The Cable

U.S. Officials To Foreign Companies: Don't Race Back to Iran Just Yet

The U.S. hasn't been able to slow the steady stream of foreign companies touring Iran, but senior Obama administration officials say they are keeping them from signing business deals while nuclear negotiations continue.

The administration's top Iran negotiator, Wendy Sherman, and its sanctions chief, David Cohen, reassured skeptical senators Tuesday that they are holding the line on sanctions while diplomats from the United States and Iran try to cobble together a final agreement to curtail Iran's nuclear program.

"We will continue to respond to Iran's efforts to evade our sanctions wherever they may occur," Cohen said at a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing Tuesday.

The interim nuclear deal signed in Geneva late last year went into effect in January and lifts some  sanctions on Iran's petrochemical and auto industries, but leaves the vast majority of the punitive measures in place.

Skeptics of the talks are concerned that foreign companies are so eager to resume business with Iran that they'll take advantage of any Western sanctions relief, no matter how limited, completely undermining the sanctions regime that has crippled Iran's economy and brought Tehran to the negotiating table.

"Who's job is it going to be to put the genie back in the bottle when this thing fails?"  Sen. James Risch (R-I.d.) asked at the hearing.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's courting of the international business community has stoked those fears. At the elite World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Rouhani extended an invitation to the business people and political leaders gathered there to visit Iran and "witness the extensive fields for investment." 

German, French and Italian companies are beating a path to Tehran, putting the administration in an awkward position at home, where officials are trying to reassure U.S. lawmakers that sanctions haven't been weakened by the interim deal.

In response, administration officials have been traveling the world to warn companies and governments not to rush back into Iran.

"As part of this effort, over the last six weeks I have traveled to the U.K., Germany, Italy, Austria, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates carrying this message: 'Iran is not open for business,'" Cohen said.

Not all American allies appear to be listening. A French trade delegation of more than 100 businesspeople went to Tehran this week to meet with officials and explore possible future opportunities. The group, the largest European delegation to visit Iran in 30 years, included French energy giant Total, carmaker Renault and engineering firm Alstom. Sherman said Kerry communicated American concerns about the trip to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and told him that those visits weren't helpful.

After reports surfaced about a possible Iranian oil deal with Russia, U.S. officials warned Moscow that it could be sanctioned if the agreement went through. Sherman said those warnings have been successful so far. "My own sense of this is...that nothing will move forward at this time," Sherman said.

For the moment, she said most of the businesses visiting Iran are just looking, not inking new deals.

"Most of these delegations appear to be going to get themselves in line for the day that in fact a comprehensive agreement is reached, if it is reached," Sherman said.

One potential upside: the clear signs that Western multinationals want to return to Iran could prompt Iranian business people to pressure Rouhani to make a deal so business can resume.

"Although we don't want people to go because we think it does send the wrong message, if they do go, it puts pressure, perversely, on the Rouhani administration," Sherman said. 

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National Security

The Newest Potential Threat to the Olympics: Chemical Weapons

If the threat of renegade female suicide bombers wasn't bad enough, a panel of counterterrorism experts in Washington are raising a new security concern ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi: The possibility of a deadly sarin gas attack by the region's Islamist militants.

With the opening ceremony just days away, Russian authorities have stopped at nothing to form a so-called "ring of steel" around the Black Sea resort town, deploying thousands of security forces, installing high-tech surveillance equipment and spending an estimated $2 billion on safety measures alone. U.S. and Russian officials have expressed confidence in Moscow's security preparations, and there's no evidence that Russian insurgents have obtained chemical weapons. Still, some experts remain concerned about an ambitious, mass-casualty attack.

The main security threat to the games comes from separatist and jihadi groups in the North Caucasus regions of Dagestan and Chechnya, some 300 miles from Sochi. Since Russia won its bid to host the Olympics in 2007, the groups have pledged to wreak havoc on the games unless all Russian forces withdraw from the North Caucasus.

On Friday, Gordon Hahn, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, spoke at length about the threat of a chemical weapons attack in Sochi due to the commingling of jihadist forces in the caucuses and Syria's three-year civil war.

"There's a possibility that the rebels in fact do have [chemical] weapons," he said.

Hahn has written about Russia's Islamist threat for CSIS and is also an analyst at the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, which analyzes global terrorism threats and geopolitics. 

At the moment, there are two groups of Islamist militants from the North Caucasus fighting in Syria: Jund al-Khilafah, which fights under the umbrella of the Nusra Front, and Aish Al Muhajireen Wal Asnar, whose former top commander is now leading the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters in northern Syria. Hahn's fear is that militants fighting in Syria could obtain chemical weapons stolen from the Syrian government and put them to use in Sochi.

"The possibility that ... Al Qaeda and the Caucasus Emirate would team up to somehow get chemical weapons into the North Caucasus for an attack on Sochi can not be excluded," he said.

Some reports have already suggested that Syrian rebels obtained sarin stockpiles, but the veracity of those reports remains in dispute. Jeffrey Mankoff, the deputy director of CSIS's Russia and Eurasia program, said that jihadists will do everything they can to disrupt the games. "This is a golden opportunity for the insurgents to make a point," he said.

The panel of experts, which included Thomas de Wall, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Juan Zarate, a CSIS counterterrorism expert, were more pessimistic about the security situation in Sochi than U.S. administration officials have been in recent days.

In an interview that aired Friday, CNN's Jake Tapper asked President Obama if he'd encourage people he knew to attend the games given the prospect of suicide bombings like the one that killed dozens of people in Volgograd in December.

"I'd tell them that I believe Sochi is safe and that there are always some risks in these large international gatherings," Obama said.

Earlier this week, FBI Director James Comey assured a Senate panel that the bureau and its Russian counterpart were working cooperatively to ensure the safety of the event. And at a Google Hangout Thursday hosted by the State Department, spokeswoman Marie Harf said "we want everyone to go and have fun, to go cheer on Team USA." She added that "more than anyone," the Russians were committed to providing a safe environment for tourists and athletes.

In the next few weeks, Olympics fans from around the world will find out which predictions were correct.

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