Several hundred Jewish leaders from around the country will spill into Washington on Thursday for a “national leadership advocacy day on Iran” that many hope will spark a genuine grass-roots movement akin to the Soviet Jewry movement of the 1980s.
And while one ostensible goal of the fly-in is to press for new sanctions legislation pending in Congress, there is a broader, unspoken purpose: to ensure strong official U.S. support if Israel feels compelled to use military force to damage Iran’s nuclear program.
Beneath the surface, this week’s action is “designed to impress upon people in Washington that somebody has to deal with the problem — and that all the moves up until this point have clearly not addressed the problem in a satisfactory way,” said Shoshana Bryen, senior director for security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). “The Jews aren’t coming here to ask the administration to bomb Iran, but I also don’t think they’re coming here specifically asking for sanctions, either, because we know sanctions haven’t worked. What we’re left with is that they’re preparing the ground so that no matter what happens, nobody can say they weren’t warned.”
The stepped-up Iran action by Jewish groups comes as the International Atomic Energy Agency admits that the UN monitoring group is in “stalemate” with Iran and amid reports Iran is beefing up its anti-aircraft missile program — perhaps in anticipation of an Israeli strike.
It also comes as the early September international deadline for progress on the diplomatic front passes — with Iran’s leaders saying that while they’re happy to negotiate, their nuclear program won’t be on the table.
The most specific item on Thursday’s agenda is lobbying on behalf of the Iran Petroleum Sanctions Act, but organizers stress that sanctions are just part of the overall action plan.
“In our statement of purpose, we intentionally use the word ‘measures’ instead of ‘sanctions,’ because measures can be positive as well as negative,” said Martin Raffel, senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). Raffel played a major role in drafting that statement. “We want to make it clear: we’re not against engagement, diplomacy or offering incentives. If the international community can find the right combination of carrots and sticks to convince the Iranian regime to step off the perch it’s on, we will be the first to congratulate them.”
“As a community, we are taking an overall approach,” said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ, a group focused on Eastern European human rights. Levin is coordinating the Washington event. “Sanctions are one important mechanism. We recognize that there has to be greater support from other countries, but what is the alternative? To throw up our hands and say Iran will be a nuclear nation, with all that implies?”
The new Iran legislation, sponsored by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, would impose sanctions on companies that are involved in exporting refined petroleum products to Iran or in expanding Iran’s domestic refining capacity.
The reasoning: Iran may be rich in petroleum reserves, but it lacks refining capacity.
Berman refused to push the bill when it was introduced in the spring to “give the administration’s efforts to engage Iran every possible chance to succeed, within a reasonable time frame,” he said during a hearing on the issue.
With the international deadline for a positive response passing and no positive response from Tehran, Berman has said he’s now ready to advance the legislation.
But with Russia and China eager to do business with oil-wealthy Iran and European companies still reaping profits from their dealings with Iranian interests, Jewish leaders aren’t kidding themselves that creating airtight sanctions will be easy.
“Sanctions won’t solve the problem — but the absence of sanctions won’t either,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “If the message to Iran is that they can have their yellow cake and eat it too, then the game is over.”
While sanctions must be part of the policy palette, along with diplomacy and the prospect of negotiations, “the administration must be ready with a ‘Plan C’” if negotiations and sanctions fail to deter Iran, Harris said.
In private, many Jewish leaders believe that Plan C inevitably means some kind of military action — probably not American, since U.S. forces face a worsening and increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan.
Israeli leaders have repeatedly hinted they might be forced to take on the job themselves — and to do that, they need American support, at best, acquiescence at the least.
So one function of the heightened activism may be to prepare the ground for whatever comes next if sanctions — as many predict — don’t work, and to ensure American support for any action Israel deems necessary.
This week’s mobilization and demonstrations scheduled for Sept. 24, when Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is scheduled to be in New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly, also reflect the first step in an effort to make Iran advocacy a mass movement on a par with the mobilization on behalf of Soviet Jewry two decades ago.
Thursday’s Jewish fly-in is one element in “channeling the sense of growing anxiety about the Iran issue into constructive strategies,” Harris said. “It’s very much in the spirit of the Soviet Jewry movement.”
It’s probably no accident that the coordinator of this week’s fly-in is NCSJ’s Levin, who was a key organizer of the 1987 Washington rally that was the capstone to a movement that galvanized a broad swath of the Jewish community and, most experts agree, had a significant impact on U.S. policy. (The AJC’s Harris, another participant this week, was the overall coordinator of that rally).
And it’s no coincidence a joint statement by rabbinic and synagogue organizations representing all four streams of Judaism, issued last week, called for a variety of actions by communities across the country, including having synagogues post signs warning of the Iran threat and making more extensive use of rabbis to spread the message — both hallmarks of the Soviet Jewry movement.
“It is a shift in activism; we want to expand it into the grass roots as much as possible,” said the JCPA’s Raffel. “We want our leaders to understand there is broad support in the American public — Jewish and non-Jewish — to bring this situation to a resolution. It is time for the Jewish community, as well as others who are concerned about Iran’s nuclear program, to move full force into the arena.”