The Cable

Netanyahu Turns to Twitter to Troll Nuke Talks

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is turning to Twitter to deliver a simple request to a sympathetic U.S. Congress: find a way of preventing the Obama administration from lifting its sanctions on Iran as part of a far-reaching nuclear deal. 

Secretary of State John Kerry will be making an unexpected visit tomorrow to Geneva, the site of the ongoing nuclear talks, in what is being widely seen as a sign of significant progress to an agreement. Kerry's trip comes at the end of a second round of talks between high-level U.S. and Iranian negotiators that both sides have publicly described as serious and substantive.

Netanyahu, joined by many in Congress, has been watching those talks with mounting alarm. Israeli leaders worry that the White House will give away too much, too soon, by striking a deal with Tehran that lifts or relaxes the current sanctions without bringing Iran's nuclear program to a complete stop.  On Thursday night, the Israeli prime minister abandoned any attempt at diplomatic niceties and condemned the talks in unusually strong language.

"If the news from Geneva is true, this is the deal of the century for #Iran," he Tweeted.

Netanyahu appears to be playing to three separate audiences. First, he's trying to reassure a jittery Israeli public that he's prepared to use military force, alone if necessary, to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Second, he's reminding the White House that its closest allies in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and other major oil producers, are deeply opposed to any deal with Iran. Third, and perhaps most importantly, he's urging lawmakers from both parties to do everything in their power to block, or at least complicate, any White House move to weaken or remove the sanctions.

Some powerful lawmakers are already looking for ways of doing so. Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is preparing legislation that would block the White House from loosening the current sanctions unless Iran stopped all of its enrichment and reprocessing activity and completely suspended its ballistic missile program, steps the White House doesn't appear to be insisting on in the current talks.

Corker's potential legislation has little chance of becoming law, in large part because of Democratic opposition. And the laws currently on the books give the administration broad latitude to waive some or all of the Iran sanctions. President Obama has used those powers to lift many of those measures with a stroke of his pen.

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. 

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. 

Still, a determined Congress could potentially find ways of stymieing the White House.  Robert Einhorn, formerly a top State Department official working on nuclear nonproliferation issues, told reporters last week that lawmakers could pass legislation removing the waivers from the existing sanctions provisions or imposing new ones that simply don't contain any waivers whatsoever. "Congress can do all sorts of things with sanctions," he said. "Congress can always pass a law removing some of the waiver authority from existing bills."

The odds of enough Democrats turning against their own president to make that happen are low. However, the Brookings Institution's Suzanne Maloney noted last week that final passage of a bill isn't required to have a big impact in Iran. "It's the optics," she said. "If there's any action on this bill, it plays into the narrative perfectly of the hardliners ... They're always on alert that the international community and the United States is trying to pull one over on them."

Netanyahu, meanwhile, has little to do but issue rhetorical thunderbolts and hope the talks fall through. If they don't, he and his allies may not be able to do much of anything to keep the White House from letting Iran out from under the sanctions that have decimated the economy for years.

John Hudson contributed to this report

The Cable

Graham Gets What He Wants on Benghazi... And Still Holds Up Government

Last month, Senator Lindsey Graham vowed to block the confirmation of every Obama administration appointee because the administration was preventing Benghazi survivors from testifying before Congress. Now, three Benghazi witnesses are set to testify for the first time. Their lawyer says the administration never discouraged their testimony, but Graham's office says the holds aren't going anywhere.

"Still have holds in place," Graham's spokesman Kevin Bishop tells The Cable.

It's unclear what further actions might change Graham's calculus on the holds, but the South Carolina Republican maintains that the administration has prevented Benghazi witnesses from testifying before Congress, and until that changes, he'll continue to block the confirmation of top U.S. officials.

When The Cable asked the lawyer representing the Benghazi survivors if his clients had been intimidated or discouraged from testifying, attorney Mark Zaid said he was unaware of anyone who had experienced such problems. "Actually, the executive branch has been very cooperative with us to date," he said.

Zaid, a veteran national security lawyer, declined to confirm or deny his clients' affiliation to the U.S. Government and would only note that the three men served as members of the "elite security team" who were present in Benghazi.

In the highly politicized debate over Benghazi, it remains unclear if the testimony of the three men will benefit the White House or its critics in the Republican Party who maintain that the officials failed to provide adequate security and emergency backup during the attack. Zaid said his clients' motivation for testifying is anything but political.

"My clients, who were never before directly asked to testify to Congress as to what actually happened in Benghazi on September 11-12, have no political ax to grind," he said. "Their testimony will be purely factual in nature and completely truthful."

Still, some Republican lawmakers are likely to zero in on the witnesses' timeline of the attack in order to prove that U.S. officials should've called in for air support during the siege of the U.S. compound.

According to the State Department, the first attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi lasted between 9:45 p.m. and 10 p.m. After midnight, a lull in fighting lasted until 5 a.m., when a second offensive with mortar rounds targeted the CIA annex one mile away from the compound. According to a report by The Daily Beast's Eli Lake, at least one of Zaid's clients will dispute that timeline, saying there was no lull in the fighting between the compound and the annex. That's an issue Republicans such as Rep. Devin Nunes are likely to focus on next week in order to prove that U.S. officials should've called in air support. (Administration officials have given a number of reasons for not calling in air support, including the rationale that it appeared the assault had ended.)

Another inspiration for Graham's hold is a 60 Minutes report on Benghazi that aired last month. "The 60 Minutes piece detailed the people on the ground saw this attack coming. Has anybody been fired for letting the consulate become a death trap?" said Graham. However, the credibility of 60 Minutes' key source, a private security contractor named Dylan Davies, has been called into question after he admitted lying to his bosses about his whereabouts the night of the Benghazi attack. (Davies maintains that the account he gave to 60 Minutes is true.)

Graham has remained single-minded in his attack on the administration, however. "I don't think it's over the top to find out what happened to four dead Americans. I don't think it's over the top for the Congress to be able to challenge the narrative of any administration when an ambassador's killed. I don't think it's over the top for us to be able to talk to the survivors," the South Carolina Republican repeated on Sunday.

Still, Democrats on the House Intel Committee who will hear from Zaid's clients next week are likely to push back on Graham's demands for more witnesses. "It concerns me that it is not a higher priority to make sure that bring these people to justice, than to carry on this political exercise," Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) told The Cable.

Meanwhile, the list of Obama administration nominees stuck in confirmation limbo continues to grow. On Wednesday, President Obama announced the nominations of Joseph William Westphal as ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Colleen Bradley Bell as ambassador to Hungary, and Madelyn Creedon as a principal deputy administrator for National Nuclear Security Administration at the Department of Energy. Other high profile nominations in purgatory include Jeh Johnson for secretary of homeland security and Janet Yellen as chair of the Federal Reserve.

"Where are the Benghazi survivors?" Graham tweeted from his official account. "I'm going to block every appointment in the U.S. Senate until they are made available to Congress."