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.

Much of the credit for this appears to be due to years of grassroots activism by local Jewish community relations councils. The JCRCs, most of which are affiliated with local Jewish philanthropic federations, are organized under a national umbrella group, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which coordinates their work. In cities and towns nationwide, these groups maintain close ties with local politicians on all levels and remind their Washington representatives of the interests of hometown Jewish constituencies.

On October 9, a week before the first round of nuclear talks in Geneva between Iran and the six countries with which it is negotiating, including the United States, the JCPA sent out a new petition to their members that local activists were urged to sign. The JCPA called on its local bodies to use the petition to push their senators to adopt a new sanctions bill that has already been adopted by the House.

“We worked hard to get support for the JCPA petition and we encouraged our colleagues to do so,” said Carol Brick-Turin, director of the Greater Miami JCRC. Her group, which was among the local agencies that initiated the national petition, also launched a Facebook page to spread the word about the need to push for further sanctions.

In New York, home to the nation’s largest Jewish community, the local JCRC also worked with an advocacy coalition, Iran180, set up in 2010 to take action against a nuclear Iran. The JCRC and other members of the coalition sent President Obama a letter on the eve of the Geneva talks, stressing the need to maintain pressure on Iran until it takes “clear, serious, and verifiable action,” to end its nuclear program.

In September, when Iranian President Hassan Rowhani came to New York to speak at the inauguration of a new session of the United Nations General Assembly, he was welcomed by a press conference organized by the Jewish community at which the city’s elected officials warned against falling for the charm offensive of the new Iranian leader. The event drew an impressive slate of congressional representatives, local legislators and mayoral candidates.

The tight relationships JCRCs enjoy with local leaders are a product not of crises but of work done year-round on a wide range of issues. This work involves local activists in regular one-on-one meetings with political leaders, annual missions to Washington in which they meet with their elected officials, and email blasts aimed at mobilizing activists to contact their representatives for certain pieces of legislation.

The JCRCs have played a leading role in initiating and advocating for legislation on the state level that has led to state pension funds divesting Iranian assets and, in some cases, barred international companies from doing business with Iran and from bidding for state contracts. But since the revival of the diplomatic track with Iran in September, JCRCs and national Jewish organizations have focused primarily on sounding alarms about Iran’s intentions and warning against concessions.

On October 17, AIPAC took aim in particular at the Iranian claim that it should be allowed to enrich uranium for civilian uses under any future agreement.

“Iran has no ‘inalienable’ right to uranium enrichment,” the influential pro-Israel lobby stated in a memo, countering Tehran’s claims that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty grants an explicit right of enrichment to governments seeking to develop nuclear energy for peaceful uses, such as generating energy.

Even if Iran had such a right, AIPAC’s memo argued, its government’s record of violating the NPT and U.N. Security Council resolutions would still deny it this privilege.

The main piece of legislation for which Jewish groups are now lobbying is a Senate version of a tougher sanctions bill already passed by the House earlier this year. The bill would limit the ability of international financial institutions to do business with Iran even more than current sanctions do.

Statements from leading members of Congress suggest that the Jewish lobbyists will not encounter much resistance in making the case against easing sanctions, or even for increasing them. Some have also spoken out against the idea of freeing some of Iran’s frozen financial assets as a goodwill gesture.

Republican Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, a close ally of the pro-Israel lobby, went as far as describing a temporary delay in Senate discussions on a new round of sanctions as bowing to a “European appeasement policy.”

Other ideas for legislation being discussed include a call to authorize the use of military force against Iran; setting limits, via statute, on what could be conceded in any agreement between the U.S. and Iran; and even limiting by law the ability of President Obama to meet with Rowhani.

But the real challenge for the organized Jewish community is not getting members of Congress to back tough new measures against Iran. It’s the conflict with the administration still waiting ahead.

“It’s just around the corner,” said a Democratic aide, describing what could be an open battle between the White House and Congress about the future of sanctions in which the mainstream Jewish advocacy community could play a central role.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com or on Twitter @nathanguttman


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