The Cable

Will Congress pass new Iran sanctions this year?

Legislation that would impose a new regime of sanctions against Iran appears stalled in Congress, but behind the scenes both chambers are working to come up with a package that can be signed into law this summer.

The Senate passed the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012 in May, legislation that would punish any entity that provides Iran with equipment or technology that facilitates censorship or the suppression of human rights, including weapons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and other riot control equipment -- as well as communications jamming, monitoring, and surveillance equipment. It also calls on the Obama administration to develop a more robust Internet freedom strategy for Iran and speed new assistance to pro-democracy activists in the country.

The legislation, named for Senate Banking Committee heads Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), would formally establish that U.S. policy is intended to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and would require the administration to report extensively and repeatedly on its efforts to increase diplomatic and financial pressure on the Iranian regime. The House version was passed last December and has some key differences compared to the Senate bill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said in May that the sanctions were so urgent he couldn't even allow floor time for senators to debate the bill and offer amendments. Now, two months later, there seems to be no progress. The Cable asked Reid on Tuesday what was going on with the bill.

"Nothing's happening. I wish I had a better answer," Reid said. "We can't get it done unless we have two to tango."

Reid and multiple senate aides said that the House has not been responsive to Senate requests to iron out differences between the two versions of the bill so both chambers can pass it again and send it to the president's desk.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) told The Cable that there will be no conference involving lawmakers, but rather an informal staff conference. Menendez is the author of some of the key provisions in the legislation

"The House hasn't shown any capacity to do it and we are going to call over there and see if we can get them focused on this in the midst of everything else," he said. "I think time is of the essence."

Multiple aides in both chambers said that staff discussions between key offices are ongoing, with meetings being held this week. One senior Senate aide said that the House committee leaders wanted a formal conference but Senate Democrats resisted. Johnson's staff is working behind the scenes to come up with a compromise draft bill, this aide said, while various offices and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), in particular, are working behind the scenes to lobby for the inclusion of provisions they think are important.

Some of the disputed issues between the  House and the Senate are minor. For example, one provision under discussion focuses on how stringent the language should be requiring the administration to investigate allegations of sanctions busting by other countries. Other issues are more pronounced, such as whether all Iranian banks should be included in the sanctions.

The clock is ticking, however. If the bill isn't finished by the end of this month, which is the end of the current legislative session, there's little chance Congress will pass it this fall so close to the election.

"There is a sense that if this isn't done in July it will not get done before the congressional election," one senior Senate aide said. "If the staffs of all the key offices agree on a compromise bill this could be done very quickly via a suspension vote in the House and a unanimous consent vote in the Senate. This is the time to do it.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, struck an optimistic note in a statement she gave to The Cable.

"I'm pleased that we are making progress on this important Iran sanctions legislation that the House passed overwhelmingly last year," Ros-Lehtinen said. "House and Senate negotiators are committed to reaching an agreement on final Iran sanctions text to send to the President's desk before the Congress adjourns in August."

The Cable

Olsen to be next U.S. ambassador to Pakistan

President Barack Obama intends to nominate Ambassador Richard Olsen to be the next U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, three sources with direct knowledge of the pending appointment told The Cable.

Olsen, a senior member of the foreign service, has been serving as the coordinating director for development and economic affairs at U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, since June 2011. If confirmed, he will replace Ambassador Cameron Munter, who announced in May that he would step down from his post after only 18 months on the job. Munter, who presided over the Islamabad embassy during perhaps the worst period in U.S.-Pakistan relations in over a decade, resigned of his own accord and will retire from the foreign service and join the private sector, these sources said.

Before going to Kabul, Olsen was U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 2008-2011. He previously served abroad in Mexico, Uganda, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Iraq, and as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. mission to the NATO.  His Washington assignments included stints at the State Department Operations Center, NATO desk, the Office of Israel and Palestinian affairs, and the Office of Iraqi Affairs.

Pakistan watchers and experts saw the choice as a reasonable one and generally said Olsen was a competent and safe choice, but that he faces an uphill battle in moving the relationship forward if and when he gets to Islamabad.

"It will help that Olsen understands some aspects of the region. But Kabul is a different place from Islamabad and Rawalpindi, as he will discover rapidly," said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. "Pakistan is at once more complex and confounding."

Nawaz said that Olsen's success will depend largely on whether he is given power and influence in the interagency policy process. Munter was reportedly overruled several times when he engaged other administration departments on sensitive issues, such as the use of drone strikes or whether the United States should have apologized for killing 24 Pakistan soldiers last November. As the top U.S. representative in Pakistan, Olsen would also be forced to focus on the U.S. military's pursuit of the Haqqani network and the ratcheting up of the U.S. drone program, both unpopular policies in Pakistan.

"Olsen's biggest challenge will be dealing with a Washington that does not have a clear center of gravity in terms of decisions on relations with Pakistan. That was the biggest obstacle faced by Cameron Munter, who impressed many Pakistanis with his zeal and energy but did not get the support he needed from home," Nawaz said.

Some regional experts think Olsen is being set up for failure because he will never be able to resolve the fundamental disputes between the various parts of the U.S. policy bureaucracy over Pakistan policy. The military and the intelligence community are set to ratchet up their kinetic activities inside Pakistan in advance of the U.S. handover of Afghan security control in 2014, a plan that runs in contrast to the State Department's focus on improving government to government relations and raising the image of the U.S. there.

"The best person in the world will not succeed with a defective policy, which is what we have; more accurately, our policy towards Pakistan is fragmented among several entities," said Stephen Cohen, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "Will Olsen be accepting or influencing decisions of other agencies, some of which seem to be running their own policy towards Pakistan?"

Administration and congressional sources also confirm that Ambassador James Cunningham is set to be named to succeed Ryan Crocker as the U.S. envoy in Kabul. Crocker's health continues to deteriorate and he is expected to return to the U.S. soon.

In other ambassador news, the White House announced Tuesday that the president intends to nominate Dawn Liberi to be ambassador to Burundi, Stephen Mull to be ambassador to Poland, and Walter North to be ambassador to Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and the Republic of Vanuatu.

There's still no word on who will be chosen to replace Ambassador Jim Jeffrey in Iraq, following the withdrawal of former National Security Council staffer Brett McGurk last month. There is some speculation but no hard evidence that former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford is in the running.