Washington — Emerging from a losing and ultimately aborted congressional battle to win approval of military action against Syria, the mainstream pro-Israel lobby is now launching a new drive to set the terms for a potential nuclear deal between the United States and Iran.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is launching its campaign — one much closer to its core concern — in reaction to the flurry of communiqués that Iranian leaders have unleashed lately. In their diplomatic and media offensive, the Iranians have announced their keenness to negotiate a mutually agreeable solution to the related problems of international sanctions against their country and Western opposition to their nuclear program.
AIPAC’s initial response to Iran’s diplomatic blitz has been less than welcoming: Its lobbyists have initiated an effort in Congress to mandate a new set of tougher sanctions against Iran, while the group has warned publicly against showing too much flexibility before Iran’s newly elected president, Hassan Rowhani, backs up his words with deeds.
“Pleasant rhetoric will not suffice,” the lobby declared in a September 20 memo to its supporters. “If Iran fails to act, sanctions must be increased.”
AIPAC has viewed Iran’s nuclear program as a key concern for the past two decades and has dedicated much of its lobbying activity to the issue. It has, in fact, been the main supporter of most of the U.S. sanctions legislation targeting Iran, and has spoken out about the need to keep a military option prominently on the table when dealing with Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
But the powerful lobby is entering this latest battle in a delicate position. The recent showdown over authorizing military action against Syria highlighted the deep aversion that the administration, Congress and the American public currently harbor toward the use of force in the Middle East, even in response to Syria’s apparent deployment in August of prohibited chemical weapons against civilians. The way the campaign played out made clear the strong preference that all these players now give to diplomacy and compromise.
AIPAC is banking that attitudes will be different when it comes to Iran. Pro-Israel activists say they remain confident that Americans will understand the need for maintaining a tough policy toward that country’s development of its nuclear program, which they argue threatens not just Israel, but also the West. They cite, among other things, a long record of congressional support for a hard-line approach to Iran, and years of public advocacy aimed at explaining the danger of a nuclear Iran to the American public.
“The Iranian issue is different than the Syrian one,” said Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Reich, who favors diplomatic engagement with Iran, believes that the American public will accept the pro-Israel community’s adherence to a policy of “trust but verify,” as formulated at the time by President Ronald Reagan when negotiating with the Soviet Union. The Jewish community’s support for military action against Syria, he added, did not cost it any credibility and will not diminish its ability to advocate now for caution when engaging with Iran. “I haven’t seen any adverse reaction to the Jewish community’s support for the president on Syria,” he said.