The Russian foreign minister got it only partially right when he said America’s
unbending opposition to compromise in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear
program is set by the Congress, not the president. What he left out is that the
Congress is being driven by a muscular pro-Israel lobby with a strong assist
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blamed the standoff
on Congress’s “excessive stance,” but he overlooked the American Israel Public
Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and his recalcitrant Iranian client.
This is no
time to ease up on the sanctions imposed by the United States and its Western
allies, but neither is it a time to tie the president’s hands. A tough sanctions
regime has brought Iran to the table, and Tehran should not be rewarded just for
showing up, as it demands; it still must prove that it did not come just to buy
time to pursue its nuclear ambitions and stave off a possible Israeli or
American military strike.
Limiting the president’s options and
negotiating flexibility by restricting his ability to invoke national security
waivers as he deems necessary, the Congress and AIPAC look like they’re pushing
for war, notwithstanding their unconvincing denials.
President Obama has
repeatedly said he opposes containment and keeps the military option on the
table, but he feels there is still time for diplomacy.
One of the most
militant voices, Rep. Ileana Ros- Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs
Committee, disdains diplomacy. Negotiations are “foolish,” she said, and “will
only embolden the regime.”
One Capitol Hill source following the issue
closely told me, “Many up here believe if we put on enough sanctions the
Iranians will run up the white flag, but they’re not thinking through where this
leads, they’re just checking off boxes on the way to a war we don’t want or
need. It reminds me of just before we invaded Iraq.”
activist said, “This is being driven by those who see no room for compromise,
and it is largely from the Jewish community.”
AIPAC has been the dominant
force on this issue for nearly two decades. Obsessed might be a more accurate
description. It has had a lot of help from the Iranians, whose over-the-top
rhetoric about destroying the Jewish state and threats to sink American aircraft
carriers in the Gulf only fuel Congressional smackdowns.
Jewish community and Israel got a bum rap from those who accused them of pushing
the United States into war against Iraq, but when the talk turns to Iran, that’s
a different story.
It began when Yitzhak Rabin, who did not trust AIPAC
and correctly felt its sympathies were with his Likud opponents, didn’t want it
meddling in the peace process he was trying to launch with the
So he urged it to focus on what he called the “existential
threat” posed by Iran. AIPAC took that ball and ran with it farther than anyone
expected, driving successive Congresses and administrations to take increasingly
For years it has been issue number one on the AIPAC
agenda and the focus of its annual Washington Policy Conference. Most other
major Jewish organizations fell in line when they saw this was a popular cause
they could use to raise their profile and contributions.
It has gotten to
the point that Members of Congress refer to sanctions legislation as the AIPAC
bills. The era of the organization’s below-the-radar approach to lobbying and
its willingness to give credit to others is long gone.
insists it does not want war but its campaign to tie the president’s hands in
any negotiations and lower the bar for military action sends a different
message. This is especially clear in its latest move to redefine the red line
for military action.
President Obama has repeatedly said the United
States will not allow Iran to “acquire a nuclear weapon,” but AIPAC has adopted
the Netanyahu position and pushed it through Congress lowering the bar to
“acquiring nuclear capability.” That is a critical difference that could make
war more likely.
The Iranians continue to be AIPAC’s and Netanyahu’s best
ally. And they will be as long as they bar UN inspectors, ignore their
commitments under the Non Proliferation Treaty, snub repeated UN resolutions,
keep enriching uranium, demand sanctions be lifted as a reward just for showing
up and announce plans to build more reactors.
Senate Democrats met last
week with a group of Jewish leaders to say they are giving the president the
tools to deal with Iran, but they didn’t mention he needs their permission for
any deal short of unconditional Iranian surrender.
There is a lot more
political maneuvering than global strategy at play here. In this highly charged
political year with Republicans trying to paint the president and Democrats as
weak and unreliable friends of Israel, both sides are trying to out-Israel the
other. That’s one reason some Members of Congress are voting to increase
military spending for Israel while cutting it for the Pentagon.
little or no possibility of any American flexibility in the talks, at least
before November 6.
An important driving force in the current talks is the
fear that if the diplomats can’t halt Iran’s nuclear drive the Israel Air Force
will take its turn.
That won’t stop the program but might set it back by
a couple of years or so – but at enormous cost to Israel and possibly this
If the Moscow talks prove to be just another Iranian delaying
tactic, an Israeli strike becomes more likely. And so do a Pandora’s box of
unintended consequences for a war-weary United States.