The Cable

"You're Going to See the Dam Break Loose": Congress Poised to Pounce on Iran Deal

Key White House allies on Capitol Hill and throughout the Middle East appeared to be on a collision course with the Obama administration Friday as lawmakers and world leaders waited for details about what could be an imminent nuclear deal between Washington and Tehran.

Iran and six world powers are negotiating a deal that could see a partial suspension of the West's devastating economic sanctions in exchange for unspecified Iranian concessions that would likely include a temporary halt to its uranium enrichment efforts. White House officials insist that most of the punitive measures on Iran's oil and banking sectors would remain in place until Tehran agreed to permanent limits on its nuclear program designed to ensure Iran couldn't continue its push for a nuclear weapon. For many in Congress, that isn't enough.

"The United States must remain firm against Iran and should not lift any sanctions until the the world can verify that the ayatollah has fully dismantled his country's nuclear weapons program," Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told The Cable.

Secretary of State John Kerry stressed Friday that the two sides hadn't finalized the terms of an initial, short-term agreement, but signs mounted throughout the day that a deal could be close. The foreign ministers of Russia and China, two of Iran's most important diplomatic supporters, were expected to arrive in Geneva Saturday, potentially to be on hand for a formal announcement of the agreement.

The details of the agreement hadn't leaked out as of late Friday. When the specifics do come, however, expect some fireworks. Israel has already bashed the administration in unusually pointed terms, and diplomats from across the Persian Gulf have begun to privately express their fury and dismay. Closer to home, Republican and Democratic hawks are poised to come out swinging.

"You're going to see the dam break loose when the details of this come out," Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Il), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Cable. "The White House is going to take a lot of friendly fire."

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), who has been generally supportive of the administration's diplomatic push, raised concern about how far the administration might go. "I am deeply troubled by reports that such an agreement may not require Tehran to halt its enrichment efforts," he said. "In addition, I forcefully reject any notion that Iran has a ‘right' to enrichment, a view which the administration has publicly articulated on numerous occasions."

Texas Senator Ted Cruz slammed the reported deal as "dangerous for America."

"It appears that this 'deal' does not require Iran to dismantle even a single centrifuge or turn over even a single pound of enriched uranium," he said in a statement. 

Meanwhile, a restless Senate Banking Committee is poised to move ahead with a new package of sanctions on Iran. The committee's chairman, Tim Johnson, told Reuters that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has approved the markup, or debate,  of the bill. However, Reid said the bill would not move to the Senate floor for a vote until the Geneva meeting is over.

The blowback from the Middle East will likely be just as fierce. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has always had a chilly relationship with Obama, has spent the past two days attacking the administration in unusually pointed terms. On Thursday, he called the pending agreement the "deal of the century for Iran." On Friday, Netanyahu canceled a planned joint press conference with Kerry, almost certainly to avoid a public disagreement with a high-ranking U.S. officials.

Once Kerry left for Geneva, however, Netanyahu cut loose.

"I reminded him of his own words, that it is better not to reach a deal then to reach a bad deal," Netanyahu said. "The proposal being discussed now is a bad deal, a very bad deal. Iran is not asked to dismantle even one centrifuge, but the international community is easing sanctions on Iran for the first time in many years."

Netanyahu was referring to one of the biggest specific points of disagreement between Israel and the U.S.  Jerusalem wants Iran to stop enriching any uranium and to reduce its existing stockpiles of uranium that has been enriched to near-weapons grade 20 percent purity. The U.S. seems poised to accept a deal under which would Tehran would cease enriching uranium above 5 percent, a level of purity far below what would be needed to build a nuclear warhead, but retain its centrifuges and other equipment enrichment.

Other Middle Eastern allies are just as alarmed by the prospects of an Iranian nuclear deal, even if its limited in duration and scope. Saudi Arabian leaders haven't been nearly as vocal as Netanyahu, but diplomats from the region say they have privately told the administration that they think the deal is too favorable to Iran and doesn't do enough to constrain Tehran's nuclear ambitions.  The United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait share those concerns, these diplomats said.

For now, though, Persian Gulf leaders are leaving Netanyahu make the public case against the deal while they quietly fume. In part, that's because of a recognition of Netanyahu's strong relationships with powerful lawmakers from both parties.

One of Netanyahu's allies is staunchly pro-Israel Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Menendez has been instrumental in pushing tougher Iran sanctions through the Senate, but he has yet to criticize the current talks or to issue a preemptive attack against the potential deal. "The stand down of Menendez regarding sanctions is notable," said a committee aide, referring to Menendez's quiet posture.  "Kicking the can down the road undermines the work he's done over the years to force a change in behavior."


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."