Strategists Ponder Whether Actions Against Iran Will Ultimately Backfire

As the international community condemns the prison sentences given 10 Iranian Jews, a growing chorus of Jewish politicians and activists is demanding that Iran somehow be punished.

The devoutly religious Jews were convicted Saturday for allegedly spying for Israel. Their sentences ranged from four to 13 years in prison.

But the demands for punishment raise several troubling questions:

Would the use of sanctions — and the suffering they would cause to the Iranian people — actually deliver a victory to the Iranian hard-liners, who seemed to orchestrate the entire trial precisely to damage the mild detente developing between Iranian reformers and the West?

Should American efforts to warm relations with strategically important Iran be derailed over the fate of 10 Iranian Jews?

Would the further isolation of Iran only worsen the situation of the remaining 25,000 Jews in Iran — plus Iranian society in general?

“It’s a very delicate balance, and not a black-and-white situation,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“But if there are no consequences for Iran, you’re saying it’s OK.”

In the wake of Saturday’s verdicts, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook has already postponed a planned trip to Iran.

Now, Israel and American Jewish groups are pressing Germany to cancel a visit by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who was to arrive in Berlin next week.

Jewish lawmakers in Washington are also talking about a resolution that would criticize the verdict and urge Iran to free the Jewish prisoners.

There have also been discussions about other steps that would curtail American trade with Iran.

But the potential unintended consequences of such steps should dominate any sanctions-related debate, say Iran-watchers and emigres in North America.

They suggest that in Iran, where fundamentalists still control the key levers of power — including the judiciary, military, police and, most importantly, the state-controlled television and radio — the hard-liners would frame any sanction, however small, in their typical “the-world-is-against-us” propaganda.

Sanctions could also weaken the position of Iranian reformers.

Though they recently won a majority in the Iranian legislature, the reformers are still embattled. In recent months, for example, 19 reformist newspapers have been shut down.

Sanctions could make their Western-friendly rhetoric more unpopular.

More relevant to American Jewry, blame could easily trickle down and exacerbate an already-tense climate for Iran’s Jews.

The hard-liners “have used this trial to present these Jews as aggressors and spies, and that all Jews have hostile tendencies toward Iran,” said Pedram Moallemian, a non-Jewish Iranian emigre who is director of a Toronto-based human rights group, the Canadian Iranian Center for Liberty and Equality.

“Some sort of backlash or sanction would prove their point that Iranian Jews are working with the enemy.

“And if there were, say, no milk for babies, Iranians looking to blame someone might find the easiest target to be the Jew on the street.”

With that in mind, Jewish lobbyists know they must tread a fine line.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which has been at the forefront of efforts to free the Iranian Jewish suspects, says it boils down to “how do we maximize the gains and minimize the losses.”

“Every decision you make, you have to think what are the ramifications and try to consider it as if you were in the shoes on the other side,” Hoenlein said. “Sometimes, words have different meanings for them than they do for us.”

The potential to further imperil Iranian Jewry, he said, “is a consideration we have to take into account. I’m not dismissing it. But you have to reward good behavior and punish bad behavior.”

Regardless of the stance of American Jewry, the United States and the European Union sound as if they will try to balance their own reflex to react strongly to the verdict with their desire to engage Iran and draw it into the community of democratic, human rights-respecting nations.

Since the 1997 election of Khatami, Washington has taken small, mostly symbolic steps toward easing sanctions, some of which have been in place since soon after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The United States wants improved relations with Iran in an effort to gain leverage with a state that has sponsored terrorism and undermined the Middle East peace process.

Of course, Iran, also has enormous oil resources, and is strategically located near the vast oil reserves in the Caucasus. American oil companies are reportedly champing at the bit to leap in and compete with the French companies that have already made inroads with Tehran.

The trial of the Iranian Jews, however, has set back efforts to seek rapprochement with Tehran.

With American Jewish leaders and Israel publicizing the case, American officials were unable to simply ignore it.

President Clinton has been quoted as calling the case “an irritant” — which observers said reflected his displeasure at having his options vis-a-vis Iran hamstrung by the case.

In April, even as she announced the easing of import sanctions against Iranian luxury goods like caviar, pistachios and Persian carpets, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the impending trial would be a “barometer for U.S.- Iranian relations.”

Among the problems facing U.S. Jewish leaders is the question of how much of a difference Jewish lobbying will make on policy-makers in Washington and abroad.

Of late, the track record is not too good.

Clinton, in a June 22 letter to Hoenlein, assured him that “I will remain actively engaged in this matter, and will continue to make every effort on their behalf until we see justice done.”

Still, the U.S. easing of sanctions in April took place despite some Jewish opposition.

In June, several European members of the World Bank approved — despite opposition from the United States — a $231 million loan to Iran for water distribution projects.

Also in June, Albright announced that the United States would no longer brand certain regimes, including Iran, as “rogue states” but by a toned-down and euphemistic term — “countries of concern.”

Hoenlein said that with the verdict in, Jewish leaders will now begin “Phase Two” of the campaign on behalf of the Iranian prisoners.

While the pressure earlier was on the Iranian judiciary, now they’ll cast the spotlight on Khatami, the reformist.

“We know about the internal opposition and the problems, but now is the time for Khatami to act and undo this injustice,” Hoenlein said.

“We aren’t looking to embarrass him, or to create circumstances that will make it even more difficult for him to make moves. But this is a test case for him. He has to show whether he really is interested in reform.”

Yet this, too, may only backfire for the West and potentially undermine whatever reform efforts are underway, says Moallemian, the human rights activist.

“Even if there were support for such a thing, it would be used against the moderates to weaken them,” he said.

“The propaganda machine is not in [the reformers'] hands. Any expectations of them taking such action would be unrealistic to say the least.”

Moallemian also cautioned against any sanctions. Instead, he said, frustration with Iran ought to be channeled into support for the opposition.

“I understand the need for immediate vengeance and to inflict pain is something we’ve all felt at times,” Moallemian said.

“But sometimes, it’s more important to sit back and reflect on the bigger picture of what may be the impact of any action we might take.”

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