President Clinton’s decision to impose a trade embargo on Iran was greeted with a blessing from the Jewish world and a vow to help expand efforts to internationally isolate the Muslim fundamentalist regime.
“We applaud President Clinton’s decisive blow against terrorism,” said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, in a reaction typical of Jewish organizations.
At the same time, however, Jewish groups, which have actively lobbied for strict measures against Iran, appear split over whether to support congressional legislation that would impose a boycott on foreign companies doing business with Iran.
“The phrase `secondary boycott’ has problems for Jewish ears,” said Steinberg, alluding to the longstanding opposition to the Arab League’s secondary boycott of companies doing business with Israel.
Clinton announced the new executive order banning all U.S. trade and investment with Iran on Sunday night at a dinner honoring Edgar Bronfman, WJC president.
Bronfman, a major Jewish philanthropist, had helped to propel anti-Iran efforts to the front pages in March by working to scuttle a $1 billion oil development deal agreed to by Conoco Inc., the Houston-based oil company.
As a board member and shareholder of Du Pont, Conoco’s parent company, Bronfman stood to gain hundreds of millions of dollars from the contract.
Conoco abandoned the deal as the White House announced that Clinton was about to sign an executive order barring American firms from entering into contracts for the financing, supervision or management of oil development projects in Iran.
The March order was narrower than one announed this week, which bars exports to Iran and prevents American oil companies from buying crude oil from Iran.
Clinton’s announcement came as he stood before a group of WJC delegates from jewish communities around the world, including Argentina, whose Jewish community was the target of a devastating terrorist attack last summer.
Although no perpetrators have been arrested in the car-bombing of the Jewish community’s central offices in Buenos Aires, both U.S. and Argentine officials have pointed to Iran as the likely sponsor.
The bombing killed nearly 100 people and destroyed the offices of the local WJC affiliate.
Ruben Beraja, president of the Argentine Jewish federation, known as the DAIA, this week praised Clinton for making “a very important decision.”
“The world was waiting for the United States to lead the fight against terrorism,” Beraja said while attending WJC meetings here.
Israeli leader, who have long warned of the dangers posed by Iran, also enthusiastically praised Clinton.
“I think it is the right decision, a very powerful one, and at the right time,” said Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who was at the WJC dinner when Clinton announced his new policy Sunday night.
In announcing his executive, Clinton called Iran a “rogue state” that “must be contained” because of its support for terrorism around the world, its efforts to undermine Israeli-Arab peace and its quest for nuclear capability.
“There are times when an important economic interest must give way to an even more important security interest,” the president said.
Oil imports exceeded $4 billion last year, making the United States Iran’s largest trading partner.
Clinton’s announcement comes as congress has begun to consider even more dramatic steps against Iran.
Last month, Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) introduced legislation in the Senate that in addition to banning trade with Iran would ban foreign companies doing business with Iran from trading with the United States.
Congressman Peter Kind (R-N.Y.) this week introduced a similar secondary boycott measure in the House.
Both houses of Congress began hearings on the issue this week.
Although Clinton may have acted in an effort avoid the need for legislation, D’Amato and others have suggested that they would persists in Congress in order to further isolated Iran.
At the same time, D’Amato appears to be willing to give the administration’s diplomatic effort a chance.
In a statement applauding the executive order, the senator called on U.S. allies to join the embargo, saying he looked forward to “working with the State Department” on this.
“We must mobilize opinion to work on behalf of an international trade embargo against Iran until it joins the civilized world,” said D’Amato in a statement issued Tuesday.
The issue of a secondary boycott illustrates a potential split in policy between the administration and Congress.
In his Sunday night address, Clinton explicitly cautioned against a secondary boycott, saying it would “cause strain with our allies at a time when we need their cooperation.”
Although Clinton’s directive has generated unanimous enthusiasm from Jewish groups, congressional efforts to impose a secondary boycott are getting mixed reviews.
Steve Grossman, president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, welcomed the president’s diplomatic initiative and also declared strong support for the legislative proposals.
AIPAC has been in the forefront of urging lawmakers to cut off all economic ties with Iran.
In a 74-page study released last month, AIPAC detailed Iran’s terrorist activities, nuclear capability and international trade relations.
Another official at AIPAC said the secondary boycott “is an effective vehicle for dealing with the allies.”
“The administration first wants to jawbone them,” said the official, who asked to be identified. But, he noted, AIPAC’s report on Iran “talks about sanctions.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, also welcomed the president’s initiative and said he support the idea of a secondary boycott.
It gives such initiatives “more teeth,” Hoenlein said.
Clinton’s executive order “is an important step but there needs to be more,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Others, such as WJC, are less eager to see a secondary boycott, hoping that the administration’s diplomatic push would be sufficient.
And the American Jewish Committee has yet to take a position on the legislation, according to Jason Isaacson, director of the group’s Washington office.
A top American priority has been to halt Iranian attempts to acquire nuclear capability.
Next week, Clinton is expected to ask Russian President Boris Yeltsin personally to cancel Russia’s proposed sale of two nuclear reactors to Iran. Clinton and Yeltsin are scheduled to meet in Moscow.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher said Monday that in addition to opposing Russian and Chinese nuclear cooperation with Iran, the United States will call on its allies to undertake “a comprehensive review of their economic ties to Iran.”
The administration’s diplomatic push is expected to culminate in mid-June when the Group of Seven nations meet in Canada. In addition to the United States, the national include Germany, Japan, Great Britain, France, Italy and Canada.
A far-reaching international trade ban against Iran, such as one that would be generated by the legislation being considered by Congress, could cut off as much as 70 percent of Iranian hard currency earnings, said a pro-Israel activist in Washington.
Jewish groups say they plan to aid in the international effort. Several said they would address the issue in meetings with world leaders.
The WJC “will continue to actively push other countries to adopt a similar posture,” Steinberg said, adding, “This gives us grater ammunition in the struggle.”
Like many Jewish groups, the AJCommittee has pressed for sanctions against Iran during meetings with foreign leaders for years, and with senior German leaders as recently as February.
Whereas in the past foreign leaders would respond that the United States is the most guilty of doing business with Iran, Clinton’s new measures will “give the message that we and others have been sending about the danger posed by Iran greater clarity and greater force,” Isaacson said.
Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gad Ya’acobi, said he believed that the international diplomatic effort would prove partially successful.
“We believe that at least some of the Group of Seven will support this initiative,” Ya’acobi said.
However, he added, “It doesn’t look like all of them will do it, unfortunately.”