The Cable

Indonesia trip complicates State Department Asia agenda

Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell's last-minute cancelation of a stopover in Japan prompted many in the Japanese press to speculate that he was trying to exert pressure on Tokyo over fate of a controversial U.S. air base on Okinawa.

Not so, a State Department official close to the issue tells The Cable. Campbell, who was rounding up a regional tour that included nine countries in eight days, simply ran out of time when his duties in the other stops took longer than expected, the official said.

The real reason the trip was adjusted was because extra time was needed to prepare for President Obama's trip to Indonesia next week. Campbell will be traveling with Obama on the trip.

"The visit is complicating on several levels," the official said. "We have a series of relatively modest deliverables, but every point has been difficult."

Campbell has been leading the negotiations over the details of a new comprehensive partnership agreement between the United States and Indonesia. Part of that agreement will include language on climate-change cooperation and the promise of U.S. resources to help Indonesia to make reforms.

Campbell, who has traveled to Tokyo more than half a dozen times since taking up his post last year, canceled another stop in Thailand as well. That trip had been scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, but protesters outraged over recent conviction of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra were busy pouring blood on the gates of the prime minister's home and office.

Campbell's visit to Japan would have been cut down to only a couple of hours, so the State Department thought it better to wait for the next opportunity.

Besides, the official pointed out, the U.S. side is simply waiting for the Japanese government to decide how it wants to deal with the movement of the Futenma air base, so there wasn't much substance to discuss at this stage.

"He's in Tokyo every month and he'll be back there in a few weeks," the official said.

The Cable

Full steam ahead on Iran sanctions bill?

Multiple congressional aides tell The Cable that pressure is mounting for Congress to move forward with its conference to iron out differences between the House and Senate versions of the Iran sanctions legislation, after the French Foreign Minister said that a U.N. Security Council resolution might not surface until June.

The original idea was to finalize the U.S. sanctions legislation only after the U.N. has its say, but the continued delays in New York have put that plan into question. While lawmakers want to give the administration space to line up the necessary support at the Security Council, their patience is wearing thin.

Last Friday, Sens. Charles Schumer, D-NY, and Jon Kyl, R-AZ, penned a letter, first obtained by Turtle Bay, to President Obama asking him to abandon attempts to try to get exemptions for countries and support the Iran sanctions legislation as is. The senators said they don't want to wait until the UN acts, due to continued Chinese intransigence.

"We believe that attempts at diplomacy will continue to be rebuffed by the government of Iran and that our window for implementing meaningful, ‘crippling' sanctions against Iran is getting narrower by the day," they wrote.

"If the U.N. track stalls to the point that we're in the middle of the year, it is unlikely that the Congress is going to wait that long," said one senior congressional aide close to the issue, noting that the Obama administration has been pushing back the deadline for U.N. action again and again.

The Senate appointed conferees earlier this month and the House is expected to follow suit shortly. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, did not respond to a request for comment on the timing.

Senate staffers wonder if House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, D-CA, is trying to avoid opening up the process to a House vote on the details of the bill. Berman may be worried that Iran-minded members could force a vote that might upset negotiations with the State Department over issues like an exemption for cooperating countries, a senior Senate aide said. "The million-dollar question is when is the House going to conference."

When the bill does come to conference, there will be attempts to add provisions to the bill that go further than what the administration is proposing and what the current bill includes. The most likely addition will be language by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, I-CT, and John McCain, R-AZ, that would require the president to sanction Iranian officials who have committed human rights abuses or acts of violence against civilians engaging in peaceful political activity.

Those listed would be subject to visa bans, freezes on their assets in the United States or within U.S. jurisdiction, and other restrictions on their financial activities. "McCain's amendment would identify Iranian human rights abusers and make them feel some serious pain," said a senior Senate staffer.

McCain tried to add the language in January when the Senate passed the bill, but was persuaded to stand down so that Reid could move the legislation quickly. Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, promised to support the language in conference.

The second main addition to the bill could be language to tighten restrictions on U.S. government funds going to companies that do business with the Iranian regime. A March 7 New York Times article reported that $107 billion worth of U.S. taxpayer money has gone to companies doing business in Iran, $15 billion going to firms that directly violating existing U.S. sanctions by aiding Iran's oil industry.

The House version of the bill already has a provision to stop U.S. government funds from going to companies involved in Iran's oil sector, written by Rep. Ron Klein, D-FL, who said the issue is enforcement.

"You need to make a choice: either you want to sell equipment or services to the energy section in Iran, or you want to be eligible for business in the United States," he told The Cable. "Right now we're not enforcing that but this will make it tight, it will give it teeth and there will be consequences if you do it."

The Senate bill has a similar provision that covers technology exports to Iran, but not oil industry involvement. Inside the conference, several lawmakers are expected to push for language that covers both sectors and perhaps more.

Finally, the administration's ongoing insistence on being able to exempt countries from the U.S. sanctions regime is still not resolved as far as lawmakers are concerned. The administration wants to be able to waive the sanctions for any country it chooses, which could include China and Russia, but lawmakers want limits on that power.

"The formula that a cooperating country is a country that president determines is cooperating is probably not going to go anywhere," one senior congressional aide said, "The criteria has to be genuinely meaningful and strict."

The Senate conferees are Chris Dodd, D-CT, John Kerry, D-MA, Joseph Lieberman, I-CT, Robert Menendez, D-NJ, Richard Shelby, R-AL, Robert Bennett, R-UT, and Richard Lugar, R-IN.