WASHINGTON — The Bush administration’s offer to open direct talks with Iran and reward Tehran if it stops enriching uranium is exposing a policy rift between neoconservatives on one hand, and the Israeli government and Jewish organizations on the other.
Neoconservative analysts are blasting the administration, saying that holding talks with the Islamic regime would serve only to embolden it and undermine the anti-fundamentalist opposition in Iran. They argue that America’s ultimate goal should be to change Tehran’s theocratic regime.
“The administration can’t have it both ways. They can’t embrace the regime and still talk about liberty for the Iranian people,” said Iran analyst Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank widely associated with the push for regime change in Iraq. A former Pentagon official, Rubin added that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “can spout whatever platitudes she wants to spout, but at this point, when it comes to liberty and freedom, she has no credibility.”
Israeli officials and several influential Jewish groups, meanwhile, have refrained from criticizing the new American approach — which some experts are depicting as the most dramatic foreign policy shift of the Bush presidency — saying that they support more pragmatic ways to block Iran’s apparent dash toward a nuclear weapon. For Israel and Jewish groups — despite Iranian calls for Israel’s destruction — the fundamental goal is not regime change, but to block Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The split appears to fly in the face of recent high-profile efforts to paint the pro-Israel lobby as a seamless network dominated by Jewish organizations and neoconservatives coordinating their activities with the Israeli government. Most notably, such a view was advanced by two highly respected academics — John Mearsheimer, a top international relations theorist based at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, former academic dean of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government — in a research paper released in March. The Walt-Mearsheimer paper has triggered an escalating debate on the influence of Israel and Jewish organizations that has spilled over onto the opinion pages of major publications, including The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Recently, with such scrutiny mounting, Israeli leaders asked American Jewish organizations to lower their profile on the Iran issue, the Forward has learned.
In one notable example, a delegation of leaders from the American Jewish Congress met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert shortly before returning to the United States. When asked how he thinks Jewish groups should pursue the Iran issue, Olmert reportedly implied that he would prefer a low profile, according to one source familiar with the proceedings.
“We don’t want it to be about Israel,” Olmert is said to have replied, explaining that although Iran’s president focuses his belligerent rhetoric on Israel, both Jerusalem and Washington have an interest in convincing the international community that a nuclear armed Iran would be a menace to the region and to the entire world.
President Bush updated Olmert shortly before Rice announced the new American policy at a May 31 press conference, Israeli and American sources said. Rice announced that Washington would be willing to join its European allies in direct talks with Iran if Tehran “fully and verifiably suspends its enrichment and reprocessing activities.” Rice made clear that America would not attempt to hinder an Iranian civilian nuclear program.
Immediately following Rice’s comments, her Israeli counterpart, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, issued a statement, saying, “Israel appreciates the steps and measures by the United States in continuing to lead the international coalition and in taking all necessary steps to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear capability.”
One Israeli official told the Forward that Jerusalem is satisfied with the apparent international recognition that “this is the critical time to clarify whether Iran is really pursuing a peaceful nuclear program or a belligerent one.” The official dismissed the argument made by some opponents of Rice’s move that all the overture by the United States would do is allow Iran to buy time while pursuing nuclear weapons and fending off international sanctions. America’s move, the Israeli official said, only would hasten and embolden the international community as it approaches a likely showdown with Iran in the United Nations.
Israel’s support for Rice and Olmert’s request for Jewish groups to take a lower profile are being well received by many Jewish groups. Already, some Jewish groups had been asking the White House to stop suggesting that American efforts to block Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons are motivated primarily by a desire to protect Israel.
Jewish organizations have no interest in becoming “the lobby for war with Iran,” one communal official said.
In the past, when the administration chose to pursue diplomatic options instead of an immediate push for international sanctions, it drew public criticism from some Jewish organizations. This time around, while some Jewish groups are uncomfortable with the administration’s shift on direct talks with Iran, only the right-of-center Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs openly criticized the move.
Last year, when the Bush administration agreed to give Russia a chance to negotiate a plan that would allow Iran to enrich uranium under international supervision, the main pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, issued a rare public rebuke of the White House. But this week, in response to the recent American announcement, Aipac issued a measured statement to the Forward, saying that if the administration blocks Iran’s production of enriched uranium by offering talks, that would be a “positive development.” The statement, however, cautioned against losing sight of Iran’s habit of deceiving America and its allies.
Aipac sources said this week that they don’t expect the administration’s policy shift to hinder their efforts to pass the Iran Freedom Support Act, a bill aimed at tightening U.S. sanctions on Iran, which has overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives but must still be voted on in the Senate. This week Aipac sent a fund-raising letter to thousands of its supporters saying “we need your help to stop Iran.” A spokesman for Aipac said that the letter is part of the organization’s routine fund-raising efforts and not connected to the administration’s new strategy.
Some officials with Jewish groups share the concern expressed by many neoconservative critics of the new American approach, that any negotiations simply would buy Iran time to advance its nuclear weapons program.
“For the Iranians, diplomacy is a form of delay, so it is dangerous,” said David Twersky, director of international affairs for the American Jewish Congress. However, he added, “it will also be dangerous to act precipitously, prematurely. The United States cannot go by itself and say, we are imposing sanctions.”
Most Jewish groups accept the administration’s argument that the overture would make it easier for Washington to put together the international coalition necessary for effective sanctions against Iran.
“Looking down the abyss at the choices, which, in their starkest terms, are either accepting Iran as a nuclear power or attacking militarily, I think people are looking to see whether or not a third way can be found to achieve the same purpose,” said Jess Hordes, the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington affairs director.
This sentiment was being echoed among some friends of Israel on Capitol Hill. “In the abstract, who wants to talk to the Iranian regime and who wants to give it legitimacy and to prolong the game they are playing?” said Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democratic member of the House’s subcommittee on the Middle East. “But that’s the price we might have to pay in order to get the world community to take a tougher stand on Iran down the line.”