July 7, 2009
Israel and U.S. groups push forward on Iran
The aftermath of Iran’s election presents the United States, Israel and pro-Israel advocates here with a dilemma worthy of a medical melodrama: Advocates for radical surgery, notwithstanding the dangers it poses, have the upper hand and the scalpel is ready—and then the patient shows signs of healing naturally.
Israel, the Obama administration and the organized U.S. Jewish community for a few weeks put on hold their plans to ratchet up confrontation with Iran over its putative nuclear weapons program to see how clashes between the government and protesters who say the June 12 election was stolen would play out.
That answer is not clear, but apparently based on reports that Iran is closer than ever to a nuclear weapon, the confrontationists are back by the operating table, raising the scalpel and saying its time to dig in.
That was the thinking behind a decision Monday by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to plan major rallies in September to press for sanctions. The push will be coordinated to assist efforts by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to nudge toughened sanctions legislation through the U.S. Congress in September.
The clearest sign of the renewed assertiveness was a series of statements by senior U.S. officials culminating in a speech Tuesday by Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. The United States still prefers diplomacy, he said, “but with all options on the table, including, certainly, military options.”
Explicitly invoking “military options” is rare, especially by the nation’s top soldier, although Mullen insisted he had done so in the past after reporters at the Center for Strategic and International Studies event pressed him on the matter.
Moreover, Mullen suggested that for the first time Israel and the United States were closer than ever on when exactly Iran’s nuclear program becomes intolerable.
“The time window is closing,” he said. “The clock is ticking.”
That sounded a lot closer to the recent Israeli predictions of imminent crisis, as opposed to previous American talk of a window of about five years.
Mullen noted that he consulted closely on the matter with Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the Israeli military chief of staff, and was impressed with Israeli concerns that a nuclear Iran posed an existential threat to Israel.
Mullen’s dire warnings did not come out of the blue: He is making an unusual number of public appearances this week, speaking on the Iran issue, and Vice President Joe Biden told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that any Israeli decision to strike Iran would be Israel’s alone.
“Israel can determine for itself—it’s a sovereign nation—what’s in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else,” Biden said.
A number of media reports in recent days suggest an intensification of efforts to coordinate the U.S.-Israel approach to Iran—and how they at times falter. Ha’aretz reported that Israel is seeking specifics on what President Obama plans to do if his outreach fails, and the Washington Times wrote that Israel is withholding a formal request to the United States to attack Iran in case it is denied.
Meanwhile, Obama told CNN in Moscow on Tuesday that the United States had not greenlighted an Israeli strike.
“We have said directly to the Israelis that it is important to try and resolve this in an international setting in a way that does not create major conflict in the Middle East,” he said.
The clearest articulation of “why now” for tougher action against Iran was made by Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, addressing its constituents in a conference call Monday afternoon.
Hoenlein, who called in from Israel, said he was hearing from Israeli leaders that existing sanctions were having an effect and that now was not the time to reduce the pressure.
“We are not getting into the issue of regime change, but we are focused on the nuclear issue,” he said during the call.
“We held off for a little while to see what the outcome” of the elections would be, Hoenlein said, but pressed ahead because of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s plans to attend the U.N. General Assembly and because of Iran’s continued efforts to achieve a nuclear weapon.
The plans are for a massive Washington Day on Sept. 10 that would include meetings at the White House and in Congress, and for a mass rally in New York on Sept. 24 to protest Ahmadinejad’s speech.
Lawmakers have held back on tougher sanctions in part because they also are watching the post-election fallout and because legislation usually does not move in summer months.
The most recent legislation, advanced by U.S. Reps. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), would withdraw loan guarantees from companies that deal with Iran’s energy sector. Other enhancements could target Iran’s central bank and its import of refined petroleum.
Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee and a key to advancing legislation, is said to be concerned that punishing Iranians when they are seeking to replace a tyranny may not be opportune.
AIPAC has a powerful ally, however, in U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who in a recent letter to Obama suggested that confronting Iran trumped other Middle East issues.
“I believe that resolving the problem of Iran’s nuclear program will help facilitate the Arab-Israeli peace process,” Reid wrote.
Speakers on the Presidents Conference call emphasized the need for volume—they expect 300 to 500 Jewish communal leaders to attend the Washington Day—and breadth.
“Get local chapters to reach out to non-Jewish counterparts all across the eastern seaboard and through the Midwest,” Hoenlein said, referring to plans for the New York rally, adding that he hoped to draw Muslim and Christian speakers.
The effort will confront a residual reluctance to assume a more militant posture, particularly one that could culminate in a strike. Mullen enumerated several reasons why the United States was still committed to diplomacy and wary of confrontation—“the vulnerabilities of regional countries that are friends of ours.”
Does a strike, he asked, “get contained or does it expand response in other parts of the world”?
Mullen said the very fluidity of the situation gave him pause.
“We’re not very good at predicting what’s going to happen, where it’s going to happen,” he said. “And not just we—lots of countries in the world.”