U.S. President Barack Obama's campaign message at this week's Democratic National Convention will be that Mitt Romney's campaign has been avoiding foreign policy -- and when the former Massachusetts governor does talk about it, he puts forward a set of policies that is backwards-looking and frightening.
"We're living in an upside-down world, because for the first time in a generation the Democrats and President Obama hold a decisive advantage in the polls going into the election in terms of the confidence the American people have on foreign policy and national security issues," Colin Kahl, former Obama defense official and co-chair of the Obama campaign's national security advisory team, told The Cable in an interview.
The polls have consistently shown Obama with a double-digit advantage when it comes to foreign policy and national security, and that could be in part because the Republicans have avoided focusing on the issue, especially at their convention in Tampa, he said.
"In Tampa, Republicans were ignoring foreign policy," Kahl said, pointing out that only Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke about foreign policy much at all, while Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, barely mentioned it.
"We will honor America’s democratic ideals because a free world is a more peaceful world," Romney said in his acceptance speech in Tampa. "This is the bipartisan foreign policy legacy of Truman and Reagan. And under my presidency we will return to it once again."
Kahl pointed out that Romney didn't mention Afghanistan, the troops fighting overseas, or veterans during his speech.
"The most bizarre element of Mitt Romney's speech is here's a guy who is auditioning to be the commander in chief of the most powerful country on Earth and he forgets to mention the war in Afghanistan, where we have almost 80,000 men and women in harm's way," Kahl said. "He didn't even mention the war in Afghanistan much less let the American people know what he wants to do about it."
The Obama campaign will hammer that theme by making sure its officials and surrogates talk about the ongoing war in Afghanistan with a particular focus on veterans. There are a host of veterans' panel and training events, some being run by the DNCC's Veterans Advisory Group, the DNC Veterans and Military Families Council, and the Truman National Security Project, a center left advocacy organization.
In addition to holding training sessions for veterans and military families on messaging and getting out the military vote for Obama, groups like the Truman Project will hold public events such as a breakfast panel Sept. 5 with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, the other co-chair of the Obama campaign's national security advisory group, and Iraq veteran and congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth.
Obama and his team this week will also tout the president's record on fighting terrorism, his decision to green-light the mission that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and the fulfillment of his 2008 campaign promise to end the war in Iraq.
Kahl said that the Obama campaign will push back on Romney's claim that Obama doesn't believe in American exceptionalism. "Guess what: Democrats think American is exceptional and great too. We love our country as much as the Republicans do. So that's not a distinction between us," he said.
Kahl speculated that the Romney campaign has been reluctant to talk about several foreign-policy issues, such as the war in Afghanistan, because in many areas the former governor's policies aren't actually all that different from the president's.
"They like to describe our current policies but masquerade that description as criticism. Any criticism on Afghanistan obscures the fact that Mitt Romney basically endorses the president's way forward, as far as we can tell. On Israel and Iran, Romney talks tough but his policies would be identical to those of President Obama," he said.
Romney does have distinctly different policies from Obama on dealing with major powers like Russia and China, but those policies are risky and backward-looking, Kahl argued.
"In those few areas where there are differences, [Romney's] policies are downright scary, whether it's calling Russia our No. 1 geopolitical foe or threatening to start a trade war with China on day one of his administration," he said.
In his acceptance speech in Tampa, Romney touched on a few foreign policy issues, briefly.
"Every American is less secure today because he has failed to slow Iran's nuclear threat. In his first TV interview as president, he said we should talk to Iran. We're still talking, and Iran’s centrifuges are still spinning," Romney said. "President Obama has thrown allies like Israel under the bus..."
Kahl said those arguements are just rhetoric and that Romney doesn't have policies that would change the U.S. approach to Iran or Israel in any significant way.
"On Israel, by any objective measure Obama has been a better for Israel's security than any president in modern times," said Kahl. "On Iran, Mitt Romney's writings on this have been descriptions of the president's policies described as criticisms. The only difference you get is bluster and tough talk. Some of his surrogates like John Bolton want to go to war yesterday, but it's not clear that's where Mitt Romney is."
Republicans often accuse Obama of "spiking the football" after the killing of bin Laden, but Kahl said that Republicans have no right to claim the moral high ground on that issue.
"That's a little ironic from a party whose last president landed on an aircraft carrier and declared ‘Mission Accomplished' in Iraq," he said. "Brining justice to Osama bin Laden is something that all Americans should be proud of. This was an extraordinarily tough call."
Democratic groups will be speaking about a range of other national security and foreign policy issues this week in Charlotte as well. Flournoy and former assistant secretary of defense for public affairs Douglas Wilson will speak at an event on the defense budget hosted by Bloomberg Sept. 4. Nuclear non-proliferation will be discussed at a Sept. 5 event put on by the Council for a Livable World and featuring former ambassador Peter Galbraith. Former State Department official Tamara Wittes will speak at a Sept. 5 event on the role of women in the new Middle East.
On Thurs, Sept. 6, Truman will hold a series of discussions on foreign policy featuring Kahl, Wilson, Zvika Krieger, senior vice president at the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, Janine Davidson, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for plans, Steven Koltai, former senior advisor for entrepreneurship to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Paula Broadwell, author of All In, a biography of CIA director and retired general David Petraeus.
Also on Thursday, the National Democratic Institute will team up with the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition to put on an event featuring Albright, Flournoy, former U.S. Ambassador to India Tim Roemer, former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, and White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew.
All of those events lead into a
national security themed segment of the final program Sept. 6 at Bank of
America stadium, which will feature a speech by Senate Foreign Relations
Committee Chairman John Kerry
"The American people understand that President Obama has been a strong commander-in-chief, and we're looking forward to highlighting these important issues at the convention," an Obama campaign official said. "Senator Kerry will speak to how the President has restored America's leadership in the world, has taken the fight to our enemies, and has a plan to bring our troops home from Afghanistan just like he did from Iraq. He will contrast the President's strong leadership in this area with Mitt Romney, who has embraced the go-it-alone, reckless policies of the past that weakened America's place in the world and made us less secure here at home."
TAMPA - The time for diplomacy with Iran is quickly coming to an end and the United States should soon "start the clock ticking" as a warning that the United States is prepared and willing to use military force to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, according to Romney campaign co-chair Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Neither the Iranians nor the Israelis see as credible Barack Obama' statements that containment of a nuclear Iran is not an option and that the president would use force to prevent that from happening, Pawlenty told The Cable in an exclusive interview on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention. A Mitt Romney administration would employ various new tactics to increase U.S. leverage over the Iranians and bolster the credibility of the threat of military action, he said.
"Options would include concluding the negotiations are not working, that the Iranians aren't taking them seriously, bringing them to a temporary or permanent end, and start the clock ticking on other alternatives and letting the Iranians know that," Pawlenty said.
Pawlenty's comments come just as the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a new report stating that the Iranian regime has more than doubled the number of centrifuges at its Fordow facility and that Iran had engaged in clean-up activities at its Parchin military complex that would hamper the IAEA's ability to investigate.
Also, a prominent Iranian nuclear scientist named Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was previouslt believed to have been sidelined, is back at work on the Iranian nuclear program,The Wal Street Journal reported today.
The international community has limited visibility into Iran's actions, Pawlenty said. "We don't have the kind of sustained interaction with and relationship with Iran over the last 30 years. We are operating in an information-deprived environment in that regard," he said.
He also warned that Iran may have spread its nuclear research and production facilities into heavily populated civilian areas, which would make a military effort to eliminate Iran's nuclear capabilities much more expansive.
"A lot of the public discourse around how and whether and when there might be military action on Iran focuses on bunker-busting bombs and installations under mountains. That may not only be the only locations where they have those capabilities," said Pawlenty. "Imagine that it's not limited to mountains and rural areas. Imagine that they have created some redundant capabilities and placed them in tunnels under cities. If you want to identify and eliminate those capabilities, it takes on additional challenges."
Pawlenty said the Obama administration resisted imposing crippling sanctions over the last three years and that sanctions even now don't seem to be changing the Iranian regime's calculus.
"We don't know yet, but measured by the Iranians' posture and position, it's fair to say it hasn't yet worked," he said.
Pawlenty endorsed the idea floated by Romney advisor Elliott Abrams last week that now is the time for Congress to pass an authorization of the use of military force against Iran.
"As for me, I thought Elliott had a good idea. I don't know that it would be dispositive, but it couldn't hurt and it probably would help," he said.
In the end, even a military strike might not be effective in eliminating all of Iran's nuclear facilities, Pawlenty cautioned.
"I don't think anybody can say with certainty that if there were an attack on Iran it would have precisely predictable outcomes and consequences," he said. "I think you can increase the likelihood of favorable outcomes, but given the complexity of the situation I don't think you can give any guarantees."
Two top foreign-policy advisors to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney laid out policies for dealing with Iran this week and neither matches what the former Massachusetts governor has said on the issue.
Former senior National Security Council aide Elliott Abrams, who has been rumored as a potential top official in a future Romney administration, wrote on the Weekly Standard's website Aug. 21 that now is the time for Congress to authorize the use of military force against Iran as a means of preventing Israel from striking Iran's nuclear facilities.
"Why would Israel, with so much less power than the United States, decide to take on a task at the far outer edge of its military capacities? Why not leave that task to the superpower, which would do a much better job? The answer is simple: Israelis do not believe the United States will perform the task-will ever use military force, even as a last resort, to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons," Abrams wrote.
Abrams said that Israel does not trust President Barack Obama's repeated assurances, including at the AIPAC conference in March, that he will not allow Iran to get the bomb and that he is prepared to use military force. Abrams quotes Gen. Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence who said last week that many Israelis don't believe Obama.
"There is a certain feeling in Israel that perhaps the president's declaration at AIPAC is not sufficient, and that maybe much more binding and stronger steps need to be taken," Yadlin said.
Congress is unlikely to pass an authorization to use force in Iran before the election. There are only a handful of legislative days in September and before lawmakers left town for the August recess, the Senate wasn't even able to pass a highly touted bipartisan resolution stating the sense of the Senate that containment of a nuclear Iran is not acceptable.
On Wednesday, another senior Romney foreign-policy advisor, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, laid out a different policy prescription for Iran in the Washington Times. He agrees with Abrams that Obama's assurances about preventing a nuclear Iran are not credible, but suggests that Israel must be allowed to strike on its own if necessary.
"The hard reality, therefore, is that Israel must make its own military decision, preferably one based on physics, not politics. Israel most likely still has time if it wishes to act independently, but there is no guarantee how long," he wrote.
One line in particular caught the attention of Obama campaign national security advisory team spokeswoman Marie Harf: "Even if Mitt Romney wins, there is no guarantee U.S. policy could change quickly enough to stop Iran." She tweeted: "John Bolton, off msg?"
Bolton's line seems to contradict the line Romney used in primary debates, when he said, "If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. If you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon."
Asked about the discrepancy by The Cable, the Romney campaign referred back to the candidate's speech in Jerusalem, in which he affirmed his opposition to the idea of containing a nuclear Iran and stressed that the threat of a nuclear Iran is urgent and is a top national security priority.
"It is sometimes said that those who are the most committed to stopping the Iranian regime from securing nuclear weapons are reckless and provocative and inviting war. The opposite is true. We are the true peacemakers. History teaches with force and clarity that when the world's most despotic regimes secure the world's most destructive weapons, peace often gives way to oppression, to violence, or to devastating war," Romney said.
"We must not delude ourselves into thinking that containment is an option. We must lead the effort to prevent Iran from building and possessing nuclear weapons capability. We should employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course, and it is our fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will do so. In the final analysis, of course, no option should be excluded. We recognize Israel's right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with you."
The Obama campaign told The Cable that Romney hasn't put out a policy plan for Iran that is substantively different from what the current administration is doing now.
"Mitt Romney continues to engage in reckless rhetoric on Iran, while failing to outline any policy ideas to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon beyond what President Obama has already done - including implementing crippling sanctions, increasing diplomatic pressure, and putting a credible military option on the table," said campaign spokesman Adam Fetcher. "Gov. Romney owes it to the American people to say whether he thinks there's still time for diplomacy to work or if he thinks it's time to take military action against Iran - but he's been silent."
North Korean officials threatened to reconsider existing agreements with the United States in a recent meeting in Singapore, two sources familiar with the discussions told The Cable.
The North Korean warning comes as analysts speculate that Pyongyang may be preparing a fresh nuclear test, a development that could raise tensions in Asia and embarrass U.S. President Barack Obama in the middle of a closely fought re-election campaign.
Top U.S. experts held a "track two" meeting in the island nation in late July, during which the North Koreans hardened their negotiating position and rejected any return to the latest deal struck between the two sides, but nevertheless left the door open to further talks with the United States and the international community.
The meeting was the first of its kind since North Korea tried and failed to launch a rocket into space in April, which precipitated a U.S. withdrawal from the Feb. 29 bilateral agreement to give North Korea food aid in exchange for concessions on the country's nuclear and missile programs.
At the secret meetings in Singapore, the North Koreans told two U.S. experts they were no longer interested in resurrecting that arrangement and said they were reconsidering their previous agreements to eventually denuclearize as well.
On the North Korean side of the table were Han Song-ryol, North Korea's deputy ambassador to the United Nations and Choe Son Hui, the deputy director-general of the North American affairs bureau in the DPRK foreign ministry. On the American side were six experts led by Joel Wit, a former U.S. nuclear negotiator, and including Corey Hinderstein, vice president of the international program at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Some reports said that there was a also a July meeting in New York between Han and Clifford Hart, the U.S. special envoy to the defunct Six-Party Talks.
"The agenda [in Singapore] focused on a variety of issues. One important topic was the future of U.S.-North Korean relations," said one source familiar with the meeting. "The other topics were nuclear safety, nuclear security, cooperative ways of monitoring denuclearization, and the whole raft of issues people discuss at nuclear summits."
When the conversation was on the future of bilateral relations, the North Korean side made clear it was no longer interested in the Feb. 29 agreement, which included a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, a return of international inspectors, and 240,000 tons of food aid, both sources said.
The North Koreans now want the United States to make concessions up front.
"Their position has shifted. Whereas before, under the Leap Day deal, it was simultaneous actions, as with the September 2005 joint statement, simultaneous actions were one of the key aspects. There is now emphasis on unilateral action by the U.S. and then the North Koreans may respond," one source said.
The North Koreans told their American interlocutors they were thinking internally about whether or not to scuttle the September 2005 joint statement altogether. That statement committed North Korea to eventually getting rid of its nuclear weapons program.
An Aug. 9 article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists written by Frank Pabian and Sigfried Hecker speculated that North Korea may be only weeks away from completing the preparations necessary to conduct a third nuclear test using either a plutonium or highly-enriched uranium (HEU) device or both. At the Singapore meeting, the North Koreans didn't broach the topic.
"They didn't make any explicit statements about their nuclear program," one source said, "but I think it's very clear that their program is moving forward. That doesn't necessarily mean nuclear tests. It's quite likely their HEU program is also moving forward."
The source noted that as part of their formal presentation, the very first point the North Korean officials made was that their new leadership is not changing the late leader Kim Jong Il's line that North Korea has no eternal enemies or eternal friends.
"That's a very clear signal that they still want to make continuing efforts to improve relations with the U.S. and are indeed are interested in that. But they are toughening their position and that's in part because they are feeling pretty good about where they are," the source said.
The North Koreans believe they have weathered the Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience" -- waiting for Pyongyang to make the first move while strengthening ties with U.S. allies in Asia.
"The North Koreans feel pretty confident in their position. They are still keeping the door open to improving ties with the U.S. but the price is getting higher and it's becoming more difficult," the source said. "At some point somebody will be back to the table with them. They are getting ready for that with a much tougher negotiating position. They think they're sitting pretty."
Of course, North Korea still faces a food crisis, devastating floods, and an economic crisis. Pyongyang might seek to trade nuclear concessions in exchange for aid, as it has in the past. But as long as the country continues to get assistance from China, its motivation to make concessions is low.
"They probably can continue to progress economically while avoiding making concessions on the nuclear front with the support of China and that seems to be the option that they've chosen," the source observed.
Anita Friedt has been appointed principal deputy assistant secretary of state for the bureau of arms control, verification, and compliance (AVC), two administration officials confirmed to The Cable.
Friedt previously worked as a director the National Security Council under Gary Samore and George Look, where she was the point of contact for the negotiation and then the ratification of the New START Treaty. She left the White House last summer but was in limbo while the State Department worked on bringing her over to Foggy Bottom.
Friedt reports up to assistant secretary of state for AVC Rose Gottemoeller. But since Gottemoeller is the acting undersecretary of state for arms control and in charge of the entire "T" family, the daily running of the AVC bureau will probably fall to Friedt.
She replaces Marcie Reis, who left in May to take over as the U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria.
Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, the head of the Missile Defense Agency, mismanaged his office, harassed and bullied his senior staff, and overall failed in his leadership of the Pentagon's largest program, according to a previously undisclosed internal report obtained exclusively by The Cable.
O'Reilly "engaged in a leadership style that was inconsistent with standards expected of senior army leaders," in violation of Army regulations on ethics and leadership, according to a May investigation and report by the Defense Department's Inspector General's office that was never released to the public. The IG's office is recommending that Pentagon leadership take "corrective action," against O'Reilly.
The report found that O'Reilly regularly yelled and screamed at subordinates, often in public, demeaned and belittled employees, and behaved in such a way as to result in the departure of at least six senior staffers from MDA during his tenure.
"We determined that LTG O'Reilly's behavior and leadership were inconsistent with the [Joint Ethics Regulation's] emphasis on primary ethical values of fairness, caring, and respect for all DOD employees and with [Army Leadership regulations'] requirement to treat subordinates with dignity, respect, fairness, and consistency," the report stated.
The IG's office gave O'Reilly a chance to respond and in March, O'Reilly told the IG that he disagreed with its conclusions and denied several of the specific allegations in the report. But O'Reilly couldn't deny that senior staff have been fleeing his command. The IG's office said in the report that it stood by its findings.
"We recommend the Secretary of the Army consider appropriate corrective action with regard to LTG O'Reilly," the IG said.
The IG's office interviewed O'Reilly and 37 other witnesses to his behavior before issuing the scathing report. The inspectors determined that although O'Reilly has had a distinguished, multi-decade career in the military and is known to be a hard worker who gets things done, his management of the MDA office has been nothing short of disastrous.
Here are some of the descriptions of his leadership given by subordinates and highlighted in the report:
- The worst manager I've worked for in 26 years of public service;
- As a leader, as a director, whatever, he's the worst;
- In terms of leadership, bottom;
- Absolutely last, out of all the generals I've served under;
- Without a doubt... the worst leader I've worked for, the worst;
- He has probably been 100 degrees out from everything I've learned about leadership;
- How not to act;
- What doesn't kill you makes you stronger; and
- Not the command climate I would have set.
In one incident, O'Reilly screamed at an employee for 10-15 minutes in a hotel lobby because the employee booked a hotel with the word "resort" in its title. O'Reilly was afraid of news stories that would make MDA seem like it was living it up on trips. The employee reported that O'Reilly forced him/her to curse in admitting the mistake, even though that employee didn't want to use profanity.
"You fucked up, you tell me you fucked [up], admit you fucked up," O'Reilly screamed at the staffer, according to the witness. "This is fucking unacceptable. I want you to tell me you fucked up."
"I fucked up," the staffer finally said, after trying to explain him/herself in a more nuanced way.
Other witnesses said that O'Reilly often screamed and yelled during video conferences and staff meetings, which discouraged staff from speaking up at meetings for fear of being berated. One witness described O'Reilly's personality as "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."
Other witness statements about O'Reilly's leadership described it as "condescending, sarcastic, abusive," "management by blowtorch and pliers," and one senior official compared the senior staff's predicament to "beaten wife syndrome."
A senior MDA official told the IG that "LTG O'Reilly would ‘berate you, make you feel like you're the dirt beneath his feet,' then pay a compliment to rebuild the employee, and later repeat that cycle," the IG report stated.
O'Reilly reportedly also at one time or another called various employees, "a bunch of god damned idiots," "just a moron who he'd gladly choke," "a dumb fuck," and an "ignorant ass." O'Reilly told the IG office he didn't remember making those comments.
The names of the senior officials who fled O'Reilly's command were redacted from the report, but some of their titles weren't. They served as the former program director for sensors, the former director for operations, the former director of quality, safety, and mission assurance, and the former program director for target and counter-missions.
One senior staffer who left under duress was Katrina MacFarland, MDA's acquisitions chief, who is now the assistant secretary of defense for acquisitions following an interim stint as president of the Defense Acquisitions University.
In his response to the IG, O'Reilly wrote that the witness testimony amounted to "subjective perceptions," and "extrapolations of inaccurate perceptions of isolated incidents."
He is scheduled to retire this November but the IG office is recommending disciplinary action now. MDA spokesman Rich Lehner declined to comment on the report.
The Missile Defense Agency received $8.4 billion in fiscal 2012. In 2011, MDA was ranked 228 out of 240 in the list of best places to work in the federal government, as compiled by the Partnership for Public Service.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said June 30 that Iran will successfully develop a nuclear weapon in "several years" if the international community doesn't stop it.
"In my judgment ... if nothing will be done about it, within several years Iran will turn nuclear," Barak said during his featured interview at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival, conducted by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times.
The estimate appeared more distant than other recent statements by top Israeli leaders. "They are getting there, and they are getting very, very close," Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu said in March about Iran's nuclear clock.
Barak repeated the Israeli government's insistence that Israel reserves the right to strike Iran to prevent Iran from going nuclear, even without the cooperation or approval of the United States.
"We cannot afford delegating the decision even into the hands of our most trusted allies, which are you," he said to applause.
But he also said that there are no differences between U.S. and Israeli intelligence estimates on the progress of Iran's nuclear program.
"Several years ago the [2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate] raised some questions. Now there are no differences between our intelligence," Barak said.
When asked by Friedman if U.S. President Barack Obama is a friend of Israel, Barak said, "Yes, clearly so."
Friedman also asked Barak why the Israeli government doesn't just institute a new settlement freeze as a means of restarting the defunct peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Barak said that wasn't going to happen.
"The Palestinians under Abu Mazen refused once and again to get into the room without a precondition... I believe that most of the responsibility is on their shoulders," he said.
Barak said he respects the Egyptian people's decision to elect Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi as their new president and he expects the new Egyptian government to live up to all its international commitments, including the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. But he said that the new government could align itself with Hamas.
"Mubarak despised them. But the new regime might find some a certain kind of brotherhood and have a different kind of relationship (with Hamas)," he said. "A child cannot choose its parents; a country cannot choose its neighbors."
On Syria, Barak said that the U.S. needs to do more to push Assad from power more quickly, working with Russia and Turkey.
"The longer it stretches, the more chaotic the morning after will be," he said. "There is a need for American leadership, from wherever you choose to lead."
Former Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf told an audience of American officials and experts that he will return to Pakistan next year to help save the failing Pakistani state, as he compared his 2001 military coup to the actions of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.
Musharraf was a featured speaker June 30 at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival and sat for a 30-minute interview conducted by Atlantic Media Company owner David Bradley. Over the course of the interview, Musharraf defended the idea of military coups, claimed that the Pakistani people were fleeing back to the military due to the failure of Pakistan's civilian government, and declared that he tried valiantly as president to convince Iran to make peace with Israel and abandon its nuclear ambitions.
His main message was to defend his actions and those of the Pakistani military over the decades as in the interest of the Pakistani people and the survival of Pakistani democracy.
"When the state is going down, people run to the Army to save the state," he said. "We had a dilemma: save the state in order to save the Constitution. Unfortunately, the military takes over to save the state, in order to save the Constitution."
"This was the view of even President Abraham Lincoln," Musharraf continued. "I know that he had violated the Constitution because his responsibility was to protect the state and therefore protect the Constitution. So this has been the dilemma of Pakistan all through its history."
Musharraf said the Pakistani Army today faces a similar choice.
"The state is being run into the ground at the moment... and the people are again running to the military to save the country. So it is a dilemma for the current Army chief: Should we do something unconstitutional to save the state or should we let the state go down and uphold the constitution?" he said.
At one point, Musharraf proudly declared that his life in exile from Pakistan was actually pretty great, as he gets to travel around the world and give speeches to enthusiastic audiences, but he would nevertheless risk his life to return to Pakistan out of a sense of duty.
"You loved leading Pakistan and you love Pakistan and now you're in exile and you're in legal risk if you go back. Is this hard?" Bradley asked him.
"I'm quite comfortable out living in London and Dubai and being called up by lecture circuits around the world," Musharraf responded. "But I must go back to at least try to recover from this malaise that it is suffering from... I will go back even to the peril of my life."
Musharraf also regaled the crowd with the tale of how he was flying back to Pakistan from Sri Lanka in 2001 when the bloodless coup that brought him into power erupted. Initially, his plane was not allowed to land and all the airfields were blacked out and air traffic control was telling the plane to leave Pakistani airspace.
The plane was unable to do so due to a lack of fuel. Eventually, an unnamed general whom Musharraf knew personally contacted the pilot from the air traffic control center and told the pilot to return to Karachi, where the plane could now land because the military had taken control of that airport.
"I was in charge of the country when I landed," Musharraf said.
"That was a fine evening," Bradley responded.
Musharraf, who lives in London, brought his wife to Aspen, along with their son, their daughter-in-law, and their two grandchildren. At the end of the interview, Bradley praised Musharraf's pledge to return to Pakistan.
"Whether you would vote with or against the president, you have to admire somebody who says ‘OK, it's been seven attempts on my life, let's give the dice one more roll,'" Bradley said.
On Iran, Musharraf spoke about his 2006 "peace effort" to bring about reconciliation between Israel and the Arab world. Iran was not involved, so Musharraf flew to Iran to visit President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and said he tried to get Iran to pursue a path to peace with Israel and move away from nuclear weapons development, but he made no progress.
"They are determined to develop a nuclear arsenal... I did not succeed," he said. "But Iran is not posed any threat, so they need not go nuclear."
On Afghanistan, Musharraf said the country can't be ruled by the current government and said that without an international force left behind by the Americans, the country is likely to descend into even worse violence. He also claimed that "India wants to create an anti-Pakistan Afghanistan."
Bradley then pressed Musharraf on the U.S. administration's argument that Pakistan is not doing all it can to clamp down on Taliban near the Afghan border and that its top intelligence agency, the ISI, might even be aiding the Taliban and other insurgents in some capacity.
"One can't 100 percent say there is no rogue element within an organization which may be doing something underhanded," Musharraf said. "However, I can't even imagine that as a policy the ISI or the government would be encouraging the Taliban to attack the American troops or the coalition. That is not even a possibility."
BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
The Obama administration announced Thursday that it will exempt China and Singapore from economic sanctions for the next 180 days because the two countries have significantly decreased their crude oil imports from Iran.
An authoritative statement published on a China energy website on June 27 indicated a structural change in China's crude oil imports due to the downward pressure on the economy, including a 25 percent year-on-year reduction between January and May of crude oil imports from Iran to China and a prediction that crude oil imports from Iran would decrease for 2012 relative to last year.
"A total of 20 world economies have now qualified for such an exception," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's official statement reads. "Today marks an important milestone in the implementation of the NDAA[National Defense Authorization Act] and U.S. sanctions toward Iran."
Iran estimates that sanctions have caused a 20 to 30 percent reduction in oil exports so far, and the International Energy Agency calculates that reducing crude exports will cost Iran at least $8 billion in lost revenue each quarter. The growing impact of sanctions has also caused massive inflation and a sharp increase in unemployment. Substantial sanctions on 24 Iranian banks will also make it increasingly difficult for Iran to support the rial and conduct international trade.
A new round of technical talks under the auspices of the "P5+1" are scheduled for July 3 in Istanbul, but the State Department plans to forge ahead with applying additional pressure on Iran.
As a third round of nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers ended conclusively Tuesday, Israeli vice prime minister and Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz called on the so-called P5+1 to focus on stopping Iran's uranium enrichment during a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Peace.
"Such an agreement we didn't see in the last meetings," he said. "Not in Baghdad, Istanbul, and in Moscow ... [A deal] should be based on stopping all continued enrichment activity, removing all enrichment materials, and inspecting and dismantling all underground facilities, mainly Qom."
Mofaz, a former defense minister and Israel Defense Forces chief of staff who was recently brought into Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government, added that while now is the time for diplomacy and sanctions, Israel along with the United States and other Western countries should prepare all options.
"From my best view, the use of military power should be the last option, and if necessary should be led by the U.S. and Western countries," he said. "We should ask ourselves how much we would delay the Iranian program -- for how many months, for how many years -- and the second question is what will happen in our region the day after."
Diplomacy, though, is only good for so long, he stressed.
"When you say that this is the time for diplomatic activity and sanctions, it doesn't mean that you have two, three, or five years," he explained. "We have a limit of time, and the limit of time is until the Iranian leader will take the last step to having a bomb."
Mofaz also addressed the ongoing crisis in Syria, where well over 10,000 people have been killed and thousands more driven from their homes since the uprising began in March 2011.
"My expectations are that the Western countries should give humanitarian support to the Syrian people," he said. "We cannot be part of it, and it is clear why."
Mofaz was more optimistic about Israel's strained relationship with Turkey, which he believes will be resolved "in the coming months" because it is strategically necessary for both parties
On the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Mofaz says he does not support Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon's recently proposed program of coordinated unilateralism, in which Israel would not attempt to annex any territory east of the security fence and the Knesset would pass a law encouraging settlers to move to the other side of the fence.
Mofaz said that Israelis and Palestinians must "break the ice" and get back to the negotiating table. The future permanent border between Israel and a Palestinian state should be determined by the settlement blocs that house more than 250,000 settlers, he said, adding that Israel should continue to build in those blocs.
Nearly half the Senate told President Barack Obama today that unless Iran gives three specific concessions at this weekend's talks with world powers in Moscow, he should abandon the ongoing negotiations over the country's nuclear program.
"It is past time for the Iranians to take the concrete steps that would reassure the world that their nuclear program is, as they claim, exclusively peaceful," wrote 44 senators in a Friday bipartisan letter organized by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Roy Blunt (R-MO). "Absent these steps, we must conclude that Tehran is using the talks as a cover to buy time as it continues to advance toward nuclear weapons capability. We know that you share our conviction that allowing Iran to gain this capability is unacceptable."
The senators wrote that the "absolute minimum" Iran must do immediately to justify further talks is to shut down the Fordo uranium enrichment facility near Qom, freeze all uranium enrichment above 5 percent, and ship all uranium enriched above 5 percent out of the country.
"We understand that this was the very proposal that the P5+1 advanced during the Baghdad meeting," the senators wrote, referring to the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany. "Were Iran to agree to and verifiably implement these steps, this would demonstrate a level of commitment by Iran to the process and could justify continued discussions beyond the meeting in Moscow."
Few expect the Moscow meeting to yield unilateral steps by Iran of the nature sought by the senators. The letter also makes no mention of what confidence-building measures the United States or the international community could or should take in exchange for Iran's own steps.
On June 11, the P5+1 held a meeting in Strasbourg at the political directors' level to prepare for the upcoming Moscow talks.
The senators urge the president not to ease or delay the embargo, writing that only when the Iranian government believes the sanctions are to be "unremitting and crippling" will a diplomatic breakthrough will be possible.
"On the other hand, if the sessions in Moscow produce no substantive agreement, we urge you to reevaluate the utility of further talks at this time and instead focus on significantly increasing the pressure on the Iranian government through sanctions and making clear that a credible military option exists," they wrote. "As you have rightly noted, ‘the window for diplomacy is closing.' Iran's leaders must realize that you mean precisely that."
The letter is also signed by Charles Schumer (D-NY), Susan Collins (R-ME), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), James Risch (R-ID), Ron Wyden (D-OR), David Vitter (R-LA), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Mark Pryor (D-AR), John Cornyn (R-TX), Robert Casey Jr. (D-PA), John Boozman (R-AR), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Scott Brown (R-MA), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), John Hoeven (R-ND), Jeff Merkeley (D-OR), Daniel Coats (R-IN), Christopher Coons (D-DE), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Ben Nelson (D-NE), Patrick Toomey (R-PA), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Mike Lee (R-UT), Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Rob Portman (R-OH), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Dean Heller (R-NV), Jon Tester (D-MT), Kay Hagan (D-NC), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Mark Warner (D-VA), Carl Levin (D-MI), and Mark Begich (D-AK).
"The message of this letter is that Congress' patience is running out when it comes to meetings that don't yield results," said a senior Senate aide. "The Iranians have been given every last opportunity to demonstrate their good faith and step back from the brink. Instead, they keep pushing forward with their nuclear program, and we keep asking for yet another round of talks. This is not sustainable."
Frustration with North Korea's ongoing nuclear weapons and missile programs has pushed Congress to reopen the debate in Washington over whether the United States should reintroduce tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea.
The House Armed Services Committee adopted an amendment to the fiscal 2013 national defense authorization bill that supports "steps to deploy additional conventional forces of the United States and redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to the Western Pacific region," and mandates that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta submit a report on the feasibility and logistics of redeploying forward-based nuclear weapons there, "in response to the ballistic missile and nuclear weapons developments of North Korea and the other belligerent actions North Korea has made against allies of the United States."
The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), was approved by a vote of 32-26, with all Republicans, except for Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA), and two Democrats in favor. It comes only weeks after another committee member, Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH), demanded the administration investigate North Korea's apparent acquisition of Chinese-made mobile ICBM launchers.
"We in the last many years have appealed to China to help us negotiate with North Korea to bring them in line in the quest for peace in the world... In fact, China has now embarked on selling nuclear components to North Korea," Franks said at at the committee's Wednesday markup. "Consequently it's become time for us as a nation to look to our deterrent and our ability to take care of ourselves and work with our allies to do everything we can to deter and to be able to defend ourselves against any future belligerence or threats from North Korea."
The United States stockpiled nuclear weapons in South Korea for 33 years before President George H.W. Bush removed them in 1991 as part of his effort to withdraw all overseas tactical nukes, except a few in NATO countries. Since then, every so often South Korean politicians raise the idea of reintroducing them as a response to North Korean aggression.
One senior South Korean politician argued this week that North Korea's ongoing belligerence justified a new discussion about the issue.
"There is no reason not to respond in a proportional manner [to the DPRK's military threat]," Conservative Party lawmaker and presidential candidate Chung Mong-joon said in a press conference in Seoul on Thursday. "The threat of a counter-nuclear force may be the only thing that can change North Korea's perception of South Korea."
In early 2011, the White House WMD Czar Gary Samore told a South Korean reporter that the U.S. would be willing to deploy tactical nukes to South Korea, after which the White House quickly backpeddled Samore's remarks and insisted the issue was not under discussion.
"Our policy remains in support of a non-nuclear Korean peninsula," Robert Jensen, deputy spokesman for the National Security Council, told Yonhap News Agency after the Samore comments. "There is no plan to change that policy. Tactical nuclear weapons are unnecessary for the defense of South Korea and we have no plan or intention to return them."
A new set of sanctions against Iran is pending in the Senate, but the Obama administration refuses to say whether or not it supports the legislation as negotiations with Tehran resume.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said today that he still intends to move as soon as possible to pass the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, named for Finance Committee heads Sens. Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), that was approved by the committee in February. The bill would pile on more punitive measures against Iran's energy, shipping, and mining sectors, while punishing a broader range of Iranian government officials for their involvement in human rights violations.
Before the latest Senate recess, Reid attempted to pass the bill by unanimous consent, but Republicans objected because several senators want to offer amendments to strengthen the bill. Lawmakers from both chambers and both sides of the aisle want the bill to go through the regular legislative process so that changes can be made before passage, but Reid says the bill should be passed as is.
Reid told reporters today that his staff would be meeting today "to see if something could be worked out," regarding a way forward for the legislation. (After the meeting, a Reid spokesman told The Cable that "nothing" was worked out at today's meeting and there is no definitive schedule for moving ahead with the bill.)
"I think the best thing to do is to move forward with the bill that was reported out of committee on a bipartisan basis, unless we can get agreement from basically everyone," Reid said. "Each day that goes by without Iran feeling more of our sanctions, that's too bad for the world and helpful to Iran. We need to move forward on this as soon as possible."
The Obama administration hasn't said anything positive or negative about the legislation, even though it has been vocal about other Iran sanctions bills being debated in Congress. Administration officials met with Iranian negotiators as part of the P5+1 group in Turkey last weekend and more talks are scheduled for next month in Baghdad.
If the administration supports the new sanctions, it risks upsetting the new negotiations just as they are beginning. If the administration doesn't support the new sanctions, it leaves them open to GOP allegations of weakness towards Iran in the midst of the presidential election season.
National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor did not respond to requests for comment today on whether or not the White House supports quick passage of the Johnson-Shelby bill. Late last month, a senior administration official told The Cable, "We're not just taking a position on that particular bill at this point."
House Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Adam Smith (D-WA) told The Cable Monday that he supports moving forward with the bill quickly.
"I think it's perfectly appropriate to keep up pressure with the sanctions. I think you've got to keep ramping up the pressure," he said. "If we want to add to the options the president has, I think that's a good idea."
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) said today that without the administration's green light, the bill probably would not move quickly through Congress.
"Unless the administration advocates for that, I think it's less likely," he said.
China may be helping North Korea develop long range ballistic missiles that could reach the United States, and one Republican congressman wants the Obama administration to do something about it.
"As you have likely seen, the press is reporting that North Korea unveiled a new mobile missile at a military parade in Pyongyang in honor of the founder of that dictatorship, Kim Il Sung," Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH), wrote in an April 17 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, obtained by The Cable. Turner is the Chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee.
"Whether this missile is the new road mobile intercontinental missile (ICBM) the administration has been warning about is, as yet, unclear based on these public reports," Turner wrote. "Of deeper concern, however, are allegations that the missile, unveiled at the recent military parade in Pyongyang, is based on Chinese technology, in violation of international obligations and a threat to the national security interest of the United States."
Turner wrote that the photographs of the missile "suggest cooperation and support" by the Chinese government and he quotes missile-technology expert Richard Fisher as saying that the 16-wheel transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) was "very likely" a Chinese design and that there was a "possibility" it was actually manufactured in China for North Korea's use.
Turner asked Clinton and Clapper to report back to Congress if the U.S. government has any evidence that China or Chinese companies are helping North Korea acquires mobile launchers for ICBMs. He also wants to know whether the administration has done anything to confront China on the issue, whether the administration believes China is helping North Korea with ballistic missiles at all, and whether the administration will sanction Chinese entities for aiding the North Korean missile program.
"Indeed, the possibility of such cooperation undermines the administration's entire policy of investing China with the responsibility of getting tough on North Korea," Turner wrote.
AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
U.S. President Barak Obama's push for engagement with North Korea, which was effectively ended by yesterday's missile launch, was not a failure and actually shows that this administration is tougher on Pyongyang than its predecessor, a top White House official said today.
"What this administration has done is broken the cycle of rewarding provocative actions by the North Koreans that we've seen in the past," said Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications Ben Rhodes, speaking to reporters on Air Force One Friday.
The Cable detailed yesterday the Obama team's extensive efforts over the past year to enter into a new round of negotiations with the North Korean regime, which included offering North Korea 240,000 tons of food aid and asking the North Koreans to refrain from enriching uranium and firing off any missiles. The deal fell through Thursday when North Korea launched an Unha-3 rocket with a "satellite" attached.
Rhodes argued that the Obama administration's stance was tougher than George W. Bush's, given that Bush's top negotiator Chris Hill held several rounds of protracted negotiations with North Korea and even got North Korea to sign an agreement in 2005 to end its nuclear weapons program in exchange for security and economic guarantees from the West.
"Under the previous administration, for instance, there was a substantial amount of assistance provided to North Korea. North Korea was removed from the terrorism list, even as they continued to engage in provocative actions. Under our administration we have not provided any assistance to North Korea," Rhodes said.
He also seemed to abandon the administration's claim that the food aid was not "linked" to the nuclear and missile discussions, a claim most observers scoffed at because the two issues were negotiated at the same time by the same people and because the food aid was cancelled after North Korea announced the missile launch.
"When this new regime took power after the death of Kim Jong Il, we had discussions with them about potentially an agreement where they would freeze their enrichment activities and take some other steps towards denuclearization, and that we as a part of that might provide food assistance," Rhodes said. (Emphasis added.)
He also repeated the administration's contention that North Korea could not be trusted to deliver the food aid to its people because the regime in Pyongyang could not be trusted to uphold its international commitments.
Rhodes said the United States would discuss with its allies and partners "additional steps" that might be taken to punish North Korea for its latest provocation, but he couldn't name any specific steps that under consideration. He also said there was concern that North Korea could conduct another nuclear test soon.
The U.N. Security Council issued a statement Friday condemning North Korea for the launch but no new punitive measures were announced. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said it was "premature ... to predict or characterize the form of the reaction."
Speaking to reporters, Rhodes also criticized North Korea for inviting journalists to visit, saying, "The North Korea government is trying to put on this propaganda show over the course of the last several days, inviting journalists in to take a look at this particular rocket launch."
After three years of practicing "strategic patience" with North Korea, which basically amounted to ignoring Pyongyang, the Obama team took a political risk by engaging with the North Korean regime and then announcing an "agreement" even though there was no single set of items that the two sides actually agreed upon. Each side issued its own unilateral statements about what it thought the deal included.
Republicans are already pouncing on what they portray as a naïve mistake by the administration.
"Instead of approaching Pyongyang from a position of strength, President Obama sought to appease the regime with a food-aid deal that proved to be as naïve as it was short-lived. At the same time, he has cut critical U.S. missile defense programs and continues to underfund them," GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in statement. "This incompetence from the Obama administration has emboldened the North Korean regime and undermined the security of the United States and our allies."
The Obama administration requested $7.75 billion for missile defense in fiscal 2013, which is $810 million less than Congress appropriated for the program this year.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) piled on.
"Once again, Pyongyang has demonstrated its complete disregard for international sanctions and its proclivity for worthless commitments. Moreover, North Korea's actions and gathering of global media to witness the launch make a mockery of the recent ‘Leap Day agreement' with the Obama administration," he said in his own statement. "The administration should abandon its naive negotiations with North Korea (and Iran), and instead focus on fully funding missile defenses that can protect the United States from ballistic missile threats."
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
North Korea's apparently unsuccessful launch of an Unha-3 rocket with a "satellite" attached marks not only the 100th birthday of the country's founder Kim Il Sung, but also the end of the Obama administration's year-long effort to open up a new path for negotiations with the Hermit Kingdom.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned earlier Thursday that the promised launch by North Korea would scuttle the deal the Obama administration negotiated with Pyongyang and announced on Leap Day Feb. 29, which would have provided North Korea with 240,000 tons of U.S. food assistance over the next year. She lamented that the North Koreans had thrown away the progress made.
"If Pyongyang goes forward, we will all be back in the Security Council to take further action. And it is regrettable because, as you know, we had worked through an agreement that would have benefited the North Korean people with the provision of food aid," she said. "But in the current atmosphere, we would not be able to go forward with that, and other actions that other countries had been considering would also be on hold."
The Obama administration worked behind the scenes for months on the deal, and had been set to announce it last December, but North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died the day before the announcement was set to be made. In February, administration officials traveled to Beijing to try again and proudly announced on Feb. 29 that Pyongyang had agreed to a host of concessions, including a missile-test moratorium.
Since then, there has been much debate in Washington over whether or not the administration knew that the North Koreans planned all along to go ahead with their "satellite" launch, which had been scheduled before Kim Jong Il's death. The fact that the two sides issued separate statements on Feb. 29, neither of which addressed the issue of a satellite launch, led many close observers to believe the administration erred by not getting Pyongyang to commit to canceling the launch in writing.
Arms Control expert Jeffrey Lewis explained at length how U.S. negotiators Glyn Davies and Clifford Hart might have flubbed the negotiations by assuming that telling the North Koreans a satellite launch would scuttle the deal and hearing the North Koreans acknowledge the U.S. position was tantamount to an agreement.
"Administration officials are screaming to high heaven that Davies told the North Koreans that a space launch was a missile launch...The problem is that telling the DPRK is not the same thing as the DPRK agreed," Lewis wrote.
Regardless, while the North Koreans surely knew that the U.S. side viewed a missile launch as a deal breaker, it's not clear that the North Korean officials sent to negotiate with the United States had the authority to stop a missile launch ordered by the Dear (dead) Leader Kim Jong Il.
It's also true that the North Koreans sent a letter to the Obama administration asking for a resumption of talks following the planned launch and the administration rejected that proposal. In between Feb. 29 and today's launch, U.S. experts and North Korean officials also met for three unofficial "Track 2" meetings to try to salvage the deal, none of which produced any progress.
Lewis participated in one of the Track 2 meetings, held in late March in London. Another Track 2 meeting was held in New York and included experts Victor Cha, Tom Hubbard, Scott Snyder, Evans Revere, Don Zagoria, Frank Jannuzi, and Keith Luse. A separate Track 2 meeting in Germany included Jannuzi, Tom Pickering, Bob Carlin, and Nick Eberstadt.
No progress was made at any of those meetings, partially because neither the U.S. experts nor their North Korean interlocutors were empowered to negotiate.
"Track 2 is useful for what it can do. What it can't do is negotiations. North Korean delegations at that level are on an incredibly short leash. They are at best letter deliverers and receptors of comments," Eberstadt told The Cable.
And so the launch went forward, and despite its failure, the United States and North Korea now find themselves returning to a familiar pattern of diplomatic tit for tat that will lead to another stalemate and crush the prospects of further bilateral negotiations, much less a return to any multilateral discussions such as the defunct six-party talks.
"The North Koreans will stick to the view that it is their sovereign right to launch a peaceful satellite test and let all the rest of the legal argumentation go where it will," said Eberstadt. "The North Korean government is trying to get the world used to treating the DPRK as a nuclear weapons power. So each time they break an agreement we twitch a little bit less than we did the time before."
Cha told The Cable Thursday, before the launch, that there's little the United States or the international community could do about North Korea's missile test aside from going through the motions at the U.N.
"The administration will condemn it and they'll go the United Nations Security Council to try to get a [presidential] statement, not a resolution. That will be it, and it will look horrible," he said. "And privately they will press hard on China to finally play ball and put real pressure on Pyongyang."
China could indeed do more, such as increasing inspections on its border with North Korea to clamp down on proliferation, Cha said. But in the end, no matter what the Obama administration does, there's no politically viable strategy that can solve the problem.
If the administration plays down the launch and tries to act as if it's not significant, it may look incompetent. If it tries to go back to the negotiating table, conservative critics will cry appeasement. If it presses for more sanctions, it will look ineffective and risk wasting political capital needed to press for international sanctions on Iran and Syria.
"All the options are equally bad for the administration," said Cha. "We have to either accept that they are a nuclear-weapons state and figure out how to try to live with it, or we have to go in the other direction and find a way to take this regime down."
The launch destroys the previously held conventional wisdom that North Korea avoids provocative actions while sitting at the negotiating table, Cha said, and whatever strategy the administration had to deal with North Korea has now been overtaken by events.
"This requires a complete reset in how we deal with North Korea," said Cha. "We got ourselves into this and there isn't an easy way to get out of it."
UPDATE: White House Press Secretary Jay Carney's statement on the launch:
Despite the failure of its attempted missile launch, North Korea's provocative action threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its own recent commitments. While this action is not surprising given North Korea's pattern of aggressive behavior, any missile activity by North Korea is of concern to the international community. The United States remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations, and is fully committed to the security our allies in the region.
The President has been clear that he is prepared to engage constructively with North Korea. However, he has also insisted that North Korea live up to its own commitments, adhere to its international obligations and deal peacefully with its neighbors.
North Korea is only further isolating itself by engaging in provocative acts, and is wasting its money on weapons and propaganda displays while the North Korean people go hungry. North Korea's long-standing development of missiles and pursuit of nuclear weapons have not brought it security - and never will. North Korea will only show strength and find security by abiding by international law, living up to its obligations, and by working to feed its citizens, to educate its children, and to win the trust of its neighbors.
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
Several top members of the House of Representatives are fighting for expanded sanctions on Iran, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) opposes any changes to the bill currently before the Senate.
House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), has joined with Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) to introduce a bill of Iran sanctions measures they want to see added to the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, which is currently pending before the Senate. Reid has said there is no time to debate or consider amendments to the bill and wants to pass it as is. But Ros-Lehtinen, Sherman, and a slew of senators including Joe Lieberman (I-CT) are urging Reid to allow lawmakers to offer amendments that would strengthen the bill.
Ros-Lehtinen and Sherman's bill, the Iran Financial Sanctions Improvement Act, contains many of the sanctions measures that Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who is recovering from a stroke, included in his proposed amendment to the Johnson-Shelby bill. The Ros-Lehtinen Sherman bill would expand financial sanctions to all Iranian banks, authorize the president to sanction any entity that works with any Iranian bank, expand sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran beyond oil, and expand sanctions on the Iranian insurance sector.
"In particular, I urge Senate leadership to allow a version of an amendment authored by Senator Kirk to be considered by the Senate," Sherman said in Tuesday statement. "After the current district work period the Senate should pass the toughest possible Iran legislation, and it is critical that the Kirk-Sherman language be part of the bill when it leaves the Senate."
Senators come back from their "state work period" on April 16.
Last week, Ros-Lehtinen publicly called on Reid to open up the Senate bill to amendments. The Senate GOP leadership is also calling on Reid to allow limited amendments to the Johnson-Shelby bill.
Today, in a statement to The Cable, House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) said he also supports the Kirk amendmnet.
" I support any proposal, including the Kirk amendment, to tighten sanctions on Iran that will contribute to preventing the regime from developing a nuclear weapons capability - an urgent national security priority for the United States," Berman said.
Other measures found in the Kirk amendment were included by Reps. Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Robert Dold (R-FL) in a bill they introduced last week called the Iranian Energy Sector and Proliferation Sanctions Act. That bill would expand energy-sector sanctions on Iran by declaring the country a "zone of proliferation concern," thus barring any businesses or service providers from dealing with the Iranian petroleum sector in any way.
"As the Mullahs face an unprecedented level of economic pressure and international isolation, now is the time to intensify this pressure," Deutch said in a statement, referring to Iran's clerical leaders. "This legislation will put the world on notice that Iran's entire energy sector is off limits so long as this regime continues to defy the international community in pursuit of an illicit nuclear weapons program."
Last December, the House passed another Iran sanctions bill, the Iran Threat Reductions Act, which was sponsored by Ros-Lehtinen and Berman. That bill contains a host of sanctions, including another piece of the Kirk amendment that stipulates the president must investigate allegations of sanctions violations made by U.S. government organizations such as the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Research Service, and the Energy Information Agency.
The Ros-Lehtinen Berman bill could be combined with the Johnson-Shelby bill in a House-Senate conference, if and when the Senate passes its bill. The language from these various other House bills that seek to add more Iran sanctions into the mix could be added in conference, but they have a much better chance of becoming part of the final law if they are added to the Senate bill as part of an amendment and through a vote.
Senator Reid's office told The Cable that despite the growing number of lawmakers calling for votes on measures to amend the Johnson-Shelby bill, he has no plans to alter his position.
"Sounds like enough House members to round out a research document from a Republican office like Senator Kirk's, but not enough to change Senator Reid's stance on this issue," said Reid's Communications Director Adam Jentleson.
The Obama administration has no position on the Johnson-Shelby bill and no position on the Kirk amendment, a senior administration official told The Cable. Kirk's office is hoping that by the time the Senate gets back to town, Reid will decide to open up the bill to debate.
"Senator Kirk remains committed to a bipartisan process that would allow Democrats and Republicans to come together to strengthen our sanctions against Iran," said Kirk's spokesperson Kate Dickens.
President Barack Obama issued a determination Friday that there are enough sources of oil around the world to allow all Iran's customers to stop buying its crude.
The decision was required by a section of the latest defense authorization bill, which included new sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran and any other country that does business with Iran. Countries can be exempted from those sanctions if they "significantly reduce" their oil business with Iran, and the president was required to decide if the world oil market could absorb that demand before the sanctions could be fully implemented.
"[A]fter carefully considering the report submitted to the Congress by the Energy Information Administration on February 29, 2012, and other relevant information, and given current global economic conditions, increased production by certain countries, the level of spare capacity, and the existence of strategic reserves, among other factors, I determine, pursuant to section 1245(d)(4)(B) and (C) of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, Pub1ic Law 112-81, that there is a sufficient supply of petroleum and petroleum products from countries other than Iran to permit a significant reduction in the volume of petroleum andpetroleum products purchased from Iran by or through foreign financial institutions," Obama wrote in a Friday memorandum.
"I will closely monitor this situation to assure that the market can continue to accommodate a reduction in purchases of petroleum and petroleum products from Iran."
The State Department exempted 11 countries from the Central Bank sanctions earlier this month and has until June 28 to decide whether to sanction the other 12 countries that buy crude oil from Iran, a list that includes China, India, South Korea, and Turkey. This determination allows that process to continue moving forward.
Today's determination was not a surprise. A Feb. 29 report from the Energy Information Agency stated that Saudi Arabia was pumping more oil than usual but also found that spare capacity in the oil market was modest by historical standards. Energy Secretary Steven Chu seemed to preview the determination March 1 when he said, "There is spare capacity and we believe -- we'll see -- but I think there is sufficient spare capacity."
In a conference call with reporters Friday afternoon, two senior administration officials touted the administration's effort to use the sanctions to persuade other countries to wean themselves off of Iranian oil and said the administration expected South Korea to move away from Iranian oil purchases soon and Turkey announced related moves today.
"It's our belief that these sanctions are having a significant impact on the Iranian government and the Iranian economy and that therefore they present the strongest pressure we've placed to date to effect Iran's political calculus about pursuit of nuclear program, particularly as we move toward P5+1 negotiations," one senior administration official said.
The official neglected to mention that the administration publicly opposed the legislation that created the sanctions, written by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), which was added to the defense authorization bill over administration objections and passed by the Senate by a vote of 100-0.
In a statement Friday, Menendez praised Obama's determination.
"Today, we put on notice all nations that continue to import petroleum or petroleum products from Iran that they have 3 months to significantly reduce those purchases or risk the imposition of sanctions on their financial institutions," Menendez said. "It is my opinion that most countries will significantly reduce their purchases by the June 28 deadline -- either because of the sanctions or because they share the U.S., EU, and IAEA's grave concerns about Iran's verified effort to acquire nuclear weapons capability."
The Cable asked the officials whether they supported the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) tried to speed through the Senate this week without any debate or amendments.
"We're not just taking a position on that particular bill at this point," the official said.
We then asked whether the administration had a position on the right of senators to offer amendments to the Johnson-Shelby bill, in light of Reid's position that there is simply no time to offer amendments to the legislation.
"We've not made any specific determinations with regard to that amendment," the official said.
We didn't ask about any specific amendment, but it's possible the official was referring to a new amendment from the office of Kirk, which would expand sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran to include all Iranian banks and would threaten sanctions on any international firms that facilitate those banks' transactions, including the EU-based international transactions facilitator SWIFT and Clearstream, a firm that works with SWIFT to process worldwide money exchanges. Swift announced it would stop processing transactions with Iran's Central Bank earlier this month.
Kirk's new amendment would also target the Iranian insurance industry, expand sanctions against the Iranian energy sector, target Iran's high-tech and telecommunications sectors, and try to narrow the conditions under which the administration can exempt third countries who are still buying oil from Iran from existing sanctions.
"We welcome the president's determination and applaud the administration's faithful implementation of the Menendez-Kirk amendment," a Kirk spokesperson told The Cable. "To build on this momentum, we hope the Senate will consider amendments to the pending Iran sanctions bill that would continue to increase the economic pressure on the Iranian regime."
The United States has halted plans to provide food aid to North Korea after North Korea promised to launch a missile into outer space next month, although the Obama administration maintains there is no "linkage" between the two issues.
Peter Lavoy, acting assistant secretary of defense for Asia and Pacific security affairs, testified Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee that after North Korea announced it would use a long-range missile to launch a satellite into space, violating the missile moratorium it agreed to last Leap Day, the United States decided not to send the 240,000 tons of food there it had promised in that very deal. But the Obama administration is not using food as leverage, Lavoy insisted. The administration simply can't trust the North Koreans to honor their commitments now, even when it comes to ensuring that the food is delivered to its intended recipients.
"The North Koreans have announced that they will launch a missile. We are working very closely with allies and other partners in the region to try to discourage North Korea from launching this missile as they've intended. But we believe that this reflects their lack of desire to follow through on their international commitments," Lavoy testified. "And so we have been forced to suspend our activities to provide nutritional assistance to North Korea largely because we have now no confidence that the monitoring mechanisms that ensure that the food assistance goes to the starving people and not the regime elite, that these monitoring mechanisms we have no confidence that they would actually abide by the understandings."
Some lawmakers were skeptical that the administration was not punishing the North Koreans for their upcoming missile launch by withholding the food aid, but Lavoy insisted the two issues were not linked, even though they were announced in the same Feb. 29 statement and negotiated at the same time with the same officials.
"We don't believe that nutritional assistance should be a lever to achieve a political outcome. It is a humanitarian effort that we have intended. And again, it's regrettable that this has stopped," Lavoy said. "So the reason, again, why we're not providing that food assistance at this point is because our confidence in their ability to meet their agreements has been diminished. We do not use it as a lever to change their policies."
State Department Spokeswomand Victoria Nuland also said Wednesday that the issues aren't linked, but she implied that the food aid could be restored if the missile launch is scuttled.
"We don't have confidence in their good faith. If they want to restore our confidence in their good faith, they can cancel the plans to launch this satellite," she said. "They are separate issues, but they come together at the point of whether the government's acting in good faith."
During the talks that led up the Feb. 29 statement, the U.S. side made clear to the North Koreans that any missile launch, even a satellite launch, would be a deal breaker, Lavoy said.
Lavoy also warned that the North Korean leadership might do something else provocative on or around the April 15 celebration on the 100th birthday of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, perhaps as a way for new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to establish his power and legitimacy.
"Our suspicions about North Korea using its celebrations this year to enhance its missile program were confirmed when North Korea announced on March 16th that it plans to conduct a missile launch between April 12th and 16th," Lavoy said.
Lavoy also said that the North Koreans intend to launch the missile in a southward direction, although nobody knows where the missile or its debris might land.
"A number of countries are potentially affected. The debris on fall on their countries. It could cause casualties. This affects South Korea, of course, but also Japan, Okinawa, the island of Japan, and the intended impact is probably somewhere close to the Philippines or maybe Indonesia," he said.
HASC Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-CA) said the upcoming missile launch was further evidence that the North Koreans never had any intention in engaging in real denuclearization talks and that the regime's stance has not changed since the death of Kim Jong Il.
"This is typical behavior shown by the regime, a cycle of provocations and reconciliations designed to get what they want without giving up their nuclear weapons program," McKeon said. "It's becoming clear that the same aggressive, reckless cycle will continue under the new North Korean dictator. Although the Chinese and Russian governments publicly expressed concern about the planned missile launch, they have been unable or unwilling to bring their North Korea ally back to the negotiation table."
Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Turner (R-OH) pressed Lavoy on President Barack Obama's hot mic comments to Russian President Dmitry Medvdev in Seoul, in which Obama asked Medvdev to ask Vladimir Putin to give him "space" on the missile defense issue until after the November election.
"Are you aware of the deal the president has with Medvedev and with Russia that would be revealed to us after the election that perhaps isn't secret to you that would limit our missile-defense capability, either in deployment use or scope, that, of course, is a serious -- you know, a serious concern to this committee as we look to the rise of North Korea?" Turner asked. "Are you aware of the subject matter of the president's missile-defense deal, secret or not, with the Russians? And if you're not, why are you not?
"No, sir, I am not," Lavoy responded. "And I can assure you that we do believe that missile defense and our phased-adaptive approach to missile defense in the Asia-Pacific region is very much alive. It's very much part of our comprehensive approach to deal with the threat posed by the North Koreans. And it's something we're committed to."
"OK. I would greatly appreciate it if you would ask the president what are the details of his deal with the Russians concerning missile defense that cannot be disclosed until after the election," Turner replied.
the U.S. Treasury Department today announced sanctions on a major Iranian cargo airline, an Iranian trading company, and a Nigerian shipping agent that facilitates Iranian arms exports.
Treasury designated Yas Air, Behineh Trading, the Ali Abbas Usman Jega shipping agent, and three Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) officials for sanctions, meaning they are all immediately cut off from doing business in the United States or with the U.S. financial sector. Treasury alleges that the airline, the trading company, and the IRGC-QF officials were involved, respectively, in shipments of weapons "to the Levant and Africa, further demonstrating Iran's determination to evade international sanctions and export violence and instability throughout the Middle East and beyond."
"Today's action again exposes Iran's malign influence in the Middle East, Africa and beyond. As the Iranian regime exports its lethal aid and expertise to foment violence in Syria and Africa, Treasury will continue to expose the officials and companies involved and work to hold them accountable for the suffering they cause," said Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen.
Yas Air has been directly involved in arms shipments to Syria under the cover of humanitarian assistance, the Treasury Department said, and IRGC officials oversaw several shipments of arms via Yas Air in March 2011, working with the Syrian regime and Hezbollah.
"A Turkish inspection of one of the Yas Air flights bound for Syria -- which listed ‘auto spare parts' on its cargo manifest -- found weapons including Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles, machine guns, nearly 8,000 rounds of ammunition, and an assortment of mortar shells," according to the Treasury Department release.
In October, 2010, the Iranian trading company and the Nigerian shipping agent worked together to smuggle Iranian arms to Gambia, but that shipment was intercepted in Nigeria, according to Treasury, and included grenades, rockets, mortars, and ammunition.
"While Iran publically downplays Iranian government involvement in the lethal aid shipment, the highest levels of the IRGC-QF were involved," the release stated.
The three IRGC officials designated for sanctions today were Esmail Ghani, the deputy commander of the IRGC-QF, Sayyid Ali Akbar Tabatabaei, the commander of the IRGC-QF Africa Corps, Hosein Aghajani, who allegedly has ties to the Gambian smuggling operation.
Initial reactions to the moves on Capitol Hill were positive, even as a fight brewed between lawmakers and the administration over a new round of Iran sanctions legislation.
"It's these kind of moments that build up a bipartisan trust in the Treasury Department and in people like David Cohen and Danny Glaser," one senior GOP Senate aide said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is trying to pass a new Iran sanctions bill through the Senate without any amendments or debate in a legislative move many see as designed to prevent both Republicans and Democrats from adding even more sanctions to the legislation.
Reid announced on the Senate floor Tuesday morning that he wanted to bring up the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, a new set of sanctions that would punish anyone who provides Iran with equipment or technology that facilitates censorship or the suppression of human rights, including weapons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and other riot control equipment -- as well as jamming, monitoring, and surveillance equipment. It also calls on the Obama administration to develop a more robust Internet freedom strategy for Iran and speed related assistance to pro-democracy activists in the country.
The legislation, named for Senate Banking Committee heads Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), would formally establish that U.S. policy is intended to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and would require the administration to report extensively and repeatedly on its efforts to increase diplomatic and financial pressure on the Iranian regime.
But here's the rub: Reid wants to bring up the bill for passage by unanimous consent, meaning there would be no debate and no amendments offered. The bill could be passed by a simple voice vote if nobody objects, but Reid said the Republicans won't let it happen.
"I'm going to ask consent soon to moving forward on this unanimously reported bill out the Banking Committee. Unfortunately, I have been told that my Republican colleagues will object to moving forward with these new sanctions because they want to offer additional amendments," Reid said on the Senate floor Tuesday morning.
"I have Democrats who want to offer additional amendments also, but we don't have the time to slow down passage of this legislation," he added. "When we put this away, we're not going to be finished with Iran. ... But in an effort to get sanctions in place now, Democrats have agreed to streamline the process and refrain from offering their amendments. We can't afford to slow down the process."
Senate aides from both parties told The Cable that Reid's office is working behind the scenes to prevent more amendments that would strengthen the sanctions in ways the administration and Reid are resisting. The Cable has obtained the text and a detailed summary of one lengthy amendment that would add several new punitive measures to the bill.
The amendment isn't signed but it appears to come from the office of Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) because it contains expanded sanctions against all Iranian banks that matches legislation Kirk had already been working on. An aide to Kirk declined to comment on the amendment.
The summary of the proposed amendment includes a direct rebuttal to Reid's argument that the Johnson-Shelby bill should be passed quickly and that there will be plenty of other chances to sanction Iran after that.
"As Iran continues inching closer to ‘red lines' surrounding its illicit nuclear weapons program, S. 2101 will likely serve as the last legislative vehicle to impose further economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic until December," the summary reads. "Therefore, as long as opportunities exist to incorporate new ideas and creative sanctions into the legislation, we should seize upon those opportunities in overwhelming bipartisan fashion. In this way, we keep our promise to the American people and support the President's stated objective to exhaust every available diplomatic option."
The proposed amendment would expand sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran to include all Iranian banks and would threaten sanctions on any international firms that facilitate those banks' transactions, including the EU-based international transactions facilitator SWIFT and Clearstream, a firm that works with SWIFT to process worldwide money exchanges. Swift has already taken some actions to cut off Iran's Central Bank.
The amendment would also target the Iranian insurance industry, expand sanctions against the Iranian energy sector, target Iran's high-tech and telecommunications sectors, and try to narrow the conditions under which the administration can exempt third countries who are still buying oil from Iran from existing sanctions. The State Department exempted 11 countries from Iran sanctions last week and has yet to make a determination on 12 others.
There are plenty of other potential amendments out there as well. For example, a bill ruling out containment of a nuclear Iran led by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Bob Casey (D-PA), could also become an amendment.
By calling for unanimous consent on the Johnson-Shelby bill today, Reid is trying to portray the GOP as objecting to quick passage of Iran sanctions. It's likely that after he files for unanimous consent today and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) objects, the two will retreat behind closed doors and negotiate a compromise way forward. A similar dynamic played out over the last round of sanctions when Kirk and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) wanted to sanction the Iranian Central Bank over the administration's objections.
"Sooner or later -- and most likely it will be sooner -- both sides are going to sit down together and figure out a way forward that everyone can live with -- reflecting the overwhelming bipartisan consensus that exists in support of additional Iran sanctions," one senior Senate aide told The Cable.
"Hopefully calm will prevail on all sides after today and the Majority Leader will authorize Chairman Johnson to negotiate with key Democrats and Republicans on the contents of a manager's amendment that includes everyone's best ideas," another senior Senate aide said. "In the end, the president says the window of diplomacy is shrinking and we owe it to the American people to consider every available non-military option."
UPDATE: In a short interview, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) said he does want to offer an amendment to the Johnson-Shelby bill and does not want to see it go through the senate via unanimous consent.
"Senator Graham and I are the lead sponsors of a bipartisan resolution that says containment is not an acceptable policy against Iran. With regard to the bill coming out of the banking committee, we're having a discussion with Sen. Reid about when to take it up and how many amendments to allow," Lieberman said.
"We are a little bit concerned. I'd really prefer to have a bipartisan agreement with a limited number of amendments on both sides. I think that's Sen. McConnell's position. So I'm going to talk to Sen. Reid and try to work that out."
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) said this afternoon that Republicans will continue to object to moving forward on the bill until Kirk's amendment gets a hearing.
"I just wanted to say that Senator Kirk is doing a lot of homework but he's not here, would like to add an amendment -- a change to the proposal and therefore, would hope that we could work out something with the leader so that we could accommodate Senator Kirk's desire in that regard," Kyl said.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) filed the formal objection to unanimous consent on the Johnson-Shelby bill, due to his desire to be able to offer an amendment of his own.
President Barack Obama is off to South Korea this weekend to attend the second biannual Nuclear Security Summit, which seeks to build on the event he hosted in Washington in April 2010.
"This trip I think intersects with two of the president's leading national security priorities," Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications Ben Rhodes said Tuesday. "The first is the focus he has put on nuclear security along with non-proliferation since the beginning of his time in office. And the second is, of course, our increased focus on the Asia Pacific as a region of great importance to the United States."
Rhodes called South Korea "one of our strongest allies in the world and, of course, the cornerstone of our approach to Asia" -- a characterization the Japanese might not be thrilled about, but consistent with Obama's recent declaration that South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is one of his world leader best buddies.
Obama will arrive in Seoul on March 25, and his first activity will be to visit the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. After that, he will have a bilateral meeting with another one of his buddies, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, where the two will discuss Iran, Syria, and the broader upheaval in the Arab world. Following that meeting, Obama will meet with Lee, hold a press conference, and then attend a dinner with the South Korean leader.
On the morning of March 26, Obama will give a speech at Hankuk University. He is expected to discuss the drive to secure loose nuclear material around the world and to halt nuclear proliferation, the importance of peaceful nuclear energy, and the strength of the U.S.-South Korean relationship, said Rhodes.
Following that speech, Obama will hold a series of bilateral meetings, beginning with his last official meeting with soon-to-be former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev -- who Obama does not consider a buddy, even though they went to Ray's Hellburger together during Medvedev's visit to Washington.
Obama will then meet with President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and President Hu Jintao of China before attending a working dinner related to the summit. The Syria crisis will be on the agenda of Obama's meeting with both Medvedev and Hu, according to Rhodes.
The summit will take place on March 27. Gary Samore, the president's WMD czar and the U.S. sherpa for the summit, said that several countries made commitments in regards to the securing of nuclear material at the 2010 Washington summit and were making good on those promises.
"We think the Seoul summit will provide an opportunity for us to harvest many of those commitments. In the two years since the Washington meeting, governments have been very effective in carrying out commitments they made in Washington two years ago," Samore said, placing the rate of commitments fulfilled at 80 percent.
Several countries will be making new commitments in Seoul, and there will be an added theme this time around of combating nuclear smuggling, Samore said.
NSC Senior Director for Asia Daniel Russel said that the personal relationship between Obama and Lee was stronger than ever. This will be Obama's third trip to South Korea as president, and Lee has visited Washington twice. "I think that the two leaders have forged an unprecedentedly close relationship," he said.
Of course, it's impossible to have a nuclear conference on the Korean Peninsula without the subject of North Korea's nuclear program coming up, especially as North Korea plans to launch a long-range missile next month in direct violation of the agreement it struck with the United States last month.
"Clearly, in Korea, in his bilateral meetings with world leaders, the president will discuss this," said Russel. "But the situation that they face isn't fundamentally different than what the president and the other leaders have been dealing with in terms of North Korean behavior all along. It is precisely because of the North Korean penchant for backtracking that we and our partners have insisted on them taking irreversible steps and do not reward promises. The North Korean tactics haven't paid off for them in three years, and we hope that they choose to make the right decision."
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
The State Department announced on Tuesday that it would exempt 10 European countries and Japan from penalties for doing business with Iran's central bank, because those countries are making significant progress toward weaning themselves off of Iranian oil.
"I am pleased to announce that an initial group of eleven countries has significantly reduced their volume of crude oil purchases from Iran -- Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and the United Kingdom. As a result, I will report to the Congress that sanctions pursuant to Section 1245 of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012 (NDAA) will not apply to the financial institutions based in these countries, for a renewable period of 180 days," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a Tuesday statement. "The actions taken by these countries were not easy. They had to rethink their energy needs at a critical time for the world economy and quickly begin to find alternatives to Iranian oil, which many had been reliant on for their energy needs."
The European Union banned all new purchases of Iranian crude oil as of Jan. 23 and will phase out existing contracts by July 1, Clinton said. Japan was able to reduce its dependence on Iranian oil even despite energy shortages created by the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
"We commend these countries for their actions and urge other nations that import oil from Iran to follow their example," said Clinton. "Diplomacy coupled with strong pressure can achieve the long-term solutions we seek and we will continue to work with our international partners to increase the pressure on Iran to meet its international obligations."
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who co-authored the sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and those who do business with it, praised the State Department's move in a Tuesday statement of his own.
"The sanctions are working," he said. "Countries and companies are stepping up in recognition of the real threat that Iran poses to its neighbors and the global community and are terminating business relationships with Iran. On Saturday, SWIFT - the financial messaging service provider - cut off services to the Central Bank of Iran and 30 designated Iranian banks, and as a result -- for the first time -- we are seeing a real impact on the Iranian economy."
A senior State Department official said Tuesday that there are 12 countries left who import Iranian oil and could be sanctioned but didn't get exemptions today. Butthe official said that if those countries are going to be sanctioned, it won't be for a while.
Since the CBI sanctions didn't actually go into effect until Feb. 29, any case for implementing sanctions against those 12 countries would have to be based on evidence from that date forward, which would take time.
On March 30, President Barack Obama will have to make a determination as to whether price and supply conditions in the energy market allow for countries to switch from Iranian crude oil to other suppliers. If he determines they do, then a new set of harsher sanctions would go into effect on June 28 against any countries that don't have exemptions by then.
The main countries that the United States might be forced to sanction at that time include China, Turkey, India, and South Korea, none of which received exemptions today. The State Department official admitted that the conditions for receiving an exemption are vague.
"On the case of the other countries, the legislation specifies ‘significantly reduce.' It doesn't define what ‘significantly reduce' is," the official said.
The official said that Japan represents a model for how other countries could act to avoid sanctions. But under questioning, the official refused to say exactly how much Japan has committed to reducing its dependence on Iranian oil, calling that "commercially protected information." He said Japan reduced its intake of Iranian oil between about 15 to 22 percent over the last half of 2011, depending on how you look at the data.
One senior Senate aide called into question the State Department's decision to issue Japan an exemption. The aide pointed out that the law requires countries to reduce their intake of Iranian oil in 2012, not 2011, and it's not clear if Japan is going to continue that trend ahead of the June 28 deadline.
"The bottom line is that if Japan has in fact committed to reducing their purchases of Iranian oil by 15 to 22 percent in 2012, this exemption is fully warranted. But if this is just a get out of jail free card issued on the basis of past performance alone, this would not be a faithful application of the law," the aide said.
The aide also pointed out that the 10 EU countries are no-brainers for exemptions, because the EU is in the process of implementing a full Iranian oil embargo anyway.
"This is no diplomatic success, this is just cover to make sure that those EU countries that are complying with the embargo have cover from the sanctions."
The Obama administration is close to finalizing a deal to send 240,000 tons of food aid to North Korea, but there are at least 5 U.S. senators who think that constitutes "appeasement" of the North Korean regime.
"We write to express our serious concern about the administration's decision to provide food aid to North Korea in exchange for hollow commitments on denuclearization," reads a March 15 letter to President Barack Obama signed by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), James Inhofe (R-OK), Marco Rubio (R-FL), John Cornyn (R-TX), and James Risch (R-ID), obtained by The Cable.
"Despite continual assurances from senior administration officials that past mistakes of both Republican and Democratic administrations would not be repeated, it is evident to us that the Obama administration is embracing a policy of appeasement with Pyongyang."
The senators argue in the letter that giving food aid to North Korea in exchange for promises related to its nuclear program sends the wrong message to other would-be proliferators. And they charge the administration with breaking its promise not to reward Pyongyang for "buying the same horse twice," as former Defense Secretary Bob Gates once put it.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Glyn Davies and Special Envoy to the Six Party Talks Clifford Hart traveled to Beijing for meetings with top DPRK officials last month, the first U.S.-North Korean direct talks since the December death of Kim Jong Il. After those meetings, the State Department said that the DPRK has agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests, and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities, and agreed to the return of IAEA inspectors to verify and monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment activities at their Yongbyon nuclear site.
The administration argues that the food aid and the nuclear discussions are not linked, but the food aid deal was announced at the same time as the agreement on the nuclear concessions.
And already, there are signs the agreement may be in trouble. Today, North Korea announced it would use a long-range missile to launch a satellite into space next month to mark what would have been the 100th birthday of founding father Kim Il Sung.
"Such a missile launch would pose a threat to regional security and would also be inconsistent with North Korea's recent undertaking to refrain from long-range missile launches," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
If the Obama administration wants to enter new talks with Iran, that's fine -- but they had better keep ramping up the pressure on the Islamic Republic during negotiations and not trade sanctions for piecemeal concessions from the Iranians, 12 U.S. senators said Wednesday.
"As the P-5+1 prepares to resume talks with Iran, we strongly believe that any hope for diplomatic progress with Iran depends upon a continuing and expanding campaign of U.S. and international pressure on the regime and that such pressure must continue until there is a full and complete resolution of all components of illicit Iranian nuclear activities," said Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Jim Risch (R-ID), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), John McCain (R-AZ), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Pat Toomey (R-PA), Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in a joint statement Wednesday.
"As we recently wrote to President Obama, we remain extremely concerned that the Iranian government will seek to buy time or otherwise dilute the focus of our diplomacy through proposals that either suspend or reverse the current momentum of the pressure track in exchange for partial measures that fail to address the totality of their nuclear program," the senators' statement continued. "Such tactical maneuverings are a dangerous distraction and should not be tolerated. For instance, we would strongly oppose any proposal that caps or limits sanctions against the Iranian regime in exchange for anything less than full, verifiable, and sustained suspension of all enrichment activities, including both 3 percent and 20 percent enrichment."
When Iran offered to come back to talks last month, these 12 senators were quick to put together a letter outlining their precise concerns and what they wanted to see President Barack Obama's administration do.
In addition to continuing along the pressure track, they want the administration to insist that Iran suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities "for the foreseeable future," cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and resolve all outstanding questions about military dimensions of its nuclear program. The Obama administration has said repeatedly that Iran has the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, but these 12 senators don't agree.
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, in her March 6 letter welcoming new talks, acknowledged that the P5+1 countries - Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States, and Germany -- will engage in discussions over confidence-building measures to the Iranian government.
"We remain convinced that initially we could work towards the shared objective to engage in a constructive dialogue on the basis of reciprocity and a step by step approach based on practical and specific suggestions for confidence building measures," she wrote.
But the senators think that is foolish, and want to emphasize that the administration should not trade the relaxation of sanctions for partial measures by the Iranians, which they see as a delaying tactic.
"Such tactical maneuverings are a dangerous distraction and should not be tolerated," the senators wrote. "For instance, we would strongly oppose any proposal that caps or limits sanctions against the Iranian regime in exchange for anything less than full, verifiable, and sustained suspension of all enrichment activities, including both 3 percent and 20 percent enrichment. The time for confidence building measures is over."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) took to the Senate floor Tuesday to pick apart Mitt Romney's latest op-ed on Iran.
"The United States cannot afford to let Iran acquire nuclear weapons. Yet under Barack Obama, that is the course we are on," Romney wrote in Tuesday's Washington Post. "As president, I would move America in a different direction."
Romney said he would increase the Navy's shipbuilding rate from 9 to 15 ships per year and pledged to "press forward" with ballistic missile-defense systems aimed at Iran and North Korea. He also promised to press for "ever-tightening sanctions," to speak out in support of democracy in Iran, visit Jerusalem on his first trip as president, place aircraft carrier groups in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, and increase coordination with Israel.
"Most important, I will buttress my diplomacy with a military option that will persuade the ayatollahs to abandon their nuclear ambitions. Only when they understand that at the end of that road lies not nuclear weapons but ruin will there be a real chance for a peaceful resolution," Romney wrote. "Either the ayatollahs will get the message, or they will learn some very painful lessons about the meaning of American resolve."
Kerry said on the floor today that Romney's op-ed troubled him and he said Romney's attack on the administration's Iran policy was "as inaccurate as it was aggressive." The timing of the op-ed, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Washington, was additionally unfortunate, in Kerry's view.
"We should all remember that the nuclear issue with Iran is deadly serious business that should invite sobriety and serious-minded solutions, not sloganeering and sound bites. This can't become just another applause line on the Republican presidential stump," Kerry said. "Talk has consequences, and idle talk of war only helps Iran by spooking the tight oil market and increasing the price of the Iranian crude that pays for its nuclear program. And to create false differences with the president just to score political points does nothing to move Iran off a dangerous nuclear course."
"Worst of all, Governor Romney's op-ed does not even do readers the courtesy of describing how a President Romney would do anything different from what the Obama administration has already done," Kerry said. "Just look at this op-ed. From his opening paragraphs, Romney garbles history."
Kerry disputed Romney's assertion that President Jimmy Carter's efforts to negotiate the release of U.S. hostages in Iran in 1981 was "feckless," and his claim that Obama was the most "feckless" president since Carter, considering he ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
"I don't know if Governor Romney has checked the definition of the word ‘feckless' lately, but that ain't it," Kerry said.
Kerry then goes point by point through Romney's op-ed to argue that Obama has basically the same Iran policy Romney is proposing. Kerry even quotes Ambassador Nick Burns, President George W. Bush's lead negotiator on Iran, who said, "The attacks on Obama basically say, ‘He's weak and we're strong.' But when you look at the specifics, you don't see any difference."
"So when you add it all up, Mitt Romney is just trying to ignore, twist, and distort the administration's policy to drive a wedge in our politics," Kerry said. "We're going to have a bruising election season. And so we should. That's how we decide big issues in the United States. We always have. But let's have an honest debate, not a contrived one. Governor Romney can debate the man in the White House instead of inventing straw men on the op-ed pages."
Obama himself criticized the GOP presidential candidates for their rhetoric on the possibility of a war with Iran during his press conference today.
"You know, those folks don't have a lot of responsibilities. They're not commander in chief. And when I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I'm reminded of the costs involved in war. I'm reminded that the decision that I have to make in terms of sending our young men and women into battle and the impact that has on their lives, the impact it has on our national security, the impact it has on our economy," Obama said.
"This is not a game. And there's nothing casual about it. And, you know, when I see some of these folks who have a lot of bluster and a lot of big talk, but when you actually ask them specifically what they would do, it turns out they repeat the things that we've been doing over the last three years, it indicates to me that that's more about politics than actually trying to solve a difficult problem."
Coming soon from the Congress that brought you the sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran: new legislation to sanction every single Iranian bank.
Members of both the House and Senate from both parties are moving forward soon with legislation that would expand financial sanctions against Iran to include all Iranian financial institutions -- whether government-affiliated, private, inside Iran, or controlled abroad. According to multiple congressional aides who previewed the legislation for The Cable, this would effectively cut off every Iranian financial institution from the international community -- subjecting any bank that conducts transactions with an Iranian bank or holds money for an Iranian bank to risk losing its own access to the U.S. market.
Currently, only the 18 Iranian banks designated by the U.S. Treasury Department and the Central Bank of Iran are subject to such sanctions -- leaving more than 25 banks free to conduct business with the international community, which the legislations' sponsors see as a major hole in U.S. policy. According to congressional aides involved with the legislation's development, the ban on all Iranian banks would contain a humanitarian exemption, the oil exemptions built into the Menendez-Kirk amendment passed into law last December, and would provide the president with the authority to issue a national security waiver.
The legislation, being developed by the office of Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) in coordination with other offices, including Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) and House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), may be offered as early as next week as an amendment to the new Senate Iran sanctions bill that was approved by the Senate Banking Committee last month.
"This would really be a one-two punch combination if Congress extended sanctions to all Iranian financial institutions," one aide involved in the legislation told The Cable. "When you land a clear blow to a boxer's chin, you don't back off and wait to see if he'll fall -- you throw another punch and make sure he does."
Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a conservative policy organization in Washington, told The Cable that the new measures were necessary to prevent the Iranian regime from simply changing its banking tactics to focus on banks not yet sanctioned.
"Money is like water; it searches for cracks in a foundation exploiting even hairline cracks that provide an entry point," he said. "Existing cracks in sanctions laws are leaving entry points to the global financial system for scores of unsanctioned Iranian financial institutions. This allows the Iranian regime to shift its transactions to those still allowed access and to freely move money through the global financial system."
The full text of the new language is here.
Iran sanctions are extremely popular on Capitol Hill these days. After the Obama administration initially opposed the Kirk-Menendez amendment to sanction the Central Bank of Iran, the Senate added that legislation to the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill by a vote of 100-0.
Meanwhile, the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, replied positively via letter today to Iran's Feb. 14 letter on resuming nuclear talks with the P5+1 countries, which included the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.
According to Ashton's letter, the international community is willing to resume talks with Iran. Those discussions would have to focus on Iran's nuclear program, but initial steps could focus on confidence-building measures between the two sides.
"Looking forward to a sustained aimed at producing concrete results and in order not to repeat the experience of Istanbul, I would propose that we resume our talks at a mutually convenient date and venue as soon as possible," she wrote.
The United States and North Korea have each issued statements about the results of last week's meetings in China, but the two sides seem to be reading from two different sheets of paper.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Glyn Davies and Special Envoy to the Six Party Talks Clifford Hart traveled to Beijing for meetings with top DPRK officials Feb. 23 and 24, including North Korea's top nuclear negotiator Kim Gye Gwan. These were the first U.S.-DPRK direct talks since the December death of Kim Jong Il. Today, the State Department sent out its statement on the meetings as well as the DPRK's official news agency's readout of what was agreed. Apparently, something was lost in translation, because the two readouts just don't match.
"[T]he DPRK has agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities," the U.S. statement said. "The DPRK has also agreed to the return of IAEA inspectors to verify and monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment activities at Yongbyon and confirm the disablement of the 5-MW reactor and associated facilities."
Regarding the pending deal to give North Korea 240,000 tons of U.S. food assistance, the U.S. readout explained, "We have agreed to meet with the DPRK to finalize administrative details necessary to move forward with our proposed package of 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance along with the intensive monitoring required for the delivery of such assistance."
The United States has always maintained that nuclear negotiations and food assistance were not linked and the Obama administration must appear it is not being lured into the time-honored tradition of what critics see as "bribing" North Korea to talk. But the State Department admitted last week that the food-assistance issue might come up during the nuclear talks, and in fact, it did.
The State Department didn't say anything meaningful about sanctions on North Korea in its statement, only promising to increase people-to-people exchanges in areas such as sports and pledging that "U.S. sanctions against the DPRK are not targeted against the livelihood of the DPRK people."
And what about Pyongyang's interpretation?
If you read the North Korean statement on the meetings, which hasn't yet been posted on the KCNA website but was sent around to reporters Wednesday morning, you would have a somewhat different idea of what happened in Beijing.
"The U.S. promised to offer 240,000 metric tons of
nutritional assistance with the prospect of additional food assistance, for
which both the DPRK and the U.S. would finalize the administrative details in
the immediate future," the North Koreans said. "Once the six-party talks are
resumed, priority will be given to the discussion of issues concerning the
lifting of sanctions on the DPRK and provision of light water reactors."
The United States hasn't publicly discussed the idea of providing light-water nuclear reactors to North Korea since the KEDO project terminated its activity in 2006, due to what U.S. officials say is North Korea's failure to live up to the deal under which KEDO was begun.
As recently as Feb. 27, the State Department was insisting that no decision has been made on providing food assistance to North Korea, which is opposed by many in Congress.
"As they always do, the North Korean side also raised the nutritional assistance, so we did discuss that," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said about the Beijing meetings. "As you know, the United States does not link these issues. There's no deal to be had here. But we did continue to discuss the questions that the U.S. has with regard to need, with regard to how we might monitor nutritional assistance if we are to go forward with it. So no decisions have been made either on the six-party talks side or on the nutritional assistance side."
Former Pentagon Asia official Dan Blumenthal, now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said that the confusion over the meeting was due to a lack of a clear strategy for achieving U.S. goals in North Korea beyond just scheduling more talks.
He also said that North Korea is never likely to give up its nuclear weapons, which is the stated U.S. goal, so the basis for the negotiations is flawed from the outset.
"The DPRK statement is just the public rhetoric part of their strategy, which is to get accepted by the U.S. and others as a nuclear power and meanwhile to extract other concessions that alleviate their economic problems," Blumenthal said.
But other analysts saw the deal as an incremental step forward and left open the possibility for real progress.
"These steps are modestly significant," said Richard Bush of the Brookings Institution. "They could indeed be an initial step on a path towards serious negotiations, negotiations that Pyongyang scuttled by its own actions. Or they could simply be a ploy to get nutritional assistance and meddle in South Korean politics. North Korea's record suggests the latter, but we shall see. I think it is safe to say that no one in Washington, Seoul, or Tokyo is holding their breath."
UPDATE: A senior administration official gave more detail on the food assistance discussions in a Wednesday background briefing with reporters. The United States put forward an offer of 20,000 tons of food assistance per month, but not the rice and grain that the North Korean government wanted, because that could be easily diverted to the military.
“And we’re talking about foods that would be appropriate for young children, in particular those under five or six years old, pregnant woman as well because we want to make sure we address the sort of the first 1,000 days as the administration has wanted to focus on,” the official said. “We’re going to have things like corn-soy blend, we will have vegetable oil, some pulses, and then there will be probably a modest amount of the ready-to-use therapeutic foods depending upon the number of children that we see with acute malnutrition.”
The official explained that monitoring mechanisms would have to be firmly in place before food aid can begin to flow. “If we are successful in finalizing the details that I’ve just laid out, this will be the most comprehensively monitored and managed program since the U.S. began assistance to the DPRK in the mid 1990s,” the official said.
A group of 32 senators from both parties unveiled a new Senate resolution Thursday that would establish the sense of the Congress that containing a nuclear Iran is not an option.
The resolution, which will be formally introduced later today, "strongly supports U.S. policy to prevent the Iranian government from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability and rejects any policy that would rely on efforts to ‘contain' a nuclear weapons capable Iran," and "urges the president to reaffirm the unacceptability of an Iran with nuclear-weapons capability and oppose any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat."
A group of senators held a press conference Thursday on Capitol Hill to explain the thinking behind the resolution and reinforce its bipartisan character, including Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Bob Casey (D-PA), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Chris Coons (D-DE), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).
"There are so many things that we disagree on, but we found something we can be united about and I hope the American people will take comfort in the fact that Republican and Democratic senators are joining forces to stand behind President Obama on one very important issue," said Graham. "We agree with you and we have your back Mr. President. President Obama is absolutely right that it is absolutely unacceptable for the Iranian theocracy to obtain nuclear capability."
Lieberman emphasized that he doesn't want to foreclose diplomatic options, but said that if Obama decided to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, he would have strong bipartisan support in Congress.
"I know that containment might have been viable for the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but it's not going to work with the current fanatical Islamist regime in Tehran," said Lieberman, referring to Iran's sponsorship of international terrorism, its record of proliferation, and its statements calling for the destruction of Israel. He called containment of a nuclear Iran a "dangerous and deadly illusion."
Casey, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Near East Subcommittee, said the resolution is meant to address what he sees as a lack of clarity as to American policy regarding the possibility of living with a nuclear Iran.
"[The resolution] makes it very clear that containment is not good enough, that containment is not a fallback position here. If we say we're going to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon, we have to mean it," said Casey, adding that there needed to be a greater sense of urgency on the issue as well.
Ayotte referred to the Thursday morning testimony of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who told her that Iran represented a "grave threat" to U.S. national security and the security of U.S. allies.
Senators from both parties said Thursday that a diplomatic solution was still the goal and they believed the sanctions on Iran were working, but that a containment strategy was less preferable than a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities if all else fails.
"This is a deadly serious moment," said Coons. "We hope for a peaceful, diplomatic resolution, but we are determined to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability."
The senators sought to present their resolution as perfectly in line with the administration's stance. "I'm not here to criticize the president... the only thing I would say is ‘Do it faster if you can,'" said Graham.
What's not clear is what, exactly, would constitute Iran crossing the red line of achieving a "nuclear capability," in the eyes of the administration, or for that matter, in the eyes of the Congress.
"To me, nuclear weapons capability means that they are capable of breaking out and producing a nuclear weapon -- in other words, that they have all the components necessary to do that," Lieberman said. "It's a standard that is higher than saying ‘The red line is when they actually have nuclear weapons.'"
The resolution itself currently has 16 Democratic sponsors and 16 Republican sponsors. Behind the scenes, there were intense negotiations over the language to create a resolution that was acceptable to the broadest range of senators.
Graham admitted that an earlier version had included a clause, later removed, that would have affirmed that the United States has the power and capability to prevent the government of Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability. That clause was removed in order to build a bipartisan consensus.
"This is not an authorization for military force... if military force is the option to be chosen, that is a debate for another day, that is another discussion," he said.
At the press conference, Graham showed poster-sized photos of an Iranian missile in a parade with the words "Israel must be uprooted and erased from history" written on it. He then showed another poster-sized photo of an Iranian banner saying, "Israel should be wiped out of the face of the world."
"They could work on their grammar, but we all get the message," Graham said. "What we're all saying in a bipartisan fashion that we don't want to contain or contend with a nuclear Iran because we think the whole world would go into darkness."
On Friday, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton will meet in Washington with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to discuss Iran's letter proposing a new round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries, a letter that Ashton has already said does not contain enough new concessions to justify a new meeting.
At Thursday's State Department press briefing, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that a more formal response from all the P5+1 countries would be coming and that Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman had held two rounds of consultations about the letter.
"I don't expect we're going to have a formal reaction to the letter before early next week," said Nuland. "What we want to do is not only react to the words on the page, but be in agreement about what the implications are for the potential for diplomacy further on."
On Thursday, the Senate Banking Committee will officially start work on a new sanctions bill against Iran, and senators are set to add even more sanctions to the bill as it goes through the legislative process -- including measures that directly target President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The Banking Committee will mark up the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, named after committee heads Sens. Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), who will lead Thursday's proceedings. The bill will pile on more punitive measures against Iran's energy, shipping, and mining sectors, while punishing a broader range of Iranian government officials for their involvement in human rights violations.
President Barack Obama's administration is still working to implement the last round of Iran sanctions that was signed into law, which included the Menendez-Kirk sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran that were added to the defense authorization bill in December by a 100-0 vote. But the Senate has no intention of giving the administration a breather, and Thursday's mark-up is the beginning of a new and aggressive push to tighten the noose on Tehran and further damage the Iranian economy.
"Iran's continuing defiance of its international legal obligations and refusal to come clean on its nuclear program underscore the need to further isolate Iran and its leaders," Johnson said in statement about the bill.
The bill would sanction anyone who provides Iran with equipment or technology that facilitates censorship or the suppression of human rights, including weapons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and other riot control equipment -- as well as jamming, monitoring, and surveillance equipment. It also calls on the administration to develop a more robust Internet freedom strategy for Iran and speed related assistance to pro-democracy activists in the country.
The legislation would also formally establish that U.S. policy is intended to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and would require the administration to report extensively and repeatedly on its efforts to increase diplomatic and financial pressure on the Iranian regime.
Johnson and Shelby's bill expands sanctions to cover companies involved in joint ventures with Iran that aid the country's energy sector, targets any Iranian joint ventures involving uranium mining, authorizes the administration to target corporate executives of sanctioned firms, and requires U.S. companies to report to the SEC business they have with any Iranian firms that could fall under sanctions.
The Banking Committee bill is a scaled-down version of the Iran, Syria, North Korea Sanctions Consolidation Act, sponsored by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Bob Casey (D-PA), and Scott Brown (R-MA). The Syria and North Korea provisions in that bill were left out of the Banking Committee's version so there wouldn't be any jurisdictional confusion between the Banking Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee.
Several senators are set to offer amendments on Thursday to strengthen the Johnson-Shelby bill even further. Although negotiations are still ongoing, a list of the amendments in the queue as of Wednesday afternoon was obtained by The Cable.
Among the amendments that could be considered in committee on Thursday is an amendment by Menendez, offered on behalf of himself and Kirk (who is in Chicago recovering from a stroke) that would impose immigration restrictions on Ahmadinejad, Khamenei, and a host of other senior Iranian government officials. The amendment would also trigger visa restrictions on Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, although those restrictions could be waived for U.N. meetings in New York.
A separate amendment by Menendez and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), also offered on behalf of Kirk, would sanction banks with officers on the board of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT), the organization that handles the bulk of international electronic bank transfers, if SWIFT doesn't stop processing transactions for Iranian banks.
Another Menendez amendment would require the Treasury Department to determine whether the Iranian National Oil Company and the Iranian National Tanker Company are tied to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. If they are, those two companies would then be sanctioned as well, which could wreak further havoc on Iran's economy.
"This is a reminder that there are still more stones left unturned and there are still more ways to increase the pressure on an already extraordinarily pressured Iranian economy," a senior Senate aide told The Cable. "In bipartisan fashion, the Senate is moving to do just that."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.