Groups set to confront Ahmadinejad as U.S. agrees to talks


WASHINGTON (JTA) — As they prepare to protest the appearance of Iran’s president at the United Nations General Assembly, Jewish groups are working to decipher the impact of the Obama administration’s decision to hold talks with the Islamic Republic.

Jewish organizations are gearing up for a massive protest rally Sept. 24 in New York, in response to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s scheduled U.N. address.

The “Stand For Freedom in Iran Rally” will demand not just an end to all uranium enrichment in Iran, but also will call for the “immediate cessation of human rights abuses,” “freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of the press” in the Islamic Republic. It also will seek the prosecution of those responsible for the killing of Neda Agha-Soltan, whose death while protesting the June elections was seen around the world.

Smaller rallies in other cities across the United States — including Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington — also are planned.

Organizers are emphasizing that the rally is not just a Jewish event, but includes a variety of sponsors — including labor unions such as the American Federation of Teachers and the New York City Central Labor Council: AFL-CIO, and minority groups like the NAACP New York Conference and the National Puerto Rican Coalition.

The planned rally comes on the heels of a lobbying trip to Washington last week by Jewish communal leaders from across the country urging lawmakers to pass tougher anti-Iranian sanctions.

During the Sept. 10 lobbying day, the Jewish leaders were buoyed by their meeting with the chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), who told them that he planned to move forward in October with tough sanctions legislation.

They also met with two Obama administration officials, White House adviser Dennis Ross and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, who stressed the White House’s commitment to stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and did not voice any objections to a congressional push for new sanctions.

The next day, however, the United States announced that it would accept a vague offer by Iran to open talks — an offer that did not even make mention of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

Some administration officials have portrayed the decision as essentially a final opportunity for Iran to enter into serious discussions about halting its development of nuclear weapons. The discussions won’t last long, they say, if Iran insists on avoiding the issue.

According to this view, engaging in talks will demonstrate to those in the international community that are skeptical of ratcheting up sanctions, such as the Russians, that the United States is willing to make every effort possible to engage — even though there is little optimism that the talks will lead to progress.

The talks between Iran and the P5 plus 1 — the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China and Germany — are scheduled for Oct. 1, with the Obama administration planning to dispatch Burns.

Most Jewish organizations steered clear of directly criticizing the U.S. decision to enter talks but pledged to continue their push for new sanctions.

J Street and Americans of Peace Now have criticized the sanctions strategy, saying it would undermine the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts. Other Jewish groups, observers and some congressional sources counter that it will strengthen America’s hand in any talks.

JTA also has learned that Israel is urging the United States to pursue sanctions as an accompaniment to dialogue.

B’nai B’rith International’s executive vice president, Dan Mariaschin, said that statements from Iranian leaders, particularly those saying that the Islamic Republic has no intention of halting its nuclear program, don’t leave much room for optimism.

“We’re looking at a series of comments and statements, at least in recent weeks, that would lead one to believe expectations are low,” he said. “There’s no better way to send the message” that the United States is prepared to go to sanctions “than to have an extremely low tolerance level for further obstructionism and procrastination” by the Iranians.

Iran’s rambling five-page response to the U.S. offer talked about its readiness to negotiate on a litany of issues, but never mentioned its own nuclear program.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran voices its readiness to embark on comprehensive, all-encompassing and constructive negotiations, aiming at acquiring a clear framework for cooperative relationships by ensuring the adherence of all parties to collective commitments, a future free from injustice that promises welfare and progress free from double standards for all nations of the region and the world,” the document said.

It singled out the Palestinian issue, stating that “joint efforts and interactions to help the people of Palestine to draw a comprehensive, democratic and equitable plan in order to help the people of Palestine to achieve all-embracing peace, lasting security and to secure their fundamental rights could be good examples of these cooperative relations.”

Obama administration officials have said that while the Iranians may not have mentioned their nuclear program in their statement, the United States will be talking to them about it on Oct. 1.

“I don’t know what’s on their agenda, but I know what’s on our agenda and I know what’s on the agenda for countries around the world that are concerned about Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday. “It will be part of that discussion. And if Iran is unwilling to discuss their illicit nuclear weapons program, I think all that does is strengthen the hand of the international community in underscoring the obligations, again, that the Iranians are failing to live up to.”

In a meeting Tuesday with leaders of the Orthodox Union, Ross said that the United States would use the Iranian proposal to test and push, as well as take away excuses, according to someone who was present. Ross insisted that the United States would not be involved in a fake process and would be looking for a “change in behavior” by Iran.

The administration has not taken a public position on the Berman-sponsored Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, which would sanction companies that help Iran to import or produce refined petroleum. Neither the White House nor the State Department responded to JTA’s requests for its position on the legislation.

One Capitol Hill observer suggested, however, that Berman likely would have received some kind of assurance that the administration would not oppose the measure before announcing last week that he planned to mark up the bill next month.

Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research and an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he saw the legislation as something with which the administration would not have a problem because it does not tie the hands of the president but gives him the authority to choose when sanctions would go into effect. In addition, he said, the measure provides the president several options.

Clawson is among those who see little reason to expect a breakthough when Iran sits down with the six world powers.

“My assumption,” he said, is that the Iranians will be “entirely unresponsive” and “everyone will walk out disappointed.” But Clawson said the meeting will help to build a case for sanctions in the international community.

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