The Cable

Inside the Iran sanctions debate

The House is set to pass Rep. Howard Berman's Iran sanctions bill today, only the latest in a long string of moves that will help set the administration up for a switch to the "pressure track" next year.

But the real action over Iran sanctions behind the scenes is focused on Sen. Chris Dodd's package of Iran sanctions bills, which is currently the subject of negotiations between the administration and key senators. The administration's concerns over the Dodd bill were outlined in this letter, first reported by The Cable, which asked for a delay in passing the Senate bill until next year.

Interestingly, the administration didn't send Berman any letter and didn't even bother to copy him on the Senate letter, which was specifically requested and then addressed to Berman's Senate counterpart, John Kerry.

The feeling in Congress, multiple sources told The Cable, is that all parties concerned see today's House action as only the latest in a long series of negotiations about how Iran sanctions might materialize. Also, as is often the case, the Berman bill is likely to undergo significant changes after passage, particularly when it goes to conference and has to be reconciled with whatever the Senate and the administration negotiate.

"Everybody is excited, but hold your horses," said one Hill source. "This has to be thoroughly vetted before it goes to Obama's desk."

That will be a tough fight for House conferees, considering that they will be negotiating against both the Senate and the White House with the implicit and omnipresent message about the Senate bill being, "This is what we can get passed and signed."

Moreover, there's a recognition inside the system that the House version of the bill, as stands, has some provisions that are seen as problematic. For example, the Berman bill would mandate some sanctions that are optional under current law, which the administration fears would raise trade and WTO compliance issues.

Specifically, regarding third countries' complicity in complying with the sanctions, the Berman bill would expand their obligation from having to act on "actual knowledge" of violations, to penalizing countries that have "constructive knowledge" of violations -- in other words, holding them to account for things they should know or should have known.

There are other players on the field as well. Insurance companies and other firms that could be affected are sure to lobby for safe harbor within the sanctions regime through their American subsidiaries.

There is also a dispute over strategy within the Senate negotiators among those pushing for sanctions. Some Senate offices, such as that of Joseph Lieberman, are said to be amenable to pushing back the Senate bill until next year, seeing that as the most pragmatic way to get the legislation signed.

Other offices, such as that of Jon Kyl, are said to be pushing a harder line, wanting to make more political hay out of the issue now by resisting administration calls for a delay.

Either way, when the Berman bill passes later today, while many will be cheering it as a victory, the insiders know that the game has just begun.

The Cable

Briefing skipper: Pakistan, North Korea, Cuba, Futenma, Liu Xiaobo

In which we scour the transcript of the State Department's daily presser so you don't have to. Here are the highlights of Friday's briefing by spokesman Ian Kelly:

  • On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a bilateral with Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos, gave a human rights speech at Georgetown, then had a bilateral meeting with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman. "We were pleased to see a parliamentary vote of confidence on December 10th, and look forward to continuing our partnership with the new government that proves by its actions that it is fully committed to strengthen the institutions of the Lebanese state in order to build peace and stability both within Lebanon and within the region," Kelly said.
  • No substantive update on the status of the five detained suburban Washingtonians in Pakistan, although the State Department has no objection to the fact the men have been moved to Lahore, where a court has barred their deportation pending a review. "It sounds to me to be a reasonable judicial procedure," said Kelly. The U.S. hasn't asked for their extradition and might not do so, according to Kelly.
  • The State Department does not know where the 35 tons of weapons caught in Thailand on their way from North Korea were headed. "The investigation of the incident is ongoing. And part of that investigation is to determine where exactly the shipment was headed," Kelly said. Thailand is going to refer the case the UN North Korean Sanctions committee, which is good, Kelly said, adding that this isn't related to their nuclear program. Ambassador Phillip Goldberg is working on the issue.
  • Cuba has not allowed consular access to an American contractor arrested in Havana for apparently distributing electronic devices to activists there. "I don't want to comment on any of the details of what he may or may not have been doing, simply because we don't want to cause any harm, frankly," said Kelly.
  • Kelly denied that the U.S. has set an end of the week deadline for Japan to resolve its differences over the Futenma air base relocation plan (Japan wants to wait until next year). But the U.S. is still saying they want to hold to the original scheme for the relocation. We believe that the realignment road map that we've already agreed to is the best plan for reducing the burden on the people of Okinawa while maintaining our very important security relationship with Japan," Kelly said.
  • Due to "scheduling difficulties," there won't be another P5+1 meeting on Iran this year, Kelly said. They might chat over the phone.
  • Here's the State Departments new statement on the case of Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident being held on charges of subversion:

The U.S. government is concerned that Chinese citizens such as Mr. Liu may have been detained or harassed solely as a result of having exercised their universal right to freedom of expression by signing Charter 08, which calls for respect for human rights and democratic reform.

We urge the government of China to release Liu Xiaobo immediately and to respect the rights of all Chinese citizens who peacefully express their desire for internationally recognized freedoms, including the right to petition one's government.

We have raised our concerns about Mr. Liu's detention repeatedly and at high levels, both in Beijing and in Washington, since he was taken into custody a year ago.