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Iranian unrest prompts calls for more U.S. pressure on regime

by JTA

June 16, 2009 | 3:53 pm

Iranians take to the streets of Tehran to protest the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, June 13, 2009. (Shahram Sharif/Creative Commons)

Iranians take to the streets of Tehran to protest the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, June 13, 2009. (Shahram Sharif/Creative Commons)

With unrest mounting in Iran over official claims of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection, U.S. Jewish organizational leaders were calling for more American support for the protesters and more international action to stop the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

Since Ahmadinejad was declared a landslide winner June 13, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in protest.

As the first signs of a violent crackdown came Monday, some Jewish communal officials—including Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations—questioned whether the United States should be doing more to show solidarity with the demonstrators.

Foxman said he had “not heard America embrace” Ahmadinejad’s main challenger, former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Moussavi.

Hoenlein said he understood why the United States “doesn’t want to become a factor” in the process, but added, “When do the young people feel they’ve been abandoned” by the West?

Talking to reporters Monday, Obama said “it is up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran’s leaders will be” and the United States wants to avoid “being the issue inside of Iran.”

“What I would say to those people who put so much hope and energy and optimism into the political process,” he added, “I would say to them that the world is watching and inspired by their participation, regardless of what the ultimate outcome of the election was.”

The protests and crackdowns in Iran are likely to reignite the debate over the best way to stop Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and support of international terrorism: Negotiate a deal with the country’s current Islamic rulers that helps prolong their political survival, or ramp up support for forces seeking to topple the regime?

While Israeli officials and Jewish organizations have yet to weigh in strongly on the question, for weeks they have been asserting that it doesn’t matter whether Ahmadinejad or Moussavi is president because the final decision-maker is the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—and by most accounts he is a strong backer of Iran’s current nuclear policies and support for terrorist proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

But in recent days Moussavi, the prime minister during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, has sided unabashedly with the demonstrators, even as they have appeared to be challenging the legitimacy of the regime. This, coupled with his calls for better relations with the West and less support for Hamas and Hezbollah, has many portraying Moussavi as a true reformist candidate who could potentially trigger significant changes on some fronts.

But Dan Mariaschin, international executive director of B’nai B’rith International, cautioned against losing sight of the fact that Moussavi was the prime minister when Iran’s nuclear program launched.

“Those who think there are sharp differences” between Moussavi and Ahmadinejad are “certainly taking a leap of faith,” Mariaschin said.

In the end, said David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, in a statement, “The re-election of Ahmadinejad underscores why the international community must do all it can to deny the Iranian regime the means to carry out its dangerous and destabilizing ambitions.”

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