The world may have been absorbed Sunday morning by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but inside the Washington Convention Center, the country on everyone’s mind was Iran.
From speakers and panelists, in crowded meeting rooms and an arena-sized hall, the reported 14,000 Israel supporters attending the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s three-day annual policy conference in Washington heard a steady message again and again: Iran, with its nuclear ambitions, is a threat to Israel and the world. It was a message AIPAC supporters would take to Capitol Hill on Tuesday when they lobbied Congress for the pro-Israel lobby’s agenda.
Yet if the goal of a diplomatic agreement between the five permanent members of the U.N.
Security Council plus Germany and Iran was to reduce or eliminate that threat, from the opening of the conference, speakers viewed the possibility of reaching a satisfactory accord with something approaching scorn.
“We must distrust and verify,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). That distrust may have been the rationale for scheduling nine sessions on Iran during the conference. As at last year’s conference, Iran was the chief issue discussed.
Coons’ position puts him in line with AIPAC, but at odds with the Obama administration, which wants to let negotiations with Iran play out before announcing additional sanctions or coercive action.
On Sunday, it was Treasury Secretary Jack Lew who reiterated the administration’s position. He said that legislation mandating additional sanctions on Iran should nuclear negotiations fail could endanger those negotiations.
“We do not need new sanctions now,” he said to a tepid response. “The sanctions in place are working to bring Iran to the negotiating table, and passing new sanctions now could derail the talks that are underway and splinter the international cooperation that has made our sanctions regime so effective.”
Last month, in the face of stiff administration opposition, AIPAC ended its intense lobbying for a Senate bill calling for new sanctions on Iran.
But on Monday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), renewed the call for new sanctions.
“I believe we have to keep the pressure on,” he said. “I believe the Senate should pass new bipartisan sanctions legislation that would take effect if the current negotiations don’t succeed.”
By that time, AIPAC’s new Iran sanctions offensive was already underway. On Sunday, it released a letter to President Barack Obama signed by a bipartisan group of senators, which echoed the tropes heard throughout the conference.
“Should an acceptable final agreement be reached, your administration will need to work together with Congress to enact implementing legislation to provide longer term sanctions relief beyond existing waiver authorities – either through suspension, repeal or amendment of statutory sanctions,” the letter read.
“We believe that Iran has no inherent right to enrichment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,” it continued. “We believe any agreement must dismantle Iran’s nuclear weapons program and prevent it from ever having a uranium or plutonium path to a nuclear bomb.”
The letter was signed by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), as well as Coons and Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).
At the session, which included Coons, former Sen. Joe Lieberman argued for a strong congressional hand in the Iran nuclear issue.
“If Congress does not get involved, diplomacy has zero chance of success,” he said to applause.
Danger of proliferation
“Across the table in Vienna today sit the representatives of a radical, revolutionary regime, ideological, unyielding, unapologetic to its very core,” AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr told the conference on Sunday. “At least to this moment, there’s one thing Iran is not. From everything we know, Iran is not armed with nuclear weapons. And it must be kept that way.”
As his audience knew, that is easier said than done. And at a session called “The Middle East in 2014,” Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that no matter how favorable the outcome of negotiations, “the Iranians have won.”
“These negotiations are about how much time we have to detect Iran’s cheating,” Satloff said. “These negotiations are not about denying Iran the ability to cheat.”
Looking to the civil war in Syria, Satloff considered the question of who was more dangerous, Sunni extremists in the Syrian opposition or Shiite extremists in the form of Hezbollah.
“The U.S. has to worry most about an Iranian victory in Syria,” he asserted. “That would be a huge blow to the United States.”
“The question is, which kind of extremists are closer to having a nuclear weapon?” offered Jeffrey Goldberg, a correspondent for The Atlantic and Bloomberg. “Hezbollah is closest to this.”
In a session on “Possibilities for a Final Nuclear Deal With Iran,” panelists focused more on the effects of a nuclear Iran than on reaching a deal.
Iran maintains it will be fully transparent and do everything but build a bomb, said Yuval Steinetz, Israel’s minister of intelligence. But as a “threshold nuclear state,” Iran will continue to make its neighbors nervous. Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey will conclude that “sooner or later Iran will get the bomb” and will develop nuclear weapons programs of their own, he argued.
“An Iranian bomb will lead to proliferation all over the world — and to the first nuclear war,” said Rep. Brad Sherman, (D-Calif.). “How far away is Iran from making a bomb? The answer now is months. If any treaty now is successful, the answer would be years.”
Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted the advantages the United States has over Iran in negotiations.
Iran is a mid-sized power with a troubled economy, hated throughout the region and without networks of international alliances, he said. “A superpower ought to be able to coerce a medium-sized power to meet its [Iran’s] international obligations.”
Those obligations arise from Iran’s signature on the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. In a session called “The Global Implications of a Nuclear Iran,” Emily Landau, senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, agreed that a nuclear Iran would lead to an unraveling of the movement toward nonproliferation globally.
But she said there is no agreement among experts about what Iran is aiming for with its nuclear program. Iran wants to look ambiguous, Landau said. “The way they move forward is by exploiting ambiguity.”
On Monday night, Secretary of State John Kerry sought to convince the conference that the administration is pursuing the right policy with its diplomatic push. “We will not permit Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, period,” he said.
The administration is testing Iran’s motives though “forceful negotiations,” he said, rejecting criticism that the interim agreement the P5+1 nations signed with Iran in November has resulted in the unraveling of sanctions.
“We have not changed one piece of the sanctions architecture,” he said. “And yet we are able to negotiate. Our eyes, my friends, are wide open. … And you can be sure that if Iran fails this test, America will not fail Israel.”
An agreement will pass the test if it can answer yes to three questions, he said. “First, will it make certain that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon? Second, can it continuously assure the world that Iran’s program remains entirely peaceful as it claims? And third, will the agreement increase our visibility on the nuclear program and expand the breakout time so that if they were to try to go for a bomb, we know we will have time to act?”
Reiterating his slogan that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” Kerry said that if negotiations fail, it would take Congress “two hours” to pass new sanctions.
“President Obama and I support those sanctions under those circumstances,” said Kerry.
Closing the conference on Tuesday morning, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his long-standing position that the world must prevent Iran from acquiring the capacity to build a nuclear weapon. This differs from the U.S. position, which is to prevent Iran from building a weapon.
“That means we must dismantle their heavy water reactor, underground enrichment facilities, get rid of stockpiles of enriched uranium and their centrifuges,” he said. “Unfortunately the leading powers of the world are talking about leaving Iran with the capability to enrich uranium. I hope they don’t do that, because that would be a grave error. It would leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power.”
Netanyahu pledged to the Israel supporters, “I will do whatever I must to defend the Jewish state of Israel.”
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Staff writer Ian Zelaya contributed to this article.