The Cable

Congress hot to trot on Iran sanctions

As the Obama administration pursues new multilateral Iran sanctions at the U.N., Congress is getting ready to move forward with its own sanctions bill, which the administration is still not happy with.

A senior Senate aide close to the process said the House and Senate will soon move to conference on resolving the two versions of the Iran sanctions legislation, one led by Rep. Howard Berman, D-CA, and the other sponsored by Chris Dodd, D-CT. The State Department had been negotiating with key senators over Dodd's bill, seeking an exemption for any countries they determine to be "cooperating" with the U.S. on the sanctions regime.

This Washington Post article makes it seem like the Obama administration is just beginning to push for exemptions for all the P5+1 countries, including Russia and China, but actually that's been the State Department's position since December.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, has faced pressure not to dawdle with the bill, passing it through his chamber at the end of January. But the conference, where the State Department planned to get the exemptions it wants, wasn't expected to go forward until the U.N. game had played out.

And while the conference could last a long time and no final vote push is imminent, several congressional aides told The Cable Friday that their bosses were getting impatient with the ever-slipping deadline for U.N. action and that a large exemption that includes Russia and China would not fly on Capitol Hill.

"When we had the discussions in December about cooperating countries, it boiled down to the fact that the administration was demanding an exemption that was large enough to drive a truck through and that was not well received in the Congress," said one senior congressional aide close to the discussions.

The administration had pledged to wrap up at the U.N. in February during the French rotating presidency, then that slipped to March, and now lawmakers are being told April. The timing and the strength of the U.N. sanctions will directly affect what Congress does, the aide said.

"People on both sides want to give the administration the time they need and there's a genuine desire to be helpful, but the more this things drags on, the more there is going to be growing pressure in Congress about this," said the aide.

The aide spelled out two hypothetical scenarios: In Scenario A, the Security Council puts in place a very tough sanctions regime with China's signoff. In that case, the imperative for stringent congressionally mandated sanctions could diminish.

In Scenario B, despite a year spent on engagement, sold as necessary to rally the international community, sanctions are weak and China is not forced to change its behavior. In that case, the aide said, it will be very hard for the administration to turn to Congress and say "You don't need to move on tough sanctions now."

Some senators don't think an exemption for cooperating countries is necessary in the first place, since the bill gives the president the power to waive any sanctions if he chooses. One senior Senate aide said that his boss will resist any attempts to water down the Senate version of the bill.

Also, "I have not heard anybody who thinks it's a good idea to exempt China from the sanctions regime," this aide said.

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The Cable

The KRG’s man in D.C. on Sunday’s Iraqi elections

With the Iraqi parliamentary elections set for Sunday, various Iraqi political groups are preparing for a reorganization of the national politics due to unprecedented openness and increased expected participation. This is especially true for the ruling parties in the Kurdistan Regional Government, which could see their national representation reduced proportionally due to expanded Sunni participation and the first fully fledged campaign by the Gorran (Change) party, which swept onto the scene after big gains in Kurdistan's 2009 regional polls.

The Cable sat down with Qubad Talabani, the KRG's representative in Washington and the son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, to get his take on the elections, the implications for Kurdish interests, and the future of U.S. troops in Iraq's disputed northern provinces. "It's important to know that these elections are far more important for Iraq than those from 2005," he said. "The government that's formed after these elections will have to not only manage a transitioning United States from Iraq, but will also have to deal with the many outstanding issues in Iraq."

The Cable:  How do you see the formation of the Iraqi government following the elections?

Qubad Talabani: There will be a widespread call for a swift government formation process. We understand and respect the need for a swift government formation process, but we mustn't sacrifice the quality of the government in consideration of the time it takes to form that government. The world will be watching and what they'll likely see is going to be another complicated, drawn out process. Stakes are very high, competition is fierce, and because of those factors, the government formation process may not look as smooth as many in the United States and around the world will like it to look. So we have to mitigate the expectations.

TC: How has the change of the election format from choosing only lists to voting for individual candidates and lists affected the campaign and Kurdish prospects?

QT: The effect is that people who will go to the parliament will be held more accountable because these people will have been directly voted for by the constituents. Hopefully the performance of these people will be better. It may not affect the numbers per se, but it will create a more accountable process.... You have to put people onto the slates that are popular, confident, and who you think can do the job to serve the people.

TC: What would be considered a success in terms Kurdish seats in the new parliament after the election?

QT: We have 55 seats right now in this current parliament but the national seat allocation has been increased from 275 to 325. Anything higher than 60 seats will be a good result for the Kurds, even if that's proportionally less. We have to be realistic; we do understand that there's a broader participation in these elections and that the three disputed territories is where the hottest competition will take place.

TC: How will the new participation of the Gorran Kurdish movement impact the result?

QT: You have three main Kurdish slates running in these elections: the Kurdistan alliance which is made up primarily of the PUK and the KDP, the Change movement party [Gorran], and the Islamic Union of Kurdistan's slate. There will certainly be competition for the Kurdish votes in the three northern provinces and the three disputed provinces. But I'm confident that once we've put the internal competition aside and people take their seats at the national level, when issues of relevance and importance to Kurdistan come to the table, the majority of the Kurdish blocks in the parliament will unify and vote for Kurdish interests.

TC: How will the overall stakeholders fare on Sunday?

QT: The outcome is really unknown, because of the number of slates participating, because of how close the race is nationally and regionally. Right now it would be premature to make any predictions.

TC: How do you view the news that Gen. Raymond Odierno has put in a request for American combat troops to remain in northern Iraq longer than planned and perhaps after the 2011 withdrawal date enshrined in the Status of Forces Agreement?

QT: The general has a good sense of what's required on the ground. There is a clear need right now for continued U.S. presence, particularly in the disputed territories.... We're open to a continued U.S. military presence as long as they're required. If U.S. forces are required beyond the time than what the SOFA states, that must come about through a renegotiation of an extension of the guidelines set by the current SOFA. The situation on the ground will determine whether an extension is needed. We as Kurds are not opposed to an extension but that will have to be decided at the federal level.

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