The Cable

Top Democrat Slams Obama for Cutting Egypt Aid

The White House is taking friendly fire for a leaked plan to suspend a substantial portion of American military aid to Egypt, a key pillar of U.S. Middle East policy for the last 30 years. On Wednesday, Rep. Eliot Engel, the most senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, accused the administration of jeopardizing the U.S.-Egypt relationship and imperilling American interests in the region.

"I am disappointed that the Administration is planning to partially suspend military aid to Egypt," Engel said in statement. "During this fragile period we should be rebuilding partnerships in Egypt that enhance our bilateral relationship, not undermining them."

The decision is expected to be announced very soon -- perhaps as early as Wednesday night. Update: According to a congressional source briefed by the State Department, the U.S. will halt a shipment of military equipment to Egypt, including Abrams tanks, F-16s, Harpoon missiles, and Apache helicopters. They will also hold $260 million in cash transfers and a planned $300 million loan guarantee. 

On Tuesday night, the White House pushed back on a number initial media reports, insisting that the entire U.S. aid package to Egypt would be not cut. "The reports that we are halting all military assistance to Egypt are false," said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. "We will announce the future of our assistance relationship with Egypt in the coming days, but as the President made clear at [the United Nations], that assistance relationship will continue."

For months, the administration has received criticism for its aid to Cairo following the military's brutal crackdown of supporters loyal to ousted president Mohamed Morsy. But efforts to suspend aid in Congress by libertarian Republicans have failed in the face of bipartisan opposition by congressional leaders and lobbying efforts by the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Because the aid package is seen as a key component of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, many see it as critical to regional stability. Just last month, at a Reuters conference in Georgia, retired Egyptian General Sameh Saif Al-Yazal said even a small suspension of U.S. aid to Egypt "would jeopardize the entire peace treaty" with Israel.

But that's not the only reason Engel and other lawmakers are upset with the administration's purported plan. "I am also frustrated that the Administration has not adequately consulted with Congress regarding U.S. policy towards Egypt," said Engel. "I urge the administration to work together with Congress and Egypt's leadership to better address the serious security and economic challenges Egypt currently faces."

Congressional aides in both parties tell The Cable that members were blindsided by last night's CNN report that the administration was ready to cut off aid. The White House has repeatedly failed to consult with Congress on its Egypt policy, these aides noted.

"It's a systematic refusal to engage with Congress on a critical policy issue," said one Democratic aide who focuses on foreign policy issues. "It doesn't necessarily speak to the sensitivity of the issue, but to the lack of any clear policy to come talk to us about."

Egypt policy, in particular, has been a black box, added a Republican aide.  "The administration was pretty good on coming to talk to us on Syria," the aide said. "But for some reason, Egypt is this verboten subject where they refuse to engage, and it's clearly not Democratic versus Republican favoritism."

The White House appears to be seeking a middle ground between the status quo and cutting off all aid. But Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, says the strategy runs of the risk of sending mixed messages to Egypt's military brass. "The key question is whether the consequences for the Egyptian military are significant or meaningful," he told The Cable. "If they aren't, then there's little reason to think the move will change their calculus, which, I would argue, is the point of any aid suspension."

The Cable

Republican Pushes New Bill to Authorize War With Iran

A new bill authorizing a U.S. military strike against Iran is set to drop in Congress on Thursday -- just days after leaders in Washington and Tehran began talking openly after three decades of silence.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), is currently being shopped around to various House offices this week in search of a co-sponsor, The Cable has learned. Besides providing President Obama with "all options" to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons capability, the bill ticks off a list of grievances with the Islamic state dating back 30 years on everything from verbal threats to nuclear enrichment violations.

"Since at least the late 1980s, Iran has engaged in a sustained and well-documented pattern of illicit and deceptive activities to acquire a nuclear weapons capability and has provided weapons, training, funding, and direction to terrorist groups," reads the bill.

The hawkish legislation, which essentially hands the president the full-force of the U.S. military if negotiations fail, comes just one week before Tehran sits down with six major powers in Geneva to discuss its nuclear program. For some foreign policy observers on the Hill, it threatens to spoil the already-delicate negotiations.

"It's hard to imagine a more counterproductive effort to slow the development of Iran's nuclear program - especially when sanctions have succeeded in bringing the Iranians back to the negotiating table," a Congressional aide tells The Cable. "This attempt to legislate the use of force in Iran is so far out of the mainstream that it makes Netanyahu look like a bleeding heart peacenik in comparison."

Rebuffing critics, Franks insists now is the perfect time to hand Obama the keys to the military. "There's never been a more important time to make sure that any negotiations are backed up by a credible military capability," he told The Cable. "Iran has watched the United States allow redline after redline pass and has played rope-a-dope with the United States to the extent that they're on the cusp of being able to become a nuclear armed nation in potentially months."

Ahead of next week's talks, Iran's newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani has made a series of friendly overtures with the West, including everything from pledging to never develop nuclear weapons to writing Obama letters to mentioning Israel by name  -- all of which culminated in a historic phone call with President Obama last month. But no one thinks coming to an agreement on Iran's nuclear program is going to be easy.

To begin the talks, the U.S. would like Iran to respond to a previous proposal by world powers for Iran to halt its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, remove stockpiles and close down an enrichment facility. But on Sunday, Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarid told Iranian state television the big states -- known as the "P5+1" in diplo-speak -- need to come up with a new offer. "The previous P5+1 plan given to Iran belongs to history and they must enter talks with a new point of view," he said.

Franks argues that hanging an axe over the head of the Iranian regime would boost the president's negotiating hand. The congressman isn't alone. Although his bill will be the first to hit Congress, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told reporters last month that he's also preparing legislation that would give Obama a green light to attack Iran if negotiations fail.

Unlike Graham, Franks did not support the president's request for a limited military strike in Syria this summer -- a fact that has some wondering why he's open to an intervention in Iran, which could be much more complex.

"It's true that chemical weapons in Syria could potentially pose some national security threat to the United States," he said. "But a nuclear-armed Iran could pose a profound threat to U.S. national security."

Of course, although Congress is the most hawkish branch of government when it comes to Iran, the chances of such a resolution passing are slim -- something Franks seems to acknowledge. "Even if the bill simply refocuses America's attention on the real danger in the Middle East, Iran, it will have accomplished a profound purpose," he said.

Others see it less favorably. "Asides from a few knuckle dragging tea party types, there's simply no appetite in Congress for giving the President authority to launch strikes in Iran," said the congressional aide, "particularly after most of congressional Republicans rebuffed his attempts for similar authority in Syria."

You can read Franks's resolution and his appeal to colleagues below:

FranxUS-Iran Nuclear Negotiations Act - FRANKS

 

US-Iran Nuclear Negotiations Act - Dear Colleague