The Obama administration's work in fighting for human rights across the globe has been largely behind the scenes, a strategy that has elicited criticism from those who believe public admonishment is the best way to shame brutal regimes into better treatment of their citizens.
When it comes to Iran, the administration's calculation is more complicated. Their ongoing pursuit of engagement with the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which coexists alongside a policy of increasing sanctions, requires a delicate balancing act. The State Department has been very vocal in its call for the release of the American hikers that have been detained in Iran since July 2009, but more reticent in supporting indigenous groups facing persecution by Iran's government, such as the pro-democracy Green Movement.
But there are signs that may be changing and that the State Department is poised to become more vocal in its public criticisms of Iranian human rights offenses.
Members of the Baha'i faith, one long-persecuted group in Iran, were greatly reassured Thursday when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement criticizing the Iranian government's persecution of the group. Seven Baha'i leaders were each sentenced to 20 years in prison this week.
"The United States strongly condemns this sentencing as a violation of Iran's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights," Clinton said. "Freedom of religion is the birthright of people of all faiths and beliefs in all places. The United States is committed to defending religious freedom around the world, and we have not forgotten the Baha'i community in Iran."
Persecution of the estimated 300,000 Baha'is in Iran has existed since the religion's inception in the 19th century, but increased dramatically following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when the eradication of the Baha'i faith became official government policy. Since the revolution, over 200 Baha'is have been killed by the regime, while hundreds have been imprisoned and thousands have been denied access to basic human rights, including the right to education and to work.
Shastri Purushotma, Human Rights Representative for the U.S. Baha'i community, told The Cable that they greatly appreciated Clinton's statement, whichmarked the first time she had spoken out on behalf of the Baha'is.
"The Obama administration and the State Department have spoken up at every major stage of their trial," he said. "It would be wonderful if President Obama could speak out about this too, in the right opportunity and right setting."
Clinton's statement on the Baha'i prosecutions came just two days after she sharply criticized Iran for its treatment of several other citizens who had been denied due process or basic freedoms.
She mentioned the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who was sentenced to death by stoning for alleged adultery, the case of Ebrahim Hamidi, who is being executed for sodomy, and the cases of Jafar Kazemi, Mohammad Haj Aghaei, and Javad Lari, three protesters arrested after the flawed June 2009 elections.
"The United States is deeply concerned that Iran continues to deny its citizens their civil rights and intimidate and detain those Iranians who seek to hold their government accountable and stand up for the rights of their fellow citizens," Clinton said.
For the Bahai, public awareness of their plight is crucial.
"If someone is trying to commit a crime, if they can do it in the dark, they have a better chance of getting away with it," said Purushotma. "All of these things are intertwined, you can't separate out human rights and the nuclear issue, because the way a country treats his own people is an indication of how they will treat their neighbors."
Jared Mondschein contributed to this article.
Philo L. Dibble, a former longtime State Department official, will return to Foggy Bottom this fall to take over the Iran portfolio following the departure of John Limbert.
A State Department spokesman confirmed that Dibble is expected to start in September as the deputy assistant secretary of state (DAS) covering Iran in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA). According to his State Department bio, he was previously a DAS in NEA from 2003 to 2005, although he didn't deal with Iran specifically. In March 2005, he moved to the Bureau of International Organization Affairs to be the principal DAS until he left government for personal reasons.
A career Foreign Service officer, Dibble has also served as director of the Office of Northern Gulf Affairs, deputy director of the Office of Egyptian and North African Affairs, special assistant in the office of the under secretary of state for economic, business, and agricultural affairs, financial economist in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, and Lebanon desk officer.
Meanwhile, Limbert's last day, after nine months in the job, is tomorrow. He told Barbara Slavin for an article in Foreign Policy that he had promised to return to his teaching post at the U.S. Naval Academy for the fall semester. But he did suggest that he wasn't happy with the current state of U.S.-Iran diplomacy.
"Here's the problem," Limbert said. "For 30 years, careers were made both here and in Tehran by how nasty you could be to the other side and how creative you could be in being nasty to the other side. So if you're going to change that, what happens if it doesn't get some immediate result? It's very easy to slip back into what you always have been doing."
Now that the congressional supporters of the Tea Party movement have formed their own caucus, their policy positions are becoming easier to track. Expanding their foray into foreign policy, 21 members of the new caucus have now come out explicitly endorsing Israel's right to strike Iran's nuclear program.
Almost two dozen Tea Party-affiliated lawmakers cosponsored a new resolution late last week that expresses their support for Israel "to use all means necessary to confront and eliminate nuclear threats posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, including the use of military force."
The lead sponsor of the resolution was Texas Republican Louie Gohmert, one of four congressmen to announce the formation of the 44-member Tea Party caucus at a press conference on July 21. The other three Tea Party Caucus leaders, Michele Bachmann, R-MN, Steve King, R-IA, and John Culberson, R-TX, are also sponsors of the resolution. In total, 21 Tea Party Caucus members have signed on, according to the latest list of caucus members put out by Bachmann's office.
The resolution cites threats by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to "annihilate" the state of Israel, endorses other means to persuade Iran to stop pursuing nuclear weapons, and states the lawmakers' support for an Israeli military strike "if no other peaceful solution can be found within reasonable time."
"Members of the Tea Party caucus can and do speak for themselves," said Gohmert in an emailed statement, "but most if not all members have strong beliefs that we should not turn on our backs on our best friends and reward those bent on our destruction. This resolution was borne out of concern for the threat, not merely to Israel, but also to the United States."
Notably absent from the resolution -- and indeed, from the Tea Party Caucus -- is Ron Paul, the Texas congressman and 2008 presidential candidate. Paul, who leads the libertarian wing of the Tea Party movement, was one of only 11 members of the House to vote against the recent Iran sanctions bill, which he called "very, very dangerous and not well thought out"; in 2007 he expressed his concern that "a contrived Gulf of Tonkin-type incident may occur to gain popular support for an attack on Iran."
There's little chance the resolution, which has 46 co-sponsors in total, will see a vote on the House floor any time soon. But the resolution signals increasing interest by the Tea Party and its congressional supporters in foreign policy.
Last week, a Tea Party-affiliated grassroots organization launched a nationwide campaign to build popular opposition to the administration's nuclear reductions treaty with Russia, called New START. The group is led by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's wife Ginny and it dovetails with similar efforts by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
The resolution also continues a theme among Tea Party leaders, such as Sarah Palin, who are seeking to separate the movement's domestic policies, which call for small government and fiscal restraint, from libertarian views on foreign policy, promoting instead an aggressive, unilateralist view of world affairs and unchecked military spending.
Read the whole resolution here.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
On 10:50 Tuesday night, Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri boarded Qatar Airways flight 52, bound for Doha. When he arrives at 6:30 Wednesday evening Qatar time, he'll board another plane to Tehran, his home.
The details of Amiri's life since the last time he was in Iran, 14 months ago, are sure to remain in dispute for some time. In an interview aired on Iranian state television Wednesday, Amiri accused U.S. and Saudi agents of kidnapping and drugging him while he was on pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, eventually taking him to the United States. In another video released last month, however, Amiri claimed he was in the United States voluntarily and studying for a doctorate.
According to one source who spoke extensively with Amiri before he left the United States, his current story is the following: When he was in Medina, Saudi Arabia, in June 2009, a van pulled up as he was leaving his hotel room on the way to the mosque, and men he didn't know forced him into it.
The next sequence of events is hazy, according to Amiri's account. He says he must have been drugged, because the next thing he remembers is being in Washington, D.C., and in the custody of unspecified American intelligence organizations. They allegedly moved him around the country over the next 14 months, and he says that he spent much of his time in Arizona as well as Washington.
Amiri claims that he didn't give U.S. intelligence officers any information, and was caught by surprise when, on Monday night, he was taken out of his secret hiding location and put in a cab. The cab drove straight to the Iranian interests section in Georgetown, which is supervised by the Pakistani Embassy. A U.S. government car trailed the cab, he claims.
Amiri's alleged captors did not torture him physically, he now says, but they did abuse him "emotionally," placing him under great mental strain during his captivity. He did not talk about how or why he was able to produce three YouTube videos and publish them on the Internet.
According to two diplomatic sources close to the issue, the most plausible explanation is that Amiri defected willingly to the United States, but at some point decided he wanted to return to Iran. U.S. intelligence officers may have also decided that holding him was not yielding the benefits commensurate to the costs, and put him out. Under this theory, Amiri is now trying to restore his place in the system of the country he betrayed, while concocting a cover story about being kidnapped.
Amiri has a wife and son who still live in Iran. One source speculated that the Iranians could be threatening his family in order to coerce him to relate his current version of events. That would at least explain why Amiri is taking the huge risk of placing himself back into the hands of the Iranian regime.
Surrounded by Iranian minders during his meetings Tuesday with foreign officials who visited the interests section before going to the airport, Amiri told them he was happy to be going back to Tehran and relieved to be joined again with his Iranian friends. Appearing upbeat but nervous, he answered questions on Tuesday carefully and denied that he was being coerced to tell this latest version of the events surrounding his disappearance.
Our source said he got tripped up on questions that he wasn't prepared for, which some in the room took as a signal he wasn't being honest, and was trying hard to avoid contradicting himself as he told his tale.
Amiri's story conflicts with what little information the State Department has released regarding the case. For example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday that Amiri came to the U.S. of his own free will and leaves on his own accord. "He's free to go, he was free to come, these decisions are his alone to make," she said.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that Amiri got to the Iranian interests section on his own. What seems clear is that the Iranians were ready for him: His travel back to Tehran was already being planned when he arrived.
In the absence of hard facts, rumors regarding Amiri's return to Iran continue to swirl. One source speculated that there may have been a swap deal between Iran and the United States, whereby Amiri would return to the Islamic Republic and then, sometime in the near future, Iranian officials would release the three American hikers they have held since July 2009, or even ex-FBI agent Robert Levinson, who went missing in Iran in 2007.
Until the Obama administration gives a full account of its side of the story, Amiri's tale of the last 14 months of his life will be the only version of events that the public will hear. State Department officials continue to dance around the U.S. government's connection with him, and the circumstances leading to his departure.
"He has been in the United States, you know, for some time," Crowley said at Tuesday's briefing. "The United States government has maintained contact with him. I can't tell you specifically when he made this decision to return, you know, to Iran, but as we indicated today and as the secretary mentioned a bit ago, he's here of his free will and he's -- this is his decision to depart, and we are helping to facilitate that departure."
"We didn't seize him and bring him here, and we're not preventing him from returning to Iran," Crowley said. "That is how we do things here in the United States."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has now admitted that Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri has been in the United States, after months in which the State Department refused to acknowledge that he was in the country or dealing with the U.S. government in any way.
"Mr. Amiri has been in the United States of his own free will and he is free to go. In fact, he was scheduled to travel to Iran yesterday but was unable to make all of the necessary arrangements to reach Iran through transit countries," Clinton said Tuesday, answering questions following her meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
Clinton wouldn't go into any more detail than that, but did call for the release of Americans held in Iran, including former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who mysteriously disappeared in March 2007 while visiting Iran's Kish Island. She denied that the United States had abducted Amiri or held him against his well. "He's free to go. He was free to come. These decisions are his alone to make," she said.
The State Department has given out little information since Amiri showed up at the Pakistani compound late Monday evening. Pakistan officially represents the Iranian interests section, the only semi-formal presence of Iranian diplomats in Washington, D.C.
Amiri, whom the Iranian regime has alleged was kidnapped by the CIA over a year ago, surfaced earlier this month in a YouTube video claiming he was abducted and taken to the U.S. against his will. "We know exactly where he is. He's on YouTube," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley joked at the time.
Crowley wouldn't comment at all, however, about how Amiri got to the United States. Most reports have Amiri as disappearing while on a June 2009 pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
Crowley did say that Amiri traveled to the Pakistani Embassy on his own and was supposed to have left for Iran yesterday, but was not able to get his travel itinerary firmed up in time. Beyond that, State is still not saying what he has been doing here and what Foggy Bottom's involvement has been.
"He's been here for some time. I'm not going to specify how long," Crowley said.
Crowley still hasn't lost his sense of humor about the case. When asked if Amiri had given up any information on Iran's nuclear program, he joked, "He has not given me any information."
He also stopped short of flatly denying Amiri's allegations that he was tortured while in American custody. "I have no information to suggest that he has been mistreated while he's been in the United States," Crowley said.
Amiri is reportedly claiming he was released by his alleged American captors after his YouTube videos surfaced. "Since the release of the videos, the Americans have come out as the losers," Amiri was quoted as saying.
The White House confirms that President Obama will sign into law Thursday sweeping new measures to impose unilateral penalties on companies that contribute to broad swaths of Iran’s energy and banking sectors.
The signing will take place in the East Room of the White House, and will include "members of Congress, leaders of organizations that worked to pass the bill," and U.S. officials including U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, according to an adminstration official.
The legislation, led by Senate Banking Committee chairman Chris Dodd, D-CT, and House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Howard Berman, D-CA, was passed by the House and Senate last week by votes of 408-8 and 99-0, respectively.
The administration has said repeatedly that implementing the sanctions does not signal an end to its two-track policy of mixing engagement and pressure. The White House hopes the measures will convince Iran to come back to the negotiating table.
Meanwhile, Iran is planning to meet again with Brazil and Turkey to follow up on the nuclear fuel-swap deal the three countries announced just before the U.N. Security Council voted to impose its own new sanctions on Tehran. The Obama administration has been clear that it considers the Brazil-Turkey deal insufficient and inadequate in dealing with international concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.
The Senate on Thursday passed a series of tough, unilateral sanctions on Iran, leaving one final hurdle before the bill arrives on President Obama's desk -- which could come as early as today.
The vote was 99-0.
The House has already voted on some procedural items to allow the bill to go ahead and could also clear the legislation before the day is out. [UPDATE: The House has now passed it as well, 408-8.]
The changes included requiring the president to address the potential impact of ethanol being used to enhance Iran's energy capacity. A recent Foreign Policy article by Gal Luft explained how Iran was looking to import ethanol from Brazil to make up for a potential shortfall in gasoline as a result of the impending sanctions.
A second last-minute change requires the administration to analyze the impact of Iran acquiring energy "know-how" by engaging in joint ventures for energy development. That's related to concerns that joint ventures outside Iran could aid Iran's energy sector, such as ongoing cooperation with BP as described by Time magazine's Massimo Calabresi.
There were no changes to carefully negotiated language allowing the president to exempt companies from the sanctions on a case-by-case basis.
Ultimately, both House and Senate aides are confident that the president will approve the legislation. "There's no indication he won't sign it," one senior aide said.
But the real test of the administration's commitment to the new measures will come in their implementation. Advocates of strong sanctions have accused the administration of showing reluctance to enforce the sanctions currently on the books, so lawmakers and staffers are planning to keep a close watch to see how the law is carried out.
One senior Congressional aide suggested that the administration could demonstrate its commitment to the sanctions bill without seeming to be overly punitive by selecting a couple of high-profile instances of violations and moving swiftly to make an example out of them to show the sanctions are serious.
Showing some quick successes would demonstrate to allies and offenders alike that the reality of sanctions has changed on the ground, and might convince other potential violators to rethink, the aide said. He referred to the old Chinese proverb, "Sometimes you have to kill the chicken to scare the monkey."
The administration has said little in public about when it expects the sanctions to show results, but time is a critical factor in the White House's calculations. Iran watchers speak of three "clocks" driving U.S. policy: the speed at which Iranian nuclear technology is maturing; the time it takes for the sanctions to bite, bringing Iran to the table; and the patience of regional actors.
Estimates of Iran's technical advances vary, and Iranian scientists have made uneven progress toward having the nuclear knowhow necessary to build a weapon. Some experts say Iran could get the bomb in as little as one year's time; others say it will take longer -- and that's assuming the regime in Tehran makes the decision to weaponize, and it's not clear that it has done so already.
Then there is the question of Israel, which views an Iranian nuclear weapon as an existential threat. Israeli leaders have indicated their willingness to give the U.S. strategy of sanctions and unconditional engagement a chance to work, but calls for military action will likely heat up if diplomacy fails to produce sufficient changes in Iranian behavior.
Another concern is the risk that Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt, will pursue their own nuclear weapons programs to compete with Iran's.
Congress is moving fast to complete its work on the Iran sanctions bill it unveiled this week, and is on track to meet the goal of getting it to President Obama's desk by July 4.
A Senate leadership aide told The Cable that the sanctions legislation, which contains new and wide-ranging penalties aimed at Iran's banking and energy sectors, could come up to the Senate floor Thursday. The House could bring it to the floor as early as Friday, although that could slip to early next week, a House leadership aide said.
Congress expects the White House to go along with the bill, although some of the provisions are harsher than the administration wanted. Hill leadership aides say final negotiations are still ongoing and in the end the White House will ultimately sign on.
But at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-IN, complained that the administration hasn't yet weighed in formally on the bill.
"Although we are grateful for the briefings on this matter by the administration officials ... it is past time for the administration to weigh in with a concrete response to this legislation," he said. "What provisions are supported or opposed by the administration? And what changes does it recommend? How would additional U.S. unilateral sanctions affect the ongoing campaign to construct a more comprehensive system of international sanctions?"
Under Secretary of State Bill Burns said that the administration was concerned about whether the legislation would harm relations with European allies, whose companies could fall under the penalties. The bill does not contain the blanket exemption for cooperating countries the administration was seeking; instead, the president will have to waive sanctions for specific companies he'd like to exempt.
"It is no secret that our international partners contain their enthusiasm for extraterritorial applications of U.S. legislation," Burns said. "And that's why we continue to work closely with you and your colleagues to try and ensure that the measures are going to be targeted in a way that are going to maximize the impact on the goal here, which is to constrain Iran's nuclear program and change its calculus, and give the president the flexibility that I think is useful to all of us in applying those measures as well."
Burns also acknowledged that the sanctions, all of them, are unlikely to reverse Iran's nuclear program by themselves.
"Sanctions and pressure are not an end in themselves; they are a complement, not a substitute, for the diplomatic solution to which we and our partners are still firmly committed," he said.
Congress on Monday unveiled a tough new package of unilateral sanctions against Iran's financial and petroleum sectors, expanding previous measures targeting top regime figures to include a much broader swath of the Iranian economy.
Capitol Hill sources said the legislation was likely to become law, despite the Obama administration's previous statements objecting to some of the bill's harsher provisions.
"This is a very strong bill," said one congressional aide working on the issue. "On every major substantive dispute with the administration, the tougher congressional standard won out."
Lead sponsors Sen. Chris Dodd, D-CT, and Howard Berman, D-CA, have been working very closely with the administration on the legislation behind closed doors, so most on Capitol Hill believe that the conference report that was unveiled today will pass overwhelmingly in both chambers and be signed by President Obama.
"If applied forcefully by the president, this act will bring strong new pressure to bear on Tehran in order to combat its proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, support for international terrorism, and gross human rights abuses," Dodd and Berman said in a statement.
The unofficial deadline for sending the bill to the White House is the July 4 recess. Under Secretary of State Bill Burns and Under Secretary of the Treasury Stuart Levey are set to testify Tuesday morning on the administration's Iran policy in the wake of the U.N. sanctions passed earlier this month.
Sources said the lawmakers in effect traded sequence for substance, agreeing to let the administration first go to the U.N., then allowing the EU to announce measures, and then finally moving forward and getting what they wanted.
For example, there is no explicit exemption in the bill for countries that are closely cooperating with the U.S. sanctions, something the administration has always pushed for. There is a waiver authority that mentions cooperating countries and the administration can consider a government's cooperation when considering a specific company for such a waiver.
But the conference report details a totally new set of penalties for foreign banks and financial entities doing business with the IRGC or any of its shadow companies.
"It's putting teeth behind what Stuart Levey is doing," said another congressional aide. "It's saying if you do business with the IRGC or any of its companies, you are essentially cut off from the U.S. financial system."
Another brand new provision is language that requires the president to compile a list of Iranians who are complicit in human rights abuses and imposes a whole new set of financial and other restrictions on those individuals.
Many are sure to be critical of the tough sanctions the bill places on Iran petroleum industry, a tactic that could cause problems for the entire Iranian economy, not just the regime. But that's intentional.
"This is a bill designed to put pressure on Iran's economy and the petroleum sanctions are a part of that," one aide said. "The people who are against tough sanctions are not going to be thrilled with this bill."
As for the refined petroleum sanctions, the bill takes a "Chinese menu" approach. The administration can choose any three of nine options for sanctions measures. This would allow the Obama folks to choose based on circumstance and also allow them to avoid problems if a country wanted to object to something specific through the WTO.
In another tweak, when a company is suspected of violating the energy-related sanctions, the new version says the U.S. government "shall" investigate, rather than "should" investigate, as the bill originally stated. But the president can delay the investigationfor six months while he tries to persuade the country diplomatically to stop selling gasoline to Iran. After six months, if the president can show progress on that diplomacy, he can delay the petroleum-related sanctions another six months.
Typically, lawmakers are wary of encouraging the Obama administration to depend on the United Nations when it comes to Iran, but in a resolution passed just now, Congress urged the administration to initiate a case against Iran at the controversial Human Rights Council.
The bipartisan resolution, which passed with a unanimous voice vote, was brought to the Senate floor Monday to mark the one year anniversary of flawed Iranian presidential elections that sparked widespread violence and repression throughout Iran. It notes that the "Government of Iran has systematically undertaken a campaign of violence, persecution, and intimidation against Iranian citizens who have peacefully protested the results of the deeply flawed Iran presidential elections."
But later on, the resolution "encourages the President and Secretary of State to work with the United Nations Human Rights Council to condemn the ongoing human rights violations perpetrated by the Government of Iran and establish a monitoring mechanism by which the Council can monitor such violations."
Critics say the 47-member Human Rights Council, which the Obama administration signed America up for after a long absence, has been hijacked since its inception by notorious human rights violators such as Cuba, China, and Egypt.
Established in March 2006 to replace the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, George W. Bush's administration refused to join, citing the council's nondemocratic makeup and its frequent criticisms of Israel, but the Obama administration reversed that decision last spring.
Their most recent act was to call for an investigation into the Israeli actions regarding the Gaza flotilla incident.
The council is also currently reviewing Iran's human rights record as part of its Universal Periodic Review process, but nothing close to a harsh condemnation is expected. To see how the Human Rights Council is treating Iran in the review, read this.
So now that the full Senate has called on the administration to use the Human Rights Council to initiative new action against Iran, what does that mean?
The lead sponsors of the resolution are Ted Kaufman, D-DE, Bob Casey, D-PA, Joe Lieberman, I-CT, John McCain, R-AZ, Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, Russ Feingold, D-WI, Sam Brownback, R-KS, Bob Menendez, D-NJ, Lindsey Graham, R-SC, and Carl Levin, D-MI, and Jon Kyl, R-AZ.
Are they all now supporting the Obama administration's joining of that group?
Separately, McCain called on Obama to get more personally involved in Iranian democracy promotion in a speech last week.
"The United States has never had a president whose personal story resonates as strongly overseas as President Obama's does -- whose ability to inspire, to move people, to mobilize them on behalf of democratic change is one of the greatest untapped sources of strength now available to Iran's human rights activists," he said. "If the president were to unleash America's full moral power to support the Iranian people -- if he were to make their quest for democracy the civil rights struggle of our time -- it could bolster their will to endure in their struggle, and the result could be historic."
"Tonight the Senate spoke with one voice to condemn ongoing human rights abuses in Iran and mark one year since the flawed Iranian election," Kaufman told The Cable, "I hope the Iranian people know America stands by their side in their struggle for democracy, freedom, and human rights. A year may have passed, but the unconscionable events of June 12 and its aftermath have not been forgotten."
Nearly a year after a disputed election sent tens of thousands of Iranians into the streets to protest against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's return to power, Sen. John McCain praised President Obama and said that his personal narrative and sparkling personality gave him the unique ability to make progress toward overthrowing the clerical regime in Tehran.
"The United States has never had a president whose personal story resonates as strongly overseas as President Obama's does -- whose ability to inspire, to move people, to mobilize them on behalf of democratic change is one of the greatest untapped sources of strength now available to Iran's human rights activists," he said. "If the president were to unleash America's full moral power to support the Iranian people -- if he were to make their quest for democracy the civil rights struggle of our time -- it could bolster their will to endure in their struggle, and the result could be historic."
McCain's speech to the National Endowment of Democracy (NED) was a full-throated call for regime change in Iran, in addition to being a call for increased administration support for Iranian democracy advocates.
"I believe that when we consider the many threats and crimes of Iran's government, we are led to one inescapable conclusion: It is the character of this Iranian regime -- not just its behavior -- that is the deeper threat to peace and freedom in our world, and in Iran," McCain said. "Furthermore, I believe that it will only be a change in the Iranian regime itself -- a peaceful change, chosen by and led by the people of Iran -- that could finally produce the changes we seek in Iran's policies."
NED Thursday gave its 2010 Democracy award to the Iranian Green Movement in a ceremony including NED Chairman Richard Gephardt and Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen R-FL.
McCain implored the audience not to believe the conventional wisdom in Washington that the Green Movement is waning.
"The Green Movement lives on. Its struggle endures. And I am confident that eventually, maybe not tomorrow or next year or even the year after that, but eventually, Iranians will achieve the democratic changes they seek for their country," he said. "The Iranian regime may appear intimidating now, but it is rotting inside."
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Now that the U.N. Security Council has passed its new sanctions resolution against Iran, the path is clear for Congress to move forward with its own, tougher set of sanctions.
Lead sponsors Sen. Chris Dodd, D-CT, and Rep. Howard Berman, D-CA, had agreed to give the administration more time to complete the U.N. track before reconciling the Senate and House versions of Iran sanctions legislation. After an unusually public first session of the conference committee, work has been quietly proceeding at the staff level and is finishing up now.
The sequencing here is important. Congress is also waiting until the European Union has a chance to meet and announce its own set of measures. That meeting will happen June 16 and 17 in Brussels. After that, Congress will have two weeks to unveil its bicameral bill before lawmakers leave town for the July 4 recess.
"We now look to the European Union and other key nations that share our deep concern about Iran's nuclear intentions to build on the Security Council resolution by imposing tougher national measures that will deepen Iran's isolation and, hopefully, bring the Iranian leadership to its senses," Berman said Wednesday. "The U.S. Congress will do its part by passing sanctions legislation later this month."
Hill sources say that it's still unclear whether Congress will be able to pass the conference report out of both chambers before the July 4 recess, as Dodd and Berman promised. But they see the passing of the U.N. resolution as the needed signal to move the conference process to its final conclusion.
"Now that the U.N. vote is behind us, there is a strong case to be made that the sanctions should be as strong as possible," said one congressional aide working on the issue. "We've now begun the process of what is essentially the last, best hope of stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program."
Still, even among sanctions advocates, there's great skepticism that Iran can be convinced to change course.
"The good news is that everything is going according to plan," the aide said. "The bad news is that the plan might not work."
Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, alluded to that Wednesday when calling for continued diplomatic engagement with the Iranian regime.
"Iran's nuclear program cannot be peacefully resolved without direct dialogue with the leadership in Tehran," Kerry said. "While today's action puts wind in the sails of this process, it is only the first step. We need more diplomatic creativity, energy and a clear vision of what is possible."
Kerry's committee will hold a hearing June 22 on the U.N. sanctions with the under secretaries of state and Treasury, William Burns and Stuart Levey, two of the administration's top point men on Iran.
The main issues inside the conference still include whether and how to meet the Obama administration's demand for an exemption from new sanctions for countries that are deemed to be "cooperating" with U.S. efforts. Republican lawmakers worry that the White House will use that to broadly exempt some of Iran closest business partners, such as Russia and China.
"It is clear the president's policy has failed. It is now time for the Congress to approve the Iran sanctions bill currently in conference committee, without watering it down or plugging it full of loopholes, and then the president should actually use it," said Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-AZ.
The fact that the U.N. resolution does not include language to restrict China's oil business with Iran or Russia's nuclear assistance and possible anti-aircraft system sales to Tehran elicited scorn from multiple leading GOP senators.
"I wish I could say that today's Security Council resolution is worth the more than six months it took to produce, but that is just not the case. The resolution is a lowest-common-denominator product," said Sen. John McCain, R-AZ.
We're told that McCain's proposal to target regime leaders accused of human rights abuses is set to be included in the conference report. We're also hearing that inside the conference, some new sanctions imposing mandatory penalties against international banks that do business with Iran are under discussion.
As far as we know, neither the House nor Senate leadership has allotted floor time for the bill yet, but that shouldn't be too much of a burden. The Iran sanctions legislation is expected to be passed relatively quickly and with broad bipartisan support.
Sources close to the U.S. and Russian governments confirmed to The Cable Monday that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will visit Washington and meet with President Obama on June 24.
The visit is timed exactly after Obama's stated deadline for finishing up U.N. Security Council action to bring new sanctions against Iran. The State Department has said repeatedly that Obama wants to see the sanctions vote before the end of spring -- June 21 -- and the Medvedev visit would be an opportunity to show unity on that front, or if the process lags, to give it one final push across the finish line.
Putting Iran sanctions in the rear-view mirror will also allow the administration to concentrate on the main accomplishment of Obama's "reset" of U.S. relations with Russia: ratification of the new START nuclear reductions treaty. Russia's desire for a civilian nuclear agreement with the United States, which is the secondary "reset" agenda item right now, is also sure to be discussed.
That agreement, which was first submitted by the Bush administration but pulled after the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, was sent back to Congress last month. If Congress doesn't formally object by August, it will go into effect.
A bipartisan effort to block the Russian civilian nuclear agreement is heating up now, led by Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey and Nebraska Republican Jeff Fortenberry, who introduced the House version of the resolution opposing the deal.
Recent reports about the risks of terrorists acquiring Russian nuclear technology have heightened concerns among lawmakers. Hill sources say that a Senate companion measure could surface with bipartisan sponsorship this week.
"Russia continues to train Iranian nuclear physicists, supply to Iran sensitive nuclear technology, and give secret instruction on Russian soil to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard on the use of the advanced S-300 interceptor-missile systems," said Markey about the deal.
"As long as I've been in this job, there's been no concern about Russian entities providing nuclear assistance to Iran," the NSC's non-proliferation Czar Gary Samore said earlier this month when talking about the 123 agreement, the shorthand used for civilian nuclear deals because they are based on section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954.
State Department officials have said that Moscow's ability to get the deal is tied directly to how helpful the Russians are in securing new sanctions against Iran, so the visit is perfectly timed for the administration to make an argument on that front.
"The White House has publicly stated that the Russian government's cooperation on the Iranian nuclear issue will be a significant consideration in making this determination and this continues to be the case," acting Assistant Secretary of State Vann Van Diepen testified last month.
Further details of the Medvedev visit are still being worked out. We've heard but haven't confirmed yet that a State Dinner is in the offing.
Despite repeated proclamations by senior leaders in both chambers of Congress and on both sides of the aisle that nothing could stop the Iran sanctions bill, its two lead sponsors announced today that they would delay the conference meant to iron out differences between the House and Senate versions.
"With the progress in negotiations at the Security Council, we believe that our overriding goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability is best served by providing a limited amount of time for those efforts -- and expected follow-on action by the EU at its mid-June summit -- to reach a successful conclusion before we send our bill to the president," Sen. Chris Dodd, D-CT, and Rep. Howard Berman, D-CA, said in a statement Tuesday.
It was only last week that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, promised to get it done before the Memorial Day recess.
"International sanctions make a lot more sense than unilateral" Dodd said at the time. "But we're not going to retreat from the unilateral sanctions effort."
But today, Dodd and Berman claimed that last week's unveiling of the draft U.N. sanctions resolution by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had convinced them that the Security Council process was actually making progress. They now expect to bring the conference report to be voted on by the entire Congress "in the latter half of June."
The delay represents a retreat for the lawmakers and a victory for the Obama administration, which had warned Congress that passing the bill could upset delicate U.N. negotiations. But inside the conference, serious disputes between lawmakers and the administration remain, such as whether to grant broad exemptions for countries that are deemed to be "cooperating" with the United States.
A U.N. official told The Cable that Security Council members are still pouring over the draft resolution and the reams of documents and annexes that accompany it. Those consultations are expected to go on for weeks.
Outside groups that have been pushing for the legislation, such as the American Israel Public Action Committee, were quick to say they are OK with the delay.
"AIPAC supports this decision and endorses Chairmen Dodd and Berman's firm, public commitment to get tough, comprehensive Iran sanctions legislation on the president's desk before the July 4th recess," the group said in a statement.
What's not clear is whether Republicans will suffer Dodd and Berman's delay quietly. "I didn't see any Republican names on that statement by Dodd and Berman," one GOP congressional aide remarked.
House GOP leaders had agreed not to bring up procedural motions to protest the lack of a conference report if the bill was completed by May 28. But now Berman will have to convince them that the delay is in the best interests of getting a stronger bill whenever it's completed.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stunned the world Tuesday morning when she testified that the United States had reached an agreement with other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council on a draft resolution leveling new sanctions against Iran. But there's one body that the administration still does not have an Iran sanctions agreement with: the U.S. Congress.
Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers pledged to swiftly reconcile the two versions of the Iran sanctions legislation, one sponsored by Senate Banking Committee chairman Chris Dodd, D-CT, and another led by House Foreign Affairs Committee head Howard Berman, D-CA.
"We hope it will move out of conference this week and be on the floor next week," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, said Tuesday.
"International sanctions make a lot more sense than unilateral ... But we're not going to retreat from the unilateral sanctions effort," said Dodd.
Inside the conference process, there's a lot going on. Conferees and non-conferees alike have been holding meetings on the legislation both at the staff and member level. Dodd and Berman have been engaged with the administration to work on the fixes the Obama team wants to see in the bill.
The drive to complete the bill quickly, ahead of the U.N. Security Council process, is bipartisan and bicameral. Republicans don't believe the U.N. language will be tough enough and are resisting administration efforts to have Congress wait for the U.N. track to play out. Democrats don't want to be pegged as weak on national security, and are cautiously trying to accommodate the administration's request for a delay.
But leading Republicans are growing impatient.
"I hope that the Democrats and the administration would move forward with that as quickly as possible. They clearly have been stalling for a long period of time," Senate Armed Services committee ranking member John McCain, R-AZ, told The Cable.
As the sanctions drama at the U.N. moves into what the Obama administration hopes are its final stages, the Iranian government is busily trying to conduct its own diplomatic outreach, including an attempt to convene an international meeting of some Security Council members in Tehran.
U.S. officials are arguing that after hearing Iran's pitch, those council members still resisting sanctions -- a group that includes nonpermanent members Turkey and Brazil -- will have no more excuse to hold up the process. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to make that case Thursday morning.
"During the call, the secretary stressed that in our view, Iran's recent diplomacy was attempt to stop Security Council action without actually taking steps to address international concerns about its nuclear program," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. "There's nothing new and nothing encouraging in Iran's recent statements."
A State Department official, speaking on background basis, explained that State expects Iran to try to convene an international meeting of sympathetic countries in Tehran to coincide with the upcoming visit of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva.
"It's possible that a high-level Turkish official might go," the official said. "We wanted to make sure Turkey understood exactly how we view recent actions and statements by Iran."
After Lula's visit, expect the U.S. message to be: The engagement track has all but failed.
"At that point, we'll understand what Iran is either willing or unwilling to do, and at that point we believe that there should be consequences for a failure to respond," Crowley said.
Iran has been stepping up its anti-resolution diplomacy of late, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki making the rounds of relevant countries. Mottaki even hosted an impromptu dinner for all the Security Council members in New York last week. (He served leftovers, Crowley tweeted.)
We are hearing that the U.S. goal is to pass a sanctions resolution by the end of May, but most diplomats don't expect it to get done until at least mid-June. U.S. officials are expressing increased confidence that the resolution will pass and will not get vetoed.
"[U]nless Iran does something significant that demonstrates that it is taking confidence-building measures, I am very confident we will get a Security Council resolution that is supported by the majority of the U.N. Security Council," White House WMD czar Gary Samore said Tuesday.
The so-called P5+1, the permanent five members of the Security Council plus Germany, met in New York Wednesday on the issue. Clinton discussed Iran with Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo for more than an hour Wednesday. "They acknowledged that good progress has been made, talked about a couple of technical issues in the drafting of the draft resolution, and pledged that both sides would continue to work hard within the P-5+1 to resolve remaining questions," Crowley said.
President Obama spoke over the phone with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev Thursday morning and discussed Iran as well. "The presidents also discussed the good progress being made by the P5+1 towards agreement on a U.N. Security Council resolution on Iran and agreed to instruct their negotiators to intensify their efforts to reach conclusion as soon as possible," according to White House readout of the call.
Add the Obama administration's WMD czar Gary Samore to the growing list of top officials who believe that Middle East peace is a necessary precursor to solving wider regional problems, including the drive to curb the spread of nuclear weapons.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday afternoon, Samore tied the peace process to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, currently ongoing in New York, by saying that one of the key signs of success would be if "at least some progress" can be made toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.
"We recognize and I frankly think everybody recognizes that in the absence of a comprehensive and endurable peace settlement, achieving the zone... is just not likely to be the outcome any time soon."
He then took the argument one step further and said, "The Obama administration is working very hard to try to push the peace process forward and it seems to me that's an essential element to making progress in any of these zones... It's hard to imagine how you could have an arms control regime in the Middle East without having peace and diplomatic recognition... it's a precursor to negotiations."
It's longstanding U.S. policy that Israel should eventually join the NPT, but it's also longstanding U.S. policy not to push Israel to change its stance of neither confirming nor denying its estimated stockpile of 100-plus nuclear weapons. Samore said he does not personally support Israel changing its policy of ambiguity and that no such discussions were taking place that he was aware of.
He also sought to set clear expectations for what might come out of the four-week conference, namely that the administration was not expecting all of the conference members to sign onto any agreement together.
"We believe that if a strong majority of countries support an outcome that pledges support for the treaty and supports practical steps for all of the three pillars plus language on the Middle East, that would be a successful outcome... even if that document is not accepted by the conference as a whole."
Samore also defended the U.S.-Russia civilian nuclear agreement, which the White House sent over to Congress Tuesday. Some lawmakers see the agreement as an undeserved reward to Russia, before that country has publicly committed to signing onto a strong Iran sanctions resolution at the UN.
He said the deal, known as the 123 agreement, won't come into force until later this year and he predicted a UN sanctions resolution would materialize well before then. And he doubted that Russia would go through with the delivery of the S-300 air defense system to Iran, which could also provoke opposition to the deal.
"We've made it very clear to the Russians that would have a very significant impact on bilateral relations and the Russians understand that the consequences would be very severe... I'd be surprised if those transfers take place," said Samore, declining to specify exactly what those consequences would be.
He also headed off another potential concern about the deal by saying, "As long as I've been in this job, there's been no concern about Russian entities providing nuclear assistance to Iran."
Samore said the START treaty with Russia will probably be submitted to Congress this week.
Tonight in New York, representatives of all the United Nations Security Council members will meet and break bread at the Iranian mission, a dinner called at the last minute by Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice won't attend, instead sending deputy permanent representative Ambassador Alejandro D. Wolff. "She has prior obligations," a U.S. official told The Cable. Our UN sources said that although every Security Council country will be at the table, none of the P5+1 countries are sending their top UN diplomats.
That may be a sign that that they don't see the dinner as substantive, but rather as one more attempt by Iran to defend whatever it is doing on the nuclear front and argue why they shouldn't be sanctioned.
"We see this as yet another opportunity for Iran to show the council that they are prepared to play by the rules and meet their international obligations," the U.S. official said, "That being said, they have not shown any recent indications that they are ready to do so and we come in with a realistic set of expectations."
The U.S. is prepared to portray the event as a sign that Iran is feeling the heat, is actually more worried about the UN sanctions resolution currently under negotiation, and it scrambling to turn the momentum back their way.
"This dinner, which is unusual, is a good indication to the lengths that Iran is going right now to combat the sanctions effort and that they recognize how isolated they have become," the U.S. official argued.
So where is that UN sanctions resolution right now? Our UN sources report that the relevant delegations are going through the proposed provisions line by line and are having extremely detailed negotiations, but there is still no timeline for when the text might surface.
And while the U.S. side doesn't expect much to come out of the dinner, their role tonight will be to play defense, making sure Mottaki doesn't sway any of the other council members by bending the truth, the U.S. official said.
"We want to be there to make sure the facts are represented and there is no opportunity for obfuscation."
While the State Department works to combat Iran's nuclear propaganda at the UN, back in Washington a group of bipartisan senators are doubling down on their promise to push for tough Iran sanctions legislation that does not include "cooperating country" exemptions that State wants.
The House and Senate began conference on the two bills last week, one led by Senate Banking Committee chairman Chris Dodd, D-CT, and the other led by House Foreign Affairs chairman Howard Berman, D-CA. The main change that State wants the conference to make to the legislation is to have the bill waive corporate sanctions for countries that are deemed to be "cooperating" with the new sanctions regime.
According to Deputy Secretary James Steinberg (pdf), the waiver is needed to avoid upsetting countries the U.S. needs to bring along on its push for multilateral action. Critics fear it will be used to exempt some of Iran's biggest trading partners, Russia and China, in exchange for their support for a new U.N. resolution
"We would find it difficult to support any conference report that would weaken the House and Senate passed sanctions by providing exemptions to companies or countries engaged in the refined petroleum trade with Iran," reads the May 3 letter from Sens. Jon Kyl, R-AZ, Chuck Schumer, D-NY, John Cornyn, R-TX, Dick Durbin, D-IL, Susan Collins, R-ME, Kent Conrad, D-ND, Evan Bayh, D-IN, Sam Brownback, R-KS, John McCain, R-AZ, and Kit Bond, R-MO.
"In particular, we are skeptical about any revision to the legislation that would exempt countries engaged in otherwise engaged in sanctionable activities because they are incorporated in so-called ‘cooperating countries.'"
The senators also expressed their opposition to any changes in the legislation that would weaken sanctions of Iran's energy sector at all and made an argument supporting the inclusion of new language from McCain targeting Iranian officials guilty of human rights abuses. McCain was promised strong support for that in exchange for him allowing the original Senate bill to move off the Senate floor.
The senators wrote that the administration's ongoing drive to seek a new sanctions resolution at the UN Council was "complementary" to Congressional action but that the conference must be completed as soon as possible, "regardless of progress at the UN."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to press in New York Monday, rejected the claims by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Iran had accepted the IAEA's proposal for transferring its nuclear material to a third country. Clinton reiterated that the U.S. is pursuing the "pressure track" but declined to use the term "crippling sanctions" as she has done in the past.
"For all the bluster of its words, the Iranian Government cannot defend its own actions, and that is why it is facing increasing isolation and pressure from the international community," she said.
Some lawmakers are standing firm against the State Department's request for broad waiver authority to exempt "cooperating countries" from the new Iran sanctions currently moving through Congress.
The House and Senate held their first public conference in a very long time Wednesday to start merging together different versions of the Iran sanctions legislation, one led by Senate Banking Committee chairman Chris Dodd, D-CT, and the other spearheaded by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Howard Berman, D-CA.
This was only the first of what could be many meetings of the conference, which has a stated but non-binding goal of finishing its work by May 28. That just happens to be the final day of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference at the United Nations in New York.
Most members just chose to make speeches warning of the dire threat posed by Iran's nuclear program or criticizing the U.N. Security Council for failing to move fast enough on its own parallel effort to impose new sanctions on the regime of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is apparently being granted a visa to come to New York for the NPT meeting.
But some lawmakers aimed their fire at the administration, specifically the State Department, for not enforcing the many Iran sanctions previously enacted. They also promised to fight against the main change that State wants the conference to make to the legislation, to have the bill waive corporate sanctions for countries that are deemed to be "cooperating" with the new sanctions regime.
According to Deputy Secretary James Steinberg (pdf), the waiver is needed to avoid upsetting countries the U.S. needs to bring along on its push for multilateral action. Critics fear it will be used to exempt some of Iran's biggest trading partners, Russia and China, in exchange for their support for a new U.N. resolution.
"The Department of State, under successive administrations, has failed to implement the sanctions laws already on the books, law aimed at compelling the regime to change course," said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL, the ranking Republican on Berman's committee.
She said that the 1996 law that imposed previous sanctions "included a national-interest waiver to address the very same arguments we are now hearing from the State Department and White House." But then, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright used the language to implement a sweeping waiver, "turning the act from a powerful tool into a paper tiger."
Congressman Brad Sherman, D-CA, chairman of Berman's subcommittee on terrorism, non-proliferation, and trade, went even further.
"If the bill that we pass is going to be anything more than a mockery, we are going not only to have to require reports," he said, "but we're going to need congressional oversight and investigations and limits on appropriations."
Regarding State's request for more waiver authority, he said the department was asking Congress to "reward the fact that they have illegally ignored the law by writing provisions that allow them to do it legally."
"The idea of country by country waivers is absurd," Sherman said. "They will waive virtually every country unless they decide to simply ignore the law."
The message from everyone else at the table was largely the same. Congress isn't waiting for the administration to come up with a new resolution at the U.N. Security Council.
"Iran and its spinning centrifuges do not wait. ... We can no longer wait for a Security Council resolution that has been going on for months," said Berman.
"We will try to take concerns into account when we can, but time is running short," said Dodd.
"I am told that the U.N. Security Council negotiations are making progress, but everybody understands there's not going to be a breakthrough overnight," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-MA.
"Hitler moved quickly, and they waited, and waited, and waited," said David Scott, D-GA.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-CA, offered up the most sobering comment of the day on the congressional drive to halt Iran's nuclear advancement.
"Even crushing sanctions might not do the job," said Royce, "but we ought to try."
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that Ahmadinejad will probably be granted a visa to come to New York next week for the nonproliferation conference, where he'll be sure to make a splash.
"Well, we have certain responsibilities as the host of the U.N. ... any foreign official who is coming to the U.N. for official business is normally granted a visa," he said.
The Iran sanctions conference meets for the first time next Wednesday and the meeting will be open to the public, according to a notice circulated around the Hill today.
The conference, hosted by House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman, D-CA, and Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, I-CT, on "The Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act," will be held in the room 210/212 of the new Capitol Visitors Center on April 28 at 1:00 p.m. and will be a "public meeting," the notice said.
Representatives from Berman and Dodd's offices did not immediately respond to requests for information about exactly how "public" the meeting will be.
Berman finally appointed conferees Thursday, the Senate appointed its conferees in March. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, has promised to move the bill as soon as the conference ends and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, said Tuesday he was hopeful the bill could reach the president's desk "within a matter of weeks."
At the public meeting, watchers can expect to hear some of the following things from these conferees, all of whom made floor speeches about the bill during Thursday's debate:
The urgency of this issue is beyond dispute. Iran quite possibly will be capable of developing and delivering a nuclear weapon in the next 3 to 5 years, and our task of preventing Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability is made more complicated by the fact that we all know that our best weapon for fighting this battle -- economic sanctions -- takes time to work. So we need the strongest possible sanctions, and we need them fast.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL:
Diplomacy and engagement have had no real impact on the regime in Tehran. As Iran sprints towards the nuclear finish line, deadlines set by the Obama administration for compliance have been repeatedly disregarded. Now the strategy appears to be resting on securing a new U.N. Security Council resolution. However, Russia and China see themselves as friends of the regime in Tehran and have publicly stated that they will not support a resolution that puts any significant pressure on Tehran. In fact, The New York Times reported last week that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned in a secret 3-page memorandum to top White House officials that the United States does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran's steady progress toward nuclear capability.
Rep. Dan Burton, R-IN:
It is extremely important that we do something and do something very, very quickly. We have waited too long. We have been talking about negotiating with Iran and putting sanctions on them for the past 4 or 5 years, trying to get our allies to work with us. The fact of the matter is nothing has happened, and Iran continues to thumb their nose at the rest of the world. This is a terrible, terrible threat. A terrorist state, Iran, with nuclear weapons is not only a threat to the Middle East, to Israel, our best ally over there, but it is a threat to every single one of us.
Rep. Ron Klein, R-FL:
This legislation gives companies a simple choice: do business with the United States, or do business with Iran. We cannot allow the U.S. taxpayer to be last crutch of Iran's dangerous nuclear program. Not on our watch and not on our dime. The time to act is now, and we must move with fierce urgency.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-CA:
Today, the world's top terrorist state has its tentacles throughout the region. For those of us who have engaged in this region and have watched neighboring countries to Iran, watched their propensity to react as Iran has sped up its development, each of those countries is now looking at going nuclear. I would ask my colleagues to think about those neighbors of Iran that would create a heavily nuclearized Middle East should Iran succeed in this and what the impact would be. We can only imagine the turmoil and the tensions that will come to the Middle East should we not succeed in this effort to prevent Iran from developing these nuclear weapons.
Hoyer: (not a conferee)
It is my belief, my colleagues, that if smart sanctions take effect, more and more Iranians will come to the same conclusion and so, hopefully, will the Iranian regime. Sanctions will show the regime that its embrace of nuclear proliferation carries a cost that is far too high. We cannot expect a change of heart from Tehran, but we can demand a change of behavior. My colleagues, this action is timely and perhaps past time, but it is always timely to do the right thing, to speak up, to act, and to encourage our allies as well and our partners and our fellow citizens in this globe to act in a way that will protect them and protect our international community.
Rep. Nita Lowey, D-NY: (not a conferee)
This week, Iran announced its testing of various missiles and weapons capabilities. U.S. officials have said Iran could develop a ballistic missile capable of striking the U.S. by 2015, and they have said that Iran's continued existential threat to our strongest ally in the Middle East, Israel, presents dire global security implications. I urge the conferees to act with haste to address these urgent challenges with tough crippling sanctions. Let the speed with which Congress finalizes this legislation to sanction Iran be a message to the international community that time is of the essence if we are to contain Iran's threat to security, stability and prosperity worldwide.
When U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Michele Sison met with Lebanese officials on Wednesday, she had a mission: She was there to urge Lebanon to help avoid a new outbreak of violence between Israel and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
Sison, an affable and well-liked career Foreign Service officer, was given the difficult task of both urging the Lebanese to do what they can to avoid an eruption of war and convincing them that U.S. and Israeli concerns about alleged Syrian arms transfers over the Lebanese border should be taken seriously.
Arab press reports cited anonymous sources as saying Sison showed Lebanese Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri photos of truck convoys, evidence of increasing and escalation weapons shipments to Hezbollah. More shockingly, the reports said that she told Lebanese officials the United States had stopped Israel from launching an imminent strike against the convoys. Neither of those details is true, according to multiple administration sources.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told The Cable that the idea American waived Israel off of a strike on Syrian weapons transfers is "totally false," but declined to describe the specifics of the meeting. Another U.S. official described the Arab press reports as "bullshit."
Two administration officials close to the issue, however, said that the meeting did in fact take place, but no photos were shown and the United States did not halt an imminent Israeli strike.
"The Israelis weren't ready to shoot anything. There was never a point where they said, ‘We are going to strike something,'" the official said, adding that at some point Israeli action could of course be a possibility -- albeit a disastrous one.
Regardless, the controversy surrounding Sison's meeting reflects the extremely high tensions in the region following reports of new Syrian weapons transfers, including possibly SCUD missiles, to Hezbollah -- tensions the Obama administration is trying to tamp down.
Sison's message was the same message the U.S. is sending to all the parties, which is, "A war now is not in anyone's interest," the official said.
The administration is still not clear that any SCUDs have been transferred, but there is an acknowledgement that Syrian weapons transfers are increasing in both quantity and quality.
"It's a deterrence game and each side is building up its deterrence capability," this official said, adding that as both the Israelis and Hezbollah prepare for war, the seriousness of any actual outbreak of fighting is keeping both sides from initiating battle -- for now.
"In a way, the deterrence is working," the source added, noting that the downside risk of the arms buildup is that any miscalculation that begins an open conflict would precipitate a large-scale war that whose consequences would be impossible to predict.
According to this official, who stressed that they were only conveying their personal analysis, not the overall administration position, Hezbollah is still seeking revenge for the 2008 Israeli assassination of its military leader Imad Mughniyeh, and sees some spectacular attack on Israel as a way to achieve that.
But Hezbollah, now accountable to the Lebanese people due to its role in the government, doesn't want to be seen as firing the first shot that could lead to devastating retaliation from Israel. So the group is trying to goad the Israelis into starting the conflict, the official believes.
The Israelis are aware they are being goaded, the official said, and are doing their best to resist while warning Washington that at some point violence might be unavoidable. "The Israelis know that once they strike, that's all the excuse that Hezbollah needs to wage a full-scale war," the official explained.
As for why Syria seems to be playing such an unhelpful role, "that's the million-dollar question," the official said. The Obama administration genuinely does not understand Syrian intentions and there are three basic theories within the administration as to why Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would continue to escalate arms shipments to Hezbollah despite U.S. warnings.
According to one school of thought, this is Assad's way of playing hardball with the Israelis in advance of Israeli-Syrian negotiations. No one wants to negotiate from a weak position, so he is amassing chits that he can bargain away later.
An opposing theory is that Assad has no interest in engaging with the Americans or negotiating with Israel at all. This line of thinking concludes that he is simply paving the way for eventual conflict with Israel.
The third, more nuanced analysis portrays Assad as a man in a bind. He has himself so tied up with Iran and Hezbollah that perhaps he can't disengage as easily as those in the West think he can. Also, Assad has always been a gambler and may have simply become entangled in his own web of deals with so many competing interests.
"We do not understand Syrian intentions. No one does, and until we get to that question we can never get to the root of the problem," the official said. "Until then it's all damage control."
Meanwhile, the administration is trying to explain to the Syrians how foolish the weapons transfers are, if they are really happening, while telling the Israelis to be patient and arguing that the only beneficiary of a new Israeli-Hezbollah war would be Iran, which would seize upon a new conflict to deflect international pressure over its nuclear program.
"Hariri is terrified that another war is going to break his country apart and if that means denying the weapons transfers or whatever, he's going to do it," our official speculated. "He's desperately trying to save his country from utter decimation."
The House finally appointed conferees to meld the two already passed versions of the Iran sanctions bill and Congress is not waiting for the Obama administration to finish up with the UN track.
"We have waited long enough for diplomacy to work," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, said in a response to a question from The Cable at Thursday's press conference on financial reform, adding, "Iran is a festering sore in the world."
The House had not appointed conferees until just recently. They were accused of holding up the conference until the UN track had been exhausted, a charge chairman Howard Berman's office has denied.
Berman announced the House conferees today.
"Today marks a major step towards preventing Iran from acquiring the ability to produce nuclear weapons. Iran's intentions are clear, and now is the time to implement crippling sanctions on this reckless regime," he said in a statement, "We are moving forward to ensure that legislation enabling tough sanctions is on President Obama's desk for his signature."
The administration had been hoping that Congress would hold off on passing the conference report until it was able to get a new UN security council resolution authorizing new sanctions. The deadline for the UN track has slipped repeatedly and Reid was clear that he was no longer waiting for that process to play out.
Reid said he would bring the bill to the floor as soon as it comes out of conference and that he wants to see the conference finish up work "as soon as they can."
Last week, over two thirds of the House and Senate signed a letter to president Obama urging him to impose "crippling sanctions" on Iran immediately.
The House conferees are Howard Berman, D-CA, Gary Ackerman, D-NY, Brad Sherman, D-CA, Jim Costa, D-CA, David Scott, D-GA, Joseph Crowley, D-NY, Ron Klein, D-FL, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL, Dan Burton, R-IN, Edward Royce, R-CA, Mike Pence, R-IN, Barney Frank, D-MA, Gregory Meeks, D-NY, Scott Garrett, R-NJ, Sander Levin, D-MI, John S. Tanner, D-TN and Dave Camp, R-MI.
The Senate conferees are Chris Dodd, D-CT, John Kerry, D-MA, Joe Lieberman, I-CT, Robert Menendez, D-NJ, Richard Shelby, R-AL, Bob Bennett, R-UT, and Richard Lugar, R-IN.
Only one day after the close of President Obama's nuclear summit, Congress is demanding the administration refocus the nuclear discussion on Iran's nuclear program and is threatening to move sanctions legislation sooner rather than later.
Congress has been sitting on two Iran sanctions bills for most of this year, having passed them through both chambers but not yet convening a conference session to resolve the two versions. Lawmakers have been giving the administration time to work the U.N. track, while also lamenting that the expected deadline for getting a new U.N. Security Council resolution on Iran keeps slipping.
The pressure to take action may well increase after today's congressional testimony, in which Defense Intelligence Agency head Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess, Jr. warned that Iran could have enough highly enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb within a year. Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Gen. James Cartwright was quick to clarify that Iran wouldn't have the capability to actually construct that bomb until three to five years' time.
Burgess also gave some details in his written remarks about Iran's capabilities that weren't previously well known in public.
"DIA assesses that, with sufficient foreign assistance, Iran could develop and test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the United States," he wrote. "Iran displayed its next-generation SLV, the Simorgh, in February 2010. The Simorgh is much larger than the Safir and shows progress in booster design that could be applicable to an ICBM design."
(The relatively less revealing testimony of Under Secretary of State William J. Burns, who is in charge of America's contribution to the P5+1 process, can be found here.)
President Obama appears to feel the same sense of urgency. When he met Chinese President Hu Jintao at the summit, our sources report, he pressed Hu for some progress on U.N. sanctions by the end of April.
In response, the Chinese reaffirmed their willingness to participate in sanctions negotiations without making any concrete pledges. Although this was portrayed as a significant shift in some reports, the truth is that Chinese intentions are still unclear, as is the date by which the U.N. might take action.
On May 3, the U.N. begins the once-every-five-years Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York. It's unlikely the Security Council would tackle the Iran issue in the middle of that conference, risking a political fight in the midst of an already-complex set of negotiations -- and that NPT review lasts until May 28. So if the Obama administration can't it done in April, the sanctions will have to wait until June.
Speaking about the issue at the press conference closing the summit Tuesday, Obama promised to press for sanctions but said, "I'm not going to speculate beyond that in terms of where we are."
Congress, however, wants to the administration to know that any delay will bring further pressure from Capitol Hill.
"We urge you to join with those allies who are prepared for action to immediately impose crippling sanctions on Iran," reads a letter signed by more than 360 House lawmakers that will be released later today. "Only such action on our part offers the prospect of persuading Tehran to turn away from its dangerous course."
A nearly identical Senate letter is also in the works and has at least 75 signatures right now, our Hill sources report.
At 3 p.m. today, bipartisan House leaders will hold a press conference to push for action on Iran sanctions. Speaking will be Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-VA, Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-IL, and Rep. Mike Pence, R-IN. Our Hill sources say that the press conference was rescheduled specifically to enable Hoyer to attend.
The Senate has already appointed conferees for the Iran sanctions bill, but the House has not. People on the Senate side continue to believe that House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman, D-CA, is holding up on appointing conferees to stall the conference as a favor to the administration, but Berman's office denies that.
Adding to Congress's threats to move Iran sanctions legislation regardless of what happens at the United Nations, a House appropriator will move to keep all U.S. government money out of the hands of companies that do business there.
"During the House Appropriations Committee's consideration of the Fiscal Year 2011 appropriations bills, I will offer an amendment to each of the twelve appropriations bills to ensure that no federal funds go to companies doing business with Iran," Rep. Steve Rothman, D-N.J, will say in a statement to be released Thursday but obtained in advance by The Cable.
Rothman is responding, in part, to a March 7 New York Times article reported that $107 billion worth of U.S. taxpayer money has gone to companies doing business in Iran, $15 billion going to firms that directly violating existing U.S. sanctions by aiding Iran's oil industry.
If the committee votes to adopt Rothman's language when they takes up the spending bills, it would become the law of the land that no U.S. Government funds would go to such companies, no matter what other sanctions might be in place.
Rothman isn't the only lawmaker trying to close the path of funds from Washington to Tehran. The House version of the Iran sanctions bill currently awaiting conference has a provision to stop U.S. government funds from going to companies involved in Iran's oil sector, written by Rep. Ron Klein, D-FL.
The Senate version of the bill has a similar provision that covers technology exports to Iran, but not oil industry involvement. Inside the conference, several lawmakers are expected to push for language that covers both sectors and perhaps more.
Congress is expected to start working on the spending bills in May.
There was some strong pushback at Monday night's AIPAC gala against the Obama administration's call for further patience in waiting for the U.N. Security Council to enact a fourth round of sanctions on Iran. But it didn't come from the Israeli side or the lobbying group itself: it came from two senior U.S. senators.
Senate leadership member Charles Schumer, D-NY, and moderate Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, both passionately pledged to push this week for action on the Iran sanctions legislation currently awaiting a House-Senate conference. They directly contradicted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's call for more time to allow the U.N. process to play out, a plea she made in remarks to the same group earlier in the day.
Comparing a delay in confronting Iran's nuclear program with the WWII-era appeasement of Adolf Hitler, Schumer said there was no choice but to move forward with new Iran sanctions now.
"Diplomatic efforts have failed. We are too close (to a nuclear Iran) to simply continue those efforts," said Schumer. "The U.S. must hit Iran first, on our own, with unilateral sanctions, no matter what the other nations of the world do. And we cannot wait, we must push those sanctions now ... we cannot afford to wait for Russia or China."
Schumer's comments showed some daylight between the New York senator and the administration on the issue of banning the export of petroleum products to Iran. Schumer is for it, but administration officials say they want to focus on sanctions that target the regime, not the population.
Clinton counseled patience in her AIPAC speech Monday morning. "We are now working with our partners in the United Nations on new Security Council sanctions that will show Iran's leaders that there are real consequences for their intransigence," she said. "It is taking time to produce these sanctions, and we believe that time is a worthwhile investment for winning the broadest possible support for our efforts."
Schumer and Graham will send a letter to Obama this week demanding he implement the new sanctions bill as soon as it gets to his desk. In his speech, Graham also said the U.N. process was going too slowly.
"Russia and China are AWOL when it comes to Iran," he said. "Time is not on our side."
Graham also directly contradicted Clinton's message on settlements, where she said that the status of Jerusalem was an issue subject to "good faith negotiations."
"Jerusalem is not a settlement. No government in Israel will ever look at Jerusalem as a settlement. And no government of the United States should ever look at Jerusalem as a settlement," Graham said to raucous applause. "It's the undivided capital of the state of Israel."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoed Graham's sentiments only minutes later.
"Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital," he said. "Everyone knows that these neighborhoods will be part of Israel in any peace settlement. Therefore, building them in no way precludes the possibility of a two-state solution."
Both senators told the 7,000 assembled AIPAC members to push for immediate action on Iran sanctions when they flood Capitol Hill Tuesday to lobby their representatives, and AIPAC officials confirms that this will be the No. 1 talking point for AIPAC in all meetings.
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman, D-CA, is said to be trying to help the administration delay a conference by not allowing the House to appoint conferees. Denying that charge, he said recently he wants to get the bill to the President's desk before May.
Clinton met with Netanyahu at the Mayflower Hotel Monday afternoon. The State Department had been expecting Netanyahu to come to Foggy Bottom for the meeting but the location was changed at the last minute. Israeli sources said that protocol dictated that Netanyahu should choose the meeting place because he still technically outranks Clinton.
But protocol didn't seem to bother Netanyahu when he traveled to Observatory Circle to sit down for dinner with the Vice President Joseph Biden Monday night. He goes to the White House to see Obama Tuesday afternoon.
When European foreign ministers meet in Brussels next Monday, three European powers will be pressing for continent-wide action to confront Iran's jamming of international satellites.
"Iran has been regularly jamming the broadcasting by satellite of a number of foreign televisions and radio stations ... since December 2009, a repetition of its practice in the run up to the disputed elections earlier that year," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle wrote to the European Union's new foreign-policy chief, Baroness Catherine Ashton, in a previously unreported letter obtained by The Cable.
"The objective was clearly to prevent the people of Iran from freely exercising their right to information."
The three powers want the EU not only to pen a declaration condemning the practice, but also to figure out how to un-jam the satellites and perhaps even stop the export of technologies that Iran can use for censorship purposes.
The French have been pushing particularly hard on the issue in recent weeks, in part due to the fact that much of the jamming was aimed at the French firm EutelSat, which carries more than 70 foreign radio and television services, some of which are run by the Iranian regime but many of which have nothing to do with Iran.
A European diplomat told The Cable that one option was to kick Iranian programming off of EutelSat. There is expected to be widespread support for a declaration, the diplomat added.
The Iranian actions violate the agreements of the International Union of Telecommunications, to which it is a party, but that body has no real enforcement power.
The EU has been more active than the U.S. on confronting Iranian satellite jamming, at least in public, a situation that several GOP senators complained about in a recent letter to Jeff Trimble, head of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
The senators were demanding answers to questions raised by an exclusive report in The Cable that revealed the involvement of the National Security Council in the Broadcasting Board of Governor's actions regarding Iran.
In the Feb. 18 story, which was also reprinted in the Washington Post, we reported that the NSC had been involved in negotiating the wording of a statement on Iranian media censorship that was eventually issued by the Voice of America, a subsidiary of the BBG, as well as the British Broadcasting Company and Deutsche Welle.
The NSC's involvement was seen by some as an inappropriate violation of the "firewall" that is supposed to exist between the administration and the BBG, which should be operating independently. An NSC official denied that there was anything inappropriate about the council's intervention.
The Iranian regime's February decision to increase the level of its uranium enrichment to nearly 20 percent reveals that Iran's claims that it needs to enrich uranium for medical use is a "transparent ploy," a top Obama administration official said Tuesday.
"It has nothing to do with trying to help Iranian cancer patients who will need medical isotopes later this year," Dan Poneman, the deputy energy secretary, told an audience Wednesday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, adding that the decision was "a provocative move that calls into question its nuclear intentions."
"We have even offered to facilitate Iran's procurement though world markets of the medical isotopes its citizens need," he said, "but there's been no follow-up and Iran has refused to discuss its nuclear program further, despite the Geneva understanding."
The Obama administration offered Iran a deal to exchange nuclear material in a third country in order to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor, the U.S.-built facility where the enrichment is suspected to be taking place, but the IAEA has still never received a formal response. "It's out there. It has not been formally withdrawn," Poneman said.
He also launched the opening salvo in what many believe will be a bitter confrontation between the United States and Iran when the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty comes up for discussion in a major review conference in May. Iran is poised to disrupt the conference significantly by raising objections to any U.S. initiatives and generally working to thwart any attempts to address what Western powers see as its clear failure to comply with the treaty.
"Iran essentially has not been in compliance with its IAEA safeguards agreement since 1982," Poneman said, referring to Iran's pattern of undeclared nuclear material, facilities, and experiments.
"In the case of Iran, it does not appear that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes," he added. "The NPT does not contain the right to pursue nuclear efforts of this character. After all it is the nuclear non-proliferation treaty."
Poneman said the latest IAEA report on Iran "clearly shows Iran's continued failure to live up to its international obligations."
Multiple congressional aides tell The Cable that pressure is mounting for Congress to move forward with its conference to iron out differences between the House and Senate versions of the Iran sanctions legislation, after the French Foreign Minister said that a U.N. Security Council resolution might not surface until June.
The original idea was to finalize the U.S. sanctions legislation only after the U.N. has its say, but the continued delays in New York have put that plan into question. While lawmakers want to give the administration space to line up the necessary support at the Security Council, their patience is wearing thin.
Last Friday, Sens. Charles Schumer, D-NY, and Jon Kyl, R-AZ, penned a letter, first obtained by Turtle Bay, to President Obama asking him to abandon attempts to try to get exemptions for countries and support the Iran sanctions legislation as is. The senators said they don't want to wait until the UN acts, due to continued Chinese intransigence.
"We believe that attempts at diplomacy will continue to be rebuffed by the government of Iran and that our window for implementing meaningful, ‘crippling' sanctions against Iran is getting narrower by the day," they wrote.
"If the U.N. track stalls to the point that we're in the middle of the year, it is unlikely that the Congress is going to wait that long," said one senior congressional aide close to the issue, noting that the Obama administration has been pushing back the deadline for U.N. action again and again.
The Senate appointed conferees earlier this month and the House is expected to follow suit shortly. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, did not respond to a request for comment on the timing.
Senate staffers wonder if House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, D-CA, is trying to avoid opening up the process to a House vote on the details of the bill. Berman may be worried that Iran-minded members could force a vote that might upset negotiations with the State Department over issues like an exemption for cooperating countries, a senior Senate aide said. "The million-dollar question is when is the House going to conference."
When the bill does come to conference, there will be attempts to add provisions to the bill that go further than what the administration is proposing and what the current bill includes. The most likely addition will be language by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, I-CT, and John McCain, R-AZ, that would require the president to sanction Iranian officials who have committed human rights abuses or acts of violence against civilians engaging in peaceful political activity.
Those listed would be subject to visa bans, freezes on their assets in the United States or within U.S. jurisdiction, and other restrictions on their financial activities. "McCain's amendment would identify Iranian human rights abusers and make them feel some serious pain," said a senior Senate staffer.
McCain tried to add the language in January when the Senate passed the bill, but was persuaded to stand down so that Reid could move the legislation quickly. Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, promised to support the language in conference.
The second main addition to the bill could be language to tighten restrictions on U.S. government funds going to companies that do business with the Iranian regime. A March 7 New York Times article reported that $107 billion worth of U.S. taxpayer money has gone to companies doing business in Iran, $15 billion going to firms that directly violating existing U.S. sanctions by aiding Iran's oil industry.
The House version of the bill already has a provision to stop U.S. government funds from going to companies involved in Iran's oil sector, written by Rep. Ron Klein, D-FL, who said the issue is enforcement.
"You need to make a choice: either you want to sell equipment or services to the energy section in Iran, or you want to be eligible for business in the United States," he told The Cable. "Right now we're not enforcing that but this will make it tight, it will give it teeth and there will be consequences if you do it."
The Senate bill has a similar provision that covers technology exports to Iran, but not oil industry involvement. Inside the conference, several lawmakers are expected to push for language that covers both sectors and perhaps more.
Finally, the administration's ongoing insistence on being able to exempt countries from the U.S. sanctions regime is still not resolved as far as lawmakers are concerned. The administration wants to be able to waive the sanctions for any country it chooses, which could include China and Russia, but lawmakers want limits on that power.
"The formula that a cooperating country is a country that president determines is cooperating is probably not going to go anywhere," one senior congressional aide said, "The criteria has to be genuinely meaningful and strict."
The Senate conferees are Chris Dodd, D-CT, John Kerry, D-MA, Joseph Lieberman, I-CT, Robert Menendez, D-NJ, Richard Shelby, R-AL, Robert Bennett, R-UT, and Richard Lugar, R-IN.
Three senior Republican senators are demanding answers to questions raised by an exclusive report in The Cable that revealed the involvement of the National Security Council in the Broadcasting Board of Governor's actions regarding Iran.
In the Feb. 18 story, which was also reprinted in the Washington Post, we reported that the NSC had been involved in negotiating the wording of a statement on Iranian media censorship that was eventually issued by the Voice of America, a subsidiary of the BBG, as well as the British Broadcasting Company and Deutsche Welle. The NSC's involvement was seen by some as an inappropriate violation of the "firewall" that is supposed to exist between the administration and the BBG, which should be operating independently.
Sens. Jon Kyl, R-AZ, Sam Brownback, R-KS, and Tom Coburn, R-OK sent a letter (pdf) Tuesday to BBG President Jeff Trimble demanding a full accounting of the actions of the NSC and the State Department in dealing with the BBG before it eventually issued the statement, which criticized Iran for its jamming of international satellites.
"If true, these actions constitute serious violations of U.S law, policy, and tradition related to the editorial independence of the taxpayer-funded Broadcasting Board of Governors. We believe it is important for you to address the claims made in the article," the letter stated.
"We also believe it's important for you to publicly indicate whether representatives of the administration, including officials of the National Security Council, the Executive Office of the President, or the State Department, were involved in any way in the drafting, preparation, or clearance" of the statement.
The senators demanded that Trimble identify the specific individuals who were involved in the statement, state whether anyone at State raised concerns about possible violation of the editorial "firewall" between the administration and the BBG, and detail all of the BBG's activities related to Iran since last June's election.
Several BBG nominees are pending confirmation in the Senate, the letter noted.
An NSC official, speaking to The Cable on background basis, admitted that the NSC held a series of interagency meetings on the issue after the BBG asked the council for advice and defended the interaction as "appropriate."
"The BBG approached the NSC for guidance regarding a specific request from BBC and Deutsche Welle to issue a joint statement with VOA," the official said. "The NSC then worked with State and BBG to review the content of such a statement to ensure it was both factually accurate and legally sound; the NSC endorsed the issuance of a joint statement, and a strong statement was indeed issued."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.