The Cable

State Department: Iranian hostages in Syria are not our problem

How do you say "chutzpah" in Farsi?

The Iranian government wants the United States to ensure the safety of its nationals abducted by the Syrian rebels, but the Obama administration said Tuesday it's not responsible for their fate.

The State Department can't confirm the identity of the 48 Iranian hostages being held by Syrian opposition fighters in Damascus, who appeared in a YouTube video released over the weekend by the Free Syrian Army.

Three of the hostages have already been killed by Syrian military shelling, according to the rebels, who claim the group are members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. They are threatening to kill the rest if the Syrian government's assault on civilians in Damascus and Aleppo continues.

The Iranian government said that the men were pilgrims and that it had sent an official letter to President Barack Obama through the Swiss Embassy, which represents U.S. interests in Tehran, calling on the U.S. government to ensure their safety.

"Because of the United States' manifest support of terrorist groups and the dispatch of weapons to Syria, the United States is responsible for the lives of the 48 Iranian pilgrims abducted in Damascus," Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian quoted the letter as saying.

The Iranian government routinely refers to the Syrian rebels as "terrorists."

At Tuesday's State Department briefing, Acting Deputy Spokesman Patrick Ventrell turned the tables back on the Iranians.

"We cannot confirm the identity of those reported to be kidnapped, and ...  the wider issue of us having deep concerns about Tehran's destructive behavior in Syria continues," he said.

The U.S. government wants everyone in Syria to know American is calling on both sides in the conflict to treat any and all prisoners humanely and in accordance with international law, said Ventrell, but he rejected the idea that the U.S. government is directly responsible for the Iranian hostages' fate.

"Well, that doesn't seem to make sense," he said.  "And to us, it's just unconscionable that the Iranian government is ignoring the massacres of civilians in Aleppo and throughout Syria and instead finding new ways to try and prop up a regime who is killing many of thousands of its own citizens."

The U.S. government didn't even receive any letter, he went on, although the administration was aware that the charge d'affairs of the Swiss mission in Tehran had been called in by the Iranian government.

State's bottom line? Not America's problem.

"These are presumably Iranian citizens inside of Syria," Ventrell said. "We in the U.S. government are calling for them to be treated humanely, and we think that's the appropriate, principled stand to take, but beyond that I don't have anything for you."

The Cable

Congress punts on foreign policy

America's lawmakers skipped town last week for a five-week recess, leaving several important national security agenda items on the table.

Most, if not all of them, are expected to be ignored until after the election, meaning it could be months before Congress takes action.

Some of the stalled agenda items could be tacked in the short September session, aides say, but most will be left until the lame-duck session in December. And depending on who wins the presidency and which party controls the Senate, several items could be scuttled from the congressional calendar all together.

Here are the top five foreign-policy issues Congress punted on before leaving Washington:

Russia trade and human rights

The House didn't even try to take up two time-sensitive Russia-related bills before leaving town: a bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status and a bill to sanction Russian human rights violators, named after dead Russian anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

The trade bill is particularly time-sensitive because Russia is set to join the World Trade Organization later this month. Unless Congress grants Russia PNTR status, advocates of the bill warn, U.S. businesses won't be able to take advantage. House Republicans are leery of passing a bill that seems to some like a gift to Russia, although Democrats and the administration argue that the bill does more for the U.S. economy than it does for Russia.

The human rights bill, which would replace an antiquated 1974 law called Jackson-Vanik, is meant to be the sugar that makes the medicine go down sweet for Republicans. But due to GOP anger about Russian actions in Syria and the opposition of House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), House leaders are having trouble corralling the votes for the trade bill, even if the human rights bill is attached.

Look for the business community to ratchet up pressure on Congress to act on the trade bill throughout August. Senate aides, noting that the House must go first on the PNTR bill, predict that House leaders' interest in not offending the business community will trump the awkwardness of passing a trade bill with Russia just before the election. The Senate Finance and Foreign Relations Committees have already approved both bills, so if the House does its part, Senate passage is sure to follow.

One kink in the works could be that the House version of the Magnitsky bill applies only to Russia, whereas the Senate version was broadened to apply to human rights violators throughout the world. The administration supports the Senate version because it is less provocative to the Russians. But for House leaders like Ros-Lehtinen, that defeats the purpose.

National security nominations

The Senate managed to clear a bunch of national security nominations before leaving town, but left a few top jobs behind. Unless Congress acts in September, the United States will have no ambassador in Iraq or Pakistan until after the elections. If Mitt Romney wins in November, all U.S. ambassadors will be given their pink slips and replaced, so it may seem trivial to appoint envoys who might only serve a few months. But the situations in Iraq and Pakistan could not be more sensitive, and most experts agree that U.S. national security interests are harmed by not having an ambassador at the helm of those huge and important embassies.

For Iraq, the administration is not likely to nominate anyone before the election, having learned a brutal lesson when several GOP senators successfully worked to scuttle the confirmation of Obama's original choice for the post, former NSC staffer Brett McGurk. McGurk's nomination was dead in the water when his e-mail exchange with a reporter in Baghdad (who later became his wife) was made public, but senators expressed other concerns about his qualifications for the post as well.

Some in the State Department tell The Cable that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wants to appoint Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford to the post, but the White House doesn't want to take him off of the Syria account just yet. Other rumored candidates include the DCM in Baghdad Robert Beecroft and the current U.S. ambassador in Jordan Stu Jones. But there's no time to vet and confirm someone in the six legislative days in September, so the world's largest embassy will probably remain leaderless until 2013.

Obama's nominee to be envoy to Pakistan, Richard Olson, has a fair chance of getting confirmed in September. His nomination is currently held up by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who wants Pakistan to release the doctor who helped the CIA get Osama bin Laden. There's little chance the Pakistani courts will respond to Paul, so his hold will prove useless and will probably be lifted under pressure next month.

The Senate also failed to confirm Carlos Pasqual to be an assistant secretary of state in the energy bureau. That hold relates to congressional angst over the "Fast and Furious scandal," which unfolded while Pasqual was ambassador to Mexico. That issue isn't going away any time soon, so Pascqual will probably have to hold on to his "acting assistant secretary" title for a while.

Law of the Sea Treaty

Republicans senators boasted last month that they had collected enough votes to kill the Law of the Sea Treaty, an international convention that sets rules of the road for navigation, mineral, oil, and mining disputes in international waters. The drive to ratify the treaty is a major pet project of Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), some say as a quasi-audition for the Secretary of State job. But the treaty remains opposed by entrenched senators in the GOP caucus, led by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), who sees the treaty as yielding American sovereignty.

The Navy supports the treaty because it codifies international navigation practices it is already observing, and business leaders are pushing for ratification because they believe it gives them added leverage to bargain for rights to resources under the oceans. The plan had been to push for ratification in the lame-duck session, as was done in 2010 for the New START treaty with Russia. But this treaty is still a long way from being fully vetted, Republican opponents are confident they have enough votes to stop ratification, and the lame-duck session is already jammed full of urgent tax and economic bills. Moreover, if Democrats hold the Senate, Inhofe is likely to succeed Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) as the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, dealing LOST another perhaps fatal blow.

Defense and State Department authorizations

The defense authorization is the perennial and quintessential "must-pass" bill, as no Congress wants to stand accused of failing to support the troops during wartime, so there's a healthy confidence on Capitol Hill that the legislation will get done this calendar year. But the bill won't get done this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, because unlike most legislation these days, senators usually get to offer amendments to the defense authorization and thus the bill requires days of precious floor time. Last year, Congress cleared the bill in late December and that looks like the plan for this year as well.

The bill recommends but does not set funding levels for the military -- the money is actually allocated by the appropriations bill -- but there are still controversial issues in the authorization bill that will require attention. Last year's debate focused on the bill's language authorizing the president to indefinitely detain terror suspects, a fight that is still ongoing in the courts. Last year's bill also included new sanctions on Iran. This year, the fight will be over provisions of the version the House passed in May that provide for indefinite detention, reject some administration cuts to weapons programs, and seek to prevent same-sex marriage ceremonies in the military.

Sequestration

The impending cuts to both defense and entitlement spending mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 have become a hot-button issue in the presidential campaign. And we know what that means: no compromises before the election. For Republicans, the administration's reluctance to negotiate to avoid approximately $54 billion in cuts to the Pentagon's budget that are set to go into effect in January feeds into in their argument that the president is weak on national defense. Democrats, meanwhile, argue that the cuts can only be avoided if Republicans agree to increase revenues.

After the election, three possible scenarios will likely emerge. If Obama wins and the Democrats hold the Senate, they will be able to claim a mandate and popular support for a deal that includes revenues as well as spending cuts to avoid sequestration. If Romney wins, having promised to hold the line on cuts, the Senate will be hard pressed to implement the sequestration bargain no matter which party holds the gavel. If Obama wins and the Republicans take over the Senate, no deal is likely and the cuts could actually go into effect, beginning what would surely be a period of increased and even more acrimonious gridlock regarding national security on Capitol Hill.

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