Just before Chinese President Hu Jintao's arrival to Washington, two leading senators accused China of violating sanctions against Iran and sent a warning to President Barack Obama that Congress will go after Chinese companies if the abuses don't stop.
"We appreciate China's decision to support U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929, as well as China's backing of prior U.N. sanctions against Iran. However, we believe that China's record on sanctions enforcement and nonproliferation is inadequate and disappointing," Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) wrote to President Obama on Jan. 14 in a previously unreported letter.
The senators cited numerous reports that China is supplying crucial materials to aid Iran's nuclear and missile programs and alleged that Beijing continues to give monetary and material support to Iran's energy sectors, including the delivery of refined petroleum products, which could provoke penalties under U.S. laws passed by Congress, including the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act that Obama signed into law in July, 2010.
The senators specifically named the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and the China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (SINOPEC) as firms that could come under U.S. penalties.
"We urge you to warn President Hu that the U.S. will be forced to sanction these companies if they do not quickly suspend their ties with Iran," the senators wrote.
Last October, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a new report that identified 16 companies as having sold petroleum products to Iran between Jan. 1, 2009, and June 30, 2010. Of those 16, the GAO reported that five have shown no signs of curtailing business with Iran. Three of those companies are based in China, one in Singapore, and one in the UAE.
Japan and South Korea are among the countries that have scaled back their dealings in Iran in response to U.S. pressure. But analysts fear that Chinese corporations could move to backfill the space left in Iran by countries that are now cooperating with international and U.S. sanctions measures.
Also today, one of the key authors of the bill, former House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Howard Berman (D-CA), also called on Obama to press China to enforce energy sanctions on Iran.
"A key area of concern for the United States is the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran, a threat that would also jeopardize China's long-term security," Berman said in a statement. "As President Obama sits down with President Hu this week, securing greater cooperation from the Chinese government in stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program must be at the top of the agenda."
China is currently Iran's largest trade partner, its largest oil purchaser and its largest foreign investor. China-Iran trade is currently around $30 billion per year and Iranian officials have predicted it could reach $50 billion over the next five years.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves Washington today for a trip to the Gulf, where she will meet with senior Arab leaders and civic groups. Middle East peace, Iraq, and Iran will be at the top of her agenda.
Clinton travels to New York tonight to pay a visit to Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, who has been in New York since November for surgery on his back. She'll also meet tonight with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in New York, before embarking on a six-day trip that will take her to the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar.
"She is going to want to talk about Iraq," a senior State Department official said about the trip. "We obviously want to encourage [regional leaders in the Gulf] to be as supportive as possible to the new Iraqi government."
"On the peace process, I think it's time once again for the secretary to take stock on what is happening in the region," the official said. "She will want to talk a bit about where the Arab peace initiative is and she will want to get a better sense of how the region sees the situation on the ground both in terms of both the Palestinian Authority and also in terms of the talks... We are very eager to see progress made but it's an uphill battle."
Clinton will also sound out the Gulf rulers on their opinions toward Iran's recent actions, said the official. With the "P5+1" countries scheduled to hold another round of talks with Iran in Istanbul, it is an important moment to attempt to "unknot this problem that we find ourselves in with the Iranians and their nuclear ambitions," the official said. "She'll also want to take stock of where we are on the sanctions regime."
Clinton will hold bilateral meetings with senior leaders in all three countries. In the UAE, Clinton will meet with Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince, and his brother Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Foreign Minister.
This will be Clinton's first visit to Dubai, where she will meet with ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. She will also go to Abu Dhabi and visit the "green city" of Masdar, the futuristic neighborhood being built to run completely carbon neutral and waste free.
In Oman, Clinton will help celebrate the 40th anniversary of the reign of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who the State Department official described as "a long time friend of the United States and a valued partner who has made enormous changes on the ground in his country over the last 40 years. "
In Qatar, Clinton will meet with Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir, and participate in the Forum for the Future, a meeting of government, civil society, and business leaders from around the region. There she will participate in a panel with a foreign minister, a civil society representative, and a business leader from the region.
The State Department is billing the trip as "an opportunity to showcase these other dimensions of U.S. engagement in the Middle East and the Gulf, particularly the emphasis we've placed on building partnerships beyond the government to government level, reaching out to civil society, reaching out to the private sector," said another senior State Department official. "That's really the key goal for everything that she's doing on the trip."
The P5+1 talks in Geneva have only just begun, but a bipartisan group of senators is already calling on the Obama administration to resist Iranian attempts at stalling, keep ratcheting up pressure as talks go on, and tell Iran they don’t have the right to enrich uranium for the foreseeable future.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week in Bahrain that Iran does have the right to a domestic uranium enrichment program for civilian purposes, if and when they prove to the international community they can do so transparently and responsibly.
But in a letter (PDF) to President Barack Obama to be delivered on Monday -- but obtained in advance by The Cable -- Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY), Bob Casey (D-PA), and Mark Kirk (R-IL) said that the administration should make clear to Iran that domestic enrichment is not an option.
“We believe that it is critical that the United States and our partners make clear that, given the government of Iran’s pattern of deception and non-cooperation, its government cannot be permitted to maintain any enrichment or reprocessing activities on its territory for the foreseeable future,” the senators wrote. “We would strongly oppose any proposal for a diplomatic endgame in which Iran is permitted to continue these activities in any form.”
The senators also told Obama they want the administration to make clear to Iran that sanctions and other pressures will increase during the negotiations. They also wrote that the administration should not be fooled into accepting “confidence building measures” as substitutes for real negotiations.
Overall, the letter sets down a marker to Obama to remind him that, as the administration heads down the engagement track with Iran once again, Congress will be watching and waiting to criticize any perceived weakness or concession. The negotiations may be taking place in Geneva, but the Obama team has to always keep one eye on Capitol Hill.
MANAMA, Bahrain — International sanctions are not likely to convince Tehran to abandon its nuclear program and Monday’s talks in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 countries are only the first step in a process that could take years to succeed, according to Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.
Bildt, who is considered one of Europe’s leading voices on foreign policy, is no friend of Iran. He’s a vocal critic of Iran’s human rights record and has worked hard to free Europeans held in Iranian prisons. But he gave a speech on Sunday at the 2010 IISS Manama Security Dialogue that included criticism of the sanctions regime the United States and Europe have worked to put in place. He also happened to sit next to Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki at the Dec. 3 gala dinner at which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke.
The Cable sat down with Bildt on Sunday for an exclusive interview about Iran, the nuclear negotiations, and his dinner date with the Iranian leader.
Bildt disagreed with Clinton’s view, expressed in our exclusive interview with her two days before, that the international sanctions regime had brought Iran back to the table and was thus having an effect on the Iranian leadership’s decision making.
“They were at the table one year ago, they were at the table six months ago, and they are at the table again. And I think it’s at the table where the solution can be found. I fail to see any solution that is not at the table,” Bildt said.
“The sanctions are part of the scene but they are not the solution,” he told The Cable. “There are some people that seem to believe sanctions are going to sort out the problem itself, as if you have sufficiently hard sanctions, the Iranians are suddenly going to fold and say, ‘We agree with everything that you’ve said.’ That’s a pipe dream.”
Sanctions might have some effect over the long term, but that could take a very long time, he said.
“You’re talking about a 10, 15, 20 year process,” Bildt said. “The thing that can change things in the near term is the talks.”
But even the nuclear negotiations that begin on Monday in Geneva will need several follow-up sessions before progress is can be made, said Bildt.
“I think we’re talking about a fairly lengthy process. We have a gulf of mistrust between the Iranians and the Americans that is profound. One side is locked into 1979 and one side is locked into 1953,” Bildt said, referring to the dates of Islamic Revolution and the U.S. sponsored coup that overthrew Mohammad Mosaddegh. “It will have to be a step by step approach, where you start by some smaller steps before you’re ready to take some bigger steps.”
Luckily, the West has some more time to negotiate with Iran, Bildt added, because he believes that their nuclear progress is going much slower than anyone anticipated.
And what about his dinner with Mottaki? Bildt said he told Mottaki that Clinton’s speech, which focused on Iran’s right to civilian nuclear development and avoided harsh criticisms, was a huge change in tone from the American side made in the hope of improving relations.
Bildt said that Mottaki agreed, but that the Iranian diplomat doubted it would make much of a difference in the end.
“I said to Mottaki, ‘this is significant,’” Bildt related, referring to Clinton’s direct outreach to the Iranian delegation.
“'Yes, yes,’ he said, ‘it is,’” Bildt quoted Mottaki as telling him. “But there many people in Tehran who don’t believe it,” Mottaki added.
MANAMA, Bahrain—U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to speak with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki twice on Friday, pursuing him both inside and outside the gala dinner here at the Ritz Carlton in Manama. But Mottaki deliberately avoided contact with her both times.
"If he comes to the dinner, I'll probably see him. But he doesn't talk to me," Clinton told The Cable in our exclusive interview just hours before the event.
Turns out she was right. Everybody at the opening dinner for the 2010 IISS Manama Security Dialogue, where Clinton gave the speech, was watching to see if she and Mottaki would trade words. After all, they were seated only five seats apart. Clinton went out on a limb twice to try to make it happen, but the end result was only an unintelligible mutter from the Iranian leader in the general direction of the secretary.
Clinton's first attempt came just as the dinner ended. All the leaders sitting at the head table were shaking each other's hands. Mottaki was shaking hands with Jordan's King Abdullah II when Clinton called out to him.
"As I was leaving and they were telling me, ‘Hurry up, you have to get to the plane,' I got up to leave and he was sitting several seats down from me and he was shaking people's hands, and he saw me and he stopped and began to turn away," Clinton told reporters on the plane ride home.
"And I said, ‘Hello, minister!' And he just turned away," said Clinton, adding that Mottaki seemed to mutter something in Farsi but was clearly trying to avoid her.
In his Saturday morning press conference, Mottaki had a different take on the interaction.
"Some people said that last night at the dinner Hillary Clinton said hello to me as I was greeting the king of Jordan," he said. "According to the Islamic tradition, there is a necessity to respond... The people of this region are very famous for being polite."
But that wasn't Clinton's only try. We're told by a senior member of the U.S. delegation that as Clinton's huge team moved to the door, Mottaki kept his delegation back to avoid having the two delegations converge at the door at the same time.
The next attempt by Clinton came outside the conference space, in the driveway while both leaders were waiting for their motorcades to pull up. Again, Clinton called out to Mottaki with a greeting and again, Mottaki refused to respond.
There's a lot of buzz about this game of cat and mouse between Clinton and Mottaki here at the conference. Most observers said that Mottaki simply was not interested in making any news about a warm interaction with Clinton ahead of the negotiations. It simply would not play well for him domestically.
Several attendees speculated that Mottaki is resisting interacting with Clinton at least in part because she is a woman. Mottaki's behavior at the press conference confirmed that he is distinctly less interested in dealing with women face to face.
But if Mottaki thinks he has gotten away with successfully avoiding any direct contact with the U.S. delegation, he is dead wrong. And the funny thing is, he probably doesn't even know it.
After Clinton left town, the delegation heads sat down for lunch Saturday at a local Japanese restaurant. Two witnesses confirmed that as part of the opening greetings, Mottaki shook hands with Assistant Secretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow. Both witnesses said they were sure Mottaki had no idea at the time that he had just shaken hands with a U.S. government official.
YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images
MANAMA, Bahrain—U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may have tried to tamp down the rhetoric against Iran in her speech Friday night here in Bahrain, but Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki's speech Saturday morning was the same critical and defiant line his government has been taking for months.
Here at the 2010 IISS Manama Security Dialogue, the Clinton and Mottaki speeches were the most closely watched. Clinton's speech was well received; the Arab Gulf country representatives we spoke with all said they thought she projected an open and welcoming message. They noted that she made statements on Iran's right to nuclear energy while avoiding the usual U.S. criticisms of the regime many expected.
Mottaki's speech, however, was devoid of the kind of signals that might reassure Gulf or American diplomats that Iran was moving toward concessions or a warming of ties. The speech came only two days before Iran returns to the table to discuss its nuclear program with the P5+1 countries in Geneva.
Mottaki repeatedly disputed the idea that Arab countries were concerned and opposed to Iran's nuclear program, as was communicated to American diplomats and revealed in the disclosures of diplomatic cables by the website WikiLeaks.
"Muslims must be happy to see other Muslims becoming powerful," he said, rejecting the idea that Arab countries are suspicious of Iran. "Our power is your power," he told the Arab leaders assembled. "We must not allow the Western media to tell us what to think of each other."
He called the government of Israel a "counterfeit regime" and dismissed its establishment as an "excuse to provide a home for the victims of the second WorldWar."
Regarding the nuclear talks themselves, Mottaki questioned whether it would really be a dialogue or just a lecture from the United States. He declared that the U.S.-led international sanctions on Iran are having no effect, directly contradicting Clinton.
"If the other side believes they need more time to see the results of the sanctions, they can have more time. The sanctions have nothing to do with us and don't have an effect on our resolve," he said.
Mottaki pointed back to Iran's agreement with Turkey and Brazil for a fuel-swap arrangement but chastised Obama for rejecting that deal. He also said he saw no signs the Obama administration had done anything different in the Gulf region.
"We believe that the policies of President Obama are the same as President Bush's policies," he said. "We have two years of performance of President Obama in our region. Are we really seeing any kind of changes in the approaches of the Americans?"
In what some saw as a new concession by Iran, Mottaki explicitly endorsed the idea of an international fuel bank to manage and disperse nuclear fuel for civilian uses. But he had one heck of a caveat.
"We're in agreement with the creating of a fuel bank and we support that," he said. "And since we are a fuel producer and we have the technology for that, then in principle a branch of that bank will be established in the Islamic Republic of Iran."
Joshua Rogin / Foreign Policy
MANAMA, Bahrain – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ate dinner on Friday only five seats away from Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. And although Clinton and Mottaki didn’t speak to each other, or even shake hands, Clinton’s speech had a distinctly warmer tone toward Tehran -- only three days before the next meeting between Iran and the P5+1 countries in Geneva regarding Tehran’s nuclear program.
Addressing the Iranian delegation directly during her opening address to the 2010 IISS Manama Security Dialogue, Clinton said, “In Geneva next week, the P5+1 will meet with representatives from your nation, the first such meeting since October of 2009. We hope that out of this meeting, entered into in good faith, we will see a constructive engagement with respect to your nuclear program. Nearly 2 years ago, President Obama extended to your government a sincere offer of dialogue. We are still committed to this dialogue.”
Clinton then spoke about Iran’s right to have a peaceful nuclear program, focusing on the possible end state if negotiations go well -- rather than harping on the international community’s long list of complaints regarding Iranian behavior.
“The position of the international community is clear. You have the right to a peaceful nuclear program, but with that right comes a reasonable responsibility, that you follow the treaty you signed and fully address the international community’s concerns about your nuclear activity,” she said. “We urge you to make that choice … we urge you to restore the confidence of the international community and live up to your international obligations.”
Clinton went on to praise Iran as the home of one of the world’s greatest civilizations, while noting that the latest IAEA report showed that Iran has not yet made clear it intends to pursue a peaceful resolution to the controversy over its nuclear program.
“We continue to make this offer of engagement with respect for your sovereignty and with regard for your interests, but also with an iron clad commitment to defending global security and the world’s interest in a peaceful and prosperous Gulf region,” she said.
When asked at the conference what Clinton expected to come out of next week’s talks in Geneva, Clinton said, “I believe that is largely in the hands of the Iranians.”
In an interview Wednesday with the BBC’s Kim Ghattas, Clinton said that Iran was entitled to enrich its own uranium, after it had satisfied international concerns.
"We've told them that they are entitled to the peaceful use of civil nuclear energy, but they haven't yet restored the confidence of the international community to the extent where the international community would feel comfortable allowing them to enrich," Clinton told the BBC. "They can enrich uranium at some future date once they have demonstrated that they can do so in a responsible manner in accordance with international obligations."
Experts in the audience said that Clinton’s remarks about Iran’s right to enrich uranium didn’t mark a change in policy, but noted that her focus on Iran’s sovereign rights and mention of enrichment did mark a new tone ahead of the negotiations in Geneva.
“This has been policy since at least 2008, when the P5+1 put a package proposal to Iran that asked for a suspension of enrichment until Iran restored confidence,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the IISS non-proliferation and disarmament program. “She wasn’t breaking any new ground in terms of the position, but in tone is was totally positive, setting the right mood music for the Geneva talks beginning Monday.”
Mottaki was seated next to, and seemed to get along famously with, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.
MANAMA, Bahrain—U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Bahrain today, getting ready to deliver the opening address at the IISS Manama Security Dialogue. But before she speaks, she'll attend a dinner along with her Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.
The two leaders cross paths just three days before Iran will meet with the Security Council's big powers in Geneva for the first multilateral discussions on Iran's nuclear program in more than a year. Dozens of governments from around the world are gathered here in Manama, all of them waiting to hear what Clinton and Mottaki will say.
Earlier today, Clinton sat down exclusively with The Cable to lay out her expectations for the Iran meeting and explain what will follow. She said that the Iranian regime is suffering under sanctions and is experiencing new problems with its nuclear program, which is why Tehran has come back to the table now. But the United States is not offering Iranian leaders an extended engagement, as in 2009. This time, they had better be serious about negotiating right away, she suggested.
"We have to see what attitude they bring," Clinton said about the Iranians. "I don't think we can put timetables on it. This is more of a day-by-day assessment. We know where we're headed, and that is to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. We know we have the vast majority of the world with us on that. But I think we're going to have to take stock of where we are after Geneva... The pressure's not lifting because they're coming to the table in Geneva. And then we'll take it step by step."
She said that recent setbacks in the Iranian nuclear program have put the Iranians in a weaker position. "If they're having difficulties, maybe they'll be more responsive, but we won't know until we test it," Clinton said.
If Clinton does get a chance to speak with Mottaki tonight, she wants to convey to him that the administration is serious about this round of engagement and hopes there will be progress, but at the same time, the Obama team believes that Iran is probably coming to Geneva only because sanctions are taking their toll.
"I don't think they ever believed that we could put together the international coalition we did for sanctions," Clinton said. "And from all that we hear from people in this region and beyond, they're worried about the impact. And so they're returning to Geneva and we hope they are returning to negotiate."
But will Clinton actually talk to Mottaki before she leaves for Washington late tonight?
"If he comes to the dinner, I'll probably see him. But he doesn't talk to me," Clinton said.
In a separate interview with the BBC's Kim Ghattas, Clinton said that Iran could be permitted to maintain its own domestic uranium enrichment program, for civilian purposes, if and when it proves to the international community that it can be trusted to do so.
"We've told them that they are entitled to the peaceful use of civil nuclear energy, but they haven't yet restored the confidence of the international community to the extent where the international community would feel comfortable allowing them to enrich," Clinton told the BBC. "They can enrich uranium at some future date once they have demonstrated that they can do so in a responsible manner in accordance with international obligations."
Clinton told The Cable that progress with Iran was linked to the Iranian government's actions on other items on the U.S. agenda.
"We'll have to see how the Iranians respond on other things we've engaged them on, such as the two hikers who are still there in prison and [former FBI agent Robert] Levinson, who is also in Iran in our opinion. So let's see where it goes."
Internal divisions in Iran's government, however, may be complicating its ability to strike a deal, she suggested.
"You're dealing with a regime that has been badly shaken by the events of June 2009, the election, and the decision-making apparatus was knocked off kilter, which meant that trying to get any action step out of them was more difficult than it would have been prior to June 2009. So none of this is a static situation," she said.
On a February trip to the Middle East, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) told Qatari leaders that the Golan Heights should be returned to Syria, that a Palestinian capital should be established in East Jerusalem as part of the Arab-Israeli peace process, and that he was "shocked" by what he saw on a visit to Gaza.
Kerry discussed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in a visit to Qatar during separate meetings with Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani and the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa, as revealed by the disclosure of diplomatic cables by the website WikiLeaks.
The emir told Kerry to focus on Syria as the path toward resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Kerry agreed with the emir that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a man who wants change but pointed out that his arming of Hezbollah and interference in Lebanese politics were unhelpful. Kerry said that Assad "needs to make a bolder move and take risks" for peace, and that he should be "more statesman-like." Kerry also agreed with the emir that the Golan Heights should be given back to Syria at some point.
"The Chairman added that Netanyahu also needs to compromise and work the return of the Golan Heights into a formula for peace," the diplomatic cable reported.
As for the peace process, Kerry defended the Obama administration's drive to use indirect proximity talks (which were only being discussed at that time) as a stepping stone to direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He said the two sides should first agree on the amount of land to be swapped and then work on borders, followed by settlements.
Kerry also said that final agreement would have to include a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem.
"Any negotiation has its limits, added Senator Kerry, and we know for the Palestinians that control of Al-Aqsa mosque and the establishment of some kind of capital for the Palestinians in East Jerusalem are not negotiable," the cable stated, summarizing the meeting with the emir. "For the Israelis, the Senator continued, Israel's character as a Jewish state is not open for negotiation. The non-militarization of an eventual Palestinian state and its borders can nonetheless be resolved through negotiation."
In a separate meeting the day before with the prime minister, Kerry resisted the Qatari leader's assertion that Hamas was ready to accept the existence of the State of Israel, but he agreed that urgent action was needed to rebuild Gaza.
According to the leaked diplomatic cable, the prime minister told Kerry, "We need to broker a quick reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and move forward quickly on rebuilding Gaza… Senator Kerry asserted that HBJ [Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani] was preaching to the converted and told the PM he was ‘shocked by what I saw in Gaza.'"
In a telling exchange at the end of his meeting with the emir, the Qatari ruler gave Kerry some advice for dealing with the Iranian government.
"The Amir closed the meeting by offering that based on 30 years of experience with the Iranians, they will give you 100 words. Trust only one of the 100," the cable said.
KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images
While the White House continues to negotiate with Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) in an attempt to convince him to allow a vote on the New START treaty this year, it is also undertaking a massive effort behind the scenes to rally foreign governments and non-governmental organizations to support the treaty’s ratification and put public pressure on Republicans to yield.
As part of that effort, the White House has been in contact with pro-Israel and pro-Jewish organizations, encouraging them to be vocal about their support for the New START treaty, and warning them that the failure of the treaty could have negative implications for the drive to halt Iran’s nuclear program.
“Certainly we’ve been in touch with all sorts of different groups saying if you feel strongly about the treaty, we hope your voice will be heard,” a senior administration official said when asked about whether Jewish groups had been contacted. The official added that the administration had not asked anyone to contact lawmakers.
Over the last three days, three major pro-Israel organizations issued strong statements of support for New START: the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and the American Council for World Jewry (ACWJ).
"We are deeply concerned that failure to ratify the new START treaty will have national security consequences far beyond the subject of the treaty itself," the ADL said in a Nov. 19 letter sent to all senators. "The U.S. diplomatic strategy to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons requires a U.S.-Russia relationship of trust and cooperation."
The ACWJ said on Monday that Russia's "cooperation is indispensable to assuring global security and American goals, notably in blocking Iran’s dangerous quest for its own nuclear capability."
NJDC President David Harris told The Cable in an interview that he had been in touch with the administration and had meetings that included discussions of New START with officials.
“The White House made it very clear that this was a very high priority of this administration,” Harris said. “They’ve been helpful in providing resources, but they cannot and would not encourage outside the groups to lobby. But we have had conversations about the level of importance of New START.”
“To me the nexus is clear,” Harris said. “Ratifying New START is should be a central objective of the entire pro-Israel community.”
Missing from the list of groups endorsing New START, however, is the largest pro-Israel non-governmental organization, AIPAC. Also missing from the list of endorsements is any public statement from the Israeli government itself, despite the fact that several European leaders have come out strongly in support of New START.
“We have no position on the treaty. We are staying above the political discussion in Washington,” one Israeli official told The Cable. The official could not confirm rumors we’ve heard that the administration asked Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren to speak out, but that Oren declined. Recently, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has been strengthening ties with Russia, even saying in September, “Our views on many challenges of today are close or identical.”
The official said that the Israel government was sensitive to perceptions that they were interfering in American domestic politics, following a meeting earlier this month between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the new House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA).
Vice President Joseph Biden explained why the New START treaty was critical to the effort to isolate Iran in a small roundtable with foreign policy columnists, including your humble Cable guy, at the White House Nov. 19.
“I’m not suggesting that if START fails, all of the sudden we’re back in the Cold War with Russia but I am saying that the things in the margins that make a big difference right now might very well be different,” Biden said, referring to what he called “unprecedented” Russian cooperation on Iran and Afghanistan.
He praised Russia’s decision to forgo selling the S-300 air defense missile to Iran as well as Moscow’s cooperation in bringing new multilateral sanctions against Tehran via the U.N. Security Council. “Absent that cooperation I think [it] is problematic whether or not China or even Europe would have made some of the tougher sanctions decisions that we made,” Biden said.
Back on Capitol Hill, staffers on both sides of the issue are well aware of the administration’s recent activity but had starkly different views on its wisdom and efficacy.
“The idea that this administration, which has manifestly undermined the U.S.-Israel relationship at every turn, would gin up pro-Israel groups to ram this treaty through in the lame duck [session] is a new low, even for an administration that has made a habit of alienating friends and allies,” said one senior GOP Senate aide involved in the issue.
But another Senate aide who is involved in both the New START and Iran issues saw the logic of linking the two.
“It’s politically smart to do this. Once of the central arguments that the administration has been making is that the START treaty is important due to its impact on U.S.-Russia relations and one of the achievements has been to convince Russia to adopt a more cooperative approach on Iran,” the aide said.
But the jury is still out on whether advocacy by pro-Israel groups can cause senior Senate Republicans to rethink their positions. “The center of gravity is still Jon Kyl so I don’t know how it effective it will be in influencing his calculations,” the aide said.
A Democratic congressional staffer who is also a strong supporter of Israel argued that, if it were Democrats holding up the treaty, Republicans would surely be playing the Israel card.
“If the roles were reversed and the Democrats were playing
politics with Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, we’d be eviscerated by the pro-Israel
community,” the staffer said. “We’d be getting our ass kicked about it, no
Now that the Republicans are projected to take control of the House, we here at The Cable would like to introduce you to the next head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Ros-Lehtinen has been a force on the committee for years as the vocal, passionate, sometimes combative ranking Republican. A Cuban-American lawmaker from a heavily Jewish district, Ros-Lehtinen has staked out firm positions on several issues that stand in contrast to now outgoing chairman Howard Berman (D-CA). Her ascendancy as chairwoman will change the tone and agenda of the committee and will pose new challenges for the Obama administration's efforts to advance its foreign-policy agenda.
Over the mid to long term, Ros-Lehtinen is poised to thwart Obama's efforts to move toward repealing sanctions on Fidel Castro and resist any White House attempts to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. She isn't likely to move Berman's foreign-aid reform bill through the committee and she is likely to seek cuts in the foreign-aid budget in her authorization bill.
But most significantly, gone will be the days when the committee deferred to the administration on the order of foreign-policy priorities. The committee will also stop taking the administration's word when it comes to matters of policy oversight.
For example, although Berman and Ros-Lehtinen agreed on the need to push tough sanctions on Iran, Berman delayed action on the bill to allow Obama's engagement effort to play out. Ros-Lehtinen might not be so accommodating.
"The Berman people were ahead of the Obama team on a number of things, but they deferred to the administration on timing. You are going to see more aggressiveness, to push an agenda and not to defer to the administration," said a Republican congressional aide.
We're also told that there's no love lost between the staffs of Berman and Ros-Lehtinen. Ros-Lehtinen's staff is said to be very disciplined and at the same time aggressive. They are not easy to negotiate with, according to our sources, and very effective at achieving their aims.
In the near term, Ros-Lehtinen could cause complications for the administration's foreign policy in a number of ways. She is a Russia skeptic, and wants more investigation into the civilian nuclear agreement with Russia that is currently before the Congress. Congress probably won't move to block this deal, but Ros-Lehtinen is sure to schedule hearings to pick apart future deals planned with Jordan, South Korea, and Vietnam.
Ros-Lehtinen will be pushing the administration to strictly enforce new sanctions law against Iran. If the mere threat of penalties under the law doesn't entice large international companies to leave Iran, she will call for the administration to start punishing those companies, even if they are from China or Russia.
Immediately after the election, Ros-Lehtinen will be leading a bipartisan congressional effort to demand more information about the administration's planned sale of $60 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, the largest arms sale in U.S. history.
In a previously unreported letter, obtained exclusively by The Cable, Ros-Lehtinen joined with Berman to demand that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates answer several outstanding questions about the deal.
"We are writing to raise concerns and pose a number of strategic questions about the impact such sales would have on the national security interests of the United States and our allies," they wrote. The Obama administration defends the deal as vital, and Israel raised few objections.
"There are a lot of questions to be answered on this," a GOP House aide said. "If Israel doesn't strongly object that doesn't mean it's not problematic."
If the GOP is able to exert more control over foreign policy, that will also impact how foreign leaders and foreign governments interact with the United States. Foreign countries will have to pay more attention to Congress, and may further discount President Obama's ability to deliver.
"Gridlock has some implications of its own," said Heather Conley, senior fellow and director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "We're sending a message to international leaders that they will have to work both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue."
AFP / Getty Images
The increasingly bitter Illinois Senate campaign between Republican Congressman Mark Kirk (R-IL) and the Democratic contender, Alexi Giannoulias, spilled over into foreign policy this week, as the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Howard Berman (D-CA) accused Kirk of exaggerating his role in crafting the Iran sanctions law. But who's really spinning the history of the bill for political gain?
Alluding to Kirk's previous misrepresentations about his military service, the Chicago Sun Times broke the story Monday with an article entitled, "Another Mark Kirk 'exaggeration'?" complete with a video of Kirk claiming credit for being a driving force behind what eventually became the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010, which President Obama signed into law in July.
"The Iran Sanctions Bill, it was originally Kirk-Andrews, but if you were going to move it, that means you need to adjust to the power of the House. This legislation eventually became Howard Berman's legislation," Kirk told the Sun Times.
The article then quoted Berman saying that his bill calling for petroleum sanctions against Iran had nothing to do with Kirk's previous bill calling for the exact same thing. "We didn't even look at his legislation at the time. Our bill did so much more and went so far beyond his bill, I would have to put it in the context of an exaggeration," Berman said.
Giannoulias, who enjoys Berman's support, called Kirk's claim that his bill was the framework for Berman's bill "egregious" and demanded an explanation.
But according to lawmakers, Congressional staffers, and outside groups who worked closely on the legislation, Kirk was in fact a key advocate for over four years of using gasoline and refined petroleum restrictions to pressure Iran to make concessions regarding its nuclear program.
In fact, Berman worked so closely with Kirk and others on the idea that media reports at the time acknowledged that Berman's Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, introduced in April 2009, borrowed language from related legislation introduced earlier by Kirk and Rep. Brad Sherman.
Even Democratic Congressional staffers gave Kirk credit for leading on the idea of petroleum sanction for Iran. They said that Berman's bill was clearly built off of Kirk's work, and criticized Berman for politicizing such a sensitive foreign policy issue.
"On this particular issue, Kirk has been a leader, if not the leader. When you talk about Iran petroleum sanctions, you talk about Mark Kirk," said one Democratic Hill staffer who worked on the bill.
"I'm all for a Democrat winning that seat, but this is not the way to do it," the staffer said. "It hurts our standing as Democrats in the pro-Israel community, because when you go to the pro-Israel community and say to them that Kirk didn't play a leading role, it just makes it hard to believe the next statement that comes out of our mouths."
Others who followed the progression of the Iran sanctions legislation closely also credited Kirk with a long history of leadership on this issue.
"There's no question that Mark Kirk was one of the first, if not the first member of Congress to advocate restricting the flow of gasoline to Iran as a way of pressuring Iran on its nuclear program," said Josh Block, who was the chief spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which was intimately involved in the bill's legislative journey.
Block, who now runs a strategic communications firm with Democratic consultant Lanny Davis, said that, after years of building momentum on various versions of Kirk's proposal, the decision was made to transfer ownership of the bill to Berman in order to allow it to garner a vote and pass with leadership support.
"There was a progression of bills that all did virtually identical things," Block said, explaining that this is a normal and commonplace legislative strategy and that Berman does deserve credit for aiding in the final push.
Kirk started his formal advocacy for the petroleum sanctions idea in 2005, when he founded the Iran Working Group, a congressional group that gathered information on sanctions options. In June 2005, he and Rep. Rob Andrews first introduced a resolution calling for restrictions of gasoline to Iran (H.Con.Res.177). In June 2006, they introduced that resolution again (H.Con.Res.425).
In June 2007, Kirk and Andrews introduced a more comprehensive bill, called the Iran Sanctions Enhancement Act, which included restrictions on the importation of refined petroleum (H.R. 2880). In April 2009, after Obama took office, Andrews got cold feet so Kirk moved forward with Sherman and introduced the Iran Diplomatic Enhancement Act (H.R. 1985).
When Berman introduced his Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act at the end of April 2009, its original cosponsors included Kirk, as well as Andrews, Sherman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and others. When the bill passed the House in December 2009, Berman didn't object when Kirk said on the House floor that he and Andrews were "the two grandfathers of this bill and its policy."
Kirk's staffers point out that Berman has a history of cooperating well with Kirk in non-election years and then turning on him when the campaign starts. For example, Berman stumped for Kirk's opponent when Kirk first ran for an open seat in 2000 and then again endorsed his opponent in 2008. Still, they lament that years of cooperation on Iran have been reduced to a war of words over who gets credit.
"This is a desperate move by a desperate candidate with no foreign policy chops of his own," Kirk spokesman Richard Goldberg said about Giannoulias' efforts to make an issue of the Iran bill. "With no record to stand on, Alexi Giannoulias recruited someone with a history of hyper-partisan behavior just before an election to contradict his own previous statements when the legislation passed and level untruths against a well-established leader on the issue of Iran sanctions."
Berman's office did not respond to requests for comment.
The State Department has been stepping up both its rhetorical and punitive actions against Iran, but the question still remains whether the administration will go as far as to sanction companies based in countries where relations are delicate, especially China.
Last week, the United States announced two steps to increase pressure on Iran: President Obama signed an executive order on Sept. 29 targeting eight Iranian individuals for serious human rights abuses, and the State Department announced on Sept. 30 that it was imposing sanctions on the Switzerland-based Naftiran Intertrade Company (NICO) due to its involvement in the Iranian petroleum sector. These actions are based on the Iran sanctions legislation passed overwhelmingly by Congress and signed into law by President Obama last June.
On Monday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a new report that identified 16 companies as having sold petroleum products to Iran between Jan. 1, 2009, and June 30, 2010. Of those 16, the GAO reported that five have shown no signs of curtailing business with Iran. Three of those companies are based in China, one in Singapore, and one in the UAE.
There are some positive signs, however, that international pressure is having an effect on companies' willingness to do business in Iran. Several firms -- hailing from Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, India, and the United Kingdom -- told the GAO that they are halting their refined petroleum business with Iran.
But leading senators aren't convinced that the holdouts are planning to follow suit. They are pressing the Obama administration to use the new sanctions law to punish those who won't go along -- especially if they are from China.
"The GAO report released today provides encouraging evidence that the comprehensive sanctions legislation passed by Congress earlier this year is indeed persuading many companies to stop selling gasoline and other refined petroleum products to Iran. We applaud those firms that have taken this responsible and important step," said Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) joint statement. Lieberman and Collins had requested the GAO report in July.
However, the success of sanctions legislation has only made it "even more imperative" that the Obama administration pressure countries that have maintained their ties in Iran, the senators stated. "We are particularly concerned that the majority of the companies that GAO identifies as still selling gasoline to Iran are in China. We urge the Administration to complete its own investigations swiftly and enforce the sanctions law, comprehensively and aggressively, against any violators," the statement read.
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg told reporters last week that the State Department was looking at additional firms' business in Iran and would consider more direct sanctions through a two-step process that takes up to 180 days. But he added that the administration was first trying to negotiate with foreign governments to stop the companies' activities in advance of imposing penalties.
"We are following the process outlined in the statute," said Steinberg. "If we find credible evidence [of firms violating the sanctions], then we go to the next stage, which is to conduct an investigation ... and then we would make a decision," Steinberg said.
One of the main concerns on Capitol Hill is that, as countries pull out from Iran, other countries will take over contracts, thereby nullifying the effect of the sanctions and enriching themselves at other countries' expense -- a practice known as "backfilling."
The administration and Congress worked hard to convince Japan and South Korea to impose unilateral measures against Iran, which they did, but there's particular concern that China will simply come in and take over those contracts.
Kyl and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week on this very issue, pointing out reports that China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) replaced the Japanese firm Inpex and agreed to invest around $2 billion to develop Iran's South Azadegan oil fields last year.
"The Administration, by continuing to ignore blatant violations of our sanctions laws by Chinese companies, has undermined our sanctions regime on Iran. It has sent the message to our friends and allies -- many of which have taken the difficult steps to reduce their economic ties with Iran -- that others will be let off the hook," Kyl said Sept. 30.
"If President Obama genuinely believes that a nuclear-armed Iran is not acceptable, he must stand by those words and apply the authority Congress has given him to punish all who are violating U.S. sanctions laws, particularly China," said Kyl. "Time is of the essence."
Steinberg addressed the issue of backfilling in his briefing, saying that such activity would provoke actions under the sanctions legislation. "We've made clear to all our international partners that we are strongly discouraging substitution. And of course, were there to be substitution that came within the ambit of the act, it would raise questions under the act," he said.
Bob Einhorn¸ State's senior advisor on Iran and North Korea sanctions, is the man responsible for delivering that message and he traveled to Beijing last week to press the Chinese not to undermine the sanctions. It's not clear yet if he was successful.
In a July 29 hearing, Einhorn referenced a previous GAO report that identified 41 foreign firms with a petroleum interest in Iran. "There are a number of entities that are very problematic. I have to say that a number of them have been engaged in sanctionable activity," he said in testimony to the House Oversight and Government Reform committee.
Complicating matters are the persistent rumors that China may have secured some type of immunity from additional sanctions as part of their agreement to support U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929, which established relatively benign sanctions against Iran as punishment for its continued pursuit of nuclear weapons capability.
Undersecretary of State William Burns said at an Oct. 1 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the State Department had competed an internal review of the companies noted in the GAO report and would make more determinations soon, but he cautioned not to expect too many companies to be singled out for punishment.
"There are probably -- there are a number of cases, less than 10, in which it appears that there may have been violations of the Iran Sanctions Act. Most of those appear to involve activities that have stopped, in other words, involving companies that have pulled out of business in Iran, but there are a couple that appear to be ongoing," he said.
Capitol Hill observers have been encouraged by the administration's recent moves -- but are still not convinced they constitute enough of a commitment to increasing pressure on Iran. Staffers say that the administration's new forceful tone and rhetoric are a marked improvement, even if they are only fulfilling the actions required by the sanctions legislation.
What's clear is that the administration is not yet finished implementing sanctions against firms doing business with Iran, and Congress will be pressing it not to back down from punishing companies from countries that may take retaliatory measures.
"Many in Congress are worried that the administration will fall for Iran's latest bid to buy a reprieve from sanctions by appearing interested in negotiations," said one senior GOP senate aide. "Congress will not let up on the pressure on the administration to go after Iran and those who are supporting it, namely, the Chinese."
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's decision not to sell advanced weaponry to Iran is being hailed as a dividend of the Obama administration's "reset" policy with Russia. And although the administration didn't expressly offer the Kremlin a quid pro quo for the reversal, Moscow will expect moves by Washington in return as it cautiously moves to grasp Obama's outstretched hand.
Both the Obama and Bush administrations implored the Kremlin not to follow through with their 2006 signed agreement to sell almost $1 billion worth of S-300 air defense systems to Iran, and on Wednesday, Medvedev formally announced the sale will not go through.
President Obama, in a private conference call Wednesday, told an audience of Jewish leaders to discount non-constructive statements made by Israeli and Palestinian leaders as Middle East peace talks move forward, saying that such remarks are all part of the negotiating game.
The groups represented on the call were from across the Jewish religious spectrum: They included the orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, the conservative Rabbinical Assembly, the reform Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.
Obama implored the rabbis on the call to publicly support the talks, and to try to rally their own people to support the negotiations. The call was timed in advance of the start of the Jewish high holy days, when the Rabbis see the largest turnout of the year among their congregants. Along those lines, he asked them to discount statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas when they say things in public that make the talks seem doomed. That's mainly for the local television cameras, Obama said.
"I guarantee you over the next four months, six months, a year, in any given week there's going to be something said by someone in the Palestinian Authority that makes your blood boil and makes you think we can't do this," Obama said, according to a recording of the call provided to The Cable. "We're going to have to work through those things."
He emphasized that he would give the same message to Arab groups, regarding statements by the Israeli government they might find objectionable.
"What you're going to see over the next several months is that at any given moment, either President Abbas or Prime Minister Netanyahu may end up saying certain things for domestic consumption, for their constituencies and so forth, that may not be as reflective of that spirit of compromise we would like to see. Well, that's the nature of these talks," Obama said.
Obama referred directly to statements made by both leaders this week that seemed to show an unbridgeable gap over whether Israel must extend its 10-month partial settlement construction freeze, which expires on Sept. 26. The next round of the talks, to be held in Sharm el Sheikh and Jerusalem next week, will be the last official round before the deadline.
"There is going to be an immediate set of difficulties surrounding the existing moratorium on settlements," Obama admitted, pointing out the public positions of the two leaders.
"On one hand, you have Prime Minister Netanyahu saying ‘there's no way I can extend it.' There's President Abbas saying ‘this has to be extended for these talks to be effective," Obama said. He maintained that there was a compromise to be struck.
"I am absolutely convinced that both sides want to make this work and both sides are going to be willing to make some difficult concessions," Obama said. He did not specify what a potential compromise would look like.
Overall, Obama told the rabbis that he believed both Netanyahu and Abbas were serious about peace and said the first round of talks last week in Washington exceeded his expectations.
"I am stunned at how cordial and constructive the talks were," he said.
But Obama's main message on the call was a plea to the rabbis to actively support the talks, or at least not to actively undermine them.
He asked the religious leaders to help him promote the talks among Jewish communities both in American and Israel, and "to give these talks a chance and not look for a reason why they won't succeed."
Regarding interfaith relations in the United States and the treatment of Muslim Americans in particular, Obama again asked the rabbis for help. "It is very important for leaders in the Jewish [community] to speak from a deep moral authority in making sure that those Muslim-Americans trying to practice their faith in this country can do so without fear or intimidation," he said.
He did not mention the Park 51 Community Center project by name.
On Iran, Obama argued that the sanctions announced by the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, and others were having an effect on the regime in Tehran.
"Every assessment that we've seen so far is that the degree of international coordination that's being implied in enforcing these sanctions is unprecedented and the Iranian regime has been shocked by our success," Obama said. He said the Israeli assessment matched his own.
While the peace talks and the Iran threat are not necessarily linked, Obama told the rabbis that resolving Israel's disputes with its neighboring Arab states would increase Iran's isolation.
Obama also delivered a message of urgency regarding the peace talks. "If that window closes, it's going to be hard to reopen for years to come," he said. "We're not going to get that many more opportunities."Obama wished all the rabbis "L'shana Tovah," which means Happy New Year in Hebrew, and "Todah Rabah," which means thank you.
"With you I hope and pray this year will be a year of health and happiness, joy and justice, and ultimately perhaps a year of peace," he said.
The South Korean government announced a series of sanctions against Iran on Tuesday after intensive lobbying from the Obama administration.
The new measures, which target Iran's energy and banking sectors as well as specific Iranian bad actors, follow similar moves by Japan last week. They are also in line with measures imposed by the European Union last month, though not quite as extensive as the administration had proposed to Seoul.
Regardless, the administration and members of Congress who are pushing for countries to put more pressure on Iran hailed the announcement, noting that South Korea moved forward despite the potential cost to its domestic industries.
"I know that this was not an easy or cost-free decision for the ROK government, either politically or economically. But it is precisely Seoul's willingness to shoulder rather than shirk its international responsibilities that confirms the Republic of Korea's emergence as a global leader," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-CT, in a statement.
Japan has the third largest economy in the world, South Korea ranks as the eleventh largest, and both countries have major business interests in Iran -- especially in the energy sector. The new measures would prevent the initiation of any new joint business ventures but allow existing projects to continue.
For the administration and its allies in Congress, the South Korean and Japanese sanctions announcements reaffirm their strategy of using the U.N. Security Council resolution against Iran, which was passed on June 9, as a framework for taking additional steps aimed at convincing Iran to address the international community's concerns about its nuclear program.
The coordination is a positive sign of cooperation between Washington and its two most important East Asian allies. At the same time, Iran watchers note that Beijing stands to profit if Chinese companies move to fill the demand gap created by the South Korean and Japanese sanctions.
Lieberman is warning that if Beijing undermines the new sanctions, Congress will move to enforce sanctions against Chinese companies using authorities provided in the recent U.S. sanctions legislation.
"Chinese companies have unfortunately in the past been allowed by their government to pursue their commercial self-interest in Iran, exploiting the restraint of other countries," Lieberman said. "If this trend continues, China will isolate itself from the responsible international community in Asia and around the world."
Behind the scenes, State Department and Treasury officials had been working hard to encourage the South Korean and Japanese governments to adoptthe strongest measures possible. This effort has been led by Stuart Levey, the under secretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, and Robert Einhorn, the State Department's special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control.
Einhorn and the NSC's Daniel Glaser traveled to Tokyo and Seoul last month, and a Congressional staff delegation visiting Seoul and Tokyo last week also was partially focused on the push for strong sanctions language.
National Economic Council chairman Larry Summers, the NSC's Tom Donilon, Asia Senior Director Jeffrey Bader, and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell were in Beijing last weekend and the topic of Iran sanctions was also on their agenda.
The main hub of Iranian financial activity in South Korea is the Seoul branch of Bank Mellat, a Tehran-based bank that has already been targeted by both the United States and the European Union. South Korea only agreed to a 60-day suspension of Korean dealings with Bank Mellat Seoul, with a promise to reevaluate after. Washington had wanted a total freeze.
Iran watchers on Capitol Hill said the temporary suspension would have the desired effect by making it clear to investors they should not do business with Bank Mellat in Seoul.
"The fact is they are taking action against Bank Mellat and they are embedding this action within a broad framework of other actions," said one GOP Senate aide. "It's very possible that everybody and their brother is going to run for the exits... that bank is going to be kryptonite."
Levey and Einhorn have also been working hard on the recently announced new U.S. sanctions on North Korea, a topic in which both Japan and South Korea have a vital interest. Aides said that, while the two efforts weren't directly linked, there are indirect links in that Iran and North Korea are involved in some of the same illicit activities.
"There is a tie in the sense that North Korea and Iran actively cooperate on a range of illicit proliferation-related activities," said one Congressional staffer close to the issue. "That's a linkage that both the Koreans and the Japanese recognize and appreciate."
UPDATE: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) also praised the new sanctions and saw them as a message to China. He tweeted, "Korea adopted strong new sanctions on Iran today. Japan did the same last week. China should follow their good example of global leadership."
Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback is calling on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to publicly denounce the impending trial of a journalist and blogger facing execution at the hands of the Iranian regime.
The journalist, Shiva Nazar Ahari, who has been imprisoned in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison since December, goes on trial Sept. 4 for crimes such as "anti-regime propaganda," "acts contrary to national security through participation in gatherings," and "enmity against God." The last charge can carry a death sentence.
Her activism and defense of political prisoners, which included acting as the spokesman for the Committee of Human Rights Reporters, has raised the ire of the Iranian government for years. Conservative writers have been calling on President Obama to personally call for her release.
"I am urging you and President Obama to press the Iranian regime for the immediate release of Ms. Ahari ... It is crucial for the United States to advocate for brave Iranian citizens like Ms. Ahari, and I hope you will do all you can to secure her release." Brownback wrote to Clinton Aug. 31. "Obviously, time is of the essence."
According to the State Department's 2009 Human Rights Report on Iran, authorities arrested Ahari and two of her colleagues from the Committee for Human Rights Reporters on Dec. 20 as they were headed to Qom for the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who had been one of the leading spiritual figures behind Iran's reform movement.
"According to human rights organizations, authorities arrested seven of the nine leaders of the organization during the year and pressured the group to close its Web site," the report said.
Clinton did call for Ahari's release in June, on the one year anniversary of the highly disputed Iranian presidential election that sparked a wave of violence and suppression. She also called on Iran to release human rights defenders Narges Mohammadi, Emad Baghi, Kouhyar Goudarzi, Bahareh Hedayat, Milad Asadi, and Mahboubeh Karami, as well as the three American hikers who have been detained without charge for over a year and a missing former FBI agent, Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran in 2007.
The State Department has been stepping up its public advocacy on behalf of imprisoned Iranians lately. Clinton gave her first public condemnation of the detention of Baha'i faith leaders last month. None of the political prisoners or hikers has, as of yet, been released.
There's a battle going on among the standard-bearers of the Tea Party over their foreign policy message. But at the rank-and-file level, Tea Partiers have no unified view on major foreign policy issues. They are all over the map.
Sarah Palin, who spoke at Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally on the Mall Saturday, would like the Tea Party to endorse her quasi-neoconservative approach to national security policy. She advocates aggressive unilateralism, ever-rising defense budgets, unfailing support of Israel, and a skeptical eye toward China, Russia, and any other possible competitor to the United States.
Ron Paul, a founding leader of the Tea Party who has seen the movement slip away from him somewhat, wants the movement's focus on thrift to extend to foreign policy, resulting in an almost isolationist approach that sets limits on the use of American power and its presence abroad.
In over a dozen interviews with self-identified Tea Party members at Saturday's rally, your humble Cable guy discovered that, when it comes to foreign policy, attendees rarely subscribed wholeheartedly to either Palin or Paul's world view. Despite claiming to share the same principles that informed their views, Tea Partiers often reached very different conclusions about pressing issues in U.S. foreign policy today.
Understandably, most Tea Party members at the rally viewed foreign policy through the prism of domestic problems such as the poor economy and the movement of jobs overseas. Almost all interviewees expressed support for U.S. troops abroad and a connection to Christianity they said informed their world view.
But that's where the similarities ended. Some attendees sounded like reliable neocons arguing for more troops abroad. Others sounded like antiwar liberals, lamenting the loss of life in any war for any reason. Still others sounded like inside the beltway realists, carefully considering the costs and benefits of a given policy option based on American national security interests.
For example, The Cable interviewed Danny Koss, a former Marine from Grove City, PA, who was measured when it came to talking about the war in Afghanistan.
"If we are going to stay, I suggest we really win," he said. "I'm not convinced that some of our leadership is ready for that. I know our generals are."
Koss, sounding like a realist, said that he saw China as a near-term economic threat but not a near-term military threat. A strike against Iran was not a good option, he argued, although he said it was wise of President Barack Obama to publicly state that all options are on the table.
When it came to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, however, Koss seamlessly switched to a religious frame.
"You've got to go back and read the Bible, see who had it first. If you believe the Bible and who God gave it to, the rest is history," he said.
Later, we ran into Cecilia Goodow from Hartford, NY, who said that her foreign policy views were determined exclusively by her faith. This led her to regret the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq.
"It sounded so reasonable at the time. But Holy Father John Paul II was against the war; he said it would just be an awful thing and many people would be killed," she said. "I always supported the troops, but we know history and we know that wars are sometimes perpetrated by evil people for evil reasons that the average person doesn't even know about or understand, so I can't wait for it all to stop."
Goodow said she wants Obama to stand up for America more and fight the forces of evil, which include Iran, but she doesn't support military intervention, even in Afghanistan.
"Sometimes that's cloudy -- why are we there? Barack Obama ran on the promise that he was going to bring everybody home. That's what we all sat around the table talking about. Maybe if there's a new presidential policy maybe we can have peace again, maybe we can bring our kids home," she said. "War begets more war."
On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, we found Larry Maxwell of Patterson, NY. Dressed in full Revolutionary War regalia and holding a huge American flag, he was as much historian as activist, engaging passersby in debates about America's past.
While he supported the decision to go war in Iraq and largely believes claims that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, Maxwell lamented the cost of the Iraq war and the danger of bolstering Iranian influence in the region.
But while Maxwell was concerned about the tensions surrounding Iran and its nuclear program, he didn't believe that a military strike is the best option.
"Are we the world's police? We're having a lot of trouble here and a lot of problems here. I'm not sure where our role comes over there," he said. "The United Nations would be the place for that ... but nobody listens to them."
Maxwell, like Koss, also referenced the Bible to support Israel's right to the land it now occupies. "The Bible says in the last days, that the Middle East, that's going to be the center of activity," he said. "If you go back to the Bible, it says there's going to be an army of 200 million men coming out of the East to the Middle East, as part of that whole Armageddon and ‘end of days' thing."
But not all Tea Partiers reflexively took Israel's side. Brandon Malator from Washington, DC, who dressed in U.S. Army fatigues and donned a cowboy hat with a Lipton tea bag dangling from the brim, was a stalwart supporter of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but not of Israel.
"[We should] stay longer. We've never left any other country and we shouldn't leave Iraq," he said, adding that the U.S. is engaged in a 100-year-war that would include a coming war with Iran and eventually a war with China, which he called "World War III." He praised Obama for sending more troops to Afghanistan. "I think we're doing what we need to do as Americans. I think if the rest of the world doesn't like it, then that's tough luck."
But when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Malatore's was downright dovish. "I hope that Israel and Palestine can come to an agreement, share the land, and do whatever they need to do to stop fighting all the time. I hope that war ends; that's been going on too long."
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."
Getty Images News
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.
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