As the Obama administration approaches yet another critical juncture in the campaign to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a widening coalition of pro-Israel groups is pushing for a tough new sanctions law — despite mounting skepticism over the effectiveness of the economic bludgeon.
This week J Street, the pro-peace process lobby and political action committee, endorsed the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, which House leaders now say they will move by the end of the year.
Earlier, the group urged lawmakers to give Iran more time to respond to Obama administration diplomatic overtures. But time has run out, said J Street policy and strategy director Hadar Susskind.
“It has become clear that both [Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard] Berman and President Obama want to see this bill moved now,” he said. “The reason they have shifted on this, and the reason that we have come out in support of the legislation, is that we’ve seen a total rejection of diplomacy on the Iranian side.
“So we need to send a clear signal to Iran that there is a choice,” Susskind said. “One path leads to participation in the family of nations, the other to international isolation.”
Several observers said that while tough sanctions are unlikely to garner critical international support, Jewish groups have little choice but to press for them.
Jacques Berlinerblau, director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, said American Jewish leaders understand the huge risks of unilateral Israeli military action and the fact that a U.S. military strike is increasingly unlikely as the nation copes with the costs — human and financial — of two ongoing wars.
“There is a realization that America, as it is today, just isn’t going to go into a new war, and that’s what’s pushing them down the sanctions path,” he said.
At the same time, he said, Israeli leaders and their supporters here increasingly fear a potential shift in Washington toward a policy of nuclear containment — a possible shift seen as catastrophic for the smaller, far more vulnerable Israel.
As diplomacy founders and truly effective sanctions prove elusive, “the entire world will move toward a containment policy,” Berlinerblau said. “The only ones who can’t live with that are the Israelis, and they’re right.”
This week Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported on an Iran policy simulation at Harvard that predicted Washington will “fail to obtain tough UN sanctions.”
Iran’s leaders were the clear winners in the simulation, and the “U.S. team — unable to stop the Iranian nuclear program and unwilling to go to war — concluded the game by embracing a strategy of containment and deterrence,” he wrote. “The Iranian team wound up with Russia and China as its diplomatic protectors. And the Israeli team ended in a sharp break with Washington.”
That’s the diplomatic scenario most feared by Jewish leaders as they crank up the fight for tougher U.S. sanctions.
Numerous signs point to growing frustration in an administration that initially pressed for engagement with Iran.
After a recent vote by the International Atomic Energy Agency censuring Iran, press secretary Robert Gibbs said, “Our patience and that of the international community is limited, and time is running out. If Iran refuses to meet its obligations, then it will be responsible for its own growing isolation and the consequences.”
Despite initial indications it would accept a deal, Iran has spurned an agreement that would send its uranium to other countries for processing into fuel for reactors. Poking the international community in the eye, Iran announced last week it will build ten additional nuclear enrichment plants, although it is far from clear whether that represents rhetoric or reality.
Despite the bleak diplomatic scenario, some Jewish leaders see signs the administration is moving in the right direction on several fronts.
“The administration understands that the next step, which entails toughened sanctions, is not a go-it-alone strategy,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “It requires harmonization with the EU, Russia and China, at the very least. Achieving that will be difficult.”
Harris — who met with top State Department and National Security Council officials last week — said “I am satisfied they are pursuing the process of planning ‘Plan B’ on Iran, since ‘Plan A’ — the strategy of engagement with Iran — seems to have failed.”
Washington wants a tough UN Security Council resolution, he said; getting that will require “a very complex set of conversations with key countries, beginning with the four other permanent members and Germany. What we heard is that there has been a fair amount of progress — but it would be premature for the administration to tout it.”
Harris said the administration also faces complex and controversial choices over how much to dilute its proposed sanctions to win the cooperation of Russia and China, among others.
“Do you go for the toughest possible sanctions, or the greatest international unity among the 15 members of the Security Council?” he asked. “The two are not identical; this is an enormous balancing act.”
Other observers offer a darker view, arguing that the administration is displaying with Iran the same inconsistency and disorganization that has confounded its efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
Barry Rubin, Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center in Israel, said it’s more than just sloppy foreign policy making.
“The administration gave a September deadline for raising sanctions and abandoned it,” he said. “Apparently the December 31 deadline will be missed also. The issue is not disorganization but ideology and methods. They don’t understand the use of threats, leverage, credibility, and deterrence in international relations. The administration has only one gear in its policy: be nice and hope the other side will reciprocate.”
He said U.S. Iran policy now echoes elements of administration policy in Afghanistan.
“In that case, there is the thinnest and most obviously false veneer of toughness: send troops for a little show, pull them out, and telegraph ahead of time to the enemy that you’re not serious,” he said.
The administration’s delay in calling for tough sanctions points to a similarly weak policy on Iran, he said.
Washington needs to work with Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy and “anyone else who will join in” to impose sanctions quickly, he said. “That won’t be perfect but would send a signal and others would be encouraged to join in.”
But Shoshana Bryen, senior director for security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), said that in the real world, sanctions are “another way of doing nothing. Find me a single case in which sanctions have accomplished any goal we’ve set for ourselves in foreign policy; you won’t find one.”
Instead, she said the emphasis should be on supporting regime change through support for a growing dissident movement inside Iran.
“Today Iranian students are out in the rain, demanding an end to this government — and we aren’t helping them,” she said. “Supporting the revolution should be the key. This is a bad regime; it eats its young, it supports everybody in the world we don’t like and it lies to our faces.”
But Shaul Bakhash, an Iran expert at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. and an Iranian expatriate, said too little is known about the internal dynamics of Iranian culture and politics today for a policy of remote-control regime change.
And helping dissidents is a strategy fraught with risk and with limited chances of success, he said.
“The Bush administration was big on the rhetoric of supporting the Iranian opposition, and it backfired on the reform movement,” he said. “Practically speaking, what can we do? It might be good if the President spoke more forthrightly about human rights in Iran. But what practical assistance could we offer? I just don’t see it as much of an alternative.”
Bakhash agrees that sanctions, too, have a low probability of success.
“Past sanctions have hurt the Iranian economy, but not enough; this is not a government that is sensitive to the damage it has caused to people or the economy,” he said. “And they have learned to get around sanctions.”
And with most estimates saying Iran will very soon be able to build nuclear weapons, sanctions that will take years to have any impact may be a moot point.
“The nuclear clock is ticking much faster than the sanctions clock,” Bakhash said.
A longtime pro-Israel leader here who has criticized the Iran policy of Democratic and Republican presidents alike framed the issue differently.
“The only party here with a clear strategy is the Iranians,” said this source, who asked not to be named. “Their policy of delay and division, of saying they’re willing to talk and then changing their minds, has worked very well.”
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