The Cable

Senate Panel Approves Bill Keeping Aid Flowing To Military Governments

In a move that could reshape the way the United States deals with post-coup governments, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a bill that would make it easier to provide aid to countries ruled by military regimes. With an eye toward this summer's turmoil in Egypt, the bill also requires the executive branch to determine when a democratically-elected government has been removed by force.

On Wednesday, the Egypt Assistance Reform Act sailed through the committee in a 16-1 vote. Its key backers, Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn), said the bill allows the U.S. government to maintain ties with strategically important countries like Egypt while imposing strict restrictions on any financial or military aid to their governments.

"This legislation reaffirms the enduring U.S. commitment to our partnership with the Egyptian government by authorizing continued assistance and endorsing the importance of ongoing cooperation," said Menendez, chairman of the committee.

But opponents criticized it for lifting restrictions on U.S. aid to unelected military juntas. The committee "voted to weaken existing law and give the president more authority to send billions in aid to countries who violently overthrow their governments and engage in violence against their own citizens," Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) told The Cable in a statement.

If it makes it into law, the bill would theoretically prevent the awkward situation the Obama administration found itself in this summer when it refused to call the Egyptian military's overthrow of its democratically-elected government a coup. The administration avoided making that determination because of Section 7008 of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Law, which prohibits aid to post-coup countries. The White House feared that cutting off all aid to Egypt would further diminish U.S. influence in the country, so instead of calling a coup a coup, the administration remained silent.

Menendez's legislation, which he drafted in consultation with the White House, would force the administration to make a coup determination after a democratically-elected government was deposed by force, but still give the White House flexibility to decide if, and how, to maintain aid.

"To receive that assistance, the Egyptian government must meet certain security and economic assistance benchmarks like adherence to the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty, cooperating on counter terrorism, and taking steps to consolidate their democratic transition," read a Menendez office handout.

Paul, a longtime critic of U.S. aid to Cairo, said the legislation gives the Egyptian military a free pass during its rule over the country.  "Instead of holding the Egyptians accountable, this bill will make it easier for the US to send tanks and F-16 fighter jets to a country that suffers endemic violence against political opponents and religious minorities," Paul said in the statement.

Egypt experts speaking with The Cable provided mixed perspectives.

The Brookings Institution's Shadi Hamid accused Congress of outsourcing its oversight responsibilities to the executive branch. "Congress is abdicating its jurisdiction over the issue," he said. "This bill gives the administration the latitude to do what it wants."

The Washington Institute's Eric Trager, however, said the bill gives the administration the flexibility it needs to conduct sound foreign policy. "The legislation reflects a growing realization that the U.S. has limited leverage over Egypt's domestic politics given the ongoing existential struggle between the military-backed government and the Muslim Brotherhood," he said. Trager emphasized that the legislation would give the administration flexibility to deal with unsavory, but strategically important countries.

Hamid worried that in a tug-of-war between Congress and the White House, the bill ensures that Congress will lose every time. "I suppose the silver lining is that the administration would have to provide a detailed justification of its decision to continue aid," he said. "But if Congress doesn't like that justification, the administration can do what it wants."

The bill is unlikely to make it to the Senate floor before the upper chamber breaks for Christmas recess at the end of the week, so Menendez will likely seek its inclusion in spending bills passing through Congress in January.

You can read the full bill here.

The Cable

Exclusive: Top Senate Democrats Break with White House and Circulate New Iran Sanctions Bill

Three top senators, including two Democrats, have begun circulating a draft of a new Iran sanctions bill that critics say could violate the terms of an agreement struck between Iran and the United States in Geneva last month. The bill, set for introduction by the Democratic chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, along with top sanctions hawks Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), defies the Obama administration's repeated requests for Congress to hold off on any new legislation that could imperil last month's interim nuclear pact with Iran while talks continue toward a comprehensive final deal.

A copy of the bill, dubbed the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013*, was obtained by Foreign Policy. The new sanctions are unlikely to come to a vote in the Senate this week in the final days of the 2013 session.* Instead, the Senate would likely consider the measure after it returns on Jan. 6.

The legislation would broaden the scope of the sanctions already imposed against Iran, expanding the restrictions on Iran's energy sector to include all aspects of its petroleum trade and putting in place measures targeting Iran's shipping and mining sectors. The bill allows Obama to waive the new sanctions during the current talks by certifying every 30 days that Iran is complying with the Geneva deal and negotiating in good faith on a final agreement, as well as meeting other conditions such as not sponsoring or carrying out acts of terrorism against U.S. targets.

In accordance with goals laid out frequently by hard-liners in Congress and the influential lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the bill sets tough conditions for a final deal, should one be reached with Iranian negotiators. Among those conditions is a provision that only allows Obama to waive new sanctions, even after a final deal has been struck, if that deal bars Iran from enriching any new uranium whatsoever. The bill states Obama may not waive sanctions unless the United States and its allies "reached a final and verifiable agreement or arrangement with Iran that will ... dismantle Iran's illicit nuclear infrastructure, including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and facilities." (Congress could also block Obama's waivers by passing a "joint resolution of disapproval" against a final deal.)

The bill includes a non-binding provision that states that if Israel takes "military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran's nuclear weapons program,"  the U.S. "should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence." That language mirrors that introduced in February by another Iran hawk, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). With the support of AIPAC, the Graham resolution, a non-binding bill, was passed by the Senate in April.*

Critics of imposing new sanctions fear that the bill will violate either the spirit or the letter of the Joint Plan of Action signed in Geneva. The interim deal allows some flexibility, mandating that "the U.S. administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions." Administration officials have mounted a so-far successful effort to stall new sanctions in the Senate. (The House overwhelmingly passed new sanctions in the summer.) Previous rumors of a bill in the Senate were said to contain a six-month delay that would prevent the legislation from taking effect while talks continued, but this iteration of the legislation doesn't contain that kind of fail-safe. Asked this month by Time what would happen if a bill, even with a delay, passed Congress, Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said, "The entire deal is dead."

"The law as written comes close to violating the letter [of the Geneva agreement] since the sanctions go into effect immediately unless the administration immediately waives them," said Colin Kahl, who stepped down in 2011* as the Pentagon's top Mideast policy official. "There is no question the legislation violates the spirit of the Geneva agreement and it would undoubtedly be seen by the Iranians that way, giving ammunition to hard-liners and other spoilers looking to derail further progress."

Though a fact-sheet circulating with the new bill says it "does not violate the Joint Plan of Action," critics allege it would mark a defeat for the administration and the broader push for a diplomatic solution to the Iran crisis.

"It would kill the talks, invalidate the interim deal to freeze Iran's nuclear program, and pledge U.S. military and economic support for an Israel-led war on Iran," said Jamal Abdi, the policy director for the Washington-based National Iranian American Council, a group that supports diplomatic efforts to head off the Iranian nuclear crisis. "There is no better way to cut Iranian moderates down, empower hardliners who want to kill the talks, and ensure that this standoff ends with war instead of a deal."

The bill would in effect set up a direct confrontation with the White House, which is negotiating a final deal with Tehran that would allow for continued Iranian enrichment capabilities. According to the agreement, the comprehensive deal would "involve a mutually defined enrichment program" with strict curbs. In a forum this month at the Brookings Institution, Obama dismissed the possibility that Tehran would agree to a deal that eliminated Iran's entire nuclear program or its domestic enrichment capabilities.

"If we could create an option in which Iran eliminated every single nut and bolt of their nuclear program, and foreswore the possibility of ever having a nuclear program, and, for that matter, got rid of all its military capabilities, I would take it," Obama said. "That particular option is not available." Asked again about not allowing any Iranian enrichment, Obama quipped, to laughter from the audience, "One can envision an ideal world in which Iran said, 'We'll destroy every element and facility and you name it, it's all gone.' I can envision a world in which Congress passed every one of my bills that I put forward. I mean, there are a lot of things that I can envision that would be wonderful."

Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the RAND Corporation, agreed dismantling Iran's entire nuclear program would be "pretty unrealistic." He added such an aim would be moving "backward": "The Geneva agreement basically states that if Iran is more transparent regarding its nuclear program and intentions, then it can be met with sanctions relief. That's the goal: transparency."

Nader said that diplomacy required flexibility from both sides, something the legislation doesn't seem to contain. "When you have these kinds of bills, it shows that there are those in the U.S. who don't want to be flexible," he said.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story contained several factual errors. It misstated the name of legislation that could introduce additional sanctions against Iran. That draft bill is the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013, not the Iran Nuclear Weapon Free Act of 2013. Additionally, the bill does not authorize military force against Iran and mirrors non-binding legislation approved by the Senate earlier this year. The bill would not attach any amendments to a pending Pentagon budget bill. Finally, Colin Kahl left the Pentagon in December of 2011, not last year.

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