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.

The Cable

Levin and McCain: Don’t pay Pakistan exorbitant trucking fees

The United States should not pay upwards of $5,000 for each truck Pakistan lets through to Afghanistan to aid the war effort, both leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee told The Cable today.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari met at this weekend's NATO summit in Chicago and President Barack Obama met with Zardari in a three-way exchange with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But the United States and Pakistan were not able to finalize the details of a deal to reopen the ground lines of communication through which the U.S. sends goods to troops in Afghanistan. Those supply lines have been closed since ISAF forces accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in two border outposts last November and refused to apologize for it.

One American official told the New York Times that Pakistan wants "upwards of $5,000" for each truck that crosses through its territory, whereas the fee paid by the United States before last November was about $250 per truck.

"I think that's called extortion," Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable Tuesday. "We can't look at aid in that light. It's now becoming a matter of principle."

Senate Armed Services Committee head Carl Levin (D-MI) told The Cable there's no way the United States should pay Pakistan fees anywhere near that level.

"Whatever the cost of the security has been, we ought to continue whatever level of support that was. This looks to me to be totally inappropriate," he said.

Levin's committee is working on the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill this week behind closed doors. That bill could contain new restrictions on U.S. aid to Pakistan.

UPDATE: On Tuesday afternoon, the Senate Appropriations Committee proposed new restrictions on aid to Pakistan in their mark up of the fiscal 2013 State and foreign ops appropriations bill. The bill would withhold all counterinsurgency funds for Pakistan until the Pakistani government reopens the cargo supply lines to Afghanistan.

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