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."
A bipartisan group of senators is pushing President Obama to move forward with new sanctions against Iran, now that his "end of 2009" deadline for meaningful response from Tehran -- which the administration insists was not a deadline -- has long past.
Senior administration officials have said over and over that they are switching to the "pressure track" against the Iranian regime following an acknowledgment that the year-long "engagement track" effort has failed to produce measurable results. The Senate is getting ready to bring up Chris Dodd's Iran sanctions bill, not waiting for the administration to be ready, causing some friction within the Democratic power structure.
On Wednesday, seven senators wrote to Obama to say that they've had enough of waiting for the pressure-track activities to begin.
"Now that this deadline has passed, we believe that it is imperative to put into action your pledge of increased, meaningful pressure against the Iranian regime -- what Secretary Clinton called ‘crippling sanctions,'" the letter reads. "We believe it is important for the world to know that the United States means what it says, and that we in fact do what we say we are going to do."
Multiple sources tell The Cable that the White House has made the decision to pursue a sanctions resolution at the U.N. Security Council and is busily working on that with European allies. Of course, the Chinese, who hold the council's rotating presidency until the French take over next month, are not expected to go along. But at least if that effort fails, the thinking goes, the administration can claim it exhausted all diplomatic options before imposing unilateral sanctions.
The senators offered measured support for pursuing a new U.N. resolution, but doubted its success due to Chinese intransigence. "We fear that Beijing's pursuit of its narrow commercial self interest in Iran is jeopardizing the chances for a diplomatic solution," the senators wrote.
Accordingly, the senators want the White House to begin a parallel effort to use existing authorities under previously passed legislation to impose new sanctions. A revised National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program is expected soon, a potentially explosive document that could put new political pressure on the administration to act.
The letter was signed by Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-AZ, Joseph Lieberman, I-CT, John McCain, R-AZ, Evan Bayh, D-IN, Robert Casey, D-PA, Johnny Isakson, R-GA, Benjamin Cardin, D-MD, David Vitter, R-LA, and Charles Shumer, D-NY.
Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, D-NV, announced on the Senate floor today that he will bring up Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd's Iran sanctions bill up for a vote during the "current work period."
For those of you who don't follow the Senate calendar, that's a promise to move the bill before the Feb. 15th district work period begins, making the last possible introduction date Feb. 14, Valentine's Day. How sweet!
"At the end of last December, I made a commitment to bring S. 2799 -- the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2009 -- to the Senate floor early during this session of Congress," said Reid. "This critical legislation would impose new sanctions on Iran's refined petroleum sector and tighten existing U.S. sanctions. The act will create new pressure on the Iranian regime and help stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon."
Reid thanked Dodd, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-MA, and "other senators" for putting together an agreement to move the bill forward. More on that later...
Despite the rapidly evolving situation on the ground in Iran, the Senate is planning to move forward with its Iran sanctions legislation, multiple Hill sources tell The Cable.
The Obama administration has been tweaking its rhetoric about sanctions, shying away from the broad measures found in the umbrella bill led by Sen. Chris Dodd, D-CT, and a companion bill by Rep. Howard Berman, D-CA. Those bills both include measures that could affect large swaths of the Iranian population by restricting such things as refined petroleum exports to the country.
But with increasing disparity between the Iranian regime and the Iranian population, the administration's appetite for sanctions that have broad consequences for the Iranian economy seems to be waning. "If we can create a sanctions track that targets those who actually make the decisions, we think that is a smarter way to do sanctions," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Honolulu, "But all that is yet to be decided upon.''
In fact, the administration had been negotiating with key Senators, including Foreign Relations head John Kerry, D-MA, before Christmas, trying to work out issues such as how to exempt foreign countries that help the U.S. sanctions effort. Kerry, Dodd, and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, promised before their break to move the bill in January.
So what's the status? All systems go, according to Frederick Jones, spokesman for the Foreign Relations Committee.
"The Senator and Majority Leader Reid made their intentions plain in their Christmas Eve statement and they've committed to follow through with the plans they announced," he told The Cable.
Other Hill aides said that negotiations between the Senators and the administration seem to have tapered off and the bill will probably come to the Senate floor largely in its current state. That's not to say that an eleventh-hour amendment won't come to address some White House concerns.
But the appetite for movement on sanctions is hungrier on Capitol Hill than in Foggy Bottom and there is a lot of pressure on Reid and Kerry to move the bill, which has over 75 co-sponsors, in short order, no matter how fast or furious the administration decides to be with their "pressure track" for Iran.
"We are on track. At least in the Congress there remains very strong commitment," said one Senate aide involved in the discussions, "This train is going to leave the station very, very soon."
Reid could try to pass the bill by unanimous consent to prevent the issue from eating up precious floor time, but that has failed once before so a public debate could be in the offing.
Despite their differences, the passage of the Senate bill doesn't necessarily conflict with the White House's plans for Iran sanctions because the administration has enough wiggle room to use whichever part of the bill they see as important. In fact, some argue having wider sanctions authorized might make the more targeted sanctions more effective.
"There's nothing incompatible with wielding targeted sanctions while still having the option of broader actions as authorized by Congress," the aide said, "For better or worse, the administration is not going to sanction anyone they don't want to sanction."
And although there is wide bipartisan support for moving an Iran bill in the Senate, there is an underlying current of pressure on the Democratic leadership to come through with their commitment to move the bill or face harsh public criticism from the Republican side.
If Reid and Kerry try to stall the bill or water it down significantly, "We're only too happy to have a floor fight about that," said one senior GOP Senate aide.
An 11-person delegation from the European Union will not visit Iran this week as planned, due to the tension and uncertainty surrounding the continued violence there.
The news was announced by Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast as a decision "by mutual agreement," but several of the delegation members had already announced their intention to abandon the planned trip, in which European parliamentarians were set to meet with Iranian lawmakers and human rights representatives.
"At the time blood is flowing on the streets of Iran we cannot remain indifferent but it rather upsets and worries us. For this reason we decided to send a signal to the international community, as a protest we will not join a visit already planned by the ‘Delegation for Relations with Iran' on 7 January to Tehran. Before thinking about such openings and any kind of dialogue, the priority is to stop the violence," said Italian lawmakers Scurria Marco, Salvatore Tatarella, and Potito Salatta in a Dec. 28 press release.
The decision is being seen among many as a sign that even the left of the European Iran-watching community is now coming to the realization that engagement of the Iranian regime is not palatable now and the move to the pressure track is the most appropriate way forward.
"We believe that the Iranian government does not deserve any form of opening, but only a strong condemnation, the same expressed by the United States and several European countries," the Italian lawmakers wrote. "Dialogue is impossible as long as the opposition is soaked in blood and the civil rights have been reduced to waste paper."
Also on Dec. 28, the European parliament group "Friends of a Free Iran" put out a press release condemning the violence and noting that the protestors no longer chant against the West, but rather against Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who they said should no longer be engaged.
"The uprising in Iran shows that the clerical regime is on its way out. Negotiations and trade with, and appeasement of the medieval regime are futile and will only embolden the mullahs in their suppression and killing of the Iranian people," the group, which as of 2006 consisted of MEPs Alejo Vidal Quadras, Paulo Casaca, Andre Brie, and Struan Stevenson, wrote.
More than a dozen U.S. lawmakers had written a letter to protest the EU trip to Iran. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-MA, had also been rumored to be trying to go to Iran. Kerry has denied he is going, but the Iranian government has said it received a request from him and now has apparently rejected it.
Earlier this month, The Cable broke the news that Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-MA, had pitched the idea of going to Tehran, in what would be the highest-level U.S. public visit in decades.
The Wall Street Journal followed last week, confirming that Kerry suggested the idea and reporting that the White House was not opposed to it. Kerry subsequently denied to The Cable that he had plans to go but didn't deny that he had floated the idea.
Today, several Iranian news outlets are reporting that Kerry has officially submitted a request to visit Tehran. Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani and Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehman-Parast are among the Iranian officials who have reportedly confirmed that.
Mehman-Parast said that the request had been referred to Iran's Parliament, which was "exploring" the idea.
Spokespeople for Kerry didn't respond to requests for comment on the matter.
Top Senate leaders promised Thursday to bring Chris Dodd's Iran sanctions legislation to the Senate floor soon after returning to town next month.
"I want everyone to know that I am committed to getting this legislation to the floor sometime after we return in January," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, said on the Senate floor just after Thursday's early morning vote on healthcare reform legislation, "It would impose new sanctions on Iran's refined petroleum sector and tighten existing US sanctions in an effort to create new pressure on the Iranian regime and help stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon."
The significance of Reid's comments is that he is committing to moving the bill regardless of whether or not he can get unanimous consent from all 100 Senators, as was attempted unsuccessfully this month. It places pressure on negotiators working on the bill by telling everyone that time is of the essence.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-MA, was playing a leading role in negotiations between Congress and the administration over the State Department's concerns about the bill, as communicated in this letter from Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg. The key issue was how to exempt from the sanctions countries that cooperate with U.S. efforts to punish Iran.
"I know these discussions will be continuing during recess with the intention of reaching a mutually agreeable resolution so that this legislation can be considered as soon as possible when we get back," Kerry said.
In a Thursday morning interview with The Cable, Kerry said that an agreement with the administration was all but complete, but multiple Hill sources said that there were still key items left to be worked out.
The bill could come to the floor any time from January 19, when the Senate is scheduled to get back to business.
"This is a matter of great urgency," said Josh Block, spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, "Iran's possession of a nuclear weapons capability would be a devastating blow to America's national security interests. The US and our allies must do everything we can to prevent Iran from acquiring that capacity, and AIPAC strongly applauds the Senate's firm commitment to passing this critical sanctions bill upon their return to Washington."
Meanwhile, Kerry said he is not, after all, traveling to Iran... at least for the time being. The Cable reported last week he had pitched the idea to the White House and the Wall Street Journal followed with a similar story this morning.
"I may go sometime in the future, but I have no plans as of now," Kerry told The Cable, neither confirming or denying that he had proposed being the first senior official to publicly visit Tehran since the revolution.
"There have been a lot of discussions about Iran that I've been involved with," he said, "We talked about various ways to engage Iran and a lot of proposals have been on the table."
As mourners clashed with police on the streets of Iran, Congress passed a resolution condemning the government for its suppression of basic freedoms and its long track record of human rights abuses.
The sense of the Senate resolution passed by unanimous consent late Tuesday. It's chief sponsors included Sens. Ted Kaufman, D-DE, Joseph Lieberman, I-CT, John McCain, R-AZ, and Carl Levin, D-MI. The text runs down a litany of abuses perpetrated by the Iranian regime since the June 12 elections.
The resolution also quotes President Obama, who on Dec. 10 while accepting the Nobel Prize, made some relevant comments:
‘‘We will bear witness to the quiet dignity of reformers... to the hundreds of thousands who have marched silently through the streets of Iran. It is telling that the leaders of these governments fear the aspirations of their own people more than the power of any other nation. And it is the responsibility of all free people and free nations to make clear to these movements that hope and history are on their side.''
Read the whole resolution here:
"There is something happening inside Iranian society. It's hard to predict how it will unfold," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tuesday, "The angst that we continue to see within Iranian society is of great concern to us, and we think that ultimately, the Government of Iran has to change its relationship with its own people."
As the Senate negotiates with the Obama administration over Iran sanctions, conflict over a French arms sale to Russia could get caught up in the mix.
The friction between top GOP leaders in Congress and the French government is over the Mistral-class amphibious assault ship, which the French are considering selling to the Russian Federation. As the biggest potential arms sale from a NATO country to Russia, U.S. lawmakers are worried this could set off a chain reaction of NATO arms sales to Russia. Plus, they share the concerns of Georgia and the Baltic states that the ship could allow Russia to increase its aggressiveness in its near abroad.
So what does this have to do with Iran sanctions? Well, The Cable brought you exclusively the story of how the State Department wants changes in the Chris Dodd Iran sanctions bill that's currently pending in the Senate. Basically, the Obama administration wants exemptions for countries that cooperate with American sanctions against Iran. France presumably would be at the top of the list.
But a senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable that Republicans negotiating over the Iran sanctions language would not allow an exemption for France or French companies if the Mistral deal goes through.
"Whether or not France gets an exemption could very well depend on whether France decides to sell this ship to Russia," the aide said, explaining that "it's possible to draw that exemption narrow enough so that the president could not possibly exempt France."
One obvious target is the French oil and gas giant Total, which could be caught up in the Dodd bill's restrictions on exporting refined petroleum products to Iran. Total is reportedly in negotiations right now with the Chinese regarding a joint project in Iran's South Pars region.
The petroleum restrictions are also at the core of a companion bill which passed overwhelmingly in the House last week.
Recently, American lawmakers have increased their interest and activity in the Mistral story.
Six GOP senators wrote to French Ambassador Pierre Vimont Monday to express their concerns about the potential sale. House Foreign Affairs ranking Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL, introduced a bill last week calling on the French to stand down from the deal.
In a letter dated Monday, obtained by The Cable, Vimont responded to the Senators, telling them basically that France would make its own decisions about selling the ship to the Russians, and thanking them for their interest.
"France has no reason to refuse considering a Russian request, which is being examined, and will be concluded, with all the necessary precautions as part of the French military equipment export control regulatory procedures," Vimont wrote.
Vimont also repeated various French defenses of the sale, as told to The Cable by French embassy spokesmen, which include that the ship has been used for humanitarian missions, has no really advanced technological elements, and would not present a credible threat to the NATO alliance.
But multiple Senate aides reached by The Cable felt unsatisfied with that response and pledged to fight on.
"If France decides to go ahead and do this, which the letter all but says they will, our options are limited but it will have consequences for the NATO alliance," one senate aide warned.
The Cable is picking up some chatter today around town that Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry is offering to travel to Tehran to try to broker a last-ditch agreement with the Iranian regime regarding its nuclear program.
It's an interesting idea considering Kerry's role in representing the administration after the recent Afghan presidential election. But Iran isn't Afghanistan and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is no Hamid Karzai.
And after all, he does seem to be the administration's point man on negotiations over new Iran sanctions.
One Middle East insider told The Cable that Kerry pitched the idea to the White House and the White House was thinking it over.
National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer couldn't confirm or deny the story and Senate Foreign Relations staff declined to comment.
Kerry is in Copenhagen today. Let's see what happens...
OLIVIER MORIN/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus said last week that the United Arab Emirates, a key U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf, has the capability to overpower Iran's Air Force.
"The Emirati Air Force itself could take out the entire Iranian Air Force, I believe, given that it's got ... somewhere around 70 Block 60 F-16 fighters, which are better than the U.S. F-16 fighters," Petraeus said during remarks at a recent conference put on in Bahrain by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
In a related development, the new nuclear agreement between the U.S. and the UAE entered into force today, with the signing ceremony presided over by Under Secretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher and UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba.
"In today's world, we must find ways to meet the demand for clean energy and to recognize the right that all nations have to pursue the peaceful use of nuclear power. But we need to achieve this balance without increasing the risk of the proliferation of nuclear weapons and material," Tauscher said.
She praised the UAE for agreeing to import nuclear fuel, rather than producing it through reprocessing or enrichment. Tauscher also praised the UAE as a partner in the drive to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
The agreement, often referred to as the 123 agreement, provides for transfers of nuclear technology and knowhow to the UAE in exchange for its commitment to nonproliferation standards. (Meanwhile there are still concerns that members of the ruling family of Ras Al Khaimah in the UAE are actually facilitating illicit weapons transfers to Iran.)
President Obama sent the agreement to Congress in May. It was negotiated and signed by the previous administration.
With the House having passed the Howard Berman's Iran sanctions bill Tuesday, the action now turns to the Senate, where negotiations over Chris Dodd's companion legislation are ongoing.
Those discussions are based on a letter from Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg to Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-MA. In the letter, State asked Kerry to delay the Senate bill until next year so that the administration would have more time to prep for the "pressure track" and also to secure some changes to the legislation.
But key lawmakers are already getting ready to resist. Senators to watch in this debate are Democrat Evan Bayh, D-IN, Republican Sens. Jon Kyl, R-AZ, and Richard Shelby, R-AL, and Independent Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman.
A senior GOP senate aide told The Cable that up until now, the debate has been between Kerry's office and Steinberg's office, but there's a push by others to make the administration do more to justify the changes it wants regarding one prominent issue.
The bill as it stands gives the president the right to waive sanctions against third-party countries that are cooperating with U.S. efforts to confront Iran's nuclear program. The administration wants those countries to be exempted from the start and then have sanctions applied only when necessary.
"The administration has not made a compelling argument as to why the waiver isn't sufficient for them to avoid doing diplomatic harm to allies, in the case where companies within their jurisdictions are doing things that may become sanctionable," the aide said. "That's what the waiver is there for."
Another senior Senate aide said that the offices of Bayh, Lieberman, and Kyl were all on the same page in terms of strategy, and predicted the negotiations with the administration would eventually produce a bill that could garner widespread support and be passed early next year.
Of course, Dodd's bill has 80 cosponsors, meaning it could pass at any time if Reid would just bring it to the floor. Some aides think Kerry has a hold on the bill, which his staffers deny. Others believe Reid is simply not moving it out of deference to the administration or as a favor to Kerry.
Regardless, no movement is expected until Kerry or some other Democrat readies an amendment that would address the administration's concerns. Then, the amended bill would be sent to conference to be reconciled with the House bill, which still contains the waiver language the administration dislikes.
A duly revised Senate bill seems likely to win the day in conference, not least because Berman signaled his willingness to compromise on the waiver issue Tuesday.
In a press conference just after the bill passed, Berman spelled out the terms under which he would agree to alter the waiver provisions when his legislation meets the Senate's version for negotiations.
"I'm quite open in the context of a conference committee to try to create incentives by which countries that have their own robust sanctions and are complying with a tough international regime of sanctions could be exempted from this legislation as cooperating countries," he said.
He also acknowledged that although his committee had been talking to the administration, the Obama team never gave him detailed instructions on how to proceed, as Steinberg did with Kerry.
"The administration didn't say go ahead, but they also didn't tell me not to go ahead," Berman said.
His bill passed 412-12 with 4 voting "present."
The House is set to pass Rep. Howard Berman's Iran sanctions bill today, only the latest in a long string of moves that will help set the administration up for a switch to the "pressure track" next year.
But the real action over Iran sanctions behind the scenes is focused on Sen. Chris Dodd's package of Iran sanctions bills, which is currently the subject of negotiations between the administration and key senators. The administration's concerns over the Dodd bill were outlined in this letter, first reported by The Cable, which asked for a delay in passing the Senate bill until next year.
Interestingly, the administration didn't send Berman any letter and didn't even bother to copy him on the Senate letter, which was specifically requested and then addressed to Berman's Senate counterpart, John Kerry.
The feeling in Congress, multiple sources told The Cable, is that all parties concerned see today's House action as only the latest in a long series of negotiations about how Iran sanctions might materialize. Also, as is often the case, the Berman bill is likely to undergo significant changes after passage, particularly when it goes to conference and has to be reconciled with whatever the Senate and the administration negotiate.
"Everybody is excited, but hold your horses," said one Hill source. "This has to be thoroughly vetted before it goes to Obama's desk."
That will be a tough fight for House conferees, considering that they will be negotiating against both the Senate and the White House with the implicit and omnipresent message about the Senate bill being, "This is what we can get passed and signed."
Moreover, there's a recognition inside the system that the House version of the bill, as stands, has some provisions that are seen as problematic. For example, the Berman bill would mandate some sanctions that are optional under current law, which the administration fears would raise trade and WTO compliance issues.
Specifically, regarding third countries' complicity in complying with the sanctions, the Berman bill would expand their obligation from having to act on "actual knowledge" of violations, to penalizing countries that have "constructive knowledge" of violations -- in other words, holding them to account for things they should know or should have known.
There are other players on the field as well. Insurance companies and other firms that could be affected are sure to lobby for safe harbor within the sanctions regime through their American subsidiaries.
There is also a dispute over strategy within the Senate negotiators among those pushing for sanctions. Some Senate offices, such as that of Joseph Lieberman, are said to be amenable to pushing back the Senate bill until next year, seeing that as the most pragmatic way to get the legislation signed.
Other offices, such as that of Jon Kyl, are said to be pushing a harder line, wanting to make more political hay out of the issue now by resisting administration calls for a delay.
Either way, when the Berman bill passes later today, while many will be cheering it as a victory, the insiders know that the game has just begun.
Next week is going to be a big week for Iran sanctions, particularly on Capitol Hill. As administration officials change their tone and talk more about a "pressure track" in public, behind the scenes negotiations about how to proceed are heating up.
In a previously unreported development, the State Department sent a letter to Congress Friday, obtained by The Cable, asking lawmakers to hold off moving on Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd's Iran sanctions bill until the new year.
"We are entering a critical period of intense diplomacy to impose significant international pressure on Iran. This requires that we keep the focus on Iran," Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg wrote to Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-MA, "At this juncture, I am concerned that this legislation, in its current form, might weaken rather than strengthen international unity and support for our efforts."
"In addition to the timing, we have serious substantive concerns, including the lack of flexibility, inefficient monetary thresholds and penalty levels, and blacklisting that could cause unintended foreign policy consequences," the letter reads.
The bill had been "hotlined" on Tuesday but then Senate leaders were waiting for the administration to weigh in with its concerns.
According to one Hill source, the Dodd bill isn't stalled, really. It's more that the bill is now the subject of negotiations between the administration and key senators over the language of the sanctions. One issue, the source said, is whether the bill's sanctions on third-party countries who are involved in selling refined petroleum products to Iran could be exempted if they are part of efforts to combat Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Under the current language, the president could waive sanctions on particular countries if he chooses, but the administration would prefer that the exemption be given to cooperating countries up front, according to the source.
There is a strong sense that it is in the interest of all parties involved to work out a deal, and that the bill is therefore likely to pass sometime early in early 2010, the source said. Key players in the negotiations are said to be Kerry, Dodd, Evan Bayh, D-IN, Joseph Lieberman, I-CT, and Jon Kyl, R-AZ.
Meanwhile, the House is expected to vote on House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman's Iran sanctions bill next week, a House leadership aide said. That bill is also focused on refined petroleum sales to Iran. It's expected to pass by a wide margin.
As the clock winds down on President Obama's year-end deadline for Iran to respond to his efforts at engagement, Congress is preparing to pass language restricting U.S. loans that aid the Islamic Republic's oil industry.
The policy language is part of the fiscal 2010 state and foreign operations appropriations bill, which is moving on the Hill as part of a mammoth catch-all spending bill that's expected to move through both chambers this month. The bill would prevent the Export-Import Bank of the United States "from providing credit, insurance, or guarantees to any project controlled by any energy producers or refiners that contribute significantly to Iran's refined petroleum resources," according to a summary document.
It's been more than a month since the new fiscal year started and several federal agencies are operating under a stop-gap funding measure called a "continuing resolution" that keeps the government humming but doesn't allow for new funding initiatives to begin. That expires on Dec. 18, giving a semi-firm deadline for Congress to pass the real funding bills.
Democrats had promised not to resort to using such sloppy means of doling out appropriations, as was the usual practice in the Bush administration. But they got hampered by other priorities and the GOP stalled the process further by making issues out of things like funding for prisoners being transferred from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Overall, the state and foreign ops funding would be $48.8 billion of discretionary budget authority for fiscal year 2010, $3.3 billion below the president's request. That's also about $1.2 billion less than what was given in fiscal 2009 including supplemental bills. A fiscal 2010 supplemental is widely expected.
Sources tell The Cable that for fiscal 2011 the administration request will be about 11 percent above that level, or at least that's the number decided on by the White House Office of Management and Budget, subject to further ongoing negotiations. OMB declined to comment.
Here are some of the other highlights in the bill:
President Obama today nominated of Philip Coyle, a leading critic of Bush administration missile defense schemes, to be a top White House scientific advisor.
Coyle, who was the head weapons tester at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration, was nominated to become the Associate Director for National Security and International Affairs at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. There he will lead a team tasked with giving scientific advice to Obama on a range of national security issues and will report to Director John Holdren.
Since his last tour at the Pentagon, Coyle has been a leading analyst on weapons systems for the Center for Defense Information, a component of the World Security Institute, a defense-minded think thank. From that perch, he's been actively involved in several of the national security debates involving advanced technology and a staunch watchdog on the missile defense system the Bush administration rushed to deploy throughout its tenure.
Coyle has often pointed out that the testing done by the Pentagon on ballistic missile defense components since 2001 has been either shoddy or thin. Moreover, he has repeatedly questioned the basic rationale for investing billions to deploy ballistic missile defense around the world, especially in Eastern Europe.
"In my view, Iran is not so suicidal as to attack Europe or the United States with missiles," he testified before the House Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee in February, "But if you believe that Iran is bound and determined to attack Europe or America, no matter what, then I think you also have to assume that Iran would do whatever it takes to overwhelm our missile defenses, including using decoys to fool the defenses, launching stealthy warheads, and launching many missiles, not just one or two."
Coyle has often argued that the Bush administration rushed to deploy missile defense systems around the world to build momentum and keep money flowing into the program. He has repeatedly said that the Missile Defense Agency has been amassing hardware that is either not aligned with the threat or can't be relied on in case of an actual emergency.
Over $120 billion has been spent on ballistic missile defense since its inception during the Reagan administration.
Coyle's views line up with Ellen Tauscher, who was then the subcommittee chairwoman but who is now Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, which oversees missile defense diplomacy.
Tauscher was part of the decision making process that led to huge changes in the Bush administration plans for missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic. The Obama plan now calls for more short and medium range systems, most of them mobile. These are changes Coyle has also supported.
Coyle must now be confirmed by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The vetting and confirmation process could take months.
Now that the House has passed Barney Frank's Iran divestment bill, the attention turns to the Senate, where Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback is working to advance his companion measure.
Both pieces of legislation have basically the same idea, to allow both public and private entities to more easily rid themselves of investments in the Iranian economy. The measure is being sold as a way to tweak Iran without actually imposing new sanctions.
After the House passed its version by a 414-6 vote, Brownback said he would try to add his bill as an amendment to the Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill, which is on the Senate floor this week.
"I think we've got a pretty good shot at getting it moved. I haven't heard of any opposition to it," Brownback told The Cable.
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, D-CT, has another Iran sanctions bill that would crack down on refined petroleum exports to Iran and seek to freeze Iranian financial assets.
"You're going to see the banking committee come up with a bundle of steps and there's going to be broad bipartisan support for that as well," Brownback said.
The administration wants Dodd to wait until its ongoing engagement push with Iran plays out. But Dodd is set on moving forward in his committee this month.
As the United States gets closer to finalizing a nuclear-cooperation deal with the United Arab Emirates, one man is emerging as the poster child for critics who fear that the UAE could just become a better conduit for smuggling sensitive technology to Iran if the agreement goes through.
Saud al-Qasimi is the crown prince in control of the UAE port of Ras al-Khaimah, the site of the upcoming America's Cup race. Increasingly, it has also become the preferred distribution point for Iranian smugglers wishing to avoid the more closely watched ports in Dubai, George Webb, the head of the Canada Border Services Agency's Counter Proliferation Section, told Canada's National Post:
While nominally in the U.A.E., the port is controlled by Iran and is situated just across the Gulf from Bandar Abbas, an Iranian city with a naval base and an airport capable of landing large transport planes.
"Ras al-Khaimah is actually leased by the Iranian government, staffed by Iranian customs," Mr. Webb said, as he examined a classified satellite photo of the port.
"We found out about it about six months ago and this is just a little hop, skip and a jump over to a significant airstrip. So if they boat it over, it goes in the plane, it's in Tehran real quick."
He said his officers had been finding materials in Canada that were destined for Ras al-Khaimah but customs inspectors are now on the lookout. "All of our people in those ports are aware, so as soon as they see it, it's hauled aside for examination and follow up."
The region's former ruler, Khalid al-Qasimi, wrote in a letter sent to U.S. lawmakers last week that "The supportive posture [RAK] takes toward the Islamic Republic of Iran is undermining the policies of the United States."
And as if his reputation wasn't bad enough, it was revealed yesterday that Saud al-Qasimi was arrested for sexually assaulting a housekeeper in his hotel near the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota in 2005. The Smoking Gun reports:
While Sheikh Saud has lauded his emirate's selection at the site for the February 2010 America's Cup as a "great moment for us," critics have raised safety concerns due to Ras al-Khaimah's proximity to Iran and the activities of al-Qaeda terrorists in the region. The American team participating in the race is backed by software billionaire Larry Ellison, co-founder and chief executive of Oracle Corporation, who has launched a court challenge seeking to have the yacht race moved to Spain."
Lawmakers are already attacking the credibility of upcoming inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities, preparing their push for greater sanctions if and when the inspections fail to find a smoking gun.
The core of the argument being made by GOP senators is that the Iranians bargained for a lag time longer than the United States wanted before opening their newly discovered Qom nuclear facility to international inspectors, raising concerns that they will scrub the facility of incriminating material.
Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama pressed the issue with Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg at a meeting of the Senate Banking Committee Tuesday morning and Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker piled on.
"Is there any question in anybody's mind that during this period of time between now and October 25 that much of the facility that we are getting ready to inspect will be dismantled?" Corker asked.
Steinberg said that the United States had wanted inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency to take place within two weeks, but had to settle for the Oct. 25 inspection date, more than three and a half weeks after the Oct. 1 meeting between Iran and five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.
"It's our judgment that this is still a period of time that we can still get a good assessment of what's going on," Steinberg argued, while trying to say that the IAEA team needed some time to prepare for the inspections.
The Shelby-Corker-Steinberg exchange comes only one day after Andrew Semmel, the IAEA's Washington representative, said that there was a real danger that Iran would have too much time to scrub the Qom facility before the inspectors arrived.
"It gives three weeks for the Iranians to clean up anything they might want to hide," Semmel said, "They've been known to do this in the past, whitewashing and so forth."
Semmel also said the whole IAEA inspection exercise might be "perfunctory," because it's not clear that the Qom facility had been developed yet to the stage where really incriminating material would have been stored there.
What Iran watchers are really looking for are definitive signs at Qom that Russian scientists have contributed to the Iranian nuclear program, after reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a list of Russian nuclear scientists helping Iran during his secret meeting with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
Steinberg also indicated that the administration does not support, nor does it oppose, the bill put forth by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, Evan Bayh, and Jon Kyl, which would bar any refined petroleum products from being sold to Iran, saying that the administration wanted to preserve maximum flexibility.
That legislation has 75 Senate cosponsors.
ELIZABETH DALZIEL/AFP/Getty Images
(Correction: Netanyahu's title corrected to "prime minister.")
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.