Grassroots Jewish Groups Push for Tough Line on Iran, Despite Barack Obama's Thaw

Congress May Turn Blind Eye to Charm Offensive

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By Nathan Guttman

Published October 25, 2013.
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Among longtime Iran experts, the consensus is virtually universal: The chances that Iran will agree to completely stop enriching uranium for its nuclear program in recently renewed negotiations are zero.

But as negotiators consider shifting their focus to placing tough limits on how much uranium Iran may be allowed to enrich, to what degree, and with what kind of monitoring to prevent the development of nuclear weapons, the organized Jewish community is pushing hard at the grassroots level in the opposite direction.

“In some ways, I’m preaching to the choir,” said Martin Cooper, director of the community relations council at the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island. “The community understands the need to continue with the sanctions and so does our [congressional] delegation. The advocacy is paying off.”

For members of Congress, the pressure is to not just maintain, but to increase the current far-reaching economic and trade sanctions against Iran. And it’s coming not just from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington but also from the local level, district-by-district, where Jewish groups are engaged in a push that is almost unprecedented in its intensity and breadth.

The aim is to pass legislation that will further sanction Iran even as talks are in process. The Jewish groups are also pushing to limit the Obama administration’s room to negotiate an agreement that does not include a complete and unconditional suspension of uranium enrichment by Iran.

These advocates argue that the threat of Iran developing nuclear weapons — a goal Iran denies having — demands nothing less. But the administration has made clear it does not wish to see another round of sanctions while negotiations continue. Jewish groups counter that tough new measures will augment, not hinder, the chances of reaching an agreement that provides the maximum assurance that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons capabilities.

If these proposals become law, say critics, they could succeed only in blowing up the current talks, judged widely to be the most serious in which Iran has engaged in over a decade. The only remaining option will be war. That is giving pause to at least one former lawmaker who is ordinarily counted among Israel’s strongest supporters.

“If someone makes a positive move, you don’t punish this positive move, you give positive reinforcement,” recently retired New York Representative Gary Ackerman told the Forward. Ackerman, who headed the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, said he supports keeping sanctions in place, but not adding new ones at a time in which Iran is demonstrating flexibility. The pro-Israel advocates, he said, need to “take a moment and think through what they are saying.”

While the military option should remain on the table, Ackerman said, Americans need to understand that war with Iran would be “very, very messy, nonsurgical, lingering and fraught with uncertainty.”

Still, the political price of defying the grassroots pressure is unmistakable for many members of Congress. And many seem to need little urging in any event.


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