Broadened Coalition To Protest Iran This Year at United Nations

By Nathan Guttman

Published September 18, 2009.
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As world leaders converge on New York for the annual opening of the United Nations’ new session, Jewish groups that have in years past protested the Tehran regime are seeking to broaden their coalition to include many additional groups that share grievances against Iran.

The new strategy is reflected in full-page advertisements the Jewish-led coalition has taken out in selected newspapers calling for a “Stand for Freedom in Iran” rally across street from the U.N. on Sept. 24 to protest Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to the world body. Unlike previous years, the words “nuclear” and “Israel” appear nowhere in the ad.

The ad’s demands instead highlight issues such as “freedom of assembly, expression and the press”; “cessation of human rights abuses”; and “prosecution of those responsible for the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan” — the young woman shot down in Tehran last June during massive protests that questioned the validity of Ahmadinejad’s landslide election victory.

Only the fourth demand in the ad’s list —“full compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency and Security Council resolutions, including an end to Iran’s uranium enrichment” — alludes to Iran’s development of nuclear technology, feared by Israel and other countries, despite Iran’s denials, as an Iranian bid for nuclear weapons that threatens Israel’s existence.

The phone number given for inquiries is the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York’s, and numerous Jewish groups are among the listed participants. But the list this year also includes labor unions, African American and Latino civil rights organizations, and two Iranian expatriate organizations.

“We are trying to create a broader coalition because it is not only a Jewish–Israeli concern,” explained Alan Solow, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, which is the driving force behind the anti-Iran rally.

The rally’s title “Stand for Freedom in Iran” demonstrates the shift from focusing on Iran’s nuclear ambitions to stressing the fight for civil rights in Iran that has gained worldwide attention this year following the June elections and the suppression of opposition forces by the Ahmadinejad government.

Solow argues that the shift to a broader agenda does not mean diluting the fight against a nuclear Iran. It is simply smart politics he said, adding that he hopes the events following Iran’s elections and the actions taken against dissenting groups will “bring more people to recognize the danger” posed by Iran. At the same time Solow stressed that if needed, the Jewish community is “not going to shy away from the recognition that it is a concern for the Jewish community and for Israel.”

The fear of Iran becoming a Jewish-only issue was raised also in a September 10 “fly-in” of Jewish leaders to Washington. In a gathering, preceding a lobbying day on Capitol Hill, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that there is no sense of urgency in the American public and that despite Jewish reluctance of being seen taking the lead “we do not have the luxury to not lead.”

Another concern raised by organizers of the anti-Iran events was of not having all of the Jewish community on the same page regarding the demand to move forward legislation toughening sanctions against Iran. The leading voice within the community opposing sanctions is that of American for Peace Now. The group issued a statement before the Jewish gathering on Iran, calling to re-think the push for “crippling sanctions.” APN’s CEO and President Debra DeLee said that “now is the time to look for ways to signal positive U.S. support for the Iranian people, not to create suffering in order to use that suffering as a weapon against the Iranian leadership.”

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, responded in harsh words, calling on the Jewish community to overcome difference, despite views by groups he sees as “sowing discord” in the community.

William Daroff, vice president for public policy and Washington director of the United Jewish Communities said that the Jewish community is already speaking in one voice on Iran. “We’re united with very [few] exceptions,” he said. “The entire mainstream Jewish community supports sanctions legislation.”

Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s Washington director, also stressed there is a “clear consensus” on the goal of stopping Iran and a majority that wants “aggressive diplomacy followed by concrete steps.”

The drive to raise awareness to the threat of a nuclear Iran comes at an uncomfortable time for the Jewish community. With U.S.–Iranian diplomatic engagement launching next month, the goals of the community’s advocacy drive became murkier. Policy analysts and pro-Israel activists had expected engagement efforts to be concluded by the September gathering of world leaders for the General Assembly in New York and the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh, Pa. But the prolonged wait for Iranian response spelled out more uncertainty for pro-Israel advocates, who now see their approach as two-pronged: cautiously watching for the outcome of the talks and quietly pushing for a tougher Plan B.

Several Israeli officials visiting Washington in mid-September stressed in their talks with counterparts from the administration that Israel insists U.S. discussion with Iran be limited to a very strict timetable. Furthermore, Israel, according to a senior official speaking on condition of anonymity, would like the administration, parallel to conducting talks with Iran, to prepare an action plan that could be implemented immediately if diplomatic engagement fails.

Based on two discussions President Obama’s senior adviser Dennis Ross held with Jewish groups, the Israeli message is well received in Washington. Ross made clear the administration is entering engagement with Iran with open eyes and will not allow it to go on indefinitely.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com.






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