Congress prepares letters, initiatives ahead of AIPAC confab

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As the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference gets underway in Washington Sunday, Capitol Hill staff contacts said they were tracking at least three initiatives to demonstrate Congressional support for the US-Israel alliance.

Among the efforts staffers were aware of, demonstrations of support for U.S. foreign aid to Israel, as well as to its treaty partners Egypt and Jordan; and for renewal of the U.S-Israel Strategic Partnership.

On Iran, sources said there would likely be a House letter, downgraded from a resolution, which is being drafted by the offices of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and  House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland).

The House letter, according to one source briefed on a draft of it Friday, asks the administration for regular  and serious consultations with Congress as the Iran nuclear negotiations go forward. It does not include demands for zero enrichment. To the extent that extraneous issues are included, they are not linked to the nuclear deal, the source said.  The letter also mentions the administration coming back to Congress for sanctions relief if there is a deal.

Sources said it was unclear but likely that there would also be a similar Senate letter. AIPAC members are also likely, as the Back Channel reported Thursday, to lobby Senators next week to sign on as co-sponsors to the Menendez-Kirk Iran sanctions bill (S1881) that President Obama has vowed to veto. The bill was shelved earlier this month with 59 co-sponsors. AIPAC has called for a delay in the vote, presumably until it has a veto proof 67 co-sponsors signed on, if they are able to reach it.

Sources said they were not sure if Democrats who had to date declined to sign on as co-sponsors might change their mind at the behest of AIPAC lobbying next week.

Meantime, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) announced they would hold a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday afternoon. Netanyahu is also due to meet with President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, and will speak at AIPAC on Tuesday, introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), who , with Illinois Republican Mark Kirk, spearheaded the Iran sanctions bill that the White House warns could scuttle Iran negotiations.

Kerry will address the AIPAC conference Monday evening at 6:15pm ET, the State Department announced. US Treasury Secretary Jacob “Jack” Lew will also represent the Obama administration at AIPAC this year.

Senate Republicans this week tried to attach the Iran sanctions as an amendment to veterans’ benefit legislation, which they voted to defeat after it was stripped out.  The head of the American Legion denounced the Republican vote to defeat the bill, and earlier effort to tie it up with controversial Iran sanctions, as “inexcusable.”

“There was a right way to vote and a wrong way to vote today, and 41 senators chose the wrong way,” American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger said in a press statement Thursday. “That’s inexcusable.”

(Photo from AIPAC of members of Congress, 2010.) 

US negotiator hears, amid skepticism, Senate support for diplomacy with Iran

With support waning for Iran sanctions legislation, top US Iran negotiator Wendy Sherman and Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen testified on the Iran nuclear deal to the Senate foreign relations panel Tuesday.

Despite sinking prospects for the Iran sanctions bill he co-sponsored, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez (D-NJ) expressed continued deep skepticism about the terms of the interim Iran nuclear deal which went into effect on Jan. 20, and to be looking for ways to constrain the administration’s hand for negotiating a comprehensive Iran nuclear deal.

But the nitpicking, somewhat sour tone of the hearing was broken by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), who made an impassioned case for aggressive US diplomacy with Iran, while defending colleagues who supported the Iran sanctions legislation from charges of war-mongering.

“We have to be able to look allies and citizens & [US service members] in the eye and tell them we exhausted every diplomatic effort,” Kaine told the hearing. “We have got to give diplomacy a chance. …. We have to return to the tradition of aggressive diplomacy.”

“Everyone would prefer a diplomatic path to [a] non-nuclear Iran,” Kaine said. “We have good faith differences on tactics.”

Kaine’s comments, praised by several other Senators, prompted Sherman to reach out to lawmakers, some of whom had championed the sanctions legislation the Obama White House fiercely opposed and threatened to veto. “I don’t believe any of you are war mongers,” Sherman said. “I don’t believe anyone prefers war.”

If diplomacy is unable to succeed in getting Iran to forgo a nuclear weapon and the US ultimately decides it needs to use force, “I want to be able to say at the end of the day, we have exhausted every opportunity to negotiate a diplomatic” solution, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) said, noting he had not declared a position on the sanctions bill, and praising Kaine’s defense of colleagues on both sides of it.

Another member of the panel, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), noted that he had been on a panel with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the Munich Security Summit last weekend.

Earlier in the hearing, Menendez had pressed Sherman on the administration’s terms for a comprehensive nuclear deal. Sherman said she doesn’t want to negotiate with Iran in public, ahead of comprehensive Iran nuclear deal talks set to get underway in Vienna Feb. 18. But in response to his questions, she said the United States does not believe the underground Fordo site should be an enrichment facility in a final deal, or that Iran should have a heavy water reactor.

“Where Fordo is concerned, we see no reason for it to remain an enrichment facility,” Sherman said. Asked about Arak, she said, “We do not believe [there is] any reason for [a] heavy water reactor.”

Asked about how many centrifuges Iran could have in a final deal, Sherman responded, “I am not going to get into a specific number in this setting, but that needs to be addressed.” “Will there need to be a reduction?” Menendez asked. “Yes,” Sherman said.

She also clarified some misunderstandings about the centrifuge research and development Iran is permitted to do under the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA). Iran, under the JPOA, cannot work on advanced centrifuges not listed in Nov 14 2013 IAEA report, she said. It can only replace centrifuges in enrichment sites of the same type, not with more advanced models, she said.

The Joint Plan of Action “required Iran to come clean on past actions as part of a comprehensive agreement,” Sherman said. She suggested there will be an additional step or steps between the Phase 1 deal and the final deal, to bring Iran into compliance with UN Security Council resolutions, that would require Iran to address questions such as possible military dimensions to its nuclear program and alleged weaponization work carried out at the Parchin facility to which the IAEA has not gotten requested access.

“Iran has not rejected” addressing it, Sherman said. “It knows it has to be addressed.” Continue reading

White House warns new Iran bill could scuttle diplomacy

The White House, State Department and ten Senate Committee chairs warned on Thursday that new Iran sanctions legislation introduced  by Senator Bob Menendez risks undermining U.S. diplomatic efforts to reach a peaceful resolution with Iran over its nuclear  program.

“We don’t want to see action that will proactively undermine American diplomacy,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told journalists at the White House Thursday. “We made it very clear to the Senate that it is not the time for new Iran sanctions. We don’t think it will be or should be enacted.”

“New sanctions would undermine the prospects for a successful comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran,” the US intelligence community wrote in an unclassified assessment provided to members of Congress December 10th.

The assessment was cited by 10 Senate Committee chairs in an unusual letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid urging against new Iran sanctions at this time.

“At this time, as negotiations are ongoing, we believe that new sanctions would play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see the negotiations fail,” the ten Senate committee chairs wrote, in a letter to Reid that was signed by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota), Armed Services Committee chair Carl Levin (D-Michigan), Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-California), Senate Judiciary Committee Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), Appropriations Committee Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland), Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-California), Commerce Committee Chair John Rockefeller (West Virginia), Homeland Security Committee chair Tom Carper, Energy Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), and Health, Education and Labor Committee chair Tom Harkin of Iowa.

Several veteran Hill hands expressed amazement at what one called the “unprecedented” letter by the ten Senate committee chairs, several of whom are Jewish, for publicly countering a fellow Senate committee chair Menendez and AIPAC, which has been pressing members of Congress to back the measure. “The new Senate bill defines parameters for a final agreement with Iran,” AIPAC wrote in a Tweet Thursday.

Sen. Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and chair of the Senate foreign relations panel, on Thursday introduced the Nuclear Weapon Free Act of 2013 on behalf of 26 Senators, including several facing reelection races next year. Among the co-sponsors were Senators Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina), Marco Rubio (R-Florida), Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania). Continue reading

Top US Iran negotiator: Onus is on Iran to propose nuclear plan

The top US Iran negotiator told a Senate panel Thursday that “the onus is on Iran” to bring a credible and verifiable action plan to the table at nuclear talks in Geneva next month for the US to determine if the new Iranian leadership is serious about a nuclear deal. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman also urged Congress to hold off on new Iran sanctions until she and her counterparts hear from Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the P5+1 talks in Geneva October 15-16th.

“We will know in the next short period of time whether there is anything serious here or not,” Sherman told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday.

“The onus is on Iran,” to bring a substantive plan to the Geneva talks, Sherman stressed. “We will not put ideas on the table until we hear from Iran.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif, in a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry and other P5+1 foreign ministers in New York last week, said Iran would complete a comprehensive nuclear agreement within a year, Sherman told the committee. But a shorter term confidence building measure is desirable, Sherman said, to put time on the clock and reduce Iran’s nuclear capabilities while that longer negotiation would take place.

Under questioning by Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, Sherman declined to say whether the U.S. would rule out a final deal with Iran that would permit it to pursue domestic enrichment.

“You know, a negotiation begins with everyone having their maximalist positions,” Sherman said. “We have ours, too, that they have to meet all their obligations under the (Non-Proliferation Treaty) NPT and UN Security Council. They have theirs too. Then you begin a negotiation.”

Asked by Rubio if President Obama would ever agree to a final deal in which Iran would have some domestic enrichment capacity, Sherman responded: “I am not going to negotiate in public, with all due respect,” she said. “I can only repeat what the President of the United States has said.”

The committee chair, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) said Iran’s actions would be critical for determining whether Congress would support future sanctions relief.

“What is important now is what Iran does, not what it says, [we don’t] need more words,” Menendez said. “I would like to see compliance and the suspension of uranium enrichment…I am also serious about relief from sanctions if Iran meets its UN Security Council responsibilities.”

(Photo: FILE U. S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman arrives for a meeting on Syria at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva. Reuters.)

Appointments: Frank Lowenstein advising Kerry on Middle East; economist may move up

More John Kerry aides have arrived at the State Department, officials tell the Back Channel.

Frank Lowenstein, former Senate Foreign Relations committee chief of staff and foreign policy advisor to Senator Kerry, has joined the Kerry State Department as a senior advisor, currently focusing on Middle East issues, officials tell the Back Channel. Lowenstein is currently working in the office of David Hale, the acting Middle East peace envoy, and may be being groomed to succeed him, the official said. Lowenstein joins State after a year at the Podesta Group.

Lowenstein joins the fray amid a flurry of preparations for Kerry's and President Obama's upcoming trips to the region. Kerry leaves Sunday for his first foreign trip as Secretary of State, heading to the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. President Obama travels to Israel, Ramallah and Jordan next month.

US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro is in town this week helping prepare for President Obama’s trip, he said on Twitter Wednesday. Also in town to help prepare for Obama's trip, Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror, an Israeli official told the Back Channel, as well as Palestinian negotiator Saab Erekat, the State Department said.  (Earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni his envoy on Palestinian peace talks.) Continue reading

Iran envoy blames Israel for Bulgaria bus bombing


Iran’s UN envoy denied on Wednesday that Iran had any role in the July 18th Bulgaria bus bombing that killed five Israeli tourists, and charged Israel with plotting the attack. His comments came as Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor was in Israel to discuss the bombing probe, and as the chairman of the House intelligence panel said he believed Hezbollah carried out the attack under the direction of Iran.

“I believe there were certainly elements of Hezbollah [involved] and I believe it was under the direction of their masters in Iran,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Michigan) told The Hill newspaper Wednesday.

“I think the president needs to call Iran on the carpet very publicly and tell them what we know,” Rogers added. “This is his time to stand up and do something bold.”

Iran’s UN envoy Mohammed Khazaee said Iran condemned the Bulgaria bus bombing but then suggested it was part of an Israeli plot to blame Iran.

“The representative of the Zionist criminal regime leveled baseless allegations against my country on the issue of recent terrorist attack in Bulgaria and Iran’s peaceful nature of nuclear activities,” Amb. Mohammad Khazaee said at a UN meeting on the Middle East Wednesday, according to a statement sent to Al Monitor by the Iranian mission to the UN.

“Such terrorist operation could only be planned and carried out by the same regime whose short history is full of state terrorism operations and assassinations aimed at implicating others for narrow political gains.”

Israel’s deputy UN ambassador Haim Waxman said the comments are “appalling, but not surprising” coming “from the same government that says the 9/11 attack was a conspiracy theory,” UN correspondent Colum Lynch reported.

A spokeswoman for US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said the office had no immediate comment. “Our position on the Bulgaria attack has been well documented so far I think,” Erin Pelton, a spokeswoman for Rice, said by email.

Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor John Brennan met with Israeli officials in Jerusalem Wednesday to discuss the Bulgaria bus bombing probe. Earlier in the week he  traveled to Bulgaria for briefings on the investigation. While he deferred to Bulgarian authorities to announce any findings to date, he did add that “there are clear indications that Hezbollah and Iran have been involved in terrorist plotting against innocents in many parts of the world,” he said at a news conference with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov July 24, the New York Times reported.

Analysts said Iran’s use of terrorism had become more aggressive over the past year. Continue reading