The Iranian government is many things, but stupid isn’t one of them. To argue, as backers of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013 are doing, that a new round of enhanced sanctions is needed to make them take the nuclear negotiations seriously is pure bunk.

The ayatollahs in Tehran are very well informed about what is going on here in Washington and what will happen if Iran is responsible for the collapse of the talks. The campaign for new sanctions looks more like it is intended to scuttle the talks – by forcing the Iranians to take a hike – than to advance them.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has skillfully and effectively driven the sanctions train for two decades. Its stated goal has been to force Iran to the table to negotiate away any plans for nuclear weapons.

The AIPAC campaign was a great success.

The Iranians are at the table and have even taken some steps – reversible if the talks fail – to limit their program and open it to international inspectors, so why didn’t AIPAC and its supporters declare victory? It would have been easy for it to boast of its success, pat itself on the back with reams of press releases and declare its intention to keep a close watch on the negotiations to make sure they succeed and be prepared to swing back into action if they fail.

Were they so flummoxed by success that they only knew how to respond by becoming more aggressive? Everyone would unify behind even more punitive sanctions and possibly even military action if the talks failed because Iran wasn’t willing to give up the bomb. AIPAC took up the Iran case at the urging of then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who said the Islamic Republic posed the only real existential threat to Israel and needed to be prevented from joining the nuclear club.

That was his stated intent. What he really wanted was to keep the Likud-leaning lobby occupied and its hands off the nascent peace process he was undertaking with the Palestinians.

He had already seen AIPAC try to sabotage earlier peace efforts by his Labor party.

Iran has been AIPAC’s cause for many years, and it has not only enhanced the group’s image of influence and power but filled its coffers with many millions in contributions as well as the campaign war chests of its Congressional supporters. Winning nearly unanimous support for anti-Iran sanctions was easy; there was never any real opposition.

Then along came Hassan Rouhani. The new Iranian president’s winning issue was a promise to reverse the intense economic damage wrought by the American-led sanctions regime, and that meant making a no-nukes deal with the United States.

Additional sanctions at this time would be “dangerous” because they would only strengthen the hands of the hardliners in Tehran who will point to them as evidence that the negotiations are a waste of time, warned Senators Carl Levin (D-Michigan) and Angus King (I-Maine). “Instead of slowing Iran’s nuclear program, such legislation could actually accelerate their quest for atomic weapons,” they argued in a New York Times op-ed.

Dennis Ross, President Barack Obama’s former Iran advisor, warned if the Congress adopts new sanctions and the Iranians walk out, our negotiating partners – Russia, Britain, France, Germany and China – are likely to blame us instead of the Iranians, and the international sanctions regime would collapse.

So why take the risk when there will be ample opportunity to enact new laws later? What do supporters of the new sanctions law really want? This legislation, sponsored by nearly every Republican in the Senate and 16 Democrats (several of whom are dropping off), has been the centerpiece of a full-court press by AIPAC and other Jewish groups, particularly on the Right.

For many of these Iran is the target, but for Senate Republicans and some others like the Emergency Committee For Israel (ECI), the real target is President Obama and the Democrats.

It’s part of a partisan game of “gotcha.” If you’re not with us, you ain’t no friend of Israel.

The real objective isn’t preventing Iranian nukes but rather collecting markers to show that when it comes to protecting and defending Israel, the president and Democrats are AWOL. It’s the latest chapter in a long series of failed efforts to bring Jewish votes for the GOP back to Reagan-era levels.

A good example is ECI’s smear campaign against Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, implying she is hostile to Israel and soft on Iran because she didn’t toe the neocon group’s extremist line. But that wasn’t the main reason she was targeted. Her real offense was being a Democrat and a party leader.

The Florida congresswoman, who is Jewish and chairs the Democratic National Committee, has been urging others to back the president’s call to hold off on new sanctions. The conservative online newspaper, Washington Free Beacon, which has been pushing the ECI campaign, carried a headline calling her defenders “schmucks.” It reported an AIPAC official was pressing Florida Jewish leaders to pressure Wasserman-Shultz to end her opposition to the Senate bill.

After over a week of sitting by while its allies trashed the congresswoman AIPAC finally issued a Friday-afternoon statement by one of its board members calling her “a good friend of Israel and a close friend of AIPAC.”

In my 40 years seeing AIPAC from the inside and the outside, I’ve never seen anything like this.

Through its inept handling and poor judgment, AIPAC blew any remaining semblance of bipartisanship and missed an opportunity to claim an important victory and influence the negotiations; instead it looked like another right-wing group that prefers war over negotiations, domestic partisanship over diplomacy.

The pro-Israel community, starting with AIPAC, risks its hard-won credibility and clout by supporting and even inciting efforts to derail negotiations that may prevent another war America can ill afford – and protect a vulnerable Jewish state.

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