The Cable

Opposition emerges to Obama’s choice for Iraq ambassador

President Barack Obama on Monday nominated Brett McGurk to be the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq. But members of the Iraqi and American opposition parties are already criticizing the choice.

In announcing McGurk's nomination, the White House noted that he has served as a senior advisor to the last three U.S. ambassadors to Iraq: Jim Jeffrey, Ryan Crocker, and Christopher Hill, and that he served on the National Security Council, initially as director for Iraq and later as senior director for Iraq and Afghanistan. Prior to 2005, he was a legal advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad.

What the White House didn't mention is that McGurk was the lead negotiator for the 2008 U.S.-Iraq security agreement that extended the U.S. troop presence there until the end of 2011 and he led the failed negotiations in 2011 to extend the U.S. troop presence in Iraq even longer.

McGurk's perceived closeness to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during those two sets of negotiations is both an asset and a detriment as his nomination moves forward. The Washington office of the main Iraqi opposition bloc, Al Iraqiya, penned a letter to all members of Congress Monday stating that its members would have nothing to do with McGurk if he is confirmed as the U.S. envoy to Baghdad.

"I would like to inform you that Aliraqia Bloc and the liberal trend will not deal with new assigned ambassador to Iraq Mr. Brett Mcgurk for his loyalty and bounds with the Islamic party," wrote Waheed Al Sammarraie, the D.C. representiative of the office of former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, the leader of the opposition.

Later Tuesday, Allawi's office sent out another note saying their original message contained "many typos" and they would send out a more official note Wednesday.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers who were frustrated by the failure of the Obama administration to negotiate a follow-on security agreement for American troop presence with the Maliki government are also criticizing the McGurk nomination.

"I will have very significant questions about his qualifications and his positions on the issues... He's not my choice," Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable.

McCain said he won't formally decide on whether to hold up McGurk's nomination until he has a chance to hear from the nominee. But he focused on the fact that although McGurk was deeply involved in negotiating a follow on force in Iraq, today he says he agrees with the administration that no follow-on force is necessary.

"Now he thinks it was a fine idea that we do not have a residual force there. That's not my view," McCain said.

McGurk testified before McCain's committee last November and said that while he did try to negotiate a follow-on agreement to keep some American troops in Iraq, U.S. and Iraqi lawyers determined it could not work unless the Iraqi parliament passed a law giving those troops immunity from Iraqi courts, which wasn't possible politically in Iraq.

"Against this backdrop, the best available policy for the United States was to fulfill the commitment under the [2008] security agreement and elevate the [Strategic Framework Agreement] as the pillar of our long term relationship. Having just returned from Baghdad, I am confident that this policy -- if handled right -- can open a new window of opportunity for relations with Iraq, including close security and defense relations," McGurk testified.

Ramzy Mardini, a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told The Cable today the objections to McGurk's nomination are based both on his perceived closeness to Maliki and on the fact that he has no experience running an embassy, much less the largest U.S. embassy in the world.

"Many Iraqi players outside Maliki's circle view McGurk as an advocate for the prime minister. That may not be a fair characterization, but the perceptions are there on the ground. There's the possibility that this sentiment could undermine our perception of neutrality and therefore our ability to effectively mediate disputes between all Iraqi factions," he said.

"It's our largest embassy and it's placed in a hostile environment, where thousands of Iraqis are killed each year in what is still an ongoing insurgency. Some would argue that the ideal candidate for chief of mission would be someone from the Foreign Service who has already run an embassy in the Arab world, understands Iraq and its political culture, and speaks the Arabic language."

The Cable

Treasury Department moves to clamp down on Iranian arms exports

the U.S. Treasury Department today announced sanctions on a major Iranian cargo airline, an Iranian trading company, and a Nigerian shipping agent that facilitates Iranian arms exports.

Treasury designated Yas Air, Behineh Trading, the Ali Abbas Usman Jega shipping agent, and three Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) officials for sanctions, meaning they are all immediately cut off from doing business in the United States or with the U.S. financial sector. Treasury alleges that the airline, the trading company, and the IRGC-QF officials were involved, respectively, in shipments of weapons "to the Levant and Africa, further demonstrating Iran's determination to evade international sanctions and export violence and instability throughout the Middle East and beyond."

"Today's action again exposes Iran's malign influence in the Middle East, Africa and beyond.  As the Iranian regime exports its lethal aid and expertise to foment violence in Syria and Africa, Treasury will continue to expose the officials and companies involved and work to hold them accountable for the suffering they cause," said Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen.

Yas Air has been directly involved in arms shipments to Syria under the cover of humanitarian assistance, the Treasury Department said, and IRGC officials oversaw several shipments of arms via Yas Air in March 2011, working with the Syrian regime and Hezbollah.

"A Turkish inspection of one of the Yas Air flights bound for Syria -- which listed ‘auto spare parts' on its cargo manifest -- found weapons including Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles, machine guns, nearly 8,000 rounds of ammunition, and an assortment of mortar shells," according to the Treasury Department release.

In October, 2010, the Iranian trading company and the Nigerian shipping agent worked together to smuggle Iranian arms to Gambia, but that shipment was intercepted in Nigeria, according to Treasury, and included grenades, rockets, mortars, and ammunition.

"While Iran publically downplays Iranian government involvement in the lethal aid shipment, the highest levels of the IRGC-QF were involved," the release stated.

The three IRGC officials designated for sanctions today were Esmail Ghani, the deputy commander of the IRGC-QF, Sayyid Ali Akbar Tabatabaei, the commander of the IRGC-QF Africa Corps, Hosein Aghajani, who allegedly has ties to the Gambian smuggling operation.

Initial reactions to the moves on Capitol Hill were positive, even as a fight brewed between lawmakers and the administration over a new round of Iran sanctions legislation.

"It's these kind of moments that build up a bipartisan trust in the Treasury Department and in people like David Cohen and Danny Glaser," one senior GOP Senate aide said.