The Cable

Kerry Begins Iran Sales Job

Secretary of State John Kerry signed a landmark nuclear pact with Iran late last month. On Tuesday, he'll try to sell the deal to a skeptical Congress.  It won't be easy.

President Obama and his top aides have spent weeks making the public case for the agreement in speeches, TV interviews and addresses to influential think tanks. Kerry's appearance before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs will mark the first time a senior administration official faces lawmakers who have been harshly critical of the pact since it was announced in Geneva on November 24th -- and who are now looking for ways of rewriting it.

The White House says that the pact freezes or rolls back the key elements of Iran’s nuclear effort in exchange for roughly $7 billion in temporary relief from the punishing Western sanctions on Iran. Congressional critics, including the leadership of the House committee that will question Kerry Tuesday, argue that the deal gives Iran a significant economic boost without requiring Tehran to halt uranium enrichment or dismantle its nuclear infrastructure.

California Republican Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, is one of the most prominent opponents of the deal, which means that Kerry could be in for a tough ride Tuesday when he testifies before the panel.

"Under the agreement, the international community relieves the sanctions pressure on Iran while its centrifuges continue to enrich uranium," Royce said in a written statement. "This hearing will be an opportunity for committee members of both parties to press Secretary Kerry to explain why the Obama administration believes this sanctions-easing agreement is the right course."

GOP aides expect Republican members of the panel to ask Kerry to detail precisely what nuclear-related activities will be halted or slowed under the deal. In particular, they are likely to point to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif's recent comments that Iran would freeze nuclear-related work at its Arak plutonium reactor but continue construction there. Excavation and other modest construction work at the site isn't expressly prohibited by the new nuclear pact, but Royce and other critics have seized on the remarks as proof that Tehran is already trying to walk back a key concession.

Other lawmakers are likely to press Kerry about reports that Iran's oil minister has begun courting holding conversations with European energy firms about investing in the country's oil fields and launching other joint projects if the current restrictions are lifted. Last week, Italian oil company Eni and other European oil companies met with Iranian officials on the sidelines of an OPEC meeting in Vienna to discuss future prospects in the country. American companies haven't yet followed suit, but the enthusiasm of European companies could help critics argue that the deal is already eroding the bite of the sanctions and strengthening Tehran's position.

Iran-related hearings are always politically contentious, but Kerry's diplomatic outreach on Capitol Hill will have significant real-world impact as well. The White House is desperately trying to keep Congress from imposing new sanctions on Iran during while talks towards a broader nuclear pact continue over the next six months.

In a strange bedfellows alliance, both the administration and the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani argue that any new punitive measures would scuttle the current deal and end the negotiations towards a final pact before they even really got underway.

Obama, speaking to the Brookings Institution Saturday, said that key U.S. allies might begin to lift the current sanctions on their own if there was a perception that Washington wasn't willing to engage in serious talks with the Iranians.

"One of the things we were always concerned about was that if we did not show good faith in trying to resolve this issue diplomatically, then the sanctions regime would begin to fray," Obama said.

Kerry will amplify that argument during his time on Capitol Hill this week, but it's not clear if his efforts will get much traction. Influential lawmakers in the House and Senate are crafting measures that would impose hard-hitting new sanctions on Iran in six months if the current talks don't result in a deal. Despite White House objections, New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and other powerful Democrats have expressed support for the bill. The House version has drawn the support of Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia.

Kerry has been winning plaudits for his ability to sit down with a longstanding American adversary like Iran and finalize a deal that had eluded negotiators from both countries for more than decade. Defending the pact on Capitol Hill this week will put those diplomatic skills to the test once again.

Jamila Trindle contributed to this report.

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The Cable

Will India's Next Leader Be Banned From America?

A series of elections in India last week have exposed a major diplomatic problem for the U.S. State Department: The man expected to lead the world's largest democracy in 2014 is not legally allowed to enter the United States. The reason: his involvement in anti-Muslim riots that killed more than 1,000 people. The travel restriction is insulting to many Indians and threatens future U.S.-India relations, but the State Department has few workable options, if any.

On Sunday, India's Hindu nationalist opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), trounced the ruling Congress in a number of key state assembly polls. Pollsters say the BJP is now widely expected to win next year's general election, which would make the party's controversial prime ministerial nominee, Narendra Modi, the next leader of India. The State Department won't say whether a Prime Minister Modi would be allowed entrance to the United States, but experts say the question looms large over the U.S.-India relationship.

"I am not going to speculate about what the outcome might be," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told The Cable. At the same time, U.S. activists tell us they will challenge Modi in court if he ever sets foot in America.

Modi, the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, is a popular politician with a disturbing track record of intolerance. The United States denied him a diplomatic visa in 2005 and revoked his existing business visa due to his role in the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat in which some 1,000 people -- mostly Muslims -- were killed. Modi stood accused of stoking religious violence and failing to protect Gujarat's Muslim minority as chief minister. A subsequent resolution passed by Congress condemned him for promoting Nazi ideology and "racial hatred."

Modi supporters point out that a special investigative team appointed by India's Supreme Court cleared him of any wrongdoing in the riots and emphasize his role in making Gujarat one of India's fastest-growing economic success stories.

But U.S. officials saw little risk in blacklisting an obscure and provincial Indian politician back in 2005. At the time, Foggy Bottom revoked his visa under the Immigration and Nationality Act, which makes foreign officials who are responsible for "serious" violations of religious freedom ineligible for travel to America. Now Modi is a national political juggernaut whom the United States ignores at its peril.

"If he becomes prime minister, the U.S. will have to find a way to do business with him," Tanvi Madan, director of the Brookings Institution's India Project, told The Cable. "The question is whether or not to do something before next year's election."

Both options present risks.

If the United States continues to restrict Modi's travel and freeze him out of diplomatic discussions at the ambassadorial level, it risks alienating an important partner on everything from trade to security to finance to diaspora issues. By contrast, the European Union, Britain, and Germany have all engaged in ambassador-level discussions with Modi. This status quo also risks insulting hundreds of millions of Indians.

"The travel restriction has created resentment amongst the leadership and some amongst the rank-and-file BJP party workers," said Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "We're talking about a three-time incumbent chief minister. He hasn't been found guilty by any court of law, he's not under indictment for any crime, and there hasn't been a smoking gun in their view. So how can you, the United States, prevent this guy from coming to your country?"

But not everyone agrees with the BJP's interpretation of history. There is currently a trench war playing out on Capitol Hill over Modi's legacy. Anti-Modi groups, such as the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), promise to name and shame anyone supportive of Modi, whom they consider a genocidal Hindu supremacist. IAMC has hired the lobbying firm Fidelis to advance its goals on the Hill, including a resolution critical of violations of minority groups in India that was introduced by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA).

The Cable has learned that anti-Modi groups are also planning a legal challenge against the chief minister should he ever travel to the United States. "Some of us are working with the next of kin of victims of the Gujarat 2002 violence living in the United States," Shaik Ubaid, founder of the Coalition Against Genocide, said. "We will be ready to file criminal and tort cases against Modi should he try to come to the United States."

Pro-Modi groups, such as the Hindu American Foundation, have accused these anti-Modi groups of slandering the reputation of India and its leaders. "It is certainly disappointing to see Indian- Americans hiring an American lobbying firm to advocate for a deeply flawed and insulting American resolution critical of India," said the Hindu American Foundation's Jay Kansara.

The pro-Modi camp has courted high-profile Republican lawmakers such as Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Rep. Aaron Schock, but to varying degrees of success. After heaping effusive praise on Modi following a 2013 visit to Gujarat, McMorris Rodgers denied association with him in November after anti-genocide groups complained about an invite for Modi to talk to Republican leaders on Capitol Hill via video link. "They don't have a relationship," a congressional aide told The Cable.

Technically, it would not be difficult for Foggy Bottom to resolve Modi's travel status. Although the department originally determined that Modi was ineligible for travel under the Immigration and Nationality Act, it's not bound by that earlier decision.

"Our long-standing policy with regard to the chief minister is that he is welcome to apply for a visa and await a review like any other applicant," Harf told The Cable. "That review will be grounded in U.S. law."

However, Modi is unlikely to reapply for a visa between now and the 2014 elections.

Alternatively, the United States could implement a half-measure, such as issuing a statement that clarifies that America would never bar the leader of India from entering the country. But even that poses problems.

"Friends at the State Department say they're hyperaware of this issue but constrained because of the elections," said Vaishnav. "They don't want to be seen as endorsing a candidate or meddling in Indian politics. The State Department doesn't want to be on the front page of Indian newspapers."

Madan agrees. "Any sign of foreign interference would be taken extremely negatively in India," she said. "The Congress party would latch onto that, saying the U.S. has endorsed Modi."

By and large, Foggy Bottom is boxed in on the issue. "There is little doubt that this poses a dilemma for the State Department," said Madan. "Modi is a major figure in Indian politics. It's impossible to imagine that they haven't thought through the various scenarios, but it's unclear what they'll do."