The Cable

Exclusive: U.S. and Iran Poised to Meet to Tackle Syria Aid Together

The United States and Iran, enemies in a proxy war in Syria, now appear likely to come together at an upcoming U.N.-sponsored meeting to try grapple with the worsening humanitarian crisis there. It's the most visible sign yet of the rival powers willingness to work together to resolve the crisis in Syria, according to several U.N.-based diplomats and officials. And it's another indication of the emerging thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran.

The U.N. chief relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, recently sent invitations to at least a dozen countries -- including the United States, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia -- to participate in a high level meeting in Geneva aimed at prodding Syria's warring parties to provide relief workers access to more than 2.5 million people who have been cut off from the U.N. aid pipeline. Invitations have also been sent to Australia, Britain, China, France, Luxembourg, Russia, Kuwait, Qatar, and a representative of the European Union.

"The humanitarian situation in Syria is deteriorating on a daily basis," according to a confidential U.N. paper describing the initiative. "The objective of the high level humanitarian group is to foster and maximize cooperation among those countries with influence over parties to the Syrian conflict to address humanitarian challenges."

It remains unclear precisely when the U.N. meeting, which was initially planned for the middle of November, will take place. But a diplomat from a country on the invitation list said it would likely be scheduled within about two weeks.

U.S. and Iranian diplomats responded favorably to the request, according to diplomats. But one official said it was unclear whether Saudi Arabia, which has clashed with the United States over its approach to Syria and Iran, would join the group.

"We've received an invitation and hope to be in a position to confirm attendance in the near future," said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for the Iranian mission to the United Nations, did not say explicitly that Tehran would attend. But he told the Cable: "We welcome any efforts to help [the] Syrian people" in "parallel to political steps."

"Ms. Amos had discussed some humanitarian ideas on Syria during her visit to Tehran with Iranian officials," Miryousefi added. "The Iranian authorities welcomed the United Nations initiatives in order to help those in need [of] help."

The United States had previously been unwilling to participate with Iran in U.N.-brokered political negotiations over Syria, arguing that Iran was a party to the conflict. Washington's position has softened following a series of high level contacts with top Iranian officials, including Iran's newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani, who spoke by telephone with President Obama in September, the first time leaders of the two countries had spoken in over thirty years. However, the United States will only allow Iran to participate in political negotiations over the future of Syria if it endorses a U.N.-backed communique, hammered out in Geneva last year by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, calling for a political transition in Syria. Iran has not endorsed the so-called Geneva Communique.

The latest U.N. initiative will explore ways to keep up pressure on the Bashar al-Assad regime and the armed opposition to meet their obligations to grant unfettered access to humanitarian aid workers throughout Syria. On Nov. 4, Amos presented the Security Council with a confidential paper detailing the U.N. humanitarian goals in Syria.

The United Nations is currently providing assistance to more than 9.5 million civilians, including hundreds of thousands trapped under siege, in most cases by government forces. More than 2.5 million civilians, mostly located in rebel controlled areas, have received little or no aid from the United Nations and other Syrian-authorized relief agencies.

"The situation on the ground is highly challenging, complex and dangerous for humanitarian workers. Key humanitarian access routes have been cut off by the fighting," according to the U.N. paper. "Kidnappings and abductions of humanitarian workers are growing, as is hijacking and seizure of aid trucks. The Syrian authorities have yet to lift bureaucratic impediments and other obstacles hindering humanitarian work."

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The Cable

Obama Admin: More Iran Sanctions Will Fracture Anti-Nuke Alliance

The Obama administration has spent weeks asking Congress to hold off on imposing new sanctions to avoid giving Tehran a reason to walk away from the current nuclear talks. On Friday, the administration rolled out a new rationale. They warned that the measures could harm Washington's relationships with its key negotiating partners in Geneva as well.

The White House's willingness to unfreeze billions of dollars in Iranian money in exchange for Iranian concessions on its nuclear program has sparked skepticism -- and in some cases outright anger -- on Capitol Hill. The White House has launched a full-on lobbying blitz to reassure wavering lawmakers, and the efforts began paying off Friday as key senators who had either raised skepticism about the wisdom of holding off new sanctions or kept silent came out in support of the administration position.

Sen. John McCain, a leading Iran hawk, told the BBC that he's skeptical of talks with Iran but willing to give the administration a "couple of months" before supporting additional sanctions. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), meanwhile, said she strongly opposed putting additional punitive measures in place against Tehran amid the delicate diplomatic negotiations.  "The purpose of sanctions was to bring Iran to the negotiating table, and they have succeeded in doing so," she said. "Tacking new sanctions onto the defense authorization bill or any other legislation would not lead to a better deal. It would lead to no deal at all."

A senior administration official raised a similar concern, warning that imposing new measures on Iran now risked causing a rupture within the so-called "P5+1" alliance --  the U.S., Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany -- that has maintained the current, hard-hitting sanctions on Iran.

"The P5+1 believes there are serious negotiations," the official said. "They have a chance to be successful. For us to slap on a new set of sanctions in the middle of it they would see as bad faith with them."

It's far from clear that the administration's arguments about the dangers of imposing new sanctions will win the day. On Thursday, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) urged the Senate to pass a new round of sanctions in defiance of White House pleas and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) expressed frustration with the lack of specifics on the deal that he had received in classified briefings with administration officials. Meanwhile, Republican hardliners doubled down in their opposition to the administration's negotiating tactics Friday, with Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Mark Kirk (R-IL), John Cornyn (R-TX) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) accusing the administration of giving Iran access to too much of its frozen money in exchange for too few concessions on its nuclear program.

"The American people will facilitate the payment of $20 billion in hard currency to the world's leading sponsor of terrorism and in return accept a more advanced and dangerous Iranian nuclear infrastructure," the senators wrote in a letter to the White House.

The $20 billion figure, an estimate first publicized by the Israeli government, has become a standard talking point for conservative critics of the deal.

The senior administration official said outside estimates of how much Iranian money would be unfrozen as part of a deal were "wildly exaggerated," but declined to specify the White House's own figure.

"It is not $15 billion, or $20 billion, or $30 billion, or $40 billion or $50 billion," the official said. "It is way south of all of that." 

The administration also questioned earlier estimates that there was roughly $50 billion in Iranian money frozen in banks around the world.  A second senior administration official said Iran actually had roughly $100 billion in foreign accounts that it had limited or no access to. The distinction is a critical one because larger overall holdings would make it easier for the administration to argue that it could theoretically free up $10 billion while still keeping the bulk of the Iranian funding locked away.

The administration's release of new details about its talks with Iran came as the White House's chief nuclear negotiator, Wendy Sherman, was preparing to return to Geneva next week for more talks with her Iranian counterparts. The two sides came close to a deal last weekend, but negotiators couldn't bridge long-standing divides over the future of Iran's plutonium-producing facility at Arak and Tehran's stockpiles of enriched uranium.  Administration officials said those disputes still needed to be resolved but said an interim deal was in sight.

"For the first time in nearly a decade, we are getting close to a first step toward a comprehensive agreement that would stop the Iranian nuclear program from advancing and roll it back in key areas," the first senior administration official said. 

The current talks have infuriated Israeli officials, who have accused the Obama administration of rushing towards a flawed deal that would give Iran relief from the West's crippling economic sanctions in exchange for minimal - and reversible - concessions. Israeli officials have said the current deal would only set Iran's nuclear program back by 24 days, while other critics have said the agreement would delay Iran's so-called "breakout time" - the moment at which Iran would have enough nuclear material for a single bomb - by a few months at best.

The administration official tried to lower expectations about the potential deal, describing it as a first step that would delay Iran's progress towards a nuclear bomb but not entirely, or permanently, end it.

"I think it is fair to say that this agreement would extend breakout time," the official said. "Would it by months and months and months and months? Probably not. But it is because it's a first step."


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