The Cable

“I’m Not Buying It For a Second”: Congressman Dings Kerry’s Account of Iran Talks

The U.S. and Iran blamed one another for imperiling political talks aimed at ending the West's nuclear standoff with Tehran, leaving allies and U.S. lawmakers with a choice: believe Washington's version of the story, or put their faith in Tehran's.

Back in D.C., a number of U.S. members of Congress weren't sure who to trust, with some openly doubting the American account. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that France and the other members of the so-called "P5+1" powers were united in their offer to Iran -- and that it was Tehran that "couldn't take" the deal.

But Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Cable he's skeptical.

"I'm not buying it for a second," he said. Kinzinger found the initial reports that France torpedoed the deal despite American support for it "more credible." 

"This looks like administration face-saving in wake of the French showing more spine than they had," he said. "And when the French are showing more spine than the Americans, that's scary."

Rep. Steve Israel, (D-NY), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said he wasn't sure which account was more accurate.

"What's important is that the initial deal didn't go through because it was not a good deal," Israel, a staunch hawk on Iranian issues, told The Cable.

A little more than a day after a nuclear agreement seemed so close, major signs of trouble in landmark negotiations appeared on Monday. During a stop-off in Abu Dhabi, Kerry said that Iran's nuclear negotiating team, led by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif, had balked at the prospect of accepting a proposal that would place constraints on uranium enrichment and Iran's construction of a heavy water reactor.

Zarif struck back, accusing Kerry on Twitter of misrepresenting the outcome of the talks, and suggesting that Washington had backtracked on a proposal it had floated as early as Thursday.

Zarif's account suggests that the West's draft was substantially altered during the talks. Interestingly, Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague appeared to give credence to this sequence of events in remarks to Parliament on Monday. Hague did not single out France for raising objections to a deal. But he conceded that the initial draft of the interim agreement "had been amended in light of comments from various of the parties concerned." Ultimately, Hague said "a completely united position was put to the Iranians at the close of our discussions, so reports of vetoes by one country, or of obstruction by any country, should be seen in that light. We were all arguing for the same position and the same deal."

Despite the squabbling, senior diplomats said that they remained upbeat about the prospects for progress. Hague characterized two days of negotiations on an interim pact as "intensive" "complex" and "detailed."

"Our aim is to produce an interim first step agreement with Iran that can then create the confidence and space to negotiate a comprehensive and final settlement," he said. "The talks broke up without reaching that interim agreement, because some gaps between the parties remain. While I cannot go into the details of the discussions while the talks continue I can say that most of those gaps are now narrow, and many others were bridged altogether during the negotiations."

There were other signs of progress. Yukiya Amano, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, reached a "roadmap for cooperation" with Iranian leaders in Tehran that would provide inspectors "managed access" to the country's uranium mine at Gachine and to a facility that helps cool a heavy water reactor currently under construction at Arak. Western governments fear that reactor could be used to produce plutonium for a nuclear bomb. But the accord does not guarantee IAEA inspectors access to several military installations, including the military complex at Parchin, where Iran conducts atomic research.

"I think its really significant that they are getting managed access to Gachine" and the heavy water facility, said David Albright, a physicist who heads the Institute for Science and International Security, adding the IAEA deal shows that Iran is prepared to show greater transparency. "The downside is they didn't deal at all with the main issue with Iran: addressing IAEA concerns about past and possible ongoing work on military nuclear programs."

Kerry and other senior diplomats with Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia abruptly flew to Geneva last week with the hope of signing an interim agreement that would require Iran to cap its enrichment of high grade uranium and pledge to pause any future plans to operate a heavy water reactor in Arak. "The fact is the draft was almost agreed between the Iranians and the Americans, the Germans, [and] the Brits. The Russians and the Chinese said they had no problem, they were ready to sign it," said a source close to the Iranian delegation. "It was the French who brought unexpected issue about heavy water at Arak. We don't know what happened."

Fabius, who made it clear he couldn't support the draft under consideration, pressed Kerry in a late Saturday night meeting to toughen the Iranian terms, according to the Guardian.  "Fabius insisted on two key points in the drafting of an interim agreement with Iran: there should be no guarantees in the preamble about the country's right to enrich uranium; and work would have to stop on a heavy-water nuclear reactor," the Guardian reported. "Western officials conceded that unity had been achieved only on the last night of the negotiations, leaving little time for the Iranians to respond; much of the preceding 60 hours of talks had been among the P5+1 group seeking a common position."

The Cable

Graham's Hold on Government Cracks as Benghazi Story Falls Apart

Senator Lindsey Graham has released his hold on the confirmation of two key State Department officials, The Cable has learned.

Since October, the South Carolina Republican has vowed to block President Obama's nominees from being confirmed by the Senate unless the administration makes more eyewitnesses of the September 2012 attack in Benghazi available to Congress. But a Graham spokesperson says her boss has made an exception for Anne Patterson, Obama's pick for Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, and Gregory Starr, nominated to be Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security. Graham's holds on all other administration nominees remain in place.

When asked if the State Department gave Graham anything in return for the lifted holds, the spokesperson said "no." A State Department official concurred: "I don't think there was anything -- just acknowledgment of them as imp[ortant] posts."

Graham's hold threat was prompted in part by a now-discredited 60 Minutes report that centered on an unreliable witness, a British security contractor, who lied about his activities the night of the Benghazi attack to multiple individuals. After the report aired, Graham tweeted: "Where are the Benghazi survivors? I'm going to block every appointment in the U.S. Senate until they are made available to Congress."

He also cited the report in TV interviews. "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?" he said.

However, he told CNN's Candy Crowley on Sunday he was not backing down from his hold on other Obama administration nominees..

"The 60 Minutes story was not true," said Crowley.

"Right," said Graham.

"Will you now end your threat to place a hold on the president's nominees?" asked Crowley

"No," said Graham. "My request has been going on for a year, to talk to the five survivors of the State Department. I never asked for the British contractor. I didn't know he existed ... We would like to interview the survivors, the five State Department officials, who have been interviewed by the administration, but not by Congress ... I want to ask the survivors, who've never been interviewed by the Congress -- please let me finish here -- did you report a protest? Did you report -- did you ever indicate there was a protest? Did you say this was a terrorist attack from the beginning?"

When news broke last week that three members of the "elite security team" in Benghazi would testify before the House Intelligence Committee on what they saw in Benghazi, Graham's spokesperson reiterated again that the hold remained.

It's not clear why Patterson and Starr were given priority over more high-profile nominations such as Janet Yellen as head of the Federal Reserve or Jeh Johnson as secretary of the department of homeland security. However, one could argue that Starr's job is directly related to the prevention of future attacks on diplomatic missions such as the one in Benghazi -- and that both nominations are further along in the confirmation process. Last month, both Starr and Patterson were approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which allowed the nominations to move to the Senate floor for a final vote.

Patterson, who served a rocky tenure as U.S. ambassador to Egypt during the ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, is now poised to become State's top diplomat in the Middle East at a particularly tumultuous time.

Starr, meanwhile, is poised to replace Eric Boswell who resigned as Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security in aftermath of the Benghazi attack controversy. Although some of Starr's detractors in the diplomatic security world enjoy recalling  his mishandling of firearms and other professional blemishes, the State Department has rigorously defended his candidacy, which is expected to pass without much turbulence.

Other national-security nominees stuck in confirmation purgatory aren't so lucky. The list includes: Deborah Lee James, for Secretary of the Air Force; Suzanne Spaulding, for undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security; and Jessica Garfola Wright, for undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness.