Emerging from a losing and ultimately aborted congressional battle to win approval of military action against Syria, the mainstream pro-Israel lobby is now launching a new drive to set the terms for a potential nuclear deal between the United States and Iran.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is launching its campaign — one much closer to its core concern — in reaction to the flurry of communiqués that Iranian leaders have unleashed lately. In their diplomatic and media offensive, the Iranians have announced their keenness to negotiate a mutually agreeable solution to the related problems of international sanctions against their country and Western opposition to their nuclear program.
AIPAC’s initial response to Iran’s diplomatic blitz has been less than welcoming: Its lobbyists have initiated an effort in Congress to mandate a new set of tougher sanctions against Iran, while the group has warned publicly against showing too much flexibility before Iran’s newly elected president, Hassan Rowhani, backs up his words with deeds.
“Pleasant rhetoric will not suffice,” the lobby declared in a September 20 memo to its supporters. “If Iran fails to act, sanctions must be increased.”
AIPAC has viewed Iran’s nuclear program as a key concern for the past two decades and has dedicated much of its lobbying activity to the issue. It has, in fact, been the main supporter of most of the U.S. sanctions legislation targeting Iran, and has spoken out about the need to keep a military option prominently on the table when dealing with Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
But the powerful lobby is entering this latest battle in a delicate position. The recent showdown over authorizing military action against Syria highlighted the deep aversion that the administration, Congress and the American public currently harbor toward the use of force in the Middle East, even in response to Syria’s apparent deployment in August of prohibited chemical weapons against civilians. The way the campaign played out made clear the strong preference that all these players now give to diplomacy and compromise.
AIPAC is banking that attitudes will be different when it comes to Iran. Pro-Israel activists say they remain confident that Americans will understand the need for maintaining a tough policy toward that country’s development of its nuclear program, which they argue threatens not just Israel, but also the West. They cite, among other things, a long record of congressional support for a hard-line approach to Iran, and years of public advocacy aimed at explaining the danger of a nuclear Iran to the American public.
“The Iranian issue is different than the Syrian one,” said Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Reich, who favors diplomatic engagement with Iran, believes that the American public will accept the pro-Israel community’s adherence to a policy of “trust but verify,” as formulated at the time by President Ronald Reagan when negotiating with the Soviet Union. The Jewish community’s support for military action against Syria, he added, did not cost it any credibility and will not diminish its ability to advocate now for caution when engaging with Iran. “I haven’t seen any adverse reaction to the Jewish community’s support for the president on Syria,” he said.
A House staff member, whose office was courted by AIPAC activists on the issue of Iran, affirmed this view. The lobby’s Syria advocacy, he said, was seen as “part of a massive effort led by the President” and not an issue in which pro-Israel activists were acting on their own behalf.
Iran has long maintained its program is for peaceful purposes only. In a series of remarks and interviews, Rowhani announced that his country is not interested in obtaining a nuclear weapon and pledged it would never do so. He expressed his willingness to engage with the United States and the international community on the issue with “heroic flexibility.”
While top Iranian officials have offered similar statements in the past, the tone of Rowhani’s comments and the stress he and other newly installed leaders in his government have put on speaking directly to an American audience stand in stark contrast to the acerbic rhetoric of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Jeffrey Feltman, a former top State Department official who now serves as the United Nations under secretary general for political affairs, added diplomatic weight to this sense of change in Iran, describing his meetings with the new leadership in Tehran as being “180 degrees from a year ago.” He credited the Iranians with “trying to engage constructively with the international community.”
Israeli officials and mainstream pro-Israel activists in Washington dissent from this view strenuously. So far, they stress, nothing has changed on the ground. The embassy staff of the outgoing Israeli ambassador, Michael Oren, even posted a fake LinkedIn page, supposedly composed by Rowhani, in which the purported president describes himself as an “Expert Salesman, PR Professional, Nuclear Proliferation Advocate.”
“Through a series of statements, tweets, op-eds and smiles, I have rebranded the human-rights-suppressing, Ayatollah-led regime as moderate,” the fake Rowhani said.
“There’s a lot of spin coming out of Iran right now,” Oren told NPR, “but the centrifuges continue to spin in Tehran, enriching uranium.”
Rowhani’s September 24 address to the U.N. General Assembly, in which he reaffirmed Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes under the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, failed to win over Jewish groups. Soon after his speech, the Anti-Defamation League described it as falling “well short of addressing in any serious way the harsh reality of Iran’s decades-long quest for nuclear weapons.”
Officials close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he intends to warn the world against a possible Iranian trap when he addresses the United Nations on October 1, one similar to that set by North Korea, which has negotiated multiple nuclear agreements but has never given up its program.
The September 20 memo AIPAC circulated to its supporters conveyed the same sense of distrust. In it, the lobby detailed the terms and conditions that, from its view, need to be met before reaching a deal with Iran.
Those conditions include compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that Iran suspend its production of highly enriched uranium, stop the installation of new centrifuges devoted to this enrichment and grant access to international monitors seeking to examine its nuclear sites.
“The United States should synchronize its approach to sanctions with Iran’s compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions,” AIPAC stressed. The lobby called on Washington to meet Iranian suspension of nuclear activity with suspension of new sanctions and, on the other hand, to step up sanctions if Tehran continues to advance its nuclear program.
Simultaneously, AIPAC prepared to lobby for a new round of legislation in the Senate, targeting Iran’s financial system. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization dealing with policy issues, also intends to call on Jewish groups across the country to support legislation toughening the sanctions regime against Iran.
In its memo, AIPAC urged the administration to “strengthen the credibility of military action” against Iran’s nuclear program and to “support Israel’s right to act against Iran if it feels compelled, in its own legitimate self-defense, to act.”
The question remains, how will Congress and the public respond to AIPAC’s second call in less than a month to allow the use of force in the Middle East? The lobby launched its drive on Syria in response to a call from the White House in September. But uncharacteristically, the push was stymied by a reluctant Congress, which itself faced an aroused American public strongly opposed to taking military action yet again in the Middle East following more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan with dubious results.
The prospect of an epic failure in Congress was averted only by the last minute diplomatic deal reached between the United States and Russia to try to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons via diplomatic means.
Now, as much of the world, including America, appears to be pushing the other way, AIPAC faces the task of advocating caution toward diplomacy on Iran, and maintenance of a military threat towards it.
“The debate over whether or not to engage Iran is over, because it is accepted now that diplomacy is a viable route to resolve these issues,” said Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at the dovish-leaning Ploughshares Fund. “Syria has broken the taboo for a lot of people.”
Negotiations should now be recognized as an integral part of the “full set of tools at our disposal,” Rubin argued.
But Steve Gutow, president and CEO of the JCPA, said that Americans make a clear distinction between the Syrian case and that of Iran. “No one is enthused about going to war, but Iran is a different situation than Syria,” he said.
Gutow asserted that the American public views a nuclear Iran as a threat to the United States while Syria was not perceived as such. “I don’t think the American people are divided in regards to Iran,” he said.
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 Haaretz 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.