The Cable

White House opposed new Iran sanctions

The White House announced its opposition to a new round of Iran sanctions that the Senate unanimously approved Friday, in the latest instance of Congress pushing for more aggressive punitive measures on Iran than the administration deems prudent.

On Thursday, Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) introduced the amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which the Senate passed 94-0. The new legislative language would blacklist Iran's energy, port, shipping, and shipbuilding sectors, while also placing new restrictions on Iran's ability to get insurance for all these industries. The legislation would also vastly expand U.S. support for human rights inside Iran and impose new sanctions on Iranians who divert humanitarian assistance from its intended purpose.

"The window is closing. The time for the waiting game is over," Menendez said on the Senate floor Thursday night. "Yes, our sanctions are having a demonstrable effect on the Iranian economy, but Iran is still working just as hard to develop nuclear weapons."

But the White House told several Senate offices Thursday evening that the administration was opposed to the amendment. National Security Spokesman Tommy Vietor sent The Cable the administration's official position, explaining the White House's view the sanctions aren't needed and aren't helpful at this time.

"As we focus with our partners on effectively implementing these efforts, we believe additional authorities now threaten to undercut these efforts," he said. "We also have concerns with some of the formulations as currently drafted in the text and want to work through them with our congressional partners to make the law more effective and consistent with the current sanctions law to ensure we don't undercut our success to date."

An e-mail from the NSC's legislative affairs office to some Senate Democrats late Thursday evening, obtained by The Cable, went into extensive detail about the administration's concerns about the new sanctions legislation, including that it might get in the way of the administration's efforts to implement the last round of Iran sanctions, the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act (TRA), to which it flatly objected at the time.

"We do not believe additional authority to apply more sanctions on Iran is necessary at this time," read the e-mail, which the NSC legislative affairs office said represented the entire administration's view. "At the same time, we are concerned that this amendment is duplicative and threatens to confuse and undermine some of the TRA provisions."

One of the White House's chief concerns is that Congress is not providing the administration enough waivers, which would give the United States the option of negating or postponing applications of the sanctions on a case-by-case basis.

The White House also said that secondary sanctions should apply only to those Iranian persons and entities that are guilty of aiding Iran's nulear and missile programs. The new legislative language would designate entire categories of Iranian government entities to be sanctioned -- whether or not each person or entity is directly involved in such activities.

The new sanctions too broadly punish companies that supply materials, such as certain metals, that could be used in Iran's nuclear, military, or ballistic missile programs, the White House worries. The bill allows those materials to be sold to Iranian entities that intend to use them for non-military or nuclear-related purposes, but the administration said that the ambiguity in that part of the legislation will make it hard to implement.

Finally, the White House doesn't want to implement the part of the new legislation that would require reports to Congress on the thousands of boats that dock at Iranian ports and the dozens of Iranian planes that make stops at airports around the world. Those reporting requirements "will impose serious time burdens on the Intelligence Community and sanctions officers," the White House said in the e-mail.

The Obama administration often touts the Iran sanctions it once opposed. In the final presidential debate Oct. 22, President Barack Obama said his administration had "organized the strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history, and it is crippling their economy."

The new Iran sanctions still must survive a House-Senate conference over the defense authorization bill, during which conferees may try to change certain portions of the new sanctions regime. Hill aides predict the White House will try to alter the new sanctions during that process, in what they would likely see as an effort to water them down.

"The truth is that the U.S. Congress continues to lead a comprehensive and unrelenting international sanctions program against the Iranian regime despite a comprehensive and unrelenting campaign by this administration to block or water down those sanctions at every move," a senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable. "We beat them 100-0 last year and while they tried to kill this amendment more quietly this time, we beat them again 94-0. Hopefully House and Senate negotiators will stay strong and resist the administration's strategy to dilute these sanctions in conference."

The Cable

Congress moves to bar Pentagon from deals with Russian arms exporter

The Senate voted unanimously Thursday night to bar the Pentagon from using U.S. taxpayer funds to purchase any goods from the Russia's main arms exporter, including helicopters for use in Afghanistan.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) submitted an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act barring the Pentagon from spending any money in fiscal 2013 on contracts with Rosoboronexport, the Russian state-controlled arms export firm that has been facilitating arms shipments to the Syrian regime since the brutal crackdown on Syrian civilians began early last year.

"The American taxpayer should not be indirectly subsidizing the mass murder of Syrian civilians, especially when there are perfectly good alternatives for purchasing these same arms through U.S. brokers," Cornyn said in a statement. "Continuing this robust business relationship with Rosoboronexport would continue to undermine U.S. policy on Syria and U.S. efforts to stand with the Syrian people."

Outrage over the Pentagon's dealings with Rosoboronexport has been building on Capitol Hill since March, when 17 senators wrote to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to demand an end to U.S. arms deals with the Russian firm.

Russia has supplied more than $1 billion of arms to the Syrian government since the unrest is Syria began, the senators wrote -- including four cargo ships full of weapons that have arrived in Syria since December. Rosoboronexport is Russia's official broker, serving as a middle man for all Russian foreign defense sales. It reportedly signed a new contract with the Syrian regime for 36 combat jets in January.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army is in the middle of buying 21 Mi-17 dual-use helicopters from Rosoboronexport for the Afghan security forces. That $375 million deal was granted through a sole-source contract that was never competitively bid, according to Wired. The administration has said Rosoboronexport was the only broker for the helicopters, which it says the Afghan military needs.

The firm is also bidding to sell ammunition to U.S. forces. The U.S. government had halted arms deals with Rosoboronexport from 2006 to 2010 due to concerns the company was contributing to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction due to its arms sales to Iran. Those sanctions were lifted in 2010 when Russia backed United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iran.

In July, Democratic Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA) successfully added similar language barring Pentagon contracts with Rosoboronexport to the House's version of the fiscal 2013 defense appropriations bill. That amendment was adopted by a vote of 407-5.

The Senate is expected to pass the defense authorization bill Friday, after which it must be reconciled with the House version before being sent to the president's des.

"Senator Cornyn has demonstrated tremendous leadership in targeting the enablers of Syria's atrocities. We are thrilled that his work on this issue over the last year - from bringing attention to the troublesome U.S.-Rosoboronexport relationship to building a bipartisan coalition - has culminated in the passage of this amendment in the Senate," said Human Rights First's Winny Chen. "We look forward to working with other human rights champions in Congress to end U.S. business relationships with enablers of Syria's mass atrocities."