The Cable

Kerry Says Drone Strikes in Pakistan Will End, Spokesperson Takes it Right Back

Secretary of State John Kerry declared in an interview with Pakistan TV Thursday that U.S. drone strikes in the country will soon come to an end.

But that message apparently wasn't relayed back to Foggy Bottom. Three hours after Kerry's comments first broke, a spokesperson took them right back. "In no way would we ever deprive ourselves of a tool to fight a threat if it arises," a State Department spokesperson said.

Kerry is in Pakistan to try and make nice with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the country's newly elected leader who has made repeated, vociferous demands for the United States to end its use of drone strikes on Pakistani territory. And for a few hours on Thursday it seemed that he had arrived bearing a major olive branch and a striking concession on U.S. drone policy. "The program will end as we have eliminated most of the threat and continue to eliminate it," he said in the interview. "I think the president has a very real timeline and we hope it's going to be very, very soon."

But of course it was not meant to be. In a news conference with Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan's national security advisor, Kerry went on to offer something of a defense of American drone strikes. Though Pakistani officials argue that such strikes breach Pakistani sovereignty, Kerry noted that terrorist attacks by militants in the country also "violate the sovereignty of this country."

Together, the two statements send a clear message. When all the terrorists are dead, the United States will be happy to end its program of covert drone strikes in Pakistan. Until that day comes -- and it will be "soon," according to Kerry -- strikes are likely to continue. To underscore that reality, the United States carried outthree drone strikes in Pakistan during the month of July. And in Yemen, the drone war made a roaring comeback this week with the United States carrying out three strikes in five days.

Nonetheless, Kerry will be returning to Washington with a diplomatic prize in hand. In his meetings with Pakistani officials Thursday, Kerry secured an agreement to restart partnership talks that collapsed two years ago amid intense anger in Islamabad over the impunity of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan.

The continuing use of drone strikes comes against a stated committed by President Obama to cut back on their use and bring the war on terror to a close. "Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue," he said in a landmark speech in May that coincided with new policy guidance that tightened standards for drone strikes. "But this war, like all wars, must end. That's what history advises. That's what our democracy demands."

In practice, the drone strike genie is refusing to be returned to the bottle, as evidenced by State's comment today that the United States would never "deprive" itself "of a tool to fight a threat if it arises." Compare that statement to Obama's May speech: "As our fight enters a new phase, America's legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion. To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power -- or risk abusing it."

When that power will be constrained, however, is very much up for debate.

The Cable

Could the House's New Iran Sanctions Actually Help Forge a Nuclear Deal?

To the dismay of liberal Democrats, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a new round of sanctions against Iran on Wednesday just as newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani prepares to take office.

In a 400-20 landslide vote, lawmakers passed the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act, which would compel countries currently purchasing crude oil from Iran to reduce their combined purchases by a total of 1 million barrels per day within a year. It also further penalizes individuals who engage in significant commercial trade with Iran.

Given Rouhani's reputation as a relative moderate who campaigned on engagement with the West, a cohort of liberal Democrats sought to delay the vote as not to get off on the wrong foot with Rouhani.

But Omid Memarian, an Iranian analyst who has interviewed a number of officials in Rouhani's inner-circle, tells The Cable that the sanctions could have a counterintuitive effect.

"It might seem ironic, but the new sanctions could play into Rouhani's hand," he said. "The sanctions are hurting the Iranian people and they are the ones who suffer the most, but if Rouhani wants to make a step and stand up against hardliners who are delusional about the country's dire condition, both economically and politically, this public pressure helps him to do something meaningful and sell it to the Iranian leadership."

It's an interesting argument, but it wasn't taken up by either side in the heated floor debate on Wednesday. 

"This bill empowers the very hardliners that are the problem," said Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) as he urged fellow lawmakers to reject the bill. "This is the best opportunity we've had in the last eight years. Why throw that away?"

Those remarks were countered by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the committee's ranking member, who both lobbied aggressively for the bill.

"Iran may have a new president, but its march toward a nuclear program continues,"  said Royce. "The economic and political pressure on Tehran must be ratcheted-up."

"If President Rouhani truly has the will and authority to make a bold gesture on Iran's nuclear program - such as suspending enrichment -- he has a small window of opportunity before this bill becomes law," added Engel. "I think all of us would welcome such a gesture, but until that point we will continue to pursue a path of diplomatic pressure on the Iranian regime."

Expert views are somewhat muddled on the potential damage the House vote could have on the Obama administration's September talks with Iran. Former U.S. ambassadors Thomas Pickering and William Luers have advised against a rush to add more sanctions. Former U.S. Central Command chief  Gen. Joseph Hoar also said the vote "would send all the wrong signals." 

But Memarian isn't alone in believing that increased U.S. sanctions, or at least the threat of increased sanctions, could benefit Rouhani. "Rouhani's main theme in his campaign was that I am a better diplomat so I can negotiate better and lift the sanctions," Mehdi Khalaji, a senior research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Cable. "I think continuation of pressure on Iran will help Rouhani to remain relevant."

Of course, the secretive and powerful Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the last say on Iran's nuclear program, making it difficult for anyone to know for sure how sanctions might play internally. Certainly, liberal Democrats such as Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, who gathered signatures this week to try to convince House Speaker John Boehner to delay the vote, feel differently. "A diplomatic solution remains the best possible means for ensuring that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon," wrote Ellison, in a letter signed by 16 other members of Congress. "The House of Representatives should not preempt a potential opportunity to secure such an outcome with another sanctions bill."

The State Department, meanwhile, wanted no part of the debate, opting to stand on the sidelines. "I'm not going to take a position on the legislation," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Wednesday. "I think we've sent that message clearly from this podium and elsewhere in the government that we're ready to sit down and talk with Iran ... I'm not going to comment on the effects of this legislation specifically."

Ultimately, opponents of the bill didn't stand a chance, as moderate to liberal Democrats from Engel to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi advocated aggressively for the bill.