From the Left: J Street Moves To Center on Iran Sanctions

By Nathan Guttman

Published December 16, 2009, issue of December 25, 2009.
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The new Iran sanctions bill approved December 15 by the House of Representatives not only moved the United States one step closer to ratcheting up the pressure on Tehran, it also revealed a slight reshuffle in the political map of the Jewish community’s left wing.

J Street, the dovish lobby that has become synonymous with breaking conventions of pro-Israel advocacy, has found itself on the same side of the debate as the Jewish establishment backing the legislation, whereas Americans for Peace Now remains the lonely holdout among mainstream Jewish groups in opposing the sanctions legislation.

In supporting the legislation, J Street has taken a step toward the Jewish community’s mainstream, and at the same time has shown there is little daylight between its views and those of the Obama administration. The White House gave a green light for movement on the House bill, though it has urged the Senate to hold off on taking action on a companion bill for the time being.

The Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, adopted by the House in a 412-12 vote, targets international companies selling refined petroleum products to Iran. It is based on the assumption that creating a fuel shortage in Iran — which despite being a major exporter of crude oil imports 40% of its refined petroleum — would create pressure on Tehran to adhere to the demands of the international community regarding its nuclear program.

The efficacy of such sanctions is in dispute. A recent simulation game at Harvard University concluded that employing unilateral American sanctions against companies dealing with Iran could backfire and result in Russia and China breaking with the United States and negotiating separately with Iran.

But supporters of the sanctions bill argue that it is the most effective measure to create pressure. “Gasoline sanctions will both ratchet up the economic pressure on the regime and remind the Iranian people of how badly the regime has mismanaged the economy and isolated Iran from the rest of the world,” said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish group that has briefed Congress on this issue.

Rep. Howard Berman of California, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the author of the bill, made clear throughout the legislative process that he views the use of these sanctions as a last resort, which should be put in place only if all other options fail.

The new sanctions bill has been a centerpiece of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s legislative agenda for more than a year. AIPAC lobbied tirelessly for passage of the bill and was joined by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella body representing 50 national groups, in supporting the legislation.

J Street, which bills itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” initially had called on lawmakers to put the bill on hold in order to give diplomatic engagement a chance. On December 7, however, the group issued a statement endorsing the bill, stating that since diplomacy has failed, the time has come to move forward with sanctions.

“This was the next logical step,” said Hadar Susskind, J Street’s policy and strategy director. Susskind said that supporting the bill was consistent with the group’s previous approach and that despite the fact that “not everyone loved” the decision, it had strong support from J Street leadership.

By supporting the bill, J Street joined the majority of the Jewish community and even won praise from a harsh critic — Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, who said in an interview with JTA that he “appreciated” the decision. It was a notable change in tone for Oren, who earlier this month, speaking at the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism’s biennial conference, had labeled J Street “a unique problem” and called it “significantly out of the mainstream.”

J Street also made clear with this decision that it is sticking with President Obama’s approach to the region even as this approach evolves over time. The group was on the same page as the White House when the administration first asked Berman to put the bill on hold, and it stuck with the administration when it revised its position in light of Iran’s rejection of the nuclear compromise offered in negotiations.

The Obama administration has been demonstrating in recent weeks a dual approach to new sanctions legislation. A congressional aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the State Department had made clear that it does not oppose Berman’s decision to move the legislation forward and bring it to a vote, a move that would enable the administration to prove it is ready to crank up pressure against Iran.

At the same time, the administration asked the Senate to hold its version of the bill in order to allow further negotiations with international partners on United Nations-based sanctions. In a December 11 letter to Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg warned that the bill, in its current version, “might weaken rather than strengthen international unity.” He also said that the administration had “serious substantive concerns” about the bill and urged that its consideration be postponed until the new year. The letter was obtained by The Cable, a blog published by Foreign Policy magazine.

The leaders of the Conference of Presidents applauded the House for passing the sanctions legislation and urged the Senate to take swift action of its own. “We hope the Senate will act on the sanctions bill before it during December as well. Time is of the essence,” said the conference’s president, Alan Solow, and executive vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein, in a statement.

J Street spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick said that J Street supports passage of the Senate bill.

Americans for Peace Now, the oldest player on the field of left-wing pro-Israel advocacy and a member of the Presidents Conference, is the only mainstream Jewish group to break ranks with the organized Jewish community on the sanctions legislation. In a letter to congressional offices, APN had urged members to vote against the bill, arguing that it ties the hands of the president and that the measures proposed in the bill would target Iranian citizens, not the governing regime.

“IRPSA is akin to using a chainsaw when a scalpel is in order,” APN’s president and CEO, Debra DeLee, said in a statement. She stressed, however, that her group does not oppose the idea of sanctions against Iran, but views the current legislation as flawed.

Contact Nathan Guttman at

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