Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, Iran, on April 25. Photo by Leader.ir/Handout via Reuters

Senate passes bill to impose new sanctions on Iran


The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran.

The measure adding sanctions on Iran due to its ballistic missile program, support for terrorism and human rights breaches passed Thursday in a 98-2 vote. It complies with the Iran nuclear agreement reached in 2015, which put restrictions on the country’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., introduced the bill, which now must pass in the House of Representatives and be signed by President Donald Trump before being enacted. Only Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., voted against it.

A day earlier, the Senate voted to adopt an amendment to the bill that would expand sanctions against Russia, CBS News reported.

The American Jewish Committee praised the bill’s passage.

“In the aftermath of the Iran nuclear deal, AJC has continued to raise concerns about Iran’s threatening behavior with our own and other governments,” Jason Isaacson, the group’s associate executive director for policy, said in a statement.

“Iran’s ballistic missile program, the regime’s support for international terrorism, and its blatant and egregious human rights violations should not be ignored. This bill demonstrates to the Iranian regime that they will not be tolerated.”

Christians United for Israel also lauded the measure, calling it a “good first step.”

“While the Iran nuclear agreement was sold to the American people with the promise that Tehran would moderate its behavior, the Islamic Republic continues to work to consolidate power and export bloodshed,” CUFI said in a statement. “Iran’s support for terror, ballistic missile program and human rights record demand U.S. action.”

Yahya Sinwar, left, and Ali Khamenei (Getty Images via JTA)

I’m rubber, you’re glue: Iran and Hamas impose sanctions targeting US, Israel


Israel’s archenemies apparently couldn’t wait until April Fool’s Day.

On Sunday, geopolitics got all “hafouch,” or turned upside down, as they say in this country. Iran imposed penalties on U.S. firms for working with Israel, and Hamas closed its border with the Jewish state. Stereotypically, of course, it’s the other way around, with the United States and Israel doing the sanctioning of Iran and Hamas.

According to Iran’s IRNA state news agency, the “reciprocal” sanctions on 15 U.S. companies are for alleged human rights violations and cooperating with Israel. IRNA quoted Iran’s foreign ministry as saying the companies had “flagrantly violated human rights” and cooperated with Israel against the Palestinians.

Iran’s seizure of the companies’ assets and ban on contact is largely symbolic since the companies don’t do business with Iran. Among the targeted firms are Re/Max Real Estate, which Tehran accuses of “buying and settling home in settlements located in the occupied territories.”

Emily Landau, a senior researcher at the Institute for International Security Studies, a leading Israeli think tank, said Iran actually has a long history of using the United States’ tools against it.

“This is well-known Iranian tactic of turning the tables on the U.S.,” she wrote in an email to JTA. “Iran has done it many times before over the past years. They take the same messages that the U.S. sends them, about how Iran must do this or the other, and sends them back in reverse.”

Meanwhile, in a rare move, Hamas shut the Erez crossing, which is how people move between Israel and Gaza, due to the assassination of a senior official in its military wing Friday. Hamas officials have blamed the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad for the killing of one of its top military leaders, who was shot dead by unknown gunmen Friday in Gaza.

“The closure is being implemented as part of the steps taken by Hamas security forces as a result of the crime of the assassination of Mazan Fukha,” the spokesman for the Interior Ministry said in a post on his official Facebook page.

Israel has maintained a blockade of Hamas-run Gaza since 2007, but it grants permits for people to cross through Erez for business or humanitarian reasons. Hamas apparently suspects that collaborators with Israel were involved in the shooting. Israel has not commented.

So far, Hamas has refrained from responding with rockets. Israeli analyst Avi Issacharoff wrote in The Times of Israel Sunday that Hamas may be looking to avoid a new war.

“Yet, for all its rhetoric, Hamas has yet to show any firm evidence of Israeli involvement, a fact that may give the organization the political maneuvering room to avoid a dramatic response that could lead to a full-fledged confrontation,” he wrote.

But he noted the group’s new Gaza chief, Yahya Sinwar, was known to be dangerous and unpredictable when he was head of Hamas’ military wing, and Israel-Hamas tensions can heat up quickly in the summertime.

U.S.-Iran relations have also gotten hotter President Donald Trump took office in January. Twice in as many months the United States has imposed new sanctions on foreign individuals and companies for allegedly supporting Iran’s weapons program. Last month’s sanctions also targeted Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

In response to a proposal by U.S. lawmakers to go further and brand Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization, a senior Iranian lawmaker threatened that his country could do the same to the CIA.

Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but in international conflict it tends to escalate.

Cartoon: Use it nicely


Democratic lawmakers call for immediate sanctions on Iran


Democratic lawmakers – opponents and supporters of the Iran nuclear deal – on Wednesday called on the Obama Administration to impose punitive sanctions on Iran without delay.

In a letter sent to President Barack Obama, House Representatives Nita Lowey, Eliot Engel, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Albio Sires, Gerry Connolly, Susan Davis and Jerry Nadler called for immediate punitive sanctions in response to Iran’s recent violations of UN Security Council resolutions law by conducting two ballistic missile tests.

“Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the region and continued support for terrorism represent an unacceptable threat to our closest allies as well as our own national security,” the Democrats write in the letter. “As the international community prepares for implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran must understand that violating international laws, treaties, and agreements will have serious consequences. We call on the Administration to immediately announce new, U.S. sanctions against individuals and entities involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program to ensure Iran is held accountable for its actions.”

During the congressional review of the Iran nuclear deal, President Obama promised Democratic lawmakers he would respond forcefully to Iranian malfeasance and would swiftly impose sanctions for non-nuclear issues outside of the JCPOA—including ballistic missile activity. In a letter to Rep. Nadler, before getting him on board in support of the deal, President Obama wrote, “I made sure that the United States reserved its right to maintain and enforce existing sanctions and even to deploy new sanctions to address those continuing concerns, which we fully intend to do when circumstances warrant.”

Last week, the administration notified Congress that it intended to impose sanctions on nearly a dozen companies and individuals for providing support to Iran’s ballistic missile program. But the White House quickly walked back the announcement. On Saturday, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said, “We just have additional work that we need to do as the U.S. government before we would announce additional designations.”

Read the full text of the letter below:

January 6, 2016

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, D.C. 20500
Dear Mr. President:

We write to express our serious concern with Iran’s recent violation of international law by test-firing medium-range ballistic missiles in October and November 2015.

As you know, the United Nations (UN) Security Panel of Experts concluded that the October test was a blatant violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929. While the UN Panel has yet to characterize Iran’s second medium range ballistic missile test in November as a violation, both exercises foster insecurity in surrounding countries about Iran’s military capabilities and intent.

Additionally, an Iranian rocket—fired by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps during live-fire exercises—came within just 1,500 feet last week of the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman that was operating in the Strait of Hormuz.

Such aggressive and destabilizing behavior is deeply troubling, particularly preceding implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and demands a U.S. response. While not all of us share the same opinion on the JCPOA, we are united in our desire to ensure it is vigilantly enforced and to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

For this reason, the United States and our allies must take immediate, punitive action and send a clear message to Iran that violating international laws, treaties, and agreements will have serious consequences. We understand the Administration is preparing sanctions against individuals and entities involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program, and we urge you to announce such sanctions without further delay.

Inaction from the United States would send the misguided message that, in the wake of the JCPOA, the international community has lost the willingness to hold the Iranian regime accountable for its support for terrorism and other offensive actions throughout the region—including in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip. This behavior—including these ballistic missile tests—poses a direct threat to American national security interests and those of our allies.

As Members of Congress committed to regional and international security and stability, we stand ready to assist you in holding Iran accountable for its actions. Thank you for your attention to this critical matter, and we look forward to your response.

U.S. says weighs sanctions against Iran for ballistic missile test


The U.S. State Department said on Tuesday it was in discussions with other U.S. agencies on imposing sanctions against Iran for an Oct. 10 ballistic missile tests by Tehran that violated U.N. Security Council resolutions.

“We are fully prepared to use sanctions with respect to this most recent ballistic missile test (and) are still working through some technical issues there,” spokesman John Kirby said.

Responding to news reports that the State Department stopped sanctions from being imposed because Iran objected, Kirby said: “There continues to be a robust inter-agency discussion about moving forward on sanctions.”

He added: “We don't take sanctions advice or guidance from Iran or any other country.”

Swiss envoy says: invest in Iran, Middle East’s ‘pole of stability’


Switzerland's ambassador on Thursday called Iran a “pole of stability” in the Middle East and urged companies to make the most of a lucrative market about to re-open after years of crippling sanctions.

Ambassador Giulio Haas was addressing some 500 Swiss business people as Europeans race back to Iran, whose markets and oil will be much easier to tap once sanctions are lifted, under a global deal struck last month.

“Iran seems still for a lot of people to be bearded, elderly gentlemen with turbans. You see them, but you see not a lot of them, especially when you're dealing with business,” Haas said.

Iran's adversaries in the Middle East, particulaly Israel and Saudi Arabia, oppose the deal Tehran struck with world powers, limiting its nuclear work in return for sanctions relief.

In the United States where Iran has long been seen as a regional menace, the U.S. Congress has until Sept. 17 to vote on the deal backed by President Barack Obama but opposed by many Republicans.

Haas said his nearly two years in Tehran had convinced him Western perceptions of Iran as the world's most-aggressive nation were about to change.

“Iran at the moment is most probably the pole of stability in a very, very unsafe region,” he told the conference.

Britain reopened its embassy in Tehran on Sunday , catching up with rival European powers that have rushed to tell Iran their companies are ready to restart business. France's foreign minister visited Tehran just two weeks after the nuclear deal was agreed on July 14.

Iran's financial system should escape cripping restrictions next year, leaving foreign companies contemplating 80 million consumers, $35 trillion worth of petroleum reserves and deep infrastructure needs.

Companies including engineering group ABB Ltd bank UBS and agriculture equipment maker Bucher Industries AG attended the event in a Zurich hotel hosted by a Swiss export-promotion group.

“BE BRAVE”

Swiss exports to Iran have fallen more than half to less than 400 million Swiss francs ($415 million)since 2008 as tightened U.N. and EU sanctions forced many companies to cut ties with the country.

“It's very important for us that the stream of money in Iran reopens,” said Christian Wuerzer, managing director at insurer SwissCare, whose products cover expatriates and diplomats.

Marzban Mortaz, director of a Tehran-based juice and milk packager, said access to Swiss financiers is essential if the country's economy is to double or triple post sanctions.

“With that size of economy, everyone has expansion plans,” he told Reuters. “Companies in Iran are cash-strapped.”

Experts cautioned that Iran remains a difficult market, telling the conference that bureacracy, nepotism and corruption were common, as were the threat from product piracy and legal unpredictability.

“The corruption is still at unbelievable rates,” said Sharif Nezam-Mafi, chairman of the Iran-Switzerland Chamber of Commerce and Eurasia region director of Swiss mill-maker Buehler AG.

Nevertheless, speakers described Iran as a “virgin market” of sophisticated consumers ready for business with the West.

“Be brave,” urged Ali Amiri of ACL Asset Management, an Iran-focused investment firm. “You've been to wilder places: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, South Africa, Nigeria. If you can bear those places, Iran is a walk in the park.”

$1 = 0.9622 Swiss francs

The unending cost of killing the Iran deal


In his 2006 book, “The Accidental Empire,” Gershom Gorenberg writes of Israel’s breathtakingly subtle, yet relentlessly evolving occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan.  He points out that a then young Amoz Oz warned of the “moral destruction” and corruption that comes to the occupier of a long occupation.  But he also quotes Moshe Dayan, speaking to the Palestinian Poetess Fadwa Tuquan of Nablus:  “The situation today,” Dayan says, “resembles the complex relationship between a Bedouin man and the girl he kidnaps against her will…You Palestinians, as a nation, don’t want us today, but we’ll change your attitude by forcing our presence on you.”  He also chronicles French philosopher Raymond Aron asking then Prime Minister Levi Eshkol if he was worried about rebellion in the West Bank, “No,” Eshkol replied, “This isn’t Algeria.  We can strangle terror in the occupied territories.” 

Really?  

The robust battle in the Jewish community over the negotiated Nuclear Deal with Iran has focused almost entirely on how good or bad it will be for Israel and the likelihood of Iran going nuclear at the Deal’s end, spiced, unfortunately by inflammatory talk of the U.S. underwriting Iran’s acquisition of the bomb and ushering Israelis to the doorways of crematoriums. The anti-Deal side also focuses on Iran’s profile as both a regional and international “bad actor,” and sponsor of terrorism.  Importantly, the latter is not denied by the pro-Deal side, but unlike the anti-Deal side, the pro-Deal people are the side thinking about how to mitigate that activity. 

The anti-Deal side states the Deal could be better.  Senator Schumer says he’s against the Deal and that we should go back and negotiate a better one.  But if the Deal included, let’s say, only half of Iran’s frozen $100 billion in assets to be released let’s say, in the first five years, and a cap on Iran’s annual oil sales, and reduction of the poorer quality centrifuges from 6,000 to 1,000, we all know that Israel and their backers here in the U.S. would never sign off on it.  True, better it would be, but still not good enough, because it would not be perfect.  Only perfect will do for the anti-Deal side, and perfect is the well-known enemy of the good, and in this case, the unachievable.  Perfect cannot be achieved here.  And if good goes down here in obeisance to the perfect, the result will be an increase in bad actor activity.  You can take that to the bank. 

Israeli security exports are already on the record as saying that rather than new negotiations convening, Russia and China will move to subvert further sanctions.  Already, we read that Quds Force General and master terrorist Qassem Suleimani has been to Moscow.  Russia’s sinking economy needs foreign sales.  China is rapaciously seeking influence worldwide.  The worst of Iran’s international adventurism has been muted during negotiations.  But when the deal falls apart, what really then?  Curiously it is Israel itself that has the most close-up and historically comprehensive view of what is likely to happen.  The precursor test case for failed negotiations is the continued occupation of the Palestinian Territories and what that has wrought.   

When Israel emerged victorious from the ’67 War, it moved inexorably  – albeit under a cloud of indecision and international ambiguity – to settle and occupy the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights.  It’s stated position is that it would have returned those areas for a peace treaty, and perhaps it would have.  But that treaty, that perfect Deal, never happened, and those areas – unlike Sinai which was returned to Egypt, under a treaty that was perhaps less than a perfect but has ensured a lasting peace – well, those areas fifty years down the road have evolved into a seething miasma of intifada, terrorist activity, repeated war, and constant lone wolf mayhem, not to mention an international public relations nightmare, isolating Israel ever further.   As if that weren’t enough, the situation has bred an armed Jewish terrorism on the Right, the depth and scope of which can no longer be brushed under the rug – particularly after the recent killings.  In short, an attempt to keep a people “bottled up” has instead metastasized into an explosion of lethal chaos that cannot be strangled no matter how great the effort. 

Now let’s acknowledge that Iran is no sleepy agrarian and small-town West Bank and isolated Golan of back in the day.  No, it is an oil-rich, country of 80 million people with an army, an air force, a navy, and a nascent nuclear program and sophisticated operatives throughout the Middle East, Africa, South America, and probably everywhere else.   Iran has been under the stricture of international sanctions of one sort or another since 1979.  Before that we gave them the brutality of the Shah and his CIA-trained Savak.  They made a UN-sanctioned deal with the six “great powers” that many in Israel argue is a good deal, and if we kill it, if we try to “bottle up” and uni- or multi-laterally continue to try and “force our presence” on Iran; worse, if we bomb their nuclear facilities, what Gaza and the Occupied Territories have become, what Iran has shown itself capable of in Beirut, Buenos Aires, and Baghdad will quite likely become the world-wide future for not just Jews, but Americans and American interest everywhere. And it could (and probably will) go on for generations. 

This is what no one will talk about, particularly the war hawks beating their drums.  Iran is not Iraq.  There will be consequences for everyone, not just the men and women who go to fight and their particular families, which means, among other things, be prepared once again for the newly energized dialectic about the “Jewish Lobby,” and how it drives U.S. foreign policy.  Families that lose loved ones to a war or terror that didn’t need to happen for the perceived sake of that lobby, what will their attitude be toward their Jewish friends and neighbors, toward Jews in general, and toward Israel in particular?   

Now if you ask Benjamin Netanyahu, he will say he doesn’t care.  He’ll say this is a price that needs to be paid to save the state of Israel, despite dozens of Israeli security officials’ disagreement.  And he will tell you – in messianic, not practical context, because that’s the only way it makes sense – that the existence of the state of Israel is more important than how the world feels about Jews (and of course the Evangelical community agrees).  Will civilians rise up against Jewish targets, the way they did against Arab targets after 9/11?  Who knows?  One thing thought is certain.  An escalation of the policies of aggression and repression, and the hatred it engenders, will only and always redoubt to the detriment of Jews and Israel.  On the other hand, Israel can exist and engender good will as well if it will prove itself amenable to the reasoned argument of diplomacy and not subvert its future to apocalyptic speculation.

Mitch Paradise is a writer and producer living in Los Angeles.

Will the nuclear deal impact California’s sanctions against Iran? It appears not


As Congress debates whether to approve the Obama administration’s agreement to lift many of the United States’ sanctions against Iran in return for a temporary curb on its nuclear program, one particular paragraph in the 159-page deal has activists and politicians in California wondering how it could impact sanctions here in California — sanctions that may be valued in the billions of dollars.

The answer (for now): probably not at all.

Still, the paragraph in question, which is on Page 15 of the nuclear agreement, stipulates that the federal government “will take appropriate steps, taking into account all available authorities” to “actively encourage officials at the state or local level to take into account the changes in the U.S. policy reflected in the lifting of sanctions under this [agreement] and to refrain from actions inconsistent with this change in policy.”

In California, the widest reaching of those sanctions became law in 2007, when Sen. Joel Anderson (R-San Diego) authored Assembly Bill 221, which passed 76-0 in the Assembly and 36-0 in the state Senate. The bill prohibits California’s two largest pension funds, the Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and the State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), from holding investments in any company that does at least $20 million in business with Iran’s petroleum or natural gas industries. The two funds have portfolios worth nearly $500 billion combined. CalPERS is the nation’s largest public retirement fund and CalSTRS is the largest teachers’ retirement fund in the country.

Competing views of Iran deal highlight challenges ahead


Now that the outline for an Iran nuclear agreement has been released — or, more precisely, two outlines, one by Iran, the other by the Obama administration — major gaps have emerged that will need to be resolved ahead of a June 30 deadline for a final deal, including when sanctions on Iran are lifted.

President Barack Obama and Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, issued conflicting statements in the past week on the sanctions issue, with Obama suggesting sanctions would be relaxed only once Iran begins to implement its obligations and Khamenei demanding that all sanctions be suspended upon signing an agreement. Khamenei also vowed that military sites would not be open to nuclear inspectors, which clashes with the American text, which says inspectors have the right to visit suspicious sites “anywhere in the country.”

The next round of talks is likely to be held within three weeks in New York City, on the sidelines of a meeting of the United Nations Disarmament Commission, and both Obama and Khamenei have said that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

In the coming weeks, both sides will endeavor to sell the deal to its various constituencies: Iran to its domestic hardliners, and the Obama administration to Congress, Jewish groups and skeptical allies, Israel chief among them.

What the Obama administration wants to see

In its outline of a framework accord reached earlier this month in Switzerland, and in subsequent statementsand interviews, the Obama administration has focused preeminently on the strict limits it is seeking on Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium.

These include limiting Iran’s advanced centrifuges to scientific research and reducing the number of active first-generation centrifuges, from 19,000 to 5,060, for 10 years. Enrichment would be limited to 3.67 percent, the level required for medical research and well short of weaponization levels. Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium would be limited to 300 kilograms for 15 years. The deal would also provide for a regimen of intrusive inspections at all Iranian facilities.

“You have assurances that their stockpile of highly enriched uranium remains in a place where they cannot create a nuclear weapon,” Obama told National Public Radio last week.

According to the administration’s outline, sanctions relief is conditioned on Iran abiding by its commitments. The sanctions architecture will remain in place so they can be quickly reimposed if Iran defaults.

Additionally, Obama administration officials have emphasized that Iran’s breakout time will be extended from the current two to three months to a year, although how this will be quantified is not yet clear.

What Iran wants to see

In contrast with the phased relief outlined in the U.S. document, a “fact sheet” published by the Iranian Foreign Ministry posits an immediate lifting of sanctions after a deal is reached. On Thursday, in a speech broadcast live on Iranian television, Khamenei said there would be no point to the negotiations if they did not yield immediate sanctions relief.

“All sanctions should be removed when the deal is signed,” Reuters quoted Khamenei as saying. “If the sanctions removal depends on other processes, then why did we start the negotiations?”

On Twitter, Khamenei went further, accusing the United States of overall bad faith.

“Hours after the #talks, Americans offered a fact sheet that most of it was contrary to what was agreed,” said a tweet posted on his feed Thursday. “They always deceive and breach promises.”

On the enrichment question, the Iranian and American outlines are not mutually exclusive.

“None of the nuclear facilities or related activities will be stopped, shut down, or suspended, and Iran’s nuclear activities in all of its facilities including Natanz, Fordow, Isfahan, and Arak will continue,” said the Iranian document, which goes on to name only Natanz as a site for 3.67 percent uranium enrichment, which comports with the U.S. document. The other sites are deemed acceptable for scientific research in the American version, a status that conceivably comports with “related activities” in the Iranian document.

What Israel wants to see

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said in the immediate wake of the agreement that the framework deal would threaten Israel’s survival. He counseled “standing firm and increasing the pressure on Iran until a better deal is achieved.”

Netanyahu did not provide details, but in interviews he has said that Israel could tolerate a deal that left “hundreds” of centrifuges in place, as opposed to the 5,060 the U.S. outline anticipates — itself a significant concession for Netanyahu, who had previously said that Israel would tolerate no more than a zero capacity for uranium enrichment.

Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of intelligence, also provided more details of Israel’s desires for a final deal in a briefing for reporters in Jerusalem, demanding a complete end to research and development of advanced centrifuges, the shuttering of the underground Fordo facility, and freedom for inspectors to go “anytime, anywhere.”

In an Op-Ed published April 8 in the Washington Post, Moshe Yaalon, the Israeli defense minister, called for dismantling much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

“Intelligence and inspections are simply no substitute for dismantling the parts of Iran’s program that can be used to produce atomic bombs,” Yaalon wrote.

Israel also has an eye on Iran’s destabilizing activities elsewhere in the region. The Obama administration and its five negotiating partners – China, Russia, France, Germany and Great Britain – see the nuclear deal as discrete from other Iranian actions.

“Restrictions imposed on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program will expire in about a decade, regardless of Iran’s campaign of murderous aggression in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere across the Middle East; its arming, funding, training and dispatching of terrorists around the world; and its threats and violent efforts to destroy Israel, the region’s only democracy,” Yaalon wrote.

Netanyahu recently also demanded Iran’s recognition of Israel as a component of a final deal, a requirement that Obama has said is unrealistic.

What Congress wants to see

Two bills under consideration in Congress, both backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, could affect the outcome of an Iran deal.

One sponsored by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), would mandate new sanctions should Iran default on a deal or walk away from the talks. Obama has said such a bill would scuttle the talks and has pledged to veto it. The bill was approved in January by the Senate Banking Committee. Now its fate is in the hands of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the majority leader, who must decide whether it advances to the full body.

McConnell has not shown his hand, but he is unlikely to move it forward unless he can build a veto-proof majority of 67, which would require the support of 13 Democrats. With Menendez sidelined as he faces indictment on corruption charges, that is unlikely.

The other bill, backed by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, would require congressional review of an Iran deal. That bill stands a better chance of passage.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is in line to become his party’s Senate leader in the next Congress, backs the bill as it is. Other Democrats, including key Obama allies like Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Menendez’s replacement as the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), the top Democrat on its Middle East subcommittee, say they would back the bill if Corker removes non-nuclear related elements, among them requirements that Iran cease backing for terrorism.

The Corker bill comes up for review by the Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, and Cardin said he hoped to shape it to make it a “process” bill and not one that prescribes the terms of an agreement.

“One of my concerns is that the bill carries out its mission — a way for Congress to review and take action,” Cardin told JTA.

Obama, who had previously said he would veto the Corker bill, indicated this week that he could work with a modified version.

Iran’s Khamenei breaks silence in nuclear deal, says sanctions must go


Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Thursday demanded that all sanctions on Iran be lifted at the same time as any final agreement with world powers on curbing Tehran's nuclear program is concluded.

Khamenei, the Islamic Republic's most powerful figure and who has the last say on all state matters, was making his first comments on the interim deal reached between Iran and the powers last week in the Swiss city of Lausanne.

He repeated his faith in President Hassan Rouhani's negotiating team. But in remarks apparently meant to keep hardline loyalists on side, he warned about the “devilish” intentions of the United States.

“I neither support nor oppose the deal. Everything is in the details, it may be that the deceptive other side wants to restrict us in the details,” Khamenei said in a speech broadcast live on state television.

His stand on the lifting of sanctions matched earlier comments by Rouhani, who said Iran would only sign a final nuclear accord if all measures imposed over its disputed atomic work are lifted on the same day.

These include nuclear-related United Nations resolutions as well as U.S. and EU nuclear-related economic sanctions.

“All sanctions should be removed when the deal is signed. If the sanctions removal depends on other processes, then why did we start the negotiations?” Khamenei said.

However, the United States said on Monday sanctions would have to be phased out gradually under the comprehensive nuclear pact. France also said on Tuesday that many differences, including on sanctions, needed to be overcome if a final agreement was to be reached.

The U.S. and EU sanctions have choked off nearly 1.5 million barrels per day (bpd) of Iranian exports since early 2012, reducing its oil exports by 60 percent to around 1 million barrels a day.

The tentative accord was a step toward a settlement that would allay Western fears that Iran could build an atomic bomb, with economic sanctions on Tehran being lifted in return.

Negotiators from Iran, the United States, Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China will resume negotiations in the coming days to pave the way for the final deal.

One problem is that Iran and the world powers may have different interpretations on what was agreed in the framework accord – a point Khamenei made evident.

“Americans put out a statement just a few hours after our negotiators finished their talks…this statement, which they called a 'fact sheet', was wrong on most of the issues.” Khamenei said.

ENMITY AND MISTRUST REMAINS

Since relations with Washington collapsed after Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, enmity toward the United States has always been a rallying point for Iranian hardliners.

“I was never optimistic about negotiating with America… nonetheless I agreed to the negotiations and supported, and still support, the negotiators,” Khamenei said to chants of “Death to America.”

“I support a deal that preserves the interests and honor of Iran.”

The United States and its Western allies say it is vital that Iran fully cooperate with a U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation into past nuclear activities that could be related to making weapons.

Iran for its part has said that “possible military dimensions” (PMD) are an issue it will not budge on.

“PMD is out of the question. It cannot be discussed,” an Iranian official said. This issue has not been resolved.

Khamenei ruled out any “extraordinary supervision measures” over Iran's nuclear activities.

“Iran's military sites cannot be inspected under the excuse of nuclear supervision,” he said.

“EXTRAORDINARY MONITORING”

A final deal would require a vigorous monitoring framework to ensure Iranian compliance. The negotiators have been working out a monitoring mechanism that would involve the IAEA. This has not been considered a sticking point in the nuclear talks.

France, which has demanded more stringent conditions on Iran, said the comments by the Iranian leadership showed that reaching a final deal would be difficult and that in any case there would need to be a mechanism in place to restore sanctions if Tehran violated its commitments.

“Subjects still remain that we aren't agreed on, notably on economic sanctions, and the Supreme Leader has made statements that show there is still a lot of work to be done,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told lawmakers.

“We are going to keep the position we have held from the beginning, which is constructive but extremely demanding,” Fabius said.

In a ceremony on Thursday to mark Iran's National Day of Nuclear Technology, Rouhani said Tehran's aim was to secure the Iranian nation's nuclear rights.

“Our goal in the talks is to preserve our nation's nuclear rights. We want an outcome that will be in everyone's benefit,” Rouhani said in a speech. “The Iranian nation has been and will be the victor in the negotiations.”

However, Khamenei said the tentative deal did not guarantee reaching a comprehensive deal by a deadline on June 30.

“What has been achieved so far does not guarantee a deal or even that the negotiations will continue to the end,” Khamenei said, adding that an extension of the deadline should not be a problem.

Khameni reiterated Iranian denials that Tehran was seeking to build a nuclear weapon.

A senior Israeli defense official repeated Israel's fears that Iran could still obtain a nuclear weapon if sanctions were lifted immediately and would have more money to spend on arming regional proxies. “The moment the sanctions are removed, tens of billions (of dollars) will flow to their coffers,” Amos Gilad said in a radio interview after Rouhani's speech. “They will get rich. They will have the power to support the entire network of missiles and rockets.”

Conflicting U.S., Iranian accounts on sanctions relief


After Iran and world powers agreed last week to a framework deal on curbing Iran's nuclear program in return for sanctions relief, Tehran and Washington seem to have different interpretations over how that will be done.

Many details must still be hammered out, including the pace and extent of sanctions removal, ahead of an end-June deadline for a final deal.

Below is a summary of U.S. and Iranian accounts on how quickly sanctions would be removed in case of a deal.

U.S. VIEW

According to a 'fact sheet' released by the United States after the framework deal was announced, “Iran will receive sanctions relief, if it verifiably abides by its commitments.”

U.S. and European sanctions related to Iran's nuclear program will be suspended after the International Atomic Energy Agency verifies that Iran has met all its commitments under the agreement. Sanctions can “snap back” if Iran “fails to fulfill its commitments.”

U.N. Security Council resolutions related to Iran's nuclear program will be lifted “simultaneous with the completion, by Iran, of nuclear-related actions addressing all key concerns (enrichment, Fordow, Arak, PMD, and transparency).”

U.S. officials have said the suspension of sanctions will take months to a year, depending on confirmation of Iran's compliance with a final deal.

Sources: Reuters, U.S. State Department

IRAN'S VIEW

Iran's top negotiators have repeatedly said that sanctions relief would not be implemented in phases, as claimed by the United States. Instead, the Iranians insist, all nuclear-related United Nations resolutions, as well as U.S. and EU nuclear-related economic and financial sanctions, will be lifted immediately once a comprehensive nuclear accord is signed.

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has disputed the U.S. 'fact sheet,' saying he had protested the issue with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

An Iranian version of a 'fact sheet' released to Iranian media following the framework accord said the following: “After the implementation of the Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action, all of the U.N. Security Council resolutions will be revoked, and all of the multilateral economic and financial sanctions by the EU and unilateral sanctions by the United States, including financial, banking, insurance, investment, and all related services in various fields including oil, gas, petrochemicals, and automobile manufacturing will immediately be annulled.”

The Iranian statement adds: “Sanctions against real and legal individuals, organizations, government and private institutions under related nuclear sanctions on Iran including the Central Bank, other financial and banking institutions, SWIFT, Islamic Republic shipping and airlines, and oil shipping will immediately be lifted in a comprehensive manner.”

AIPAC says ‘no’ to vote on Iran sanctions bill


AIPAC, the main pro-Israel lobby on Capitol Hill, broke with its allies in the Republican Party, and came out against holding a vote on a new Iran sanctions bill until there is clear bipartisan support, ” target=”_blank”>in return for Iranian promises to slow down and limit its uranium enrichment. Supporters of the agreement argued that diplomacy should be tried before war. Opponents said that this agreement makes a war more likely and backs Israel into a corner.

2. This ” target=”_blank”>initially called for a bill in Congress that would reimpose the relaxed Iranian sanctions if Iran reneged on the deal or if it didn't extend after the six month sunset.

4. A ” target=”_blank”>threatened to veto an Iran sanctions bill that passed the Senate and House. To override a veto, both the Senate and House would have to support the bill with a two-thirds majority, which would not happen in this case, even though these negotiations have significant implications for Israel's national security–something that Shmuel Rosner thinks ” target=”_blank”>spoke on the Senate floor, reemphasizing his support for the bill, even in light of Obama's veto threat, but taking his foot off the pedal, cautioning that bringing his bill to a vote now would turn what is normally a bipartisan issue into a partisan one (Author's note: Sorry, Senator, it already is partisan.)

8. AIPAC, in an about-face, endorsed Menendez's caution, effectively calling on lawmakers to wait to bring the issue to a vote until it has clear bipartisan support (i.e. enough support to override an Obama veto). The statement reads, in full:

“AIPAC commends Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) for his strong and eloquent statement on the Senate floor today outlining the threat of Iran's nuclear program and the imperative of dismantling it.  We appreciate his commitment to ensure that any agreement with Iran 'is verifiable, effective, and prevents them from ever developing even one nuclear weapon.'

“We applaud Senator Menendez’s determined leadership on this issue and his authorship with Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act. We agree with the Chairman that stopping the Iranian nuclear program should rest on bipartisan support and that there should not be a vote at this time on the measure.  We remain committed to working with the Administration and the bipartisan leadership in Congress to ensure that the Iran nuclear program is dismantled.”

 


 

There are two reasons why AIPAC would change its mind. Either AIPAC is prepared to fight Obama on a veto and risk drawing the long-term ire of much of the Democratic Party (if it hasn't done so already). Or AIPAC is not prepared to fight Obama on a veto and will oppose the legislation because it wants to maintain strong support in the Democratic Party (if it still has it). The former is more likely than the latter. Considering that until Thursday, AIPAC appeared ready to fight Obama on this issue, it probably calculated that there's no honor in pushing a sanctions bill that will be vetoed and go no further. Better to wait, AIPAC figures, until it can muster a two-thirds majority (which, again, won't happen) or until the political calculus changes to the point where a simple majority would suffice (maybe 2016?).

These represent major changes in Congress's 

Over 70 House Dems sign letter to Obama opposing sanctions


More than 70 Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives signed a letter to President Obama supporting his opposition to new Iran sanctions.

The letter, initiated by Reps. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) and David Price (D-N.C.), expresses support for talks now underway between Iran and major powers on the Iranian nuclear program.

“We understand that there is no assurance of success and that, if talks break down or Iran reneges on pledges it made in the interim agreement, Congress may be compelled to act as it has in the past by enacting additional sanctions legislation,” says the letter, which has not yet been sent and which JTA obtained Tuesday from Doggett’s office.

“At present, however, we believe that Congress must give diplomacy a chance,” says the letter, first reported by The Washington Post on Monday. “A bill or resolution that risks fracturing our international coalition or, worse yet, undermining our credibility in future negotiations and jeopardizing hard-won progress toward a verifiable final agreement, must be avoided.”

Signatories were not made available, although Doggett’s office said they numbered more than 70.

Sources said they include Jewish lawmakers with strong pro-Israel records.

Obama has said he would veto legislation under consideration in the Senate that would impose new sanctions on Iran, arguing that the agreement that led to renewed talks bans new sanctions and that such a bill could collapse the international coalition that helped bring Iran to the talks table.

Proponents of the new sanctions, among them the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, say they would strengthen the U.S. hand at the talks.

The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a companion bill last summer, before talks started, but it is not clear today whether it would have the same support among Democrats.

“As a member of Congress who has consistently voted to impose tough economic sanctions on Iran, I believe those sanctions have worked,” Doggett said in a statement.

“In honoring our commitment to Israel, we must use all of America’s strengths, including the strength of our diplomacy, to prevent Iran from becoming nuclear-armed,” he said. “Congress should not undermine diplomacy by giving the Iranian hardliners an excuse to scuttle the negotiations.”

The new sanctions bill garnered some Democratic support in the Senate when it was introduced in December, but this has slipped away since Congress returned from its holiday break.

At a hearing convened Tuesday by the bill’s main Democratic sponsor, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, most Democrats and at least one Republican — Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) — said they were opposed to advancing sanctions now.

“We have to return to the tradition of aggressive diplomacy,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), citing as a precedent President Theodore Roosevelt’s brokering of a Russia-Japan peace.

Menendez in his opening remarks expressed concerns that the limited sanctions relief that brought Iran to the table could snowball. “We have placed our incredibly effective international sanctions regime on the line without clearly defining the parameters of what we expect in a final agreement,” he said.

Separately, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) on Tuesday launched a citizens’ petition against new sanctions.

“Let’s give the Obama Administration and their partners the room to work out a peaceful resolution to this long-festering crisis before voting on any additional sanctions or other efforts that would undermine diplomacy,” he said in an email distributed by the MoveOn.org, a liberal activist group. The petition had garnered close to 50,000 signatures by early Tuesday evening.

Hillary Clinton opposes new Iran sanctions


Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she was opposed to new Iran sanctions and urged Congress to give negotiations space to succeed.

“As President Obama has said, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed, while keeping all options on the table,” Clinton said in a letter solicited by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee and a preeminent opponent of new sanctions under consideration in Congress.

“The U.S. intelligence community has assessed that imposing new unilateral sanctions now ‘would undermine the prospects for a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran’,” she said in the Jan. 26 letter released Sunday by Levin’s office. “I share that view.”

The statement by Clinton, until a year ago the secretary of state and before that a senator from New York and also first lady, is significant because she is potentially a presidential candidate in the 2016 elections and – like Levin – is seen as among the Democrats closest to the pro-Israel community.

The American Jewish Congress, led by Jack Rosen, a major donor to past presidential campaigns, is hosting a dinner in Clinton’s honor next month in New York.

Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) proposed the new sanctions, which have received vigorous support from much of the pro-Israel community, notably the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Introduced in December, the bill at first drew substantial Democratic support, but it has waned in recent weeks.

Proponents of the sanctions say they would strengthen the West’s hands in the talks with Iran.

New congressional sanctions, Clinton said, would collapse the international alliance that brought Iran to talks underway with the major powers aimed at stopping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Obama opposes the new sanctions and has said he would veto them.

Levin thanked Clinton for her letter in a statement on his website.

“It makes clear Secretary Clinton’s belief that tough sanctions helped bring Iran to the negotiating table, and that Congress and the administration are poised to act if Iran violates its commitments or fails to negotiate in good faith toward a final agreement,” he said. “Her letter is another strong signal to Congress that we should not take any legislative action at this time that would damage international unity or play into the hands of hard-liners in Iran who oppose negotiations.”

AIPAC’s tough sanctions choice


In previous AIPAC versus White House dustups, the pro-Israel lobbying group’s strategy was to speak softly and let Congress carry the big stick.

But in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s face-off with the Obama administration over new Iran sanctions, congressional support may not be so readily available and keeping a low public profile is proving impossible.

According to congressional insiders and some of the pro-Israel lobbying group’s former senior executives, AIPAC may soon face a tough choice: Stick out the battle over sanctions and potentially face a reputation-damaging defeat, or reach out to the White House and find a way for both sides to save face.

“I don’t believe this is sustainable, the confrontational posture,” said Steve Rosen, a former AIPAC foreign policy chief known for his hawkishness on Iran.

The Obama administration has taken a firm line against the sanctions bill backed by AIPAC, warning that the legislation would harm prospects for achieving a diplomatic solution on the Iranian nuclear issue. Meanwhile, the confrontation has landed AIPAC squarely in the media spotlight and drawn pointed criticism from leading liberal commentators.

AIPAC has been stymied by a critical core of Senate Democrats who have sided with the Obama administration in the fight. While AIPAC’s bid to build a veto-busting majority has reached 59 — eight short of the needed 67 — it has stalled there in part because Democrats have more or less stopped signing on.

Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the bill’s sponsors, rounded up 15 Democrats when the bill was introduced on Dec. 19, just before Congress went on its Christmas recess. Since Congress returned this month, however, they have added just one Democrat, Michael Bennet of Colorado.

AIPAC, however, says its bid to pass sanctions is on track.

“Our top priority is stopping Iran’s nuclear program, and consequently we are very engaged in building support for the Menendez-Kirk bill which now has the bi-partisan co-sponsorship of 59 senators,” AIPAC’s spokesman, Marshall Wittman, wrote in an email to JTA. “This measure would provide our negotiators with critical leverage in their efforts to achieve a peaceful end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”

But in a recent interview with The New Yorker, President Barack Obama appeared confident that backers of the bill would not reach a veto-proof majority.

“I don’t think a new sanctions bill will reach my desk during this period, but if it did, I would veto it and expect it to be sustained,” Obama said.

A source close to AIPAC said the stall in support for the legislation is due in part to the fact that of 10 committee chairmen opposed to the bill, four are Jewish and have histories of closeness to the pro-Israel community.

Non-Jewish lawmakers tend to take their cues on Israel-related issues from their Jewish colleagues — a common template with lawmakers from other communities — and this is no different, the source said.

AIPAC’s efforts have spurred surprisingly blunt criticism from sources that are more known for caution on such matters. The new director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Rabbi Jack Moline, earlier this month in an interview accused AIPAC activists of using “strong-arm” tactics on uncommitted senators.

Douglas Bloomfield, who served as AIPAC’s legislative director in the 1980s and is now frequently critical of the group, warned that with most Democrats inclined to back Obama on this issue, the confrontational posture taken by AIPAC could wound its reputation down the road.

“There could be repercussions across the board with a lot of members of Congress the next time they say they want them to go to the barricades,” he said.

AIPAC already is taking some high-profile hits on TV, with liberal commentators accusing the lobby of trying to scuttle a diplomatic settlement with Iran.

“The senators from the great state of Israel are against it,” comedian Jon Stewart said last week on “The Daily Show,” accompanied by a graphic of a map of Israel emblazoned with the AIPAC logo. MSNBC host Chris Hayes said the 16 Democratic senators backing the sanctions bill are “afraid” of AIPAC.

Rosen said that such exposure, while irritating to AIPAC, would not be a factor in getting the lobby to shift course. More serious would be calls from donors to the group who have ties to Democrats. AIPAC’s reputation as having bipartisan support — a critical element of its influence — could be put at risk.

“AIPAC puts a premium on bipartisan consensus and maintaining communication with the White House,” said Rosen, who was fired by AIPAC in 2005 after being investigated in a government leak probe, though the resulting charges were dismissed and he later sued AIPAC unsuccessfully for damages.

Rosen noted AIPAC’s forthcoming policy conference in March; such conferences routinely feature a top administration official — the president or vice president, the secretary of state or defense. At least one of these failing to appear “would be devastating to AIPAC’s image of bipartisanship,” he said.

A way out for the group would be to quietly negotiate a compromise behind the scenes with the White House, Rosen said.

“They don’t want to be seen as backing down,” he said of his former employer, “but the White House is good at helping people backing down without seeming to back down.”

Doing the math on Dems and the Iran sanctions bill


At The Washington Post, Greg Sargent uncovers letters from Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) opposing, at least for now, new Iran sanctions. (I wrote this week about how the bid to build a veto-proof majority for the sanctions legislation has stalled.)

Sargent does some math and figures that with these two, “the number of Dems against a vote has comfortably surpassed the number who want one.”

I count 19 members of the Senate Democratic caucus opposed to a vote, versus 15 who might be assumed to support one, with 21 not accounted for.

Here’s how I got there.

There are 16 Democrats out of the 59 Senators co-sponsoring the bill, including lead sponsor Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). (On Dec. 19, when the bill was launched, 15 Democrats signed on; Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado is the sole Democrat to have signed onto the bill since Congress returned to work this month.) Subtract from those 16 Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who now opposes advancing the bill while talks are underway between Iran and the major powers. The White House and sympathetic Democrats say the bill could scuttle the talks; backers of the bill say new sanctions would enhance the U.S. hand in the talks.

So that’s 15 one might assume still back advancing the bill.

As Sargent notes, there are 10 committee chairs who signed a letter opposing the bill. In addition to those, there are another nine senators who in recent weeks have told interlocutors they oppose advancing the bill for now: There are Murray and Warren, plus Blumenthal. There are another four listed in this Huffington Post roundup. Sen. Bernard Sanders, the Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, is listed here. And I’ve heard from Rhode Island Jewish officials that Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) is opposed to advancing the bill now.

The White House is competing hard with backers of the bill, including leading pro-Israel groups, for the remaining 21 members of the Democratic caucus. Among them are key players in states with substantial Jewish communities, like Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader; Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the assistant majority leader; and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio.).

Here are some other breakdowns. Of the Senate’s seven Democratic leaders, two are signed on to the bill, two have said they won’t advance it, and three others we’re not sure. The breakdown of committee chairs is 13 against, four for and three not known.

Of the ten Jewish Democrats, six (Dianne Feinstein-Calif., Barbara Boxer-Calif., Ron Wyden-Ore., Carl Levin-Mich., Blumenthal and Sanders) oppose advancing the bill now, two favor it (Ben Cardin-Md. and Schumer) and two have yet to say (Franken-Minn. and Schatz-Hawaii).

Among Republicans, 43 out of 45 back the bill; the holdouts are Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Obama to Congress: Now isn’t the time for new Iran sanctions


President Obama urged Congress not to pass new Iran sanctions as jockeying continued among groups that favor and oppose the sanctions.

“My preference is for peace and diplomacy, and this is one of the reasons why I’ve sent a message to Congress that now is not the time for us to impose new sanctions,” Obama said at the White House on Monday, a day after Iran and major powers agreed on the terms of an interim six-month agreement that would lead to a final status deal preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

“Now is the time for us to allow the diplomats and technical experts to do their work,” Obama said. “We will be able to monitor and verify whether or not the interim agreement is being followed through on, and if it is not, we’ll be in a strong position to respond.”

The administration continues to implement existing sanctions. David Cohen, the Treasury undersecretary charged with administering the sanctions, is traveling this week to Italy and Austria to monitor enforcement in those countries.

Supporters of the new sanctions say they would not violate the terms of the agreement with Iran because they would only be triggered should Iran renege.

The interim agreement offers Iran partial sanctions relief in exchange for a partial rollback of its nuclear program.

The new sanctions, strongly backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and some other Jewish groups, have the explicit backing of 59 senators — short of the 67 needed to vitiate Obama’s promised veto.

Opponents of the sanctions are touting the opposition of a number of leading pro-Israel Democrats in the Senate, including Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).

Five left-leaning Jewish groups were among 62 organizations that signed a letter this week urging the U.S. Senate not to pass new sanctions, among them, J Street, Americans for Peace Now and Jewish Voice for Peace.

A group backing sanctions, the Foreign Policy Initiative, has a letter signed by a number of hawkish foreign policy figures, including some preeminent in the Jewish community, among these Josh Block, who directs the Israel Project, and Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush, and John Podhoretz, who edits Commentary.

Each side rushes to inform reporters about supposed defections from the other side; Jeffrey Goldberg, an Bloomberg columnist influential among Jewish leaders and an Iran hawk this week said he opposed sanctions, while Robert Gates, the former defense secretary under Bush and Obama known for his cautious approach to engagement overseas, said he backs them.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the Democratic whip in the Senate, cautioned the White House to curb its rhetoric against Democrats who favor the new sanctions.

“There have been some that have suggested in the White House that those folks were more interested in war than they were in the resolution by peaceful means,” Politico quoted Hoyer as saying Tuesday. “I think that is absolutely untrue, [an] irresponsible assertion, and ought to be clarified and retracted by those who have made it within the administration.”

Florida federations push Nelson on Iran sanctions


Four Jewish federations in south Florida urged Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) to sign on to legislation opposed by the Obama administration that would enhance Iran sanctions.

The Dec. 30 letter was sent amid a renewed post-holiday push by some pro-Israel groups to pass the legislation, initiated by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).

The Obama administration says the new sanctions will inhibit talks underway between the major powers and Iran aimed at keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The letter sent by the federations of greater Miami, South Palm Beach County, Broward County and Palm Beach County praises President Obama’s overall strategy, but presses for sanctions nonetheless.

“We believe that this congressional action will only strengthen President Obama’s hand,” the letter said. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the state’s other senator, is already a cosponsor. A query to Nelson’s office was unreturned.

So far 33 senators have signed on to the bill. Top pro-Israel groups, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, are seeking additional sponsors; committing a veto-proof two thirds of the 100-member Senate to the bill would undercut the White House’s pledge last month to veto the bill. A similar bill this summer overwhelmingly passed in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The American Jewish Committee, using one of its Twitter accounts, on Thursday called on most of the senators that have so far not signed on to join.

A number of federations in states with senators who have not signed on are making similar overtures. “We are encouraging our leadership around the state to reach out to Senator Brown and ask him to sign on,” Joyce Garver Keller, who directs Ohio Jewish Communities, referring to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

The Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut has scheduled a meeting with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who is also a holdout.

In Rhode Island, Marty Cooper, the director of community relations for the state’s Community Relations Council, said he had spoken with staff for Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who had told him that Reed was concerned that the bill could undercut the negotiations, which he saw as important for U.S. and Israel security.

Cooper said he was not lobbying for the bill, but seeking to understand where Reed stood.

The bill would expand sanctions in part by broadening existing definitions targeting energy and banking sectors to all “strategic sectors,” which would add the engineering, mining and construction sectors. It would also tighten the definition of entities eligible for exceptions and broaden the definition of targeted individuals who assist Iran in evading sanctions.

The law faces significant opposition: Ten committee chairmen in the Democratic-led Senate have pushed back against new legislation in a letter to Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the body’s majority leader.

Among them are four Jewish senators with strong pro-Israel records: Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Environment Committee, and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the chairman of the Energy Committee.

Lew to JDC: U.S. will move against Iran sanctions busters


The United States is prepared to move against violators of its sanctions against Iran, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

“Our enforcement of the sanctions regime will be as unflinching as ever, so any CEO, general counsel or businessperson who thinks now might be a time to test our resolve better think again,” said Lew, who received the JDC’s Morgenthau Award from the JDC on Wednesday to commemorate the group’s 100 years of partnership with the U.S. government at its Centennial Dinner. “We are watching closely, and we are prepared to move against anyone, anywhere who violates, or attempts to violate, our sanctions.”

His remarks at the dinner in Washington, D.C., came a day before the Treasury and State departments made public the names of several companies and individuals for evading international sanctions against Iran and for providing support for Iran’s nuclear program.

Lew voiced his support for sanctions against Iran, saying “we have a moral obligation to use all diplomatic and economic means of achieving a change to the maximum extent possible, and reserve force as a last option when other means fail.”

He said the sanctions relief offered during the interim agreement negotiated by world powers with Iran, under which Iran will slow its nuclear production, is minimal. Lew noted that during the six months of the agreement, Iran will continue to lose nearly $30 billion in oil revenue. 

“This agreement does not prevent us from implementing our existing sanctions or imposing new sanctions targeting Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism or its abuse of basic human rights,” he said.

Lew praised the JDC for its partnership and for its work around the world.

More than 350 people, including administration officials, ambassadors, members of Congress and Jewish leaders, attended the dinner. Henry Morgenthau III helped present the award named for his grandfather.

Also Wednesday, the JDC presented its Or L’Olam Award to the Republic of the Philippines for its role, together with JDC and the Frieder family, in saving more than 1,300 Jews from the Nazis. Jose Cuisia, the Philippines envoy to the United States, accepted the award and thanked the JDC, the Jewish community and Israel for its current efforts in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.

Iran, six powers meet on steps to carry out nuclear deal


Iran and six world powers began expert-level talks on Monday to work out nitty-gritty details in implementing a landmark accord for Tehran to curb its disputed nuclear program in return for a limited easing of sanctions.

The preliminary accord is seen as a first step towards resolving a decade-old standoff over suspicions Iran might be covertly pursuing a nuclear weapons “breakout” capability, a perception that has raised the risk of a wider Middle East war.

Officials from Iran and the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia met at the Vienna headquarters of the U.N. nuclear agency, which will play a central role in verifying that Tehran carries out its part of the interim deal.

The outcome of the meeting is expected to determine when Iran stops its most sensitive nuclear activity and when it gets the respite in sanctions that it has been promised in return.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it would have “some involvement” in the discussions, which are expected to continue on Tuesday. Media were barred from the floor where the meeting, held under tight secrecy, took place.

The talks are aimed at “devising mechanisms” for the Geneva accord's implementation, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi was quoted by state Press TV as saying. Iranian nuclear as well as central bank officials would take part, he said.

Western diplomats said detailed matters not addressed at the Nov. 20-24 talks in Geneva must be ironed out before the deal can be put into practice.

These include how and when the IAEA, which regularly visits Iranian nuclear sites to try to ensure there are no diversions of atomic material, will carry out its expanded role.

A start to sanctions relief would hinge on verification that Iran was fulfilling its side of the accord, they said.

The deal was designed to halt Iran's nuclear advances for a period of six months to buy time for negotiations on a final settlement of the standoff. Diplomats say implementation may start in January after the technical details have been settled.

Scope for easing the dispute peacefully opened after the June election of a comparative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, as Iranian president. He won in a landslide by pledging to ease Tehran's international isolation and win relief from sanctions that have severely damaged the oil producer's economy.

ARAK REACTOR

Diplomats caution that many difficult hurdles remain to overcome – including differences over the scope and capacity of Iran's nuclear project – for a long-term solution to be found.

In a sign of this, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pressed the powers on Sunday to take a hard line with Iran in negotiations on a final agreement, urging them to demand that Tehran abandon all uranium enrichment.

A day after President Barack Obama deemed it unrealistic to believe Iran could be compelled to dismantle its entire nuclear infrastructure, Netanyahu said Tehran should have to take apart all centrifuges used to refine uranium.

Israel sees Iran, which has repeatedly said it seeks only civilian energy from uranium enrichment, as a mortal threat. Iran says it is Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed power, that threatens peace.

Under last month's pact, Iran will halt the activity most applicable to producing nuclear weapons – enrichment of uranium to a higher fissile concentration of 20 percent – and stop installing components at its Arak heavy-water research reactor which, once operating, could yield bomb-grade plutonium.

In the Vienna talks, government experts will also discuss details of which components Iran is not allowed to add to the Arak reactor under the deal, as well as issues pertaining to the sequencing of gestures by both sides, the diplomats said.

Officials from the office of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who coordinates talks with Iran on behalf of the six powers, were also at the meeting.

Additional reporting by Isabel Coles in Dubai; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Delay in launch of nukes deal gives Iran an edge, some say


There’s the six-month interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program that trades some sanctions relief for a freeze on Iran’s nuclear program. And then there’s the interim before the interim begins.

Little noticed in the wake of the historic pact reached last month by Iran and the major powers is the fact that technically, the deal is not yet underway. A commission of experts from the United States, Russia, Germany, Britain, China and France, working with Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, first must work out the technical details before the deal officially goes into effect.

The commission is not scheduled to meet until January. And even then it’s not clear how long it might take to reach an agreement.

“Obviously, once that’s — those technical discussions are worked through, I guess the clock would start,” Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said in a news briefing on Nov. 27.

Under the terms of the deal reached in Geneva last month, Iran agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium to 5 percent, freeze most of its centrifuges and halt construction on its plutonium reactor. In exchange it would receive sanctions relief totaling approximately $7 billion.

President Obama strongly supported the deal, which was intended to provide a six-month window in which to conclude a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Critics, foremost among them Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saw the agreement as a historic blunder, arguing that it would advance Iran toward the acquisition of a nuclear weapon.

Some critics say the uncertainty over when the deal kicks in also works in Iran’s favor.

“Every day that goes by where Iran is not bound to roll back its nuclear program but still can benefit from a shift in the market psychology from fear to greed puts money in the regime’s pocket without doing anything to address their growing nuclear weapons capacity,” said Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which has helped shape many of the tough sanctions passed in recent years by Congress.

Dubowitz’s colleague, Foundation for Defense of Democracies vice president Jonathan Schanzer, on Tuesday tweeted links to Arab media reports that some European oil companies already are considering new business with Iran. The French oil giant Total reportedly said last month that it would resume dealings with Iran if sanctions are revoked.

Ron Dermer, the new Israeli envoy to Washington, also has cast the argument as one of momentum. In briefings to members of Congress and Jewish groups, Dermer has argued that before the deal, tough sanctions and the likelihood of more to come had Iran on the ropes. With a deal in place, however, the momentum could reverse direction — companies that once feared being cut off from the U.S. economy might consider deals with Iran.

Obama administration officials adamantly deny the scenario. The principal sanctions targeting Iran’s energy and banking sectors will stay in place even during the interim deal, they say.

“Right now our sanctions remain in place,” John Sullivan, spokesman for the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the Treasury section that monitors sanctions compliance, told JTA. “More guidance on the relief package will be forthcoming from Treasury and our interagency partners.

“What we agreed to is clear and limited. We will continue to enforce our sanctions aggressively.”

Alireza Nader, an Iran expert at the Rand Corp., a think tank with close ties to the U.S. defense establishment, said that even those nations and companies eager for sanctions relief would not bust sanctions now for fear of alienating the United States. India and China, he said, would risk U.S. waivers granted them on some dealings with Iran should they be seen as planning new business with the country.

“Most countries are still wary of having normal energy ties with Iran,” he said.

Michael Adler, an Iran expert at the congressionally funded Wilson Center, acknowledged that the momentum argument has merit. But he noted that provisions in the deal that would resume sanctions should Iran not comply ultimately are enough to scare companies away from resuming business with the country.

“To say that it will lead to Total resuming contracts with Iran is wrong,” Adler said. “You can be concerned you’re changing from a tightening mode to a lightening mode, but the deal is structured in such a way that all the sanctions are reversible and the money they’re getting is a drop in the bucket.”

White House talks Iran deal with Jewish groups


The White House held at least two phone calls with Jewish leaders to explain aspects of the interim sanctions-for-nuclear-rollbacks deal between Iran and major powers.

Among the speakers on the conference calls Monday with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Federations for North America were Tony Blinken, a deputy national security adviser, and David Cohen, the top Treasury official in charge of implementing sanctions.

The off-the-record calls were a signal of the importance that the administration attaches to keeping pro-Israel groups on board for the six-month interim deal achieved over the weekend in Geneva, however skeptical the groups may be of the deal.

Generally, according to participants, questioners pressed the U.S. officials on the degree to which the deal impacts sanctions and whether the concessions to Iran could be reversed should Iran renege.

The officials said the deal’s sanctions relief affected only the “margins” of the Iranian economy, and that the main sanctions, targeting Iran’s energy and financial sectors, would remain in place.

The White House officials acknowledged differences with Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described the deal as “very bad,” but said the endgame was the same: incapacitating Iran’s nuclear capacity, according to call participants.

Another White House call was held Tuesday for leaders of faith groups; Jewish leaders joined the call.

Separately, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in a memo on Monday expressed concerns about the interim deal. AIPAC noted that the agreement allows Iran to keep enriching uranium, albeit at low levels, even though U.N. Security Council resolutions have called for a suspension of enrichment pending a final deal, and that it appears to preemptively allow Iran an enrichment capacity as part of a final status deal.

Also problematic, AIPAC said in the memo, is that the deal “includes an option to extend the negotiating window beyond an initial six-month period,” which “creates the possibility that the initial agreement will become a de-facto final agreement.”

The memo called on Congress to pass legislation that would impose penalties should Iran renege on the deal.

Barack or Bibi? Trust, loyalty and Iran


On Rosh Hashanah 2012, just a few weeks before the presidential election, Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe offered his congregants a sermon titled “The Most Important Question in the World Today.” In it, he told his congregation he was, at that moment, a single-issue voter: “I will vote for whichever candidate seems likelier to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Wolpe said.

With that election long past, whom Wolpe voted for may now be immaterial, but the issue he pointed to continues to be of vital concern to Americans and, in particular, American Jewry. This week, as negotiators from the United States and five other world powers (known as the P5+1) come together in Geneva for a new round of talks with their Iranian counterparts, American Jews concerned about Israel face an even more urgent — and perhaps more uncomfortable — variation on that question: Can Jews trust the Obama administration with Israel’s future? 

That question is at the heart of the disagreement that today is threatening to cause what one analyst has called the deepest rift between the two long-time allies in recent memory. Can American Jews rely on the Obama administration not to shortchange Israeli interests and concerns, even as it presses for a deal with Iran and urges Congress to oppose, or at least delay, legislation to impose further sanctions on the Islamic republic? Or, should they instead side with the president’s critics — foremost among them Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who have loudly criticized the proposed interim deal that reportedly broke up the Geneva talks earlier this month?

“This is a bad deal,” Netanyahu told CNN on Nov. 17, repeating a phrase he has uttered countless times in the past month. “If you do a bad deal, you may get to the point where your only option is a military option,” he said. “So a bad deal actually can lead you to exactly the place you don’t want to be.”

 Among American Jews, the reasoning on each side of this issue is not as simple as, “Do you or don’t you love Israel?”

In Washington, the political question being batted back and forth — whether the United States should proceed with additional sanctions against Iran even as it engages with Iranian negotiators — isn’t simple, either. 

“That’s a very sophisticated political judgment,” Wolpe said in an interview on Nov. 15. But considering that the possible outcomes include an Iran with the bomb and a potential military strike, Wolpe was adamant about the importance of getting the next moves right.

“I don’t doubt the [Obama] administration’s intentions,” Wolpe said, “but I think that this is a part of the world in which idealism is very dangerous. And I’m afraid that we’ll wake up tomorrow and it’ll be too late.” 

These days, what’s being told to reporters and played out in public may not be all that reflective of what’s going on behind the closed doors of negotiating and briefing rooms — or, for that matter, at any undisclosed nuclear development sites that may exist in Iran. 

Moreover, despite the volume and intensity by which Netanyahu and others are pushing the Obama administration to take a harder line against Iran, everyone — including the president and Secretary of State John Kerry — shares the same goal: preventing the Iranian regime from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And almost everyone says they want to achieve this — in a verifiable and sustainable manner — without resorting to military force. 

All parties even agree that the sanctions that have been in place for the last few years have been effective, particularly in getting Iran to elect a new more moderate — or at least more moderate-sounding — president, Hassan Rouhani. By bringing the Iranian economy to its knees, the sanctions also have pushed the Iranians back to the table for the current talks. 

Still up for debate, however, is what the United States should do next — a tactical question that is of great importance. Hardliners on this issue, including Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), want sanctions to be ramped up — even while negotiators are at the table this week. 

“It’s not so much the content of sanctions as the momentum,” Sherman said in an interview on Nov. 15. “A smart lawyer could figure out a way around most of the existing sanctions, and Tehran has smart lawyers. But the word has gone out to the business community worldwide, saying, ‘Yeah, you can negotiate a deal that isn’t in violation of current sanctions — but, every few months, there’s going to be additional sanctions.’ ”

On the other side, President Obama is urging congress not to pass additional sanctions while negotiations are ongoing. He is making the case both that the world needs to see the United States is negotiating in good faith and that the Iranians can’t have an excuse to walk away from the table. 

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Pasadena), who along with Sherman and 398 other members of the House voted for increased sanctions in July, has come around to the president’s point of view. 

“I think we have to go into these negotiations very skeptically. Iran has proved to be hiding its nuclear program for years,” Schiff told CNN on Nov. 15. “At the same time, I don’t think we want to do something that jeopardizes the chance to get to a good deal. We may not get there, but I don’t think we should embark on another round of sanctions during the negotiations that might cause Iranians to walk away.”

As of Nov. 19, the Journal’s press time for this issue, it appeared the leadership of the Democratically controlled Senate and the chairman of its Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee — Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), respectively — were not going to permit any legislative moves that would advance new sanctions before the resumption of talks in Geneva on Nov. 21. 

The Washington-based politics of whether to proceed with additional sanctions are complicated — and similar political calculations and uncertainties exist in Iran as well as in Israel. 

[Related: Can Israeli and American Jews bridge the Iran gap?]

Netanyahu has been beating the drum against Iranian nuclear development for years, adamant, like most Israelis, that a nuclear Iran is an existential threat to the Jewish state. What happens in Geneva will be of the utmost importance to Israel’s future, yet Netanyahu will not be in the room to directly affect the negotiations. 

Some have posited this as a possible explanation for Netanyahu’s advocating a “maximalist” position — that Iran must divest itself of all enrichment capabilities. Few believe the Iranians will accept such a deal, but, the thinking goes, Netanyahu is still trumpeting his preferred scenario in an effort to push American negotiators to bargain as hard as they can. 

The Obama administration has made some efforts to put the Israelis at ease. 

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that [Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs] Wendy Sherman flew straight to Israel from Geneva,” Dalia Dassa Kaye, who directs the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the RAND Corp., told the Journal on Nov. 15. “The United States is taking Israeli security concerns very seriously. But, in return, they want to ask for a little bit of leeway.”

That request has been rejected by Netanyahu — but as Kaye wrote in a Nov. 12 opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, some Israeli voices are more receptive to the approach the Obama administration is taking. 

Kaye cited Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israel’s military intelligence agency, who now leads an Israeli think tank. Yadlin “would prefer a deal that leaves Iran with no remaining enrichment capabilities,” Kaye wrote. But unlike Netanyahu, Yadlin and others have publicly stated that a good enough deal “might allow for some limited enrichment capabilities at reduced levels, accompanied by intrusive inspections that would make it harder and costlier for Iran to cheat.” 

Mel Levine, a former Democratic congressman who has represented the Obama administration before Jewish audiences in Los Angeles, also pointed to Yadlin as an illustration that some Israelis are more flexible in what they will accept than Netanyahu and see merit in what Obama and the other members of the P5+1 are trying to do. 

“From my perspective, and the perspective of many people that I’ve spoken with, what the president is trying to do is fundamentally in Israel’s interest,” Levine said. “I’ve actually spoken with Israelis who have said that it would be the best public service that Israel has ever received from an American president.”

You’d never know that from listening to Netanyahu — or to the top American Jewish leaders who have lined up with the Israeli prime minister against the still-inchoate deal. Indeed, at a meeting on Oct. 29, when Obama administration officials asked representatives from four top Jewish advocacy groups to hold off any lobbying for further sanctions against Iran while negotiations were going on, they were rebuffed. 

Leaders of AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations all immediately rejected the idea; Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League initially agreed but two weeks later made a blustery about-face.

Yet despite the refusal of the American Jewish establishment’s top brass to cooperate, staffers in multiple offices on Capitol Hill told the Journal last week that there had been no noticeable uptick in calls to their offices related to Iran sanctions, suggesting that the leadership of the American Jewish establishment hasn’t yet decided to go to the mat over Iran policy. 

in this combination image, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, second from left, is pictured meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, fourth from right, at the first round of the Iran nuclear talks in Geneva, on Nov. 9, 2013.  Photo by Reuters /Jason Reed

Meanwhile, pro-Israel groups on the left who are supporting the president’s call to delay any increase in sanctions against Iran have been quite vocal about their positions. Americans for Peace Now and J Street both have encouraged their followers to contact senators in support of the president’s request to hold off on imposing additional sanctions against Iran. 

“Legislating new sanctions at this time would undermine President Rouhani’s standing and leeway vis-à-vis hardliners in Iran,” J Street director of government affairs Dylan Williams wrote in Haaretz on Nov. 15. “It could also fracture the united multilateral front by imposing new penalties on some of our most important partners in this effort, particularly China and Russia.” 

While American Jews who prefer the hardline approach are loath to describe themselves as following Netanyahu over Obama — suggesting uncomfortable divided political allegiances — the Israeli leader has been injecting Israel’s interests very directly into the conversation in Washington, even going so far as to dispatch Naftali Bennett, a member of his cabinet, to the U.S. capital to make Israel’s case. 

And at least one American lawmaker has publicly sided with the Israelis and against the president on one occasion. Sen. Kirk, who for years has led the charge to sanction Iran as harshly as possible, told reporters on Nov. 13 that he found the closed-door briefing by Kerry and Wendy Sherman less convincing than what he was hearing from the Israelis. 

Calling the briefing “anti-Israeli,” Kirk complained he’d been told by Kerry to “disbelieve everything that the Israelis had just told me.” 

Kirk bristled at the suggestion. “I think the Israelis probably have a pretty good intelligence service.” 

Kirk’s comment, said Lara Friedman, director of policy and government relations for Peace Now, illustrates the degree to which the hardliners distrust the Obama administration. 

“You have members of Congress come out of a briefing with the secretary of state and more or less say or imply, ‘You’re telling me to believe the U.S. officials, and Israeli officials [say something else], so I don’t buy it,’” Friedman said. “For that to be stated officially is extraordinary.”

Extraordinary, Friedman said, because it would seem that Kirk is siding with a foreign nation rather than his commander-in-chief. 

American Jews — even those opposed to the president’s policies — have tried to downplay any suggestion that they are choosing to be loyal to Israel rather than to the United States. And those who approve of the president’s course of action are quick to point out that Israeli leaders might want to consider very carefully the benefits and drawbacks of turning Iran sanctions into their pet issue

“In my view, it’s in the Israeli interest to ensure that this isn’t perceived as something that is an Israeli interest alone,” the RAND Corp.’s Kaye said. ”The Israelis will have to make the case that stopping Iran from becoming a nuclear state is in the world’s best interests, and in Americans’ interests as well.

“You can’t get too out of step with the American public,” Kaye added, “and the American public is not interested in military action.”

That last fact is only too clear to Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), the Democratic Congressman who in July co-authored a letter to President Obama urging him to take advantage of Iranian President Rouhani’s election to try to reopen talks. “Utilize all diplomatic tools,” Price wrote with Rep. Charles Dent  (R-Penn.) in the letter urging “bilateral and multilateral sanctions … be calibrated in such a way that they induce significant and verifiable concessions from Iran at the negotiating table in exchange for their potential relaxation.”

The letter was eventually co-signed by 131 members of the House of Representatives, and Price said in an interview on Nov. 15 that nothing that happened in Geneva during the earlier round has changed his view. If anything, he said that since August, when President Obama proposed a limited strike against Syria — only to reverse course when the level of public opposition to it became clear — he’s all the more convinced that the United States needs to exhaust all alternatives before entertaining the possibility of another Middle Eastern military entanglement. 

 “It’s a fine line we’re walking, and the diplomacy may not work out,” Price told the Journal. “But we have a huge stake in trying to make it work out, or at least salvaging the view that we’re the reasonable party.”

Perhaps no subset of the American Jewish community is paying closer attention to the revived nuclear talks than Iranian-American Jews. By and large, this community of Jews has been deeply critical of all Iranian regimes since the 1979 revolution there and are thus more inclined toward Netanyahu’s tactic of pressuring the regime over Obama’s approach of earnest diplomacy. 

But for Sam Yebri, president and co-founder of 30 Years After, a Jewish group made up mostly of younger members of L.A.’s Iranian-Jewish community, the issue isn’t informed by a preference for one leader or another, or even a particular political party.  

“We all want the same result: an Iran that does not have nuclear weapons, an Iran that treats its citizens with dignity,” Yebri said in an interview. “It’s clear that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have different views about how to approach the issue.”

Yebri said he understands that ultimately, the decision about whether to enforce additional sanctions against Iran lies with the president. Personally, he said, he’d prefer to see the sanctions expanded and tightened, and he described “a real sense of despair” among Iranian-American Jews, who feel that the momentum behind sanctions, which took years to develop, could be wasted.

“What informs me — more than anything else — is my family’s, my personal experience with the Iranian regime,” Yebri said. “It continues to butcher its own citizens. It continues to support terrorism. It continues to build a nuclear program and threaten Israel. It continues to repress the Jewish community, which is held hostage in Iran.

“It’s not about leadership,” Yebri concluded. “It’s about experience.”

Sanctions easing can be reversed if Iran does not deliver, Obama says


President Barack Obama sought to reassure skeptical U.S. lawmakers on Thursday that any easing of sanctions on Iran that emerges from negotiations could easily be reversed and “ramped back up” if Tehran fails to curb its nuclear program.

In his most direct appeal yet for more time to pursue a diplomatic deal with Iran, Obama urged Congress to hold off on imposing any new sanctions despite concerns on Capitol Hill and among U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia that he is giving away too much.

Obama spoke a day after Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and other top U.S. officials warned senators that implementing new sanctions could scuttle the delicate negotiations between Iran and six world powers due to resume in Geneva on Nov. 20.

Some lawmakers said after Wednesday's meetings they were not convinced, and there was no immediate sign that Obama – seeking better ties with Iran after more than three decades of estrangement – had won converts on Thursday either.

“If we're serious about pursuing diplomacy, then there's no need for us to add new sanctions on top of the sanctions that are already very effective, and that brought them (the Iranians) to the table in the first place,” Obama told a White House news conference.

“Now, if it turns out they can't deliver, they can't come to the table in a serious way and get this issue resolved, the sanctions can be ramped back up … and we've got that option,” he said.

An initial agreement seemed close last week, when Kerry made an unexpected trip to the talks in Switzerland. But the negotiators failed to reach a deal and are returning for another round of talks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Wednesday that a “bad deal” with Iran on its nuclear program could lead to war. His aides challenged U.S. assertions that Iran was being offered only limited relief from sanctions.

Underscoring the many obstacles, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel staunchly defended the Obama administration's approach in the face of complaints from friends and foes alike.

“I felt sorry for Secretary Kerry because so many people have jumped into this (saying), 'Well he didn't get anything and he didn't get a deal.' Wait a minute!” Hagel told a defense conference in Washington.

“We have political issues. Our partners have political issues,” he said. “So this is going to take time if we're going to be able to move to somewhere onto a higher … plain of possibility.”

OBAMA ANSWERS CRITICS

At the White House, Obama sought to answer critics who accuse him of preparing to ease sanctions prematurely.

He said that in return for Iran's agreement in a “short-term, phase-one” deal to halt its nuclear advances, “we would provide very modest relief at the margins of the sanctions that we've set up.”

“But importantly, we would leave in place the core sanctions that are most effective and have most impact on the Iranian economy, specifically oil sanctions and sanctions with respect to banks and financing,” he added.

Obama said this would give world powers a chance to test how serious Tehran is about negotiating a final deal to dispel Western suspicions that it wants to develop a nuclear weapon, something Tehran denies it is seeking.

“It also gives us an assurance that if it turns out six months from now that they're not serious,” he said, “we can dial those sanctions right back up.”

Obama reiterated that he was leaving “all options on the table” for dealing with Iran – diplomatic code for possible military action. But he warned of “unintended consequences” from any military conflict.

“No matter how good our military is, military options are always messy, are always difficult, always have unintended consequences – and in this situation are never complete in terms of making us certain that they (the Iranians) don't then go out and pursue even more vigorously nuclear weapons in the future,” he said.

But Obama is facing resistance from lawmakers wary of letting up the pressure in negotiations with Iran.

“Sanctions remain the best way to avoid war and prevent a future of Iranian nuclear weapons,” said Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois. “The American people should not be forced to choose between military action and a bad deal that accepts a nuclear Iran.”

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and frequently harsh critic of Obama's foreign policy, expressed deep skepticism about the Geneva talks and said the Senate Banking Committee should move ahead with consideration of a new round of sanctions.

However, he told Reuters: “I'm not so hell-bent on enacting additional sanctions (by the full Senate), although I think they're entirely called for. But I am willing to give them a period of time.”

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed its version of a new sanctions bill on July 31, just days before Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, took office. Rouhani was elected in June on a platform of conciliation, saying he wanted to ease Iran's international isolation.

Senators have been debating behind closed doors their version of the bill, which could slash Iran's oil exports to no more than 500,000 barrels a day and reduce the ability of the Obama administration to waive sanctions.

However the banking committee acts, some senators said they might sidestep the panel and insert a tough new Iran sanctions measure into the annual defense authorization bill, which Obama might find hard to veto.

Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Jeff Mason, Roberta Rampton, Susan Heavey, Patricia Zengerle and David Alexander; Editing by Mohammad Zargham

A call for Iran sanctions at Port


Amid the international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, some national groups, as well as Los Angeles-based Jewish community organizations and other Iran human rights activists, have launched a new campaign calling for Los Angeles city officials to bar from the Port of Los Angeles ships that have docked in Iranian ports. During recent months, the campaign’s primary focus has been on L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who since his election has remained mum on the issue, though it is within his authority to ask the port to enact such sanctions.

“It is greatly disappointing that Mayor Garcetti has not even taken a position, let alone provided support or a leading voice on this critical issue,” said David Peyman, an L.A.-based senior adviser to United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), the New York-based nonprofit advocating for tougher economic sanctions on the Iranian regime.

During the mayoral election campaign earlier this year, UANI and six local Jewish organizations, including the Los Angeles offices of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), called on then-candidate Garcetti and his opponent, Wendy Greuel, to support the ban on ships that had previously docked in Iranian ports, following federally mandated Iran sanctions legislation signed into law last year by President Barack Obama.

“Los Angeles is a major U.S. trading hub, and ships that have conducted business with Iran use our ports,” Peyman said. “We are asking the mayor and the port … to force companies to make a decision between doing business with a terrorist-sponsoring regime seeking nuclear weapons or with the Port of Los Angeles.”

Garcetti’s office did not respond to multiple requests from the Journal for comment on the issue.

Many local Jewish groups argue while current sanctions again the Iranian regime are working, more pressure is needed to stop the regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

“Iran’s strained economy is the regime’s Achilles’ heel and provides our most effective leverage against its nuclear program,” said Michael Aurit, a spokesperson for the AJC’s Los Angeles office. “It is critical for Los Angeles to take a firm stance against Iranian ships docking in American ports — we can and should do nothing less.”

While local Iranian Jewish groups declined to comment on their efforts to get the mayor to become involved, many Iranian-Jewish activists say they support such sanctions because of widespread human rights violations by the Iranian regime against religious minorities in Iran.

“We Angelenos have a history of standing up for justice and freedom locally and internationally,” said Sam Yebri, president of 30 Years After, an L.A.-based Iranian-Jewish nonprofit. “Much like the South African boycott movement, using economic measures to pressure the Iranian regime advances human rights and democracy for the Iranian people.”

On Oct. 26, the Iranian regime summarily executed 16 Iranian Baluchi prisoners in custody in the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan on trumped-up charges of drug smuggling. According to Amnesty International, the executions were in direct retaliation for an armed attack by Baluchi insurgents against Iranian border guards.

Strong local support for Iran sanctions at the Port of Los Angeles has also come from Los Angeles’ non-Jewish Iranian groups. Roozbeh Farahnipour, an Iranian Muslim leader of the L.A.-based Marze Por Gohar Party, which opposes the Iranian regime, said many of the city’s 800,000 Iranian residents have been surprised that Garcetti has not taken a stand on the issue. 

“If we want to avoid war with Iran and truly help the people of Iran gain their freedom, we must use nonviolent economic means, such as divestment and sanctions, and the Port of L.A. is the best first step to take on a local level,” Farahnipour said. “When the mayor of Los Angeles has remained on the sidelines and not stepped up against the regime now, how does he want to stand up to the regime if they want to open a consulate office in Los Angeles in the future?”

Farahnipour said he and California state Sen. Joel Anderson addressed the Port of San Diego in 2008 calling for similar Iran sanctions to be implemented, but no steps were taken at that time. Farahnipour also pointed to the regime’s crackdown on the Iranian labor movement as a possible motivator for Garcetti.

“It is a well-known fact that the Iranian regime has imprisoned, tortured and killed hundreds of union leaders in Iran over the years,” Farahnipour said. “So I am wondering why the mayor of L.A. has not taken a tough stance to send a real message to the regime on this human rights issue?”

The Journal requested comment from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 56, which works in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Calls were not returned.

Some city officials are not staying silent on this issue, however. Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz, who represents the city’s 5th District, which is home to the largest segment of Iranians in Los Angeles, has introduced a number of City Council resolutions regarding Iran’s human rights abuses and nuclear ambitions.

“The City of Los Angeles is fortunate enough to have and run the Port of Los Angeles, one of the largest economic hubs in the world,” Koretz said in an interview. “Consequently, we will make sure the port is strongly committed to following the sanctions on Iran, thereby doing our part to make a safer and more peaceful world.”

Likewise, some members of Congress representing local districts have supported more stringent U.S. sanctions on Iran. Most notably, Rep. Janice Hahn, a Democrat representing L.A.’s South Bay, is the founder of the Congressional Ports Caucus and has been a leading voice on the issue of U.S. ports and Iran sanctions.

“During my time in Washington, Congress has passed some of the toughest sanctions that the Iranian regime has ever faced — sanctions that have particularly targeted the Iranian shipping sector,” Hahn said in a statement to the Journal. “I believe that strong sanctions give us the best chance of driving the Iranian regime to make real concessions about their nuclear program at the negotiating table.”

Hahn’s office in Washington, D.C., stated that she and other members of the Congressional Ports Caucus had been briefed last month by UANI’s leadership on issues pertaining to current Iran sanctions and commerce within U.S. ports.

For more information on UANI’s push for Iran sanctions put in place for the Port of Los Angeles, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog: jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.

Netanyahu’s mission: to head off Iran sanctions relief


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will seek to dim the optimism after nuclear talks with Iran, cautioning that Tehran is strengthening its strategic regional position by calling the shots in Syria as President Bashar Assad's puppet master on Wednesday.

In talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Rome on Wednesday, Netanyahu is expected to argue against easing Western sanctions on Iran, which hinted at recent Geneva talks it was willing to scale back its nuclear program.

Netanyahu has long warned the West, in a message it has largely embraced, of the danger Iran would pose to the Jewish state, the Middle East and the West if it obtained nuclear arms through the program which Iran says aims to generate power.

The right-wing prime minister will gauge just how far the United States is ready to consider any let up on sanctions imposed on Iran at the meeting with Kerry.

Reinforcing his warning of the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, Netanyahu has added another twist to his argument, noting that Iran is behind Assad and supplies Shi'ite Muslim fighters for the civil war against Sunni rebels.

Saudi Arabia, another key U.S. ally in the Middle East, is also deeply worried about any sign of a deal between Washington and the kingdom's arch-rival, Iran.

The double-pronged message is part of Netanyahu's campaign to prevent any easing of sanctions until it actually dismantles atomic work that Israel is convinced aims to produce nuclear arms. Iran says it is enriching uranium for peaceful purposes.

Six world powers – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – held two days of talks with Iran in Geneva last week, the first such meetings since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's election in June.

IRAN PLAN OFFERED HOPE

Iran offered a three-phase plan it said could yield a breakthrough in its nuclear impasse with the West, and a second round of talks is due to be held on November 7 and 8 in Geneva.

“There are a lot of countries that are waiting for a signal, just waiting for a signal, to get rid of their sanctions regimes,” Netanyahu told U.S. television station NBC on Sunday.

He did not name those nations, but it is a sign of Netanyahu's concern that he will fly to Rome to see Kerry, who is on a European visit.

“The focus is Iran,” a senior Israeli government official said on Monday. “Clearly (Netanyahu's) top priority at the moment is the Iranian issue.”

A senior State Department official, who accompanied Kerry to Europe, played down any divisions with Israel over Iran and said no decision to ease sanctions was taken at the Geneva talks.

“Any step that the United States would take would have to be – first, Iran would have to take meaningful, verifiable, transparent steps,” the U.S. official said.

“That is something that obviously hasn't happened yet, and there is agreement with the Israelis that we're not going to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. That is the bottom line.”

Kerry met a senior Saudi official on Monday to discuss their disagreements over Iran, Syria and Egypt as well as the surprise Saudi decision to spurn a U.N. Security Council seat.

Netanyahu has alluded in a series of public addresses to the irony of Arab countries effectively closing ranks with Israel in their concern over a nuclear-armed Iran and the strategic influence the Shi'ite nation already wields in the region.

PRESSURING OBAMA

The West, Netanyahu has said, must be particularly wary of any accommodation with Iran that would bolster its regional influence further after its activities in Syria.

In Netanyahu's words, “Syria has become an Iranian protectorate”, much like the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon, where the Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrilla group holds sway.

What Netanyahu hears at his meeting with Kerry could help to determine whether Israel, backed by the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) lobbying group, will opt to turn to its traditional allies in the U.S. Congress to press President Barack Obama to stand tough on Iran.

So far, there have been no rumblings among Israeli officials that Netanyahu will go that route. Some Republican legislators are already calling for tougher sanctions against Iran.

And officials close to Netanyahu, avoiding any public dissonance with the Obama administration, declined to comment on a New York Times report on Thursday that Washington is weighing a slow release of frozen Iranian assets if Tehran takes specific steps to curb its nuclear program.

Obama's credibility among Israelis took a hit last month when he backed off striking Syria, seemingly going against a pledge to attack if Damascus deployed chemical weapons.

Two thirds of Israelis now doubt Obama will keep his promise to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, according to this month's “Peace Index”, an opinion poll published by Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute.

Netanyahu has hinted that his country, widely believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear power, may act on its own to prevent Iran from building a bomb, although its military ability to accomplish that has been publicly questioned by former Israeli security chiefs.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Paris; Editing by Peter Millership)

Government shutdown over, Iran sanctions force back at full strength


The U.S. government returned to work, and officials who track Iran sanctions compliance were working at a full complement.

Hundreds of thousands of government employees who had been furloughed since Oct. 1 returned to work on Thursday after Republicans in the House of Representatives agreed to pass a funding bill advanced by the Democratic-led Senate the previous night.

A spokesman at the U.S. Treasury confirmed that the employees included officials of its Office of Foreign Assets Control, the office responsible for monitoring international compliance with U.S. sanctions targeting Iran for its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Obama administration officials had said the shutdown was having an impact on sanctions compliance, and suggested that it could cost the United States leverage as it leads negotiations renewed this month between the major powers and Iran on its nuclear program.

The deal ratified in the Senate and House did not meet demands by House Republicans that any extension on funding government spending should be tied to undoing parts or all of President Obama’s 2010 health care reforms.

Obama administration warns: Gov’t shutdown undermining Iran sanctions


Is the U.S. government shutdown undermining the sanctions that helped bring Iran to Geneva this week for talks aimed at ending the standoff over its nuclear program?

Top administration officials have been emphatically making the case that it is.

Wendy Sherman, the third-ranked official at the State Department, said in Senate testimony on Oct. 3 that the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the Treasury department that monitors international trade to ensure compliance with the sanctions regime, “has been completely, virtually, utterly depleted at this time.”

“Our ability to do that, to enforce sanctions, to stop sanctions evaders is being hampered significantly by the shutdown,” Sherman said.

It’s not clear how many Foreign Assets Control staffers have been sent home because of the shutdown. A number of reports have suggested the Treasury department overall has furloughed 90 percent of its staff.

But the Foreign Assets Control office isn’t completely inoperative. Since the shutdown went into effect earlier this month, the office has issued one list of entities and individuals designated as terrorists.

The lone employee of Treasury’s communications staff still on the job did not respond to a request for comment.

Some Republicans are skeptical that the shutdown is undermining sanctions, suggesting that the Obama administration is using an initiative with rare bipartisan support to bash the Republicans who brought the government to a standstill.

One GOP staffer said that if a real threat to national security were to emerge, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew could recall furloughed workers just as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had done.

“If Secretary Lew were to get briefed that certain people are hurting national security, he has the prerogative to bring them back,” the staffer said.

Still, the warnings from the administration have prompted some concern on Capitol Hill.

Last week, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), the chairman of the House subcommittee on terrorism and nonproliferation, and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), the committee’s top Democrat, wrote President Obama urging him to return Office of Foreign Assets Control staffers to the job.

“The administration is engaging in its first diplomatic negotiations with Iran under Hassan Rouhani’s presidency, and whether or not we agree with the outreach, we believe that furloughing nearly all of OFAC’s employees makes the U.S. negotiating position weaker,” the letter said.

Rouhani, elected this summer on a platform of reform and outreach to the West, has acknowledged that the devastation wrought by 30 years of U.S.-led sanctions — intensified over the last five years during the Obama administration — helped bring him to the negotiating table.

Wendy Sherman is leading the U.S. team in talks in Geneva this week aimed at arriving at a verifiable agreement that Iran is not seeking a nuclear weapon. Also participating in the talks are Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany.

Joel Rubin, a former Democratic congressional aide and a former U.S. diplomat, said it was unlikely that banks and oil companies adhering to sanctions would start cheating just because the monitoring mechanisms are not operating at full capacity. But the absence of staff is problematic if new issues arise, he said.

“You don’t want to be in a situation where something happens but you could have prevented it because the staff’s not in,” said Rubin, the director of policy at the Ploughshares Fund, a nonproliferation advocacy group.

Pro-Israel officials who monitor sanctions noted that the Office of Foreign Assets Control is not the only arm of the U.S. sanctions monitoring apparatus. Other relevant agencies — including intelligence agencies and the State Department — are running at almost a full complement.

“From what I’ve heard, folks that have active intelligence functions are being asked to continue to serve,” said Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a group that has taken a lead in advising Congress and the administration on the shape of sanctions.

Colin Kahl, a deputy defense secretary in Obama’s first term who is now a senior fellow for the Center for a New American Security, said the ability of the Obama administration to implement sanctions, or to waive some of them in the event of progress in Geneva, would not take an immediate hit because of the discretion afforded Obama in existing law and his executive powers.

“At least for some period of time, the administration probably has enough discretion to do something on the sanctions front without Congress,” Kahl said in an address Monday to the annual conference of the National Iranian American Council.

Rubin said the shutdown’s bigger hit was long-term — to the U.S. reputation.

“The Iranians are not in a position to worry about whether the U.S. government is in crisis because they’re the ones under pressure, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “But it makes allies nervous and creates an opening for adversaries” such as China and Russia — countries that have only reluctantly joined the pressure on Iran.

“If the shoe were on the other foot and there was a government in turmoil every few months,” Rubin said, “how would the United States relate to that government?”

Report: Iran will offer to reduce, but not end, uranium enrichment


Iran reportedly will offer to reduce but not eliminate its uranium enrichment in exchange for an easing of sanctions.

The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday quoted diplomatic officials as saying Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at talks in Geneva next week will present the major powers with a package that includes reducing uranium enrichment from 20 percent to 3.5-5 percent, cutting back on the number of operating centrifuges, and also may shut the reinforced underground reactor at Qom.

The Obama administration has said it will insist that Iran abide by U.N. Security Council resolutions mandating an end to enrichment before easing sanctions. However, Zarif’s reported offer comports with reports of what Western powers want to see in a final-status deal.

Israel opposes any enrichment capacity for Iran, saying that even the low levels allow Iran to remain close to breakout levels for a nuclear weapon.

Calif. bars state banks from funding Iran, terror groups


California enacted a measure making it illegal for state-chartered financial institutions to be used, directly or indirectly, to funnel money to terrorist groups or the government of Iran.

The law signed Monday by Gov. Jerry Brown provides oversight mechanisms to ensure that the state-licensed banks and credit unions have policies to prevent the maintenance and opening of accounts with foreign financial institutions that legally assist Iran.

Violators would be fined and reported to the U.S. Treasury Department for prosecution.

The state Assembly and Senate overwhelmingly passed the measure.

The legislation “sends a clear message that California — the ninth largest economy in the world — will not tolerate efforts by this Iranian regime to achieve nuclear weapons capabilities,” said Bob Blumenfield, a member of the Los Angeles City Council who backed the measure along with the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California.