How Trump Can Confront Iran without Blowing up the Nuclear Deal

Iran

President Trump seems determined to not certify that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal when that question comes before him this fall. But that would be only the beginning of the story. He could follow such a determination with actions that risk blowing up the deal and the US-Iran relationship. Or he could — as some of his senior national security advisers prefer — adopt a more careful, complicated approach.

There’s a growing push both inside and outside the administration to craft a way to acknowledge what many see as Iran’s violations of the nuclear agreement without precipitating a crisis. Many worry that provoking the deal’s collapse would not only risk an unpredictable and dangerous escalation but also hamper the international effort to confront Iran’s regional expansion, support for terrorism and other mischief.

The question is whether Trump’s national security team can persuade him to take a middle approach to a nuclear deal he campaigned against and clearly despises.

In a news conference last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson laid out his view that the Iran deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), must not dominate the administration’s Iran focus. Tillerson admitted he disagrees with the president on whether the agreement can be salvaged.

“The JCPOA represents a small slice of the Iranian relationship,” he said, adding, “We continue to have conversations about the utility of that agreement, whether it has utility, whether it doesn’t have utility.”

“[President Trump] and I have differences of views on things like JCPOA and how we should use it,” he said.

Tillerson argued for certifying Iran’s compliance when it came up in April and July. Both times, Trump yielded to Tillerson’s view. But in an interview with the Wall Street Journal last week, Trump suggested he won’t again.

“If it was up to me, I would have had them non-compliant 180 days ago,” Trump said, adding that next time, “I think they’ll be non-compliant.”

The intelligence community believes that Iran’s violations are minor and do not amount to a material breach. But the president’s view is that Iran is in violation of the spirit of the deal, a senior White House official told me. Under the law Congress passed, the certification is subjective.

It’s also unclear what follows non-certification. Trump could continue to waive nuclear sanctions on Iran or stop, effectively reimposing them. The White House admittedly does not know how the Iranian government would react to new sanctions, the official said.

Congress could also reimpose sanctions if Trump does not certify compliance. For many Republicans, having new negotiations with Iran would be nice but is not necessary. They agree with Trump that the deal is probably not worth saving.

“I don’t think we get much benefit from the deal, so it collapsing doesn’t trouble me all that much,” said Senator Tom Cotton. “The president’s instincts on Iran are sound.”

Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster argue that if Trump decides not to certify Iranian compliance, rather than scuttle the deal he can work to improve it and increase pressure on Iran in other ways, according to sources involved in the discussions.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo agrees with Tillerson and McMaster that Iran’s regional threats are the near-term priority. Unlike Tillerson, Pompeo has never supported certifying compliance.

McMaster’s team is leading an inter-agency policy review that is sure to call for expanding confrontation with Iran in places such as Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. The Iran deal, if in place, could be used as a pressure point while upping the ante on those fronts, experts argue.

Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and David Albright of Institute for Science and International Security have offered a middle approach they describe as “waive and slap,” recommending that Trump not certify compliance but continue to waive nuclear sanctions while imposing new sanctions on nonnuclear issues.

Skeptics doubt the Trump team can thread the needle, considering that once Trump declares noncompliance, there’s no way to predict what Iran will do. Also, tinkering with the deal or reimposing sanctions could cause new disputes with European allies and other partners, such as Russia and China.

“Even if they did a great job, it’s serious risks,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “And for what gain?”

If Trump is determined to get the United States out of the Iran deal, nobody can stop him. But if the majority of his national security team gets its way, Trump will repeat what he did with Cuba: make minimal changes to the policy, then declare he has undone Obama’s “terrible deal” and fulfilled a campaign promise.

And if Trump can’t bring himself to certify Iran’s compliance anymore, he should at least minimize the chances his decision will cause a diplomatic crisis and distract the United States from the mission of combating Iran’s other nefarious activities.

The Washington Post

If Trump has a Strategy on Israeli-Palestinian Peace, it’s Remaining a Secret

Abbas

If President Trump has a real strategy to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, it’s such a tightly held secret that even the parties involved don’t seem to know what it is. When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visits the White House this week, that mystery will be on full display.

“I want to see peace with Israel and the Palestinians,” Trump said last week. “There is no reason there’s not peace between Israel and the Palestinians — none whatsoever.”

Setting aside the patent absurdity of that statement, what’s clear is that the White House is willing to devote time and attention to new Middle East negotiations and the president wants to be personally involved.

The problem is there’s a glaring gap between Trump’s high-flying rhetoric and his still-unexplained strategy. As the Abbas visit approaches, there’s no clarity in sight.

Last week, a high-level Palestinian delegation led by chief negotiator Saeb Erekat traveled to Washington to prepare for the visit. The group met with Trump’s envoy on Middle East peace, Jason Greenblatt, as well as with White House and State Department officials.

Both sides are keeping expectations for the Trump-Abbas meeting low. Palestinian officials tell me the Trump team doesn’t seem to know exactly what Trump wants to discuss or propose. White House staff declined to say anything at all about their goals for the meeting. Some experts think that’s because there’s no depth to Trump’s approach.

“How you deal with Abbas is directly related to a broader strategy, which unless they haven’t announced it, they simply don’t have,” said former Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller. “It’s hard to see that this is going to turn out to be much more than a stage visit.”

In truth, there really isn’t much Trump and Abbas can agree to. There’s little hope that Abbas will give Trump what the US side wants, namely a promise to address the issue of incitement in the Palestinian territories or a pledge to curb the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s policy of paying families of terrorists who have attacked Israelis and Americans.

Likewise, there’s no prospect that Trump will deliver what Abbas wants — a commitment to press the Israelis into a freeze of settlement-building that would meet Palestinian standards. The United States has secured an informal agreement with the government of Benjamin Netanyahu to place some limits on building new settlements, a version of the “build up, not out” framework from the George W. Bush administration. But that falls short of what Abbas says is needed before negotiations can begin.

The meeting could be significant by itself, if Trump and Abbas can establish a personal rapport to build on in the future. But therein also lies a risk.

“The president has never met Abbas and that makes it an important meeting,” said former White House and State Department official Elliott Abrams. “But if he forms the opinion that Abbas is not strong enough to do a deal and then implement it, that will have a real impact on American policy.”

Sure to be present at the meeting is Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is overseeing Greenblatt’s work. Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, will reportedly join Donald Trump for a trip to Israel in late May.

Administration officials sometimes talk about an “outside-in” approach whereby a framework for peace negotiations would be arranged with Arab states and then folded into the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic. Details of that plan are hazy, and the Trump team has yet to explain how it plans to incentivize Arab states to buy in.

Martin Indyk, who served as President Barack Obama’s special envoy on this issue, said Trump’s approach of trying to find avenues to pursue is positive but cannot overcome the inability of Israeli and Palestinian leaders to make the political compromises necessary for real progress.

“Based on experience, there’s one principle that I operate on. By American willpower alone, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be resolved,” he said.

There are things the Trump team can do constructively, including bolstering Abbas by promoting economic development in the West Bank, Indyk said. Making small progress on the margins could improve the chances for peace down the line.

But by going for headlines, not trend lines, Trump is raising expectations and putting his administration’s already-thin credibility at risk. There can be dangerous consequences in the Middle East when high-stakes diplomacy fails. The new administration would be better off recognizing that peace is not in the offing.

The Washington Post

Targeting Assad’s Backers Encourages Real Negotiations

Washington- The Trump administration is working hard to come up with a comprehensive strategy for Syria after striking the forces of Bashar al-Assad earlier this month. To that end, congressional leaders are preparing a new push to get their old ideas for pressuring the Syrian president, Russia and Iran to the president’s desk.

The administration’s ongoing policy review on how to defeat ISIS hasn’t reached a consensus on what to do about the larger Syria conflict. Nobody expected President Trump, who campaigned promising to stay out of Syria, to intervene militarily in his first 100 days in office. Now that Assad’s chemical weapons attack has changed Trump’s mind, his government is committed to playing a more prominent role in solving the civil war.

The Trump administration needs tools to pressure Assad and his partners to engage in real negotiations on the way forward. Simply asking Moscow to abandon Assad without any real leverage is the same strategy the Obama administration pursued unsuccessfully for years. That’s where Congress comes in.

When lawmakers return from their recess next week, they will quickly begin moving several bills designed variously to sanction the Assad, Iranian and Russian governments, several lawmakers and congressional aides told me. Some of the bills are being reframed as ways to try to stop Assad’s atrocities, including one aimed at cutting off support for Iran’s ballistic missile program by House Foreign Affairs Committee leaders Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.).

“This legislation will give the administration much-needed diplomatic and financial leverage to help stop Assad’s slaughter of innocent Syrians,” Royce told me. “It encourages real negotiations by targeting Assad’s backers, Putin and the ayatollah,” referring to Russian President Vladi¬mir Putin and Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.

The House and Senate, led by Rep. Peter J. Roskam (R-Ill.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), also each have bills ready to go that would seek to isolate three Iranian commercial airlines, all of which are suspected to be funneling arms and fighters to Assad.

“As the main benefactor of Bashar al-Assad — whose regime has once again used chemical weapons to kill scores of men, women and children — Iran has consistently used commercial aircraft to transport the weapons and troops that have fueled the conflict in Syria which has claimed the lives of nearly 500,000 people,” Rubio and Roskam wrote to Trump on April 10.

Under this legislation, airlines that continue to engage in illicit activities on behalf of terrorist groups or rogue regimes would be placed back on the sanctions list that the Obama administration removed them from after the Iran nuclear deal was signed.

Republican lawmakers also want the Trump administration to cancel licenses that allow U.S. companies such as Boeing to do business with these Iranian airlines. The chief executive of Iran Aseman Air, Hossein Alaei, is a prominent and longtime member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Rubio and Roskam wrote.

The leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee also have a newly introduced Iran bill that would apply terrorism sanctions to the entire Revolutionary Guard. That legislation was meant to support the Trump administration’s previously announced effort to increase pressure on Iran, but now has new relevance.

Trump’s reversal on Syria makes it much easier for Congress to pass sanctions that had long been opposed by the Obama administration, said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“Given that Syria is a front-burner issue now and given the heavy involvement of Iran in Syria, this provides an easy predicate for Congress to move new legislation and for the administration to crack down on Iranian mischief,” he said.

The most directly relevant legislation is the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, a bill that would sanction Assad, Russia and Iran for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The bill is named after the Syrian military photographer who defected with more than 55,000 photos showing the torture and killing of more than 11,000 civilians in custody. The House passed the Caesar bill last year unanimously. Senior congressional aides told me they are prepared to do so again.

There are obstacles to Congress’s emerging strategy. Some Democrats are concerned that sanctioning Iran could put the nuclear deal at risk. There’s no agreement between the House and Senate yet on the way forward. The Trump administration also does not have the staffing or the policy process needed to incorporate Congress’s efforts into a larger diplomatic approach.

“We just don’t have a dancing partner on the administration side,” one senior congressional aide lamented.
Sanctions are only one part of a real Syria strategy. But if the Trump administration is serious about not repeating President Barack Obama’s mistakes in Syria, it will accept the leverage that Congress is offering and use it to compel Syria and its partners to get serious about finding a way to end the slaughter.

The Washington Post

In Syria’s Next Big Battle, the US has a Crucial Role to Play

Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attack on a town in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, prompting President Trump to retaliate with missile strikes, was the opening salvo in what could be a final, epic battle to determine the future of Syria. As that struggle unfolds in Idlib, the United States has a crucial role to play.

In its first months, the Trump administration has concentrated primarily on the fight against ISIS in and around the city of Raqqa, where U.S.- and Turkish-supported Arab and Kurdish fighters have been slowly but surely advancing on the capital of the terrorists’ self-declared caliphate. Meanwhile, Washington has largely ignored Idlib, where the bulk of the Syrian rebels are massed and preparing for an existential fight for the survival of the revolution.

Former Syrian prime minister Riyad Hijab, the head of the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee, told me that there are tens of thousands of opposition fighters and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced civilians crowded into Idlib. This is the result of the Assad regime’s years-long strategy to assemble all his enemies — including U.S.-backed rebels and jihadists — in one place.

“Assad’s plan was to gather all the fighters, to push them away from their towns and make them gather in Idlib and that was on purpose,” he said. “Assad’s plan is to urge the international community and the United States to kill these people.”

The United States has been conducting limited strikes against al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Idlib, now called Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, which has a significant presence on the ground. Meanwhile, however, the administration has also cut off all aid to moderate groups fighting in Idlib, according to Hijab, placing them at a disadvantage as they struggle to maintain credibility among the civilian population.

Aid groups warn that up to 1.5 million civilians could face a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib if the Assad regime begins bombarding the province on a large scale, causing a huge flow of refugees into Turkey and Europe and resulting in devastation and suffering on a scale many times greater than what was seen during last year’s siege of Aleppo.
“An Assad regime campaign in Idlib is inevitable,” said Charles Lister, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “When exactly it will happen we don’t know, but the U.S. needs to be prepared for that.”

Stretched thin after six years of war, the Syrian forces cannot take Idlib through conventional means. That’s why Assad is using weapons of terror, such as nerve gas, to break the will of the civilians before the battle there begins in earnest. When the ground war erupts, a thick stew of Shi’ite militias, “Hezbollah” fighters, Afghan mercenaries and Iranian Revolutionary Guard soldiers, all covered by Russian air power, will be ready to take on the regime’s adversaries.

Despite the risks and challenges, the best option for the United States is to reengage with those rebel groups on the ground that are most closely aligned with U.S. objectives and give them the money, arms and training necessary to defend Syrian civilians from the onslaught to come, said former State Department Syria official Frederic Hof, now at the Atlantic Council.

“There are units on the ground with which we have had relationships for years,” he said. “These units are fighting a three-way battle right now, against the regime, al-Qaeda and ISIS. They need our support.”

Doing so would not only save Syrian civilian lives, but would also raise the cost for Assad, Russia and Iran of laying waste to Idlib. If the United States provided some rebels with anti-aircraft capabilities, such as man-portable air-defense systems, it could make Moscow think twice before bombing the hospitals and schools that the people of Idlib depend on for a semblance of normal life.

Crucially, the United States has an interest in preventing Assad from achieving his primary goal, which is to force the international community into a binary choice between supporting his regime or the extremists. The Obama administration recognized that imperative, but mismanaged its Syrian opposition support programs to such a degree that they were counterproductive.

The Trump administration may have deterred Syria from using chemical weapons in Idlib, but that is only one of the cruel and indiscriminate tools Assad is using to terrorize the population, and his determination to take back Idlib persists. If Trump truly believes in preventing slaughter in Syria, he must instruct the US government to turn its attention to Idlib before it’s too late.

The Washington Post

U.S. Must Join Europe to Resist Russia’s Meddling

Trump

For many Americans, President Obama’s announcement of sanctions against Russia last week brought home a shocking realization that Russia is using hybrid warfare in an aggressive attempt to disrupt and undermine our democracy.

But for many Europeans, this is old news. As Obama was educating the American people about the threat, three senior senators were getting a lesson from leaders of three NATO countries that have been barraged with Russian meddling. Having fought alone for years, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are begging the United States to join the battle.

The critical foreign policy question facing the Trump administration and Congress in 2017 is whether the United States will partner with these and other Western democracies against what has emerged as a global campaign of low-intensity aggression by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Acknowledging the true scale and the scope of the problem is the first step.

“If there’s any silver lining on this attack on our democracy, it will be that’s it finally clear what Russia has been doing across the world stage,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) told me in an interview from Tallinn, the Estonian capital, where she had traveled with Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.).

“What I’ve realized is this isn’t just about one political party, it isn’t about one election, and it isn’t even about one country,” she said. “We need to stand strong and respond and work together.”

In the Baltic states, cyberhacking is only one of many tactics that Russia uses for malign influence. Moscow has corrupted the media space by blasting Russian-language propaganda at the region’s millions of Russian-speaking citizens. Years before the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, in 2007, a massive Russian cyberassault on Estonia simultaneously targeted the presidency, Parliament, most government ministries, banks and media organizations. The tiny Baltic state reacted by becoming an international leader in cyberdefense.

Across Europe, Russia has supported far-right politicians and political parties, including in Germany and France, which have major elections coming soon. Pro-Russian leaders with either explicit or indirect Russian government support have taken over the governments of Armenia, Georgia, Hungary and Moldova.

Obama mentioned the broader challenge that the free world faces vis-à-vis Russia in his statement announcing his response to Russia’s cyberhacking. “In addition to holding Russia accountable for what it has done, the United States and friends and allies around the world must work together to oppose Russia’s efforts to undermine established international norms of behavior, and interfere with democratic governance,” he said.

But Obama’s response, to sanction Russian intelligence officials in Moscow and expel them from the United States, hardly begins to address that larger issue. Russian intelligence leaders don’t have many U.S. assets to freeze. Moscow’s need to replace 35 intelligence officers will amount to a speed bump in its collection and espionage efforts.

Congressional leaders are promising to follow up Obama’s actions with further sanctions, including measures that go beyond punishing specific actors for the recent hacking and political interference.

“Russia is trying to break the backs of democracies all over the world,” Graham told reporters in Latvia, where he promised that more sanctions would get bipartisan support. “You can expect some economic pain. It will be true in America. But freedom is worth suffering pain. It is now time for Russia to understand, enough is enough.”

The Obama administration appears intent on educating Americans about the Russian threat before it leaves office. It released a blizzard of statements by multiple agencies on the election interference Thursday and has promised a more detailed report on Moscow’s hacking activities. What’s not clear is whether the American most in need of education on the issue, President-elect Donald Trump, is ready to listen. Even some Republicans worry that he intends to reach an understanding with Russia that would grant Putin greater freedom of action in Europe, allow Russia’s military invasion and annexation of Crimea to stand, and endorse Russia’s role as major power in the Middle East.

Adding to concern in Washington, Trump and his top advisers have been meeting with representatives of the pro-Russia far-right parties in Europe while snubbing the governments of major European countries.

Trump’s potential strategy amounts to appeasement of an aggressive dictator and abandonment of U.S. leadership on issues such as human rights, democracy promotion, the rule of law and media freedom. For a self-described dealmaker, it sounds like a terrible bargain.

The Washington Post

Could Assad and his Allies Face Justice for War Crimes?

There seems to be no way for the international community to stop the ongoing war crimes being committed by the Syrian regime and its Russian allies, especially in Aleppo. But by brazenly flouting international law, leaders and rank-and-file officials in both countries are opening themselves up to future justice in multiple ways.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry issued a surprising call Friday for investigations into the atrocities. “Russia and the regime owe the world more than an explanation about why they keep hitting hospitals, medical facilities, children, women,” Kerry said. “These are acts that beg for an appropriate investigation of war crimes.”

There is clear and abundant evidence the Assad regime and the Russian government are committing crimes that include, but are not limited to, deliberate attacks on civilians, collective punishment, starvation as a tool of war, torture, murder, inhumane treatment of prisoners and the use of chemical weapons on the battlefield.

Nevertheless, no near-term accountability seems likely. Last month, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on the U.N. Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, a step dozens of countries have endorsed. But Russia would surely veto such a move and, since neither Syria nor Russia has ratified the ICC’s founding Rome Statute, the court’s power is limited without Security Council action.

The U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria fecklessly refuses to assign blame for atrocities — such as, for example, when a U.N. aid convoy was attacked last month, which the United States attributed to Russia and which was yet another violation of international humanitarian law. Congress has a sanctions bill that would punish the Syrian regime, Russia and Iran for war crimes and crimes against humanity, but the White House opposes that legislation.

Justice for the innocent victims in Syria will likely take years, if not decades, to be realized. But there is both precedent and a legal path forward for such prosecutions.

Russian soldiers bear criminal responsibility not only for participating in the war crimes but also for aiding and abetting the Syrian regime, said Cherif Bassiouni, who led the U.N. investigations into crimes in Yugoslavia, Bahrain and Libya and helped create the ICC. And, he said, due to what’s known in international law as the doctrine of command responsibility, senior Russian military and political figures could also be prosecuted for the actions of their subordinates.

“The criminal responsibility applies to all of those in the chain of command who know of the commission of these crimes, all the way up to Putin,” said Bassiouni. “The law is not only applicable to he who gives an order, but he who knows it’s a war crime and does nothing to stop it.”

Under the Geneva Conventions, any state can assert what’s known as universal jurisdiction and bring prosecutions against Syrian and Russia leaders for war crimes.

“Every country if it wanted to could assert its jurisdiction if it could grab the person,” said Bassiouni. “Every Russian officer involved should know they are exposed to it.”

Another avenue for war-crimes prosecutions is for cases to be brought in third countries whose citizens have been victims of the Syrian and Russian atrocities, said Stephen Rapp, who until recently was the State Department’s ambassador at large for war-crimes issues.

“There are people you could prosecute for these crimes based on the citizenship of these victims,” he said. “Let’s build cases in every country whose citizens were killed in those convoys.”

The Washington Post

Russia Harassing U.S. Diplomats all over Europe

The Washington Post
By Josh Rogin

Russian intelligence and security services have been waging a campaign of harassment and intimidation against U.S. diplomats, embassy staff and their families in Moscow and several other European capitals that has rattled ambassadors and prompted Secretary of State John Kerry to ask Vladimir Putin to put a stop to it.

At a recent meeting of U.S. ambassadors from Russia and Europe in Washington, U.S. ambassadors to several European countries complained that Russian intelligence officials were constantly perpetrating acts of harassment against their diplomatic staff that ranged from the weird to the downright scary. Some of the intimidation has been routine: following diplomats or their family members, showing up at their social events uninvited or paying reporters to write negative stories about them.

But many of the recent acts of intimidation by Russian security services have crossed the line into apparent criminality. In a series of secret memos sent back to Washington, described to me by several current and former U.S. officials who have written or read them, diplomats reported that Russian intruders had broken into their homes late at night, only to rearrange the furniture or turn on all the lights and televisions, and then leave. One diplomat reported that an intruder had defecated on his living room carpet.

In Moscow, where the harassment is most pervasive, diplomats reported slashed tires and regular harassment by traffic police. Former ambassador Michael McFaul was hounded by government-paid protesters, and intelligence personnel followed his children to school. The harassment is not new; in the first term of the Obama administration, Russian intelligence personnel broke into the house of the U.S. defense attache in Moscow and killed his dog, according to multiple former officials who read the intelligence reports.

But since the 2014 Russian intervention in Ukraine, which prompted a wide range of U.S. sanctions against Russian officials and businesses close to Putin, harassment and surveillance of U.S. diplomatic staff in Moscow by security personnel and traffic police have increased significantly, State Department press secretary John Kirby confirmed to me.

“Since the return of Putin, Russia has been engaged in an increasingly aggressive gray war across Europe. Now it’s in retaliation for Western sanctions because of Ukraine. The widely reported harassment is another front in the gray war,” said Norm Eisen, U.S. ambassador the Czech Republic from 2011 to 2014. “They are hitting American diplomats literally where they live.”

The State Department has taken several measures in response to the increased level of nefarious activity by the Russian government. All U.S. diplomats headed for Europe now receive increased training on how to handle Russian harassment, and the European affairs bureau run by Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland has set up regular interagency meetings on tracking and responding to the incidents.

McFaul told me he and his family were regularly followed and the Russian intelligence services wanted his family to know they were being watched. Other embassy officials also suffered routine harassment that increased significantly after the Ukraine-related sanctions. Those diplomats who were trying to report on Russian activities faced the worst of it.

“It was part of a way to put pressure on government officials who were trying to do their reporting jobs. It definitely escalated when I was there. After the invasion of Ukraine, it got much, much worse,” McFaul said. “We were feeling embattled out there in the embassy.”

There was a debate inside the Obama administration about how to respond, and ultimately President Barack Obama made the decision not to respond with similar measures against Russian diplomats, McFaul said.

A spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington sent me a long statement both tacitly admitting to the harassment and defending it as a response to what he called U.S. provocations and mistreatment of Russian diplomats in the United States.

“The deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations, which was not caused by us, but rather by the current Administrations’ policy of sanctions and attempts to isolate Russian, had a negative affect on the functioning of diplomatic missions, both in U.S. and Russia,” the spokesman said. “In diplomatic practice there is always the principle of reciprocity and, indeed, for the last couple of years our diplomatic staff in the United States has been facing certain problems. The Russian side has never acted proactively to negatively affect U.S. diplomats in any way.”

Evelyn Farkas, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia until last year, said that there is no equivalence between whatever restrictions Russian diplomats are subjected to in the United States and the harassment and intimation that U.S. diplomats suffer at the hands of the Russian security services. The fact that the Russian government stands accused of murdering prominent diplomats and defectors in European countries adds a level of fear for Russia’s targets.

“When the Russian government singles people out for this kind of intimidation, going from intimidation to harassment to something worse is not inconceivable,” Farkas said.

Kirby told me that the State Department takes the safety and well-being of American diplomatic and consular personnel abroad and their accompanying family members extremely seriously. “We have therefore repeatedly raised our concerns about harassment of our diplomatic and consular staff with the Russians, including at the highest levels,” he said.

Kerry raised the issue directly with Putin during his visit to Moscow in March. Putin made no promises about ending the harassment, which continued after Kerry returned to Washington. The U.S. ambassadors to Europe are asking the State Department to do more.

Leading members of Congress who are involved in diplomacy with Europe see the lack of a more robust U.S. response as part of an effort by the Obama administration to project a veneer of positive U.S.-Russian relations that doesn’t really exist.

“The problem is there have been no consequences for Russia,” said Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), who serves as president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. “The administration continues to pursue a false narrative that Russia can be our partner. They clearly don’t want to be our partner, they’ve identified us as an adversary, and we need to prepare for that type of relationship.”