Most U.S. Jewish Groups Wary Of Iran Deal

Organizations praise president for taking on issue, but say more sanctions are needed.

By Stewart Ain

Originally published in The Jewish Week, November 19, 2013

Most Jewish groups here are siding with Israel as it warns against a possible deal to freeze Iran’s nuclear program in return for the easing of sanctions, but they are also at pains to applaud the Obama administration for tackling the issue.

“There are things wrong with the deal if it is to force the Iranians to the table,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of President of Major American Jewish Organizations. “How can we make sure that the interim deal does not become a final deal? That any deal now is only a precursor to a final agreement that would preclude Iran from making a nuclear weapons program? … We heard just this week from an Iranian opposition group that has proved right in the past that there is another hidden Iranian [nuclear] facility.”

Hoenlein said there is a danger that as the talks drag on that Iran “can use the time to work on other aspects” of the nuclear program, such as expanding its ability to “weaponize and deliver” a nuclear weapon.

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said his organization believes “everyone’s interests are best served when the U.S. and Israel are on the same page — and right now that is not the case.

“It is our hope and expectation that officials in both capitals will work hard to try to move the two countries closer in their prescription for how to deal with this issue,” he added. “At the same time, we applaud the French position [to delay the deal calling for an easing of Iranian sanctions]. We think they have been sober and realistic in their understanding of how to deal with Iran.

“We also know that many U.S. allies share Israel’s concerns … [as do] many in Congress — both Democrats and Republicans. Those concerns need to be heard and taken into account because we all share the same goal of getting the best diplomatic deal to stop Iran. Congress can play a helpful role by considering additional sanctions that would not go into immediate effect and could be used by the administration as additional leverage in the negotiations.”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, agreed that additional sanctions are needed. Asked about the split between Israel and the U.S., he said: “I believe there were certain elements [of the proposed agreement] that Israel was surprised about. Today there is a crisis of confidence on both policy and strategy and also a lack of trust. But I am optimistic and believe the crisis of confidence can be overcome and that a policy could be developed that takes into account the interests of both countries.”

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said all Obama appears to have accomplished is to get Iran to “slow down” its drive towards developing nuclear weapons.

“If Iran hasn’t stopped its nuclear program with the sanctions currently in place, more sanctions are needed — otherwise Israel will have no choice but to hit it militarily,” he said.

Nathan Diament, executive director for Public Policy at the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, said that although additional sanctions are needed, Obama and “his administration deserve a tremendous amount of credit for all they have done to this point.

“The president and his team are clearly committed to not only stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon but in trying to get the best deal as they see it. I don’t think they are trying to hide the ball from Israel or the American Jewish leadership or sell Israel down the river in any way shape or form. There are more than just differences here over tactics. Obama wants to prevent Iran from possessing a nuclear weapon, and [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu wants to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapons capability.”

Hoenlein agreed, saying: “The U.S.-Israeli relationship is an enduring and important relationship … and the bottom line is that whatever tensions exist, that relationship is more vital than ever given the events in the region.”

“The issue of Iran is in the fundamental security interests of the U.S., Israel and the world,” he added. “We have to make sure this is not seen as being Israel or Jewish-centric, especially if we want the American people to be behind it. We have to make the American people — the world — understand why a nuclear Iran threatens American security interests and how the international situation would be different if Iran were a nuclear power.”

The Obama administration has been critical of Netanyahu for criticizing the proposed negotiated deal with Iran when he did not know the details. But Hoenlein questioned “why our closest ally did not know the specifics.”

He said he also heard reports that the U.S. and Iran have secretly negotiated a deal over the past year. The headline in the Times of Israel Tuesday read: “U.S. Jewish Leaders Feel Misled by White House over Iran deal.”

Hoenlein said that although he received confirmation about the secret talks from “sources in the region and not Israeli sources, I was told [by the Obama administration] as recently as a few days ago that it is categorically not true — and there is no definitive evidence that it is true.”

Also calling for additional Congressional sanctions is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which pledged that there would be “no pause, delay or moratorium in our efforts.”

The only major Jewish group disagreeing is J Street, whose director of government affairs, Dylan Williams, said told The Jewish Week: “If diplomacy is still viable, we not going to support additional sanctions that would undermine the current round of diplomacy. However, if Iran were to change its behavior in the negotiations such that additional sanctions would be necessary, we would definitely support them at that time.”

He said J Street would be guided by the Obama administration’s view of the situation.

Asked about those who contend that the threat of further Congressional sanctions would serve to show Iran that the negotiators mean business, Williams said such an “argument is a dangerous oversimplification.

“Carefully calibrated sanctions have played a significant role in bringing Iran to the table and we were happy to support the sanctions,” he said. “At this point, with Iran appearing ready to make verifiable material concessions, it seems to be not the right moment to risk undermining that dynamic in the negotiations.”