The Cable

Obama Could Lift Iran Sanctions Tomorrow, If He Wanted To

Congress has spent the past three years imposing tough sanctions on Iran that are designed to cripple its economy and force Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. In recent weeks, a parade of congressmen and senators have demanded that those sanctions stay in place, never mind the nuclear talks between Washington and Tehran. Lost in the noise is the fact that President Obama can -- and often does -- lift the measures with a stroke of the pen.

The current sanctions have sharply limited overseas investment in Iran's energy sector, locked foreign financial institutions that do oil-related business with Iran's central bank out of the U.S. banking system, and required banks around the globe to freeze more than $50 billion of Iranian money. In July, the House approved new sanctions by a whopping 400-20 vote designed to effectively make it impossible for Iran to sell any oil abroad; similar legislation will likely be introduced in the Senate before the end of the month.

The measures have devastated the Iranian economy and driven the value of its currency to historic lows. The question now is whether they'll remain in place. Congress can draft any sanctions it wants to, but the White House has tremendous leeway to decide how strictly they get enforced. The legislation that imposed tough sanctions on Iran's central bank gives Obama a "national security waiver" he can use to temporarily soften or lift the measures.  The sanctions put in place to punish countries that buy Iranian oil allow the State Department to issue waivers to those that have significantly reduced their purchases.  Key allies like Japan and the ten members of the European Union have been protected from the sanctions since the measures were put in place several years ago. 

"The sanctions give the president maximum leeway," a senior administration official said.  "That's how they were designed from the start."

Congress has tried to make it as hard as possible for the White House to use its waiver powers.  To lift the sanctions on Iran's central bank, for instance, the administration has to certify -- in writing -- that fully enforcing the measures would harm the national security interests of the U.S. The waiver, which the White House has never used, would also have to be renewed every 120 days, a measure lawmakers inserted into the bills to force the White House to face a heated political fight over the sanctions every four months.

At least so far, it's not a fight the administration has been shying away from.  Last month, the State Department gave Japan a six-month waiver on the oil sanctions because of data showing that Tokyo had reduced its purchases of Iranian oil by more than 38 percent compared to a year ago.  The sanctions against Japan had already been waived on three separate occasions.  In December, the administration is likely to renew similar waivers that have been given to India, China and South Korea.

If anything, the White House has shown a willingness to fight the Hill over sanctions that it thinks go too far. The administration initially lobbied against the measures targeting the Iranian central bank, arguing that they threatened the stability of the global financial system. Last week, Wendy Sherman, the State Department's chief nuclear negotiator, asked Congress to hold off on imposing any new sanctions on Iran while the talks with Tehran continued. The bill being crafted together by lawmakers in the Senate would impose punish companies that do business with the Iranian shipping, construction and petrochemical sectors.

For the moment, the administration is focusing its attention on deciding how to respond to Tehran's newfound willingness to engage in direct diplomacy for the first time in decades.  Sherman and other top officials emerged from high-level talks in Geneva last week with guarded optimism that Tehran was willing to engage in serious talks and make concessions that would have been unthinkable even a few months ago. In response, the White House is now weighing confidence-building measures that could involve freeing up all or some of the frozen Iranian money and allowing Iran to purchase spare parts for its aging fleet of commercial airplanes, according to a senior administration official.

The White House says it hasn't made any decisions yet about how to proceed.  On Sunday, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew told NBC's Meet the Press that it was too soon to talk of possibly softening the sanctions on Iran.

"It is premature to talk about the easing," he said on NBC. "We need to see real, tangible evidence of it. And we will not make moves on the sanctions until we see those kinds of moves [from Iran]."

Still, talk of softening the sanctions, even mildly has already sparked fierce, bipartisan criticism from lawmakers of both parties.

On Friday afternoon, Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) sent a letter to Obama arguing that "the U.S. should not suspend new sanctions, nor consider releasing limited frozen assets, before Tehran suspends its nuclear enrichment activities."

Several hawkish Democrats were just as adamant that the current Iran sanctions remain in place and just as hard-hitting and remain as hard-hitting as they were designed to be. 

"If the president were to ask for a lifting of existing sanctions it would be extremely difficult in the House and Senate to support that," Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told The Cable last week. "I'm willing to listen but I think that asking Congress to weaken and diminish current sanctions is not hospitable on Capitol Hill."

The president, though, doesn't need to ask lawmakers like Israel for permission to lift or modify the sanctions. At least for the moment, the power to determine the measures' future sits inside the White House, not the halls of Congress.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Even Spy-Crazy France Is Surprised By America's Giant Surveillance Net

It's hardly a secret, or much of a shock, that the United States spies on some of its closest allies. But recent revelations about the National Security Agency hoovering up the telephone calls of French citizens have even surprised officials in that country, one of the world's great bastions of espionage.

According to a report in Le Monde, the NSA has monitored more than 70 million French phone calls in a 30-day period. French officials had initially expressed little shock at a previous report that the United States was spying on its officials -- that is, after all, what intelligence agencies do. But they were taken aback by the scale and scope of the latest revelations about monitoring its citizens, a French official told The Cable.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius condemned what he called the NSA's "unacceptable practices." The government summoned the U.S. ambassador to explain what the spy agency is up to. (It was not clear from the report why NSA was monitoring so many phone calls, and whether the agency was listening to them.)

Now, France's top diplomat plans to ask U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry tomorrow morning to explain America's actions. But NSA practices have already been complicating relations with France. In late September, President Francois Hollande asked the United States to supply an explanation on earlier revelations of spying on France.  "We haven't heard back," the French official told The Cable.

The French may be peeved, but public reaction there has still been relatively muted. There have been no public protests in France like what were seen in Germany, where thousands have taken to the streets in recent months toting banners with anti-surveillance slogans, such as "Freedom Instead of Fear."

The French official reaction may have been strong, but it remains to be seen what the public will say. "The French have had a tendency over the years to accept restrictions on civil liberties in the name of national security," Natalie Nougayrede, the editor-in-chief of Le Monde, told The Cable. "But being massively spied on by the USA is something that both hurts national pride and irritates even people who would never describe themselves as anti-American."

The German protests have largely been against the NSA's Prism program, which collects emails and other Internet data from technology companies. U.S. officials have repeatedly stressed that any spying the NSA does without a warrant is only targeted at foreigners. But that hasn't sat well with said foreigners, or with some U.S. technology companies that do most of their business abroad. Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, the majority of whose members live outside the United States, said recently that the Obama administration "blew it" when it tried to assure Americans that their information was protected, while implying that it was open season on everyone else.

Response to revelations of NSA spying in another country, Mexico, has also been fairly muted. But that could be changing.

A story in Der Spiegel described how the NSA had targeted the communications of Mexican government officials, including the e-mail account of former president, Felipe Calderon.

The Mexican foreign ministry issued a statement calling the NSA surveillance "unacceptable, illegal and against Mexican and international law," and added, "In a relationship between neighbors and partners there is no place for the actions that allegedly took place."

Maybe not those actions--hacking the email accounts of the country's top leaders. But there have been plenty of actions that the United States and Mexico took together in the name of fighting drug cartels.

For the past seven years, the State Department has funded a giant telephone eavesdropping system in Mexico, which the government there uses to intercept and record calls. Employees of the NSA, the CIA, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and other intelligence agencies are believed to work in Mexico, in concert with national security officials, to spy on drug and organized crime rings. And U.S. Marines have deployed to Guatemala to hunt down members of the Zetas, Mexico's most notorious and violent cartel, and to block their shipping routes to Mexico.

You would be hard pressed to find a U.S. intelligence official who, when talking about Mexico in the past several years, didn't praise the country for its efforts to track down and arrest or kill members of violent drug cartels. The United States has supplied Mexico with much of the surveillance technology and the analytical horsepower to do that. It spent $2 billion over a six-year period on drone aircraft, trainers, and developing human intelligence sources.

U.S. officials have feared that the drug cartels, which in some cities have defied law and order and assassinated local police, could destabilize the Mexican national government. The threat of a failed state along the U.S. southern border was such a concern for former CIA Director Michael Hayden that, in 2009, he put the drug violence on a "top ten" list of major national security threats that then president-elect Barack Obama should know about on his first day in office.

But even before the revelations of NSA spying, there were signs that the Mexican government wanted to step back from this close relationship and to limit U.S. involvement in Mexican law enforcement and security affairs. U.S. officials had been working with their counterparts at the top of Mexican law enforcement and security on a day-to-day basis. It gave the impression that Mexico couldn't handled its own security -- which arguably it couldn't.

The new government is worried about being seen as too close to the United States, and depending too much on U.S. assistance to take care of its own problems. The levels of violence in Mexico have also gone down, so officials there may be feeling ready to pick up the lion's share of the task.

The latest revelations of spying on Mexican officials, including the current president, Enrique Pena Nieto, when he was a candidate, may give the government and the public another reason to take a break from the United States.

The Obama administration stressed the mutual benefits of U.S. intelligence gathering.

"When it comes to specific intelligence matters, we also, I would underscore here, share intelligence with a number of our partners and allies," State Department spokesperson Marie Harf told reporters. "Intelligence is collected, broadly speaking, to protect our citizens, to protect their citizens as well. So people understand the value of intelligence gathering around the world, right?" 

Harf seemed to be saying that whatever the NSA was collecting in France and Mexico was ultimately for the benefit of those countries security, as well. "We share intelligence on priorities with our key allies and partners," she said. But Harf wouldn't say specifically, in response to the latest press reports, that information the NSA gathered on French and Mexican citizens was shared with their governments.

Harf's comments largely echoed those of Caitlin Hayden, a National Security Council spokesperson, who said, "The U.S gathers foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations" (i.e. this shouldn't surprise anyone).

However, in a readout between President Obama and French President Hollande from Monday, the White House acknowledged the gravity of the accusations, telling reporters that they "raise legitimate questions for our friends and allies about how these capabilities are employed." Obama spoke with Hollande and "made clear that the United States has begun to review the way that we gather intelligence, so that we properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share," according to the readout.

There's a wink and a nod implicit in these latest revelations. "We spy on you. You spy on us." It's how the game is played. But watch closely the official response from the Mexicans and the French, which is both calibrated to account for public sentiment, which may not be so comfortable with the spy vs. spy relationships, and that is changing with every new revelation about the American Big Brother.

Colum Lynch contributed to this report.