The Senate on Thursday passed a series of tough, unilateral sanctions on Iran, leaving one final hurdle before the bill arrives on President Obama's desk -- which could come as early as today.
The vote was 99-0.
The House has already voted on some procedural items to allow the bill to go ahead and could also clear the legislation before the day is out. [UPDATE: The House has now passed it as well, 408-8.]
The changes included requiring the president to address the potential impact of ethanol being used to enhance Iran's energy capacity. A recent Foreign Policy article by Gal Luft explained how Iran was looking to import ethanol from Brazil to make up for a potential shortfall in gasoline as a result of the impending sanctions.
A second last-minute change requires the administration to analyze the impact of Iran acquiring energy "know-how" by engaging in joint ventures for energy development. That's related to concerns that joint ventures outside Iran could aid Iran's energy sector, such as ongoing cooperation with BP as described by Time magazine's Massimo Calabresi.
There were no changes to carefully negotiated language allowing the president to exempt companies from the sanctions on a case-by-case basis.
Ultimately, both House and Senate aides are confident that the president will approve the legislation. "There's no indication he won't sign it," one senior aide said.
But the real test of the administration's commitment to the new measures will come in their implementation. Advocates of strong sanctions have accused the administration of showing reluctance to enforce the sanctions currently on the books, so lawmakers and staffers are planning to keep a close watch to see how the law is carried out.
One senior Congressional aide suggested that the administration could demonstrate its commitment to the sanctions bill without seeming to be overly punitive by selecting a couple of high-profile instances of violations and moving swiftly to make an example out of them to show the sanctions are serious.
Showing some quick successes would demonstrate to allies and offenders alike that the reality of sanctions has changed on the ground, and might convince other potential violators to rethink, the aide said. He referred to the old Chinese proverb, "Sometimes you have to kill the chicken to scare the monkey."
The administration has said little in public about when it expects the sanctions to show results, but time is a critical factor in the White House's calculations. Iran watchers speak of three "clocks" driving U.S. policy: the speed at which Iranian nuclear technology is maturing; the time it takes for the sanctions to bite, bringing Iran to the table; and the patience of regional actors.
Estimates of Iran's technical advances vary, and Iranian scientists have made uneven progress toward having the nuclear knowhow necessary to build a weapon. Some experts say Iran could get the bomb in as little as one year's time; others say it will take longer -- and that's assuming the regime in Tehran makes the decision to weaponize, and it's not clear that it has done so already.
Then there is the question of Israel, which views an Iranian nuclear weapon as an existential threat. Israeli leaders have indicated their willingness to give the U.S. strategy of sanctions and unconditional engagement a chance to work, but calls for military action will likely heat up if diplomacy fails to produce sufficient changes in Iranian behavior.
Another concern is the risk that Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt, will pursue their own nuclear weapons programs to compete with Iran's.
The Obama administration is involved right now in missile defense cooperation talks with Russia, but they are not about setting "limits" on U.S. missile defense deployments, multiple administration officials told The Cable.
The Washington Times' Bill Gertz reported today that "The Obama administration is secretly working with Russia to conclude an agreement that many officials fear will limit U.S. missile defenses," and said "the administration last month presented a draft agreement on missile defenses to the Russians as part of talks between Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of state for international security and arms control, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov."
U.S. officials and lawmakers have been calling for formal U.S.-Russia missile defense cooperation for decades. When Ronald Reagan unveiled the original plans for missile defense in the 1980's, he repeatedly talked about sharing missile defense technology with Russia as a means toward eventually eliminating offensive strategic ballistic missiles.
Formal talks on cooperation date back to 1992. The most visible sign was the 1997 agreement to start the Russian American Observation Satellite (RAMOS) program.
An administration official explained to The Cable exactly what is going right now. "There is nothing secret about our intentions here," the official said, "Cooperation, not restrictions, on missile defense is the subject of conversations between the United States and Russia leading up to next week's presidential summit."
A "framework" or "draft agreement" is being considered, but it only covers future cooperation, not current deployment plans. The draft also includes data sharing, joint radar systems, and the like, but the U.S. side has been clear that limits on either the quantity or quality of missile defense deployments that fall outside the framework are not on the table. The Obama administration has requested $9.9 billion for missile defense in fiscal year 2011.
The Gertz story became a focus of the Senate Armed Services committee hearing Thursday with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and Joint Chiefs chairman Michael Mullen.
"We are discussing missile defense cooperation with Russia, which we believe is in the interests of both nations," Gates testified, "but such talks have nothing to do with imposing any limitations on our programs or deployment plans."
Clinton addressed the Gertz story directly.
"Number one, there is no secret deal. Number two, there is no plan to limit U.S. missile defenses, either in this treaty or in any other way. And number three, on that score, the story is dead wrong," she said.
Supporters of the administration's decision last year to alter missile defense plans in Eastern Europe, have argued that the changes could pave the way for U.S.-Russia missile defense cooperation.
"The President's decision also opens the door to missile defense cooperation with Russia, which would send a powerful signal to Iran," Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-MI said, adding that the administration's plan "will not threaten Russia, and it offers an opportunity for missile defense to serve as a uniting issue, rather than a dividing one."
The Russians don't see it that way, yet, but are engaging in the cooperation talks nonetheless.
The debate over missile defense limits is strongly tied to the ongoing drive to seek ratification of the new START nuclear reduction treaty, as today's hearing with Clinton and Gates demonstrated.
Conservative critics of the new START treaty have two missile defense-related gripes, however. They believe that a provision preventing interceptors being mounted on ICBMs is constraining, although the administration has said that is not part of the plan anyway.
They also point to Moscow's unilateral statement reserving their right to withdraw from the treaty if it concludes that U.S. missile defense deployments upset strategic stability. But the administration often points out that either side has the right to withdraw at any time, for any reason.
"It's the equivalent of a press release, and we are not in any way bound by it," Clinton testified.
The preamble to the START treaty acknowledges there is a relationship generally between between offensive and defense forces. "That's simply a statement of fact," Clinton said.
The Obama administration, led by National Security Advisor Jim Jones, was heavily involved in the Israeli government's decision to appoint an "independent public commission" to investigate the Gaza flotilla incident and pushed Israel to speed up the process in order to head off any attempts for increased pressure at the United Nations.
Over the last week, there were a flurry of high-level interactions between top administration officials and their various Israeli interlocutors. A State Department official told The Cable that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and that Deputy Secretary Jim Steinberg, Special Envoy George Mitchell and others were working the phones as well. Barak also spoke with Vice President Joseph Biden, who was traveling in the region.
But in last couple of days, the final details were worked out between the White House and Prime Minister's office, specifically by Jones and Israeli national security advisor Uzi Arad, according to an Israeli official. The National Security Council was much more involved than the State Department, with NSC Director Dan Shapiro in Israel to help and Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren playing a role as a go-between as well, the official said.
The message Obama officials delivered was twofold. First, they wanted to make sure Israel appointed international members to the commission who were credible. William David Trimble from Northern Ireland and Ken Watkin, a former judge advocate general of the Canadian Armed Forces, will be on it.
The other Obama message to the Israelis? Speed it up. They wanted Israel to get the commission members settled on and announced as much as a week before the Israelis were ready. The Israeli official said that the detailed and extensive consultations with the Obama people are why it took so long.
"Our sense was that they were hopeful this commission announcement would come speedily and get this issue off the agenda so we could put it behind us," the official said. "Now, nobody can complain that Israel hasn't established a committee with international representation."
The direct and pivotal involvement of Jones is telling because he is also the official widely suspected (but not confirmed) to have been the source of the reports that the White House was telling foreign leaders it planned to support a separate international investigation if one was initiated at the U.N.
That story, put out by Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol and denied by the White House, caused significant angst inside the Israeli government and diplomatic sources said it could have been an attempt to put pressure on Israel to speed things up.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley spoke about Kristol's allegation Monday. He promised the U.S. would support the Israeli investigation but refused to forswear U.S. support of whatever U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon might propose in the coming weeks.
"We stand by Israel and we'll voice our strong views against any action that is one-sided or biased by any international organization," Crowley said. "I'm not aware that the secretary general has yet made any decisions on steps the UN might take. We'll listen to what the secretary general has in mind and make a judgment then."
That type of hedging is exactly what many Israel supporters, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), are concerned about.
"AIPAC calls on the Obama administration to act decisively at the United Nations and other international forums to block any action -- including alternative investigations supported by the Secretary General -- which would isolate Israel," the group said in a statement.
They also point to the White House's statement Sunday on the commission, which they see as tepid because it included a terse warning to Israel along with word of support.
"While Israel should be afforded the time to complete its process, we expect Israel's commission and military investigation will be carried out promptly. We also expect that, upon completion, its findings will be presented publicly and will be presented to the international community," the statement said.
Going forward, there is still a lot of concern among Israelis about the prominent role Jones is playing in the shaping of the administration's Israel policy. The conventional wisdom is that Jones, along with U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, are the ones inside the administration pushing for a harder line vis-à-vis Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, while Biden, the NSC's Dennis Ross, and to an extent Special Envoy George Mitchell are said to advocate a position more sensitive to Netanyahu's own political situation.
Former Middle East Negotiator Aaron David Miller said that it's natural for the NSC, and therefore Jones, to manage U.S.-Israeli issues that involve the overall tone and "high politics" of the relationship, as opposed to Mitchell, who handles issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian talks.
"When it comes to the overall relationship, the NSC is in charge," Miller said, adding that top administration officials seem to be converging around the realization that public pressure on Netanyahu can only be so effective.
"Those divisions have somewhat surrendered to reality, because in the end to get anywhere you have to work with the Israeli government," he said.
The government of Turkey is not satisfied with Israel's commission and is pledging to do its own investigation. Crowley said that was Turkey's right. The Israeli official said Israel's commission was not crafted "in any way to appease Turkey."
Now that the U.N. Security Council has passed its new sanctions resolution against Iran, the path is clear for Congress to move forward with its own, tougher set of sanctions.
Lead sponsors Sen. Chris Dodd, D-CT, and Rep. Howard Berman, D-CA, had agreed to give the administration more time to complete the U.N. track before reconciling the Senate and House versions of Iran sanctions legislation. After an unusually public first session of the conference committee, work has been quietly proceeding at the staff level and is finishing up now.
The sequencing here is important. Congress is also waiting until the European Union has a chance to meet and announce its own set of measures. That meeting will happen June 16 and 17 in Brussels. After that, Congress will have two weeks to unveil its bicameral bill before lawmakers leave town for the July 4 recess.
"We now look to the European Union and other key nations that share our deep concern about Iran's nuclear intentions to build on the Security Council resolution by imposing tougher national measures that will deepen Iran's isolation and, hopefully, bring the Iranian leadership to its senses," Berman said Wednesday. "The U.S. Congress will do its part by passing sanctions legislation later this month."
Hill sources say that it's still unclear whether Congress will be able to pass the conference report out of both chambers before the July 4 recess, as Dodd and Berman promised. But they see the passing of the U.N. resolution as the needed signal to move the conference process to its final conclusion.
"Now that the U.N. vote is behind us, there is a strong case to be made that the sanctions should be as strong as possible," said one congressional aide working on the issue. "We've now begun the process of what is essentially the last, best hope of stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program."
Still, even among sanctions advocates, there's great skepticism that Iran can be convinced to change course.
"The good news is that everything is going according to plan," the aide said. "The bad news is that the plan might not work."
Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, alluded to that Wednesday when calling for continued diplomatic engagement with the Iranian regime.
"Iran's nuclear program cannot be peacefully resolved without direct dialogue with the leadership in Tehran," Kerry said. "While today's action puts wind in the sails of this process, it is only the first step. We need more diplomatic creativity, energy and a clear vision of what is possible."
Kerry's committee will hold a hearing June 22 on the U.N. sanctions with the under secretaries of state and Treasury, William Burns and Stuart Levey, two of the administration's top point men on Iran.
The main issues inside the conference still include whether and how to meet the Obama administration's demand for an exemption from new sanctions for countries that are deemed to be "cooperating" with U.S. efforts. Republican lawmakers worry that the White House will use that to broadly exempt some of Iran closest business partners, such as Russia and China.
"It is clear the president's policy has failed. It is now time for the Congress to approve the Iran sanctions bill currently in conference committee, without watering it down or plugging it full of loopholes, and then the president should actually use it," said Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-AZ.
The fact that the U.N. resolution does not include language to restrict China's oil business with Iran or Russia's nuclear assistance and possible anti-aircraft system sales to Tehran elicited scorn from multiple leading GOP senators.
"I wish I could say that today's Security Council resolution is worth the more than six months it took to produce, but that is just not the case. The resolution is a lowest-common-denominator product," said Sen. John McCain, R-AZ.
We're told that McCain's proposal to target regime leaders accused of human rights abuses is set to be included in the conference report. We're also hearing that inside the conference, some new sanctions imposing mandatory penalties against international banks that do business with Iran are under discussion.
As far as we know, neither the House nor Senate leadership has allotted floor time for the bill yet, but that shouldn't be too much of a burden. The Iran sanctions legislation is expected to be passed relatively quickly and with broad bipartisan support.
North Korea announced today that it was breaking off diplomatic relations with the South, one day after South Korea imposed severe trade restrictions on Pyongyang in response to the March sinking of a South Korea ship, the Cheonan.
The news broke as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was getting ready to depart Beijing for Seoul, South Korea, where she is expected to back President Lee Myung-bak's demand that Pyongyang "pay a price" for its actions. Clinton's five-day visit to China for the Strategic and Economic Dialogue has been largely overshadowed by the crisis on the Korean peninsula, with Beijing calling for calm in the face of growing pressure from Washington and Seoul.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, calls are heating up for the Obama administration to take punitive measures like putting North Korea back on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.
But the Obama administration is clearly signaling it does not intend to do that any time soon. The calculation is that the listing, which administration officals see as having been overly politicized by George W. Bush's administration, is more trouble than it's worth.
"With respect to ... the state-sponsor of terrorism list, the United States will apply the law as the facts warrant," Clinton said in Beijing Monday. "The legislation, as you know, sets out specific criteria for the Secretary of State to base a determination... If the evidence warrants, the Department of State will take action."
What Clinton is saying here is that the original reasons that North Korea was put on the list, when they blew up half the South Korean cabinet in Rangoon in 1983 and then bombed Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987, are not enough to justify putting Pyongyang back on the list today. Nor are the other reasons that the State Department has included in reports as recently as 2007 good enough for relisting now, namely that North Korea still hasn't answered for 12 Japanese abductees and still harbors members of the Japanese Red Army.
In fact, that 2007 report evens says that "The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) was not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987."
Whether you believe that or not, the sinking of the Cheonan falls outside that definition.
"I don't see how you can call this a terrorist act," said Michael Auslin, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "I think it's an act of war but it's not a terrorist act. Putting them back on there would just show that we really don't have any other options. I think it was a mistake to take them off, but I don't think this is how you put them back on."
Leading Asia experts lament that the process was reduced to a political negotiation at the very end of the Bush administration, when then North Korea negotiator Chris Hill agreed to delist Pyongyang in exchange for North Korean promises to keep alive the Six Party Talks on their nuclear program. Those promises have gone largely unfulfilled.
When the delisting actually happened in October 2008, the State Department stated that North Korea "had not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six-month period and the provision by the government of assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future."
Many Asia experts support putting North Korea back on the list, but they don't see the Cheonan sinking as a justification for doing it.
"I actually think it makes perfect sense to relist North Korea; it just has nothing to do with the Cheonan incident," said L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation, a northeast Asia focused think tank. "The incident just provides an opportunity to reevaluate the politically driven decision to delist them in the first place."
That decision was meant to cement progress made by the Bush administration as represented by a September 2005 declaration whereby North Korea promised to abandon all nuclear weapons programs and a February 2007 agreement on implementation. Japan was so upset, based on their domestic imperative to keep the abductee issue alive, that then Prime Minister Taro Aso reportedly called Bush that morning to beg him not to do it.
But after being delisted, Pyongyang just waited out the Bush administration and then started a series of provocative actions that eventually led to the Obama administration basically abandoning attempts to engage North Korea altogether.
That's not to say there aren't arguments to be made that North Korea is indeed still currently a state sponsor of terror. For example, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman accused Pyongyang this month of funneling weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas through Burma, an allegation that has not been confirmed by the U.S. side.
But the Obama administration isn't making those arguments. That job is left to congressmen such as Gary Ackerman, D-NY, and Sam Brownback, R-KS. "Through the sales of ballistic missiles, artillery rockets and conventional arms to Hamas and Hezbollah, State Department-designated foreign terrorist organizations, Pyongyang is fueling two additional potentially disastrous confrontations," Ackerman said.
Overall, the making of the listing into a political football is exactly the reason that the Obama administration doesn't want to wade into those waters again.
"They saw the way this was handled in the Bush administration and they don't want to go there," said Flake. "It's a lot easier to do then to undo. This is a tool that should not be overly politicized, if we want to put more sanctions on North Korea, we can."
Did President Obama give Brazil and Turkey the nod to pursue their recent 11th-hour fuel-swap deal with Iran?
That's what Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu claimed in a Wednesday press conference in Istanbul, appearing to contradict clear signals that the Obama administration didn't look favorably on the agreement.
"[Obama] paved the way for this process," Davutoglu said, claiming that Obama had personally encouraged Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Brazil's President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to pursue dialogue with Tehran when the three leaders met at last month's nuclear security summit in Washington.
It's true that Obama "encouraged" Turkey and Brazil to hold discussions with Iran, a White House official tells The Cable, but he never indicated that a deal like the one announced this week would be sufficient to alleviate international concerns or stave off sanctions.
Nor did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who spoke with Davutoglu by last Friday, give the talks an unqualified thumbs up. "During the call, the secretary stressed that in our view, Iran's recent diplomacy was an attempt to stop Security Council action without actually taking steps to address international concerns about its nuclear program," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
According to the White House, Obama did not mean to suggest that a fuel-swap deal alone would be enough to assuage U.S. concerns about Iran's nuclear program. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government would still have to prove to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.N. Security Council that its intentions were peaceful, stop enriching uranium to 20 percent, and comply with previous U.N. sanctions resolutions.
The New York Times reported Monday that Obama had sent "detailed letters in the last week of April outlining specific concerns" about Brazil and Turkey's planned diplomatic outreach to Iran -- concerns that apparently went unheeded.
The previous fuel-swap deal, which Iran initially agreed to in October but later repudiated, would have seen Iran ship its low-enriched uranium to Russia. There, it was to be enriched to a higher grade for use in Tehran's research reactor, ostensibly for medical purposes.
But in the intervening months, Iran continued to expand its nuclear program, and announced that it had the technology to enrich uranium to 20 percent -- closer to the grade needed to produce nuclear weapons.
"The president encouraged the Turks and Lula to talk to the Iranians about encouraging Iran to meet their international obligations," the White House official said. "That can include the [Tehran research reactor] aspect but that also must include the other parts of the deal in October."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stunned the world Tuesday morning when she testified that the United States had reached an agreement with other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council on a draft resolution leveling new sanctions against Iran. But there's one body that the administration still does not have an Iran sanctions agreement with: the U.S. Congress.
Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers pledged to swiftly reconcile the two versions of the Iran sanctions legislation, one sponsored by Senate Banking Committee chairman Chris Dodd, D-CT, and another led by House Foreign Affairs Committee head Howard Berman, D-CA.
"We hope it will move out of conference this week and be on the floor next week," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, said Tuesday.
"International sanctions make a lot more sense than unilateral ... But we're not going to retreat from the unilateral sanctions effort," said Dodd.
Inside the conference process, there's a lot going on. Conferees and non-conferees alike have been holding meetings on the legislation both at the staff and member level. Dodd and Berman have been engaged with the administration to work on the fixes the Obama team wants to see in the bill.
The drive to complete the bill quickly, ahead of the U.N. Security Council process, is bipartisan and bicameral. Republicans don't believe the U.N. language will be tough enough and are resisting administration efforts to have Congress wait for the U.N. track to play out. Democrats don't want to be pegged as weak on national security, and are cautiously trying to accommodate the administration's request for a delay.
But leading Republicans are growing impatient.
"I hope that the Democrats and the administration would move forward with that as quickly as possible. They clearly have been stalling for a long period of time," Senate Armed Services committee ranking member John McCain, R-AZ, told The Cable.
As the sanctions drama at the U.N. moves into what the Obama administration hopes are its final stages, the Iranian government is busily trying to conduct its own diplomatic outreach, including an attempt to convene an international meeting of some Security Council members in Tehran.
U.S. officials are arguing that after hearing Iran's pitch, those council members still resisting sanctions -- a group that includes nonpermanent members Turkey and Brazil -- will have no more excuse to hold up the process. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to make that case Thursday morning.
"During the call, the secretary stressed that in our view, Iran's recent diplomacy was attempt to stop Security Council action without actually taking steps to address international concerns about its nuclear program," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. "There's nothing new and nothing encouraging in Iran's recent statements."
A State Department official, speaking on background basis, explained that State expects Iran to try to convene an international meeting of sympathetic countries in Tehran to coincide with the upcoming visit of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva.
"It's possible that a high-level Turkish official might go," the official said. "We wanted to make sure Turkey understood exactly how we view recent actions and statements by Iran."
After Lula's visit, expect the U.S. message to be: The engagement track has all but failed.
"At that point, we'll understand what Iran is either willing or unwilling to do, and at that point we believe that there should be consequences for a failure to respond," Crowley said.
Iran has been stepping up its anti-resolution diplomacy of late, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki making the rounds of relevant countries. Mottaki even hosted an impromptu dinner for all the Security Council members in New York last week. (He served leftovers, Crowley tweeted.)
We are hearing that the U.S. goal is to pass a sanctions resolution by the end of May, but most diplomats don't expect it to get done until at least mid-June. U.S. officials are expressing increased confidence that the resolution will pass and will not get vetoed.
"[U]nless Iran does something significant that demonstrates that it is taking confidence-building measures, I am very confident we will get a Security Council resolution that is supported by the majority of the U.N. Security Council," White House WMD czar Gary Samore said Tuesday.
The so-called P5+1, the permanent five members of the Security Council plus Germany, met in New York Wednesday on the issue. Clinton discussed Iran with Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo for more than an hour Wednesday. "They acknowledged that good progress has been made, talked about a couple of technical issues in the drafting of the draft resolution, and pledged that both sides would continue to work hard within the P-5+1 to resolve remaining questions," Crowley said.
President Obama spoke over the phone with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev Thursday morning and discussed Iran as well. "The presidents also discussed the good progress being made by the P5+1 towards agreement on a U.N. Security Council resolution on Iran and agreed to instruct their negotiators to intensify their efforts to reach conclusion as soon as possible," according to White House readout of the call.
Add the Obama administration's WMD czar Gary Samore to the growing list of top officials who believe that Middle East peace is a necessary precursor to solving wider regional problems, including the drive to curb the spread of nuclear weapons.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday afternoon, Samore tied the peace process to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, currently ongoing in New York, by saying that one of the key signs of success would be if "at least some progress" can be made toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.
"We recognize and I frankly think everybody recognizes that in the absence of a comprehensive and endurable peace settlement, achieving the zone... is just not likely to be the outcome any time soon."
He then took the argument one step further and said, "The Obama administration is working very hard to try to push the peace process forward and it seems to me that's an essential element to making progress in any of these zones... It's hard to imagine how you could have an arms control regime in the Middle East without having peace and diplomatic recognition... it's a precursor to negotiations."
It's longstanding U.S. policy that Israel should eventually join the NPT, but it's also longstanding U.S. policy not to push Israel to change its stance of neither confirming nor denying its estimated stockpile of 100-plus nuclear weapons. Samore said he does not personally support Israel changing its policy of ambiguity and that no such discussions were taking place that he was aware of.
He also sought to set clear expectations for what might come out of the four-week conference, namely that the administration was not expecting all of the conference members to sign onto any agreement together.
"We believe that if a strong majority of countries support an outcome that pledges support for the treaty and supports practical steps for all of the three pillars plus language on the Middle East, that would be a successful outcome... even if that document is not accepted by the conference as a whole."
Samore also defended the U.S.-Russia civilian nuclear agreement, which the White House sent over to Congress Tuesday. Some lawmakers see the agreement as an undeserved reward to Russia, before that country has publicly committed to signing onto a strong Iran sanctions resolution at the UN.
He said the deal, known as the 123 agreement, won't come into force until later this year and he predicted a UN sanctions resolution would materialize well before then. And he doubted that Russia would go through with the delivery of the S-300 air defense system to Iran, which could also provoke opposition to the deal.
"We've made it very clear to the Russians that would have a very significant impact on bilateral relations and the Russians understand that the consequences would be very severe... I'd be surprised if those transfers take place," said Samore, declining to specify exactly what those consequences would be.
He also headed off another potential concern about the deal by saying, "As long as I've been in this job, there's been no concern about Russian entities providing nuclear assistance to Iran."
Samore said the START treaty with Russia will probably be submitted to Congress this week.
While the State Department works to combat Iran's nuclear propaganda at the UN, back in Washington a group of bipartisan senators are doubling down on their promise to push for tough Iran sanctions legislation that does not include "cooperating country" exemptions that State wants.
The House and Senate began conference on the two bills last week, one led by Senate Banking Committee chairman Chris Dodd, D-CT, and the other led by House Foreign Affairs chairman Howard Berman, D-CA. The main change that State wants the conference to make to the legislation is to have the bill waive corporate sanctions for countries that are deemed to be "cooperating" with the new sanctions regime.
According to Deputy Secretary James Steinberg (pdf), the waiver is needed to avoid upsetting countries the U.S. needs to bring along on its push for multilateral action. Critics fear it will be used to exempt some of Iran's biggest trading partners, Russia and China, in exchange for their support for a new U.N. resolution
"We would find it difficult to support any conference report that would weaken the House and Senate passed sanctions by providing exemptions to companies or countries engaged in the refined petroleum trade with Iran," reads the May 3 letter from Sens. Jon Kyl, R-AZ, Chuck Schumer, D-NY, John Cornyn, R-TX, Dick Durbin, D-IL, Susan Collins, R-ME, Kent Conrad, D-ND, Evan Bayh, D-IN, Sam Brownback, R-KS, John McCain, R-AZ, and Kit Bond, R-MO.
"In particular, we are skeptical about any revision to the legislation that would exempt countries engaged in otherwise engaged in sanctionable activities because they are incorporated in so-called ‘cooperating countries.'"
The senators also expressed their opposition to any changes in the legislation that would weaken sanctions of Iran's energy sector at all and made an argument supporting the inclusion of new language from McCain targeting Iranian officials guilty of human rights abuses. McCain was promised strong support for that in exchange for him allowing the original Senate bill to move off the Senate floor.
The senators wrote that the administration's ongoing drive to seek a new sanctions resolution at the UN Council was "complementary" to Congressional action but that the conference must be completed as soon as possible, "regardless of progress at the UN."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to press in New York Monday, rejected the claims by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Iran had accepted the IAEA's proposal for transferring its nuclear material to a third country. Clinton reiterated that the U.S. is pursuing the "pressure track" but declined to use the term "crippling sanctions" as she has done in the past.
"For all the bluster of its words, the Iranian Government cannot defend its own actions, and that is why it is facing increasing isolation and pressure from the international community," she said.
Missile defense is as much of a diplomatic initiative as a military one. For the Poles, they see missile defense cooperation with the United States as a great way to build defense ties, bolster their credentials within NATO, and maybe even hedge against their traditional eastern foe, Russia.
What Poland doesn't see is itself as a target of the missile threat from Iran, the country the nascent U.S. missile shield is supposedly designed to thwart.
"If the mullahs have a target list we believe we are quite low on it," Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said in an interview with Foreign Policy during his trip to Washington Thursday.
Sikorski is in town to meet with a host of officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and National Security Advisor James L. Jones. He also attended the Atlantic Council gala Wednesday night featuring Bono.
When George W. Bush's administration announced its plans to deploy missile defense interceptors in Poland, the system was advertised as needed to counter Iranian missiles headed toward the United States or Europe. The problem was, Bush's plan was designed to counter long-range missiles and actually had little chance of hitting a missile headed from Iran to Europe.
The Obama administration came in and changed the plan, replacing the interceptors with a "phased adaptive approach" that will use smaller, more mobile systems to counter short and medium-range missiles. They advertised that as better suited to protect Europe.
But Sikorski admitted that Poland's real interest in the system is to be an active player in the new emerging security infrastructure in Europe, which includes NATO's endorsement of missile defense.
"Our part of Europe has so far very few NATO installations," he said. "This is the game that seems to be the next project, so we decided to get involved."
Sikorski also commented on the botched rollout of the new missile defense plan by the Obama administration. Back in September, senior U.S. officials scrambled to brief allies after news of the plan was leaked from the European side ahead of the White House's schedule. The unfortunate result was that the plan was announced on the day of the 70th anniversary of the Russian invasion of Poland.
Poland didn't intend to antagonize Russia by upgrading its ties to NATO and the United States.
"We were willing to give the U.S. a chunk of our territory for this facility, but we weren't particularly looking forward to paying the price with worse relations with Russia," Sikorski said. "The Bush administration had told us, ‘We will fix it with the Russians, we will persuade them that this is no threat to them, don't worry.' And the problem appeared when the Russians appeared to be unpersuaded."
Overall, Poland is satisfied by the level of attention it receives from the Obama administration, despite the perception in some foreign capitals that the White House spends its limited foreign-policy attention span dealing more with problem countries, like Iran, than it does with allies.
"We are not in the business of vying for attention," he said. "We recognize that the U.S. has some serious problems: financial, domestic, and we feel to be fortunate not to be one of those problem areas around the world that need urgent attention."
For Sikorski's thoughts on Poland's recent tragedy and the Gordon Brown immigration controversy, read Joshua Keating's post on FP's Passport blog here.
In another sign of the State Department's dedication to getting the new START treaty ratified this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted top senators and staff for breakfast Tuesday morning in her private Foggy Bottom digs.
Up on the 8th floor over a menu of fruit, yogurt, and scrambled eggs, Clinton and Under Secretary Ellen Tauscher spoke and answered questions for 90 minutes about the new pact with Russia. Chief negotiator Rose Gottemoeller, State's congressional affairs chief Richard Verma, the Pentagon's James N. Miller, and the National Security Council's Gary Samore were also there. The congressional side included about a dozen Senate Foreign Relations Committee members and their aides.
The message was: "This treaty is good for national security," our inside sources reported, adding that Clinton wasn't supposed to stay the whole time but extended her appearance because she wanted to make sure she addressed all the questions posed thoroughly.
Some senators who were there include committee heads John Kerry, D-MA, and Richard Lugar, R-IN, as well as Europe subcommittee chair Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, Ben Cardin, D-MD, and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY.
"It was a good meeting. We got good answers," Lugar told The Cable. Lugar supports ratification, but some other Republicans, notably Jon Kyl, R-AZ, are still keeping their powder dry.
Kerry told The Cable the breakfast meeting was "a good discussion about the substance of the treaty and how we will proceed."
The SFRC is setting up hearings now, with the chairs of the Strategic Posture Commission, former Defense Secretaries James Schlesinger and William Perry, up first on Thursday. A hearing with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger will follow that.
Our Senate sources say Thursday's hearing will be the chance for several GOP senators to air their objections to the treaty's language on missile defense. The treaty prevents the U.S. from mounting missile-defense interceptors on ICBMs or SLBMs, but the administration is arguing that doesn't "constrain" missile defense because it wasn't planning on doing that anyway.
The Senate GOP caucus held its own meeting on START last week, and we're hearing some GOP senators aren't buying that argument.
As for when the treaty might come up for a vote, Kerry wasn't committing to anything specific, but said he wanted to get it done "as soon as is practical."
"We're not going to have any specific [deadline] date out there, but we're going to move very, very rapidly to put all the hearings together and to put together the draft resolution and begin to move on it," he said.
Gottemoeller gave a hint during a speech Monday at a conference held by the Arms Control Association, saying that State would give Congress all the remaining documents: annexes, protocols, etc. "within the coming weeks."
Only one day after the close of President Obama's nuclear summit, Congress is demanding the administration refocus the nuclear discussion on Iran's nuclear program and is threatening to move sanctions legislation sooner rather than later.
Congress has been sitting on two Iran sanctions bills for most of this year, having passed them through both chambers but not yet convening a conference session to resolve the two versions. Lawmakers have been giving the administration time to work the U.N. track, while also lamenting that the expected deadline for getting a new U.N. Security Council resolution on Iran keeps slipping.
The pressure to take action may well increase after today's congressional testimony, in which Defense Intelligence Agency head Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess, Jr. warned that Iran could have enough highly enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb within a year. Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Gen. James Cartwright was quick to clarify that Iran wouldn't have the capability to actually construct that bomb until three to five years' time.
Burgess also gave some details in his written remarks about Iran's capabilities that weren't previously well known in public.
"DIA assesses that, with sufficient foreign assistance, Iran could develop and test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the United States," he wrote. "Iran displayed its next-generation SLV, the Simorgh, in February 2010. The Simorgh is much larger than the Safir and shows progress in booster design that could be applicable to an ICBM design."
(The relatively less revealing testimony of Under Secretary of State William J. Burns, who is in charge of America's contribution to the P5+1 process, can be found here.)
President Obama appears to feel the same sense of urgency. When he met Chinese President Hu Jintao at the summit, our sources report, he pressed Hu for some progress on U.N. sanctions by the end of April.
In response, the Chinese reaffirmed their willingness to participate in sanctions negotiations without making any concrete pledges. Although this was portrayed as a significant shift in some reports, the truth is that Chinese intentions are still unclear, as is the date by which the U.N. might take action.
On May 3, the U.N. begins the once-every-five-years Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York. It's unlikely the Security Council would tackle the Iran issue in the middle of that conference, risking a political fight in the midst of an already-complex set of negotiations -- and that NPT review lasts until May 28. So if the Obama administration can't it done in April, the sanctions will have to wait until June.
Speaking about the issue at the press conference closing the summit Tuesday, Obama promised to press for sanctions but said, "I'm not going to speculate beyond that in terms of where we are."
Congress, however, wants to the administration to know that any delay will bring further pressure from Capitol Hill.
"We urge you to join with those allies who are prepared for action to immediately impose crippling sanctions on Iran," reads a letter signed by more than 360 House lawmakers that will be released later today. "Only such action on our part offers the prospect of persuading Tehran to turn away from its dangerous course."
A nearly identical Senate letter is also in the works and has at least 75 signatures right now, our Hill sources report.
At 3 p.m. today, bipartisan House leaders will hold a press conference to push for action on Iran sanctions. Speaking will be Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-VA, Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-IL, and Rep. Mike Pence, R-IN. Our Hill sources say that the press conference was rescheduled specifically to enable Hoyer to attend.
The Senate has already appointed conferees for the Iran sanctions bill, but the House has not. People on the Senate side continue to believe that House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman, D-CA, is holding up on appointing conferees to stall the conference as a favor to the administration, but Berman's office denies that.
The State Department has published a slew of documents related to the just-concluded Nuclear Security Summit. Enjoy.
The string of small deliverables coming out of the Nuclear Security Summit continues. These announcements, which were largely planned in advance but are being rolled out throughout the event are what American officials have taken to calling "house gifts" because they are seen as offerings by visiting dignitaries who want to get in good with their host.
"Maybe if you didn't bring anything this time, Obama won't invite you to the next one," one U.S. delegate joked.
And there are quite a few. We already knew about the Chilean and Ukrainian announcements that they would give up their last stores of highly enriched uranium. Ukraine also agreed to switch its reactor to use low-enriched uranium instead.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signed a deal to destroy large amounts of weapons grade plutonium today. Now, the Russians have announced they will shut down the plutonium plant in Zheleznogorsk, a once-secret city in Siberia. (They actually agreed to do that two years ago, but nice to know they will actually follow through.)
And Canada announced today that the country will give up a lot of its nuclear material, while Mexico announced today that it will convert it research reactors from highly enriched uranium to low-enriched uranium.
All of this allowed Obama to announce in his speech Tuesday afternoon, "We are not just making pledges -- we are making real progress."
"The summit is a clever device for generating momentum," Joshua Pollack, a consultant to the U.S. government and a contributor to the Arms Control Wonk blog, told The Nelson Report, an insider Washington newsletter. "A lot of this stuff languishes because it costs money. But if everyone is expected to show up every couple of years and to be ashamed if they come empty-handed, well, it helps."
The final communiqué is below:
Sure, the Nuclear Security Summit is supposed to be about President Obama's drive to secure all the world's loose nuclear material. But hey, since all 47 nations have such high-level leaders in one place, why not set up a bunch of side meetings?
And set them up they did. There are delegations scuttling this way and that, discussing who knows what, and coming up with new combinations for conversations every few minutes. The last one your Cable guy witnessed was when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh brought his entourage to meet behind closed doors with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his gang.
The French are having so many meetings, they reserved their own exclusive room to host them. Everyone else has to schedule meeting space one at a time through the State Department.
The Chinese didn't schedule any meetings at the convention center, preferring to hold court back at their hotel, the Wardman Park Marriott in northwest Washington.
And the Israelis don't have any rooms reserved either, according to the State Department. But they are having meetings. We witnessed Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg exit the convention center this morning. (OK, he might not have been there to see the Israelis. But then around noon we saw Special Envoy George Mitchell. I wonder what he was doing there...)
Here are some of the other interesting meetings we are being told about. Russia is having a meeting with Ukraine and we heard Kazakhstan will also attend. Russia is also meeting with Japan. No word yet on what was discussed.
The United Arab Emirates is holding a string of meetings. Today's roster included the French and the Singaporeans, although they missed their chance to meet with the South Africa delegation.
Yesterday, Mexico met with the EU delegation; Spain met with the team from the U.N.; and New Zealand and Chile sat down to talk, just to name a few.
President Obama even found time to squeeze in a few extra sessions. He sat down with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and also scheduled a new bilateral meeting this afternoon with President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina.
There are so many side meetings at the Nuclear Security Summit today, it's hard to keep track. Each country is managing a more than full schedule of appointments and making changes to those schedules on a constant basis.
Sometimes meetings run overtime and someone gets insulted. Such was the case today with the scheduled meeting between President Jacob Zuma of South Africa and Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates.
Apparently, Abdullah's meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy ran long, leaving Zuma and his considerable entourage waiting in the hallway outside the meeting rooms in the first floor of the convention center.
Most of the credentialed media sits in a gigantic media hub far away from the meeting rooms where the real action takes place. But your humble Cable guy is parked right outside the doors of the meeting rooms (to the chagrin of many delegations) and witnessed the scuffle between Zuma's people and the UAE information minister.
"You can't just keep him standing here in the corridor," Zuma's aide told the UAE representative. "It's not done."
The UAE guy (pictured above right) asked Zuma to wait just one more minute. But when the Signapore delegation arrived for its meeting with Abdullah, which was scheduled after Zuma's, the South Africa delegation turned around and walked away, in quite a huff.
The UAE information minister didn't seem all that bothered and Abdullah's meeting with the Singaporeans went forward.
Here at the Washington Convention Center, where the 47-nation Nuclear Security Summit is taking place, there are definitely two classes of attendees.
In the main hallways and the first floor briefing rooms, any credentialed attendee can wander around and interact with press and delegates from all over the world. But everywhere you go, massive blue curtains stop lower-level personnel (like your humble Cable guy) from getting to the areas where the really important people are.
Behind the blue walls, mostly on the second floor of the convention center, VIPs like presidents and their photographers hang out, kibbitz among themselves, and eat what we presume is a higher quality of food.
There are all sorts of interesting interactions happening in those secret areas. One of our sources with a high level of security clearance sends along this photo, which shows French President Nicolas Sarkozy making a point with Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Doesn't seem like he was pressing him to support Iran sanctions, but you never know...
In another example of small accomplishments being rolled out during this week's nuclear summit, the United States and Russia are planning a ceremony to mark the update of a plutonium disposal agreement that was originally agreed to 10 years ago.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will sign an "amendment" to what's known as the U.S.-Russia Plutonium Disposition Agreement Tuesday on the side of President Obama's ongoing Nuclear Security Summit.
The original agreement was signed toward the end of Bill Clinton's administration in 2000 by then Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. Both sides agreed to destroy 34 metric tons of plutonium. But the agreement never went into force due to disputes about the international funding assistance Russia said it needed for implementation.
The agreement "is very significant in the sense that over a period of a decade or so it will remove very large quantities of weapons-useable materials, and also it's an agreement that's been long stalled," the National Security Council's Gary Samore said on an April 9 conference call. "It was really President Obama's focus on this issue and the reset of his relationship with Russia that has finally been able to finalize this agreement."
The United States will spend $400 million to transform the Russian plutonium involved under the deal, nuclear expert Matthew Bunn told the Irish Times.
"This signing represents a major and essential step toward enabling full implementation of our two countries' obligation to safely and transparently dispose of such excess weapon-grade plutonium, enough material for several thousand nuclear weapons," the State Department said in a statement.
Following the first ever meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and newly minted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, the two sides announced that Ukraine will give up its stores of highly enriched uranium (HEU).
It's not the first victory for the Obama administration at this week's Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, which hasn't even officially started yet. Kazakhstan Sunday agreed to allow the U.S. planes direct overflight of its territory for military equipment headed to Afghanistan.
But it is the first in what State Department sources say will be a series of announcements by countries on steps they will take unilaterally to address the threat that the summit was convened to address: the risk of nuclear material falling into the wrong hands.
Yushchenko congratulated Obama on the signing of the "New START" nuclear reductions treaty with Russia. Ukraine was instrumental in implementing the old START treaty, at least since 1994 when the country agree to give up its nuclear weapons.
Philip Gordon, the assistant secretary of state for European Affairs, was in the Obama-Yushchenko meeting, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that Ukraine will get rid of all its HEU by 2012 and convert all of its facilities to operate with low-enriched uranium.
"This is something that the United States has tried to make happen for more than 10 years," he said. "The material is enough to construct several nuclear weapons."
Take a look at the White House's fact sheet on the announcement here (pdf).
Ukraine's new President Viktor Yanukovych scored a coveted one-on-one meeting with President Obama Monday on the margins of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, the White House announced.
That makes 10 bilateral meetings out of 46 countries attending (47 including the United States). Of those 47, 38 are represented by their heads of state or heads of government.
For the full roster of who is getting a meeting with Obama, read this.
And look here for a schedule of the summit's events beginning tomorrow.
The White House also announced the names of all the delegations heads, including those from the European Union and the United Nations, after the break.
The White House is taking advantage of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington next week to bring together some crucial countries and lay some groundwork for the next major arms control conference, over lunch.
Vice President Joseph Biden will host a private soireé Monday while President Obama is over at Blair House conducting a series of bilateral meetings. The invitees are countries at the summit who meet two additional criteria: they are members of the non-aligned movement who are also signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT review conference will be in New York in May, and these are some of the countries that will need the most persuading or pose some risk of complicating that event.
"This group of states will be critical to the president's agenda to secure vulnerable nuclear materials around the world, as well as to the broader success of our efforts to reinforce the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty," a White House official told The Cable.
The countries that meet the invitee criteria are Algeria, Chile, Egypt, Indonesia, Morocco, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Singapore, Thailand, UAE, and Vietnam.
The official added that Biden plans to discuss both next week's summit, which focuses on securing loose nuclear material, and the NPT conference, which is held every five years and is more focused on states' actions toward developing nuclear weapons and producing nuclear fuel.
He will also "take the opportunity to lay out the steps the administration has taken to reduce its reliance on nuclear weapons, the contribution to world security represented by the newly signed New START agreement with Russia, and our common goal to achieve a successful outcome to the NPT Review Conference," the official said.
Countries that are in compliance with the NPT are no longer targets of U.S. nuclear weapons, according to President Obama's newly released Nuclear Posture Review, so that should put some of the member countries at ease.
For a full schedule of Nuclear Security Summit events, read The Cable's summit preview.
The 47-nation nuclear summit in Washington doesn't start until next week, but the unofficial festivities begin tonight in Washington.
Only hours after touching down from President Obama's trip to Prague to sign the new START treaty, the State Department will be hosting a dinner event in Foggy Bottom for the "sherpas" from the various delegations and some other officials who took the opportunity to show up a couple of days early.
Attending tonight's dinner from the U.S. side are Under Secretary Ellen Tauscher, National Security Council senior director Gary Samore, and "threat reductions" coordinator Amb. Bonnie Jenkins.
Who are the "sherpas," you ask?
"‘Sherpa' is a term borrowed from the from the world of mountaineering, where the sherpas are the people that lead the way to the summit and make sure that it's safe for the important people who are in the climbing team," said Samore, who is the official sherpa for the U.S. delegation, "The sherpas are responsible for making sure everybody reaches the summit safely and leading the way. And if they don't, then they fall off the mountaintop first."
There have been three meetings of the sherpas so far as well as several meetings of the "sous-sherpas,' the deputies to the sherpas, who really delve into the nitty-gritty details of the summit.
Samore and the NSC's Ben Rhodes briefed reporters Friday on the official parts of the summit. They were clear to define the 47-nation meeting as having a limited and specific focus.
"The nuclear security summit is focused on a very specific issue of securing nuclear materials and cooperating to prevent nuclear smuggling, in order to reduce as much as possible the threat that terrorist groups or criminal gangs get their hands on nuclear materials that can be used for nuclear weapons," Samore said.
"That really focuses on separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium. Those are the two materials that can be used for nuclear explosives," Samore said. "And if we're able to lock those down and deny them to non-state actors, then we have essentially solved the risk of nuclear terrorism."
President Obama will start the formal festivities Sunday by holding a series of meetings at Blair House, the historic home across Lafayette Park from the White House. The first meeting goes to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, followed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, President Jacob Zuma of South Africa, and Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani of Pakistan. Obama will also see Nigeria's acting President Goodluck Jonathan, who just happens to be in town.
On Monday, Obama will move the show over the Washington Convention Center, where the summit will take place, and hold more one-on-ones. The first Monday meeting will be with King Abdullah II of Jordan, followed by Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia, President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia, and President Hu Jintao of China, in that order. Obama's meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany will be on Tuesday.
After he finished his meetings on Monday, Obama will host a welcoming ceremony at 5 p.m. and great each delegation leader personally. Of the 47 countries attending, 38 are being represented at the head of state or head of government level, the other nine at the vice president, deputy prime minister, or foreign or defense minister level.
On Monday night Obama will host a working dinner focused on "the threat and the magnitude of the threat," according to Samore. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, IAEA head Yukiya Amano, and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy will be also there. "So we'll have 50 at the table," Samore said.
The plenary sessions begin Tuesday morning. The first session will focus on what specific actions countries can take to secure loose nuclear material and combat smuggling within their borders.
"The primary responsibility for securing nuclear materials, whether in the civil or the military sector, rests with individual countries," Samore said, adding he expects some countries to make announcements, such as converting nuclear reactors away from using highly enriched uranium to lower levels of enrichment.
Tuesday's lunch session will focus on the IAEA, whose job it is to set guidelines for the countries and provide technical assistance. Senators such as Richard Lugar, R-IN, are expected to join.
The afternoon plenary will focus on international and cooperative steps countries can take regarding nuclear security. Then Obama will hold a press conference to release the "communiqué" that will be issued. Then a closing reception.
If you're not a delegation leader and are feeling left out, don't worry. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Energy Secretary Stephen Chu will be hosting meals for those interlocutors who are in town but not invited to the big table.
Although the conference is not until next week, the language of the communiqué seems close to final.
"There'll be a high-level communiqué from the leaders, which will recognize that nuclear terrorism is a serious threat, which will endorse President Obama's effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials over a four-year period, and will pledge, in a general way, steps that countries can take on both a national and an international level in order to strengthen nuclear security and prevent terrorists or criminal groups from getting access to materials for nuclear weapons," Samore said.
Despite a strongly worded statement issued Thursday, leading Republican senators have not yet decided to oppose ratification of the newly signed nuclear reductions treaty, multiple GOP aides told The Cable.
Republicans senators with a strong interest in arms control have been heavily involved in the debate over the new Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty with Russia, which U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed in Prague Thursday. A tough statement issued Thursday evening by Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-AZ and Senate Armed Services Ranking Republican John McCain, R-AZ, led many in Washington to speculate that they were gearing up to oppose Senate ratification.
But that decision has not yet been made, GOP Senate aides close to the issue said. The offices of leading GOP lawmakers, not just Kyl and McCain, are still pouring over the treaty text and investigating whether or not what the treaty says about missile defense is really problematic for them.
"While we were initially advised that the only reference to missile defense was in the preamble to the treaty, we now find that there are other references to missile defense, some of which could limit U.S. actions," the senators wrote. "This has the potential to constrain improvements to U.S. missile defenses, if objected to by the Russians."
They added that it would be "difficult" to ratify START in the Senate if their demand for a "robust" nuclear modernization plan isn't fully met.
It's true that the administration said before the release that the text of the agreement would not include any references to missile defense and would in no way constrain U.S. missile-defense plans. It was always expected that the preamble would acknowledge the relationship between offensive and defensive systems and that the Russians would issue a unilateral statement acknowledging their right to withdraw from the treaty if they believe American missile defenses are upsetting "strategic stability."
But what surprised the GOP senators was this passage in the text of the treaty:
"Each party shall not convert and shall not use ICBM launchers and SLBM launchers for placement of missile defense interceptors therein. Each Party further shall not convert and shall not use launchers of missile defense interceptors for placement of ICBMs and SLBMs therein. This provision shall not apply to ICBM launchers that were converted prior to signature of this Treaty for placement of missile defense interceptors therein."
In other words, the treaty prevents ICBMs and SLBMs from being used for missile defense, a Russian concern. But the existing systems in Alaska and California are grandfathered in and the administration has no current plans to convert other ICBMs for missile defense use, an official explained.
Whether that represents a red line for Republicans like McCain and Kyl is simply not decided yet, our Senate sources said. The strong statement could be intended to establish a negotiating position to ensure they get what they are really worried about: a nuclear modernization plan that they feel safeguards U.S. stockpiles going forward.
Obama's Nuclear Posture Review, also issued this week, ends the prospects of building a completely new warhead, but the State Department is preparing a "stockpile management plan" and a "life extension program" for the old warheads that could do almost all the things a new warhead program would do.
A Wednesday statement by Kyl and McCain commenting on the release of the NPR also indicated that the two lawmakers are still processing the documents and open to supporting them if their concerns are addressed.
"We will evaluate this [NPR] carefully in the coming weeks, including when we see the modernization plan required by law at the time the START follow-on treaty is submitted to the Senate," they wrote.
So when might a vote on START happen?
The latest speculation is that the Senate would be wise to do it during the lame-duck session in November and December. This way, the administration and its supporters on Capitol Hill could avoid a lengthy debate just prior to the midterm elections but also get it done before the new Congress takes its seats, probably with even more GOP senators.
Leading Republican critics of the Obama administration are holding their fire ahead of a big week in the world of nuclear weapons, with a series of landmark documents expected to drop in the coming days.
Several government sources said they anticipate the White House will release the unclassified portion of what's called the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) on Tuesday, Apr. 6, just two days before President Obama is set to sign the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia in Prague. The timing of both events is meant to show successes for the president's ambitious nuclear agenda before a 44-nation nuclear security summit convenes in Washington on April 12.
The substance of the documents shows the White House's effort to please its supporters in the arms-control community while not going so far in its changes to U.S. nuclear policy as to provoke leading conservatives who might want to pick fights over the issues.
"The White House is getting very adept at satisfying both constituencies," said Tom Donnelly, a fellow at the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute and someone who is normally not shy about criticizing the Obama administration, "Conservatives are taking more of a hopeful, wait and see attitude than you might expect."
Donnelly sees this middle-of-the-road approach as the result of internal compromises within the administration, chiefly between the White House and the Pentagon led by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
"Gates is fighting the good fight, so conservative want to support him too. We don't want to undermine the ‘moderate regime elements,'" Donnelly said. He added that Obama's choices also show he's "not going to spend a lot of political capital on the arms-control agenda."
Some influential conservatives do seem to be searching for a way to criticize START and the NPR, as liberal bloggers associated with the arms-control community have been quick to point out. Leading GOP senators like Jon Kyl, R-AZ, who have been vocal on the issues in the past, are waiting to see actual text of the documents before weighing in, aides say.
An administration official close to the issue said that conservatives are now contending that the reductions of nuclear weapons in the new nuclear treaty are so modest that the Obama administration is actually exaggerating its impact on nuclear reductions. If that's their point, the official said, then it will be tough to argue during ratification that the cuts undermine national security.
Another administration official described both the new START agreement and the NPR as "modest steps in the right direction."
Here are some of the examples of how the new nuclear agreements represent Obama's drive to change the direction of U.S. nuclear policy, but not too much:
Congressional sources said they haven't yet been told whether or not they will get advance briefings on the NPR, as their members are still out of town on recess. The NPR release date could slip because classification and clearance details are still not complete, they said.
During the most contentious moments of the U.S.-Russian negotiations over a new nuclear treaty, it often seemed as if Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin were working at cross purposes.
Putin would make some public statements, usually about U.S. missile defense plans, that seemed to go far beyond what Medvedev and President Obama were saying publicly about how the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty would deal with the issue, leading to the view in Washington that Putin was playing the role of the spoiler.
Not so, according to two senior administration officials, who said that the negotiations changed the way the Obama White House viewed the roles of Medvedev and Putin.
"What we learned through this negotiation was that the policy coordination on their side between President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin was very closely done and in perfect lockstep every step of the way," said one official. "He was saying exactly what President Medvedev was saying to us in private. There was not daylight between them; they did things pretty closely coordinated."
The Kremlinology going on inside the White House shows both how opaque the Russian system is and why the new treaty was so important to the Obama administration, which remains unsure of Russia's troubled path from autocracy to pseudo-democracy.
"Russia is a pretty volatile place politically," another official said. "Who runs that country 10 years from now and what their foreign-policy views are, we may not be in a reset mode. So the things we can do to maintain transparency now is a hedge against those kinds of outcomes in the future."
Overall, it was the personal involvement of Medvedev and Obama that pushed the negotiations past difficult roadblocks at several stages, they said.
"The chief negotiator and the person who really got this treaty done was President Obama," one official said, pointing to over half a dozen phone calls between Obama and Medvedev at crucial moments. "The big moves in the negotiation were always done by the two of them."
For example, during one round of talks on Feb. 24, Obama took a hard stand against Russian attempts to have language regarding U.S. missile defense in the treaty, which would be a nonstarter for many Senate Republicans whose support will be needed for ratification.
"In a very tough phone call, he just said to President Medvedev, ‘If you want this, we have to walk away from this treaty, we can't do it this way,'" one official remembered. "It was a pretty dramatic moment, but in retrospect, we now know that because Obama was so firm in that phone call, we got some motion in Geneva [where the text of the treaty was being negotiated] from that moment on."
When the two presidents spoke on March 26, when the treaty was finally complete, Medvedev began his call by saying in English, "If you want to get something done right, do it yourself." Obama replied, "Yeah, we were the ones who did it."
The administration officials also spelled out in detail how the new treaty will deal with the thorny missile-defense issue. There will be one line in the preamble of the treaty acknowledging that there is a connection between offensive and defensive weapons, and that's it.
There "could" be unilateral statements by each side about missile defense, the officials said, as if they weren't sure.
"If they were done, what would happen is the Russians would recognize that if the United States missile defense capabilities grew to such an extent that it would undermine strategic stability, they would have the right to withdraw from the treaty," one official said.
"If they did release such a unilateral statement, we would issue our unilateral statement that would say our missile defenses aren't aimed against Russia and are not intended to undermine strategic stability, but we are going to do them in cooperation with our allies irrespective of what the Russian unilateral statement says."
MAXIM SHIPENKOV/AFP/Getty Images
Ellen Tauscher, the under secretary of state for arms control and international security, got to do a victory lap today before the State Department press corps after months of grueling, painstaking negotiations with her Russian counterparts over the details of a new arms-control treaty that has become the Obama administration's first signature achievement in foreign policy.
And she made some news, announcing that the administration now expects to release its nuclear posture review in mid-April, around the time of the upcoming Nuclear Security Summit, which is aimed at combating the smuggling and potential use by terrorists of nuclear materials.
On the new arms-control treaty, the successor to the START agreement that expired in December, she said the administration's intention is to "submit the treaty in the late spring and to seek ratification by the end of the year."
That could prove optimistic, given the negative signals key Republican senators are sending as well as the logistical hurdles involved in pushing the treaty through during what's likely to be a heated midterm election season.
Asked about what some see as the new treaty's linkage to missile defense, which some GOP lawmakers have warned would make them unlikely to support the document, Tauscher insisted, "[T]here is no limit or constraint on what the United States can do with its missile defense systems."
"There is no linkage," she said later, but acknowledged that the Russian and U.S. sides might issue nonbinding "unilateral statements" explaining their respective positions on missile defense.
Some components of the treaty will become public "later this month," Tauscher said, after which wonks and Hill staffers will pour over the text and weigh in with their critiques and questions.
Tauscher also pointed to a major conference in May to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which the Obama administration has made the centerpiece of its efforts to show that the United States is meeting its international obligations.
"As we head toward the NPT Review Conference in May, the new START treaty demonstrates that the United States and Russia are abiding by the rules of the NPT," Tauscher said. "We’re doing our part to revitalize the Nonproliferation Treaty."
Now that President Obama has announced the completion of a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, the main question becomes: Will Senate Republicans support it?
If the most recent letter from Senate GOP leadership is any indication, not very likely. The letter written by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, and Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-AZ. and obtained exclusively by The Cable, makes it clear that they don't view the compromise the administration reached on missile defense for the new treaty as acceptable.
The details of the missile defense language in the treaty weren't in any of the speeches or releases the White House put out on Friday, but The Cable got all the info from Senate Foreign Relations ranking Republican Richard Lugar, R-IN, on Wednesday, who got them from Obama himself. The treaty text won't include any reference to missile defense, but both sides will express their "opinions" about the linkage between the treaty and missile defense in the preamble, Lugar said.
That is almost exactly the original understanding that Obama and Medvedev agreed upon during their July meeting in Moscow and enshrined in the joint understanding they issued at the time. The administration can rightly claim a victory on this point, having held firm against Russian attempts to put the language in the actual text.
But that still might not be enough to satisfy Republicans on the Hill.
"As you know, it is highly unlikely that the Senate would ratify a treaty that includes such a linkage, including a treaty that includes unilateral declarations that the Russian Federation could use as leverage against you or your successors as missile defense decisions are made," wrote McConnell and Kyl.
Kyl has been saying similar things for months, but the addition of McConnell signals that this could become the official GOP position. Informed administration sources said they don't believe that McConnell has yet made a decision on whether or not to try to jam up the treaty as part of his overall drive to thwart any successes for the Obama presidency.
So bottom line, the jury is still out.
The administration's argument on the point is clear. "The Treaty does not contain any constraints on testing, development or deployment of current or planned U.S. missile defense programs or current or planned United States long-range conventional strike capabilities," a White House fact sheet reads.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton diplomatically avoided a direct question about missile defense at this morning's briefing.
"We're focused on ratification, we're going to engage deeply and broadly with all members of the Senate," she said. "We're confident we'll be able to make the case for ratification."
She also pointed out that almost all previous arms reductions treaty garnered overwhelming support in the Senate. "There should be very broad, bipartisan support," Clinton said.
Gates said the United States will continue to engage Russia to try to make them a "participant" in the U.S. missile defense scheme in Europe.
Lugar intends to support the treaty and said he hopes the extensive congressional consultations and hearings will bring reluctant Republicans along. But he also said he doesn't expect a Senate vote on the new START agreement until after the August congressional recess, which means probably not until after the elections, when even more GOP votes could be present.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-MA, released a statement this morning pleading for bipartisan support:
"I know there has been a partisan breakdown in recent years, but we can renew the Senate's bipartisan tradition on arms control and approve ratification of this new treaty in 2010. I know that can happen. This is a moment for statesmanship. As soon as the President sends the agreement to the Senate, we will appeal to all our colleagues to set aside preconceptions and partisanship and consider the treaty on its merits. We can't squander this opportunity to reset both our relations with Russia and our role as the world leader on nuclear nonproliferation. This is a major commitment by both countries to reduce their nuclear arsenals and an important step in solidifying our relationship with Russia. Let's get it done."
As reported here before, Obama and Russian President Medvedev will meet April 8 in Prague to sign the new treaty. For more "key facts" about the agreement, read this.
The State Department is being extremely cagey about how it views the prospect of a civilian nuclear deal with Pakistan, which multiple reports say the Pakistani delegation is likely to propose this week in Washington. But the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee? Not so much.
When you think about it, the State Department's position makes perfect sense. Why throw cold water on the idea only one day before the brand-new U.S.-Pakistan strategic dialogue? Even though the practicalities of giving explicit nuclear assistance to Pakistan are extremely complicated, to say nothing of the politics -- giving that country's proliferation risks, ties to extremists, and failure to punish one-man nuclear arms merchant A.Q. Khan -- it doesn't hurt to let them dream, right?
"I'm sure that that's going to be raised and we're going to be considering it, but I can't prejudge or preempt what the outcome of our discussions will be," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Pakistan's Express TV Group in a Monday interview. She was quick to point out that a similar deal with India "was the result of many, many years of strategic dialogue."
At Tuesday's State Department press conference, spokesman P.J. Crowley was equal parts polite and vague when questioned about a nuclear deal.
"As far as I know, we have not been talking to Pakistan about a civilian nuclear deal," he said. "If Pakistan brings it up during the course of the meetings in the next two days, we'll be happy to listen."
OK, so the administration is open to listening to Pakistan's desire for a deal within the context of the strategic dialogue. And the Pakistanis made it clear in their 56-page prep document that they want such a deal.
On Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are still smarting from the last deal they made with Pakistan (when Pakistan complained about the billions of dollars U.S. taxpayers are giving them) and still fighting over who gets to spend those billions, the prospect of a sweeping new nuclear deal with Pakistan seems too far-fetched to even discuss right now.
"I don't think it's on the table right now considering all over the other issues we have to confront," Senate Foreign Relations chairman John Kerry, D-MA, told The Cable. "There are countless things that they would have to do in order to achieve it. If they're willing to do all those things, we'll see."
Kerry emphasized that he believed a nuclear deal was not "directly" part of the strategic dialogue this week.
"There are a lot of things that come first before that. It's really premature," he went on. "It's appropriate as something for them to aspire to and have as a goal out there, but I don't think it's realistic in the near term."
His words were echoed by his Republican counterpart Richard Lugar, D-IN, who told The Cable he believes the idea of a nuclear deal should be delinked from the strategic dialogue.
"I think it's premature. It's not likely to be part of the agenda at this time," he said.
Lugar said he totally understands Pakistan's desire for energy cooperation and even gets why the country would sign a gas pipeline deal with Iran, which could certainly irk the United States as it pursues petroleum sanctions against that very regime.
"Everybody is desperate for resources and that has superseded a number of other considerations," Lugar said.
Kerry and Lugar each met separately Tuesday morning with Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who was in Washington ahead of the State Department talks.
The Iranian regime's February decision to increase the level of its uranium enrichment to nearly 20 percent reveals that Iran's claims that it needs to enrich uranium for medical use is a "transparent ploy," a top Obama administration official said Tuesday.
"It has nothing to do with trying to help Iranian cancer patients who will need medical isotopes later this year," Dan Poneman, the deputy energy secretary, told an audience Wednesday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, adding that the decision was "a provocative move that calls into question its nuclear intentions."
"We have even offered to facilitate Iran's procurement though world markets of the medical isotopes its citizens need," he said, "but there's been no follow-up and Iran has refused to discuss its nuclear program further, despite the Geneva understanding."
The Obama administration offered Iran a deal to exchange nuclear material in a third country in order to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor, the U.S.-built facility where the enrichment is suspected to be taking place, but the IAEA has still never received a formal response. "It's out there. It has not been formally withdrawn," Poneman said.
He also launched the opening salvo in what many believe will be a bitter confrontation between the United States and Iran when the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty comes up for discussion in a major review conference in May. Iran is poised to disrupt the conference significantly by raising objections to any U.S. initiatives and generally working to thwart any attempts to address what Western powers see as its clear failure to comply with the treaty.
"Iran essentially has not been in compliance with its IAEA safeguards agreement since 1982," Poneman said, referring to Iran's pattern of undeclared nuclear material, facilities, and experiments.
"In the case of Iran, it does not appear that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes," he added. "The NPT does not contain the right to pursue nuclear efforts of this character. After all it is the nuclear non-proliferation treaty."
Poneman said the latest IAEA report on Iran "clearly shows Iran's continued failure to live up to its international obligations."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.