Following her successful battle with esophageal cancer, Ellen Tauscher is taking a step back and handing over several of her responsibilities as the State Department's top arms control official, State Department officials told The Cable today.
In early February, Tauscher will formally resign as undersecretary of State for arms control and international security and be appointed to a newly created position called the "special envoy for strategic stability and missile defense." She will be working part-time, using her new flexibility to work on cancer patient advocacy and pursuing projects outside of government. Officials told The Cable that after 13 years in Congress and 3 years in the administration, she decided that the time had come for her to take a breather and focus on other interests.
"Ellen has been campaigning, legislating, and working at a breakneck pace for nearly 16 years and, now with a new lease on life, she wants to focus on some new opportunities while still working on critically important national security issues," a State Department official told The Cable today.
Rose Gottemoeller, the assistant secretary of State for arms control, verification, and compliance, is expected to be named as Tauscher's replacement. She will lead the "T" office, as it is known, at least for the duration of the year, multiple State Departments officials said. There's no expectation that the Senate will be able to confirm any arms control officials before the November presidential election, so the administration won't try.
In her new special envoy role, Tauscher will report directly up to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and will maintain control of several specific projects she has been working on. She will remain the lead official on the president's bilateral commission on strategic stability with Russia, and will keep her role as lead negotiator for a missile defense cooperation agreement with Russia.
Tauscher will also maintain her role overseeing the implementation of the administration's missile defense scheme in Europe, known as the Phased Adaptive Approach, which was one of her key issues when she led the House Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee. Tauscher will also maintain her role as the lead U.S. government official on civilian nuclear cooperation around the world, in anticipation of the Nuclear Security Summit this year in Seoul.
Officials told The Cable that Tauscher's work on cancer issues with Duke University, where she was treated, will focus on the standardization of care for cancer patients. She wants to work to ensure everybody has access to the elite level of care she received in her time of need. Her last day as undersecretary will be Feb. 6.
The Treasury Department today designated Iran's third-largest bank, Bank Tejarat, as subject to new sanctions, on the same day the EU announced a complete oil embargo of Iran.
"At a time when banks around the world are cutting off Iran and its currency is depreciating rapidly, today's action against Bank Tejarat strikes at one of Iran's few remaining access points to the international financial system," Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen said in a statement. "Today's sanction against Bank Tejarat will deepen Iran's financial isolation, make its access to hard currency even more tenuous, and further impair Iran's ability to finance its illicit nuclear program."
Bank Tejarat is being sanctioned for providing financial services to Bank Mellat, the Export Development Bank of Iran (EDBI), the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), and the Ministry of Defense for Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL), all of which were previously sanctioned for the involvement in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Treasury also sanctioned Iran's Trade Capital Bank, a Minsk-based subsidiary of Bank Tejarat, bringing the total number of Iranian financial institutions under U.S. sanctions to 23, according to a Treasury Department fact sheet. Because the banks are being sanctioned under the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), any foreign bank that does business with these Iranian banks risks losing access to the U.S. financial system.
In its statement, Treasury accused Bank Tejarat of facilitating the movement of tens of millions of dollars to the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) for the purchase of uranium. Treasury also said the bank has helped other Iranian organizations circumvent sanctions, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
"Iran's economic isolation seems to worsen each day as reflected in its plummeting currency, the Iranian rial," a senior Treasury official told reporters in a Monday afternoon briefing."
The official said the Iranian government is going to extraordinary lengths to prop up the rial.
"In recent weeks, the government has tried to ban the sale of Western currency. It reportedly has restricted citizens' ability to communicate by blocking text messages containing the word ‘euro' or ‘dollar.' Plainclothes police officers are reportedly patrolling the currency exchanges to enforce currency restrictions and arrest violators," the official said.
The Treasury and State Departments are also in the process of implementing the Menendez-Kirk sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran, which the official said would cause more pain for the Iranian economy.
"The economic hardship it is currently facing will only increase in the months to come, and will continue to increase as long as Iran refuses to meaningfully engage with the international community regarding its nuclear program," the official said.
A reporter asked the official when Treasury would issue the implementation rules for the new CBI sanctions. Lawmakers are concerned the rules may be crafted in a way to allow some partner countries to avoid cutting off all business with Iran.
"As soon as they are ready," the official said.
President Barack Obama's administration is working on the details of how it will implement crippling new sanctions against Iran, and the two senators who wrote the legislation warned the White House today not to water down the measures.
"We understand that the administration is drafting rules to guide the implementation of the law and we hereby seek to convey the legislative intent underlying certain terms and phrases in the amendment and to ensure that the positive developments that have occurred as a result of the amendment are buttressed by the administrative rules," wrote Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) in a letter today to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who traveled personally to Japan and China this month to discuss the issue.
The State Department has sent teams to several countries urging them to comply with the new measures imposed by the Menendez-Kirk amendment, but the administration's recent enthusiasm for the sanctions is at odds with their attempts to water down the sanctions language while it was going through Congress. The law would punish any country or bank that does business with the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), or with Iran's state-controlled oil sector.
That's why Kirk and Menendez, along with their allies, are now worried that the Obama administration will try to implement the rules in such a way that will allow some countries that refuse to stop doing business with Iran to wiggle off the hook, by delaying implementation for months or claiming that other countries' adherence is more robust than it really is.
Obama, for his part, has hailed his administration's success in establishing a broad-based coalition aimed at isolating Iran.
"When I came into office, what we had was a situation in which the world was divided, Iran was unified, it was on the move in the region. And because of effective diplomacy, unprecedented pressure with respect to sanctions, our ability to get countries like Russia and China -- that had previously balked at any serious pressure on Iran -- to work with us, Iran now faces a unified world community, Iran is isolated, its standing in the region is diminished. It is feeling enormous economic pressure," the president told Time in an interview released today.
The Menendez-Kirk letter list several concerns about the forthcoming rules, which could be unveiled as early as next week. Their two main worries are that the administration will allow countries to avoid being penalized by saying they have achieved "significant reductions" in their dealing with Iran, and that Obama will postpone implementation of the sanctions on national security grounds.
The implementation rules will define exactly what the term "significant reductions" means. Menendez and Kirk want the administration to use the same definition as was used for the last round of Iran sanctions, as dictated by the Comprehensive Iran Sanction, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), to avoid any confusion.
"To ascribe more variable terminology to the definition of ‘significantly reduced' would diminish the ability of countries to understand and comply with the amendment," the senators wrote. "An unevenly applied interpretation would also call into question the seriousness of the sanctions policy and send mixed signals to both Iran and our allies."
The senators' other main concern is that Obama will avail himself of the "national security waiver" found in the law to postpone implementing the new sanctions altogether for another 120 days. If he doesn't invoke this waiver, sanctions against countries that do business with the CBI could take hold Feb. 29. If Obama uses the waiver, he won't have to sanction any countries until late June, which tracks with the timeline the law specifies for the imposition of the oil-related sanctions.
The senators also don't think Obama should be able to waive all the sanctions with one stroke of the pen. They want him to have to waive sanctions for each country on a case-by-case basis. That's one of the things the forthcoming rules will address.
"We would welcome an opportunity to discuss these points with you prior to the publication of the final rule for the Menendez-Kirk amendment," the senators wrote -- a nice way to complain to the administration that they are not being properly consulted.
A senior Senate aide who works on the issue was more direct with The Cable.
"There's been little to no consultation or communication on this rule," the aide said. "There is growing concern that the administration may be moving toward a broad and non-specific definition for ‘significant reduction,' and the intention of the authors is that every bank that is in violation of the law would need its own national security waiver in order for the president to exempt them."
The actual rule writing is done at Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), run by Adam Szubin.
"The administration is hard at work drafting the regulations implementing the legislation. We are already using this law, in concert with our other efforts, to reduce Iran's access to oil revenue, both by working with our partners to significantly reduce their imports of Iranian crude and by impeding the CBI's ability to receive payment for whatever oil Iran is able to sell," a Treasury Department spokesman told The Cable. "We will continue our intensive engagement to ensure that the maximum amount of pressure is exerted by the international community against Iran's illicit nuclear program."
The United States and Russia will conclude a missile defense cooperation agreement eventually as a result of the "strategic stability" talks between the two powers, according to the State Department's top arms control official.
"We will get a missile defense agreement for cooperation with Russia," Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher told a meeting of the Defense Writers Group on Thursday. "I believe that missile defense is the metaphor for the opportunity of getting things right [in the U.S.-Russia relationship]. It's been an irritant in our relationship for 30 years. It's also the place where great European powers, including Russia, can work together cooperatively."
Tauscher talked at length about her ongoing discussions, which she dubbed "strategic stability" talks, with Russian officials over missile defense. These have centered around cooperation on the Obama administration's European missile defense program, known as the European Phased Adaptive Approach, she said.
"Almost everything else that you work with on European security has been settled, decided, and worked on together for decades. The only thing that's new where you can bring the Russians in is missile defense," Tauscher said. "This is the place where we can begin to put aside the Cold War and ‘mutually assured destruction' and move toward ‘mutually assured stability.'"
Your humble Cable guy asked Tauscher why the Obama administration's optimism about a missile defense agreement with Moscow seems so far removed from the pessimism of leading Russian officials. In a November speech, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev suggested talks had broken down and he threatened several retaliatory measures, including Russia's potential withdrawal from the New START nuclear reductions agreement.
Tauscher responded that these statements were part of the Russian campaign season and that progress would speed up once the March Presidential elections in Russia had subsided. She also acknowledged that the Russians are demanding a legally binding document from the Obama administration promising U.S. missile defenses in Europe will not impact Russia's strategic deterrent, which Tauscher said they will never get.
"We will never do a legally binding agreement because I can't do one. I can't get anything ratified. Even if I wanted to I'm not sure I would.... ‘Legally binding' doesn't mean what it did before," Tauscher said. "What they are looking for really is a sense that future administrations are going to live by [Obama's commitments]. And you can't really do that."
GOP senators fought hard against during the New START debate against giving Russia any assurances that could be seen as limits on the U.S. missile defense system. Tauscher said the only way for Russia to be assured about the U.S. system was to cooperate fully in its implementation.
"The only way they are going to be assured ... the system does not undercut their strategic deterrent is to sit with us in the tent in NATO and see what we are doing. They will only be their own eyes and ears," she said. "Is it a political leap of faith? Yes. Are they ready to do it? No. But we are hoping that these strategic stability talks over the next 8 months will start to loosen these old ties that have been binding everybody in the old way of thinking."
Tauscher also said implementation of New START with Russia was going extremely well, one year after ratification. There have been 1,700 notifications [of missile movements, etc] and each side has done near the maximum allowed number of inspections, she said.
"We have a very good treaty. Nobody claimed it was the best or the biggest treaty in the world. But it's a modest treaty that has served us in so many different ways," she said. "New START is just doing great."
Tauscher said the Obama administration hopes the "strategic stability" talks will establish reliability and durability in the U.S.-Russia relationship, which will lead to further nuclear reduction talks following Russia's presidential election, including discussions about reducing Russia's tactical nuclear stockpile.
"We want to get back to the table with the Russians both on strategic and non-strategic, deployed and non-deployed. That means everything," she said "We need the elections can pass so that both sides can get back to the table."
Overall, Tauscher disputed the contention that U.S.-Russia relations have peaked, and she dismissed those who have pointed to official comments from either side that seem to indicate the U.S.-Russia "reset" policy is coming to an end.
"While you might pick little data points out and say well there's a little bit of snotty talk here or there... the truth is everything is moving along, nose up, things are good."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton swore in Mike McFaul as the U.S. ambassador to Russia at a ceremony on Teusday at the State Department, where McFaul defended and pledged to continue the administration's U.S.-Russia reset policy.
"This is a good day for us all -- for the United States, which is sending an absolutely top-notch emissary to Moscow, and for our partners in Russia.... And for Mike and his family, it will be an adventure," Clinton said, standing in front of a packed audience of diplomats, officials, experts, and journalists in the State Department's elegant Benjamin Franklin ballroom.
"This administration has placed a particular emphasis on working together with Russia, one of the most complex and consequential relationships we have with any nation in the world.... And I think it's fair to say we have a lot to show for that effort," she said.
Clinton highlighted several achievements of the reset policy, including the New START agreement, the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, the 1-2-3 Agreement for Civil Nuclear Cooperation, expanding supply routes into Afghanistan, and working on Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization.
Clinton recounted the story of how the United States informed Russia that McFaul would be the ambassador, which was different from the usual diplomatic notification.
"When President [Barack] Obama saw President [Dmitry] Medvedev at the G-8 summit in Deauville [France] in May, he simply said, ‘I'm planning to nominate Mike to be the next ambassador to Russia.' And President Medvedev responded immediately with a tone full of respect, ‘Of course. He's a tough negotiator,'" Clinton recounted.
She also said she expects to hear stories about McFaul's jam sessions in Moscow when members of his band come to visit.
"And I'm even told there may be a few rock and roll sessions when Mike's band mates from The Pigs visit Moscow. And it's not an agricultural issue, ambassador. I don't think they'll need to be quarantined with their instruments," Clinton joked.
In his remarks, McFaul also defended the reset policy and thanked his family for moving with him to Moscow instead of returning to their home in Palo Alto, California, as had been planned.
"I was planning on going home and so were my sons, but Secretary Clinton and President Obama thought otherwise, because the reset was not completed last summer, nor is it over now, as some are saying. On the contrary, today we're on to the next, more complex phase, when the alignment of our interests and values is neither simple nor easy," McFaul said. "On to the next adventure. Russia, here we come!"
Several senior Obama administration officials from both the State Department and the National Security Council, where McFaul had been serving as senior director for Russia since 2009, attended the event. They included White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, the NSC's Denis McDonough, Ben Rhodes, and Liz Sherwood-Randall, and the ambassadors of Russia, Turkmenistan, Armenia, Georgia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Romania, Poland, Kyrgyzstan, and many others.
A bipartisan group of eight senators are urging the European Union to level an oil embargo on Iran, while back in Washington both parties are preparing for another push on further Iran sanctions legislation.
"We write to you now to express our belief that 2012 will bring a turning point in the confrontation between Iran and the international community," wrote Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Bob Casey (D-PA), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), in a Jan. 10 letter to EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton.
"Despite economic sanctions that have been put in place in recent years, the strategic calculus of the Iranian regime with regard to its nuclear program has not changed.... For this reason, we believe that it is necessary now to put additional pressure on the Iranian regime by imposing an embargo on its most important export -- oil -- and sanctions on its primary financial intermediary -- the Central Bank of Iran," the letter said.
The EU has signaled recently that there is consensus in principle to go forward with an oil embargo and impose more Iran sanctions, mirroring those passed by Congress and signed reluctantly by President Barack Obama. The EU Council meets at the end of the month, which likely would be the time for an announcement of new sanctions.
"What was unthinkable just a few months ago is now being seriously debated inside the EU: an oil embargo and Central Bank sanctions against Iran," a senior Senate aide told The Cable. "In order to empower those forces inside the EU who are pushing for tough action on both oil and CBI as quickly as possible, both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue have an urgent responsibility to send a clear, persistent, and strong message to the Europeans about the importance of this issue in the weeks ahead. Unfortunately, it remains to be seen if the White House is doing so."
The administration is supporting the new EU sanctions in its public statements. "We're encouraged by the signs that we've seen, that they seem to have some preliminary agreement. This is something that we strongly support," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday.
Congress is also planning to renew consideration of more sanctions on Iran when it returns from winter recess. The Senate plans to take action on the Iran, North Korea, Syria Sanctions Consolidation Act, which is sponsored by Menendez, Kyl, Lieberman, Kirk, and Gillibrand. That bill, a version of which was passed by the House in December, would tighten current sanctions by doing three main things: 1) remove some of the flexibility the Obama administration enjoys to delay enforcement of certain measures; 2) target Iran's shipping and trade; and 3) push the administration to increase promotion of human rights, democracy, and greater access to information inside Iran.
The bill has been referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but Hill aides expect it to be reintroduced and referred to the Senate Banking Committee, which traditionally has jurisdiction over Iran sanctions matters. That could happen as early as next month.
Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is traveling to Beijing this week to try to convince the Chinese to go along with the existing sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), which require the United States to punish any country's central bank if it does business with the CBI. The Chinese preemptively announced that they have no intention of going along with that plan.
The choice of Geithner for the job struck many on Capitol Hill as odd, considering Geithner is on record as opposing the CBI sanctions and was reportedly personally involved in the administration's efforts to water down the legislation, even writing a letter opposing the stricter measures.
"I am writing to express the administration's strong opposition to this amendment because, in its current form, it threatens to undermine the effective, carefully phased, and sustainable approach we have taken to build strong international pressure against Iran," wrote Geithner in December. "In addition, the amendment would potentially yield a net economic benefit to the Iranian regime."
"What a great irony that a month ago he puts his signature to a letter opposing the sanctions that he is now going around the world to seek enforcement of," a senior GOP congressional aide said, adding that the Hill is waiting for Treasury to issue its final rule for implementation of the CBI sanctions.
"We will be watching closely to see if they try to narrow the scope and what they try to do to water down sanctions now that they tried very hard unsuccessfully to water down before."
Your humble Cable guy appeared on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow show last night to discuss the international efforts to increase pressure on Iran and Iran's threats to close the Strait of Hormuz.
Take a look:
As of last Friday, President Barack Obama's administration was considering announcing a new package of food aid to North Korea and working toward the resumption of talks about North Korea's nuclear program. Today, that whole plan has been upended due to the death of Kim Jong Il, forcing the administration to grapple with a whole new set of North Korea problems.
On Dec. 15-16, the State Department's Special Envoy for Human Rights Bob King met with North Korean foreign ministry official Ri Gun in Beijing to work out the details for monitoring the distribution of huge new shipments of food aid from the United States to North Korea, which claims to be in dire need. The South Korean press reported on Dec. 17 that an agreement had been struck for the United States to send 20,000 tons of food aid a month to North Korea for the next 12 months, or a grand total of 240,000 tons of food assistance.
The U.S. Special Representative on North Korea Glyn Davies was also in Beijing Dec. 15 and 16, coincidentally. On Dec. 17, news reports quoted an anonymous diplomatic source as saying that Pyongyang had agreed to suspend uranium enrichment -- one of Washington's key demands for the resumption of Six Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear program, which have been defunct since 2008. Davies was supposed to travel to Beijing to firm up the details of that arrangement with North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-Gwan on Dec. 22.
All of those arrangements are now on hold indefinitely, as the United States regroups with allies Japan and South Korea to try to assess the current situation inside North Korea, prepare for the downside risk of a violent transition, and figure out how to proceed in dealing with a regime that has nuclear weapons and a very uncertain future.
"Where we were headed was the giving of food aid, the restart of the [prisoner of war] remains recovery project (to return U.S. soldiers killed in the Korean war), and these would be the two goodies that North Korea would get to undertake the pre-steps to restarting the Six Party Talks. The administration was going to announce the food aid this week and Davies was supposed to be in Beijing by Thursday," said Victor Cha, former Asia director at the National Security Council, who now holds the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Now we've got a whole new problem, not just seeing if we can get back to where we were Friday," said Cha. "This transition may not go well. It completely changes the whole character of the North Korea problem overnight. A runaway nuclear program, the sudden death of Kim Jong Il, and we know nothing about the new leadership. You can't imagine a worse problem than this."
At today's State Department press briefing, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland emphasized that no final decisions had been made on granting food aid to North Korea or sending Davies to Beijing. In fact, she said that there was supposed to be a high-level interagency meeting today at the White House with King and Davies to make these very decisions.
That meeting did take place early on Monday, but did not focus on food aid, uranium enrichment, the Six Party talks, or any other bilateral issue, according to Nuland.
"Meetings that might have happened today with our travelers who just got back instead were focused on maintaining close contact with our other partners in the Six Party Talks and on ensuring calm and regional stability on the peninsula," Nuland said. "So we have yet to have the internal review of these issues that we need to have."
Nuland also said that the Obama administration wanted "to be respectful of the North Korean period of mourning," so no further negotiations are expected for a while. North Korea does not intend to invite foreign delegations to Kim's Dec. 28 funeral.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was briefed on the situation in North Korea twice on Sunday night by Davies and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell. She just happened to be meeting Monday at the State Department with Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba, after which told reporters, "We both share a common interest in a peaceful and stable transition in North Korea, as well as in ensuring regional peace and stability."
Clinton said that Obama had spoken with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Sunday night, and officials were reaching out to their counterparts in Russia and China as well. Clinton made no mention of the recent U.S.-North Korea bilateral diplomacy, nor did she reiterate calls for North Korea to honor its previous agreements to denuclearize and rejoin multilateral talks on that issue.
Clinton and Gemba took no questions at their post-meeting "press conference."
One Asia hand close to the administration told The Cable today that the bilateral negotiations between the United States and North Korea were even more advanced than had been reported. According to this expert, the North Koreans had also discussed a moratorium on missile testing, which would have been announced after the resumption of the Six Party Talks. The North Koreans were also asking the United States to resume its assistance in building a light water commercial nuclear reactor in North Korea, an idea that has been part of past negotiations but was scuttled when the 1994 Agreed Framework, which was meant to govern North Korea's nuclear program, broke down in 2002.
That 1994 agreement is seen by some as a positive indicator that progress can be made with North Korea despite a leadership transition. The agreement was signed only months after Kim Jong Il took power following the death of his father, Kim Il Sung.
"We want to continue forward and see if there's continuity in their policy," the Asia hand said.. "If we're in a holding pattern for too long, things could shift in the other direction. That's the danger here."
If and when the food aid decision finally comes, it will be controversial here in Washington. Several GOP senators are opposed to what they see as bribing the North Koreans to come back to the negotiating table. In fact, some senators will likely point to assurances the administration gave Congress that it wouldn't bribe North Korea, which were made as part of the deal to confirm the U.S. envoy to South Korea, Sung Kim, in October.
The State Department always claims that food aid decisions are made on humanitarian grounds and not linked to policy decisions, but the timing of the negotiations is not seen as a coincidence by those on Capitol Hill.
"Food aid is always classified as separate, however, if the press reports are accurate it is clear that the administration was prepared to link food aid to a suspension of North Korea's uranium enrichment program," one Senate GOP aide told The Cable. "Of course food aid is a financial reward.... Leave it to North Korea -- Kim's untimely death -- to save the administration from its own worst impulses. How long they can resist repeating the mistakes of 1994 remains to be seen."
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
The nomination of Mike McFaul to become ambassador to Russia cleared one major hurdle Thursday as Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) lifted his hold. The administration was working hard Thursday to satsify other GOP senators' concerns as the Senate prepares to adjourn for the year.
If McFaul is not confirmed by the Senate this month, there will be a vacancy atop the U.S. embassy in Moscow as of next week, when Amb. John Beyrle leaves. Kirk had been very public about his reasons for placing a hold on the McFaul nomination, saying that he was seeking written assurances that President Barack Obama's administration will not provide Russia with any currently classified information on the U.S. missile defense system. Several other members of Congress -- and some experts outside Congress, such as former Missile Defense Agency head Lt. Gen. Trey Obering - echoed Kirk's concern.
On Tuesday, Robert Nabors, director of the White House office of legislative affairs, wrote a letter to Kirk on the matter that was obtained by The Cable.
"We will not provide Russia with sensitive information about our missile defense systems that would in any way compromise our national security. For example, hit-to-kill technology and interceptor telemetry will under no circumstances be provided to Russia," wrote Nabors. "However, in the event that the exchange of classified information with Russia on missile defense will increase the president's ability to defend the American people, the president will retain the right to do that."
In a Thursday interview with The Cable, Kirk said that this assurance, combined with new language in the defense authorization bill requiring 60 days notice before any classified missile defense data is shared with Russia, was enough to reassure him that no classified missile defense data will ever be shared. The law also requires the president to certify in writing that Russia won't share the data with any third parties, such as Iran.
Kirk said that the administration can't possibly certify that Russia won't share the information, so there won't be any way for the administration to meet the defense bill's requirement. If the administration does try to notify Congress it plans to share classified missile defense data with Russia, Kirk promised there would be hearings, legislative action, and a full-court press to oppose it.
"They would have a two-month all out fight on their hands," he said.
Kirk also pointed out that the Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitri Rogozin, who has been insulting Kirk on Twitter, is set to travel to Iran next month. "There is no doubt that Iran will share with Russia the technologies found in our RQ-170 drone," Kirk said. "It's extremely troubling that Russia's top official on missile defense is deepening his relationship with Iran."
Kirk praised McFaul and said his record on promoting democracy and human rights will be an asset if and when he takes over the U.S. embassy in Moscow. The hold was never about McFaul personally, Kirk said.
With Kirk's hold gone, that leaves four other GOP senators who had expressed public or private objections to the McFaul nomination: Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN), James Risch (R-ID), Jim DeMint (R-SC), and Richard Burr (R-NC), who has threatened to hold all State Department nominees until State designates the Haqqani network as a foreign terrorist organization..
Corker had placed a hold on McFaul to ensure that the United States fully funds the National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA) budget, which includes funding for the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee, for FY 2012. If Congress passes the omnibus bill with full NNSA funding this week, that should take care of Corker's concerns.
DeMint's objection, which is especially important because he controls the Republican Steering Committee, is over the administration's refusal to share internal documents related to its negotiations with Russia over missile defense. Examples of documents sought by DeMint include the draft of the U.S.-Russia Defense Technology Cooperation Agreement.
DeMint has taken multiple hostages in his fight with the State Department over these documents, including holding the nomination of Mike Hammer to be assistant secretary of State for public affairs.
DeMint and the other GOP senators met with McFaul in the Capitol today for a briefing and McFaul showed the senators the draft DTCA. The hope is that this meeting was enough to satisfy their concerns about U.S. policy toward Russia and information sharing with Congress.
Meanwhile, 36 conservative foreign policy experts wrote to top senators today to plead for the confirmation of Matthew Bryza as ambassador to Azerbaijan. Bryza is currently serving under a recess appointment that expires next month.
His nomination was being held up last year by two Democrats, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who are seen to be representing the concerns of their Armenian constituencies, which are unhappy with the administration's policy opposing a Congressional resolution condemning the 1915 Armenian genocide.
"It is understandable that Armenian Americans and even some Senators will disagree with the U.S. policy concerning whether to call the events of 1915 a genocide. That is an argument to be hashed out with the U.S. Administration on the merits," the experts wrote. "But holding up a qualified career nominee who is already serving in a key position will not change U.S. policy, and does a disservice to U.S. interests in a critical region."
If President Barack Obama's administration wants to share sensitive data about U.S. missile defense systems with Russia, it now must at least tell Congress in advance, according to the final version of the defense authorization bill.
It was revealed in November that the Obama administration was considering sharing sensitive missile defense information with Russia in a bid to assure the Russians that U.S. missile defense capabilities in Europe were not a threat to their ballistic missile forces. For example, the United States reportedly offered to give Russia the details of the burnout velocity of the SM-3 interceptor missile, which would tell the Russians how far our interceptor missiles could chase their missiles.
The House version of the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill banned any such sharing, but the conference report issued Monday evening softened that restriction. The final version of the legislation, which will land on Obama's desk later this week, requires that the administration give Congress 60 days notice before giving any classified missile defense information to the Russians. The defense bill is considered a "must pass" bill and Obama won't likely veto it over this provision.
The notification must include a detailed description of the information to be shared, an explanation for why such sharing is in the U.S. national security interest, an explanation of what the Russians are giving in return, and an explanation of how the administration can be sure the information won't be shared with third parties, such as Iran.
Of course, the future of U.S.-Russian missile defense cooperation is unclear. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev seemed to announce the failure of the talks on Nov. 23, when he also announced a series of retaliatory measures to counter U.S. missile defense deployments in Europe and threatened to withdraw from the New START treaty. But the administration still insists that it plans to continue U.S.-Russian negotiations over how to work together on missile defense.
The concern on Capitol Hill is that the administration will give up valuable information before striking a deal, thereby undermining the effectiveness of U.S. missile defenses before they are even fully deployed.
"It's not at all clear that the Russians have any interest in so-called missile defense cooperation with the United States, but, assuming that the State Department or Defense Department propose to offer classified information to Russia on U.S. missile defenses, for the first time, they will have to tell Congress before they do so," a GOP congressional aide close to the issue told The Cable today. "Congress will have plenty of time to evaluate the proposal and raise objections as necessary."
Meanwhile, the top Russian official dealing with the issue, Russia's NATO Ambassador Dmitry Rogozin, has a new side job: accusing the United States of fomenting unrest in Russia. He gave a speech stoking fears of U.S. aggression against Russia at a rally this week for the ruling United Russia party. The demonstration was called to counter the protests that broke out last week in Moscow and elsewhere around the country after Russia's flawed parliamentary elections.
"There are forces today that consider Russia easy prey," Rogozin said. "They bombed Iraq. They destroyed Libya. They are approaching Syria. They stepped all over the people of Yugoslavia. And they are now thinking about Russia and are waiting for a moment when it is weak."
Rogozin, who got the red carpet treatment from the administration when he visited the United States in July, has also been keeping up his war of words on Twitter with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), whom he in July called a "monster of the Cold War," along with Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ).
"My friend Kerk [sic] is relentless. He is now stifling Amb. Michael McFaul," Rogozin tweeted Dec. 4, linking to The Cable's article on Kirk's hold on McFaul's nomination to become ambassador to Russia. "With guys like Kerk US is pushing its way ahead."
House and Senate leaders are meeting this week behind closed doors to work out language for new sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), and the administration is pressing key Democrats hard to adopt their position, which aims to weaken the sanctions measures.
The debate is taking place as part of the negotiations over the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill, which passed both the House and the Senate and is in conference right now. The legislation will probably emerge from conference next week and pass both chambers, at which point President Barack Obama will be under heavy pressure to sign the "must pass" defense bill, with whatever Iran sanctions language the conferees agree on.
The current sanctions language at the center of the closed door debate is the amendment by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), which passed the Senate by a rare 100-0 vote over the very public objections of top Obama administration officials. The amendment would direct the Obama administration to take punitive measures against foreign banks that do business with the CBI, but gives the administration more leeway to implement the sanctions than Kirk's original language.
The administration urged Kirk and Menendez to come up with a compromise amendment but then came out against that very compromise last week, angering and alienating Menendez, who needs to be tough on the issue ahead of his re-election bid next year. The Cable has obtained the administration's private communications to the conferees spelling out the changes they want to the Kirk-Menendez amendment; they can be found here and here.
Basically, the administration wants to delay the implementation of sanctions not related to oil purchases from 60 to 180 days, and wants to water down the severity of sanctions measures if and when they are put into effect.
Initially, the administration turned to House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) to help them with the changes. Berman, who is inside the closed conference, initially indicated that he wanted to work with the administration to change the Kirk-Menendez amendment.
But Berman also has a tough reelection fight coming up against Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), who he must face after their districts were combined, and he can't afford to seem weak on Iran. Today, Berman announced that he does not want to want to water down the Kirk-Menendez language at all. In fact, he said he wants to strengthen it.
"Every administration wants total discretion on foreign policy, but that is an impulse that Congress must always resist," Berman said at a conference on Thursday sponsored by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), a conservative policy and research organization. Berman spoke just after a panel on Syria, moderated by your humble Cable guy.
"I will not, and Congress should not, give into entreaties from the administration or elsewhere ... to dilute our approach to sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran's petroleum transactions," Berman said to applause. "The Kirk-Menendez amendment is a good amendment."
Berman said the only change he wants to the Kirk-Menendez amendment is to shorten the administration's window for implementing sanctions on those who do oil business with the CBI from 180 days, as the Kirk-Menendez bill specifies, to 120 days.
Sherman, in a Thursday interview with The Cable, accused Berman of flip-flopping on the issue and said the Kirk-Menendez language should be sent to Obama's desk exactly as it is.
"Berman was helping the administration and now he's made a 180 degree change, which is good," Sherman said.
"We need to protect the Menendez-Kirk language," he said, making sure to name the Democrat first. "The White House doesn't want to do it. And the White House will be trying to stop the Menendez-Kirk amendment from being in legislation that the president has to sign."
Having lost Berman, the administration then turned to other senior Democrats to carry its water inside the conference. We're told by a senior GOP congressional aide close to the conference negotiations that House Armed Services ranking Democrat Adam Smith (D-WA) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) are now arguing inside the conference for changes to the Kirk-Menendez amendment to satisfy the administration's concerns.
"Right now the Republicans want to adopt the
Menendez/Kirk amendment while the Democrats, specifically Congressman Smith and
Senator Levin, are working to incorporate the Obama administration'
The administration has argued publicly that the Kirk-Menendez amendment could alienate foreign countries, make it more difficult to form an international coalition to pressure Iran, and raise oil prices, which could actually help the Iranian economy. They have argued in private meetings with lawmakers that the effort could hurt the U.S. economy.
Supporters of the Kirk-Menendez amendment point to an extensive report on CBI sanctions compiled in the midst of the negotiations by the FDD.
"The (once) confidential report was provided to the administration and select members of Congress during the discussions on the Menendez-Kirk Central Bank amendment," FDD's Mark Dubowitz told The Cable. "The report concluded that, even if the Saudis did not release additional oil supplies, it was still possible to reduce Iran's oil revenues without spooking oil markets and driving up the price of oil."
Sherman's view on that tension is shared by most lawmakers. "You can't stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon without breaking some eggs," he said.
President Barack Obama's administration is working behind the scenes to water down congressional language that would impose crippling sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran (CBI).
The Obama administration sent to Congress this week a list of requested changes to the sanctions language found in the Senate's version of the defense authorization bill, which was passed last week. Those sanctions, which would punish any bank that does business with the CBI, were part of an amendment authored by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) that passed the Senate over the administration's objections by a vote of 100 to 0.
The House and the Senate are negotiating over the defense authorization bill this week behind closed doors, so the administration has one more chance to try to change the sanctions language before the bill lands on Obama's desk. If the Kirk-Menendez language is sent to the president without any alterations, he will be forced to either accept it or veto the entire defense authorization bill. There's no indication yet which way he would go.
The administration's laundry list of requested changes to the bill was sent to leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. The administration wants to delay the implementation of sanctions not related to oil purchases from 60 to 180 days, and wants to water down the severity of sanctions measures if and when they are put into effect.
Kirk and Menendez sent a letter on Monday night to House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) and ranking member Adam Smith (D-WA), which was obtained by The Cable, urging them to hold the line and keep the Senate language as-is.
"The Menendez/Kirk amendment is tough, responsible and, most importantly, bipartisan. It provides the Administration another key tool to curb Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons while keeping oil markets stable and encouraging other nations to reduce Iranian oil purchases. With the support of every single United States Senator, it needs no alterations," they wrote.
"We understand the administration has submitted to your Committee a list of proposed changes to the Menendez/Kirk amendment -- both ‘technical fixes' and ‘alterations.' We would note that proposals to delay sanctions implementation and water down the amendment's penalties are not ‘technical' in nature and should be rejected."
Menendez had been working with the administration on how to sanction the CBI, but publicly announced on Dec. 1 that he felt burned by the administration's public opposition to his amendment. "This certainly undermines your relationship with me for the future," Menendez told administration officials at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
So the administration must now look toward Howard Berman (D-CA), the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, for help in altering the Kirk-Menendez amendment. Berman's committee has shared jurisdiction on the bill, and Berman has been active in sponsoring legislation to sanction Iran and the CBI.
In a statement e-mailed to The Cable, Berman indicated that the Kirk-Menendez language might not be the final say in how Congress moves to sanction Iran.
"As the original author of the House amendment to sanction the Central Bank of Iran, I am pleased that the Senate has taken action on this urgent issue. In the near future, the House will pass the Iran Threat Reduction Act, which includes my amendment," Berman said. "Meanwhile, I will be working with my colleagues in the House, the Senate, and the Administration in an effort to ensure that the final language of the Kirk-Menendez amendment is as tough and sensible as possible and provides a time-frame that corresponds to the rapid progress Iran is making toward developing nuclear weapons."
One GOP congressional aide told The Cable that if Berman seems to be working to weaken the Senate language, Republicans are ready to use that as fodder against him in his upcoming primary fight against Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA). The two lawmakers' districts were combined due to redistricting, and they now have to run against each other next year.
"I can't imagine why Howard Berman would want to put his seat at risk by helping the Obama administration weaken Iran sanctions," the GOP aide said. "All he needs to say is 'The House recedes' and the Menendez/Kirk amendment becomes law. Brad Sherman must be licking his chops."
A team of conservative policymakers and thinkers believes that there's a real chance that Western efforts to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon will fail, in which case the United States would have to lead an international effort to contain Iran and deter the Islamic Republic from using its nuclear weapons capability.
Experts at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative Washington think tank, have spent the last six months thinking about how the United States should respond to a nuclear-armed Iran. They are getting ready to release an extensive report tomorrow detailing a comprehensive strategy for dealing with that scenario, entitled, "Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran."
"The report is very much an acknowledgement of the very real possibility of failure of the strategy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and any responsible party should recognize that failure is an option. There's been a huge disservice done by all who have spent their lives in denial of that possibility," AEI Vice President Danielle Pletka told The Cable in a Monday interview. "Whenever you devise a strategy for what happens before a country gets a nuclear weapon, you should have a strategy for what happens after they get one as well."
Pletka will unveil the report on Tuesday morning at an event with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), and fellow AEI experts Tom Donnelly, Maseh Zarif, and Fred Kagan. The project brought together Iran experts of all stripes to brainstorm what would be needed to create the maximum level of confidence that, if Iran does develop a nuclear weapon, it would not decide to use it.
"While there can never be certain deterrence, Cold War presidents often had confidence that the United States had sufficient military power to support a policy of containment through a strategy of deterrence; for most of the period they felt that deterrence was assured," the report states. "It is worth repeating Dean Acheson's basic formulation: ‘American power would be employed in stopping [Soviet aggression and expansion], and if necessary, would inflict on the Soviet Union injury which the Moscow regime would not wish to suffer.' Assured deterrence began with assured destruction of the Soviet regime."
Pletka said that while the geopolitical environment is now different, the basic goal of U.S. policy is the same -- to create a situation whereby Iranian leaders would credibly believe that any nuclear attack would mean the end of their regime. But Pletka doubts whether this administration has the stomach for such a stance.
"Take out Soviet and Moscow from Acheson's quote, and sub in Iran and Tehran. Are we willing to inflict on Iran injury which the Tehran regime would not wish to suffer? I doubt it," Pletka warned. "There's no question that a country can be deterred from using a nuclear weapon, the only question is if there is the will to put those tools in place."
The report works under the assumption that Iran is working to build a nuclear weapon now and could complete one before the 2012 U.S. presidential election, after which it would continue to build nuclear weapons at a rapid pace. The report also assumes that the Obama administration is unwilling to go to war with Iran before November 2012 over the issue, and that even a limited strike by Israel would not achieve a full destruction of Iran's nuclear capabilities.
"Strategically, Iran's leaders would be foolish to wait until after November 2012 to acquire the capability to permanently deter an American attack on their nuclear program," the report states. "Sound American strategy thus requires assuming that Iran will have a weaponized nuclear capability when the next president takes office in January 2013. The Iranians may not test a device before then, depending, perhaps, on the rhetoric of the current president and his possible successor, but we must assume that they will have at least one."
"Make no mistake -- it would be vastly preferable for the United States and the world to find a way to prevent Iran from crossing that threshold, and we wholeheartedly endorse ongoing efforts that might do so," the authors write. "But some of the effort now focused on how to tighten the sanctions screws must shift to the problem of how to deal with the consequences when sanctions fail."
For Donnelly, part of the report's value is that it highlights the high costs of a deterrence and containment strategy compared to the costs of taking stronger actions now to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
"Deterrence and containment are the default mode for the people who are not up for going to war, but we wanted to point out that this was not a cheap or easy alternative, which is the way a lot of people make it sound," Donnelly told The Cable in an interview.
At Tuesday's event, Kirk will make the argument that the deterrence and containment strategy are too costly and too uncertain to depend on. His speech will be entitled, "If Iran gets the bomb..."
"Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran is on the march to nuclear weapons. And if this brutal, terrorist-sponsoring regime achieves its goal -- if Iran gets the bomb -- we, the United States of America and freedom-loving nations around the world, will have failed in what could be our generation's greatest test," Kirk will say, according to excerpts of his speech provided to The Cable.
"Iran remains the leading sponsor of international terrorism -- a proliferator of missiles and nuclear materials -- a regional aggressor -- and an abuser of human rights. We cannot afford to risk the security of future generations on a policy of containment."
The Obama administration first urged Senate leaders to compromise on new legislation that would sanction the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) -- but then came out today against that very compromise, angering and alienating a key Democratic Senate ally.
Two senior administration officials testified Thursday morning that the current bipartisan amendment to impose new sanctions on the CBI and any other bank that does business with them is a bad idea that could alienate foreign countries, make it more difficult to pressure Iran, and raise oil prices, which could actually help the Iranian economy.
The administration's strategy of working behind the scenes to change what's become the Kirk-Menendez Iran sanctions amendment, only to publicly oppose it today, angered several senators, including Robert Menendez himself. The New Jersey Democrat took seven minutes at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to chastise Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman and Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen at Thursday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting for asking him to negotiate on their behalf, and then criticizing the compromise he struck with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL).
"At your request we engaged in an effort to come to a bipartisan agreement that I believe is fair and balanced. And now you come here and vitiate that agreement.... You should have said we want no amendment," Menendez said. "Everything that you have said in your testimony undermines your opposition to this amendment. The clock is ticking."
Menendez said he regretted working with the administration on the issue, and said that perhaps he should have just agreed to Kirk's original Iran sanctions amendment, which was more severe and provided the administration with less room to maneuver than the compromise amendment that is set to be voted on and passed in the Senate as early as tomorrow.
"This certainly undermines your relationship with me for the future," Menendez told the administration officials. He also urged for more drastic measures, such as a gasoline embargo on Iran. "If the Europeans are considering an embargo, we shouldn't be leading from behind, we should be leading forward."
The break between this Democratic senator, who is up for reelection next year, and the Obama administration comes two days after the administration sent three very senior officials to meet with senators to try to get them to scuttle the amendment. On the morning of Nov. 29, Treasury Deputy Secretary Neal Wolin, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, and Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough called an emergency meeting on Capitol Hill, multiple Hill sources told The Cable.
They sat down with Sens. Kirk, Menendez, and SFRC Chairman John Kerry (D-MA). The officials argued that the Kirk-Menendez would get in the way of their efforts to build a multilateral coalition designed to increase pressure on Iran, and they warned the amendment might cause severe disruptions to the world oil markets and therefore have negative effects on the U.S. economy. Kirk and Menendez flatly refused to back down, our sources said, while Kerry reportedly said exactly nothing in the meeting.
The officials' sentiments were echoed in a letter sent today to Senate leaders by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who we're told is personally invested in the administration effort to thwart the Kirk-Menendez amendment.
"I am writing to express the administration's strong opposition to this amendment because, in its current form, it threatens to undermine the effective, carefully phased, and sustainable approach we have taken to build strong international pressure against Iran," wrote Geithner. "In addition, the amendment would potentially yield a net economic benefit to the Iranian regime."
Geithner argued that because the Kirk-Menendez amendment would force foreign banks to choose between doing business with the U.S. or Iran, some might choose Iran and resist going along with American unilateral efforts, thereby helping the Iranian economy and hurting our own.
Menendez addressed that point by saying that the amendment allows the implementation of the sanctions to be waived if the president determines there's not enough supply in the world oil market, or if he determines a country is making progress in divesting itself from Iranian business relationships.
"So we basically say to financial institutions, do you want to deal with a $300 billion economy, or do you want to deal with a $14 trillion economy? I think that choice is pretty easy for them," Menendez said at the hearing. "So I find it pretty outrageous that when the clock is ticking, and when you ask us to engage in a more reasoned effort, and we produce such an effort in a bipartisan basis, that in fact you come here and say what you say."
One GOP Senate aide told The Cable today that while the amendment was crafted to avoid disrupting the world economy as much as possible, administration officials' warnings of economic consequences could have an effect of their own.
"The administration is going to spook the oil markets themselves in opposition to an amendment that would not," the aide said. "They could create their own self-fulfilling prophecy of driving up oil prices, so their strategy seems to be self defeating."
UPDATE: The Kirk-Menendez amendment passed the senate late Thursday by a unanimous vote of 100-0.
Senate Democrats and Republicans have agreed on a way forward regarding new sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) that would impose crippling sanctions on the Iranian economy, with an eye toward preventing a catastrophic consequence for the world oil markets.
Last night, Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) filed a new amendment to the defense policy bill that represents a compromise of the two separate amendments each had filed last week. The new bipartisan language would build upon the administration's announcement last week that it was naming the CBI as a "primary money laundering concern" under the Patriot Act and go further than President Barack Obama's Nov. 19 executive order expanding sanctions on Iran's petroleum sector. The Senate amendment would add to that by barring any U.S. financial institution from doing business with any foreign financial institution that knowingly conducted any significant financial transaction with the CBI.
The Kirk-Menendez amendment got unanimous consent in the Senate on Monday for consideration on the defense bill, which is on the floor this week. It will get a vote, probably before Dec. 2, and is expected to pass overwhelmingly. The administration has resisted any congressional efforts to force the imposition of Iran sanctions ahead of its own schedule, but Obama will be hard pressed to veto the must-pass defense bill over the issue.
"The amendment is hard-hitting, responsible and, most importantly, completely bipartisan. It'll have an enormous impact on the Iranian economy without hurting our own while providing the administration additional diplomatic leverage," a GOP Senate aide told The Cable today. "Last week the administration told the world that the Central Bank of Iran was a terrorist bank; I think they'd have to agree this amendment is an appropriate way of dealing with a terrorist bank."
The main concern with Kirk's original amendment was that it would have forced measures against central banks in other countries that do oil business with the CBI. The compromise language softens that requirement by giving a six-month grace period for petroleum-related sanctions to go into effect. And after six months, the penalties against central banks in other countries could be waived by the president for another six months if the Energy Information Agency reports there's not enough non-Iranian oil supply in the market, or if specific countries are showing strong efforts to move away from Iranian oil purchases.
The amendment would also require the president to initiate a "multilateral diplomacy initiative" aimed at convincing other countries to stop purchasing oil from Iran.
Read a best-guess timeline of the implementation of the Kirk-Menendez sanctions, compiled as a memo by Hill aides and given to The Cable, after the jump:
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has delayed consideration of Michael McFaul to become the next U.S. ambassador to Russia due to objections by U.S. senators that aren't related to his personal qualifications for the position.
Two Senate sources confirmed to The Cable that the committee decided Monday not to consider the nomination of McFaul, the current National Security Council senior director for Russia, at today's committee business meeting as had been planned. In fact, early Tuesday afternoon the entire meeting was cancelled due to the McFaul objection as well as separate objections on the nominations of Roberta Jacobson to become assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, and Mari Carmen Aponte as ambassador to El Salvador. A planned resolution giving the sense of the Senate on Libya also faced criticism, our two Senate sources said.
"Today's business meeting has been postponed due to last-minute requests to holdover several of the agenda items," SFRC spokeswoman Jennifer Berlin told The Cable.
For McFaul, two staffers have confirmed that the objection is coming from Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN). Corker isn't objecting to McFaul's personal qualifications for the position, but is using the nomination to press for administration assurances that the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee will be fully funded for fiscal year 2012. Corker also wants assurances over funding for nuclear warhead life-extension programs, which were part of the deal the administration struck with Congress during the debate over the New START nuclear reductions agreement with Russia.
Other GOP senators want to use the McFaul nomination to press the administration on a host of issues, including the current U.S.-Russia talks over missile defense cooperation, Russia's poor record on human rights, its continued occupation of the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and a perceived lack of Russian cooperation on key international issues, such as confronting the Iranian nuclear threat.
"Objections have been raised by enough Republicans to warrant holding [McFaul] over until the next business meeting. Likely, strong concerns over administration negotiations with Moscow over missile defense play a large role in taking him off the business meeting agenda," one Senate Republican committee staffer said. "It may be the case Mr. McFaul is not confirmed, given the weight of these concerns."
Another staffer for a committee member said today that further objections to McFaul's nomination would probably come during floor consideration, because they would be raised by Republicans not on the committee. The objections have little to do with McFaul himself, who is generally liked and well-respected by the GOP, in part due to his decades of activism on democracy and human rights.
"He's about as good of a nominee as Republicans can expect from this administration, but there is a huge gap between the administration and the GOP about how the ‘reset' with Russia is going," said this staffer. "Republicans will use his nomination to air their concerns about a range of issues. That's just how it is."
The committee will likely have only one more business meeting this year, and it is unclear whether the administration will get McFaul a hearing on the next agenda.
Meanwhile, the State Department, aware of the potential problems with the McFaul nomination, sent around a fact sheet yesterday to Senate offices, which was obtained by The Cable, seeking to assuage senators' concerns about U.S.-Russia missile defense cooperation discussions. One GOP Senate aide reacted to the fact sheet by telling The Cable, "If the administration thinks this is what constitutes giving Congress access to information about the negotiations, they are sorely mistaken."
Some GOP offices also wanted Kerry to add a bill to penalize Russia for its treatment of human rights lawyers and activists to today's business meeting agenda. The legislation, called the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011, is named after the anti-corruption lawyer who was tortured and died in a Russian prison in 2009. The bill targets his captors, as well as any other Russian officials "responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of human rights."
Republicans want passage of the Magnitsky bill to be the cost of repealing the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which currently prevents Russia from getting Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status. Without PNTR, U.S. businesses will be disadvantaged when Russia joins the WTO later this year. The administration is avoiding linking Magnitsky to this trade status, and is proposing a fund to support a new democracy and human rights foundation in Russia instead. Republicans are cool on that idea.
Meanwhile, we've confirmed that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) is objecting to the Jacobson nomination, and we're told that Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) is holding up the Aponte nomination.
The Obama administration reacted cautiously to today's International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran's nuclear weapons program and declined to say how exactly how they would respond. But across Washington, suggestions for tightening the noose on the Iranian regime were abundant.
"I'm definitely going to tell you we need time to study it," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters on Tuesday following the release of the IAEA report, which alleges that Iran had until 2003 an intricate and extensive program to design and build a nuclear warhead to fit atop a Shabaab-3 missile. The report also stated that Iran worked on components for such a warhead, prepared for nuclear tests, and maintained aspects of the program well past 2003 -- activities that may still be ongoing today.
"I think you know the process here: that after a report like this comes out, we also have a scheduled meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors coming up on November 18th, so Iran will be an agenda item at that meeting. So we will take the time between now and then to study this," Nuland said.
In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday afternoon, two senior administration officials predicted that the Obama administration would increase sanctions on Iran in light of the report but declined to offer any specifics on what they might be.
That explanation wasn't well received by lawmakers in both parties on Tuesday, who offered plenty of specific ideas on how to ramp up pressure on Tehran and have no intention of waiting for the administration to "study" the IAEA's findings.
The Cable spoke on Tuesday with Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Mark Kirk (R-IL), John McCain (R-AZ), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) about the report.
"It's of enormous concern to everybody and a lot of conversations are taking place right now about how to respond," Kerry told The Cable. "It clearly means we have to ratchet up on Iran, probably tougher sanctions and other things."
Kerry declined to endorse one big idea floating around town, namely to take actions that would collapse the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and ruin the country's currency, bringing the Iranian economy to its knees.
"There are a lot of options, you want to pick them carefully and you want to be thoughtful about what's going to be effective," Kerry said.
Kirk, who co-authored a letter in August with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) calling for collapsing the CBI, and which was signed by 92 senators, tweeted today that the White House's reaction to the report Tuesday constituted "national security malpractice."
Kirk met with White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley on Monday night to give him the "hard sell" on the idea of collapsing the CBI, he told The Cable. Kirk said that the concept under consideration is to give friendly countries that are dependent on Iranian oil -- such as Japan, South Korea, and Turkey -- a time window to shift their purchases from Iran to Saudi Arabia.
Kirk and Schumer are planning to introduce a bill soon that would be a Senate companion to an amendment by Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) to require the president to determine within 30 days the CBI's role in Iran's illicit activities. If the president determines that the CBI is complicit, the bill would require the administration to cut off any foreign banks doing business with the CBI from participating in the U.S. financial system.
The main risk in collapsing the CBI is that it could bring down the Iranian oil industry along with it, risking a cascading effect on world energy markets that would exacerbate the global economic crisis.
McCain told The Cable today that it's a risk he is willing to take. "Libya is cranking up their oil exports. There's always risk, but there's a greater risk when you know that they're about to become nuclear weaponized," he said.
"The first thing we should do is talk to the Russians and the Chinese and tell them to get with it and pass the increased sanctions through the U.N.," McCain said, adding that the Obama has leverage against Russian and China if it chooses to use it. "Russia wants in the WTO, China wants a lot of things. There should be consequences for their failure to act."
Graham agreed that the negative impact of collapsing the CBI was a necessary cost of ramping up pressure on Iran.
"We've got make a decision: What's the biggest threat to the world, a nuclear-armed Iran or sanctions that would hurt us and the people of Iran?" Graham told The Cable. "You've got two choices, the policy of containment or the policy of preemption. I'm in the preemption camp. I don't think containment works. The only way to stop this is to prevent this and that means changing behavior."
Graham said existing sanctions don't seem to be working, which means that the sanctions regime has to be fundamentally changed. "If that doesn't work, the other option is military force." But Graham cautioned that if there were to be a military strike on Iran, it would have to include a massive assault on Iran's counterattacking capabilities.
"You'd have to destroy their air force, sink their navy, and deal with their long-range missile threat. So you'd have to go in big," he said. "If you attack Iran you open Pandora's box. If you allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, you empty Pandora's box. So these are not good choices."
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) said in a statement that the threat of military force must be credible and he called for Congress to pass a new Iran sanctions bill, one that the administration previously said was unnecessary.
The House and Senate have each unveiled a version of the bill that would tighten existing sanctions, compel the administration to enforce penalties already on the books, and levy a host of new restrictions against members of Iran's regime and companies that aid Iran's energy, banking, and arms sectors. The bills are a follow-up to the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act (CISADA) that Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed in July 2010.
Former Treasury Department official Matthew Levitt, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Cable that there's no consensus yet inside the administration or around the world that collapsing the CBI would be possible without doing severe damage to the world economy.
But Levitt offered several things the administration can do immediately to ramp up pressure on Iran, including pressuring countries to scale back Iranian diplomatic presence in their capitals, restricting the travel of Iranian officials around the world, and setting up a multilateral customs body to enforce sanctions against Iran, modeled after what was done in wake of the Kosovo crisis.
"The administration is not being creative enough with the tools they have," Levitt said. In the coming days, he predicted, "You are going to see scrambling as to what can be done."
Actor Michael Douglas has been in Washington all week to advocate for nuclear non-proliferation and funding for diplomacy in today's budget-cutting environment. He and Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher sat down on Thursday at the State Department for an interview with The Cable.
"I'm here to see if anything can be accomplished in the area of nuclear disarmament before the elections," Douglas said in our interview. "You get a message constantly that nothing is going to be done between now and [the election]... but I don't think we can wait around for a year and half."
Calling himself a "messenger of peace" in the area of disarmament, Douglas said he was "try[ing] to see if Congress won't calm down a little bit" in its efforts to cut funding for nuclear non-proliferation programs.
Douglas met for 30 minutes Thursday with Tauscher, Deputy Secretary Tom Nides, Assistant Secretary Rose Gottemoeller, and Assistant Secretary Tom Countryman.
"Obama is not the first president to talk about going to nuclear zero, but he is the first one to put a blueprint forward and to have acted on it," Tauscher told The Cable, noting that the New START agreement was ratified in a politically fraught environment. "That victory is momentous, but it's not the end of the agenda."
Tauscher said the drive to work toward a world without nuclear weapons will continue from now until the election, but warned that the prospects of seeing a Senate ratification of key agenda items, such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), is "very unlikely." She noted, however, that "there is a lot of work to do" in the meantime to explain why CTBT is needed and why it is more verifiable in 2011 due to the advances in policy and technology compared to when it last came up for Senate ratification in 1999.
Douglas has been making the rounds in Washington since his arrival in town last week. We spotted him at the reception to celebrate the Diplomatic Reception Rooms on Oct. 18 and then met him again at a Nov. 1 meeting on Capitol Hill of the board of directors of the Ploughshares Fund, an organization that supports the arms control agenda.
Douglas also sat down on Thursday morning with some members of the State Department press corps to make the case for defending spending on diplomacy and development.
"These soundbites about why are we spending money overseas when we have such economic times in this country, people don't take the time to understand just how important diplomacy is," Douglas said. "It takes a lot of time, it's quiet, but it certainly is a lot less expensive than going to war."
Ben Chang / State Department
The Obama administration has now met with the North Koreans twice and appointed two new top envoys for North Korea policy, but it has not yet consulted with Capitol Hill and has no plans to seek confirmation of the two new officials.
Glyn Davies, the newly appointed special representative for North Korea policy, attended the Oct. 24 and Oct. 25 talks in Geneva with North Korean government officials, along with his predecessor, outgoing Ambassador Stephen Bosworth. But Davies, who previously served as ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), will not have his title of "ambassador" carry over to his new position, because the State Department has no intention of putting him before the Senate for confirmation.
Clifford Hart is the new special envoy to the (now defunct) Six Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear program, the second-ranking U.S. diplomatic position toward North Korea. He also does not enjoy the title of ambassador, because he was not put before the Senate for confirmation. His predecessor, Sung Kim, was confirmed as ambassador to South Korea, and is now on his way to Seoul.
All of the previous top diplomats dealing with the North Korea issue were ambassadors. Robert Gallucci, Chuck Kartman, Jim Kelly, Jack Pritchard, Joe DeTrani, Chris Hill... you get the idea. Not all went through Senate confirmation for their North Korea jobs; some, like Bosworth, were able to keep their ambassador titles from previous gigs if they had reached a certain rank. Davies hasn't reached that level.
But regardless of whether Davies and Hart will actually hold the ambassador title or face a Senate confirmation process, many on Capitol Hill concerned with U.S. policy toward Northeast Asia are unhappy with the fact that neither Davies nor Hart has met with any senators, that there have been no Hill briefings on the administration's new engagement with the North Koreans, and that Senate staffers who have worked on the issue for years had to learn about the new developments through the press.
"State has not reached out to us on these appointments," one Senate aide told The Cable. "They have responded to our requests for briefings on food aid, and they have generally been responsive for briefings when we asked. But there has been no outreach at their initiative ... which helps explain, I think, why they had the House move to prohibit food aid and why they now face a lack of confidence up here, more generally, about their approach."
After multiple rounds of negotiations between The Cable and various State Department offices, State declined to give us a comment for this story.
The law doesn't require that the North Korea special envoy be confirmed. There are laws that require other envoys be confirmed, such as for the special envoy for North Korean human rights, now filled by Ambassador Bob King, and the special representative and policy coordinator for Burma, now held by Derek Mitchell.
Hill aides point out that the jobs of North Korea special representative and special envoy for the Six Party Talks came out of what's known as the Perry Process, an interagency policy review of U.S. policy toward North Korea in 1998 that was led by then-State Department counselor and now Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman.
One of the key recommendations that came out of the Perry Process was that the U.S. government should have "a small, senior-level interagency North Korea working group ... chaired by a senior official of ambassadorial rank, located in the Department of State, to coordinate policy."
Another recommendation of the Perry Process was that the administration should develop its North Korea policies on a bipartisan basis, in consultation with Capitol Hill.
"Just as no policy toward the DPRK can succeed unless it is a combined strategy of the United States and its allies, the policy review team believes no strategy can be sustained over time without the input and support of Congress," the Perry review team, led by Sherman, wrote.
So why won't the administration keep Congress in the loop on what it's doing with the North Koreans? One Asia hand in Washington told The Cable that the administration doesn't want a public debate over its North Korea engagement, which is not likely to produce dramatic results and could be a political liability in an election season.
"They're definitely avoiding going to the Hill with these guys because they're afraid of criticism and they're afraid the senators are going to use it to criticize where the policy is now," the Asia hand said. "It's all part of their management approach, where you keep everything low key and don't want everybody to know what you're doing."
Former National Security Council Senior Director for Asia Mike Green argued in an article for Foreign Policy last week that the Obama administration is downgrading the prominence of its North Korea diplomats in order to lower expectations for the new engagement, and to keep the podium away from more senior diplomats who might act more independently.
"High profile special envoys and message discipline tend not to go together, and the Obama White House is clearing the decks for a major fight for the presidency next year," Green wrote. "Lower key professionals make sense at a time when North Korea is unlikely to yield much ground."
Perhaps the administration doesn't want senators to bring up this 2008 column by the Washington Post's Al Kamen, where he reveals that Davies worked to water down language criticizing North Korea in an internal e-mail. Here's the relevant portion of the column:
So on Friday, Glyn Davies, the principal deputy assistant secretary in the East Asia bureau, sent an e-mail to Erica Barks-Ruggles, a deputy assistant secretary in the DRL bureau, regarding some changes in the introductory language of a report on North Korea.
"Erica," he wrote, "I know you are under the NSC [National Security Council] gun," apparently to get the report done so the NSC can review it, "but hope given the Secretary's priority on the Six-Party Talks, we can sacrifice a few adjectives for the cause.
"Many thanks. Glyn."
And the changes? Eliminated words are in brackets, and additions are in italics:
"The [repressive] North Korean government[regime] continued to control almost all aspects of citizens' lives, denying freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association, and restricting freedom of movement and workers' rights. Reports of extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and arbitrary detention, including of political prisoners, continue to emerge [from the isolated country]. Some forcibly repatriated refugees were said to have undergone severe punishment and possibly torture. Reports of public executions continued to surface[were on the rise]."
As Hemingway might have written: For Whom the Kowtows?
The Senate confirmed Tom Countryman as assistant secretary of state for international security and non-proliferation (ISN) on Monday evening, officially ending a two-year vacancy that had been filled by acting assistant secretary Vann Van Diepen.
Countryman, a career diplomat with tours in Yugoslavia and Egypt, was previously principal deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Political and Military Affairs but moved over to the European bureau late last year, at the personal request of former Deputy Secretary Jim Steinberg, to give added attention to the Balkans. During the Clinton administration, he worked in the State Department's counterterrorism office, advised U.S Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright on Middle Eastern affairs, and then served as the National Security Council's director for Near East and South Asian affairs.
The ISN bureau covers aspects of nuclear energy, conventional counterproliferation, nonproliferation, and export control issues. It falls under the "T" office, run by Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher, who is back at work full time and doing great after undergoing cancer surgery late last year.
Van Diepen has been in charge of ISN for over two years, but was never nominated to take on the position permanently. He was deemed un-confirmable due to lingering GOP complaints regarding his role in crafting a controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear program.
"The big question is why did it take so long to find a permanent leader [for ISN]," one State Department source told The Cable, explaining that Countryman represents steady leadership for a bureau that had suffered somewhat from the uncertainty of not having someone at the helm for a long time.
Inside the State Department, Countryman is seen as an able manager who knows how to navigate the bureaucracy and get things done. He's not a nonproliferation specialist by any means, but insiders believe his stature and skill can compensate for his lack of subject matter expertise.
Nothing is set in stone, but the expectation is that Van Diepen will return to his position as a deputy assistant secretary, a slot that was being filled temporarily by Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Ann Ganzer. Van Diepen will join the two other deputy assistant secretaries in ISN, Elliot Kang and former Tauscher chief of staff Simon Limage.
The Senate also confirmed Monday John A. Heffern to be ambassador to Armenia. No word yet on the nominations of Robert Ford for Syria, Frank Ricciardone for Turkey, or Norm Eisen for the Czech Republic, all of whom are serving under recess appointments that expire at the end of this year.
The United States and Turkey signed an agreement to station U.S. missile defense radar in Turkey, just as Ankara's relations with the West seem to be deteriorating.
The Sept. 14 agreement signed between the two governments will allow a Raytheon-produced AN/TPY-2 X-band radar to be based in the Turkish city of Kurecik. Turkey will be responsible for management of the installation, but the site will be protected by 50 U.S. soldiers and will be funded by the United States. Some residents have already planned an event to protest the new site.
"This is probably the biggest strategic decision between the United States and Turkey in the last 20 years. It is a major strategic decision by Turkey," a senior administration official said in a Sept. 15 briefing for a small group of reporters at the White House.
President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan are scheduled to meet Tuesday in New York, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. They've met and spoken often and their personal closeness was key to the success of the missile defense agreement negotiations, another senior administration official said.
"This was a decision that could only be taken by Prime Minister Erdogan. [He and Obama] have built a relationship of respect, they've built a relationship which is very candid, and they've talked through many difficult issues," a third senior administration official said. "The Prime Minister assured the president that he wanted this to happen and he directed his bureaucracy to make it happen."
Meanwhile, in Congress, lawmakers are ramping up their criticism of the Turkish government. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) led a bipartisan letter signed by seven senators, which was sent today to Obama that cited "concern regarding the Turkish Government's recent foreign policy decisions that call into question its commitment to the NATO alliance, threaten regional stability and undermine U.S. interests."
The letter charges that the Turkish government led by Erdogan has taken several foreign decisions that are adverse to U.S. interests. These include expelling the Israeli ambassador and recalling its ambassador to Israel in retribution for Israel's refusal to apologize for a deadly IDF raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla; cancelling NATO's 2011 Anatolian Eagle air defense exercise, in which Israel has participated in since 2001; inviting Chinese military planes to replace U.S. and Israeli aircraft at such exercises; and banning Israeli commercial aircraft from Turkish airspace.
"Mr. President, it appears that Turkey is shifting to a policy of confrontation, if not hostility, towards our allies in Israel and we urge you to mount a diplomatic offensive to reverse this course," the senators wrote. "We ask you to outline Turkey's eroding support in Congress with Prime Minister Erdogan at the earliest opportunity and how its current ill-advised policy toward the State of Israel will also negatively reflect on U.S.-Turkish relations and Turkey's role in the future of NATO."
Also signing the letter were Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Mark Warner (D-VA), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and Scott Brown (R-MA).
The senators also want the administration to assure Congress that the missile-defense data collected from the Turkish radar system will be shared with Israel in real time. Turkish media had reported that Turkish officials wanted assurances that the data would not be shared with Israel.
The administration officials described how they dealt with that issue inside the negotiations. The U.S. officials said there is no deal that prevents the information from Turkish radar from being shared with Israel, as all the U.S.' military intelligence is fused together.
"There is an understanding that the radar is a NATO system that is designed to protect NATO from threats from the Middle East. It's understood that the U.S. has a separate and robust missile defense cooperation program with Israel," a senior administration official said, noting that Israel also hosts an identical AN/TPY-2 radar, which they argued makes the radar in Turkey of marginal importance to the defense of Israel.
"At the same time, it's also understood that the data from any U.S. radars and sensors around the world may be fused with other data to maximize the effectiveness of our missile defenses worldwide," the senior administration official said.
Another senior administration official explained that there was no agreement from the U.S. side not to share data from the Turkish-based radar with others, including Israel.
"Data from all U.S. missile defense assets worldwide, including not only from radars in Turkey and Israel, but from other sensors as well, is fused to maximize the effectiveness of our missile defenses worldwide; this data can be shared with our allies and partners in this effort," a senior administration official said.
There seems to be some disagreement on that point. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Sunday that the data from the Turkish radar site would not be shared with Israel.
"We will provide support only for systems that belong to NATO and are used solely by members of NATO," he said, calling reports to the contrary a "manipulation."
After the Wall Street Journal reported on this explanation based on the same briefing, Davotoglu claimed that Ankara had been assured by Washington that the three senior administration officials who briefed reporters did not exist. The Cable can confirm they did exist.
The Obama administration is framing the Turkish agreement as one of five achievements that advance its 2009 decision to move away from the Bush administration's missile defense approach. In place of the Bush plans, the White House has adopted what it terms the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), which is now exactly two years in the making.
In addition to the Turkish agreement, the Obama administration has championed the Sept. 13 agreement with Romania to base a SM-3 missile defense battery there; the agreement with Poland to base SM-3 missile defense batteries there that went into effect on Sept. 15; NATO's commitment to the EPAA; and the deployment to the Mediterranean of one Aegis ship, the U.S.S. Monterey, committed to the missile-defense mission.
Kirk's office is also leading the opposition to missile-defense cooperation with Russia. He sent a memo, obtained by The Cable, on Sept. 8 to leaders of the House Armed Services Committee, accusing Russia of espionage and cooperation with Iran on nuclear and missile technology.
Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov are working on a joint missile-defense plan, Kirk said, but Russia's cooperation with Iran makes such an agreement too risky.
"The danger is that Russia will have access to America's most time-sensitive, real time missile defense data," Kirk wrote, noting that Ryabkov announced he is going to Iran at the end of the month to discuss missile defense.
The United States continues to work with Russia to find a path forward on missile-defense cooperation, although the administration officials said there was no concrete progress to announce.
"We remain convinced this could be a major win-win for the U.S.-Russia relationship and the Russia-NATO relationship," a senior administration official said. "But they remain skeptical on the impact of the system on Russia's security, so we have a lot of work still to do."
The United States and North Korea will hold their first direct talks since December 2009, as the Obama administration explores ways to return to multilateral talks on the Hermit Kingdom's nuclear program.
North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-Gwan is already on the way to New York for the talks, which are supposed to happen either Thursday or Friday, according to State Department officials. The State Department hasn't announced its delegation to the talks, but we're told by two informed sources that Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, the State Department's special representative for North Korea, is expected to participate. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton invited the delegation.
Following the Bosworth-Kim meeting, the North Korean delegation will meet with a group of U.S. experts and academics organized under the banner of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP), led on this project by former diplomat Donald Zagoria. NCAFP is hosting the meetings, as they did in October 2009, when North Korean negotiator Ri Gun came to New York under similar circumstances. At that time, Zagoria was joined by former diplomat George Schwab, Korea Society president Evans Revere, and former Ambassador to China Winston Lord.
Ri was spotted at the Beijing Airport with the North Korean delegation.
In a short phone interview, Zagoria told The Cable that the experts' meeting with the North Korean delegation was scheduled for Monday, Aug. 1, as a "Track 2" discussion -- diplo-speak for unofficial talks conducted by trusted private individuals. He declined to speak about the bilateral meeting, only saying that the experts' meetings had clear boundaries and realistic expectations.
"We started these meetings in 2003. We've had a number since then when it was possible," Zagoria said. "We hope to have frank discussions on the all the relevant issues. Our goal is to help both sides clearly understand each other's positions."
Joel Wit, a former U.S. nuclear negotiator who met with the North Koreans in Germany in March, told The Cable that the talks could signal the Obama administration's willingness to move away from its policy of "strategic patience," which basically amounts to waiting for the North Koreans to make positive moves while strengthening its alliances with Japan and South Korea.
The New York meetings are the second step of a three-step process to resume multilateral talks on North Korea's nuclear program, said Wit. The first step was for the North Koreans and South Koreans to resume discussions, which has already occurred. The second step is for the United States and North Korea to meet. And the final step is to resume the Six-Party Talks, which also involve China, Russia, and Japan.
Taking that third step won't be easy. The Obama administration has made clear it won't return to the Six-Party Talks until the North agrees to abide by its previous commitments on denuclearization. The DPRK now says that denuclearization must be achieved by both sides simultaneously and has started an ambitious uranium enrichment program.
Wit said that despite the gap in positions and the aggressive North Korean behavior, the United States should act now to jumpstart negotiations rather than allow the security situation on the Korean Peninsula to deteriorate further and let the North Korean nuclear program advance unchecked.
"We're rapidly approaching a point where we're going to have to make a serious decision about what we're going to do about their [uranium program]," said Wit. "So that means seriously considering some incentives, like reactor assistance.... It's something we've got to deal with before it gets out of hand."
Victor Cha, a former NSC director for Asia, said that North Korea's bad behavior since the Six-Party Talks were abandoned in 2008 shouldn't give anyone confidence that they are negotiating in good faith.
"It has been almost three years since a full round of Six-Party Talks, and since the last round, the North has done just about every heinous act in violation of the letter and spirit of the agreements that had been negotiated," he said. "No one expects North Korea is serious about denuclearization, and Pyongyang has done nothing during Obama's tenure to demonstrate otherwise."
The Obama administration has been quietly putting pressure on the South Korean government to relax its demands for an apology from North Korea over the sinking of the Cheonan warship and its shelling of a South Korean island, Cha said. The administration believes that North Korea will be less aggressive if talks are underway, he said.
"So there are clear tactical reasons for the U.S. to re-engage. But does anyone have a strategy? Pundits will call for a bigger and better agreement this time, but after 25 years and two agreements in 1994 and 2005, I am less confident that such an agreement is attainable," he said.
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland set the expectations for this week's meetings low in Monday's press briefing.
"We see this as a preliminary session where we're going to lay out very clearly our expectations for what will be necessary to not only resume Six-Party Talks, but to improve direct engagement between the U.S. and the DPRK," said Nuland.
A senior State Department official, speaking to reporters during Clinton's trip to Asia, said that China was on board with a more active policy of engaging North Korea.
"I think despite the fact that China, in meetings with the United States, will rarely displays open displeasure, I think you can sense behind the scenes, there is substantial unhappiness with what's transpired with respect to Pyongyang's intransigence and provocative actions," the official said.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) has lifted his hold on the nomination of David Cohen to be the top sanctions official at the Treasury Department following the administration's announcement of several targeted sanctions against Iran.
Cohen, whose nomination to replace Stuart Levey as undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence had been stalled in the Senate, now could be confirmed as early as this week. Kirk, who had issued the hold late last month due to concerns over the administration's lack of enforcement of sanctions against Iran, released his hold late last week after Treasury designated Iranian companies such as Iran Air and Tidewater Middle East for sanctions under the Comprehensive Iran Sanction, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA).
"I applaud Acting Under Secretary David Cohen for moving decisively to designate Iran Air and a major Iranian port operator responsible for facilitating Iran's illicit transfer of weapons and other proliferation activities. Both designations will significantly restrict shipping to and from Iran and put even more pressure on the Iranian economy," Kirk said in a June 23 statement. "Under Secretary Cohen has proven himself to be a worthy successor to former Under Secretary Levey. He has my confidence."
A Kirk aide confirmed to The Cable that this statement was an acknowledgement that Kirk had removed his hold on Cohen's nomination. The aide said that Kirk, Cohen, and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), had a series of meetings and exchanged letters over the last month. Kirk was also reassured by their most recent meeting about two weeks ago.
"After their last meeting, Sen. Kirk lifted his hold and decided to back the nomination," the Kirk aide said. "[The nomination] has already gone through Finance and Banking so it could be hotlined for Senate confirmation before the Fourth of July recess."
"Hotlined" is shorthand for a Senate practice wherein the Senate majority leader sends around a message notifying all senators that a nomination is coming to the floor forthwith. If nobody objects, the nomination can quickly be confirmed by voice vote.
In fact, one Senate source told The Cable that the Cohen nomination could reach the Senate floor as soon as Tuesday, as part of a large nominations package the Senate leadership is preparing now.
Last week's Treasury Department action against Iran Air and Tidewater is just the latest in a series of administration moves to use the tools under CISADA to increase pressure on various parts of the Iranian government and the Iranian economy.
On May 24, the State Department rolled out sanctions against seven companies accused of doing business with Iran's energy sector. Those designations came one day after the Senate unveiled an entirely new Iran sanctions bill -- though that legislation doesn't appear to have the administration's support, as then Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg told The Cable it was totally unnecessary.
Steinberg also announced on May 24 that the administration had separately decided to impose sanctions on 16 additional foreign firms and individuals, including three Chinese firms, under the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA), which prohibits involvement of foreign companies in those countries' missile and WMD programs..
Then, on June 9, State announced sanctions on three Iranian government entities involved in human rights abuses, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Basij Resistance Force, and Iran's Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) -- as well as LEF Commander Ismail Ahmadi Moghadam.
The June 23 action against Iran Air and Tidewater was a joint State/Treasury effort. It was significant because it targeted the IRGC's main shipping companies, and because the administration also promised to continue imposing more sanctions.
"The steps we have taken this week seek to limit Iran's ability to use the global financial system to pursue illicit activities. We have made important progress in isolating Iran, but we cannot waver," State and Treasury said in a joint statement. "Our efforts must be unrelenting to sharpen the choice for Iran's leaders to abandon their dangerous course."
One issue Kirk has been pushing in recent days concerns the huge contracts between the Defense Department and Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport Company (KGL), which may have ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), an entity long accused of operating a web of shell companies to evade sanctions, and three other Iranian companies already on the banned list of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
KGL was recently awarded a nearly $750 million contract by the U.S. Army and another $42 million sole-source contract by the Defense Logistics Agency. Kirk now wants to know if the U.S. military is indirectly putting money into Iranian government coffers.
"I am certain you agree that a prompt investigation is warranted due to the sensitive nature of the contracting work conducted by KGL for our men and women in uniform," Kirk wrote in a June 21 letter to OFAC Director Adam Szubin.
That letter was a follow-up to another letter Kirk sent May 26 to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, where he pointed out that KGL helped operate the ports used for Iran's nuclear program and also has influence and control over U.S. military supply lines. Gates has yet to respond to Kirk.
Kirk's research staff has also compiled an extensive file on KGL's suspicious activities and associations, which can be found here.
One senior GOP senate aide said it was ironic that the Obama administration has designated for sanctions the Israeli firm Ofer Brothers Group for doing business with Iranian entities that are suspicious but not designated as banned by OFAC, while allowing the U.S. military to do business with similarly suspect firms.
"We're now at a place where the Defense Department is holding itself to a lower threshold of due diligence for military contracts than the standard applied to foreign governments and foreign corporations in business dealings with regard to Iran sanctions legislation," the aide said.
The Obama administration will expand sanctions on Iran and countries that do business with it, but new congressional legislation is unnecessary, according to Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg.
The House and Senate have each unveiled a bill that would tighten existing sanctions, compel the administration to enforce penalties already on the books, and levy a host of new sanctions against members of Iran's regime and companies that aid Iran's energy, banking, or arms sectors. The bills are a follow-up to the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act (CISADA) that Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed in July 2010.
Lawmakers are increasingly frustrated that the administration has decided not to use CISADA to penalize many companies from third-party countries such as China that are believed to be violating the sanctions, while only punishing a couple of firms from countries such as Belarus. The new bills are meant to force action on Chinese companies. But Steinberg said that the administration doesn't support another round of sanctions legislation and will proceed with enforcement on its own timeline.
"We think we have powerful tools, and we've welcomed CISADA and we think CISADA is a powerful tool, and what we've seen, not just with China but with everybody, is that the availability of that has caused countries and companies to stop doing things that they might otherwise do," Steinberg told The Cable in a June 6 interview on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Security Dialogue in Singapore.
Steinberg fundamentally disagreed with senators who believe that China has not been adhering to the sanctions and allowing its companies to backfill the business in Iran left open by the departure of firms from U.S. allies such as Japan and South Korea.
"I think the [Chinese] record has been reasonably good in terms of what they've done. It's not perfect, and we continue to work with them, we continue to keep some actions of theirs under investigation and review," he said.
"I think people -- if one would have asked two years ago, for example, on dealing with Iran, how much we would be in sync with China -- I think they would be amazed how well this has worked, both in terms of the formal stuff in the Security Council, but also in the P5+1," said Steinberg. "The Chinese have been fully on board, they haven't undercut it, they've been very clear and consistent with the need for Iran to meet their obligations and they've worked as a partner with us on that. They've been very restrained in their political and economic engagement with Iran."
Will the administration ever sanction Chinese companies for doing business in Iran, which, according to the Government Accountability Office, continues to this day?
"It depends what they do," Steinberg said. "As we've said to the Congress and to everybody, in the first best instance what we want is to see countries do it voluntarily, and we've seen a number of cases where we've raised issues of concern with China, and we've had some progress."
The lawmakers who spent months drafting the new sanctions legislation and who are planning to push it through Congress this summer fundamentally disagree with Steinberg's reading of Chinese behavior.
"I worry that the Obama administration has given Chinese banks and companies a get out of jail free card when it comes to sanctions law, and they should not," Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) said at last month's AIPAC conference in Washington.
In a Tuesday interview with The Cable, Kirk said that the Senate bill has strong leadership from both parties, including lead sponsors Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and many others.
"The hollowness of the administration's enforcement is evident when you compare how much the U.S. and Iranian economies grew last year. Because Ahmadinejad's economic growth was faster than Obama's, that underscores our concern that the results are meager at best," Kirk said.
"We have overwhelming bipartisan consensus here and in the House as well, so I would say to Secretary Steinberg, prepare for incoming legislation."
Former President Jimmy Carter and former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari were hoping to visit the State Department this week to brief officials on their recent trip to North Korea, but nobody at the State Department was available to meet with them.
Carter and Ahtisaari, both Nobel Peace Prize laureates, had been eager to give their readout of their meetings in North Korea April 26 and 27 to U.S. officials and press their case for a resumption of food aid to the Hermit Kingdom. The two are members of the Elders, a group of senior figures who have been informally engaging with regimes that official governments won't deal with, in the hopes of finding pathways to peace. They traveled to North Korea last month with former Irish President Mary Robinson and former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Bruntland. Other members of the Elders include Kofi Annan, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Aung San Suu Kyi.
But no one at the State Department would meet with them, so the trip to Washington was cancelled.
"The trip was arranged at short notice and due to busy schedules and given everything else going on we were not able to arrange meetings at the right level," a spokesman for the Elders told The Cable. The State Department offered no comment on the situation.
The Chinese, however, had time for the Elders. They spent two days in Beijing April 24 and 25 and had dinner with foreign minister Yang Jiechi. Neither the North Korea nor South Korea leaders met with them, but they did get meetings with high level officials in both countries. Ahtisaari and Brundtland also had meetings in Brussels last week with President of the EU Herman Van Rompuy and several other EU officials.
But while the State Department might be too busy to hear from the Elders, your humble Cable guy has a bit more free time. Before the cancellation, The Cable had an exclusive interview with Ahtisaari, who at that time was very excited to brief State Department officials on his first visit to North Korea. He even held out hope for a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Ahtisaari called on the international community and the Obama administration to resume food aid to North Korea and to delink humanitarian assistance from political negotiations. He said the World Food Programme had better monitoring capabilities than before, better access, and there was less chance the DPRK would divert food aid to feed its military
He also called for the beginning of a political dialogue with the DPRK on all outstanding issues and said that the North Koreans were interested in both bilateral talks and discussing a return to the Six Party Talks on its nuclear program. Ahtisaari also said the Elders were told that Kim Jong Il was prepared to join a summit meeting with his south Korean counterpart, Lee Myong Bak.
"I'm not asking anyone to believe every word that the North says, but we have to take seriously when they say they are prepared to talk," Ahtisaari said. "How do you expect your present policy of not talking to solve any of the issues you presumably you want to be solved. I don't have any other answers but to sit and talk."
It's no secret at all that the Elders' trip to North Korea was viewed as extremely unhelpful by the governments both in Washington and Seoul. Chris Nelson reported on April 29 that Clinton reacted strongly when asked in a morning meeting if she wanted to meet with Carter. From the Nelson report:
The performance of President Carter and his delegation in N. Korea this week was either shameful or fatuous...or both...and exemplifies why Carter had no...zero...USG support going in, and even less coming out, per an alleged eye witness account of Sec. St. Clinton at the morning meeting the other day:
"Do you want to meet with Carter?" Clinton is looking at papers, and just says "No." Then she pauses, looks up and adds, "HELL no!!!"
Besides going to North Korea without any administration support, Carter alienated Washington's policy community when he declared at a Seoul press conference on April 28 that "to deliberately withhold food aid to the North Korean people because of political or military issues not related is really indeed a human rights violation."
Former NSC Senior Director for Asia Victor Cha just happened to be in Seoul that day, staying in the same hotel as the Elders, and said that people in South Korea were very upset at Carter's remark.
"People who work on the food issue with North Korea know the very real problems of diversion to the military, and Carter's statement implied that China -- because it gives food unconditionally to North Korea -- is more of a human rights upholder in North Korea than the others, which was not well-received," Cha told The Cable.
Ahtisaari wouldn't say that he agreed with Carter's statement, but tried to explain the context.
"What he simply wanted to do was to make a dramatic appeal to everybody, because we have seen due to the political constraints there has been unwillingness to assist the North in a humanitarian way," he said. "It's totally unacceptable to mix politics with humanitarian assistance."
Ahtisaari criticized the Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience," which basically amounts to focusing on ties with allies and not engaging North Korea until the regime admits guilt for recent violent attacks against the South and recommits to its promise to denuclearize.
"Your approach is not terribly trustworthy either, because if the other side says they are willing to discuss all outstanding issues, I say ‘let's test them.' The process has to start; this situation of simply talking past each other doesn't mean anything," Ahtisaari said.
"I have seen worse conflicts than this one, so start talking."
Meanwhile, there are reports that Ambassador Robert King, the special envoy for North Korean Human Rights, would visit North Korea next week, but at Tuesday's State Department briefing, spokesman Mark Toner said no decision had yet been made. Toner also said Ambassador Stephen Bosworth was in South Korea now discussing the food aid situation.
"Our position on food aid is entirely separate from any political decision we may make or any policy decision we may make vis-a-vis North Korea," Toner said. "Our food assistance program... is based on a credible, apolitical assessment of the needs and also autonomy over how that food assistance is delivered."
Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher remains the top administration official in charge of missile defense negotiations with Russia despite reports to the contrary, a senior administration official told The Cable.
The Washington Times reported this week that Tauscher "was given a demotion" and no longer was serving as the lead administration official in charge of the negotiations, which are part of the bilateral working group meetings that the United States and Russia have been conducting for over a year. The same article reported that Tauscher had annoyed colleagues due to her abrasive style, and that she often referred to herself in the third person as "The Tausch." Jim Miller, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, was now in charge, according to the report.
But that's simply not true, one senior administration official and one State Department official told The Cable. They pointed out that Tauscher is in Brussels now, meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, Russia's lead negotiator on missile defense cooperation.
"Ellen leads our team to the talks and her counterpart is Ryabkov and any contention that she has been demoted is just plain wrong," the senior administration official said.
Tauscher is in charge of diplomatic engagement with Russia on this issue and Miller is the technical expert who works with her, the official explained.
"Jim's an extremely able player on missile defense issues, and has been involved in discussions with the Russian Ministry of Defense that complement the overall talks on missile defense," the official said.
As for the accusation that Tauscher refers to herself as "The Tausch," that is apparently a nickname that was given to her by colleague and friend Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) when both served in Congress, according to the State Department official. It's a term of affection that some on Tauscher's staff have adopted, but not a nickname she is known to use herself, the official said.
The senior administration official also took issue with the Washington Times' assertion that the U.S.-Russia missile defense talks have "largely [been] kept secret from Congress and the public."
"The fact of these talks is a matter of public record -- that's not to suggest the details of the talks aren't private," the senior administration official said. "As the president has made clear, we see the possibility of missile defense with Russia as something that can serve both of our interests, it doesn't constrain us in any way."
Tauscher explained the rationale of pursuing missile defense cooperation with Russia in a speech at the Global Zero conference in Washington on April 8.
"Thirty years ago at the height of the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan saw virtue in cooperating with Moscow on missile defense. We in the Obama administration do, too, because Missile Defense cooperation could make us safer and facilitate talks on further reductions on strategic, non-strategic, and non-deployed nuclear weapons," she said. "We want Russia inside the missile defense tent where it will see that missile defenses that the United States has planned to put in Europe are not about undermining Russia's strategic deterrent."
Meanwhile, the administration has been moving forward on implementing the Phased Adaptive Approach that was announced in 2009, which altered the Bush administration's plan to plant missile interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic. The latest announcement was a deal with Romania announced on May 3 to station interceptors there.
The article was written by Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz, who has written articles critical of Tauscher's bureau for months and has long drawn the ire of the State Department. As one State Department official said in January, "This particular reporter, as you know, has his own foreign policy."
Seven Republican senators are demanding that the Obama administration take tougher measures to punish banks still doing business in Iran, and they are threatening to stall the nomination of a top Treasury Department official unless they get their way.
The dispute between the White House and Congress revolves around implementation of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA) of 2010, the wide-ranging law signed into law last year. The Treasury Department issued a draft rule last week that lays out how it intends to implement a key provision of the law, which deals with Iran's banking partners in countries around the world. And that rule raised the ire of seven GOP senators, who expected Treasury to enforce the law much more stringently.
The key provision, section 104(e), directs the administration to punish any international financial institutions still doing business with Iran by cutting them off from the U.S. financial system.
"We were extremely unhappy with the draft rule to implement section 104(e) of CISADA publish by the Treasury Department last week," wrote Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Roger Wicker (R-MS), David Vitter (R-LA), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Mike Crapo (R-ID), and Mike Johanns (R-NE), in a previously unreported letter sent Tuesday, and obtained by The Cable.
The letter was addressed to David Cohen, the acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury Department. Cohen took over for Stuart Levey, the previous sanctions chief at Treasury, who moved on to the Council on Foreign Relations last month after more than 4 years on the job.
The senators are threatening to hold up Cohen's nomination if their demands regarding enforcement of the sanctions provisions aren't met. Cohen had his confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday and, afterwards, Kirk sent Treasury a list of follow-up questions he says must be answered before he'll allow Cohen's nomination to move forward.
"The acting undersecretary's response to our letter and questions for the record will weigh heavily in any confirmation decision," Kirk told The Cable.
Kirk also identified 44 international financial institutions servicing Iranian banks and 18 U.S. institutions that are working with those who do business inside Iran. He got this list from a 2010 report entitled "Iran's Dirty Banking", which sourced the information to the Banker's Almanac.
Kirk wants Treasury to require all U.S. banks to certify that any foreign banks they deal with aren't dealing with Iran. He also wants those foreign banks to certify that any banks they are dealing with aren't doing business with Iran. But Treasury's current plan calls for banks to provide such information only if and when the Obama administration asks for it.
"The object is to make sure we are doing anything and everything we can to drive Iranian business out of our banking system and this is how to do it," one senior GOP senate aide said.
"Large American banks and foreign banks that are operating here have not been hauled before Congress and have not been forced to tell the people and shareholders why they have not complied with the law," said another senior GOP aide.
Specifically, the aide said that the senators who signed the letter want Treasury to publish a final rule on implementation of the provision that requires audits of all banks' interactions with Iran on an ongoing basis. If that happens, the Cohen nomination can go through.
All of the senators who signed the letter, except for Kyl, are on the banking committee.
In his Tuesday testimony, Cohen defended the Treasury Department's efforts to tighten the noose around Iran's banking sector, including the passing of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929 and subsequent successful efforts to convince European and northeast Asian countries to drop their Iranian banking ties.
Since 2006, Treasury has sanctioned 20 Iranian state-owned banks involved in facilitating Iran's nuclear program for penalties, and officials have traveled the world to try to convince foreign governments to take similar actions.
Cohen also said that sanctions against foreign owned banks that are working with Iran aren't necessarily the best tool in all cases, and indicated that there are more penalty decisions coming soon, such as the designation of more third country banks.
"The first best option is to get them to stop. Our second best option is to apply sanctions. And without getting too much into the details of any particular investigation that we're conducting, I can tell you that we are, I would say, close to a decision point on several institutions," he testified.
Matthew Levitt, a former deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the Treasury Department and now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that Treasury was not against congressionally mandated sanctions, but believes they should only be used after all efforts to persuade foreign banks to shape up fail.
"What you have here is a struggle between two branches of government trying to get the same job done, but using two different paths to the same end," he said. "In some instances, it may be, you will get more compliance if you don't hit them with the hammer."
Levitt also defended the Treasury's efforts to put pressure on Iran's financial activities. "It's almost silly for anyone to claim the Treasury Department has been soft on Iran," he said.
The Obama administration and most of Washington may be focused on Libya or Pakistan, but several offices on Capitol Hill are preparing new sanctions bills to increase pressure on Iran.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) will kick off the slew of new Iran sanctions legislation expected to be introduced in May on Wednesday, when he introduces a new bill to promote human rights and democracy in Iran. He is working on a bipartisan and bicameral basis with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Rep. Robert Dold (R-IL), and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL). The bill, called the Iran Human Rights and Democracy Promotion Act of 2011, would force the administration to appoint a special representative on human rights and democracy in Iran and impose sanctions on companies that sell or service products that enable the Iranian regime to oppress its people, such as communications spying equipment.
At a press conference scheduled for Wednesday, Kirk will also host a family member of a Baha'i religious leader imprisoned in Iran.
But Kirk's bill is only one piece of the larger puzzle of Iran bills circulating on Capitol Hill right now. Two senior Senate aides told The Cable that the plan is to compile several Iran bills together into one massive, new Iran sanctions bill to be unveiled by the end of May.
"By the end of this month, there's probably going to be a comprehensive bill that deals with Iran on a variety of levels, including proliferation, human rights, and energy," one senior GOP Senate aide said.
A primary focus of that bill will be ways to increase pressure on companies based in other countries that are still doing business with Iran's energy sector.
Many in Congress are increasingly unhappy with the Obama administration for failing to enforce penalties on companies from third-party countries that are still doing business with Iran. The Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA) of 2010 directs the administration to punish these companies. However, only a few have actually been punished -- and they hail from places like Belarus where the administration has little concern for delicate bilateral relations.
The details of the Senate's new comprehensive Iran sanctions bill aren't worked out yet, but there are several pieces of legislation floating around that could be included. For example, Gillibrand has a bill that would introduce criminal penalties against companies that fail to disclose their business ties with Iran.
Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) introduced a bill last year that would make it harder for Iran to issue energy bonds -- the idea being to make the export of crude oil more costly and difficult. That bill could also reemerge as part of the new Senate comprehensive Iran package.
There's no official leadership for the Senate's new comprehensive bill yet, but the legislators most active on Iran have been Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Kirk. The three wrote a letter March 28 to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on this very issue.
Over in the House, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) could unveil her own version of new sanctions legislation as well. Our sources say that the House is more focused on increasing enforcement of existing sanctions and closing loopholes -- as opposed to introducing new punitive measures -- but nothing is finalized.
But there's one thing both chambers agree on: the need to stop Chinese companies from undermining U.S. sanctions by backfilling the business Iran is losing due to the exit of American and European countries.
"There's just no doubt that China is going to be a big focus of our bill," the Senate aide said.
25 years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the United States is still paying hundreds of millions of dollars to help clean up the site.
Ukraine's Embassy in Washington has been holding a series of events to commemorate the disaster, including a conference on April 21 and an event Monday night on the embassy grounds. Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, the highest ranking U.S. official at Monday's event, spoke about the ongoing effort to secure the site, which still remains dangerous a quarter-century later.
"The United States -- in concert with our G-8 partners and the international community -- remains committed to helping Ukrainians bring the damaged Chernobyl nuclear facility to an environmentally safe and secure condition," she said.
Gottemoeller said the U.S. government had already given over $240 million to help clean up the Chernobyl site and that, last week, a U.S. delegation to Ukraine led by former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski pledged an additional $123 million toward completing the construction of a new confinement shelter to cover the aging sarcophagus, which was designed to block the release of radiation from the plant, and a storage facility for spent fuel at the site.
Ukraine has become a leader in nuclear safety and nuclear responsibility, she stated, through its decision to abandon nuclear weapons in 1994 and its 2010 decision to give up its stockpiles of highly enriched uranium. In return, the United States has expanded its nuclear cooperation with Ukraine, including helping the country construct a "neutron source facility" that will advance nuclear scientific and medical research.
With the world now facing a new crisis due to the partial meltdown of reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, Gottemoeller emphasized that the risks of nuclear power are shared by all.
"The events at Fukushima, just like the events at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, remind us once again that nuclear safety recognizes no boundaries," she said.
In the above photo, taken at the Ukraine Embassy event, Gottemoeller is flanked by Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak (left), and Ukrianian Ambassador Olexander Motsyk (right).
Jamie Mannina / State Department
Three years after the war between Russian and Georgia, the two countries have started a process to discuss Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization, top White House officials said. However, the U.S. government is not involved in those discussions.
Russia's bid to join the WTO this year will be at the top of the agenda when Vice President Joseph Biden travels to Moscow next week. The Obama administration strongly supports Russia's entry and sees U.S. assistance in that regard as part of the reset of U.S.-Russia relations. But Georgia, a WTO member, can single-handedly thwart Russia's accession. And while the White House sees some progress between the two foes, they don't want to be any part of that conversation.
"We have worked very closely with our Russian counterparts... to help them in the multilateral process so they can meet their goal of joining the WTO this year," NSC Senior Director for Russia Michael McFaul told reporters on a conference call Friday.
Responding to a question from The Cable, McFaul acknowledged that Russia cannot join the WTO unless Georgia agreed but said he saw movement on that front.
"There are definitely issues remaining between Russia and Georgia regarding trade relations that have to be addressed," he said. "There is a process underway. I don't want to prejudge it because we're not involved in it."
But McFaul was firm that the United States would not insert itself into the effort to help Russia and Georgia come to an agreement on the issue.
"We're not going to do that," he said. "At the end of the day this is a bilateral issue, not a trilateral issue."
Some insiders believe that this message from the Obama administration is meant to push both the Russian and Georgian governments to make a deal on WTO without depending on U.S. incentives or pressures to get it done. Regardless, McFaul said that he believed Georgia was willing to limit the discussions to "deal specifically with the economic and trade issues involved and not make it into a larger debate."
So what does Georgia want from Russia? Georgian Prime Minister Nika Gilauri spelled it out in an exclusive interview with The Cable.
"Georgia's support to Russia's WTO membership is conditional. The precondition is fulfillment of obligation taken by Russia in our bilateral accession protocol in 2004 and solving issues of customs administration on the Georgian-Russian border," he said. "Unregulated illegal trade as it takes place now is counter WTO rules. Russia should become member of this rules-based organization but only if it respects trade rules."
Of course, one huge problem is how to define the "Georgian-Russian border." If you are Georgia, that includes the borders between Russia and the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which it considers breakaway republics.
When Biden meets with Russian leaders next week, he can tell them that the administration is intent on repealing trade restrictions under the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was imposed in 1974 to pressure the Soviet Union to allow Jewish emigration.
"We plan to terminate the application of Jackson-Vanik in the near future," McFaul said.
However, lifting the law requires the support of Congress, so the White House can't count on it being done right away. "It's not something the White House can't simply press a button and have it done," added Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken.
Biden will arrive in Russia on March 9. He will stop by the U.S. embassy for lunch with U.S. business leaders, and then take those businessmen on a tour of Skolkovo, Russia's new "Silicon Valley." That evening he'll meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. On March 10, Biden will meet with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, then with civil society leaders, and then give a speech at Moscow University.
After Russia's WTO bid, the top agenda item for Biden in Russia will be cooperation on missile defense. The United States has been talking to Russia about missile defense cooperation for a long time, but most in Washington are skeptical that it will ever be possible to satisfy's Russia's objections to U.S. missile defense in Europe.
"We are on the verge of trying to take an issue that used to be extremely contentious... and to try to make it an area of cooperation," said McFaul. "Without some sort of cooperation on missile defense, it will be difficult" to make progress on further reductions of nuclear stockpiles in Europe, he said.
Several reporters on the call asked McFaul and Blinken what Biden's message would be to the Russian government on the international response to the bloodshed in Libya.
"We don't want to address Libya specific questions on this call," Blinken said.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.