The Cable

Briefing Skipper: Iran, Iran, Iran

In which we scour the transcript of the State Department's daily presser so you don't have to. These are the highlights of Monday's briefing by spokesman P.J. Crowley:

  • Crowley added his own lukewarm response to the White House's disapproving statement about Iran's deal with Turkey and Brazil to ship some uranium stores to Turkey in exchange for higher-enriched uranium. "The United States continues to have concerns about the arrangement. The joint declaration does not address core concerns of the international community," Crowley said, "Iran remains in defiance of five U.N. Security Council resolutions, including its unwillingness to suspend enrichment operations."
  • A lot of questions still need to be answered and the U.S. push for sanctions will continue, Crowley said. Also, if Iran is getting uranium for the Tehran Research Reactor, why does it still need to continue up to 20 percent enrichment, Crowley wondered aloud. "Public statements today suggest that the TRR deal is unrelated to its ongoing enrichment activity. In fact they are integrally linked," he said.
  • Clinton spoke over the phone with Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu over the weekend, but Crowley was "not aware" of any calls to them over the weekend. And the U.S. isn't mad at Brazil and Turkey for upsetting their UN sanctions push, according to Crowley. "We welcome the fact that Turkey and Brazil continue to try to engage Iran and see if Iran is willing to come forward and address the international community's concern. It remains to be seen whether this joint declaration passes that test," he said.
  • So what next? Crowley said the ball is still in Iran's court. "The burden is on Iran," he said, "Iran has to come forward and address the international concerns." Iran has agree to cooperate with the IAEA and suspend enrichment, for starters. If they do that, "We remain prepared to engage Iran anywhere," Crowley said. Overall, the message is, "We remain skeptical that this represents anything fundamentally new."
  • In between dealing with that issue, Clinton spoke over the phone with Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa to prepare President Felipe Calderon's state visit to Washington later this week. "I wouldn't be surprised if Mexico's concerns about the Arizona law are also part of the discussion," Crowley predicted.
  • Clinton also dropped in on the meeting between Undersecretary Bill Burns and Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov, who discussed Iran, START, and the 123 Agreement
  • Special Envoy George Mitchell left Monday evening for the next round of proximity talks. He'll meet with Palestinian officials on Wednesday and Israeli officials on Thursday. Assistant Secretary Jeffrey Feltman was in Baghdad Monday and met with President Jalal Talabani, present and future Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
  • USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah is in Sudan and visited Juba Monday. He's been busy, meeting with the World Food Program, the UNAMID, the U.N. Population Fund and other UN agencies and humanitarian NGOs. He also started a new sustainable agriculture called the Food, Agribusiness and Rural Markets (the FARM project, get it?).
  • Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero is en route to Indonesia to talk about human security issues. Assistant Secretary for Economic, Energy and Business Affairs Jose Fernandez is in Brazil Monday and Tuesday. Ambassador for global AIDS, Ambassador Eric Goosby, was in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania Monday.
  • Clinton led a memorial service Monday for the embassy victims of the Haiti earthquake. The two U.S. embassy employees lost were Cultural Affairs Officer Victoria DeLong and Centers for Disease Control staff member Diane Berry Caves. U.S. Air Force Major Kenneth Bourland was also killed, as well as the wife and two children of Foreign Service Officer Andrew Wylie. Six embassy local staffers were lost, as well as several of their family members.
  • "We can never replace the men, women, and children who lost their lives in the earthquake - Haitians, Americans, and others from around the world," Clinton said, "But we can remember them. We can celebrate them. And we can honor them as we continue our mission in Haiti."

The Cable

U.S. Embassy Baghdad: Iraq elections most credible in Arab history

The U.S. government is coming around to the realization that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, or at least his political bloc, will come out on top and form the next Iraqi government.

It's true that the more secular "Iraqi" alliance led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi won more seats in the parliamentary elections. But since Maliki's State of Law coalition formally joined with the Iraqi National Alliance, which includes radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, administration and embassy officials are anticipating that Allawi will not be able to take a shot at forming a government, and the Maliki-Sadr alliance will come out on top.

"In Baghdad, they are calling Allawi the Iraqi Tzipi Livni," said one official source, referring to the Israeli Kadima Party leader, whose party won the most seats in Israel's 2009 elections but was then relegated to the opposition via a similar maneuver by right-wing parties.

Maliki might not ultimately stay on as prime minister because the Sadrists really dislike him, but he is the leading contender and has been at the center of the campaign to alter the outcome by mounting challenges to Allawi's candidates and calling for massive recounts.

Embassy officials in Baghdad have been heavily engaged with all the political leaders since the election ended and the wrangling for power began. U.S. Ambassador Chris Hill and his team have been holding more than two dozen meetings per week with Iraqi leaders, pressing them to abide by agreed-upon political processes and move forward with the formation of the government before everyone gets too restless.

Although the elections are still in dispute and both sides are still playing games, the embassy is praising the elections and is prepared to endorse the result, no matter who comes out on top.

"These were the most successful and credible elections in the history of any Arab country. That's an amazing story," Gary Grappo, the top political official at the embassy, told The Cable.

If Maliki is confirmed as Iraq's next prime minister, the U.S. will have a partner it knows well and has been carefully handling throughout the process. While some believe Maliki's actions in recent weeks show he will use any means to stay in power, the embassy's view is that he is something of an opportunist and can be encouraged to curb questionable behavior.

"Like any politician, Maliki will use all legal and political tools at his disposal," a senior embassy official said, referring to Maliki's work with the Accountability and Justice Commission, the controversial de-Baathification commission controlled by Ahmed Chalabi and Ali Faisal al-Lami.

Both Hill and his military counterpart, Gen. Raymond Odierno, have said publicly that Chalabi and Lami are heavily influenced by Iran and the embassy has no illusions about their goal. "This is an organization of questionable legitimacy employing less than transparent means to challenge a legitimate election," the senior embassy official said.

He also confirmed reports that Hill will leave in July and be replaced by Ambassador to Turkey Jim Jeffrey. Stuart E. Jones, a deputy assistant secretary who handles Balkan affairs, will replace Baghdad No. 2 Robert Ford, who is still waiting out his stalled nomination process to become ambassador to Syria. Jones was previously the deputy chief of mission in Cairo.

Our sources also poured cold water on a report in the Guardian claiming that the U.S. military is planning to delay the withdrawal of some troops due to a recent uptick in violence in Iraq. Sure, the withdrawal plan is flexible, but the team is still committed to getting down to 50,000 troops on the ground by September, our sources report.

As for Odierno, who like Hill is also leaving in July, he too has been engaging with Iraqi political leaders, but not with the embassy staff. He holds his own meetings and then confers with the embassy later. There has been much written, including here, about the supposedly contentious relationship between Hill and Odierno. But as the military withdraws, whatever differences exist are growing less important because the embassy is clearly taking over.

For now, Odierno is staying involved because the military still feels deeply invested in the war it has now been fighting for more than seven years. "After the many mistakes made and huge cost paid, they got the strategy and its implementation right, and want to leave with their heads up. And they deserve that," the embassy official said.