On Monday AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby group that has been at the forefront of efforts to impose and stiffen sanctions on Iran, distributed to reporters an interview with an Iranian demonstrator calling on the international community to apply “much more sanctions” on the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But the fight for sanctions and other tough actions against Iran is getting more complicated by the day as demonstrators continue to protest what they say was a stolen presidential election and the Obama administration seeks policies to encourage change in Iran without risking a backlash triggered by overt meddling.
Jewish leaders are “stuck” on the Iran issue, said Shoshana Bryen, senior director for security policy for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). “Have you heard one shred of new thinking coming out of Jewish groups on Iran?”
Sanctions and vague calls for “tougher” action on Iran dominate Jewish rhetoric on the subject, said Bryen, whose group is close to the U.S. and Israeli security establishments and generally takes a hard line on foreign policy issues. But sanctions have proven largely ineffective, she said, and the current situation points to a situation far more complex than simplistic slogans suggest.
Early indications suggest that most Jewish groups aren’t changing their hard-hitting approach to stopping Iran’s accelerating nuclear weapons program.
“Sure, there needs to be a reconsideration of policy as this process unfolds,” said Laura Kam, senior adviser for The Israel Project, a group that has been at the forefront of the Jewish community’s call for tougher action on Iran. “However, in terms of sanctions, we do not believe there should be any letup. The reason is simple: the centrifuges are still running; the nuclear weapons program is still forging ahead, full speed ahead.”
Stopping that program, not fostering a democratic rebellion, should remain the top goal of the Jewish community, she said. And carefully calibrated sanctions will likely increase popular discontent with the government of the clerics, not drive a restive public into their embrace.
Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the current unrest and the government response “unmasked” the repressive Tehran regime for the world to see. The official Israeli line is that the repression featured in news clips and videos flashed across the planet may make it easier to line up international support for tougher sanctions and other actions to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Even if opposition leader Mir Hussein Mousavi were to wrest control of the presidency from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there’s no indication that he or the clerics who are the power behind the Iranian throne would put the brakes on that country’s accelerating nuclear program, Jewish leaders argue.
And analysts across the spectrum agree that an election that was apparently stolen and the more visible assertion of authority by radical Islamic clerics augur poorly for President Barack Obama’s controversial goal of opening channels of dialogue with Iran.
“The president has talked himself into a corner,” said JINSA’s Bryen. “Now he’s been told by the real powers in Iran that they don’t want to talk. So what do you engage with?
Absent a genuine negotiating partner, ratcheted-up sanctions may be one of a narrowing universe of options, they say. The consensus position among major pro-Israel groups is that now is not the time to ease sanctions or tone down the rhetoric on Iran.
Some Iran experts disagree. Recent developments point to a situation they say is far more complex than is portrayed by politicians in Washington and foreign policy advocacy groups — including many in the Jewish community.
“Obviously, the current unrest suggests far more discontent with the government than was supposed,” said Shaul Bakhash, a top Iran scholar at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and an Iranian Jewish exile.
“Everybody realized people were unhappy, but few realized it was so close to eruption. That’s not untypical of the Iranian situation for the past 100 years; people put up with misgovernment and corruption for a long time, then the government crosses some red line and people erupt in outrage. That’s what we’re seeing this time.”
Bakhash said the current situation also points to “differences among the Iran leadership that are deeper than supposed.”
The Jewish community’s portrayal of the Iranian leadership as almost Hitlerian was “always an oversimplification,” he said. That perspective echoed the starkly black-and-white view of the George W. Bush administration, which relegated Iran to an “axis of evil” status that ignored very real fissures within the Iranian leadership and the big gap between the people and the government.
The results of that approach, Bakhash said, included “missed opportunities” during previous internal reform efforts.
While recent sanctions aimed at banks “have hurt Iran,” he said, “the fact is that under a regime of sanctions for the past 20 years, Iran has developed a missile capability, has developed an advanced nuclear energy program and, according to many experts, is on its way to developing a nuclear weapons capability. So it’s very difficult to say sanctions are working; I would argue that it’s time to try something new.”
Likewise, bellicose rhetoric from those outside Iran — national leaders in Washington and Jewish leaders alike — can only help Iran’s leaders rally a skeptical public to the cause of a failed leadership, he said.
The Jewish community is making a big mistake by pushing tougher sanctions at this juncture, said Daniel Levy, director of the Prospects for Peace Initiative of the Century Foundation.
“The Obama administration is calibrating its response just right,” Levy said this week. “To do anything that disturbs or upsets that balance would be highly counterproductive.”
Toughening sanctions and other harsh measures would “make the efforts of those who are challenging the election results and seeing a freer Iran inestimably harder,” he said. “Right now, this is all about nuance.”
There’s no indication the Jewish community is responding with that kind of nuance, he said.
But Jewish leaders argue that nuance isn’t the issue. Iran’s quest for nuclear weaponry and the radicalism of the clerical leaders who are the real power behind the government are.
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, agreed that the unfolding drama in Iran means everybody — U.S. policymakers and Jewish leaders alike — is “flying by the seat of our pants. We are beginning to ask: Are we witnessing something potentially historic here? Are we seeing the first steps in the reversal of the 1979 revolution? If there’s even a glimmer of a chance of something like that happening, even more is at stake here.”
By rigging the recent presidential election and cracking down on those protesting results, the regime has “revealed its true colors,” he said. “What many in the Jewish community have been saying — that Iran is led by a dangerous, demagogic regime — has been demonstrated.”
The result, he said: there’s no need for major Jewish groups to alter their strong rhetoric on Iran or their policies on issues such as sanctions.
“We have no choice but to keep calling attention to the [nuclear] program precisely because we do not have the remotest clue what the outcome of these dramatic events in the streets may be,” he said. “I don’t see any problem in focusing attention on the nature of the regime, the brutality of its response and the lies of Ahmadinejad, who proclaimed Iran the freest nation in the world. We have an obligation to speak out.”