Jewish groups skeptical of Iran nuke agreement

   (JTA photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama argued that a negotiated deal is better than the alternative. (JTA photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Israeli politicians and American Jewish organizations were nearly unanimous last week in voicing concern and skepticism about the framework nuclear agreement reached between a U.S.-led coalition of six nations and Iran April 2. The deal, they say, does not go far enough to prevent the threat of a nuclear-armed Tehran in the near future.

Shortly after the news from Lausanne, Switzerland, where diplomats, including Secretary of State John Kerry huddled practically nonstop for days, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the agreement. The framework deal, which will be finalized in another round of negotiations prior to a June 30 deadline, would threaten the survival of the state of Israel, Netanyahu said, and put the region in “grave danger.”

“Such a deal does not block Iran’s path to the bomb. Such a deal paves Iran’s path to the bomb,” he said. “And it might very well spark a nuclear arms race throughout the Middle East and it would greatly increase the risks of terrible war.”

Netanyahu’s comments were echoed by other Israeli officials, and The Jerusalem Post reported that opposition to the Iran deal among members of Israel’s governing cabinet was unanimous.

In his Thursday afternoon press conference in the Rose Garden and phone call to Netanyahu later that day, President Barack Obama argued that a negotiated deal is better than the alternative.
“It’s no secret that the Israeli prime minister and I don’t agree about whether the United States should move forward with a peaceful resolution to the Iranian issue,” said Obama. “If, in fact, Prime Minister Netanyahu is looking for the most effective way to ensure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon, this is the best option.  And I believe our nuclear experts can confirm that.”

Although Obama appeared to understand that it was unlikely that he would persuade the Israelis to soften their stance, he announced that he had directed his national security team to consult closely with Israel’s new government in the coming months.

Meanwhile, the majority of the Jewish and pro-Israel organizations in the United States also expressed reservations about the framework agreement, citing a joint statement released by negotiators in Switzerland as lacking specific guidelines that Iran would need to adhere to; containing weak promises of International Atomic Energy Agency inspection regimes; omitting any restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program; and failing to mention any punishment for aggressive Iranian actions elsewhere in the Middle East.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the largest pro-Israel lobby in the United States, issued a lengthy press release, listing areas of specific concern.

“AIPAC appreciates the hard work and the diplomatic efforts of the administration to reach an agreement with Iran to end its nuclear weapons program,” the statement read. “However, we have concerns that the new framework announced today … could result in a final agreement that will leave Iran as a threshold nuclear state and encourage a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

Iran’s long history of cheating on its international obligations and its leading role in sponsoring terrorism and violating human rights should disqualify it from possessing the infrastructure for a nuclear weapons program.”

AIPAC suggested five questions that the Obama administration and negotiators should consider before agreeing to a final deal:

“Will this time-limited agreement actually prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability? How will sanctions be reinstated if Iran cheats on the agreement? What will actually happen to the enriched uranium that the framework promises to neutralize? Will all sanctions relief to Iran be delayed until it comes clean on its past weapons development activities? How will Iran be prevented from perfecting its advanced centrifuges so that it cannot rapidly produce highly enriched uranium after 10 years?”

AIPAC also reiterated its support for additional sanctions legislation to be passed by Congress, believing the added economic pressure would result in a deal more favorable to the United States and its allies as the sanctions would provide a negative incentive for the Iranians.

The Jewish Federation of North America, American Jewish Committee and other major Jewish organizations which usually side with the president on domestic issues, released statements similar to AIPAC’s expressing appreciation for the administration’s efforts but essentially  saying, “No, thanks.”

“We appreciate the good faith efforts made by the administration and the other members of the [negotiating teams]. We all hope that a diplomatic solution to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon is possible,” read JFNA’s statement. “However, the framework presented today leaves vital issues woefully unresolved. The agreement provides scant detail on how the phased sanction relief will be implemented. It contains insufficient clarity on how Iranian adherence to the agreement will be verified. And it is ambiguous on what penalties will be imposed if Iran fails to fulfill its commitments.”

This near-unanimity was broken only by the complete support of the talks by the left-wing pro-Israel organization, J Street, and the National Jewish Democratic Council.

J Street welcomed the framework and praised the efforts of Kerry and U.S. negotiators for reaching an agreement that J Street believes would lead to a final deal that would “verifiably prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” J Street also urged Congress not to pursue sanctions legislation, which the organization feels would complicate the negotiations to come.

“With the critical details of a comprehensive agreement yet to be worked out, it is more important than ever that Congress not take actions that will undermine America’s negotiators at the table,” Dylan Williams, J Street’s director of government affairs, said in a statement that dovetailed with Obama’s Rose Garden remarks. “There must also be no question that, if a final agreement ultimately cannot be reached, the United States is not to blame. We therefore continue to oppose new sanctions legislation currently before the Senate, and remain committed to working with senators and members of Congress toward legislation that provides for robust and responsible Congressional oversight of Iranian compliance with any agreement reached.”

This week, J Street reiterated its support for the framework in a joint statement with the Arab American Institute and the National Iranian American Council.

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Congress will be tough to convince on Iran

President Barack Obama will attempt to navigate the toughest leg yet of the lengthy process to achieve his longtime foreign policy goal of ending Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon: convincing U.S. lawmakers and the American people to support a deal with Iran.

After months of negotiations based on the temporary Joint Plan of Action, negotiators participating in the P5+1 nuclear talks in Switzerland, agreed April 2 to a basic framework to use as a starting point for a final Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Set to be completed by June 30, the agreement, aimed to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, set off a storm of commentary in the United States and Iran.

With the GOP currently in control of both the House of Representatives and Senate, resistance to the president’s approach will be powerful.

Additionally, Congress is ready to pull the trigger on two bills that the president opposes – both of which could potentially line up veto-proof support: the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act of 2015 and the Iran Nuclear Review Act of 2015.

While the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act has been on the table for years and has broad support, bipartisan momentum is also building behind the Iran Nuclear Review Act, which was proposed by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).

Corker’s bill seeks to compel the administration to present any final agreement reached with Iran to Congress for a vote of approval. While the Obama administration has been firmly against the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act, it nevertheless has attracted many senators from the president’s own party. They, unlike Republicans, are supportive of the negotiations, but feel left out of the process and think that they should have a say in such an important agreement — especially if the administration will try to force them to rescind their Iran sanctions.

“The framework agreement reached today is a positive step for diplomacy and efforts to peacefully limit Iran’s nuclear program,”  Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said in a prepared statement. “However, critical work remains over the next three months to ensure the technical elements of a final, comprehensive deal are enforceable and that Iran will fully comply with these provisions…. And I will continue my efforts to build bipartisan support for the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act – legislation that sets up a clear and constructive process for Congress to weigh in on any final deal that touches upon the statutory sanctions Congress has enacted.”

Another key Democrat, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) — who was recently endorsed by retiring Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to take over his role as the top Democrat in the Senate — was miserly with praise of the agreement. He said in a statement only that he was going to review the framework agreement.
Days before the original deadline for the Iran deal framework, Schumer added his name as a co-sponsor to Corker’s bill. This move made him one of a few Democrats co-sponsoring both Iran related Senate bills that the president has repeatedly threatened to veto.
“Congress played a lead role in crafting the tough-and-effective sanctions regime that brought Iran to the table, and Congress should have a role on how those sanctions are altered in any final agreement with Iran,” Schumer said in a press release announcing his co-sponsorship. “That’s why I strongly support this legislation, which will give Congress the ability to weigh in on any potential Iran deal.”

–Dmitriy Shapiro

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