Fearing Iraq Effect, Jewish Democrats Tread Carefully on Iran

Washington — Two senior Jewish congressmen are distancing themselves from a resolution calling for tougher sanctions against Iran, arguing that the bill would send an unnecessarily bellicose message to Tehran.

Democratic Reps. Robert Wexler of Florida and Barney Frank of Massachusetts pulled their support — Wexler on July 9, and Frank a week earlier — from a congressional resolution that called for increasing inspections on all sea and air traffic in and out of Iran, among other measures. The bill has been targeted by a coalition of progressive groups that give an argument that the measure is pushing for a de facto blockade on Iran that may lead to war.

Jewish lawmakers and communal leaders have been treading a thin line on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, as they have been upfront in warning about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Jewish groups and members of Congress, however, have gone out of their way to avoid being seen as promoting war or military action against Tehran.

“It’s a little trickier for the Jewish community, because there is a school of thought that believes the community bears disproportionate responsibility for the war in Iraq,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “The fact that this claim is out there makes people be more measured this time around.”

Israeli diplomats and policymakers have expressed a similar concern. Over the past year they have repeatedly stressed that Iran is a threat to the entire Middle East, and that dealing with Tehran should be a task for the entire world and not just the Jewish state.

The nonbinding resolution, known as House Concurrent Resolution 362, was introduced May 22. The clause that has drawn criticism from groups opposing military action against Iran calls for “imposing stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran.” The groups believe that the clause amounts to a call for imposing a military blockade against Iran.

Among those calling on lawmakers to turn down the proposed resolution is Americans for Peace Now, a dovish Jewish group that is pushing for a peaceful solution to the standoff with Iran. In a July 8 letter to members of Congress, the group wrote that “ambiguity in the text of the resolution has led some to see it as de facto approval for a land, air or sea blockade of Iran, any of which could be considered an act of war.”

On July 9, activists from the women’s antiwar group Code Pink, which opposes the resolution, launched a symbolic blockade of the Washington houseboat of Rep. Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat and one of the authors of the resolution.

Ackerman, who has faced mounting criticism for his support for the resolution, answered his critics in a hearing of the House Foreign Relations Committee that took place the same day as the blockade.

“The whole idea that the resolution calls for a blockade can only be sustained by a determined refusal to read the resolution, or to accept the plain meaning of the words within it,” Ackerman said. The only way to find the term “blockade” in the resolution, he added, is “by the amending power of imagination alone.”

Ackerman’s clarification, however, was not enough to prevent Frank and Wexler from withdrawing their support for the legislation. In June, both had signed on to the resolution as co-sponsors.

“I regret the fact that I did not read this resolution more carefully,” Frank wrote July 5 to an activist from Peace Action, a grass-roots antiwar group that supports nuclear disarmament. Frank, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, promised to withdraw his support from the resolution as it currently stands.

Wexler voiced similar views in a Huffington Post article, pledging to “lead an effort to make changes to this resolution before it comes to the foreign relations committee for a vote.” Wexler added he would condition his support for the resolution on changes being made to its language.

The resolution currently has 230 co-sponsors in the House, and this number ensures that it will be brought to a vote in the foreign relations committee. A similar resolution has been circulating in the Senate, but that bill does not include the wording regarding restrictions on air and sea traffic into and out of Iran.

Both the House and Senate resolutions are among the top items on the agenda of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The pro-Israel lobby is focusing its efforts on the elements of the resolution calling for the end of the sale of refined petroleum products to Iran, not on the part dealing with increased sea and air inspections.

The debate over the resolution, which has split Jewish lawmakers and activists, may be close to a solution, according to congressional sources.

A Democratic staff member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee told the Forward that wording of the resolution is still open for change.

“If it is not clear enough, it is the fault of the writer, not of the reader,” the staffer said. “If it is not clear, we will clarify it.”

The staff member did stress, however, that advocacy groups and members of Congress opposing the resolution “did not do their homework.”

Author

Nathan Guttman

Nathan Guttman

Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at guttman@forward.com, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman

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Fearing Iraq Effect, Jewish Democrats Tread Carefully on Iran

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