Sources close to the U.S. and Russian governments confirmed to The Cable Monday that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will visit Washington and meet with President Obama on June 24.
The visit is timed exactly after Obama's stated deadline for finishing up U.N. Security Council action to bring new sanctions against Iran. The State Department has said repeatedly that Obama wants to see the sanctions vote before the end of spring -- June 21 -- and the Medvedev visit would be an opportunity to show unity on that front, or if the process lags, to give it one final push across the finish line.
Putting Iran sanctions in the rear-view mirror will also allow the administration to concentrate on the main accomplishment of Obama's "reset" of U.S. relations with Russia: ratification of the new START nuclear reductions treaty. Russia's desire for a civilian nuclear agreement with the United States, which is the secondary "reset" agenda item right now, is also sure to be discussed.
That agreement, which was first submitted by the Bush administration but pulled after the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, was sent back to Congress last month. If Congress doesn't formally object by August, it will go into effect.
A bipartisan effort to block the Russian civilian nuclear agreement is heating up now, led by Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey and Nebraska Republican Jeff Fortenberry, who introduced the House version of the resolution opposing the deal.
Recent reports about the risks of terrorists acquiring Russian nuclear technology have heightened concerns among lawmakers. Hill sources say that a Senate companion measure could surface with bipartisan sponsorship this week.
"Russia continues to train Iranian nuclear physicists, supply to Iran sensitive nuclear technology, and give secret instruction on Russian soil to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard on the use of the advanced S-300 interceptor-missile systems," said Markey about the deal.
"As long as I've been in this job, there's been no concern about Russian entities providing nuclear assistance to Iran," the NSC's non-proliferation Czar Gary Samore said earlier this month when talking about the 123 agreement, the shorthand used for civilian nuclear deals because they are based on section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954.
State Department officials have said that Moscow's ability to get the deal is tied directly to how helpful the Russians are in securing new sanctions against Iran, so the visit is perfectly timed for the administration to make an argument on that front.
"The White House has publicly stated that the Russian government's cooperation on the Iranian nuclear issue will be a significant consideration in making this determination and this continues to be the case," acting Assistant Secretary of State Vann Van Diepen testified last month.
Further details of the Medvedev visit are still being worked out. We've heard but haven't confirmed yet that a State Dinner is in the offing.
Despite repeated proclamations by senior leaders in both chambers of Congress and on both sides of the aisle that nothing could stop the Iran sanctions bill, its two lead sponsors announced today that they would delay the conference meant to iron out differences between the House and Senate versions.
"With the progress in negotiations at the Security Council, we believe that our overriding goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability is best served by providing a limited amount of time for those efforts -- and expected follow-on action by the EU at its mid-June summit -- to reach a successful conclusion before we send our bill to the president," Sen. Chris Dodd, D-CT, and Rep. Howard Berman, D-CA, said in a statement Tuesday.
It was only last week that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, promised to get it done before the Memorial Day recess.
"International sanctions make a lot more sense than unilateral" Dodd said at the time. "But we're not going to retreat from the unilateral sanctions effort."
But today, Dodd and Berman claimed that last week's unveiling of the draft U.N. sanctions resolution by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had convinced them that the Security Council process was actually making progress. They now expect to bring the conference report to be voted on by the entire Congress "in the latter half of June."
The delay represents a retreat for the lawmakers and a victory for the Obama administration, which had warned Congress that passing the bill could upset delicate U.N. negotiations. But inside the conference, serious disputes between lawmakers and the administration remain, such as whether to grant broad exemptions for countries that are deemed to be "cooperating" with the United States.
A U.N. official told The Cable that Security Council members are still pouring over the draft resolution and the reams of documents and annexes that accompany it. Those consultations are expected to go on for weeks.
Outside groups that have been pushing for the legislation, such as the American Israel Public Action Committee, were quick to say they are OK with the delay.
"AIPAC supports this decision and endorses Chairmen Dodd and Berman's firm, public commitment to get tough, comprehensive Iran sanctions legislation on the president's desk before the July 4th recess," the group said in a statement.
What's not clear is whether Republicans will suffer Dodd and Berman's delay quietly. "I didn't see any Republican names on that statement by Dodd and Berman," one GOP congressional aide remarked.
House GOP leaders had agreed not to bring up procedural motions to protest the lack of a conference report if the bill was completed by May 28. But now Berman will have to convince them that the delay is in the best interests of getting a stronger bill whenever it's completed.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stunned the world Tuesday morning when she testified that the United States had reached an agreement with other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council on a draft resolution leveling new sanctions against Iran. But there's one body that the administration still does not have an Iran sanctions agreement with: the U.S. Congress.
Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers pledged to swiftly reconcile the two versions of the Iran sanctions legislation, one sponsored by Senate Banking Committee chairman Chris Dodd, D-CT, and another led by House Foreign Affairs Committee head Howard Berman, D-CA.
"We hope it will move out of conference this week and be on the floor next week," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, said Tuesday.
"International sanctions make a lot more sense than unilateral ... But we're not going to retreat from the unilateral sanctions effort," said Dodd.
Inside the conference process, there's a lot going on. Conferees and non-conferees alike have been holding meetings on the legislation both at the staff and member level. Dodd and Berman have been engaged with the administration to work on the fixes the Obama team wants to see in the bill.
The drive to complete the bill quickly, ahead of the U.N. Security Council process, is bipartisan and bicameral. Republicans don't believe the U.N. language will be tough enough and are resisting administration efforts to have Congress wait for the U.N. track to play out. Democrats don't want to be pegged as weak on national security, and are cautiously trying to accommodate the administration's request for a delay.
But leading Republicans are growing impatient.
"I hope that the Democrats and the administration would move forward with that as quickly as possible. They clearly have been stalling for a long period of time," Senate Armed Services committee ranking member John McCain, R-AZ, told The Cable.
As the sanctions drama at the U.N. moves into what the Obama administration hopes are its final stages, the Iranian government is busily trying to conduct its own diplomatic outreach, including an attempt to convene an international meeting of some Security Council members in Tehran.
U.S. officials are arguing that after hearing Iran's pitch, those council members still resisting sanctions -- a group that includes nonpermanent members Turkey and Brazil -- will have no more excuse to hold up the process. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to make that case Thursday morning.
"During the call, the secretary stressed that in our view, Iran's recent diplomacy was attempt to stop Security Council action without actually taking steps to address international concerns about its nuclear program," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. "There's nothing new and nothing encouraging in Iran's recent statements."
A State Department official, speaking on background basis, explained that State expects Iran to try to convene an international meeting of sympathetic countries in Tehran to coincide with the upcoming visit of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva.
"It's possible that a high-level Turkish official might go," the official said. "We wanted to make sure Turkey understood exactly how we view recent actions and statements by Iran."
After Lula's visit, expect the U.S. message to be: The engagement track has all but failed.
"At that point, we'll understand what Iran is either willing or unwilling to do, and at that point we believe that there should be consequences for a failure to respond," Crowley said.
Iran has been stepping up its anti-resolution diplomacy of late, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki making the rounds of relevant countries. Mottaki even hosted an impromptu dinner for all the Security Council members in New York last week. (He served leftovers, Crowley tweeted.)
We are hearing that the U.S. goal is to pass a sanctions resolution by the end of May, but most diplomats don't expect it to get done until at least mid-June. U.S. officials are expressing increased confidence that the resolution will pass and will not get vetoed.
"[U]nless Iran does something significant that demonstrates that it is taking confidence-building measures, I am very confident we will get a Security Council resolution that is supported by the majority of the U.N. Security Council," White House WMD czar Gary Samore said Tuesday.
The so-called P5+1, the permanent five members of the Security Council plus Germany, met in New York Wednesday on the issue. Clinton discussed Iran with Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo for more than an hour Wednesday. "They acknowledged that good progress has been made, talked about a couple of technical issues in the drafting of the draft resolution, and pledged that both sides would continue to work hard within the P-5+1 to resolve remaining questions," Crowley said.
President Obama spoke over the phone with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev Thursday morning and discussed Iran as well. "The presidents also discussed the good progress being made by the P5+1 towards agreement on a U.N. Security Council resolution on Iran and agreed to instruct their negotiators to intensify their efforts to reach conclusion as soon as possible," according to White House readout of the call.
Add the Obama administration's WMD czar Gary Samore to the growing list of top officials who believe that Middle East peace is a necessary precursor to solving wider regional problems, including the drive to curb the spread of nuclear weapons.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday afternoon, Samore tied the peace process to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, currently ongoing in New York, by saying that one of the key signs of success would be if "at least some progress" can be made toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.
"We recognize and I frankly think everybody recognizes that in the absence of a comprehensive and endurable peace settlement, achieving the zone... is just not likely to be the outcome any time soon."
He then took the argument one step further and said, "The Obama administration is working very hard to try to push the peace process forward and it seems to me that's an essential element to making progress in any of these zones... It's hard to imagine how you could have an arms control regime in the Middle East without having peace and diplomatic recognition... it's a precursor to negotiations."
It's longstanding U.S. policy that Israel should eventually join the NPT, but it's also longstanding U.S. policy not to push Israel to change its stance of neither confirming nor denying its estimated stockpile of 100-plus nuclear weapons. Samore said he does not personally support Israel changing its policy of ambiguity and that no such discussions were taking place that he was aware of.
He also sought to set clear expectations for what might come out of the four-week conference, namely that the administration was not expecting all of the conference members to sign onto any agreement together.
"We believe that if a strong majority of countries support an outcome that pledges support for the treaty and supports practical steps for all of the three pillars plus language on the Middle East, that would be a successful outcome... even if that document is not accepted by the conference as a whole."
Samore also defended the U.S.-Russia civilian nuclear agreement, which the White House sent over to Congress Tuesday. Some lawmakers see the agreement as an undeserved reward to Russia, before that country has publicly committed to signing onto a strong Iran sanctions resolution at the UN.
He said the deal, known as the 123 agreement, won't come into force until later this year and he predicted a UN sanctions resolution would materialize well before then. And he doubted that Russia would go through with the delivery of the S-300 air defense system to Iran, which could also provoke opposition to the deal.
"We've made it very clear to the Russians that would have a very significant impact on bilateral relations and the Russians understand that the consequences would be very severe... I'd be surprised if those transfers take place," said Samore, declining to specify exactly what those consequences would be.
He also headed off another potential concern about the deal by saying, "As long as I've been in this job, there's been no concern about Russian entities providing nuclear assistance to Iran."
Samore said the START treaty with Russia will probably be submitted to Congress this week.
Tonight in New York, representatives of all the United Nations Security Council members will meet and break bread at the Iranian mission, a dinner called at the last minute by Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice won't attend, instead sending deputy permanent representative Ambassador Alejandro D. Wolff. "She has prior obligations," a U.S. official told The Cable. Our UN sources said that although every Security Council country will be at the table, none of the P5+1 countries are sending their top UN diplomats.
That may be a sign that that they don't see the dinner as substantive, but rather as one more attempt by Iran to defend whatever it is doing on the nuclear front and argue why they shouldn't be sanctioned.
"We see this as yet another opportunity for Iran to show the council that they are prepared to play by the rules and meet their international obligations," the U.S. official said, "That being said, they have not shown any recent indications that they are ready to do so and we come in with a realistic set of expectations."
The U.S. is prepared to portray the event as a sign that Iran is feeling the heat, is actually more worried about the UN sanctions resolution currently under negotiation, and it scrambling to turn the momentum back their way.
"This dinner, which is unusual, is a good indication to the lengths that Iran is going right now to combat the sanctions effort and that they recognize how isolated they have become," the U.S. official argued.
So where is that UN sanctions resolution right now? Our UN sources report that the relevant delegations are going through the proposed provisions line by line and are having extremely detailed negotiations, but there is still no timeline for when the text might surface.
And while the U.S. side doesn't expect much to come out of the dinner, their role tonight will be to play defense, making sure Mottaki doesn't sway any of the other council members by bending the truth, the U.S. official said.
"We want to be there to make sure the facts are represented and there is no opportunity for obfuscation."
While the State Department works to combat Iran's nuclear propaganda at the UN, back in Washington a group of bipartisan senators are doubling down on their promise to push for tough Iran sanctions legislation that does not include "cooperating country" exemptions that State wants.
The House and Senate began conference on the two bills last week, one led by Senate Banking Committee chairman Chris Dodd, D-CT, and the other led by House Foreign Affairs chairman Howard Berman, D-CA. The main change that State wants the conference to make to the legislation is to have the bill waive corporate sanctions for countries that are deemed to be "cooperating" with the new sanctions regime.
According to Deputy Secretary James Steinberg (pdf), the waiver is needed to avoid upsetting countries the U.S. needs to bring along on its push for multilateral action. Critics fear it will be used to exempt some of Iran's biggest trading partners, Russia and China, in exchange for their support for a new U.N. resolution
"We would find it difficult to support any conference report that would weaken the House and Senate passed sanctions by providing exemptions to companies or countries engaged in the refined petroleum trade with Iran," reads the May 3 letter from Sens. Jon Kyl, R-AZ, Chuck Schumer, D-NY, John Cornyn, R-TX, Dick Durbin, D-IL, Susan Collins, R-ME, Kent Conrad, D-ND, Evan Bayh, D-IN, Sam Brownback, R-KS, John McCain, R-AZ, and Kit Bond, R-MO.
"In particular, we are skeptical about any revision to the legislation that would exempt countries engaged in otherwise engaged in sanctionable activities because they are incorporated in so-called ‘cooperating countries.'"
The senators also expressed their opposition to any changes in the legislation that would weaken sanctions of Iran's energy sector at all and made an argument supporting the inclusion of new language from McCain targeting Iranian officials guilty of human rights abuses. McCain was promised strong support for that in exchange for him allowing the original Senate bill to move off the Senate floor.
The senators wrote that the administration's ongoing drive to seek a new sanctions resolution at the UN Council was "complementary" to Congressional action but that the conference must be completed as soon as possible, "regardless of progress at the UN."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to press in New York Monday, rejected the claims by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Iran had accepted the IAEA's proposal for transferring its nuclear material to a third country. Clinton reiterated that the U.S. is pursuing the "pressure track" but declined to use the term "crippling sanctions" as she has done in the past.
"For all the bluster of its words, the Iranian Government cannot defend its own actions, and that is why it is facing increasing isolation and pressure from the international community," she said.
Some lawmakers are standing firm against the State Department's request for broad waiver authority to exempt "cooperating countries" from the new Iran sanctions currently moving through Congress.
The House and Senate held their first public conference in a very long time Wednesday to start merging together different versions of the Iran sanctions legislation, one led by Senate Banking Committee chairman Chris Dodd, D-CT, and the other spearheaded by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Howard Berman, D-CA.
This was only the first of what could be many meetings of the conference, which has a stated but non-binding goal of finishing its work by May 28. That just happens to be the final day of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference at the United Nations in New York.
Most members just chose to make speeches warning of the dire threat posed by Iran's nuclear program or criticizing the U.N. Security Council for failing to move fast enough on its own parallel effort to impose new sanctions on the regime of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is apparently being granted a visa to come to New York for the NPT meeting.
But some lawmakers aimed their fire at the administration, specifically the State Department, for not enforcing the many Iran sanctions previously enacted. They also promised to fight against the main change that State wants the conference to make to the legislation, to have the bill waive corporate sanctions for countries that are deemed to be "cooperating" with the new sanctions regime.
According to Deputy Secretary James Steinberg (pdf), the waiver is needed to avoid upsetting countries the U.S. needs to bring along on its push for multilateral action. Critics fear it will be used to exempt some of Iran's biggest trading partners, Russia and China, in exchange for their support for a new U.N. resolution.
"The Department of State, under successive administrations, has failed to implement the sanctions laws already on the books, law aimed at compelling the regime to change course," said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL, the ranking Republican on Berman's committee.
She said that the 1996 law that imposed previous sanctions "included a national-interest waiver to address the very same arguments we are now hearing from the State Department and White House." But then, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright used the language to implement a sweeping waiver, "turning the act from a powerful tool into a paper tiger."
Congressman Brad Sherman, D-CA, chairman of Berman's subcommittee on terrorism, non-proliferation, and trade, went even further.
"If the bill that we pass is going to be anything more than a mockery, we are going not only to have to require reports," he said, "but we're going to need congressional oversight and investigations and limits on appropriations."
Regarding State's request for more waiver authority, he said the department was asking Congress to "reward the fact that they have illegally ignored the law by writing provisions that allow them to do it legally."
"The idea of country by country waivers is absurd," Sherman said. "They will waive virtually every country unless they decide to simply ignore the law."
The message from everyone else at the table was largely the same. Congress isn't waiting for the administration to come up with a new resolution at the U.N. Security Council.
"Iran and its spinning centrifuges do not wait. ... We can no longer wait for a Security Council resolution that has been going on for months," said Berman.
"We will try to take concerns into account when we can, but time is running short," said Dodd.
"I am told that the U.N. Security Council negotiations are making progress, but everybody understands there's not going to be a breakthrough overnight," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-MA.
"Hitler moved quickly, and they waited, and waited, and waited," said David Scott, D-GA.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-CA, offered up the most sobering comment of the day on the congressional drive to halt Iran's nuclear advancement.
"Even crushing sanctions might not do the job," said Royce, "but we ought to try."
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that Ahmadinejad will probably be granted a visa to come to New York next week for the nonproliferation conference, where he'll be sure to make a splash.
"Well, we have certain responsibilities as the host of the U.N. ... any foreign official who is coming to the U.N. for official business is normally granted a visa," he said.
The Iran sanctions conference meets for the first time next Wednesday and the meeting will be open to the public, according to a notice circulated around the Hill today.
The conference, hosted by House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman, D-CA, and Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, I-CT, on "The Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act," will be held in the room 210/212 of the new Capitol Visitors Center on April 28 at 1:00 p.m. and will be a "public meeting," the notice said.
Representatives from Berman and Dodd's offices did not immediately respond to requests for information about exactly how "public" the meeting will be.
Berman finally appointed conferees Thursday, the Senate appointed its conferees in March. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, has promised to move the bill as soon as the conference ends and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, said Tuesday he was hopeful the bill could reach the president's desk "within a matter of weeks."
At the public meeting, watchers can expect to hear some of the following things from these conferees, all of whom made floor speeches about the bill during Thursday's debate:
The urgency of this issue is beyond dispute. Iran quite possibly will be capable of developing and delivering a nuclear weapon in the next 3 to 5 years, and our task of preventing Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability is made more complicated by the fact that we all know that our best weapon for fighting this battle -- economic sanctions -- takes time to work. So we need the strongest possible sanctions, and we need them fast.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL:
Diplomacy and engagement have had no real impact on the regime in Tehran. As Iran sprints towards the nuclear finish line, deadlines set by the Obama administration for compliance have been repeatedly disregarded. Now the strategy appears to be resting on securing a new U.N. Security Council resolution. However, Russia and China see themselves as friends of the regime in Tehran and have publicly stated that they will not support a resolution that puts any significant pressure on Tehran. In fact, The New York Times reported last week that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned in a secret 3-page memorandum to top White House officials that the United States does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran's steady progress toward nuclear capability.
Rep. Dan Burton, R-IN:
It is extremely important that we do something and do something very, very quickly. We have waited too long. We have been talking about negotiating with Iran and putting sanctions on them for the past 4 or 5 years, trying to get our allies to work with us. The fact of the matter is nothing has happened, and Iran continues to thumb their nose at the rest of the world. This is a terrible, terrible threat. A terrorist state, Iran, with nuclear weapons is not only a threat to the Middle East, to Israel, our best ally over there, but it is a threat to every single one of us.
Rep. Ron Klein, R-FL:
This legislation gives companies a simple choice: do business with the United States, or do business with Iran. We cannot allow the U.S. taxpayer to be last crutch of Iran's dangerous nuclear program. Not on our watch and not on our dime. The time to act is now, and we must move with fierce urgency.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-CA:
Today, the world's top terrorist state has its tentacles throughout the region. For those of us who have engaged in this region and have watched neighboring countries to Iran, watched their propensity to react as Iran has sped up its development, each of those countries is now looking at going nuclear. I would ask my colleagues to think about those neighbors of Iran that would create a heavily nuclearized Middle East should Iran succeed in this and what the impact would be. We can only imagine the turmoil and the tensions that will come to the Middle East should we not succeed in this effort to prevent Iran from developing these nuclear weapons.
Hoyer: (not a conferee)
It is my belief, my colleagues, that if smart sanctions take effect, more and more Iranians will come to the same conclusion and so, hopefully, will the Iranian regime. Sanctions will show the regime that its embrace of nuclear proliferation carries a cost that is far too high. We cannot expect a change of heart from Tehran, but we can demand a change of behavior. My colleagues, this action is timely and perhaps past time, but it is always timely to do the right thing, to speak up, to act, and to encourage our allies as well and our partners and our fellow citizens in this globe to act in a way that will protect them and protect our international community.
Rep. Nita Lowey, D-NY: (not a conferee)
This week, Iran announced its testing of various missiles and weapons capabilities. U.S. officials have said Iran could develop a ballistic missile capable of striking the U.S. by 2015, and they have said that Iran's continued existential threat to our strongest ally in the Middle East, Israel, presents dire global security implications. I urge the conferees to act with haste to address these urgent challenges with tough crippling sanctions. Let the speed with which Congress finalizes this legislation to sanction Iran be a message to the international community that time is of the essence if we are to contain Iran's threat to security, stability and prosperity worldwide.
When U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Michele Sison met with Lebanese officials on Wednesday, she had a mission: She was there to urge Lebanon to help avoid a new outbreak of violence between Israel and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
Sison, an affable and well-liked career Foreign Service officer, was given the difficult task of both urging the Lebanese to do what they can to avoid an eruption of war and convincing them that U.S. and Israeli concerns about alleged Syrian arms transfers over the Lebanese border should be taken seriously.
Arab press reports cited anonymous sources as saying Sison showed Lebanese Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri photos of truck convoys, evidence of increasing and escalation weapons shipments to Hezbollah. More shockingly, the reports said that she told Lebanese officials the United States had stopped Israel from launching an imminent strike against the convoys. Neither of those details is true, according to multiple administration sources.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told The Cable that the idea American waived Israel off of a strike on Syrian weapons transfers is "totally false," but declined to describe the specifics of the meeting. Another U.S. official described the Arab press reports as "bullshit."
Two administration officials close to the issue, however, said that the meeting did in fact take place, but no photos were shown and the United States did not halt an imminent Israeli strike.
"The Israelis weren't ready to shoot anything. There was never a point where they said, ‘We are going to strike something,'" the official said, adding that at some point Israeli action could of course be a possibility -- albeit a disastrous one.
Regardless, the controversy surrounding Sison's meeting reflects the extremely high tensions in the region following reports of new Syrian weapons transfers, including possibly SCUD missiles, to Hezbollah -- tensions the Obama administration is trying to tamp down.
Sison's message was the same message the U.S. is sending to all the parties, which is, "A war now is not in anyone's interest," the official said.
The administration is still not clear that any SCUDs have been transferred, but there is an acknowledgement that Syrian weapons transfers are increasing in both quantity and quality.
"It's a deterrence game and each side is building up its deterrence capability," this official said, adding that as both the Israelis and Hezbollah prepare for war, the seriousness of any actual outbreak of fighting is keeping both sides from initiating battle -- for now.
"In a way, the deterrence is working," the source added, noting that the downside risk of the arms buildup is that any miscalculation that begins an open conflict would precipitate a large-scale war that whose consequences would be impossible to predict.
According to this official, who stressed that they were only conveying their personal analysis, not the overall administration position, Hezbollah is still seeking revenge for the 2008 Israeli assassination of its military leader Imad Mughniyeh, and sees some spectacular attack on Israel as a way to achieve that.
But Hezbollah, now accountable to the Lebanese people due to its role in the government, doesn't want to be seen as firing the first shot that could lead to devastating retaliation from Israel. So the group is trying to goad the Israelis into starting the conflict, the official believes.
The Israelis are aware they are being goaded, the official said, and are doing their best to resist while warning Washington that at some point violence might be unavoidable. "The Israelis know that once they strike, that's all the excuse that Hezbollah needs to wage a full-scale war," the official explained.
As for why Syria seems to be playing such an unhelpful role, "that's the million-dollar question," the official said. The Obama administration genuinely does not understand Syrian intentions and there are three basic theories within the administration as to why Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would continue to escalate arms shipments to Hezbollah despite U.S. warnings.
According to one school of thought, this is Assad's way of playing hardball with the Israelis in advance of Israeli-Syrian negotiations. No one wants to negotiate from a weak position, so he is amassing chits that he can bargain away later.
An opposing theory is that Assad has no interest in engaging with the Americans or negotiating with Israel at all. This line of thinking concludes that he is simply paving the way for eventual conflict with Israel.
The third, more nuanced analysis portrays Assad as a man in a bind. He has himself so tied up with Iran and Hezbollah that perhaps he can't disengage as easily as those in the West think he can. Also, Assad has always been a gambler and may have simply become entangled in his own web of deals with so many competing interests.
"We do not understand Syrian intentions. No one does, and until we get to that question we can never get to the root of the problem," the official said. "Until then it's all damage control."
Meanwhile, the administration is trying to explain to the Syrians how foolish the weapons transfers are, if they are really happening, while telling the Israelis to be patient and arguing that the only beneficiary of a new Israeli-Hezbollah war would be Iran, which would seize upon a new conflict to deflect international pressure over its nuclear program.
"Hariri is terrified that another war is going to break his country apart and if that means denying the weapons transfers or whatever, he's going to do it," our official speculated. "He's desperately trying to save his country from utter decimation."
The House finally appointed conferees to meld the two already passed versions of the Iran sanctions bill and Congress is not waiting for the Obama administration to finish up with the UN track.
"We have waited long enough for diplomacy to work," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, said in a response to a question from The Cable at Thursday's press conference on financial reform, adding, "Iran is a festering sore in the world."
The House had not appointed conferees until just recently. They were accused of holding up the conference until the UN track had been exhausted, a charge chairman Howard Berman's office has denied.
Berman announced the House conferees today.
"Today marks a major step towards preventing Iran from acquiring the ability to produce nuclear weapons. Iran's intentions are clear, and now is the time to implement crippling sanctions on this reckless regime," he said in a statement, "We are moving forward to ensure that legislation enabling tough sanctions is on President Obama's desk for his signature."
The administration had been hoping that Congress would hold off on passing the conference report until it was able to get a new UN security council resolution authorizing new sanctions. The deadline for the UN track has slipped repeatedly and Reid was clear that he was no longer waiting for that process to play out.
Reid said he would bring the bill to the floor as soon as it comes out of conference and that he wants to see the conference finish up work "as soon as they can."
Last week, over two thirds of the House and Senate signed a letter to president Obama urging him to impose "crippling sanctions" on Iran immediately.
The House conferees are Howard Berman, D-CA, Gary Ackerman, D-NY, Brad Sherman, D-CA, Jim Costa, D-CA, David Scott, D-GA, Joseph Crowley, D-NY, Ron Klein, D-FL, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL, Dan Burton, R-IN, Edward Royce, R-CA, Mike Pence, R-IN, Barney Frank, D-MA, Gregory Meeks, D-NY, Scott Garrett, R-NJ, Sander Levin, D-MI, John S. Tanner, D-TN and Dave Camp, R-MI.
The Senate conferees are Chris Dodd, D-CT, John Kerry, D-MA, Joe Lieberman, I-CT, Robert Menendez, D-NJ, Richard Shelby, R-AL, Bob Bennett, R-UT, and Richard Lugar, R-IN.
Only one day after the close of President Obama's nuclear summit, Congress is demanding the administration refocus the nuclear discussion on Iran's nuclear program and is threatening to move sanctions legislation sooner rather than later.
Congress has been sitting on two Iran sanctions bills for most of this year, having passed them through both chambers but not yet convening a conference session to resolve the two versions. Lawmakers have been giving the administration time to work the U.N. track, while also lamenting that the expected deadline for getting a new U.N. Security Council resolution on Iran keeps slipping.
The pressure to take action may well increase after today's congressional testimony, in which Defense Intelligence Agency head Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess, Jr. warned that Iran could have enough highly enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb within a year. Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Gen. James Cartwright was quick to clarify that Iran wouldn't have the capability to actually construct that bomb until three to five years' time.
Burgess also gave some details in his written remarks about Iran's capabilities that weren't previously well known in public.
"DIA assesses that, with sufficient foreign assistance, Iran could develop and test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the United States," he wrote. "Iran displayed its next-generation SLV, the Simorgh, in February 2010. The Simorgh is much larger than the Safir and shows progress in booster design that could be applicable to an ICBM design."
(The relatively less revealing testimony of Under Secretary of State William J. Burns, who is in charge of America's contribution to the P5+1 process, can be found here.)
President Obama appears to feel the same sense of urgency. When he met Chinese President Hu Jintao at the summit, our sources report, he pressed Hu for some progress on U.N. sanctions by the end of April.
In response, the Chinese reaffirmed their willingness to participate in sanctions negotiations without making any concrete pledges. Although this was portrayed as a significant shift in some reports, the truth is that Chinese intentions are still unclear, as is the date by which the U.N. might take action.
On May 3, the U.N. begins the once-every-five-years Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York. It's unlikely the Security Council would tackle the Iran issue in the middle of that conference, risking a political fight in the midst of an already-complex set of negotiations -- and that NPT review lasts until May 28. So if the Obama administration can't it done in April, the sanctions will have to wait until June.
Speaking about the issue at the press conference closing the summit Tuesday, Obama promised to press for sanctions but said, "I'm not going to speculate beyond that in terms of where we are."
Congress, however, wants to the administration to know that any delay will bring further pressure from Capitol Hill.
"We urge you to join with those allies who are prepared for action to immediately impose crippling sanctions on Iran," reads a letter signed by more than 360 House lawmakers that will be released later today. "Only such action on our part offers the prospect of persuading Tehran to turn away from its dangerous course."
A nearly identical Senate letter is also in the works and has at least 75 signatures right now, our Hill sources report.
At 3 p.m. today, bipartisan House leaders will hold a press conference to push for action on Iran sanctions. Speaking will be Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-VA, Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-IL, and Rep. Mike Pence, R-IN. Our Hill sources say that the press conference was rescheduled specifically to enable Hoyer to attend.
The Senate has already appointed conferees for the Iran sanctions bill, but the House has not. People on the Senate side continue to believe that House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman, D-CA, is holding up on appointing conferees to stall the conference as a favor to the administration, but Berman's office denies that.
Adding to Congress's threats to move Iran sanctions legislation regardless of what happens at the United Nations, a House appropriator will move to keep all U.S. government money out of the hands of companies that do business there.
"During the House Appropriations Committee's consideration of the Fiscal Year 2011 appropriations bills, I will offer an amendment to each of the twelve appropriations bills to ensure that no federal funds go to companies doing business with Iran," Rep. Steve Rothman, D-N.J, will say in a statement to be released Thursday but obtained in advance by The Cable.
Rothman is responding, in part, to a March 7 New York Times article reported that $107 billion worth of U.S. taxpayer money has gone to companies doing business in Iran, $15 billion going to firms that directly violating existing U.S. sanctions by aiding Iran's oil industry.
If the committee votes to adopt Rothman's language when they takes up the spending bills, it would become the law of the land that no U.S. Government funds would go to such companies, no matter what other sanctions might be in place.
Rothman isn't the only lawmaker trying to close the path of funds from Washington to Tehran. The House version of the Iran sanctions bill currently awaiting conference has a provision to stop U.S. government funds from going to companies involved in Iran's oil sector, written by Rep. Ron Klein, D-FL.
The Senate version of the bill has a similar provision that covers technology exports to Iran, but not oil industry involvement. Inside the conference, several lawmakers are expected to push for language that covers both sectors and perhaps more.
Congress is expected to start working on the spending bills in May.
There was some strong pushback at Monday night's AIPAC gala against the Obama administration's call for further patience in waiting for the U.N. Security Council to enact a fourth round of sanctions on Iran. But it didn't come from the Israeli side or the lobbying group itself: it came from two senior U.S. senators.
Senate leadership member Charles Schumer, D-NY, and moderate Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, both passionately pledged to push this week for action on the Iran sanctions legislation currently awaiting a House-Senate conference. They directly contradicted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's call for more time to allow the U.N. process to play out, a plea she made in remarks to the same group earlier in the day.
Comparing a delay in confronting Iran's nuclear program with the WWII-era appeasement of Adolf Hitler, Schumer said there was no choice but to move forward with new Iran sanctions now.
"Diplomatic efforts have failed. We are too close (to a nuclear Iran) to simply continue those efforts," said Schumer. "The U.S. must hit Iran first, on our own, with unilateral sanctions, no matter what the other nations of the world do. And we cannot wait, we must push those sanctions now ... we cannot afford to wait for Russia or China."
Schumer's comments showed some daylight between the New York senator and the administration on the issue of banning the export of petroleum products to Iran. Schumer is for it, but administration officials say they want to focus on sanctions that target the regime, not the population.
Clinton counseled patience in her AIPAC speech Monday morning. "We are now working with our partners in the United Nations on new Security Council sanctions that will show Iran's leaders that there are real consequences for their intransigence," she said. "It is taking time to produce these sanctions, and we believe that time is a worthwhile investment for winning the broadest possible support for our efforts."
Schumer and Graham will send a letter to Obama this week demanding he implement the new sanctions bill as soon as it gets to his desk. In his speech, Graham also said the U.N. process was going too slowly.
"Russia and China are AWOL when it comes to Iran," he said. "Time is not on our side."
Graham also directly contradicted Clinton's message on settlements, where she said that the status of Jerusalem was an issue subject to "good faith negotiations."
"Jerusalem is not a settlement. No government in Israel will ever look at Jerusalem as a settlement. And no government of the United States should ever look at Jerusalem as a settlement," Graham said to raucous applause. "It's the undivided capital of the state of Israel."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoed Graham's sentiments only minutes later.
"Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital," he said. "Everyone knows that these neighborhoods will be part of Israel in any peace settlement. Therefore, building them in no way precludes the possibility of a two-state solution."
Both senators told the 7,000 assembled AIPAC members to push for immediate action on Iran sanctions when they flood Capitol Hill Tuesday to lobby their representatives, and AIPAC officials confirms that this will be the No. 1 talking point for AIPAC in all meetings.
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman, D-CA, is said to be trying to help the administration delay a conference by not allowing the House to appoint conferees. Denying that charge, he said recently he wants to get the bill to the President's desk before May.
Clinton met with Netanyahu at the Mayflower Hotel Monday afternoon. The State Department had been expecting Netanyahu to come to Foggy Bottom for the meeting but the location was changed at the last minute. Israeli sources said that protocol dictated that Netanyahu should choose the meeting place because he still technically outranks Clinton.
But protocol didn't seem to bother Netanyahu when he traveled to Observatory Circle to sit down for dinner with the Vice President Joseph Biden Monday night. He goes to the White House to see Obama Tuesday afternoon.
When European foreign ministers meet in Brussels next Monday, three European powers will be pressing for continent-wide action to confront Iran's jamming of international satellites.
"Iran has been regularly jamming the broadcasting by satellite of a number of foreign televisions and radio stations ... since December 2009, a repetition of its practice in the run up to the disputed elections earlier that year," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle wrote to the European Union's new foreign-policy chief, Baroness Catherine Ashton, in a previously unreported letter obtained by The Cable.
"The objective was clearly to prevent the people of Iran from freely exercising their right to information."
The three powers want the EU not only to pen a declaration condemning the practice, but also to figure out how to un-jam the satellites and perhaps even stop the export of technologies that Iran can use for censorship purposes.
The French have been pushing particularly hard on the issue in recent weeks, in part due to the fact that much of the jamming was aimed at the French firm EutelSat, which carries more than 70 foreign radio and television services, some of which are run by the Iranian regime but many of which have nothing to do with Iran.
A European diplomat told The Cable that one option was to kick Iranian programming off of EutelSat. There is expected to be widespread support for a declaration, the diplomat added.
The Iranian actions violate the agreements of the International Union of Telecommunications, to which it is a party, but that body has no real enforcement power.
The EU has been more active than the U.S. on confronting Iranian satellite jamming, at least in public, a situation that several GOP senators complained about in a recent letter to Jeff Trimble, head of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
The senators were demanding answers to questions raised by an exclusive report in The Cable that revealed the involvement of the National Security Council in the Broadcasting Board of Governor's actions regarding Iran.
In the Feb. 18 story, which was also reprinted in the Washington Post, we reported that the NSC had been involved in negotiating the wording of a statement on Iranian media censorship that was eventually issued by the Voice of America, a subsidiary of the BBG, as well as the British Broadcasting Company and Deutsche Welle.
The NSC's involvement was seen by some as an inappropriate violation of the "firewall" that is supposed to exist between the administration and the BBG, which should be operating independently. An NSC official denied that there was anything inappropriate about the council's intervention.
The Iranian regime's February decision to increase the level of its uranium enrichment to nearly 20 percent reveals that Iran's claims that it needs to enrich uranium for medical use is a "transparent ploy," a top Obama administration official said Tuesday.
"It has nothing to do with trying to help Iranian cancer patients who will need medical isotopes later this year," Dan Poneman, the deputy energy secretary, told an audience Wednesday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, adding that the decision was "a provocative move that calls into question its nuclear intentions."
"We have even offered to facilitate Iran's procurement though world markets of the medical isotopes its citizens need," he said, "but there's been no follow-up and Iran has refused to discuss its nuclear program further, despite the Geneva understanding."
The Obama administration offered Iran a deal to exchange nuclear material in a third country in order to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor, the U.S.-built facility where the enrichment is suspected to be taking place, but the IAEA has still never received a formal response. "It's out there. It has not been formally withdrawn," Poneman said.
He also launched the opening salvo in what many believe will be a bitter confrontation between the United States and Iran when the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty comes up for discussion in a major review conference in May. Iran is poised to disrupt the conference significantly by raising objections to any U.S. initiatives and generally working to thwart any attempts to address what Western powers see as its clear failure to comply with the treaty.
"Iran essentially has not been in compliance with its IAEA safeguards agreement since 1982," Poneman said, referring to Iran's pattern of undeclared nuclear material, facilities, and experiments.
"In the case of Iran, it does not appear that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes," he added. "The NPT does not contain the right to pursue nuclear efforts of this character. After all it is the nuclear non-proliferation treaty."
Poneman said the latest IAEA report on Iran "clearly shows Iran's continued failure to live up to its international obligations."
Multiple congressional aides tell The Cable that pressure is mounting for Congress to move forward with its conference to iron out differences between the House and Senate versions of the Iran sanctions legislation, after the French Foreign Minister said that a U.N. Security Council resolution might not surface until June.
The original idea was to finalize the U.S. sanctions legislation only after the U.N. has its say, but the continued delays in New York have put that plan into question. While lawmakers want to give the administration space to line up the necessary support at the Security Council, their patience is wearing thin.
Last Friday, Sens. Charles Schumer, D-NY, and Jon Kyl, R-AZ, penned a letter, first obtained by Turtle Bay, to President Obama asking him to abandon attempts to try to get exemptions for countries and support the Iran sanctions legislation as is. The senators said they don't want to wait until the UN acts, due to continued Chinese intransigence.
"We believe that attempts at diplomacy will continue to be rebuffed by the government of Iran and that our window for implementing meaningful, ‘crippling' sanctions against Iran is getting narrower by the day," they wrote.
"If the U.N. track stalls to the point that we're in the middle of the year, it is unlikely that the Congress is going to wait that long," said one senior congressional aide close to the issue, noting that the Obama administration has been pushing back the deadline for U.N. action again and again.
The Senate appointed conferees earlier this month and the House is expected to follow suit shortly. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, did not respond to a request for comment on the timing.
Senate staffers wonder if House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, D-CA, is trying to avoid opening up the process to a House vote on the details of the bill. Berman may be worried that Iran-minded members could force a vote that might upset negotiations with the State Department over issues like an exemption for cooperating countries, a senior Senate aide said. "The million-dollar question is when is the House going to conference."
When the bill does come to conference, there will be attempts to add provisions to the bill that go further than what the administration is proposing and what the current bill includes. The most likely addition will be language by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, I-CT, and John McCain, R-AZ, that would require the president to sanction Iranian officials who have committed human rights abuses or acts of violence against civilians engaging in peaceful political activity.
Those listed would be subject to visa bans, freezes on their assets in the United States or within U.S. jurisdiction, and other restrictions on their financial activities. "McCain's amendment would identify Iranian human rights abusers and make them feel some serious pain," said a senior Senate staffer.
McCain tried to add the language in January when the Senate passed the bill, but was persuaded to stand down so that Reid could move the legislation quickly. Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, promised to support the language in conference.
The second main addition to the bill could be language to tighten restrictions on U.S. government funds going to companies that do business with the Iranian regime. A March 7 New York Times article reported that $107 billion worth of U.S. taxpayer money has gone to companies doing business in Iran, $15 billion going to firms that directly violating existing U.S. sanctions by aiding Iran's oil industry.
The House version of the bill already has a provision to stop U.S. government funds from going to companies involved in Iran's oil sector, written by Rep. Ron Klein, D-FL, who said the issue is enforcement.
"You need to make a choice: either you want to sell equipment or services to the energy section in Iran, or you want to be eligible for business in the United States," he told The Cable. "Right now we're not enforcing that but this will make it tight, it will give it teeth and there will be consequences if you do it."
The Senate bill has a similar provision that covers technology exports to Iran, but not oil industry involvement. Inside the conference, several lawmakers are expected to push for language that covers both sectors and perhaps more.
Finally, the administration's ongoing insistence on being able to exempt countries from the U.S. sanctions regime is still not resolved as far as lawmakers are concerned. The administration wants to be able to waive the sanctions for any country it chooses, which could include China and Russia, but lawmakers want limits on that power.
"The formula that a cooperating country is a country that president determines is cooperating is probably not going to go anywhere," one senior congressional aide said, "The criteria has to be genuinely meaningful and strict."
The Senate conferees are Chris Dodd, D-CT, John Kerry, D-MA, Joseph Lieberman, I-CT, Robert Menendez, D-NJ, Richard Shelby, R-AL, Robert Bennett, R-UT, and Richard Lugar, R-IN.
Three senior Republican senators are demanding answers to questions raised by an exclusive report in The Cable that revealed the involvement of the National Security Council in the Broadcasting Board of Governor's actions regarding Iran.
In the Feb. 18 story, which was also reprinted in the Washington Post, we reported that the NSC had been involved in negotiating the wording of a statement on Iranian media censorship that was eventually issued by the Voice of America, a subsidiary of the BBG, as well as the British Broadcasting Company and Deutsche Welle. The NSC's involvement was seen by some as an inappropriate violation of the "firewall" that is supposed to exist between the administration and the BBG, which should be operating independently.
Sens. Jon Kyl, R-AZ, Sam Brownback, R-KS, and Tom Coburn, R-OK sent a letter (pdf) Tuesday to BBG President Jeff Trimble demanding a full accounting of the actions of the NSC and the State Department in dealing with the BBG before it eventually issued the statement, which criticized Iran for its jamming of international satellites.
"If true, these actions constitute serious violations of U.S law, policy, and tradition related to the editorial independence of the taxpayer-funded Broadcasting Board of Governors. We believe it is important for you to address the claims made in the article," the letter stated.
"We also believe it's important for you to publicly indicate whether representatives of the administration, including officials of the National Security Council, the Executive Office of the President, or the State Department, were involved in any way in the drafting, preparation, or clearance" of the statement.
The senators demanded that Trimble identify the specific individuals who were involved in the statement, state whether anyone at State raised concerns about possible violation of the editorial "firewall" between the administration and the BBG, and detail all of the BBG's activities related to Iran since last June's election.
Several BBG nominees are pending confirmation in the Senate, the letter noted.
An NSC official, speaking to The Cable on background basis, admitted that the NSC held a series of interagency meetings on the issue after the BBG asked the council for advice and defended the interaction as "appropriate."
"The BBG approached the NSC for guidance regarding a specific request from BBC and Deutsche Welle to issue a joint statement with VOA," the official said. "The NSC then worked with State and BBG to review the content of such a statement to ensure it was both factually accurate and legally sound; the NSC endorsed the issuance of a joint statement, and a strong statement was indeed issued."
When top Obama administration officials went to Beijing last week, they had a broad agenda for discussion, including Iran, climate change, and North Korea. What did the Chinese want to talk about? Taiwan, Taiwan, and Taiwan.
Several China experts close to both sets of officials said that Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and National Security Council Senior Director Jeffrey Bader went to China with the understanding that they would have substantive discussions on some key issues of U.S. interest, but the Chinese side used the opportunity to try to bargain for an end to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, something Beijing has wanted for decades and now feels bold enough to demand.
"It was all about Taiwan," said Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), "The message that the Chinese are giving us is ‘We've had enough; we're fed up. We've been living with this issue of U.S. arms sales for too long and it's time to solve it.'"
The Obama team has been noticing increased confidence on the Chinese side when dealing with the United States, and some officials see that as partly a result of the rise of hard-liners within the Chinese system who advocate a tougher stance toward Washington.
But asking the Obama administration to end Taiwan arms sales shows a profound misunderstanding of U.S. foreign-policy decision making, several experts said.
"Do they really think they have a chance in hell of ending our arms sales to Taiwan? I find that shocking, but that's what they're telling us," Glaser said of the Chinese. "I can't imagine why they think that U.S. interests have somehow changed on this issue. Ultimately that's why we sell them, because it's in our interest, not to piss off China."
Charles Freeman, who holds the Freeman Chair (no relation) in China Studies at CSIS, said the Chinese are trying to raise the price of their cooperation on Iran and other issues by bringing up their long displeasure over the Taiwan arms-sales issue.
"There is a strong push from Beijing to get that core issue as their big ask and there's a desire to reopen discussions about what a plan to eliminate arms sales to Taiwan would look like," he explained. "There is some sense that we can trade Iran for Taiwan, but that's a non-starter for the Obama administration. The Chinese don't seem to understand that."
Meanwhile, although the Obama administration moved forward, eventually, with the Bush administration's left over deal to sell Taiwan some arms, the White House declined to see Taiwan any F-16 aircraft as part of the recent $6.2 billion arms sales package.
Some China watchers fear that the Obama administration is cementing a custom by which the U.S. continues to sell some arms to Taiwan while simultaneously ignoring the ongoing decline of the island's actual defense capabilities in the face of massive and increasing Chinese deployments across the Taiwan Strait.
That's the implication of this recent unclassified report by the Defense Intelligence Agency to the Office of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, which outlines how Taiwan's air defenses, which are dependent on U.S. equipment, are old and eroding quickly.
Of course, it was the Bush administration that first decided to remove the F-16s from the package of arms being sold to Taiwan and actually refused to accept a letter requesting the planes, experts note. But Obama's decision to continue the practice is seen by many as directed more at maintaining a delicate relationship with mainland China than it is on any analysis of Taiwan's security posture.
"Decisions are being made solely on the basis of what would least provoke China, not on the basis of what Taiwan would actually need to defend itself," said former Pentagon China official Dan Blumenthal, now with the American Enterprise Institute. "In deciding in effect that Taiwan does not need the aircraft, they are deciding Taiwan doesn't need an air force, which puts both U.S. and Taiwan air defenses at greater risk."
Taiwan is nowhere close to ending its lobbying effort to buy the newer F-16 planes. Defense News¸ which first highlighted the DIA document, reported today that Taiwan's defense ministry is releasing a new study claiming Chinese fighter superiority. Several Taiwanese lawmakers wrote to House and Senate foreign relations leaders to ask for a follow-on sale of F-16 fighters.
"If America softens its support for our country at this critical time we believe it will have an adverse effect on cross-Strait relations as Taiwan's negotiating position is weakened and the PRC may then seek to capitalize on our situation," the letter stated.
The sale of newer F-16s to Taiwan, the "C" and "D" versions, is also part of a larger drive to keep the production lines open for the plane. The major advocates are from the Texas and Georgia delegations, whose states stand to benefit most. Since the F-16 is also in the hunt for new sales to India, those with an interest there would also be inclined to make sure the line doesn't close.
"At some point this year, the F-16 supply chain will begin to shut down as there are no new orders and the U.S. and its allies switch to the F-35," said one Washington Asia hand. "Once this happens it is cost-prohibitive to restart the line. This industrial time constraint will force the political decision either to sell the aircraft to Taiwan or not. If no, for all intents and purposes the island will have no real means of defending its airspace."
As the Obama administration pursues new multilateral Iran sanctions at the U.N., Congress is getting ready to move forward with its own sanctions bill, which the administration is still not happy with.
A senior Senate aide close to the process said the House and Senate will soon move to conference on resolving the two versions of the Iran sanctions legislation, one led by Rep. Howard Berman, D-CA, and the other sponsored by Chris Dodd, D-CT. The State Department had been negotiating with key senators over Dodd's bill, seeking an exemption for any countries they determine to be "cooperating" with the U.S. on the sanctions regime.
This Washington Post article makes it seem like the Obama administration is just beginning to push for exemptions for all the P5+1 countries, including Russia and China, but actually that's been the State Department's position since December.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, has faced pressure not to dawdle with the bill, passing it through his chamber at the end of January. But the conference, where the State Department planned to get the exemptions it wants, wasn't expected to go forward until the U.N. game had played out.
And while the conference could last a long time and no final vote push is imminent, several congressional aides told The Cable Friday that their bosses were getting impatient with the ever-slipping deadline for U.N. action and that a large exemption that includes Russia and China would not fly on Capitol Hill.
"When we had the discussions in December about cooperating countries, it boiled down to the fact that the administration was demanding an exemption that was large enough to drive a truck through and that was not well received in the Congress," said one senior congressional aide close to the discussions.
The administration had pledged to wrap up at the U.N. in February during the French rotating presidency, then that slipped to March, and now lawmakers are being told April. The timing and the strength of the U.N. sanctions will directly affect what Congress does, the aide said.
"People on both sides want to give the administration the time they need and there's a genuine desire to be helpful, but the more this things drags on, the more there is going to be growing pressure in Congress about this," said the aide.
The aide spelled out two hypothetical scenarios: In Scenario A, the Security Council puts in place a very tough sanctions regime with China's signoff. In that case, the imperative for stringent congressionally mandated sanctions could diminish.
In Scenario B, despite a year spent on engagement, sold as necessary to rally the international community, sanctions are weak and China is not forced to change its behavior. In that case, the aide said, it will be very hard for the administration to turn to Congress and say "You don't need to move on tough sanctions now."
Some senators don't think an exemption for cooperating countries is necessary in the first place, since the bill gives the president the power to waive any sanctions if he chooses. One senior Senate aide said that his boss will resist any attempts to water down the Senate version of the bill.
Also, "I have not heard anybody who thinks it's a good idea to exempt China from the sanctions regime," this aide said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has added an unplanned stop to her Latin America itinerary: Buenos Aires. The U.S. delegation will stay overnight in Argentina Monday instead of Chile, where the government is still preoccupied with the aftermath of Saturday's devastating earthquake.
"Instead of overnighting in Santiago on Monday night we will travel from Montevideo [Uruguay] Monday afternoon to Buenos Aires in order to meet with Argentine President [Cristina Fernández] de Kirchner, instead of in Uruguay as originally planned," a State Department official on the trip said.
Clinton was in Uruguay this weekend to attend the inauguration of Jose Mujica, a former guerrilla leader turned president. The Kirchner meeting was originally supposed to happen in Montevideo, but was changed after the Chilean earthquake caused Clinton's team to re-examine her travel plans.
Although Latin American countries are no doubt hoping to discuss a range of bilateral issues, Clinton is more likely to focus on the renewed international efforts to pressure Iran regarding its nuclear program. "Iran is at the top of my agenda," Clinton told a Senate committee last week when talking about her trip.
She might find the going tough, particularly in Brazil, which currently holds a seat on the Security Council. Brazil's Foreign Minister Celso Amorim recently poured cold war on the U.S.-led sanctions push, saying, "We don't believe that sanctions will prove effective." Under Secretary Bill Burns, the State Department's lead on the issue, visited the Brazilian capital ahead of the Clinton trip, but it's not clear what he was able to achieve.
Clinton will be in Brasilia Wednesday to meet directly with President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva and Amorim. Assistant Secretary Arturo Valenzuela previewed Friday what Clinton's message will be when it comes to Iran.
"While we're cognizant of the fact that the Brazilian government has reached out to Iran and has been approaching the Iranians, it's very much on our agenda to try to insist with the Brazilians that in their engagement with Iran, we would like them to encourage the Iranians, of course, to meet their international obligations," he said, adding that the State Department views Brazil's opposition to new sanctions as a "mistake."
The Cable is hearing from multiple congressional sources, diplomats, and former officials that the Obama administration is getting ready to finalize a new National Intelligence Estimate that is expected to walk back the conclusions of the 2007 report on Iran's nuclear program.
The new NIE has been expected for a while, but now seems to be close to release, perhaps within two weeks or so, according to the pervasive chatter in national-security circles this week. In addition to the expectation that the new estimate will declare that Iran is on a path toward weaponization of nuclear material, multiple sources said they are being told there will be no declassified version and only those cleared to read the full 2007 NIE (pdf) will be able to see the new version.
The Obama administration finds itself in tough situation as it pursues new sanctions against Iran both at the United Nations and using domestic levers. Many feel the administration needs to correct the record by somehow disavowing the intelligence community's controversial 2007 conclusion: "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program."
The new estimate might not directly contradict that judgment, but could say that while the intelligence community has not determined that Iran has made the strategic decision to build a nuclear weapon, it is seen to be working on the components of a device -- a parsing that some would see as too clever by half.
"It's like saying that you're not building a car, but you are building the engine, the chassis, the upholstery," said one Middle East hand who had no direct knowledge about the estimate's contents. "It's a distinction without a difference."
Multiple Hill aides said they expect only a classified version with no public document; the 2007 estimate included an unclassified version. They see that move as an effort by the Obama administration not to have the new estimate unnecessarily complicate the ongoing negotiations to seek new sanctions against Iran at the U.N.
David Albright, a nuclear-weapons expert and president of the Institute of Science and International Security, said that the administration might want to avoid a lengthy and complicated public debate about the new estimate's conclusions, seeking to prevent the fractious debate that followed the release of the older estimate.
He said the nature of the estimate, which seeks to find consensus between all of the various intelligence agencies, makes it tough to give out enough information to make it bulletproof. Regardless, he lamented that the administration might not provide some of the information in a public way.
"They owe it to us to provide clarification of their position publicly," he said. "Speaking just as a citizen, I want my government to be transparent about something that could potentially involve military strikes."
Any clarification would bring the U.S. position more in line with that of with key allies like France and Germany, who have been long arguing for a stronger public position on Iran's nuclear program, according to Albright. A clarification would also help square the U.S. conclusions with the recent IAEA report on Iran that went further than previous reports in expressing concerns about weaponization, he added.
"The 2007 NIE really hurt things politically for getting sanctions and building momentum and they had to relook at this," Albright said. "Who knows if was really a mistake? It may be what they honestly believed at the time."
Any walking back of the 2007 estimate is likely to give Republicans comfort that their longstanding criticism of that report was justified.
A spokesperson for Senate Intelligence Committee ranking Republican Kit Bond, R-MO, told The Cable Bond has long argued the 2007 NIE went too far in suggesting that Iran did not intend to develop weapons.
"They may intend to, they may not, but the bottom line is that we just don't know," the spokesperson said. "Unfortunately, the NIE gave people a false security by making them think the Intelligence Community assessed there was no intent."
The NIE is compiled by the National Intelligence Council, but rollout and classification decisions are ultimately made by Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence. Blair's office declined to comment.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
The discussions over Iran sanctions at the U.N. Security Council are taking shape, as member countries converge around a plan to put forth a resolution that may not have the teeth some advocates want, but could be used as a vehicle for other entities to pursue more biting sanctions.
The idea is to the keep the actual penalties in the U.N. resolution, currently being negotiated in New York, vague enough to bring the Russians on board while allowing the United States and the European Union to move forward with tougher measures on their own, according to two European diplomats familiar with the discussions.
The U.N. resolution would ideally contain several "buzzwords" that would provide justification for the tougher measures, opening doors to expanded sanctions on Iranian banks, for example, the diplomats said. Pro-sanctions countries are looking to delink the measures aimed at Iranian financial institutions from their suspected activities related to proliferation, so that proving such activities would not be necessary to punish the organizations.
The pro-sanctions forces on the Security Council feel bolstered by the latest IAEA report on Iran, which alluded to work on nuclear warheads, and by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent warning that Iran is "moving towards a military dictatorship."
The Russian side is working relatively well with the other Security Council members, these diplomats report, although resisting the harder-line items that are likely not to be included in the new resolution. China's current position is that now is not the time for new sanctions, but the other actors are hoping that the Chinese will eventually be forced to choose between siding with the international community or siding with Iran, and will feel enough pressure to at least abstain from the final vote.
There is still a lot of concern about other U.N. Security Council members, especially Turkey and Brazil, who are poised to resist a new sanctions resolution. "It's not as good a Security Council as we've had in previous rounds," one diplomat lamented.
The end of February is still technically the deadline for the negotiations, but that is likely to slip a couple of weeks, the diplomats said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and the EU are already moving forward with increased pressure on the Iranian government. The Washington Times' Eli Lake reported today that the Obama administration is likely to declare Iran's central bank as a terrorist-supporting entity, in addition to the more than one dozen Iranian banks already targeted by the Treasury Department.
EU foreign ministers have reportedly prepared a list of new sanctions they plan to unveil. Insurer Lloyd's of London said it will abide by the new sanctions currently making their way through the U.S. Congress, and Germany's Munich Re said it will not renew its contracts in Iran.
There are also increased signs of close coordination between the U.S. and Israel on the Iran issue. In addition to the trip this week by Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg and Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy, there have been a flurry of high-level visits back and forth in recent weeks.
CIA Director Leon Panetta was there at the end of January, National Security Advisor Jim Jones was in Israel in February, Chairman of Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen and Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew were there last week, Vice President Joe Biden is expected there March 4. From the Israeli side, Defense Minister Ehud Barak will be in Washington this week and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be in town March 21, and then back again for the nuclear security conference in April.
"You are seeing a very steady, and even stepped-up level, of strategic coordination between the U.S. and Israel at the moment," said one Washington-based Middle East hand. "And given the meaningful shift in tone in public and policy in private that we are seeing from the administration, not to mention the IAEA seeing signs of warhead work in Iran, those talks are sure to be very, very sensitive."
The State Department today urged Iran to publicly address issues raised in a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency regarding the Islamic Republic's nuclear activities.
"We cannot explain why it refuses to come to the table and engage constructively to answer the questions that have been raised," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters today, "And you have to draw some conclusions from that."
Crowley noted that this was the first report on the issue from the IAEA since the agency's new director general, Yukiya Amano, took up his post and the first since the existence of Iran's secret uranium enrichment facility near Qom was exposed last September.
"There is no explanation for that facility that is consistent with the needs of a civilian nuclear program. And it characterizes the way in which Iran has conducted its relations with the IAEA and its failure to satisfactorily explain, you know, what its activities and ambitions are in the nuclear sphere," Crowley said.
Regarding the Qom facility, the IAEA report said the agency has information disputing Iran's contention that it chose the location in 2007. The agency says it was planned in 2006, when Iran would have been require to notify the IAEA. Iran has failed to answer properly several of the IAEA's questions on Qom, the report stated.
"The Agency has verified that the construction of the facility is ongoing, but that no centrifuges had been introduced into the facility as of 16 February 2010," it reads.
"The IAEA report shows in stark terms that Iran continues to obfuscate on its safeguards obligations," said Nima Gerami of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Regrettably, results from the IAEA's inspection of Iran's enrichment plant near Qom are still pending because Iran delayed access to the facility last October and ElBaradei did little to put his foot down."
Amano is not doing much better, according to Gerami.
"If Amano wants to be successful he should report as straightforwardly as possible in explaining Iran's safeguards failures and avoid using falsely reassuring statements, as he did in this report, that the IAEA seeks to ensure its continuing ability to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material" in Iran.
The Iranian regime's blanket censorship of satellite and Internet communications last week was so effective, it led many to wonder, why didn't the U.S. government do more to stop it?
But despite strong statements from the podium in Foggy Bottom, the Obama White House appears to be treading carefully. Three sources tell The Cable that the National Security Council at first tried to prevent Jeff Trimble, executive director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the independent agency that oversees the U.S. government's media operations including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America, from allowing VOA to attach its name to a statement last week with Deutsche Welle and the British Broadcasting Corporation protesting Iranian signal jamming.
Two sources close to the issue say the NSC first didn't want the VOA to join the statement if it mentioned "jamming." Later in the email chain, the NSC modified its position to object to the use of the term "intensified jamming."
According to Trimble, "The BBG wasn't asked not to participate in the statement."
"NSC is ok with our confirming that jamming continues, they ask that we not say for now that it has intensified," one Feb. 11 email from Trimble to several BBG staffers read.
Dan Austin, the president of VOA, acknowledged that changes had been made to the statement, but declined to discuss the NSC's role. He said that the U.S. government should not be interfering with the BBG's editorial content, but acknowledged that on the communications and policy side, the lines were less clear.
"If it doesn't violate the letter of the firewall, common sense dictates it violates the spirit," a BBG official told The Cable on background basis.
VOA did finally join the statement, and Trimble declined to confirm or deny that the White House pressured him. His spokeswoman sent The Cable a list of actions BBG has taken to combat Iranian censorship and referred to two previous BBG statements on the issue.
Meanwhile, the State Department says it is working furiously to increase its capabilities to confront the kind of censorship promulgated by Iran last week, bringing major Silicon Valley companies and top tech executives into the fold, and rushing to develop technologies that can overcome even the most draconian measures.
"We have gone from zero to 100 on this issue in the last 30 days, after inheriting an incredibly empty policy from the last administration," a State Department official told The Cable. "Does that mean that as of right now we are as far along as we intend to be in the not-distant future? Absolutely not."
The White House and NSC did not respond to queries by the time of publication.
As the United States shifts from engagement to sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Iranian opposition takes to the streets, a broad and diverse team of officials inside the Obama administration is working on the issue day in and day out.
It's easy to see the role of the principals: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers the lead message, signaling overall policy positions. Defense Secretary Robert Gates holds the line that there are no good military solutions, while reiterating that all options are on the table. National Security Advisor Jim Jones is in charge of overall policy coordination.
But The Cable would like to introduce you to the U.S. government officials who are working on Iran one or two levels down. "The complexity of the problem makes it by necessity a team effort," explained Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There is not one person who is the Iran czar; there are different people who handle different parts of the equation."
Here are some -- but by no means all -- of the most important players:
Bill Burns, under secretary of state for political affairs
Burns is the administration lead on the multilateral process to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions. His primary, but not exclusive role is to lead the U.S. in the P5+1 talks (the permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany). A skilled diplomat, he was previously ambassador to Russia, and assistant secretary for Near East affairs before that. Insiders describe Burns as quietly effective, a reasoned and thoughtful voice. Steve Mull is the key Iran guy in Burns' shop.
Dennis Ross, special assistant to the president and senior director for the central region
Ross's general role at the NSC is as a strategic thinker and coordinator rather than a person with line responsibilities. He works with Puneet Talwar, the NSC senior director responsible for Iran, Iraq, and the Gulf, and they do things in coordination and in parallel on Iran. Ross is consistently a voice but never the only voice when it comes to the Iran discussion.
Bob Einhorn, State Department advisor for nonproliferation and arms control
Einhorn is a technical guy and a seasoned nuclear negotiator who got much of the credit for the now-troubled Geneva deal over transferring Iran's low-enriched uranium to France. Some had expected Einhorn to be named under secretary for arms control, but that job was given to former California Rep. Ellen Tauscher. Their division of labor isn't entirely clear, but Einhorn's influence is important nonetheless.
Stuart Levey, under secretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence
Levey's operation has been very successful in targeting banks and the income of key regime officials under existing sanctions. He's an important carryover from the Bush years, bringing demonstrated expertise and skill in leading Treasury's efforts to trace shadowy financial transactions and unravel opaque business connections. Iran is not his sole preoccupation, but he plays a large and growing role, not least due to his ability to act without international or congressional approval.
Dan Poneman, deputy secretary of energy
When the U.S. held talks with Iran over providing fuel to the Tehran Research Reactor in October, Poneman was the lead U.S. negotiator. A nuclear power expert, a key nonproliferation figure in the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, and a former principal in the Scowcroft group, he's widely respected and relied upon for things like how to organize fuel supply or establish proper safeguards. Insiders say he's a problem-solver, not an ideologue.
Gary Samore, special assistant to the president and White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, proliferation, and terrorism
As the WMD czar at the NSC, Samore works with Einhorn and Ponemen on technical matters but is also part of the team coordinating overall policy. Although his portfolio spans the world of proliferation threats, in practice he is very focused on Iran. Observers see him as skeptical of nuclear deals with Tehran. Rexon Ryu, an ex-staffer for retired Sen. Chuck Hagel and a former Foreign Service officer, works for Samore and has been active on Iran at the staff level.
John Limbert, deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran
Limbert is a unique and fascinating player on the administration's Iran team. The most senior Farsi speaker in the U.S. government, he's married to an Iranian woman, served the Peace Corps in Iran, and was an involuntary guest of the Iranian government for 444 days three decades ago. If there's anyone in the administration with a keen sense for the rhythms and nuance of Iranian politics, it's him. The team relies on Limbert, who recently published a book called Negotiating with Iran, when crafting messages to Iran and thinking through how the country's complex internal politics factor in.
Tom Donilon, deputy national security advisor
Donilon, as Jones's top deputy, is charged with managing aspects of the interagency coordination process but also how the policy affects broader issues. How, for instance, do administration moves on Iran affect America's overall diplomatic standing, the White House's relations on the Hill, and in the media?
Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs
Feltman is charged with managing U.S. relationships with other regional actors as they relate to the Iran nuclear issue. Many Arab regimes are deeply worried at the direction Iran's nuclear program is heading, and Feltman's role here is to make sure the U.S. government and its embassies are communicating and coordinating with them as the ball continues to bounce.
The annual Munich conference held last week was notable for the range of issues discussed, although actual progress on bridging gaps in understanding over contentious disputes was less than overwhelming. In one example, discussion of Iran's nuclear program spilled over to an impromptu "night owl" session that lasted past midnight and included some telling exchanges.
According to one attendee, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki got into it with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. "[Mottaki] filibustered Carl Bildt's attempts to prod him on the nuclear issue and in response to questions, he called protestors ‘criminals' that deserved their fate," the attendee reported.
It was hard to identify anyone defending Mottaki's position, unlike in previous years' conferences, the attendee said, adding that Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass received praise for his recent article arguing for regime change in Iran.
During the daytime session earlier on Iran, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle spoke out strongly against the mass arrests and death sentences handed down on Iranian protesters, the attendee said. National Security Advisor Jim Jones, the leader of the U.S. delegation, voiced one sentence of support for human rights after Westerwelle spoke.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke about Iran during the daytime sessions, but didn't reveal anything new about Russian thinking on the subject. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi called for other parties to be more flexible when dealing with Iran's nuclear program, the attendee said.
During the daytime sessions, Mottaki was positive about the potential for a deal with the P5+1 countries over transferring Iranian low-enriched uranium to a third country in exchange for nuclear fuel, as proposed by the IAEA.
"I personally believe we have created conducive ground for such an exchange in the not very distant future," Mottaki reportedly said, adding that it should be up to Tehran to set the amounts to be exchanged.
In another panel the next day, Lavrov sat with Jones, Westerwelle and the EU's new high representative for foreign affairs, Baroness Catherine Ashton. Lavrov's presentation was filled with controversial Russian stances on issues, such as the claim that Georgia attacked Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia in August 2008.When Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze tried to challenge Lavrov, the Russian diplomat simply waved his hand dismissively when asked if he wanted to respond. Jones said nothing.
Also, "Baroness Ashton did little to dispel the controversy over her selection," our attendee said. "Looking like a frumpy librarian ... leaving as soon as her speech was done, and taking no questions did little to demonstrate she has the substance or the stature to succeed."
As Susan Rice's shop in New York pursues multilateral sanctions against Iran at the U.N. and Congress moves its own sanctions regime on Capitol Hill, the Treasury Department is moving forward with targeted actions against a new set of Iranian companies.
Treasury announced Wednesday it is officially affiliating four more companies with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), bringing those companies under the umbrella of Iran sanctions already in place in existing law. The main target is IRGC General Rostam Qasemi, who is also the commander of Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters, the engineering arm of the IRGC that Treasury says helps the Guards generate income and fund their operations.
"Khatam al-Anbiya is owned or controlled by the IRGC and is involved in the construction of streets, highways, tunnels, water conveyance projects, agricultural restoration projects, and pipelines," the Treasury Department press release states.
Administration officials are pointing to the move as a sign they are zeroing in on the IRGC specifically.
"As the IRGC consolidates control over broad swaths of the Iranian economy, displacing ordinary Iranian businessmen in favor of a select group of insiders, it is hiding behind companies like Khatam al-Anbiya and its affiliates to maintain vital ties to the outside world," the release quoted the under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, Stuart Levey, as saying. "Today's action exposing Khatam al-Anbiya subsidiaries will help firms worldwide avoid business that ultimately benefits the IRGC and its dangerous activities."
Treasury also designated four organizations as being controlled by or connected to Khatam al-Anbiya: the Fater Engineering Institute, the Imensazen Consultant Engineers Institute, the Makin Institute, and the Rahab Institute.
Mohsen Sazegara knows a lot about Iran's Islamic Revolution. As a founder of the Revolutionary Guard in 1979 who later became disillusioned with the direction of Iran's politics, he is in a unique position to talk both about the current Iranian regime and the nation that is increasingly rising up to resist it. His personal website has become a core destination for the protest movement and he contributes to that movement from his suburban Washington home.
In an interview Monday with The Cable, the former revolutionary and political prisoner spoke about what he sees as the looming tipping point in the struggle between the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and an increasing part of the Iranian population. The upcoming protests this Thursday, Feb. 11, will bring that tipping point ever closer, according to Sazegara. Here's how he says the West should think about what's going on inside Iran and how that should inform U.S. thinking on the nuclear issue.
JR: What do you make of the news that Iran will increase its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent?
MS: I think that they are not able to get to 20 percent enriched uranium very easily... This is just something to show the world that they intend to go for higher enriched uranium. Inside Iran, President Ahmadinejad himself, he thinks that if he could have a deal that would be helpful for him inside Iran. But the other factions of power in Iran, including the leader and especially the Revolutionary Guard, they won't let him go there. It's a mess, anyway, and I think that nobody can sign any agreement in this situation with the P5+1, especially because of the situation inside Iran.
JR: How should the Obama administration react to what's going on inside Iran? What should he do?
MS: At the end of the day, the nation is fighting with the Revolutionary Guard for its human rights and freedom. The nuclear issue lies with the other conflicts between the international community and the Revolutionary Guard, like terrorism or the peace process in the region. The international conflict is with the Revolutionary Guard because these projects are controlled by the Revolutionary Guard. So I think that the best reaction is sanctions against the Revolutionary Guard and companies in Iran.... Sanctions against the Revolutionary Guard are something that can help, especially if they are connected to the democratic and human rights situation in Iran. At the same time they will help control the nuclear situation as well.
I hope that the Obama administration and other democratic countries will be more supportive of the struggle of the people of Iran for democracy and human rights. I can summarize it in four items. First, sanctions against the Revolutionary Guard. Second, technical support like satellite Internet for Iran and pressure on companies like Nokia which have sold devices to control SMS, cell phones, and Internet in Iran. Third, help asylum seekers. Some of the activists, journalists and freedom seekers are now out of Iran in Turkey, Iraq, or Dubai. We need to help to bring them to Western countries. The last one is, please everybody, help to prevent any military strike against Iran, especially from Israel, because it would be a gift for this regime. We believe that this regime will be overthrown by the people, and a military strike would be the only solution for this regime to save the government.
JR: Are there leaders of the protest movement that Western governments should engage with?
MS: The organization of the movement is a decentralized social, political network in Iran. Our slogan is "every soldier is a leader and every leader is a soldier," and that has worked so far... I think that the general support of the international community and the United States at this stage is enough. With this type of organization and the unity we have among all the opposition factions, now we are going ahead. There will be enough time after bringing down this government in a democratic Iran to talk to the politicians who will be in power.
JR: What are the goals and tactics of the protest movement?
MS: The goal of the movement is to bring down the government. To reach that goal there are four sub-goals, which are all based on peaceful resistance and nonviolence. First, delegitimization of the regime. Second, strength of the resistance and solidarity of the nation. Third, making rifts and cracks inside the regime. And fourth, paralyzing the regime. We have achieved several victories toward all four goals so far. On the other side, the regime has conducted a collection of brutalities, shooting people on the streets, imprisonment and rape of prisoners, beating the people on the streets, terrorist groups assassinating activists, and executions. They have tested all types of brutality that they thought would be useful to defeat the movement.
JR: What will happen on February 11 and after?
MS: On Feb. 11, the people of Iran will show they are not afraid of what the government has done in the last step, what we call the second wave of brutality of the regime. So after Feb. 11, the balance of power will be changed between the nation and the regime; the nation will be more powerful. After that, we think that we can go for the final action. I can't say when, where, or even how. What I can foresee is when you have a balance of power where the people are more powerful, any simple action, anything can happen, just by some accident the clock, the final action will start.
JR: What is the "final action"?
MS: In any movement like that, there is an action that the government can't return from. Many sources of its power will be overcome by the people.... We think the regime can rely only on 30,000 troops among the police, the Revolutionary Guard, and the Basij. They don't have any volunteers, they have lots of cracks now, and after Feb. 11 they will have less than that. They are melting gradually in front of the nation.
Some say that on Feb. 11, they may arrest Ahmadinejad in the square. I don't know, it may happen or it may not. The Revolutionary Guard is trying to bring 200,000 people from all around the country to Tehran to have a show. They are trying to overcome the voice of the nation... they want to send their own pictures of whatever they want to show. They want to shield the demonstration from the people and show they do have supporters. But this is a risk for them, to bring Ahmadinejad to the square.
People are now talking about going to have a gathering at the Evin prison. Maybe it will happen a few days later. But definitely on Feb. 11 there will be millions of people marching on the streets. It doesn't matter how hard they try to lie about the demonstrations. When people show they are not afraid of executions, then the balance of power is to the nation. So something will happen sooner or later after that.
The Senate passed Chris Dodd's Iran sanctions package Thursday evening, following the narrow avoidance of a last-minute crisis over amendments that was solved by ... wait for it ... the mediation of Joseph Lieberman.
That's right. "Joe Lieberman came down and saved the day," one senior Senate aide told The Cable. Here's how it all went down behind the scenes:
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was under a lot of pressure to pass the sanctions bill out of the Senate, especially after seven senators sent a bipartisan letter to Obama yesterday urging him to get moving on sanctions. The Dodd bill was extremely popular among senators and Reid has enough problems without being seen as weak on Iran.
Reid had promised to get it done before the break, but if he brought up the bill in February, the administration would complain that it was unhelpful in its drive to seek a new U.N. Security Council resolution on Iran sanctions, which they are expected to do as soon as France takes over the presidency of the council from China next week.
So tonight was the night, before senators leave town, and The Cable reported earlier today that negotiations were underway. As the deadline loomed, only one Senator was threatening to derail the plan to pass the bill easily: John McCain.
McCain’s proposed amendment would require the president to sanction Iranian officials who have committed human rights abuses or acts of violence against civilians engaging in peaceful political activity. Those listed would be subject to visa bans, freezes on their assets in the United States or within U.S. jurisdiction, and other restrictions on their financial activities.
"McCain's amendment would identify Iranian human rights abusers and make them feel some serious pain,” said another senior Senate staffer.
But Reid didn't want to open a Pandora's Box by allowing McCain's amendment and then having to allow amendments by others seeking to weigh in, like John Kerry and Patrick Leahy. He needed everyone on board to pass the bill by unanimous consent and avoid a protracted debate that would eat up precious floor time he doesn't have.
At the eleventh hour, in swooped Lieberman with a compromise. McCain would agree to withdraw his amendment if Reid agreed to add the substance of McCain's amendment into the conference report on the bill. Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell both promised to hold up their end of the bargain, and McCain withdrew his objection to proceeding.
"Lieberman deserves a lot of credit for getting this done," the aide said.
So now the bill goes to conference with the House, which passed Howard Berman's version weeks ago. Does this mean it's time to stock up on petrol and canned goods in Tehran? Not yet; the Democratic leadership will probably wait until the administration's U.N. effort has a chance to play out one way or the other.
And when the conference does happen, the administration will have a role in the crafting of the final version and is likely to continue to argue for things like an exemption for foreign countries that cooperate with American sanctions.
"The next battle will be to make sure the State Department doesn't water this thing down," one senior GOP aide said.
He added that this compromise marks a rare moment of bipartisan cooperation in the upper chamber, saying, "I think this was a good day for the Senate."
The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.