The Cable

Obama administration implements congressional Iran sanctions

The implementation deadline for new Iran sanctions passed by Congress late last year was Wednesday, and the Obama administration announced it had complied with the law and increased the pressure on Tehran.

"Today marks a significant turning of the screw as Section 504 of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 goes into effect," a senior administration official told reporters today. "This provision expands the scope of sanctionable transactions with the Central Bank of Iran and Iran's petroleum industry by restricting Iran's ability to access oil revenue held in foreign financial institutions as well as preventing Iran from repatriating those funds."

Countries that have received waivers on buying fuel from Iran because they have "significantly reduced" their imports of Iranian oil will only be permitted to conduct transactions that are strictly bilateral in nature, the official said. All money paid as part of those transactions now has to be held in an account in the country paying, not Iran.

"This provision will significantly increase the economic pressure on Iran, as it will effectively lock up Iran's oil revenues in accounts abroad, restricting use of oil-related revenue to the purchase of goods from the country in which the funds are confined and precluding Iran's ability to move funds across jurisdictions," the official said.

The Treasury Department has also designated for sanctions several Iranian entities that are responsible for human rights abuses, including Iran's state-run media and its cyber police organization. The senior administration official emphasized that none of those sanctions apply to humanitarian or medical goods. The Treasury and State Department also completed a series of reports related to sanctions implementation that Congress mandated under the new law, another senior administration official said.

"The Iranian regime uses its broadcast services as an instrument of repression. It's not free media. It's a tool in the hands of the regime and our steps also encompass individuals and institutions engaged in gross violations of human rights in Iran," the second official said.

The official touted the administration's actions on sanctions, claiming that they were having a severe impact on Iran's economy. For example, the Iranian rial has lost more than 50 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar, the official noted.

The Obama White House has in some case opposed certain provisions of congressional Iran sanctions bills, often angering Democrats and Republicans alike. When the latest Iran sanctions legislation was under consideration on Capitol Hill, for instance, the White House told lawmakers most of the new sanctions were not necessary and said the bill was "duplicative and threatens to confuse and undermine" previously imposed Iran sanctions. Section 504 of the law, locking up the money from oil sales, originally came from the Treasuery Department.

Now, however, the Obama administration seems to be on board with the entire package.

"We signed the law. We are working to see it implemented. We will see it done. And whatever issues may have existed in the past, we are right there advancing it and its objectives," the second senior administration official said.

Wednesday's sanctions announcement wasn't joined by any corresponding statements from other countries, but the second senior administration official said that all of America's allies on the Iran issue were on the same page.

"It's fair to say that our national steps taken today are consistent with national steps being taken by other countries and multilateral steps called for under U.N. sanctions as well as the EU's own steps," the official said.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ), one of the original sponsors of the sanctions legislation, praised the administration's announcement in a statement today.

"The actions taken by the Administration today to implement the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (TRA), will require nations to continue to reduce their purchases of Iranian petroleum, but additionally will restrict Iran's ability to repatriate revenue and require Iran to instead use these resources for bilateral trade," he said. "This measure will greatly limit Iran's ability to finance its nuclear weapons program, while also ensuring that Iran uses its resources to purchase sufficient food, medicine and other necessary supplies for the Iranian people."

Some on Capitol Hill are working on a new round of Iran sanctions legislative measures and they are watching to see what the administration does next.

"We're always happy to see the administration comply with the laws we pass -- the question is whether there will be more proactive steps taken to get ahead of the next Iranian sidestep or whether we'll have to legislate again," a senior GOP Senate aide said.

The Cable

State Dept. working with Syrian opposition to channel aid

The State Department and USAID are increasing their humanitarian aid for Syria but have no intention of moving any of that money through the Syrian opposition coalition, as several senators have called for.

U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, Assistant Secretary for Populations, Refugees, and Migration Anne Richard, and USAID Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance Nancy Lindborg just returned from a trip to Turkey, Jordan, and Kuwait. In Kuwait, they pledged $155 million of additional U.S. humanitarian aid to help alleviate the suffering caused by the Syrian civil war, bringing the total U.S. aid commitment to $365 million.

Richard and Lindborg said on a Wednesday conference call with reporters that State and USAID don't work through government structures and therefore won't be dispersing any of that aid through the Syrian opposition coalition, which President Barack Obama has recognized as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

"Globally we provide our humanitarian assistance through the U.N. system and our NGO partners and this is specifically to ensure that there is a global humanitarian architecture that can get assistance to people who need it the most," said Lindborg. "We don't provide humanitarian assistance through other governments anywhere globally."

State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told The Cable that although the aid won't be given directly to the Syrian opposition coalition, a portion of the new funds will be dispersed in coordination with the coalition and its partners inside Syria.

"We are intensifying our work with the Syrian opposition coalition to channel assistance to those NGOs who can effectively deliver humanitarian aid on its behalf to the most needy in Syria, especially those in areas where the Assad regime has systematically blocked or limited UN access," Nuland said.

Last month, seven U.S. senators from both parties traveled to some of the same refugee camps and met with the Syrian opposition coalition leaders, after which they publicly called for the U.S. government to funnel some aid through the opposition leadership in order to bolster their legitimacy and credibility.

"We are delivering significant humanitarian assistance into Syria, but it's going through international aid agencies and being distributed out of Damascus, rather than in ways that strengthen the credibility and the reach and the effectiveness of the Syrian opposition council," said Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE).

The State Department delegation did meet with the Syrian opposition coalition's assistance coordination unit in Turkey and is working with them to determine where aid is needed inside Syria. The State Department has a full time liaison with that unit to help them increase their own capabilities, Lindborg said. But they won't be getting any U.S. humanitarian assistance.

"Aid is supposed to be delivered not based on one's political beliefs or which side one's picking in a war, or which faction one belongs to, but based on need. We want to work with them, but right now they're not built as an organization to deliver aid," Richard said.

"We are always very respectful of the role of Congress. We're being especially sweet to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff now because we don't know which ones are going to come over the State Department and be our bosses," said Richard.

Forty-nine percent of food aid is reaching contested or opposition-held areas, Richard said, and aid is reaching all regions of Syria, although aid workers are frustrated that aid is not reaching everyone who is in need. The United States is also spending about $50 million to help a range of local governance and civil society organizations get established inside Syria.

The trio visited refugees camps in Turkey and Jordan and lamented the plight of those there, especially women and children, who make up 80 percent of the refugee camp populationsin the countries surrounding Syria. There are currently 240,000 refugees in Jordan, 171,000 in Turkey, 256,000 in Lebanon, 83,000 in Iraq, Richard said. Another 2.5 million Syrians are internally displaced inside the country, according to U.N. figures, which Richard said were the most reliable figures available.

The officials said the NGO groups that are delivering the aid on the ground are largely independent but acknowledged that their leaders may also have some ties to the Syrian government. Seventy percent of the total international humanitarian aid is going to groups that are supervised by the Syria government, the officials said.

The Syrian regime is not in control of any of the aid but it does control access to many of the communities where the aid is going, the officials noted. They also said the Syrian regime has been more willing recently to allow aid to flow to more areas inside Syria.

"We think they have calculated that they have to pacify parts of the country by letting some aid go through," said Richard.

The senators all said that the refugees on the ground don't believe that the United States helping them and are increasingly bitter toward the United States.

"We heard a visceral frustration and outright anger, especially from the refugees, about the inadequate level of the U.S. support and assistance in their struggle against the Assad regime," McCain said. "This woman warned us that these Syrian children would, in her words, seek revenge on those who did not help Syria in its hour of greatest need."

The aid doesn't have any markings identifying the United States as its source, which could account for the confusion, the State Department officials said.

"Our aid is not being branded. We are not putting flags on the aid so perhaps it's not as visible as it is in other situations. But that is a priority to ensure that it reaches people and that it doesn't create additional insecurity," Lindborg said. "However, the bottom line is that there hasn't been enough."