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Obama Threatens to Veto the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act

Like many Americans and Israelis I watched expectantly President Obama’s State of the Union Address (SOTUS)  before a joint session of Congress crammed into the House Chamber. I was looking for a reaction from the Congressional audience on the issue of the P5+1 agreement implemented on January 20th. Iran’s President Rouhani had basically told  the P5+1  in a CNN  interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland that the Islamic regime was not going to dismantle their nuclear program. Instead they were going to plough ahead with research and development on advanced centrifuges and would not swap the Arak heavy water plant that would produce plutonium for a bomb.

In  light of these jarring comments made in Davos, Switzerland  by President Rouhani  at the World Economic  Forum, you would have prudently thought that the President would have changed his mind about  vetoing  the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act (NWFIA), S. 1881. Obama made it clear that he was proceeding with the P5+1 deal as a diplomatic way of  avoiding  military action to disable the Islamic Regime’s  nuclear weapons capability.  A capability that according to Israeli PM Netanyahu  speaking at the Annual Conference of the Institute for National Security studies at Tel Aviv University  (INSS) was  “six weeks away from achievement when the P5+1 deal was signed” on November 24, 2013 in Geneva.

President Obama fired a bow shot directed at NWFIA sponsors Sens. Kirk and Menendez, and 57 other co-sponsors of S. 1881, as well as the Resolution introduced in by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor  (R-VA)  and Minority Leader Steny  Hoyer (D-Md.) supporting its passage.

Obama said:

Let me be clear if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it.

For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed.

If Iran’s leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions, and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon.  But if Iran’s leaders do seize the chance, then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.

It is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program – and rolled parts of that program back – for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium. It is not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify, every day, that Iran is not building a bomb.

If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.

Watch this C-SPAN video clip of the nuclear Iran segment of his SOTUS:

The immediate reaction was clearly stony silence from the Republican members of both chambers in the audience.

According to a  Jerusalem Postarticle on the President’s veto threat, NWFIA co-sponsor Sen. Kirk said:

“The American people – Democrats and Republicans alike – overwhelmingly want Iran held accountable during any negotiations. While the president promises to veto any new Iran sanctions legislation, the Iranians have already vetoed any dismantlement of their nuclear infrastructure,” Kirk added, calling his bill an “insurance policy” for Congress.

The Hill  Global Affairs blog reported the dissembling  the morning after  the President’s SOTUS remarks on a nuclear Iran by some Democratic co-sponsors of NWFIA in the wake of the President’s public veto threat.  Note these Senators’ comments:

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said on MSNBC Tuesday night that he didn’t endorse the bill so that it could be voted on during negotiations with Iran. “Give peace a chance,” he said.

“I did not sign it with the intention that it would ever be voted upon or used upon while we were negotiating,” Manchin said. “I signed it because I wanted to make sure the president had a hammer, if he needed it and showed them how determined we were to do it and use it, if we had to.”

[…]

“Now is not the time for a vote on the Iran sanctions bill,” Coons said Wednesday at a Politico event, according to The Huffington Post.

The senator clarified that he still supports the bill but warned advancing it now could damage ongoing negotiations toward a final agreement with Iran.

[…]

“I’m not frustrated,” Menendez told The Huffington Post on Tuesday after Obama’s address. “The president has every right to do what he wants.”

The Hill Global Affairs blog noted the Senate reaction  to NWFIA :

Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the second-highest ranking Democrat, Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the fourth-highest ranking Democrat, and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have said they are against the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has also suggested he’s leaning toward not allowing a vote on it.

On Wednesday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said the Senate should move the sanctions bill forward to the floor, predicting it would have a veto-proof majority.

Meanwhile, Reuters reported on Monday that lawmakers in both the House and Senate are considering a nonbinding resolution that expresses concern about Iran’s nuclear program.

Backing what Sen. Kirk said in his response to the President was further evidence from former  UN nuclear weapons inspector David Albright at the Washington, DC Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS).  Both he and the sanctions analysis team from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies held a well attended briefing for Capitol Hill Staffers on Monday, January 27th.  Albright was quoted in the Los Angeles Times citing an ISIS  report on the technical aspects of the accord implemented on January 20th that allows Iran to continue research over the next six months on several types of advanced centrifuges already at Natanz:

[The accord]  is not expected to seriously affect Iran’s centrifuge research and development program. Albright said he hopes to persuade the six powers to push for much stricter limits on centrifuge research and development when they negotiate the final agreement. The issue has to be addressed much more aggressively.

Cliff May of FDD, co-sponsor of the Capitol Hill event with Albright  of  ISIS,  observed in an NRO Corner article:

If Iran’s rulers faithfully comply with every commitment they have so far made, at the end of this six-month period, they will be about three months — instead of two months — away from breakout capacity.

Yesterday, at the annual conference of the  Institute for National Security studies (INSS)  at Tel Aviv University, there was a dialog between former CIA Director Gen. David Petreaus and Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin,  former  IDF military intelligence chief.  The contrast between their positions on the Iran nuclear threat was most telling:

General (ret.) David Petraeus: The United States is war weary and suffers from a “Vietnam syndrome.” However, it still has major strategic capabilities, and President Obama will not hesitate to use force against Iran, if necessary.

Major General (ret.) Amos Yadlin: What keeps me awake at night is the Iranian issue. The Iranian nuclear program aspires to attain a nuclear capability. The only viable leverage – sanctions and a credible military threat – are weakening, and this is most worrisome. Also troubling: the status quo on the Palestinian issue is not favorable, and the relations with the United States are not on the same level as before – these must be restored.

If you are a gambler, which of the two former military leaders, would you bet on to make a decision in the sovereign national interests of Israel regarding a nuclear Iran?  I know who I would.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.

Senate Democrats Back off New Iran Sanctions Legislation

As if on cue, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani trumpets how the Islamic Regime won big time with the announced Joint Plan of Action (JPA) implementation last Sunday in Geneva.  As The Guardian noted in a report, “Iran nuclear deal means ‘surrender’ for Western Powers, says Rouhani”:

Speaking on Tuesday in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, Rouhani said the “Geneva deal means the surrender of big powers before the great nation of Iran”.

Perhaps one of those victories is the ability of the Islamic regime to pursue what we would call the “nth” development of new, more efficient centrifuges to enrich uranium. Enrichment for only one purpose, to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.  The Obama White House  confirmed that Iran has been allowed to pursue ‘centrifuge research’.     The Washington Free Beacon noted this White House news conference call exchange in an article,” Iran permitted to continue advanced nuclear research”:

Asked by a reporter on a conference call if the deal stops “Iran from designing new types of centrifuges,” a senior administration official admitted that the deal does not prohibit this activity.

[…]

“So what’s the practical effect of this R&D [research and development] clarification that you labored over so hard? What does it preclude them from doing?” the reporter asked.

It—I mean, their commitment is to continue their current enrichment R&D practices, and those are the practices that are laid out in the November [IAEA} Director General’s report,” said one of two senior administration officials on the press briefing. “This—that’s been documented, and that’s what they were—that’s what they will continue to do.”

As we had reported  in an Iconoclast post on possible veto-proof  bipartisan Iran sanctions  legislation in the US Senate (S1881) that  the centrifuge research issue had allegedly hit a snag.

Now in the wake of Rouhani’s speech yesterday in Iran comes word that the White House is soft peddling the Iranian President’s trumpeting of this alleged “victory”.    An AFP article, “White House plays down Rouhani crowing on Nuclear Deal” notes these comments by White House spokesperson Jay Carney at yesterday’s press conference:

It is not surprising to us and nor should it be surprising to you that the Iranians are describing the agreement in a certain way towards their domestic audience. It does not matter what they say, it matters what they do.

Problem is it could  thwart the Obama Administration’s campaign to stifle new bi-partisan sanctions legislation , the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act (NWFIA), S1881.

However, under White House threat to veto  NWFIA, Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid ,according to a report from  The Weekly Standard, has blocked bringing the measure up for a floor vote.  Note these comments from  Reid, Democrat  Senators and Minority Leader McConnell in The Hill report,  “Dems back away from Iran sanctions legislation”:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday he wanted to “wait and see how this plays out” before moving forward with a vote on the sanctions. Reid declined to say when he might bring the bill, which has 59 co-sponsors, including 16 Democrats, to a vote.

The majority leader noted 10 of his committee chairmen are opposed to the bill.

“We believe we ought to have that vote,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday. “We’re going to continue to press the majority leader to allow a vote on an issue that obviously enjoys the support of a very large bipartisan majority here in the Senate.”

“I think the Iran sanctions bill is meant to strengthen the president, not in any way impede the ongoing negotiations, which should and hopefully will be successful,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a Menendez-Kirk co-sponsor, told reporters Tuesday. “So as long as there’s progress, and as long as the progress is meaningful and visible, there may not need to be a vote.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), another co-sponsor, said both the administration and Congress wanted to reach a diplomatic solution through negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, if that was possible.

“As far as trying to work out with the administration a strategy so we have more harmony, let’s talk about it,” Cardin said. “So I think that’s what’s going on right now.”

Prior to the November 24th announcement in Geneva of the P5+1 interim agreement with Iran,  Reid had backed new sanctions legislation according to  a report in the Los Angeles Times on November 21, 2013.

Yesterday, an Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET) conference call on Iran’s intentions over its nuclear program   featured former Israeli Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger and Dr. Michael Ledeen of the Washington, DC-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.  Dr. Ledeen is an impassioned advocate for both sanctions and support for regime change via what he argues could be a significant Iranian opposition.  Amb. Ettinger suggested that perhaps something more is required, when he commented:

Only one option to avoid facing an Iran which could become an uncontrollable strategic apocalyptic threat. That option is surgical, devastating, disproportional military preemption against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.

Turkey’s Illegal Gold Trade with Iran

In our Iconoclast post on Harold Rhode’s speculations regarding a possible alliance of convenience between the Gulenists and Secularists that might topple Premier Erdogan, he drew attention to the illicit gold trading conducted by the state-owned Halkbank.  Suleyman  Aslan, the head of Halkbank at the center of the illicit  gold trading  had been prominent among the 52  arrested in the swirl of events in the current Turkish corruption  scandal.  Jonathan Schanzer and  Mark Dubowitz of the Washington, DC-based Foundation for Defense of Democracy published an article in Foreign Policy Magazine  (FPM) covering  research into the “gas for gold ” scheme that the Obama Administration failed to stop, “Iran’s Turkish Gold Rush”.

Messrs. Schanzer and Dubowitz drew attention to the two principals at the center of the gas for gold trade between Turkey and Iran:

The drama surrounding two personalities are particularly eye-popping: Police reportedly discovered shoe boxes containing $4.5 million in the home of Suleyman Aslan, the CEO of state-owned Halkbank, and also arrested Reza Zarrab, an [Azeri] Iranian businessman who primarily deals in the gold trade, and who allegedly oversaw deals worth almost $10 billion last year alone.

The FPM article on the Turkey Iran  ‘gas for gold” trade  described  how it worked:

The Turks exported some $13 billion of gold to Tehran directly, or through the UAE, between March 2012 and July 2013. In return, the Turks received Iranian natural gas and oil. But because sanctions prevented Iran from getting paid in dollars or euros, the Turks allowed Tehran to buy gold with their Turkish lira — and that gold found its way back to Iranian coffers.

Earlier this year in May 2013 the FDD teamed with Roubini Global Economics and conducted an investigation into the dynamics of the gold trade and its significant alleviation of currency restrictions under sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program. The FDD report, “Iran’s Golden Loophole” indicated the scope and impact of the gas for gold scheme:

These foreign exchange reserves are Iran’s principal hedge against a severe balance of payments crisis, and help Iran withstand international pressure over its nuclear program. Since July 30, 2012, when the Obama administration issued an executive order prohibiting gold exports to the government of Iran, Iran has received over $6 billion in payment in gold for its energy exports—the value of the lack of enforcement of the golden loophole—mainly as gold payments to the Central Bank of Iran. These gold exports to the Central Bank of Iran already are a sanctionable activity under existing U.S. law; gold exports to any entity in Iran will become sanction able as of July 1, 2013. This report estimates that, unless gold sanctions are enforced, Iran could receive up to $20 billion a year, representing around thirty percent of Iran’s projected 2013 energy exports.

Schanzer and Dubowitz questioned why Turkey, a NATO ally of the US, had engaged in the Gold trade with Iran, and why the Obama Administration hadn’t closed it:

The Turks — NATO allies who have assured Washington that they oppose Iran’s military-nuclear program — brazenly conducted these massive gold transactions even after the Obama administration tightened sanctions on Iran’s precious metals trade in July 2012.

Turkey, however, chose to exploit a loophole that technically permitted the transfer of billions of dollars of gold to so-called “private” entities in Iran. Iranian Ambassador to Turkey Ali Reza Bikdeli recently praised Halkbank for its “smart management decisions in recent years [that] have played an important role in Iranian-Turkish relations.” Halkbank insists that its role in these transactions was entirely legal.

The U.S. Congress and President Obama closed this “golden loophole” in January 2013. At the time, the Obama administration could have taken action against state-owned Halkbank, which processed these sanctions-busting transactions, using the sanctions already in place to cut the bank off from the U.S. financial system. Instead, the administration lobbied to make sure the legislation that closed this loophole did not take effect for six months — effectively ensuring that the gold transactions continued apace until July 1. That helped Iran accrue billions of dollars more in gold, further undermining the sanctions regime.

In defending its decision not to enforce its own sanctions, the Obama administration insisted that Turkey only transferred gold to private Iranian citizens. The administration argued that, as a result, this wasn’t an explicit violation of its executive order.

Perhaps as the authors point out, the Administration had other concerns  not disturbing the relations with the Erdogan regime regarding  the latter’s role in the regional  alliance contending with the 33 month Syrian civil war . There was Turkey’s support for rebel factions and the safe haven it provided the massive stream of 1.5 million refugees.  However could  it have been  the  nearly $6 billion “they estimate the golden loophole” could have provided  Iran in the way of an ”olive branch” used during the secret negotiations  by the Obama Administration that led up to the November 24, 2013 P5+1  interim agreement?

According to a Zaman Today article, cited by the authors,  the illicit “gas for gold” trade between Iran could be vastly more  significant: “The  suspicious transactions between Iran and Turkey could exceed $119 billion — nine times the total of gas-for-gold transactions reported. “

There are suspicions about whether the “gas for gold” scheme enabled Iran to pay for machinery used in the production a new class of centrifuges announced by AEOI head Ali Akbar Salehi this week. Then there is the question of payments for Russian contractors and personnel engaged in projects like the Arak heavy water reactor that would enable Iran to produce plutonium.  And lest we also not forget  could have been used  to fund payments in the  waivers granted  by the US  for the Iranian  oil trade with China and others.  Clearly, the current corruption probe in Turkey may lift the veil on a vast underworld of transactions with Turkey  that may have enabled Iran to continue, if not accelerate, achievement of their nuclear weapons program objective: nuclear hegemony destabilizing the Middle East and the World.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.

All Praises due Sens. Kirk and Menendez on Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act

Yesterday, as I entered a December monthly luncheon meeting of the Tiger Bay Club in Pensacola I was taken aside by a fellow member who told me how much he valued the work of Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) on the latest Iran sanctions effort.  We were there to hear David Wasserman of the Cook Report and assistant editor of the National Journalgive a presentation on the 2014 electoral map for the crucial midterm elections for President Obama. He is seemingly in trouble over the debacle of his keystone domestic program, the Affordable Care Act.  We have great respect for Sen. Kirk given our September 2008 NER interview with him when he was a Member of the US House of Representatives from a suburban Chicago  Congressional District, involved with the bi-partisan effort working on early Iran nuclear sanctions legislation.

My Tiger Bay colleague was referring to new bipartisan sanctions legislation, the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act co-sponsored by Sen. Kirk, a ranking member of the Senate Banking Committee and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  Prominent among the 26  co-sponsors of the new sanctions legislation were Sens. Casey (D-PA), Graham (R-SC), McCain (R-AZ), Rubio (R-FL), Schumer (D-NY), Warner (D-VA). Clearly, these Senators are skeptical that an ultimate agreement can be achieved with the Islamic Regime in Tehran based on the P5+1 interim agreement and Joint Plan of Action (JPA). This despite President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry’s lobbying effort aimed at providing a hiatus to resolve issues with Iran. They are not the only ones; French Foreign Minister Fabius also renewed his dour prediction that a final agreement to prevent nuclear breakout and a weapons delivery capability may not be possible.  The US Senators and French Foreign Minister Fabius can point to a Press TV news release with comments by Ali Akbar Salehi, Iranian head of their Atomic Energy Organization.  Salehi said the country’s nuclear facilities, including Arak heavy water reactor, will continue running, dismissing Western governments’ call on Tehran to suspend activities at the facility”.

Kirk’s and Menendez’s statements introducing the new legislation reflected a deepening skepticism on Capitol Hill and in polls across America and in Israel that Iran will honor any agreements.  This is based on its track record of deception, relentless pursuit of nuclear hegemony in the Middle East and its global reach of terrorism against the West.  They commented:

“The American people rightfully distrust Iran’s true intentions and they deserve an insurance policy to defend against Iranian deception during negotiations,” Sen. Kirk said. “This is a responsible, bipartisan bill to protect the American people from Iranian deception and I urge the Majority Leader to give the American people an up or down vote.”

“Current sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and a credible threat of future sanctions will require Iran to cooperate and act in good faith at the negotiating table,” said Sen. Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “The Iranians last week blamed the Administration for enforcing sanctions; now, they criticize Congress. The burden rests with Iran to negotiate in good faith and verifiably terminate its nuclear weapons program. Prospective sanctions will influence Iran’s calculus and accelerate that process toward achieving a meaningful diplomatic resolution.”

Jennifer Rubin in a Washington Post column, Friday, “Congress is trying to stop a war, not start one”, outlined what the new bi-partisan sanctions legislation contains:

. . . to enact sanctions if Iran cheats during the interim agreement or fails to reach a final deal and to reaffirm the parameters of a final deal (terms embodied in United Nations resolutions and articulated by three presidents, including this one).

Those parameters include “dismantl[ing] Iran’s illicit nuclear infrastructure, including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and facilities, the heavy water reactor and production plant at Arak, and any nuclear weapon components and technology, so that Iran is precluded from a nuclear breakout capability and prevented from pursuing both uranium and plutonium pathways to a nuclear weapon.” In addition, Iran must come into compliance with all U.N. resolutions and allow round-the-clock inspections.

The bill includes broad waiver authority for the Administration. (This had been a concern for some Democrats.)

At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, President Obama’s Press Spokesman Jay Carney fired back, “We don’t think this action is necessary. We don’t think it will be enacted. If it were [passed] the president would veto it.”

President Obama in his year end press conference, prior to his departure for a vacation with family in Hawaii, responded to questions about the new Senate sanctions initiative, saying:

What I’ve said to members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, is there is no need for new sanctions legislation, not yet.

Now, if Iran comes back and says, we can’t give you assurances that we’re not going to weaponize, if they’re not willing to address some of their capabilities that we know could end up resulting in them having breakout capacity, it’s not going to be hard for us to turn the dials back, strengthen sanctions even further. I’ll work with members of Congress to put even more pressure on Iran. But there’s no reason to do it right now.

Referring to a recent Administration action black-listing 12 Iranian companies following the P5+1 interim agreement, Jonathan Schanzer of the Washington, DC –based Foundation for Defense of Democracies commented in a Politico column, “The White House Can’t Have it Both Ways on Iran”:

Actively punishing Iran for its mendacity while trying to selectively reduce other sanctions (in this case, automotive, petrochemicals and precious metals) for the sake of diplomacy projects two competing messages. It should come as no surprise that this dual approach has inspired the confidence of neither Iran nor Congress. Indeed, the only actors out there who are heartened by Washington’s conflicted policies are the companies eyeing investments in Iran. They see confusion, and therefore ambiguity. And that’s a whole lot better than the investment environment of just a few months ago, when Iran appeared to be completely off limits.

Watch this Wall Street Journal video interview with Schanzer of FDD by Mary Kissel discussing “Totaling up Iran’s Sweet Sanction Deal”:

In our recent post on the efficacy of sanctions we concluded:

…military force coupled with improved sanctions may be the only option that brings the Islamofanatics in Tehran to heel.  Israel demonstrated that in both Iraq (Operation Opera 1981) and Syria (Operation Orchard 2007). Despite initial criticism, the US subsequently showed begrudging respect. That is not lost on the worried Saudis and the Gulf Emirates, critical of US policies in the roiling Middle East.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.