The Cable

Rubio Pushes for More Iran Sanctions While U.S. Hails 'Positive' Talks with Tehran

GENEVA -- Western diplomats are hailing the latest nuclear talks with Iran as the most constructive in decades. But that isn't stopping hawks in Congress like Sen. Marco Rubio from calling for a new round of crippling sanctions against the country -- a development that some observers fear could spoil the fragile negotiations.

On Wednesday, Iran and six world powers wrapped up two days of nuclear talks in Geneva on a surprisingly positive note. In a rare joint statement, the nations called the discussions  "substantive and forward looking" and formalized the next round of negotiations in Geneva on Nov. 7-8. The United States and the European Union depicted the talks as "substantive," "very important," and "positive." 

One senior Obama administration official beamed with excitement. "I've been doing this now for about two years, and I have never had such intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversations with the Iranian delegation before," said the official. "I would say we really are beginning that type of negotiation where one could imagine that you could possible have an agreement."

But back in Washington, the enthusiasm is not shared by Congressional hawks who immediately dismissed the talks and proposed a new round of sanctions against Tehran -- even though the administration had yet to reveal details about the progress of discussions.

"No one should be impressed by what Iran appears to have brought to the table in Geneva," said Sen. Marco Rubio in a statement attached to a new resolution calling for additional sanctions. Rubio added earlier: "Now is not the time to suspend sanctions, but to increase them on the Iranian regime."

The House of Representatives already passed a bill that would choke off almost all of Iran's remaining international oil sales in July. This week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers threatened to pass that House bill in the absence of an Iranian offer to "halt and dismantle" its nuclear program.

"If Iranian actions fail to match the rhetorical reassurances of the last two weeks, we are prepared to move forward with new sanctions to increase pressure on the government in Tehran," said the group of lawmakers, which included Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), and others.

To a number of more dovish lawmakers in Congress, additional sanctions threaten to erode the already minimal amount of trust between Washington and Tehran. "There are very hawkish voices being raised and there is a push for additional sanctions in the Senate," Rep David Price (D-NC) told The Cable. "I think it's ill-timed."

The Iranians are looking for a nuclear deal that would alleviate the dozens of U.S. and international sanctions punishing its economy. For their part, the six world powers -- which includes the U.S., China, Russia, France, the U.K. and Germany -- want verifiable curbs on Iran's nuclear program that guarantee its purported peaceful aims.

It remains unclear whether the administration will do anything to convince lawmakers to postpone the sanctions. When asked if it would ask lawmakers to hold off, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters "I don't have a prediction of that at this point."

Back in Geneva, a senior administration official downplayed the White House's ability to influence Congress on this issue even if it wanted to. "The prerogative in the end is theirs, but I am hopeful that we will continue to be strong partners with the same objective," the official said. "They'll make their own decisions about how best to proceed. And we all have to think through and reflect on what we learned here, what we discussed here, and how to best proceed forward."

Administration officials didn't divulge a date of its next briefing with Congress but Psaki said chief nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman would lead the effort when she returns to Washington. At a Senate panel earlier this month, Sherman said that the White House was willing to potentially soften some of its sanctions if Tehran took "verifiable, concrete actions" to delay its nuclear program. Sherman also urged lawmakers to hold off on imposing new sanctions on Iran until Tehran detailed its potential nuclear concessions at this week's talks.

The Rouhani government insists on the right to continue enriching uranium on its own soil, something the White House has hinted it might accept under stringent inspections, but hasn't officially accepted. Tehran has also yet to signal a clear willingness to shutter its underground, heavily-fortified nuclear plant at Qom, a source of particular concern for Israel because it is largely impervious to their air strikes, or to dismantle any of its centrifuges.

The Iranians, for the first time in a decade of on-again-off-again talks, agreed to conduct discussions in English. It was seen as a goodwill gesture, earning gratitude from the world powers. "We spoke in English, which makes a real difference," said a European official.

While world powers are likely to demand Iran ship out some of its near-weapons-grade uranium stockpile, Iranian diplomat Abbas Araghchi raised eyebrows before the talks by declaring such a move a "red line." On Wednesday, he softened that stance as well: "Red lines should not be an obstacle," he told a small group of journalists after tonight's press conference. "They are not reversible, but can be dealt with." Araghchi speculated that "if there is enough good will on each side, we can complete a deal in three to six months."

Details of the new Iranian proposal, however, remained scant. American, European and Iranian officials steadfastly refused to respond to inquiries on the contours of the proposal or the follow-up discussions. Analysts said Iran's proposal opened potential avenues to agreement by dealing directly with the possible final status deal at the outset.

"The Iranian proposal is more structured and clear than previous Western proposals because the previous Western proposals only included the first steps." said the National Iranian American Council's Trita Parsi, who supports diplomacy. "The Iranian proposal goes from the beginning to the end and has the end defined."

The Cable

How the NSA Scandal Is Roiling the Heritage Foundation

Ever since ex-senator and Tea Party kingmaker Jim DeMint took over the Heritage Foundation earlier this year, mainstream Republicans have been fretting that he'd turn the prominent conservative think tank into a political proxy for the most extreme elements of the GOP. The debt-deniers and defund-Obamacare die-hards who propelled the government into a shutdown have found a political, if not quite intellectual center of gravity at Heritage. Now, hawkish Republicans who have long embraced strong national security authorities have reason to believe that Heritage is mounting an opposition on that front, too.

Recently, Heritage refused to publish two papers about the National Security Agency's surveillance programs written by a prominent conservative attorney. Why? Because he concluded that the programs were legal and constitutional, according to sources familiar with the matter. It was a surprising move for a think tank that has supported extension of the Patriot Act -- which authorizes some of NSA's activities -- and has long been associated with right-of-center positions on national security and foreign policy.

But the paper's conclusions did not sit well with DeMint, the sources said, who worried about offending or alienating more libertarian lawmakers such Sen. Rand Paul, a DeMint ally and leading critic of NSA's collection of Americans' phone records, as well as Tea Partiers, who according to a recent poll think that government counterterrorism policies have gone "too far" in restricting civil liberties. It's those groups that brought DeMint his greatest influence as a lawmaker and made him a national political heavyweight.

It was not clear that DeMint personally ordered the papers be spiked, but sources who would not speak on the record strongly implied that it was his call.

The decision not to publish the papers is even more surprising because of whom Heritage had asked to write them: Steven Bradbury, who ran the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel during the second half of the Bush administration. It was a logical choice, since Bradbury was intimately familiar with the complicated statutory issues in play and had provided his analysis of national security law to President Bush and other administration officials, some of whom had helped launch and run the NSA operations and other counterterrorism programs. David Addington, the former legal counsel and chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, and one of the key architects of early NSA surveillance operations, is a vice president at Heritage.

But the think tank's decision not to publish Bradbury's opinions did not bury them.

Cully Stimson, a senior Defense Department official in the Bush administration who now runs Heritage's national security law program, called Benjamin Wittes, the editor in chief of the national security blog Lawfare and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Stimson "asked me whether Lawfare might be interested in [the papers], and I was delighted to publish them," Wittes told The Cable. "We asked Steve to consolidate them into a single paper, and there were some subsequent revisions as well because of the document release that took place in the intervening period," Wittes said, referring to the government's decision in August to declassify a large number of documents about NSA programs.

Wittes said the final paper "had its origins in a project that did not come to fruition at Heritage." He referred all questions to the think tank "about what the dispute was internally."

Attempts to reach Bradbury and Stimson for comment were unsuccessful.

For some Republicans who describe themselves as closer to the party's center, or to its traditional roots in strong executive branch security authorities, Heritage's decision not to publish Bradbury's NSA defense was just another example of the hard-right turn the group has taken since DeMint became its president.

"The Heritage Foundation used to be a place where you had a debate of ideas. Now it's much more tactical, how to raise money," said John Feehery, the president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and the longtime spokesperson for ex-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert.

A former intelligence official who recently met with members of the Heritage staff about national security issues says he came away feeling that "they were looking for a hard right agenda. Anything that the administration did was wrong. And they had that right wing paranoia with regards to intelligence. What the NSA was doing and how they were doing it."

Libertarians and Tea Party members are hardly the only groups outraged over NSA spying, of course. A legislative attempt to significantly curtail NSA's authorities nearly passed the House this summer, drawing rare bipartisan support.

But Heritage's critics say DeMint is using his platform to launch a conservative insurgency, seizing on controversial and often divisive policy arguments. Several sources contacted for this story, who spoke on the condition of anonymity when discussing Heritage's inner workings, said they were uncomfortable with DeMint's involvement with Heritage Action for America, the nonprofit political advocacy arm of the foundation that is run by a separate group of leaders. DeMint speaks frequently at Heritage Action events.

Critics also pointed to the recent departure of some Heritage staff as signs of an exodus prompted by DeMint's leadership. Mike Franc, who ran congressional relations at Heritage, left the organization this year to work for Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House majority whip and a key member of the leadership team with which Tea Party members have been locked in internecine warfare. Derek Scissors, an expert on Asian economic issues, left Heritage for another conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. And Matthew Spalding, a Constitution scholar, recently stepped down as the head of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at Heritage. He's now an adjunct fellow with the Kirby Center in Washington.

"DeMint is trying to run a rogue operation over there," Feehery said. "There's going to be an effort to crack down on ideas that don't fit his narrow definition of what a conservative is."

Feehery added that the shift in positions would not be limited to national security matters and predicted that Heritage would continue to abandon fundamental positions with which it has long been associated. "I guarantee they won't be [pro] free trade when DeMint is done with them."

Another prominent conservative, who spoke anonymously, described the evolution at Heritage more bluntly: "The lunatics have taken over the asylum."