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Moscow Beefs Up Military Support for Iraq

Moscow dispatched jet fighters and military trainers to Iraq to boost the beleaguered government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, highlighting a growing Syrian, Iranian, and now Russian effort to bolster Maliki in his fight against Islamist extremists.

The shipment of Russian airplanes follows days of Syrian airstrikes on targets from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham and stepped-up military assistance from Tehran. The Obama administration continues to weigh air strikes against ISIS. In the meantime, the assistance from Tehran, Damascus, and Moscow threatens to further reduce Washington's potential leverage over Maliki as the administration pushes him to mount a serious outreach effort to the country's Sunni and Kurdish minorities.

For more than a year, Baghdad urged Washington to speed up the delivery of F-16 fighter jets and Apache helicopters as it battled for control of its own country. However, members of Congress repeatedly held up the deliveries due to unease about Maliki's ethno-centric leadership, which disproportionately favors the country's Shiite population. 

A senior Iraqi official pointed out that the latest support from Moscow demonstrated America's diminished role in the conflict. "The American influence is getting sidelined ... due to the lack of security and military support to the Iraqi government and people in its war of survival," the official told Foreign Policy.

According to the New York Times, the military advisers arrived this weekend to help set up the planes, which will include 12 SU-25 ground-attack fighter jets. The senior Iraqi official said that five of the SU-25 planes had arrived in Iraq on Saturday as part of an "expected" delivery of jets from the Russians. Baghdad is hoping the aircraft will bolster efforts to seize back control of a large swath of territory taken by Sunni rebels led by ISIS. On Saturday, Iraqi security forces with tanks and helicopters launched an offensive to retake the northern city of Tikrit. Due to conflicting reports, it's unclear how successful the offensive to retake Saddam Hussein's hometown has been.

A senior Pentagon official acknowledged the Times report and said it would not affect U.S. assistance to the country. "Our mission remains the same: to protect U.S. personnel and interests; assess the state of the [Iraqi Security Forces] and [ISIS]; continue to provide ample [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] coverage, and prepare to assist the [Iraqi Security Forces] in an advisory capacity," Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, told Foreign Policy Sunday.

In the past, hawkish lawmakers including Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warned that failing to deliver arms to Iraq could result in adversaries such as Russia stepping in to fill the void. However, other powerful lawmakers such as Bob Mendendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, placed holds on the delivery of the equipment citing concerns about Maliki, who has increasingly stoked sectarian tensions in Iraq following the departure of U.S. troops in 2011.

In January, Menendez finally lifted his objections to the transfer of 24 Ah-64E Apaches after receiving assurances from the Obama administration that Baghdad wouldn't use the attack helicopters against civilians, according to a Senate aide. The emergence of Moscow and Tehran in Iraq could mean multiple things for the United States.

Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who closely tracks Iraq's security situation, said there are "two angels on Iraq's shoulder" at the moment - the U.S. is on one, and Russia, Iran and Syria are on the other. But in terms of providing effective and timely assistance to its allies, the model offered by America's adversaries seemed to be more effective.

"To be honest, the other model has a much better track record of helping out its allies in the Middle East than we do," Knights, now traveling in Japan, said. With Iran and Russia stepping up to the plate, the U.S. risks losing influence in Maliki's government.

On the other hand, Maliki has repeatedly failed to heed U.S. warnings that his chauvinistic sectarian leadership is tearing the country apart. As the conflict in Iraq increasingly takes on the character of a sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites, Washington is loath to be viewed as an advocate on either side of the bloodshed.

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Exclusive: The Hawks' Playbook for Opposing an Obama Nuclear Deal with Iran

Though the United States has yet to secure a final deal to restrain Iran's nuclear program, an influential pair of hawks in Washington have already devised a way for Congress to unravel any potential agreement after the ink is dry.

The plan, obtained by Foreign Policy, calls on Congress to oppose the lifting of financial sanctions on Iran until it proves that its entire financial sector, including the Central Bank of Iran, has sworn off support for terrorism, money-laundering, and proliferation. Some of those topics haven't been part of the ongoing U.S.-led talks with Tehran, which means that linking sanctions relief to those conditions after a deal is made would likely drive the Iranians off the wall, say experts. Tehran would likely see any such measures as moving the goalposts and as evidence that the United States wasn't genuinely interested in backing up its end of the deal. 

The two authors of the plan -- Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank, and Richard Goldberg, the former senior foreign-policy advisor to Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk -- each played pivotal roles in shaping the Iran sanctions debate in the past year. Rather than blowing up an historic agreement, they both insist the paper is simply a guide for how to keep sanctions in place that will deter and punish Iran if it doesn't comply with a final deal.

Whatever their motivations, the detailed strategy document is of keen interest to advocates on both sides of the Iran debate given the immense political clout its authors enjoy on Capitol Hill and the significant role Congress will have in approving, modifying, or rejecting a final deal.

"This plan will elicit a lot of support on the Hill," said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "They have an enormous amount of sway on the Hill on the issue of sanctions, both because of their expertise and their energetic efforts to advance their case."

A regular on Capitol Hill, Dubowitz provided expert testimony on the Iran talks before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in November and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June. His warnings about the folly of Obama's "bad deal" with Tehran and the inherent deceptiveness of the Iranian regime were often cited by hawkish lawmakers in both parties, including the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). "He's very well informed, with a team of Wall Street consultants who contribute to [his] analytical materials on the Iranian economy," said Maloney.

Goldberg, the onetime Kirk aide, operated skillfully inside the Senate last year to build bipartisan support for a bill that would have imposed new sanctions on Iran if it failed to live up the terms of the interim deal signed in Geneva last year. The White House derisively referred it as a "march to war" and President Obama threatened to veto it, but Goldberg pressed the flesh in December and January and managed to get some 60 senators to co-sponsor the legislation. "Goldberg played a tireless and influential role in building that coalition," said a Senate aide. Prior to that, Goldberg and his boss helped draft hard-hitting sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran that the administration initially opposed but later cited as one its most effective financial weapons against Tehran.

Titled "Smart Relief After an Iran Deal," the duo's new paper details what sanctions Congress should maintain after Iran and six world powers (Britain, France, Germany, China, the United States, and Russia), otherwise known as the P5+1, reach a final agreement.

To be sure, it's far from certain that the P5+1 will be able to strike a final deal in Vienna by the July 20 deadline. Negotiators are hashing out a permanent deal designed to restrain Iran's nuclear program while unwinding international sanctions imposed on the regime. Last week diplomats left the Austrian capital with a working document, the first concrete advance in months. Negotiators said all sides appeared to be working in good faith and the seven nations agreed to a two-week marathon session from July 2 to July 15. "We are at a very crucial moment in these negotiations," Wendy Sherman, the chief U.S. negotiator, said last week. "Our conversations this week have been very tough but constructive."

Although many obstacles remain to a final deal, the possibility of an agreement only heightens the importance of Congress's role in the nuclear talks. The Obama administration is free to negotiate a deal of its choosing and can issue temporary waivers exempting Iran from certain sanctions, but only Congress has the authority to lift the measures once and for all -- a key component to any deal, say experts. That's where Dubowitz and Goldberg come in.

A major tenet of their strategy is to maintain restrictions on Iran's oil exports and limit what the government can do with its oil revenues.

As it stands, Iranian oil revenues are accumulating in escrow accounts thanks to a 2012 law passed by Congress called the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act. Iran can only spend these escrow funds on certain goods in countries which buy its oil. In their paper, Dubowitz and Goldberg say "none of these escrowed oil funds" should be repatriated back to Iran until the country ceases being a "state sponsor of terror." The sanctions regime bears some resemblance to the Iraq oil-for-food program established by the United Nations in 1995 to allow Saddam Hussein to sell oil on the world market in exchange for medicine, food, and similar items.

Given the widespread corruption that poisoned the Iraq program, Maloney, the Brookings expert, questioned the new plan's wisdom. "I can't imagine that anyone sees the Iraqi sanctions regime as a model for success," she said. "Even if Tehran might agree to such provisions, it would be politically suicidal; control of oil production, exports, and revenues is the wellspring of Middle Eastern nationalism."

Dubowitz rejected the comparison, noting that his preferred plan is based on the existing oil revenues escrow program, would not be administered by the United Nations and allows Iran to purchase a much wider array of goods than the oil-for-food program did. "This is not about oil-for-food, it's about oil for anything that's non-sanctionable," he said.

His proposed sanctions regime would still bar Iran from spending money on a list of items in the energy, technology and telecommunications sector -- and place other limits on sanctions relief as well. 

The State Department designated Iran as a state that sponsors terrorism in 1984 because of its ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and, later, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah. For permanent sanctions relief, the paper calls for the president to certify that Iran is no longer a "state sponsor of terror."

Since the Obama administration will not likely place such demands on Iran in a potential Vienna deal, some say the paper sets up the White House for failure. "Such stringent parameters are likely to make achieving a mutually acceptable deal impossible," said Laicie Heeley of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

Dubowitz is well aware that the administration is likely to fall short of his strategy paper, should it manage to secure a deal in the first place. Regardless, he says he wants to arm members of Congress with the information they need to scrutinize any final deal. "We think the administration's deal should be measured against some standard with respect to how sanctions relief should be done and this is our contribution to that framework," he said in an interview. 

Though some are skeptical of the validity of Dubowitz's and Goldberg's views, no one questions their relevance in the public debate. If negotiators manage to complete a deal, their voices will only grow louder in the weeks to come.

A copy of the strategy document appears below:

Final Smart Sanctions Report

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