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Getting a yes on Iran Advocacy Day

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), left, and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) talk before speaking on Sept. 10, 2009 at the National Jewish Leadership Advocacy Day on Iran in Washington. (Conference of Presidents)

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), left, and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) talk before speaking on Sept. 10, 2009 at the National Jewish Leadership Advocacy Day on Iran in Washington. (Conference of Presidents)

REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK

WASHINGTON (JTA) — More than 300 Jewish communal leaders came to the nation’s capital to push for increased pressure on Iran — and they were pleased by what they heard.

The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said he would move forward on Iran sanctions legislation next month "absent some compelling evidence why I should do otherwise."

Speaking Sept. 10 at the National Jewish Leadership Advocacy Day on Iran in Washington, U.S. Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) said that next month he will mark up the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act and "begin the process of tightening the screws on Tehran" if Iran "does not reverse course."

The legislation would allow the sanctioning of companies that help Iran import or produce refined petroleum, which is seen as potentially having a large impact on Iran’s economy because the country imports 40 percent of its refined petroleum.

Berman said the clock has "almost run out" on Iran.

"If the Iranians are going to engage in a meaningful and significant way that will spell the end of their nuclear enrichment program, we’ll open a new chapter with them," Berman said. "But let’s clarify ‘meaningful’ — we’re not going to be conned by an Iranian rope-a-dope, its stalling efforts. We have no intention of spending months analyzing old proposals which are offered merely to delay imposition of sanctions."

The Obama administration has signaled that it will reconsider its efforts to engage Iran on its pursuit of nuclear weapons if no progress has been made by the end of September.

In addition to Berman, Jewish community leaders heard House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and House Minority John Boehner (R-Ohio) both say they were ready to proceed with sanctions legislation as well. Hoyer, speaking before Berman, said he had told his colleague that "once you move it, my intention is to bring it to the floor shortly thereafter."

Also speaking were House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.)

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If anyone had any doubts about how important the Iran issue is to the leadership of the mainstream American Jewish community, the powerful lineup at the Sept. 10 panel discussion during advocacy day should have erased them.

AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr, Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman, American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris and B’nai B’rith International Executive Director Dan Mariaschin were seated at the same table on the stage next to panel moderator Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

In addition to talking about the threat posed by Iran with its building of nuclear weapons, the panelists also emphasized the importance of making sure that the entire Jewish community and all Americans were aware of the threat’s urgency.

“There is no national sense of urgency” on Iran, said Foxman, who then outlined a “Catch-22” facing the Jewish community in the coming months.

“We do not have the luxury to not lead” on Iran, he said, but in taking the lead, some may dismiss the threat as just a Jewish issue.

Still, Foxman said, “the job will have to be done beyond the Jewish community” and “we have to lead even though it will be perceived as a Jewish issue."

Hoyer in his remarks offered a talking point on Iran that had no relation to Israel or the Jewish community, warning that "250,000 Americans are within range of Iranian weaponry."

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Hoenlein as he moderated the panel blasted those in the Jewish community “who seek to get attention by sowing discord” on the Iran issue.

“We need to put aside our differences and stand together” against the threat of Iran, said the chief executive of the Presidents Conference — the Jewish community’s main umbrella organization on Middle East-related issues.

Hoenlein did not specify exactly to whom he was referring, and declined he to do so when asked by JTA. But he appeared to be reacting to a statement released the day before by Americans for Peace Now, a Presidents Conference member, opposing “crippling” sanctions "that target the Iranian people rather than their leaders" and backing "engagement" without "arbitrary deadlines."

The statement contradicted the message of advocacy day, during which leaders were calling for increased economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran and for the passage of the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act. The measure would punish companies that help Iran import or produce refined petroleum.

The advocacy day was organized by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Iran, which is led by the Presidents Conference, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, UJC/Federations of North America and NCSJ: Advocates on behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia.

Hoenlein stressed that there was wide unity in the community that increased pressure on Iran was necessary, citing the nine rabbinical and synagogue organizations from across the denominational spectrum that released a joint statement on the issue a few days earlier and the representation of a huge array of Jewish groups at advocacy day.

Hoenlein also noted that the term “crippling sanctions” in regard to Iran was actually first used by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton earlier this year, and said that such sanctions are “not targeting people.”

That was a point made by others at the event. Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, pointed out in an interview that advocates looked at how past sanctions placed on countries such as Iraq  worked before deciding how to handle Iran.

“These sanctions are much more targeted,” he said, and were selected because they were not aimed at the Iranian people.

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President Obama said during the campaign that he would have the most transparent administration in history — but apparently not when it comes to discussing Iran policy.

At the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, the appearance by top National Security Council official Dennis Ross and Assistant Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns was declared off the record, and reporters were told to leave the synagogue sanctuary for the duration of the administration’s presentation.

Organizers wanted the session to be open to reporters — indeed, they had sent out a news release inviting reporters to the Sept. 10 event — but were told of the administration demand the previous evening.

A couple of people who did hear the remarks of Ross and Burns said the two men stressed that the engagement process with Iran is "not open-ended" and that they had no illusions about the Iranians, with Ross at one point saying the process with Iran was "not about trust."

One person noted that there was nothing particularly fresh or new, with much of what Ross and Burns said having been said by Obama in earlier speeches and news conferences. They apparently avoided specifically saying whether the administration would support the passage of the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act.

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