Jews Greet U.S. Overture to Iran with Ambivalence and Skepticism

Did the Bush administration just hand Iran a carrot or a stick? Or did it get the shaft? Those questions rebounded Wednesday through the corridors of Congress, think tanks and Jewish organizations after Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, announced a willingness to negotiate with Iran if it suspends the enrichment of uranium.

Rice described “two paths” for Iran’s theocracy: Cooperation, which would reap benefits, or resistance, which would produce isolation.

The analysis was under way even before Rice shut off the microphones in Foggy Bottom. Was Rice emphasizing the incentive or the threat? Or was she handing the Islamic republic something for nothing in granting it more time to fulfill its nuclear ambitions?

The answer for now, according to the Jewish groups most involved in the effort to tamp down Iran’s nuclear ambitions: too soon to tell.

“It’s all a matter of relative risk,” said David Harris, the American Jewish Committee’s executive director, who spent the day consulting with top administration officials on the policy. “There is no risk-free option available in seeking to end Iran’s nuclear ambitions.”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby that has for more than a decade led the at-times lonely fight to focus attention on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, would not comment.

Other Jewish groups were also mostly silent — reflecting an ambivalence about appeasing Israel’s most dangerous foe while wanting at the same time to neutralize Iran through diplomacy.

For its part, Israel immediately welcomed the initiative.

“Israel appreciates the steps and measures by the United States in continuing to lead the international coalition and in taking all necessary steps to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear capability,” Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said in a statement.

Israel’s concerns about Iran include its backing for terrorists in the Palestinian areas and in Lebanon, as well as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rejection of Israel’s existence and his Holocaust denial.

Rice made it clear that those concerns are still on the table.

“We have many issues of concern with Iran that do not relate to the nuclear issue,” Rice said, including “the terrorism that Iran continues to support in places like the Palestinian territories and, indeed, in Lebanon.”

A top European diplomat confirmed to JTA that those issues would be paramount in any talks. President Bush called Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to brief him before the announcement, reports said.

Iran’s initial response was not encouraging: the official Iranian news agency called the offer “propaganda.”

Iran watchers were split. Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the Iranians understand that the Bush administration was serious about coupling its incentives with threats.

“Iran is not likely to take an extended hand unless it thinks the other hand has a fist inside the glove,” he said.

Michael Rubin, who specializes in Iran at the American Enterprise Institute, said the offer was a capitulation to the European Union, which is unwilling to make hard choices about Iran.

“We draw our red lines in crayon, and the Iranians no longer take us seriously,” he said.

Rice said Iran must immediately suspend its enrichment-related activities, and cooperate with nuclear inspectors.

The resulting benefits “could include progressively greater economic cooperation,” Rice said. “The United States will actively support these benefits, both publicly and privately.”

Rice said the United States would also “come to the table with our E.U. colleagues and meet with Iran’s representatives.”

In an appeal pitched to younger Iranians, she offered “increased contacts in education and cultural exchange, in sports and travel and trade and investment.”

Should Iran continue to refuse cooperation, she said, “we and our European partners agree that path will lead to international isolation and progressively stronger political and economic sanctions.”

Rice suggested that the agreement to stand together extended to Russia and China.

Both nations have until now resisted sanctions, partly because of their extensive dealings with Iran. They are key because of their veto power on the U.N. Security Council, which could impede sanctions.

“You can be sure that our friends and our partners understand the importance of the step and the importance that the Iranians must now see of making a choice and making that choice clearly,” Rice said.

Top administration officials told Jewish leaders that Iran made the promise of direct talks with the United States a condition of continuing the negotiations with Germany, Britain and France, known as the “E.U.-3.”

“Senior U.S. officials with whom we spoke today say that they’ve heard various consistent reports that Iran wants to engage and seeks to negotiate,” Harris of the AJCommittee told JTA. “While not overly optimistic, these officials believe that this approach just might work.”

There was greater skepticism in Congress, where bills urging Iran’s isolation have garnered overwhelming support.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), whose bill isolating Iran passed overwhelmingly in April in the U.S. House of Representatives, said Rice’s initiative would at least call Iran’s bluff.

“Time after time, the regime in Tehran has defied the world’s demands that it abandon its nuclear ambitions, even heralding its successful production of enriched uranium only a few months ago,” she said in a statement.

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), the ranking member on the House’s Middle East subcommittee, said the administration was cornered by its failures in the Iraq war and by its tough rhetoric.

“It’s crunch time,” he told JTA. The war in Iraq, aimed at showing America’s might, “didn’t get the message across because of the way we mishandled everything. Iran saw the mess in Iraq and looked at this whole thing amused. Now, we have no backup plan.”

Jewish officials were walking a fine line. On the one hand, the prospect of a nuclear theocracy that denies both Israel’s existence and the Holocaust is clearly untenable.

On the other hand, American Jewish organizations — particularly the Reform movement — are catching up with popular American Jewish sentiment, reflected in national surveys, that the Iraq war has turned out to be a fiasco. That experience has sharpened a wariness of military options, and created openness to diplomacy.

“It is difficult not to be skeptical about the prospect of Iran living up to any agreement, but we feel that negotiations is a path worth exploring,” Mark Pelavin, the associate director of the Reform’s Religious Action Center, told JTA.

Jewish political and communal figures have recently taken the lead calling for a retreat from militant rhetoric. Last month, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the most senior Jewish Republican, told an Orthodox Union audience that dialogue with Iran should be explored.

“I would like more attention paid to a dialogue with Iran,” said Specter, who has led congressional contacts with Iran in the past, including a meeting in 2000 with Iranian legislators in New York to discuss the fate of 13 Iranian Jews who had been jailed on espionage charges. “Talking with people is never harmful.”

Edith Everett, an AJCommittee board member, earned applause at the group’s centennial last month when she took to task the Republican Party chairman, Ken Mehlman, for Bush’s pledging “military might” on Israel’s behalf should Iran attack.

“It does not help Israel and it does not help American Jews to appear to be stimulators of any action against Iran,” Everett told Mehlman, who is Jewish.

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