The Cable

DeMint's Russia rants cause amusement and concern

South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint is quickly becoming the leading spokesman arguing against President Obama's reset policy with Russia, but his penchant for extreme rhetoric and loose understanding of the facts is overshadowing his message and, according to the administration, unhelpfully muddying the discussion.

DeMint has made increasing forays into the foreign-policy game this year. He was a key player in the Honduras policy debate, taking sides against ousted president Manuel Zelaya weeks before the administration eventually followed suit. He is deeply involved in the GOP drive to hold up a range of State Department nominees, and has used his perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to stall the appointment of international broadcasting officials as well.

But when it comes to Russia, DeMint's rhetoric is hurting his case. That was on full display during an event on the visit of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev held by the Foreign Policy Initiative Wednesday afternoon at the Capitol building, where the senator referred to Russia several times as the "Soviet Union."

"Clearly the Soviet Union as a democracy is a fraud. Rule of law is very loose, foreign investment is very low," he said. "The Soviet Union, I mean Russia, is making the countries around it concerned with how Russia is constantly trying to manipulate their elections, undermine their freedom, and impose some control."

Think Progress blogger Max Bergmann noted that DeMint called Russia the Soviet Union at a hearing on the new START treaty last week as well.

At the FPI event, DeMint also explained his overall take on Russia. "Russia is trying to undermine American strength in different parts of the world. As we think of Russia, it s important to think of them as a threat to many and a protector of none," he said. He also at one point said, "I don't pretend to be an expert."

DeMint's expertise on Russia was also called into question after he seemingly misrepresented the objectives of both the Bush and Obama administrations in deploying ballistic missile defense systems in Europe.

At a May 18 hearing, he complained that the current design of the system isn't sufficient to combat Russia's missile arsenal, which numbers into the thousands. "Is it not desirable for us to have a missile defense system that renders their threat useless?," he asked.

Both administrations have gone to great pains to explain that the system has always been aimed at Iran, not Russia, and it's hard to find a credible expert who believes that any feasible conception of missile defense could be built to overpower the Russian capability.

Inside the Obama administration, officials look at DeMint's Russia activity with a mixture of amusement and concern. They believe that he is sacrificing his own credibility by fumbling on the issue, but at the same time, they worry that foreign governments and publics might actually take him seriously.

"We are happy to let Senator DeMint keep digging away at the hole he is already in," an administration official told The Cable. "He seems to have forgotten that even the Rumsfeld-led Pentagon in the last administration explicitly ruled out a U.S. missile defense system targeting Russia's nuclear forces -- and for good reason."

But they don't discount the effect DeMint is having on the debate. Among administration officials, there is some legitimate concern that DeMint's statements only reinforce the paranoia of some elements in Russia (and China) that U.S. missile defense systems are indeed targeted at their strategic nuclear forces.

"It is unfortunate that the hard-liners in the United States and Russia feed off each other and feed the other's paranoia," said John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World. "Just as GOP senators quote Russian statements on missile defense to prove their case, Russians will be happy to quote Senator DeMint."

Sylvie Stein contributed to this article.

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The Cable

Congress passes Iran sanctions bill

The Senate on Thursday passed a series of tough, unilateral sanctions on Iran, leaving one final hurdle before the bill arrives on President Obama's desk -- which could come as early as today.

The vote was 99-0.

The House has already voted on some procedural items to allow the bill to go ahead and could also clear the legislation before the day is out. [UPDATE: The House has now passed it as well, 408-8.]

The final, final version of the bill can be found here (pdf) and contains some minor changes from the version released Monday by lead sponsors Sen. Chris Dodd, D-CT, and Rep. Howard Berman, D-CA.

The changes included requiring the president to address the potential impact of ethanol being used to enhance Iran's energy capacity. A recent Foreign Policy article by Gal Luft explained how Iran was looking to import ethanol from Brazil to make up for a potential shortfall in gasoline as a result of the impending sanctions.

A second last-minute change requires the administration to analyze the impact of Iran acquiring energy "know-how" by engaging in joint ventures for energy development. That's related to concerns that joint ventures outside Iran could aid Iran's energy sector, such as ongoing cooperation with BP as described by Time magazine's Massimo Calabresi.

There were no changes to carefully negotiated language allowing the president to exempt companies from the sanctions on a case-by-case basis.

Ultimately, both House and Senate aides are confident that the president will approve the legislation. "There's no indication he won't sign it," one senior aide said.

But the real test of the administration's commitment to the new measures will come in their implementation. Advocates of strong sanctions have accused the administration of showing reluctance to enforce the sanctions currently on the books, so lawmakers and staffers are planning to keep a close watch to see how the law is carried out.

One senior Congressional aide suggested that the administration could demonstrate its commitment to the sanctions bill without seeming to be overly punitive by selecting a couple of high-profile instances of violations and moving swiftly to make an example out of them to show the sanctions are serious.

Showing some quick successes would demonstrate to allies and offenders alike that the reality of sanctions has changed on the ground, and might convince other potential violators to rethink, the aide said. He referred to the old Chinese proverb, "Sometimes you have to kill the chicken to scare the monkey."

The administration has said little in public about when it expects the sanctions to show results, but time is a critical factor in the White House's calculations. Iran watchers speak of three "clocks" driving U.S. policy: the speed at which Iranian nuclear technology is maturing; the time it takes for the sanctions to bite, bringing Iran to the table; and the patience of regional actors.

Estimates of Iran's technical advances vary, and Iranian scientists have made uneven progress toward having the nuclear knowhow necessary to build a weapon. Some experts say Iran could get the bomb in as little as one year's time; others say it will take longer -- and that's assuming the regime in Tehran makes the decision to weaponize, and it's not clear that it has done so already.

Then there is the question of Israel, which views an Iranian nuclear weapon as an existential threat. Israeli leaders have indicated their willingness to give the U.S. strategy of sanctions and unconditional engagement a chance to work, but calls for military action will likely heat up if diplomacy fails to produce sufficient changes in Iranian behavior.

Another concern is the risk that Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt, will pursue their own nuclear weapons programs to compete with Iran's.