The Cable

State Department's Architect of Iran Nuclear Negotiations to Retire

On Friday, the White House announced the retirement of Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, a giant in the diplomatic world and a key architect of the nuclear negotiations with Iran and six world powers. 

Burns, who had already twice delayed his retirement, has agreed to stay on until October, which will afford the administration more time to eek out a potential deal with Tehran with one of its most trusted diplomats at the helm. Still, the outcome of the talks is far from certain as significant gaps remain between the two sides on the dismantling of Iran's nuclear facilities, especially over how long a final deal will remain in effect.

In announcing Burns' retirement, President Barack Obama lauded his legacy at Foggy Bottom. "Since I met Bill in Moscow in 2005, I have admired his skill and precision," he said. "I have relied on him for candid advice and sensitive diplomatic missions."

Burns' key role in nurturing the sensitive diplomatic talks between Washington and Iran was exposed in November in two lengthy tick-tock stories by Al Monitor and the Associated Press. For several months, Burns had engaged in secret, high-level, face-to-face talks with senior Iranian officials, which preceded the historic interim nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers in November. The main points of that deal, which involved the easing of  sanctions on Iran in exchange for a reduction on uranium enrichment, were fleshed out during secret negotiations in the Middle Eastern nation of Oman.

The White House did not announce a replacement for Burns, the second-ranking official at the department who spent 32 years in the Foreign Service, serving under both Republican and Democratic presidents. In a lengthy statement, Secretary of State John Kerry praised Burns' service. "This guy is the real deal," said Kerry. "Bill is a statesman cut from the same cloth, caliber, and contribution as George Kennan and Chip Bohlen, and he has more than earned his place on a very short list of American diplomatic legends." Kerry also said one of his first actions as secretary-designate was to convince Burns to delay his long-planned retirement. In June of last year, Burns was honored as Diplomat of the Year by Foreign Policy.

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The Cable

Menendez Slams ‘Dumb' Criticisms of Obama's Secret Social Media Program in Cuba

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday tore into critics of a controversial U.S.-backed social media program in Cuba. The program, created by the U.S. Agency for International Development and run with the help of American contractors, established a Twitter-like social media site on the Communist island called ZunZuneo but was shuttered after two years with little to show for it.

"Our work in Cuba is no different than our efforts to promote freedom of expression and uncensored access to information in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Iran, China or North Korea," said Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey. He said it was "dumb, dumb and even dumber" to suggest that Cuban people "don't deserve the same freedom" as other people around the world.

The remarks follow a volley of bipartisan criticisms of the program after its exposure in an Associated Press story last week. The news agency discovered that the Obama administration sought to undermine the Cuban government by providing an online platform for political dissent. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who Menendez was clearly responding to, called the Cuba Twitter project "dumb, dumb, dumb" last week.

The fear is that USAID's secret efforts in Cuba could jeopardize its global humanitarian aid work to the poor, which relies on the trust of foreign nations. But Menendez didn't waver. "Just giving people the opportunity to communicate with the outside world and with each other is, in my mind, a fundamental responsibility of any democracy program," he said.

Menendez, a longtime Cuba hawk, has supported a range of U.S. programs to garner influence on the island, including Aero Marti, a Spanish-language TV and radio program that spent more than $24 million beaming broadcasts onto the island from an airplane. That plane program was  eventually grounded after many years of operation when it was revealed that the Cuban government jammed the signal of the plane, rendering its efforts largely useless.

USAID administrator Rajiv Shah, who testified before the committee on Thursday, disputed claims that the program was covert, saying "parts of it were done discreetly." He also said the program was similar to other democracy-building projects around the world. 

Still, lawmakers questioned why other U.S. government agencies like the State Department or CIA couldn't have handled the program. "What are we doing to our USAID programs around the world when they hear that there are covert or discreet programs like this?" asked Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona.

Shah conceded that there's an ongoing "policy debate" over whether the program was worthwhile, but assured the committee that its implementation was consistent with the appropriations language that governs the agency's program.

The committee asked for USAID to hand over all of its records about the program and similar programs also run by the agency. Shah promised to report back to the committee in a timely manner.