The Cable

Iran sanctions debate moves to the Senate

With the House having passed the Howard Berman's Iran sanctions bill Tuesday, the action now turns to the Senate, where negotiations over Chris Dodd's companion legislation are ongoing.

Those discussions are based on a letter from Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg to Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-MA. In the letter, State asked Kerry to delay the Senate bill until next year so that the administration would have more time to prep for the "pressure track" and also to secure some changes to the legislation.

But key lawmakers are already getting ready to resist. Senators to watch in this debate are Democrat Evan Bayh, D-IN, Republican Sens. Jon Kyl, R-AZ, and Richard Shelby, R-AL, and Independent Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

A senior GOP senate aide told The Cable that up until now, the debate has been between Kerry's office and Steinberg's office, but there's a push by others to make the administration do more to justify the changes it wants regarding one prominent issue.

The bill as it stands gives the president the right to waive sanctions against third-party countries that are cooperating with U.S. efforts to confront Iran's nuclear program. The administration wants those countries to be exempted from the start and then have sanctions applied only when necessary.

"The administration has not made a compelling argument as to why the waiver isn't sufficient for them to avoid doing diplomatic harm to allies, in the case where companies within their jurisdictions are doing things that may become sanctionable," the aide said. "That's what the waiver is there for."

Another senior Senate aide said that the offices of Bayh, Lieberman, and Kyl were all on the same page in terms of strategy, and predicted the negotiations with the administration would eventually produce a bill that could garner widespread support and be passed early next year.

Of course, Dodd's bill has 80 cosponsors, meaning it could pass at any time if Reid would just bring it to the floor. Some aides think Kerry has a hold on the bill, which his staffers deny. Others believe Reid is simply not moving it out of deference to the administration or as a favor to Kerry.

Regardless, no movement is expected until Kerry or some other Democrat readies an amendment that would address the administration's concerns. Then, the amended bill would be sent to conference to be reconciled with the House bill, which still contains the waiver language the administration dislikes.

A duly revised Senate bill seems likely to win the day in conference, not least because Berman signaled his willingness to compromise on the waiver issue Tuesday.

In a press conference just after the bill passed, Berman spelled out the terms under which he would agree to alter the waiver provisions when his legislation meets the Senate's version for negotiations.

"I'm quite open in the context of a conference committee to try to create incentives by which countries that have their own robust sanctions and are complying with a tough international regime of sanctions could be exempted from this legislation as cooperating countries," he said.

He also acknowledged that although his committee had been talking to the administration, the Obama team never gave him detailed instructions on how to proceed, as Steinberg did with Kerry.

"The administration didn't say go ahead, but they also didn't tell me not to go ahead," Berman said.

His bill passed 412-12 with 4 voting "present."

The Cable

Briefing Skipper: China, Iran, Cuba, Sudan

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 P.J. Crowley:

  • Seems like the Obama administration is getting more vocal on human rights cases in China. Crowley started the briefing by expressing the State Departments "concerns" about the indictment of Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident being held on charges of subversion. "We call on the government of China to release him immediately and to respect the rights of all Chinese citizens to peacefully express their political views and desires for universally recognized fundamental freedoms," Crowley said, noting the irony of the fact that Liu's indictment came on Human Rights Day. The Chinese rejected the call.
  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, to discuss a lot of things, including Serbia's cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal, which has been spotty at best.
  • Nothing new to report on the 5 detained suburban Washingtonians being held in Pakistan, "but as to how they got themselves to Pakistan, what they were intent on doing there and so forth, that is still something that is being investigated," Crowley said.
  • Special Envoy George Mitchell was among the officials who met with Lebanese President Michel Suleima on his visit to DC. The others included Clinton, Vice President Joseph Biden, and of course President Obama. Apparently Obama wanted to talk arms smuggling, but as for the Mitchell meeting, "I can assume that it involved a more granular discussion about the status of the peace process," Crowley said. Mitchell will not travel to the region again this year, probably early next year.
  • Still no consular access to the American contractor being held in a high security Cuban prison after being caught handing out electronic devices to Cuban activists. But Crowley did admit that such activities were part of the U.S. activities there. "Part of our programs are centered on providing and helping groups provide a capability to network and to communicate," he said. Interesting.
  • Crowley refused to state clearly what the administration's concerns are with the Iran sanctions bills moving through Congress now, despite persistent questioning. But don't worry, The Cable has got you covered here and here.
  • Crowley wouldn't comment on the reports that China who won't return to the P5+1 talks before the end of the year. "I would say that all the members of P-5 plus one, from the strong statements that we have put forward, in recent weeks and months, share concern about -- you know, about Iran." Very helpful, thanks. Undersecretary of State Bill Burns was in China last week discussing the issue.
  • He did seem to suggest that media reports about Iran's work on a "nuclear trigger," are on target. "It was a fine piece of journalism," said Crowley, "Enough said."
  • Crowley gave a full throated defense of Sudan Special Envoy Scott Gration, who has been coming under increasing criticism from lawmakers. "Scott Gration has been working, you know, very, very hard not only in terms of our bilateral discussions with officials in Sudan but in terms of garnering, you know, greater involvement in the region, around the world," Crowley said, "So the idea that we have not been focused on Sudan is flat wrong."