The Cable

Obama wants all countries to reject visits by Iranian officials

The Obama administration has been in intensive discussions with foreign leaders about the alleged Iran-sponsored assassination plot and, among other steps, is asking countries around the world to stop letting Iranian leaders stop by for official visits.

"We are taking robust diplomatic action to hold Iran accountable for this plot, isolate them internationally and increase pressure on the regime," Undersecretary of State for Political Affair Wendy Sherman said at a Thursday hearing before the Senate Banking Committee. "And we will be asking all countries to consider appropriate actions, including denying Quds Force officers any platform to operate within their countries."

Sherman said that, over the last 48 hours, calls have been made to every single capital in the world by President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, Sherman herself, and every assistant secretary in the State Department to encourage all countries to tighten sanctions and pressure on Iran.

"We have encouraged them to make sure that the Quds Force stops doing business in their countries, to look at high-level visits that might be coming from Iranians to their country, and to consider, let's say, postponing, if not cancelling outright, those visits," she said.

Obama ramped up the rhetoric further during his joint press conference on Thursday with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

"This is not just a dangerous escalation, this is part of a pattern of dangerous and reckless behavior by the Iranian government," Obama said. "And for Iran to have been involved in a plot like this indicates the degree to which it has been outside of accepted norms of international behavior for far too long. This is just one example of a series of steps that they've taken to create violence and to behave in a way that you don't see other countries doing."

Obama promised to "apply the toughest sanctions and, you know, continue to mobilize the international community to make sure that Iran is further and further isolated and that it pays a price for this kind of behavior."

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the Obama administration had direct contact with Iran regarding the issue on Wednesday, but she declined to elaborate on the interaction. It is possible that the contact was in New York between the U.S. and Iranian delegations to the United Nations.

U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice has completed individual meetings with all 14 other Security Council delegations. State's top counterterrorism official, Dan Benjamin, went to New York to join Rice in those meetings.

"I think it's premature to say what the Security Council might be prepared to do, but we're continuing to work on that," Nuland said.

Other countries are buying the basic idea of the plot, Nuland said, despite fairly widespread skepticism among Iran watchers about the likelihood the Quds Force would put such a clumsy plan into place.

"Countries may find it quite a story, but they're not surprised that Iran would be capable of something like this," she said.

The State Department is sending a team to Moscow to brief Russian officials about the plot after Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asked Clinton for more information.

At the hearing, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) called on the administration to put its support behind passage of the Iran, North Korea and Syria Sanctions Consolidation Act, which he cosponsored along with 75 other senators.

"Our efforts to date have been transformative. But as Iran has adapted to the sanctions, unanticipated loopholes have allowed the regime to adjust and circumvent the sanctions and drive forward its effort to achieve a robust nuclear program," Menendez said. "We have to be just as prepared to adjust and adapt by closing each loophole that arises."

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who has been calling for Treasury to sanction the Central Bank of Iran, said at the hearing that the administration must do more and already has the authority to sanction 14 companies that the Government Accountability Office has cited as still doing business in Iran.

Kirk noted that the United States has sanctioned only 11 Iranian officials for human rights violations, while the European Union has sanctioned 61 officials.

Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen testified at the hearing that sanctions against Iran's Central Bank were under consideration.

"Further U.S. action against the CBI, if it attained multilateral support, could further isolate the CBI with a potentially powerful impact on Iran," Cohen said. "[A]ll options to increase the financial pressure on Iran are on the table, including the possibility of imposing additional sanctions against the CBI."

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

The Cable

U.S. Ambassador to South Korea finally confirmed

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) lifted a longstanding secret hold on Sung Kim, the nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to South Korea, only minutes before the South Korean president was set to speak to a joint session of Congress. The Senate confirmed Kim just now.

"Jon Kyl is holding up Sung Kim and he won't budge," Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) told The Cable only two hours ago, over a drink just before President Lee Myung-bak was honored in a lunch with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joseph Biden.

Several administration officials at the lunch told The Cable that after weeks of frustration, Kyl's office had finally agreed to receive a briefing on North Korea policy from State Department officials, which took place yesterday on Capitol Hill. Officials were working hard to convince Kyl's staff to allow the Kim nomination to go through in conjunction with Lee's visit and as part of this week's celebration of the U.S.-South Korean relationship.

There were various accounts of what exactly Kyl wanted from the administration in exchange for lifting the hold on Kim. Some administration officials said Kyl was requesting a series of letters that defined the administration's engagement with North Korea and made pledges to limit that engagement.

One official said that Kyl's demands seemed to change over time, but centered around assurances that the United States would not continue to meet with the North Koreans. A second U.S.-North Korea meeting is expected to be announced soon and would probably take place in a third country, such as Sweden.

Regardless, before Kyl lifted his hold, administration officials expressed frustration and embarrassment that they had not been able to push through Kim's confirmation. "It's a disgrace," one official at the lunch told The Cable.

"Koreans take this kind of thing very seriously," said another U.S. official, who happened to be of Korean descent.

The lunch itself was an elegant affair in the ornate Benjamin Franklin room on the State Department's 8th  floor.

The appetizer was a roasted tomato, avocado, quinoa tower with pistachio mint pesto, fennel, caper dressing. For the entrée we had lemongrass sesame chicken with ginger-tamarind sauce, carrot-ginger puree, broccolini, and pearl onions. Dessert was a warm chocolate tart with milk chocolate mousse and malted milk ice cream.

Clinton's opening remarks praised the passage of the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement last night and said the pact will "spur economic growth, bringing our nations even closer together," and is "another clear example of the United States' commitment to the Asia Pacific region."

"We are a resident military, diplomatic and economic power and we are in Asia to stay," she said, reprising the themes in her Foreign Policy article to applause.

Biden spoke next and talked about how Lee's nickname was "the bulldozer," which he earned early in his career when he dismantled a bulldozer to learn how to build one and make it work better

"I wondered how in the Lord's name you got that nickname," Biden said, noting that Lee doesn't look like an NFL linebacker. But, Biden said, "his persistence exceeds any linebacker who ever hit me."

Lee began his remarks by pointing out that that the bulldozer he took apart was made by Caterpillar, a not-so-subtle gesture to the crowd, which included dozens of U.S. and South Korean business executives.

Administration officials in attendance included Deputy Secretary Tom Nides, Undersecretary Wendy Sherman, Counselor Harold Koh, USAID Administrator Raj Shah, CIA Director David Petraeus, Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary Esther Brimmer, NSC Senior Director Gary Samore, DNI's Joe DeTrani, and Sung Kim himself.

Other notables at the lunch included Lugar, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), former NSC Senior Director Jeff Bader, former NSC Director Victor Cha, former North Korea Special Envoy Jack Pritchard, and former NSC Director Chuck Jones.

Your humble Cable guy rode the elevator with actor Ken Jeong, who flew in for the event from Los Angeles with his father.  Jeong told us there is a third installment of the movie The Hangover in the works, but claimed he didn't have any plot details.

Obama and Lee had a private dinner Wednesday evening at Woo Lae Oak, a Korean restaurant in Tyson's Corner, VA.  Tomorrow, they will travel to Detroit to visit a General Motors plant.

Read President Lee's speech to Congress here.