The Cable

Battle lines drawn for Law of the Sea Treaty

On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee kicks off a major new effort to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty, and interested senators are already preparing behind the scenes for a protracted battle over the issue.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey will testify before the committee Wednesday in the first of a series of hearings being planned by Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), who is leading the ratification effort for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, better known as the Law of the Sea Treaty.

The treaty, which came into force in 1994, established rules of the road for operating in international waters and set forth a regime for determining mineral and other rights beneath the ocean floor. Since then, 161 countries have signed on, as well as the European Union, but the U.S. Senate has not ratified it.

In an interview today with The Cable, Kerry said that he has lined up advocates and supporters of ratification from public- and private-sector constituencies to make the case for the need to ratify the treaty soon.

"I believe this can be done. There are major American businesses, gas and oil companies, mining companies, communications companies, all which have a huge interest in this. When the power of those interests is heard, senators are going to feel a sense of urgency. It is more urgent today than it has been at any time," he said.

Kerry also touted the support of national security officials and former officials from both parties and from several administrations. He said that in addition to the national security benefits of the treaty, America's economic woes gave the ratification effort an added urgency.

"This is a major effort for jobs," Kerry said, arguing that U.S. mining, mineral, and energy companies would all benefit. "The time is now because of the economic interest."

Kerry said that he wants to keep the debate away from partisan politics and argue the case for ratification on the facts and the merits of the treaty. That will be tough during a heated election season, and also because several senators strongly oppose it.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), a staunch foe of ratification, told The Cable today that Kerry has promised him another SFRC hearing for "those of us who are opposed," and said he wanted former Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton and the Heritage Foundation's Steve Groves to testify.

Inhofe said that Kerry needs to get the treaty ratified by the end of 2012.

"If they don't do it this year, they are never going to do it. That's their concern," Inhofe said. "Republicans are going to take over the Senate and then it's going to be more difficult."

Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable that he was open to ratification, but only if a series of changes are made through amendments. McCain said he was already working on several of those amendments with some other as yet unidentified colleagues.

"We have to make sure that U.S. sovereignty is preserved. We want to make sure that we have absolute veto power," McCain said. "If those amendments were adopted, we could more likely support this."

McCain was extremely active in crafting amendments to the resolution of ratification for the New START agreement with Russia in 2010, but ultimately voted against that treaty. He predicted the vote would come after the election, during the lame duck session this December.

Senate Armed Services Committee Carl Levin (D-MI) told The Cable he expects the treaty to pass if it comes up for a vote.

"All the military is for it. I think there is two-thirds vote for it. All of our military leaders are for it. It ought to pass; it should have passed years ago," Levin said. "It puts us at a big disadvantage not to be at that table when the discussions under that treaty take place."

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the second ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, disagreed and predicted the treaty is going nowhere this year due to other pressing matters before the Senate. Corker said he doesn't have a view on the treaty one way or the other.

"I am no place on Law of the Sea," he said. "I think there are a lot of other issues that we should be addressing... I have tried to discourage Senator Kerry from taking this up. I don't think there will be any votes between now and the election either in committee or on the floor on the issue."

The Cable

Dennis Ross: Breakthroughs with Iran in Baghdad 'unrealistic'

Don't expect any breakthroughs with Tehran at the six-power nuclear talks beginning Wednesday in Baghdad, the Obama administration's former top official for Iran Dennis Ross said Tuesday, despite a recent flurry of reporting suggesting otherwise.

"I don't believe that we should be looking at tomorrow as being a make-or-break meeting where if there isn't an unmistakable breakthrough then the process isn't a real process," Ross said on a conference call. "One doesn't need to see a breakthrough in these talks. That's unrealistic at this point. The idea that you have a breakthrough after only two rounds, I think, given everything going on, is just not realistic."

There isn't unlimited time to strike a deal with Iran, Ross cautioned. But in order for real progress to be made, he said, the talks have to continue on a regular, predictable schedule.

"There needs to be an indication that the talks really do have a kind of intensive ongoing character and they're meeting on almost what I would describe as nearly a continuous basis," he said.

Ross returned to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) last November after almost three years in the Obama administration, first with the State Department and then with the National Security Council as the senior director for southwest Asia, a portfolio that spanned a geographical region from Iran to Morocco.

The administration shouldn't announce any deadlines for the talks, which began last month in Istanbul, but should have a private time frame in mind, he said, emphasizing that any progress with Iran could take several months to achieve.

"If you're really into a process that's designed to produce understandings or become clear that that's not possible, month-to-month is simply not realistic. Look, in the past, oftentimes when proposals were given to the Iranians it took them months on end even to respond or to digest," he said.

"I think the key here is you want to send a signal that we're serious, but we're not desperate for an agreement ... we're not pushing prematurely to try to produce an outcome before you've had a chance to have the kind of discussions that are credible enough to determine whether such an outcome is possible."

Ross said that administration's basic approach to Iran has not changed and that the drive was still to find confidence-building measures that could halt Iran's forward progress on nuclear development and create space for a more comprehensive, mutually agreed solution.

"I think the administration's approach at this juncture is more a ‘let's go step by step, let's do confidence building because first we want to see if we can stop the clock' [approach]. Then it gives us time and space to try to deal more fundamentally with their program," he said.

Ross doubled down on his message of cautious optimism in a policy analysis posted today on the WINEP website, in which he listed several of the confidence-building measures under consideration.

"The challenge is to test the meaning of the talks without conveying either desperation or a rush to premature conclusions. The current approach of the P5+1 in the talks is guided by a confidence-building step-by-step logic that could work over time but runs the risk of letting Tehran play for time without revealing whether a real deal is even possible," he wrote, referring to the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.

In Congress, there is bipartisan opposition to any interim agreement with the Iranians that includes the kinds of confidence-building measures Ross is proposing, as written in a Feb. 17 letter signed Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Jim Risch (R-ID), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), John McCain (R-AZ), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Pat Toomey (R-PA), Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). 

"We would strongly oppose any proposal that caps or limits sanctions against the Iranian regime in exchange for anything less than full, verifiable, and sustained suspension of all enrichment activities, including both 3 percent and 20 percent enrichment," the senators wrote. "The time for confidence building measures is over."

FP researcher Allison Good contributed reporting.