The Cable

The U.N. Is Charging America Hundreds of Millions for Membership in a Club It Can't Vote In

In a development that pleases few and infuriates many, the United States has been stripped of its voting rights at the United Nation's cultural agency, UNESCO. As of today, the U.S. has no decision-making power at the Paris-based organization because of its failure to pay dues for the last three years. But because the White House insists on keeping its membership in UNESCO, the U.S. is racking up hundreds of millions of dollars in debt to an organization it has almost no influence in

"It's been quite a journey from having a Republican president in the form of George W. Bush making UNESCO a priority to now having the U.S. lose its influence and vote in the organization," Peter Yeo, executive director of the Better World Campaign, told The Cable.

The U.S. stopped funding UNESCO in 2011 following a decision by world governments to approve Palestine as a member of the organization. The cut was automatic, thanks to U.S. laws that force a withdrawal of funds to any U.N. group that claims Palestine as a member. Ironically, today's development is frustrating some of the very people it was designed to please: supporters of Israel.

"It's hard to describe defunding UNESCO as anything but asinine," said a miffed and very pro-Israel Congressional aide. "In essence, we've simply given the Palestinians the authority to determine how the U.S. engages with the U.N. That's not in our interest nor is it in Israel's."

"Next year the Palestinians could decide to join the World Health Organization and the U.S. would be kicked out of WHO, which would wipe out our ability to deal with pandemics that affect America," added Yeo.

By all accounts, UNESCO is best known for its World Heritage program, which protects the various cultural treasures of the world like the Statue of Liberty in New York or this quaint historic neighborhood in post-Soviet Georgia. But fundamentally, it was founded as an anti-extremist organization in 1946, taking on everything from clean water to girls education to scientific research to freedom of speech. 

For membership, the U.N. charges the U.S. $80 million a year or 22 percent of UNESCO's overall budget. If the U.S. wants its voting privileges back, it's going to have to fork over hundreds of millions of dollars at this point -- a burden that grows each year. Meanwhile, that 22 percent shortfall has cost UNESCO dearly, forcing it to cut a range of programs around the world. Unsurprisingly, first on the chopping block were U.S.-favored initiatives such as Holocaust awareness in Africa.

That's one way in which U.S. supporters of Israel lose out, but there are others as well. "Ironically, having a weakened U.S. at organizations such as UNESCO makes it all the more difficult to advocate against the constant stream of anti-Israel vitriol that we all too often see at some UN bodies," said the senior congressional aide. "Yet in the name of supporting Israel, the law triggering UNESCO defunding essentially ties one arm around our back when it comes to fighting off this crap."

Alternatively, Palestine-friendly members of Congress oppose the existing U.S. law because of the message it sends about America's commitment to a two-state solution. In essence: We support an independent Palestine in theory but not in practice.

"The antiquated laws that required us to cut funding after UNESCO members democratically voted to admit Palestine are a bad idea," Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn) told The Cable, "I call on my colleagues to overturn these laws by supporting legislation I plan to introduce soon. The United States must not voluntarily forfeit its leadership in the world community." Ellison's bill will give the president a waiver to continue funding the group.

The White House, in a statement to The Cable, also made clear it wasn't happy about the development. "President Obama has requested a legislative authority that would allow the United States to continue to pay our dues to U.N. specialized agencies that admit the Palestinians as a member state if it is in the U.S. national interest," said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. "Although that proposal has not yet been enacted, the President remains committed to that goal."

However, some pro-Israel hardliners in Congress such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen don't see things that way, and remain staunchly opposed to a waiver. "It rewards the Palestinian leadership's dangerous scheme to bypass negotiations with Israel and seek recognition of a self-declared ‘Palestinian state,'" Ros-Lehtinen said at the time of the vote. She has proposed legislation cutting off taxpayer money to any UN agency that "grants upgraded status to Palestine." 

"Such strong action is the only way to deter other U.N. bodies from following in UNESCO's footsteps, and to prevent U.S. taxpayer dollars from paying for biased entities at the U.N.," she said.

Despite the opposition, some say the White House isn't trying hard enough to get congressional support from like-minded allies on the Hill. "If the administration is serious about undoing the damage caused at UNESCO, they've got to push hard for a waiver," said the aide. "It's an easy case to make, they just have to decide how hard they're going to make it."

Yeo, however, defended the administration. "President Obama has asked for a waiver. Secretary Clinton sent a letter to Congress making the case for a waiver, and Secretary Kerry too has indicated a need for greater flexibility on this issue," he said. "All of the right people have said the right things."

"The solution, of course, is for the president and Congress to work together," he added. The earliest legislative vehicle for a waiver fix is in the long-term continuing resolution, which the House and Senate are expected to tackle in mid January.

The biggest obstacle may be finding the oxygen to even discuss the issue given all the other topics that will occupy Congress's time this winter. "Despite the loss of our vote in the General Conference, the United States will continue our engagement at UNESCO, though we are concerned that the loss of our vote could leave a leadership vacuum that other governments that don't share our commitment to democratic principles may try to fill," said Hayden. "And the loss of U.S. contributions to UNESCO has already had an adverse effect on programs related to freedom of the press, internet governance, Holocaust education, and world heritage issues."

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