department has been stepping up both its rhetorical and punitive actions against Iran, but the question still remains whether the administration will go as far as to sanction companies based in countries where relations are delicate, especially China.
Last week, the United States announced two steps to increase pressure on Iran: President Obama signed an executive order on Sept. 29 targeting eight Iranian individuals for serious human rights abuses, and the State Department announced on Sept. 30 that it was imposing sanctions on the Switzerland-based Naftiran Intertrade Company (NICO) due to its involvement in the Iranian petroleum sector. These actions are based on the Iran sanctions legislation passed overwhelmingly by Congress and signed into law by President Obama last June.
On Monday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a new report that identified 16 companies as having sold petroleum products to Iran between Jan. 1, 2009, and June 30, 2010. Of those 16, the GAO reported that five have shown no signs of curtailing business with Iran. Three of those companies are based in China, one in Singapore, and one in the UAE.
There are some positive signs, however, that international pressure is having an effect on companies' willingness to do business in Iran. Several firms -- hailing from Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, India, and the United Kingdom -- told the GAO that they are halting their refined petroleum business with Iran.
But leading senators aren't convinced that the holdouts are planning to follow suit. They are pressing the Obama administration to use the new sanctions law to punish those who won't go along -- especially if they are from China.
"The GAO report released today provides encouraging evidence that the comprehensive sanctions legislation passed by Congress earlier this year is indeed persuading many companies to stop selling gasoline and other refined petroleum products to Iran. We applaud those firms that have taken this responsible and important step," said Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) joint statement. Lieberman and Collins had requested the GAO report in July.
However, the success of sanctions legislation has only made it "even more imperative" that the Obama administration pressure countries that have maintained their ties in Iran, the senators stated. "We are particularly concerned that the majority of the companies that GAO identifies as still selling gasoline to Iran are in China. We urge the Administration to complete its own investigations swiftly and enforce the sanctions law, comprehensively and aggressively, against any violators," the statement read.
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg told reporters last week that the State Department was looking at additional firms' business in Iran and would consider more direct sanctions through a two-step process that takes up to 180 days. But he added that the administration was first trying to negotiate with foreign governments to stop the companies' activities in advance of imposing penalties.
"We are following the process outlined in the statute," said Steinberg. "If we find credible evidence [of firms violating the sanctions], then we go to the next stage, which is to conduct an investigation ... and then we would make a decision," Steinberg said.
One of the main concerns on Capitol Hill is that, as countries pull out from Iran, other countries will take over contracts, thereby nullifying the effect of the sanctions and enriching themselves at other countries' expense -- a practice known as "backfilling."
The administration and Congress worked hard to convince Japan and South Korea to impose unilateral measures against Iran, which they did, but there's particular concern that China will simply come in and take over those contracts.
Kyl and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week on this very issue, pointing out reports that China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) replaced the Japanese firm Inpex and agreed to invest around $2 billion to develop Iran's South Azadegan oil fields last year.
"The Administration, by continuing to ignore blatant violations of our sanctions laws by Chinese companies, has undermined our sanctions regime on Iran. It has sent the message to our friends and allies -- many of which have taken the difficult steps to reduce their economic ties with Iran -- that others will be let off the hook," Kyl said Sept. 30.
"If President Obama genuinely believes that a nuclear-armed Iran is not acceptable, he must stand by those words and apply the authority Congress has given him to punish all who are violating U.S. sanctions laws, particularly China," said Kyl. "Time is of the essence."
Steinberg addressed the issue of backfilling in his briefing, saying that such activity would provoke actions under the sanctions legislation. "We've made clear to all our international partners that we are strongly discouraging substitution. And of course, were there to be substitution that came within the ambit of the act, it would raise questions under the act," he said.
Bob Einhorn¸ State's senior advisor on Iran and North Korea sanctions, is the man responsible for delivering that message and he traveled to Beijing last week to press the Chinese not to undermine the sanctions. It's not clear yet if he was successful.
In a July 29 hearing, Einhorn referenced a previous GAO report that identified 41 foreign firms with a petroleum interest in Iran. "There are a number of entities that are very problematic. I have to say that a number of them have been engaged in sanctionable activity," he said in testimony to the House Oversight and Government Reform committee.
Complicating matters are the persistent rumors that China may have secured some type of immunity from additional sanctions as part of their agreement to support U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929, which established relatively benign sanctions against Iran as punishment for its continued pursuit of nuclear weapons capability.
Undersecretary of State William Burns said at an Oct. 1 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the State Department had competed an internal review of the companies noted in the GAO report and would make more determinations soon, but he cautioned not to expect too many companies to be singled out for punishment.
"There are probably -- there are a number of cases, less than 10, in which it appears that there may have been violations of the Iran Sanctions Act. Most of those appear to involve activities that have stopped, in other words, involving companies that have pulled out of business in Iran, but there are a couple that appear to be ongoing," he said.
Capitol Hill observers have been encouraged by the administration's recent moves -- but are still not convinced they constitute enough of a commitment to increasing pressure on Iran. Staffers say that the administration's new forceful tone and rhetoric are a marked improvement, even if they are only fulfilling the actions required by the sanctions legislation.
What's clear is that the administration is not yet finished implementing sanctions against firms doing business with Iran, and Congress will be pressing it not to back down from punishing companies from countries that may take retaliatory measures.
"Many in Congress are worried that the administration will fall for Iran's latest bid to buy a reprieve from sanctions by appearing interested in negotiations," said one senior GOP senate aide. "Congress will not let up on the pressure on the administration to go after Iran and those who are supporting it, namely, the Chinese."
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's decision not to sell advanced weaponry to Iran is being hailed as a dividend of the Obama administration's "reset" policy with Russia. And although the administration didn't expressly offer the Kremlin a quid pro quo for the reversal, Moscow will expect moves by Washington in return as it cautiously moves to grasp Obama's outstretched hand.
Both the Obama and Bush administrations implored the Kremlin not to follow through with their 2006 signed agreement to sell almost $1 billion worth of S-300 air defense systems to Iran, and on Wednesday, Medvedev formally announced the sale will not go through.
President Obama, in a private conference call Wednesday, told an audience of Jewish leaders to discount non-constructive statements made by Israeli and Palestinian leaders as Middle East peace talks move forward, saying that such remarks are all part of the negotiating game.
The groups represented on the call were from across the Jewish religious spectrum: They included the orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, the conservative Rabbinical Assembly, the reform Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.
Obama implored the rabbis on the call to publicly support the talks, and to try to rally their own people to support the negotiations. The call was timed in advance of the start of the Jewish high holy days, when the Rabbis see the largest turnout of the year among their congregants. Along those lines, he asked them to discount statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas when they say things in public that make the talks seem doomed. That's mainly for the local television cameras, Obama said.
"I guarantee you over the next four months, six months, a year, in any given week there's going to be something said by someone in the Palestinian Authority that makes your blood boil and makes you think we can't do this," Obama said, according to a recording of the call provided to The Cable. "We're going to have to work through those things."
He emphasized that he would give the same message to Arab groups, regarding statements by the Israeli government they might find objectionable.
"What you're going to see over the next several months is that at any given moment, either President Abbas or Prime Minister Netanyahu may end up saying certain things for domestic consumption, for their constituencies and so forth, that may not be as reflective of that spirit of compromise we would like to see. Well, that's the nature of these talks," Obama said.
Obama referred directly to statements made by both leaders this week that seemed to show an unbridgeable gap over whether Israel must extend its 10-month partial settlement construction freeze, which expires on Sept. 26. The next round of the talks, to be held in Sharm el Sheikh and Jerusalem next week, will be the last official round before the deadline.
"There is going to be an immediate set of difficulties surrounding the existing moratorium on settlements," Obama admitted, pointing out the public positions of the two leaders.
"On one hand, you have Prime Minister Netanyahu saying ‘there's no way I can extend it.' There's President Abbas saying ‘this has to be extended for these talks to be effective," Obama said. He maintained that there was a compromise to be struck.
"I am absolutely convinced that both sides want to make this work and both sides are going to be willing to make some difficult concessions," Obama said. He did not specify what a potential compromise would look like.
Overall, Obama told the rabbis that he believed both Netanyahu and Abbas were serious about peace and said the first round of talks last week in Washington exceeded his expectations.
"I am stunned at how cordial and constructive the talks were," he said.
But Obama's main message on the call was a plea to the rabbis to actively support the talks, or at least not to actively undermine them.
He asked the religious leaders to help him promote the talks among Jewish communities both in American and Israel, and "to give these talks a chance and not look for a reason why they won't succeed."
Regarding interfaith relations in the United States and the treatment of Muslim Americans in particular, Obama again asked the rabbis for help. "It is very important for leaders in the Jewish [community] to speak from a deep moral authority in making sure that those Muslim-Americans trying to practice their faith in this country can do so without fear or intimidation," he said.
He did not mention the Park 51 Community Center project by name.
On Iran, Obama argued that the sanctions announced by the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, and others were having an effect on the regime in Tehran.
"Every assessment that we've seen so far is that the degree of international coordination that's being implied in enforcing these sanctions is unprecedented and the Iranian regime has been shocked by our success," Obama said. He said the Israeli assessment matched his own.
While the peace talks and the Iran threat are not necessarily linked, Obama told the rabbis that resolving Israel's disputes with its neighboring Arab states would increase Iran's isolation.
Obama also delivered a message of urgency regarding the peace talks. "If that window closes, it's going to be hard to reopen for years to come," he said. "We're not going to get that many more opportunities."Obama wished all the rabbis "L'shana Tovah," which means Happy New Year in Hebrew, and "Todah Rabah," which means thank you.
"With you I hope and pray this year will be a year of health and happiness, joy and justice, and ultimately perhaps a year of peace," he said.
The South Korean government announced a series of sanctions against Iran on Tuesday after intensive lobbying from the Obama administration.
The new measures, which target Iran's energy and banking sectors as well as specific Iranian bad actors, follow similar moves by Japan last week. They are also in line with measures imposed by the European Union last month, though not quite as extensive as the administration had proposed to Seoul.
Regardless, the administration and members of Congress who are pushing for countries to put more pressure on Iran hailed the announcement, noting that South Korea moved forward despite the potential cost to its domestic industries.
"I know that this was not an easy or cost-free decision for the ROK government, either politically or economically. But it is precisely Seoul's willingness to shoulder rather than shirk its international responsibilities that confirms the Republic of Korea's emergence as a global leader," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-CT, in a statement.
Japan has the third largest economy in the world, South Korea ranks as the eleventh largest, and both countries have major business interests in Iran -- especially in the energy sector. The new measures would prevent the initiation of any new joint business ventures but allow existing projects to continue.
For the administration and its allies in Congress, the South Korean and Japanese sanctions announcements reaffirm their strategy of using the U.N. Security Council resolution against Iran, which was passed on June 9, as a framework for taking additional steps aimed at convincing Iran to address the international community's concerns about its nuclear program.
The coordination is a positive sign of cooperation between Washington and its two most important East Asian allies. At the same time, Iran watchers note that Beijing stands to profit if Chinese companies move to fill the demand gap created by the South Korean and Japanese sanctions.
Lieberman is warning that if Beijing undermines the new sanctions, Congress will move to enforce sanctions against Chinese companies using authorities provided in the recent U.S. sanctions legislation.
"Chinese companies have unfortunately in the past been allowed by their government to pursue their commercial self-interest in Iran, exploiting the restraint of other countries," Lieberman said. "If this trend continues, China will isolate itself from the responsible international community in Asia and around the world."
Behind the scenes, State Department and Treasury officials had been working hard to encourage the South Korean and Japanese governments to adoptthe strongest measures possible. This effort has been led by Stuart Levey, the under secretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, and Robert Einhorn, the State Department's special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control.
Einhorn and the NSC's Daniel Glaser traveled to Tokyo and Seoul last month, and a Congressional staff delegation visiting Seoul and Tokyo last week also was partially focused on the push for strong sanctions language.
National Economic Council chairman Larry Summers, the NSC's Tom Donilon, Asia Senior Director Jeffrey Bader, and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell were in Beijing last weekend and the topic of Iran sanctions was also on their agenda.
The main hub of Iranian financial activity in South Korea is the Seoul branch of Bank Mellat, a Tehran-based bank that has already been targeted by both the United States and the European Union. South Korea only agreed to a 60-day suspension of Korean dealings with Bank Mellat Seoul, with a promise to reevaluate after. Washington had wanted a total freeze.
Iran watchers on Capitol Hill said the temporary suspension would have the desired effect by making it clear to investors they should not do business with Bank Mellat in Seoul.
"The fact is they are taking action against Bank Mellat and they are embedding this action within a broad framework of other actions," said one GOP Senate aide. "It's very possible that everybody and their brother is going to run for the exits... that bank is going to be kryptonite."
Levey and Einhorn have also been working hard on the recently announced new U.S. sanctions on North Korea, a topic in which both Japan and South Korea have a vital interest. Aides said that, while the two efforts weren't directly linked, there are indirect links in that Iran and North Korea are involved in some of the same illicit activities.
"There is a tie in the sense that North Korea and Iran actively cooperate on a range of illicit proliferation-related activities," said one Congressional staffer close to the issue. "That's a linkage that both the Koreans and the Japanese recognize and appreciate."
UPDATE: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) also praised the new sanctions and saw them as a message to China. He tweeted, "Korea adopted strong new sanctions on Iran today. Japan did the same last week. China should follow their good example of global leadership."
Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback is calling on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to publicly denounce the impending trial of a journalist and blogger facing execution at the hands of the Iranian regime.
The journalist, Shiva Nazar Ahari, who has been imprisoned in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison since December, goes on trial Sept. 4 for crimes such as "anti-regime propaganda," "acts contrary to national security through participation in gatherings," and "enmity against God." The last charge can carry a death sentence.
Her activism and defense of political prisoners, which included acting as the spokesman for the Committee of Human Rights Reporters, has raised the ire of the Iranian government for years. Conservative writers have been calling on President Obama to personally call for her release.
"I am urging you and President Obama to press the Iranian regime for the immediate release of Ms. Ahari ... It is crucial for the United States to advocate for brave Iranian citizens like Ms. Ahari, and I hope you will do all you can to secure her release." Brownback wrote to Clinton Aug. 31. "Obviously, time is of the essence."
According to the State Department's 2009 Human Rights Report on Iran, authorities arrested Ahari and two of her colleagues from the Committee for Human Rights Reporters on Dec. 20 as they were headed to Qom for the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who had been one of the leading spiritual figures behind Iran's reform movement.
"According to human rights organizations, authorities arrested seven of the nine leaders of the organization during the year and pressured the group to close its Web site," the report said.
Clinton did call for Ahari's release in June, on the one year anniversary of the highly disputed Iranian presidential election that sparked a wave of violence and suppression. She also called on Iran to release human rights defenders Narges Mohammadi, Emad Baghi, Kouhyar Goudarzi, Bahareh Hedayat, Milad Asadi, and Mahboubeh Karami, as well as the three American hikers who have been detained without charge for over a year and a missing former FBI agent, Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran in 2007.
The State Department has been stepping up its public advocacy on behalf of imprisoned Iranians lately. Clinton gave her first public condemnation of the detention of Baha'i faith leaders last month. None of the political prisoners or hikers has, as of yet, been released.
There's a battle going on among the standard-bearers of the Tea Party over their foreign policy message. But at the rank-and-file level, Tea Partiers have no unified view on major foreign policy issues. They are all over the map.
Sarah Palin, who spoke at Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally on the Mall Saturday, would like the Tea Party to endorse her quasi-neoconservative approach to national security policy. She advocates aggressive unilateralism, ever-rising defense budgets, unfailing support of Israel, and a skeptical eye toward China, Russia, and any other possible competitor to the United States.
Ron Paul, a founding leader of the Tea Party who has seen the movement slip away from him somewhat, wants the movement's focus on thrift to extend to foreign policy, resulting in an almost isolationist approach that sets limits on the use of American power and its presence abroad.
In over a dozen interviews with self-identified Tea Party members at Saturday's rally, your humble Cable guy discovered that, when it comes to foreign policy, attendees rarely subscribed wholeheartedly to either Palin or Paul's world view. Despite claiming to share the same principles that informed their views, Tea Partiers often reached very different conclusions about pressing issues in U.S. foreign policy today.
Understandably, most Tea Party members at the rally viewed foreign policy through the prism of domestic problems such as the poor economy and the movement of jobs overseas. Almost all interviewees expressed support for U.S. troops abroad and a connection to Christianity they said informed their world view.
But that's where the similarities ended. Some attendees sounded like reliable neocons arguing for more troops abroad. Others sounded like antiwar liberals, lamenting the loss of life in any war for any reason. Still others sounded like inside the beltway realists, carefully considering the costs and benefits of a given policy option based on American national security interests.
For example, The Cable interviewed Danny Koss, a former Marine from Grove City, PA, who was measured when it came to talking about the war in Afghanistan.
"If we are going to stay, I suggest we really win," he said. "I'm not convinced that some of our leadership is ready for that. I know our generals are."
Koss, sounding like a realist, said that he saw China as a near-term economic threat but not a near-term military threat. A strike against Iran was not a good option, he argued, although he said it was wise of President Barack Obama to publicly state that all options are on the table.
When it came to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, however, Koss seamlessly switched to a religious frame.
"You've got to go back and read the Bible, see who had it first. If you believe the Bible and who God gave it to, the rest is history," he said.
Later, we ran into Cecilia Goodow from Hartford, NY, who said that her foreign policy views were determined exclusively by her faith. This led her to regret the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq.
"It sounded so reasonable at the time. But Holy Father John Paul II was against the war; he said it would just be an awful thing and many people would be killed," she said. "I always supported the troops, but we know history and we know that wars are sometimes perpetrated by evil people for evil reasons that the average person doesn't even know about or understand, so I can't wait for it all to stop."
Goodow said she wants Obama to stand up for America more and fight the forces of evil, which include Iran, but she doesn't support military intervention, even in Afghanistan.
"Sometimes that's cloudy -- why are we there? Barack Obama ran on the promise that he was going to bring everybody home. That's what we all sat around the table talking about. Maybe if there's a new presidential policy maybe we can have peace again, maybe we can bring our kids home," she said. "War begets more war."
On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, we found Larry Maxwell of Patterson, NY. Dressed in full Revolutionary War regalia and holding a huge American flag, he was as much historian as activist, engaging passersby in debates about America's past.
While he supported the decision to go war in Iraq and largely believes claims that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, Maxwell lamented the cost of the Iraq war and the danger of bolstering Iranian influence in the region.
But while Maxwell was concerned about the tensions surrounding Iran and its nuclear program, he didn't believe that a military strike is the best option.
"Are we the world's police? We're having a lot of trouble here and a lot of problems here. I'm not sure where our role comes over there," he said. "The United Nations would be the place for that ... but nobody listens to them."
Maxwell, like Koss, also referenced the Bible to support Israel's right to the land it now occupies. "The Bible says in the last days, that the Middle East, that's going to be the center of activity," he said. "If you go back to the Bible, it says there's going to be an army of 200 million men coming out of the East to the Middle East, as part of that whole Armageddon and ‘end of days' thing."
But not all Tea Partiers reflexively took Israel's side. Brandon Malator from Washington, DC, who dressed in U.S. Army fatigues and donned a cowboy hat with a Lipton tea bag dangling from the brim, was a stalwart supporter of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but not of Israel.
"[We should] stay longer. We've never left any other country and we shouldn't leave Iraq," he said, adding that the U.S. is engaged in a 100-year-war that would include a coming war with Iran and eventually a war with China, which he called "World War III." He praised Obama for sending more troops to Afghanistan. "I think we're doing what we need to do as Americans. I think if the rest of the world doesn't like it, then that's tough luck."
But when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Malatore's was downright dovish. "I hope that Israel and Palestine can come to an agreement, share the land, and do whatever they need to do to stop fighting all the time. I hope that war ends; that's been going on too long."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.