Posts Tagged ‘Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz’

Republican senator: Democrats ‘procedurally blocked’ new Iran sanctions bill

November 21, 2013

By Michael Wilner

Senator implies sanction legislation on hold for time being; Obama says first-step deal will give Iran only limited sanctions relief.

US President Barack Obama

US President Barack Obama  Photo: Reuters

WASHINGTON — The highest-ranking Republican member of the Senate  Foreign Relations Committee is accusing Democrats of blocking progress on a bill  that would further sanction Iran for its continued nuclear  work.

“Democrats have procedurally blocked the Senate from taking any  action on Iran this week,” Bob Corker (R-Tenn), said in a statement. “As such,  we will closely monitor what happens in Geneva and examine the details of any  interim deal.”

The comments politicize an issue often treated as bipartisan on  Capitol Hill. Both Democrats and Republicans have called on the White House to  restrict its concessions to Iran as much as possible in the negotiating process,  and have disagreed only over the timing of the new sanctions language, which  would ruthlessly target Iran’s remaining oil exports and access to foreign  exchange reserves.

Corker’s comments come just after a meeting with US  President Barack Obama at the White House, and as a delegation of US diplomats  is in transit to Switzerland, where they will try and cut an interim agreement  with Iran that would include limited sanctions relief.

Obama personally lobbied key members of the  Senate on Tuesday not to move forward with new sanctions legislation against  Iran, just a day before the third round of negotiations were set to begin in  Geneva

The  meeting came shortly after Iranian parliamentarians warned that, should new  sanctions proceed through the US Congress, Iran would pull its diplomats from  the negotiating table.

The long, detailed White House meeting focused on  the technicalities of the prospective “first step” deal being forged in  Switzerland between Iran and the P5+1 – the United States, the United Kingdom,  Russia, China, France and Germany – and not on rising tensions between the White  House and Israel’s government over how best to proceed.

“The president  underscored that, in the absence of a first step, Iran will continue to make  progress on its nuclear program by increasing its enrichment capacity,  continuing to grow its stockpile of enriched uranium, installing advanced  centrifuges, and making progress on the plutonium track,” White House Spokesman  Jay Carney told reporters at a briefing.

In a prepared statement released  after the meeting, the White House said that the discussion, which lasted over  two hours, had included a lengthy explanation by the president as to why a  six-month interim agreement – temporarily halting key aspects of Iran’s nuclear  program in exchange for marginal sanctions relief – was in the US’s best  national security interests.

“The president noted that the relief we are  considering as part of a first step would be limited, temporary and reversible,  and emphasized that we will continue to enforce sanctions during the six-month  period,” the statement read.

“The president is determined to prevent Iran  from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and firmly believes that it would be preferable  to do so peacefully,” it continued.

“Therefore, he has a responsibility  to pursue the ongoing diplomatic negotiations before pursuing other  alternatives.”

According to the statement, Obama “dispelled the rumors  that Iran would receive $40 billion or $50b. in relief, noting those reports are  inaccurate” – a reference to figures first floated by Intelligence Minister  Yuval Steinitz last week.

Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, told CNN on Tuesday the amount of Iranian assets that would be unfrozen under the deal with Iran would be less than $10 billion.

“We’re talking about a modest amount of money,” she said.

Obama injected a note of caution on the prospect of closing a deal with Iran, telling a Wall Street Journal forum on Tuesday that, “We don’t know if we’ll be able to close a deal with Iran this week or next week.”

After meeting with the president, Senator  Corker implied that any new legislative push was on hold for the time  being.

“Let’s face it,” Corker said to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “At the end of  the day, there aren’t going to be new sanctions put in place” before Geneva. And  “Senator [Harry] Reid has filled the tree,” he said, describing the Senate  majority leader’s ability to prevent new amendments from getting floor time for  consideration.

“Congress has no say on the easing of sanctions,” Corker  added. “The president has full waiver authority.”

Senator Mark Kirk announced Tuesday evening that he will pursue an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act with fellow Republicans this week that would include the sanctions language, bucking the White House. But it’s unclear whether Reid will allow that to happen.

One source familiar  with the legislation told The Jerusalem Post that if negotiators clinched an  interim deal this weekend, progress on the new sanctions bill was “unlikely”  before December of this year – if at all.

But that has not stopped  lawmakers in both chambers from urging the Obama administration to toughen the  deal going into talks on Wednesday.

A bipartisan group of senators, many  of whom met with the president on Tuesday, wrote to US Secretary of State John  Kerry that the deal under consideration in Geneva allowed up to $10b.

in  sanctions relief – too high a price for too few concessions, they  asserted.

“While the interim agreement may suggest that Iran could be  willing to temporarily slow its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, it  could also allow Iran to continue making some progress toward that end under the  cover of negotiations,” the senators wrote. “This does not give us confidence  that Iran is prepared to abandon unambiguously its nuclear weapons pursuit  altogether, as it must.”

The group included senators Robert Menendez,  John McCain, Bob Casey and Charles Schumer, among others.

At the House of  Representatives – which already passed its version of the sanctions bill last  summer – congressmen Ed Royce (R-California), who chairs the House Foreign  Affairs Committee, and Eliot Engel (D-New York), ranking member of the  committee, sent a letter to the president on Tuesday cautioning against a deal  that would allow Iran to continue progressing in its nuclear program in any  capacity.

“Mr. President, the United States cannot allow Iran to continue  to advance toward a nuclear weapons capability while at the same time providing  relief from the sanctions pressure we worked so hard to build, and the  Administration has worked to enforce,” the congressmen wrote.

In his  interview with CNN, Corker said the administration did not see the deal as a  “fait accompli” going into talks, describing the interim agreement as far from  certain.

Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman  flew to Geneva on Tuesday to lead the US negotiating team.

Her first  meeting on Wednesday will be with EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, the  State Department said.

Responding to concerns aired repeatedly and  publicly by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that the Geneva deal is shaping up  poorly for Israel, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that it was his  “prerogative” to express his opinion as negotiations continued.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu

“I think  you can both respect concerns and also disagree with them,” Psaki said. “I  certainly don’t refute the notion that there’s a difference of  opinion….

One of the reasons we’re pursuing this is because of Israel’s  security.”

Psaki said that US diplomats entering the third round of talks  were “hopeful about the path forward.”

“There’s either a diplomatic path,  or a path toward aggression.

We continue to believe that,” she said. “If  this does not work, we will be leading the charge for more  sanctions.”

Meanwhile, in Tehran, Iranian Jews demonstrated Tuesday outside a United Nations facility in support of Iran’s declared right to  peaceful nuclear energy, as protected by the Nuclear Non-proliferation  Treaty.

“Jews from all Iranian Jewish communities, especially from  Tehran, will take part in this gathering to show their solidarity with the  Islamic Republic of Iran’s stances in the recent talks, especially the issues  proposed to Group 5+1,” said Siamak Marreh Sedq, representative of the Jewish  minority in Iran’s Parliament, in announcing the rally.

The Post could  not confirm attendance at the rally.

The US notes that the NPT protects  the right of all nations to peaceful nuclear power, but it objects to Iran’s  claim that the treaty protects Tehran’s right to enrich uranium. Reuters contributed to this report.

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The ticking clocks of Iran’s nuclear program

November 5, 2013

By Michael Wilner

Key senators, administration officials and Jewish leaders talk to The Jerusalem Post about new sanctions bill.

US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.  Photo: REUTERS

WASHINGTON – On October 29, with just a day’s notice, members of the National  Security Council summoned four of America’s most influential pro-Israel  lobbyists to the White House for an urgent meeting.

Administration  officials had been informed that the Senate Banking Committee was preparing to  mark up a long-threatened, unforgiving bill that would further restrict Iran’s  oil sector as early as this week – right before US diplomats meet with their  Iranian counterparts in Geneva, where they hope to forge an interim agreement  over Iran’s controversial and expansive nuclear program.

The bill is the  fifth piece of sanctions legislation against Iran written by the US Congress in  four years. Among the five, this is the harshest yet.

“Democrats were  making clear to the White House that this train is moving,” one Senate aide  said. “The administration didn’t want anything scheduled, and they didn’t want  anything announced, at least until they get through the next  round.”

Fearing the train may have left the station, National Security  Adviser Susan Rice, her deputies Ben Rhodes and Tony Blinken and Undersecretary  of State Wendy Sherman came to the meeting with a request: Hold off on  pressuring Congress to move forward through the next two rounds of  negotiations.

“The timing was everything,” said David Harris, executive  director of the American Jewish Committee.

The meeting was on such short  notice that Harris had to send a deputy in his place.

“At this point, I  am willing to give the administration the benefit of their judgment,” said Abe  Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who says the  administration hopes for kernels of a deal to emerge by the end of  November.

“I think at the end of that month they will know if it’s real  or not,” Foxman said, at which point, “this debate may be moot.”

And yet  the lobbying has continued, both because and in spite of the delicacy of the  moment: All parties see a short window to act. All share the same goal of  ridding Iran of its enrichment program, in its eighth year in earnest and well  on its way to providing the Islamic Republic with several nuclear warheads. But  the White House and Congress – operating in sync with Israel’s government and  its American advocates – have conflicting strategies on how best to proceed  towards that goal.

Regardless, Foxman is correct: This week in Geneva,  Iran’s actions will determine which path America takes, several officials and  legislators explained in interviews with The Jerusalem Post.

“In some  ways, it’s not a bad thing having this out there. But it has to be dropped at an  appropriate time,” former secretary of state Madeleine Albright said, speaking  by phone from Salt Lake City. “It just depends when you use the  stick.”

The stick

Those in support of the measure argue that sanctions  are a proven coercive force; that existing penalties have brought Iran to the  negotiating table, but that more are required for Iran to actually close a  deal.

They seek a complete freeze of all enrichment across Iran. On  Capitol Hill, they represent the greatest bipartisan coalition on any issue  today, foreign or domestic.

The bill would immediately sever Iran’s  access to its remaining foreign-exchange reserves, estimated at roughly $100  billion with $20b. in unrestricted funds. It would clamp down on Iran’s shipping  industry.

But harshest of all, Congress would impose a mandatory cap on  the number of barrels of crude oil per day that Iran could export – less than 50  percent of its BPD count, met within 12 months from passage – or else its buyers  would face significant financial penalties.

The US president has the  authority to grant sanctions waivers to companies based in allied nations buying  Iranian oil. Those exemptions would no longer be renewed, forcing President  Barack Obama to inform Beijing, Seoul and Istanbul that their oil would have to  come from elsewhere, quickly, or else risk economic ties with the United  States.

For this reason, the Obama administration is pushing back.  Sanctions have worked, the White House charges, only because the president has  used political capital to shore up an international coalition willing to enforce  them. Only the executive branch can implement them, and indeed, the president  has done so effectively: Iran’s exports of crude have already halved, and the  value of Iran’s currency has plummeted over 60% since 2010.

The White  House fears this bill will fracture its global coalition against Iran – and that  a conservative political alignment to the right of Iranian President Hassan  Rouhani will punish him, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, for attempting a  futile reconciliation effort with the US.

Speaking on the condition of  anonymity due to the sensitivity of the talks, one senior administration  official used sharp language to describe the possible consequences of further  legislative action.

“Moving forward now will severely undermine prospects  for a diplomatic solution,” the official said. “It will create cracks in the  international coalition we have built to enforce the sanctions. It will provide  an excuse for those in Iran who want to resist any deal.”

The official  called the bill “unnecessary,” because the president has the prerogative to sign  executive orders implementing most of the bill’s provisions.

“They have  reason to believe Rouhani and [Foreign Minister Mohammed] Zarif are both  empowered to make a deal, and highly incentivized to make a deal,” said Colin  Kahl, a former senior Pentagon official now a professor at Georgetown  University’s School of Foreign Service. “The great achievement of the Obama  administration is that they changed the narrative from the [former president  George W.] Bush years – now, the reason diplomacy has failed so far isn’t  America’s fault, but Iran’s.”

Two days after the White House meeting,  Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury  Secretary Jack Lew made their plea to Congress in a classified meeting on  Capitol Hill. Enthusiasm over the prospects of a deal was underwhelming,  multiple senators said.

“Senior administration officials made the same  claims and asked us to withdraw the amendment” before the last several rounds of  sanctions, Sen. Mark Kirk (Illinois), a leading Republican on the issue,  commented over email. “They were wrong, and today the Menendez-Kirk amendment is  credited with bringing Iran back to the negotiating table.”

The time to  act is now, Kirk said, not after giving Iran several more chances to forge a  hallow interim agreement.

Sen. Robert Menendez (New Jersey) is  unconvinced. As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, he is the  highest ranking Democrat in Congress on issues of foreign policy. And yet it is  he – not his Republican colleagues – who is leading an effort to push this bill  through committee by the end of the year.

In a phone interview, Menendez  said he had not heard “sufficient, substantive reasons to delay” the bill beyond  Friday’s talks in Geneva.

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to know what  is your bottom line – at least we have to know, even if that knowledge is in a  secured fashion,” Menendez said. “What’s our position on a final set of  negotiation? What’s our end game?” Menendez said that, barring any dramatic  developments in Geneva this week, he will move forward with the bill in  committee in short order.

“I would really want to see something  significant by the end of [this] week,” he said.

The science

In a letter  to Obama, Menendez, Kirk, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and a bipartisan  group of their peers told the president that they would only halt progress on  the bill if Iran agreed to a complete freeze of uranium enrichment.

“I  would really be surprised if they had a meaningful interim agreement by the end  of the week,” Albright said, sympathizing with the difficult job ahead for her  successor.

“We are at a moment where it is possible to have some kind of  an agreement, but it will take a while, because it’s a complicated diplomatic  story.”

Patrick Clawson, a sanctions expert at the Washington Institute  for Near East Policy, said that the US should be teasing Iran with the prospect  of sanctions relief should they deliver on a deal.

“If the P5+1  negotiators were to get the Iranians to freeze all uranium enrichment, they  should all get lavish raises, because that would be a remarkable achievement,”  Clawson said. “But it’s silly for the White House to say this bill undercuts  Rouhani. It reinforces Rouhani, because he can go to Khamenei and say that the  West has always said things will get worse until there’s an  agreement.”

Complicating negotiations is the mere science of nuclear  enrichment: At this point, advances in Iran’s program make an interim deal much  harder to forge than it would have been even six months ago. Iran has developed  and installed IR2M centrifuges that enrich uranium at three to five times the  efficiency of their older models, allowing them to spin low-enriched stockpiles  into weapons-grade material at a quicker pace than UN inspectors can detect the  shift.

That means uranium enriched at just 3.5% could be speedily  converted, making a higher percentage cutoff no longer acceptable to Western  negotiators.

“I’d be willing to listen to the totality of any package,”  Menendez said, when asked whether he would entertain an interim deal in which  Iran agreed to enrich uranium at no higher than 3.5%.

The House of  Representatives already passed its own version of the bill over the summer. The  effort was led by Democrats, passing by a vote of 400 to 20.

“There’s  always a pull and tug between the executive branch and the legislative branch  when it comes to foreign policy,” Congressman Eliot Engel (D-New York) said,  praising the negotiations process. “You could say, ‘hold off and let the  president’s people do all this.’ Or you could go into a classic good cop, bad  cop routine.”

Engel, who pioneered the House bill, said that the US has  waited until the “11th hour” to seriously address the Iranian crisis.

But  asked whether he would support a resolution giving the president authorization  for the use of force, Engel said, “we shouldn’t jump the gun.”

“If Iran  stops enriching, we should stop adding additional sanctions,” the congressman  said. “If Iran starts dismantling its program, we can start dismantling  sanctions.”

Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian  American Council, called the “freeze-for-freeze” proposal a nonstarter, and said  he does not expect a breakthrough within Congress’s set time frame.

“This  is not good cop, bad cop. This is good cop, insane cop,” Parsi said in a phone  interview. “Khamenei has given Rouhani a lot of rope. And if he fails, he has a  lot of rope to hang himself on.” The clocks

Since his September speech to  the United Nations in New York, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has repeatedly  said that Israel supports the negotiations process and seeks a peaceful  resolution to the nuclear dispute.

But in what represents yet another  public disagreement with Obama in a series of many, Netanyahu, through  intermediaries, is encouraging US lawmakers to pass the bill, because he is  convinced that further pressure is the only way to force Iran to  capitulate.

“I don’t want to comment on any specific legislation in the  Senate, but I can say this,” Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said in an  interview in Washington. “Netanyahu emphasized the formula of the equation: The  greater the pressure, the greater the chances… for diplomacy to  succeed.”

Administration officials recognize the role Israel’s government  has played in the lobbying effort.

“The point of contention is not the  diplomatic process per se. It’s whether, at this moment in time, that process  would be strengthened or weakened by additional congressional action,” Harris  said. “Those that support congressional action are not saying, let’s scuttle the  diplomatic process.

What they are saying is, the diplomatic process is  far more likely to achieve results if we strengthen our posture.”

Asked  whether he thought Iran would ever fully cease nuclear enrichment, as Netanyahu  demands, Harris conceded it is unlikely.

“It may never happen,” he said,  “but if I’m selling my house, I don’t open with my price.”

Michael  Zolandz, a sanctions lawyer representing firms in Europe and Asia trying to  abide by the current regime, said he worries that more penalties will compound  pressure on his clients.

“The concrete impact of new legislation is both  political and strategic – even if the bill has a phase-in period, it will  immediately change the calculus in negotiations,” Zolandz said. “New legislation  could have a dynamic impact on the US’s ability to negotiate with the Iranians,  as well as our allies.”

Zolandz expects the current sanctions regime will  continue to damage Iran’s economy, so long as Obama maintains strict enforcement  and closes loopholes in the laws with executive orders.

But “there is a  limit to how effective the status quo can be,” Zolandz said. “The question of  whether you can continue to effectuate change through the status quo is really  difficult to answer, because good data on the Iranian economy is hard to come  by.”

Multiple clocks are ticking: One in Congress, one in the White  House, one in Jerusalem and two in Tehran. Calculated or not, the Iranians have  allowed their program to advance so far ahead of any developed negotiations  process that they will struggle to cut a deal without appearing to capitulate to  Western demands. That’s a real political problem for the Rouhani government, if  it truly wants a deal.

The second clock is entirely their own: Should  they choose nuclear breakout, Iran reserves the ability to do so at any time, so  long as their program’s infrastructure remains in place.

The White House  insists that US intelligence agencies are capable of detecting breakout in Iran,  which they determine would occur not in publicly acknowledged facilities but in  covert plants, likely slowing down the process.

Contacted for this  article, White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the administration does  not seek an openended delay of the legislation.

“There may come a point  where additional sanctions are necessary,” Meehan said.

“The window for  negotiation is limited, and if progress isn’t made, there may be a time when  more sanctions are, in fact, necessary.”

The final clock running its  course is in Geneva. This week, the consequences of Iran’s decisions are real  and immediate.

Whether or not Zarif comes to the table with an actual,  meaningful proposal will determine how Israel prepares going forward; how  Congress legislates its punishments; and the wearing patience of a president,  desperate for a deal that he knows may never come to pass.

“They’re  trying to use the time that Rouhani has, because there’s no question that  Rouhani also has a difficult internal situation,” Albright said. “And this is  what diplomacy’s about – figuring out what you can do with the person at the  other side of the table.”