Recent breakthroughs in the U.S.-led effort to squeeze Iran could change the political calculus for American Jewish groups that have benefited hugely from their decades-old focus on Iran — and which have largely succeeded in making Iran’s threat to both U.S. and Israeli interests a top policy for Congress and the White House.
But many analysts say those breakthroughs are unlikely to divert Iran from a nuclear weapons program that may be only months from producing a usable weapon. And that failure could bring pro-Israel groups here closer to a risky point of no return on the question of U.S. military action designed to do what sanctions can’t — end, not just delay, Iran’s nuclear weapons quest.
And if sanctions do work, there’s the question of what Jewish organizations will do if they can no longer use the Iran threat to galvanize their activist base, unify a community increasingly at odds over a range of Israel-related issues and spur their own growth.
The Iran threat is real. There’s little question that groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) have been hugely successful in keeping policymakers here focused on developments that threaten U.S. as well as Israeli interests. But that doesn’t mean the issue hasn’t also been hugely important to their own institutional interests.
Early this month, with strong leadership by the Obama administration that began its tenure with unrequited diplomatic overtures toward Iran, the UN Security Council passed new sanctions that will: freeze the assets of 40 companies contributing to Iran’s nuclear and missile programs; blacklist firms connected to the Revolutionary Guards; authorize the inspection of cargo to and from Iran; and add sanctions on Iranian banks linked to the country’s nuclear program.
The UN sanctions are a watered-down compromise that will probably not lead to seamless, universal and crippling sanctions. But with staunch opposition from Russia and China and quieter but no less significant resistance from important European Union allies, the sanctions approved by the Security Council were far more than most observers predicted.
Last week the EU announced expanded trade penalties on Iran, and the Obama administration used its executive authority to expand sanctions on “a number of institutions and individuals who are helping Iran to fund nuclear and missile programs and to evade international sanctions,” according to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
At the same time, the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act is only days from final passage in Congress.
But few analysts inside or outside the Jewish communal world believe the sanctions surge is enough to deter an Iranian leadership that has decades of experience evading economic penalties.
As is usual in Middle East matters, Jewish activism on Iran was shaped by a complex blend of factors.
Israel, which had extensive ties with the late Shah of Iran, responded with anxiety when he was overthrown by an Islamic revolutionary faction that saw rhetorical attacks on Israel — and, later, arming and inciting groups like Hamas and Hezbollah — as a way of expanding its role as a regional leader and distracting a populace subject to increasingly repressive rule.
The Iran issue was dialed up a few degrees in the early 1990s when Israel and the Palestinians were engaged in a fitful peace process that Iran and its allies sought to kill.
There were numerous reports at the time that the late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin distrusted an American pro-Israel establishment that he worried would undercut his peace efforts. Rabin, according to some reports, wanted the pro-Israel groups here to stay out of his way on the Israeli-Palestinian peace front and suggested a strong focus on Iran as an alternative.
At the same time, Iran represented a unifying opportunity for groups that were facing a Jewish community more divided than ever by fundamental issues of war and peace.
“It was an opportunity for an issue on which people can agree, across the spectrum — liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats,” said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn. “What ended up happening — and I think it was healthy — is that the Jewish community ended up leading the charge on Iran.”
The Iran issue also came along at a time when the great battles that defined the early years of the pro-Israel lobby had been won — and when there was abundant evidence many Jews no longer saw Israel’s existence threatened.
Pro-Israel leaders were able to use the phrase “existential threat” and mean it — and that resonated throughout the pro-Israel activist community and in much of the non-activist Jewish world.
In the same way, the Iranian threat proved an effective tool to pry open Jewish checkbooks in a fiercely competitive fundraising environment in which fear is always the best inducement to giving.
AIPAC played a pivotal role in passing the Iran Libya Sanctions Act in 1996; it has fought continuously for tougher sanctions since then and for greater administration efforts to win international compliance.
That focus became even easier to sell after the rise of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who took office in 2005 — and with growing indications Iran was accelerating its support for anti-Israel terrorist groups as well as its nuclear weapons program.
Once AIPAC policy conferences — the annual conventions that offer the most accurate readout of pro-Israel priorities — focused primarily on issues like foreign aid, U.S.-PLO relations and conflicts with administrations over issues such as loan guarantees to Israel.
At recent conferences Iran has been the overarching focus —reflecting both the fact that a nuclear-armed Iran is getting closer by the day and the unspoken fact that the issue has been good for Jewish organizations in an era when Jewish unity is increasingly a fantasy and fundraising a mounting challenge.
It’s no accident that AIPAC’s spectacular growth spurt in recent years came alongside its relentless, effective Iran focus. The issue has also been good for groups ranging from the American Jewish Committee to The Israel Project.
In both institutional and national policy terms, the overarching Iran focus of pro-Israel groups has been mostly a success. And yet there’s little indication that the mullahs in Tehran have changed their minds about becoming a nuclear power.
That leads to a challenge rife with danger for American Jewish leaders: what next?
This is the difficult line Jewish groups have to walk. As Iran gets ever closer to realizing its nuclear dreams, increasingly the only alternative left in the menu of policy options is the military one.
But no major Jewish group dares openly advocate an Israeli military strike, which would be enormously costly for the Jewish state and with a low likelihood of success. Even more toxic is any open advocacy of U.S. military action.
Groups like The Israel Project have tested the waters with polls that show a surprising level of support for a U.S. strike among voters in general and within the Jewish community.
But with many experts warning that nothing short of an all-out U.S. military commitment that includes invasion and long-term occupation will effectively cripple a dispersed, hardened Iranian nuclear program, those numbers may be misleading. America is still trying to extricate itself from Iraq and remains mired in Afghanistan, now our longest war; the administration’s troop surge there seems to have done little to slow the reverses it inherited from its predecessor.
It’s hard to picture the Obama administration choosing to exercise the Iran military option while still paying a steep price — military, economic and political — for the two ongoing wars.
In that environment, American Jewish leaders will remain loath to openly call for military action that may end up being the only remaining option other than deterrence — even though many are coming to believe that when all is said and done, military action will remain the only option left on the table.
But that unwillingness also gives their Iran advocacy a phantasmal quality that may ultimately undercut its effectiveness.
Signup for our weekly email newsletter here.