The Cable

AIPAC chief: There’s still time… but we need to do more on Iran

Following President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Oval Office meeting Monday, the head of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), is calling for more time to let sanctions work -- but also for more sanctions.

"Our overall message at the moment is that a lot has been done -- by the president, by the Congress, but the community, by international organizations -- but at this point in time we think more needs to be done" to pressure Iran to abandon its pursuit of a nuclear weapon, AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr told The Cable in a Monday interview on the sidelines of the AIPAC conference in Washington.

"We believe there is still time for these things to work. We believe there is still time to ratchet up the pressure, to create a different dynamic inside Iran and their decision-making. And we think that is going to be one of the central challenges at the moment."

AIPAC, and its 14,000 attendees who will be blanketing Capitol Hill Tuesday, will be pressing lawmakers and officials to take several specific additional steps to increase the pressure on Iran, Kohr said. AIPAC wants the administration to increase sanctions so they become "crippling" sanctions not just "biting" sanctions, which in Kohr's view means supporting quick passage and adopt of the Iran Threats Reduction Act, a new package of sanctions that cleared the Senate Banking Committee last month.

AIPAC also will ask lawmakers to fully implement the current sanctions against Central Bank of Iran and support new congressional resolutions that urge the United States to "support a policy that puts all options on the table, except containment" of a nuclear Iran, Kohr said.

"The president is actually quite clear about that himself and he made a very important point about that yesterday," Kohr said, referring to Obama's Sunday AIPAC speech, in which the president said, "Iran's leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."

Earlier Monday, Obama and Netanyahu gave brief remarks to the press before their Oval Office meeting. Obama emphasized that he also believes the time has not yet come to strike Iran but promised he would be willing to do so if there was no other way to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

"We do believe that there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue, but ultimately the Iranians' regime has to make a decision to move in that direction, a decision that they have not made thus far," Obama said. "My policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.  And as I indicated yesterday in my speech, when I say all options are at the table, I mean it."

Netanyahu emphasized that Israel would make decisions about striking Iran by itself and based on its own national interest.

"Israel must have the ability always to defend itself by itself against any threat; and that when it comes to Israel's security, Israel has the right, the sovereign right to make its own decisions," Netanyahu said. "I believe that's why you appreciate, Mr. President, that Israel must reserve the right to defend itself."

Kohr said that Obama "has been a strong supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship. He has done important things."

But he noted that the Obama administration is still communicating a red line of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon, while Israel and AIPAC want to set as unacceptable Iran obtaining the capability to build a nuclear weapon.

"We believe that a nuclear weapons capability is already damaging enough to American interests as well as to regional interests," said Kohr. "Just having the capabilities, even before they put it together, will send shivers through the region."

Kohr said that the conference and today's bilateral meeting would hopefully allow all interlocutors in Washington and Israel to at least get on the same page and be able to send one unified message to the Iranians.

"What I hope comes out of the meeting is a commitment in what we know to be difficult days ahead not only for increased communications, but that whatever gaps exist be closed and that they are working together in this period of time. We think this is possible," he said.

The Cable

McCain to call for air strikes on Syria

Later today, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, will become the first U.S. senator to publicly call for U.S. led air strikes to halt the violence and atrocities being committed by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"After a year of bloodshed, the crisis in Syria has reached a decisive moment," McCain will say Monday afternoon in a speech on the Senate floor, according to excerpts obtained in advance by The Cable.

"What opposition groups in Syria need most urgently is relief from Assad's tank and artillery sieges in many cities that are still contested. Homs is lost for now, but Idlib, and Hama, and Qusayr, and Deraa, and other cities in Syria could still be saved," McCain will say. "But time is running out. Assad's forces are on the march. Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but at this late hour, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower."

The Obama administration's stance thus far has been to clearly communicate that international military intervention is not on the table in Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that the United States is willing to provide humanitarian assistance in Syria immediately... but only if Assad agrees to provide access to affected areas.

McCain, referring directly to the requests for more direct assistance from the Syrian National Council, the Free Syrian Army, and Local Coordinating Committees inside Syria, will call for the United States to lead an international effort to protect civilian population centers in northern Syria through airstrikes on Assad's forces.

"To be clear: This will require the United States to suppress enemy air defenses in at least part of the country," McCain will say. "The ultimate goal of airstrikes should be to establish and defend safe havens in Syria, especially in the north, in which opposition forces can organize and plan their political and military activities against Assad. These safe havens could serve as platforms for the delivery of humanitarian and military assistance -- including weapons and ammunition, body armor and other personal protective equipment, tactical intelligence, secure communications equipment, food and water, and medical supplies. These safe havens could also help the Free Syrian Army and other armed groups in Syria to train and organize themselves into more cohesive and effective military forces, likely with the assistance of foreign partners."

McCain will point out that more than 7,500 lives have now been lost in Syria and that the United Nations has declared that Syrian security forces are guilty of crimes against humanity, including the indiscriminate shelling of civilians, the execution of defectors, and the widespread torture of prisoners.

"Increasingly, the question for U.S. policy is not whether foreign forces will intervene militarily in Syria. We can be confident that Syria's neighbors will do so eventually, if they have not already. Some kind of intervention will happen, with us or without us. So the real question for U.S. policy is whether we will participate in this next phase of the conflict in Syria, and thereby increase our ability to shape an outcome that is beneficial to the Syrian people, and to us. I believe we must."

He will also drive home the point that the situation in Syria is now as dire as the situation was in Libya before the U.S. led a NATO intervention there last year.

"The kinds of mass atrocities that NATO intervened in Libya to prevent in Benghazi are now a reality in Homs. Indeed, Syria today is the scene of some of the worst state-sponsored violence since Milosevic's war crimes in the Balkans, or Russia's annihilation of the Chechen city of Grozny," McCain will say.

McCain will then point out that President Barack Obama characterized the prevention of mass atrocities as "a core national security interest" when speaking about Libya and has committed the credibility of the United States to his repeated calls for Assad to step aide.

"If Assad manages to cling to power -- or even if he manages to sustain his slaughter for months to come, with all of the human and geopolitical costs that entails -- it would be a strategic and moral defeat for the United States. We cannot, we must not, allow this to happen," McCain will say.

"Rather than closing off the prospects for some kind of a negotiated transition that is acceptable to the Syrian opposition, foreign military intervention is now the necessary factor to preserve this option. Assad needs to see that he will not win."

MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images