WASHINGTON — Jewish organization are seeking to mobilize the international community, through direct meetings with foreign diplomats and by lobbying the Bush administration, to impose sanctions on Iran for defiantly carrying on with its nuclear program.
With the arrival of the August 31 deadline for Iran to stop its enrichment of uranium, pro-Israel groups are stepping up their efforts to maintain the international resolve to confront Tehran and immediately implement strong political and economic sanctions on the Iranian regime.
“Iran’s continued defiance of the international community, and its clear role of using proxies to destabilize the region, underscores the need for the [Jewish] community to act forcefully in halting the momentum of Iran’s ongoing defiance,” said Jess Hordes, director of the Washington office of the Anti-Defamation League. The Jewish community’s efforts “will be broad based,” Hordes said, combining discussions with administration officials, members of Congress and representatives of foreign governments.
Some Jewish communal activists are quietly worrying that the Bush administration lacks the resolve and the skill to lead an international effort to isolate Iran and compel the Islamic Republic to give up it pursuit of nuclear weapons. Israeli and American observers are also saying that the United States is increasingly unlikely to attack Iran, favoring an Israeli attack.
Bolstering the administration’s leadership and the international community’s resolve in the face of Iran’s defiance is “at the top of our agenda,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
On August 22, nine days before the deadline, Tehran submitted its reply to the package of Western incentives that the five permanent United Nations Security Council members and Germany proposed in an effort to convince Iran to roll back its nuclear program. The incentives were offered in return for Iran’s suspension of its uranium enrichment, a process that is required for producing weapons-grade nuclear material.
In its response, Iran said it is prepared for “serious negotiations” over the proposal, but declared that it has no intention of halting uranium enrichment. “Production of nuclear fuel is one of Iran’s strategic objectives,” Teheran’s lead negotiator Ali Larijani told Iran’s state radio on August 27. “Any action to limit or deprive Iran could not force Iran to give up this goal,” he added.
In addition to defiant rhetoric, in recent days Iran has test fired a long-range sea-to-air missile, as well as a new above-water anti-ship missile launched from a submarine. It held military exercises in the Persian Gulf and inaugurated a new plant to produce heavy water for use in a new nuclear research reactor. “They are clearly making a statement, saying ‘Don’t mess with us.’ That’s what the world just heard. And now the world has to decide what’s the next step,” said David Twersky, director of international affairs at the American Jewish Congress.
On the day that the deadline was set to expire, the International Atomic Energy Agency was to report to the Security Council on Iran’s compliance. If Iran was found to have been in complaince, the Security Council was to consider adopting “appropriate measures” under the U.N. Charter Article that sets out enforcement powers.
“Security Council sanctions should range from targeting the Iranian leadership by banning diplomatic travel, prohibiting nuclear technology transfers and denying access to credit, to more serious economic sanctions, including banning foreign investment in Iran,” said a memorandum published by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the influential pro-Israel lobby.
Jewish activists worry that lining up international support will be extremely difficult. Russia and China, both permanent members of the Security Council with a veto power and strong economic relations with Iran, oppose tough measures. Following Iran’s rejection of the international community’s proposal, Moscow suggested that additional efforts would be made to achieve a political solution through diplomacy.
China’s special envoy to the Middle East, Sun Bigan, said that his country is still seeking a “peaceful settlement rather than resorting to force or threatening sanctions.” Arab regimes, including those friendly to the United States, are also advocating more diplomacy.
Facing a hesitant, fragmented international community and a defiant Iran, Jewish activists say their first immediate priority is to make sure that the Bush administration stays resolute in its face-off with Tehran.
This week, several Jewish groups contacted senior administration officials, asking that Iran’s former president, Mohammad Khatami, be denied a visa to visit Washington. The former president, pro-Israel activists say, led Iran for years as the country was deceiving the international community about its nuclear ambitions and sponsoring terrorism. Allowing Khatami — who was elected twice as a reform candidate, but is widely viewed as failing to institute major changes — to visit the United States “will send a wrong message,” Hoenlein said. “If the expectation is that he will somehow present another face of Iran, that’s a sham.”
On Tuesday, a State Department spokesman said that a visa was issued for Khatami to visit the United States. He is scheduled to give a September 7 speech at Washington’s National Cathedral on the role of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in shaping peace. He will also be speaking at a U.N. forum in New York, on September 5 and 6, addressing the issue of interfaith dialogue. Khatami, a Shiite cleric, would be the most high-profile Iranian personality to visit Washington since the country’s Islamic revolution in 1979.
Hoenlein said that Bush administration officials had assured him that the decision to issue the visa did not indicate a softening of America’s position on Iran. But several pro-Israel activists in Washington expressed concern that the administration might not show the kind of resolve needed to lead a decisive international drive against Iran.
As American pro-Israel activists are gearing up for a push to seek international isolation of Iran, their concern is growing that the Bush administration will not be able to muster the political strength and diplomatic skills to lead such an international campaign. Several officials with American Jewish organizations, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in the past few weeks that there is growing concern in Israel and among Jerusalem’s friends in Washington that the Bush administration simply lacks the political weight internationally to successfully lead such a drive.
Meanwhile, there is a growing consensus within Israel’s defense establishment that the United States will not launch a militarily attack against Iran to block Tehran’s quest for a nuclear weapon, the Jerusalem Post reported last week. The paper quoted unnamed Israeli security sources, who described the Bush administration’s Iran policy as “appeasement.” The sources assessed that the administration lacked the domestic and international support needed to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Over the past several years, the conventional thinking among foreign policy experts was that if diplomacy fails to block Iran from acquiring nuclear arms, the United States — not Israel — would attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. America’s military is better positioned to launch the consecutive air sorties that are needed to degrade the Iranian fortifications, most military experts agree.
This week, one well-positioned pro-Israel activist told the Forward that there is a growing sense in Israel and in America’s foreign policy community that Washington would rather not risk the political and international fallout — and, instead, now supports an Israeli air attack. “Many say that the administration may find this to be the path of least resistance,” the official said.