Secretary of State John Kerry was slated to meet with American Jewish leaders in Washington on Wednesday to convince them to support the administration’s preliminary Iran nuclear deal.
It was the latest attempt by the White House to build support in the Jewish community for the framework agreement reached last week between Iran, the U.S. and five other world powers. Just a day after its completion, Colin Kahl, deputy assistant to President Obama, held a conference call with members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to assure them that the proposed agreement is the best that could be achieved.
The White House outreach to Jewish leaders was launched after some major Jewish groups expressed skepticism if not outright opposition to the tentative deal, which negotiators are seeking to finalize by June 30.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said initially that he was concerned about the “many unanswered questions” the proposal raised.
He argued that “Iran simply cannot be trusted” given its “history of covert activity, noncompliance and never owning up to that history. … The apparent rush to remove sanctions gives Iran an incentive to comply with the terms of the agreement, but once sanctions are removed, then what? … We do not expect a change in its behavior.”
Michael Salberg, the ADL’s director of international affairs, said Tuesday that even after hearing Obama’s comments that included assurances for Israel in weekend interviews and the comments of other White House officials, there remain a “lot of details that need to be worked out.”
“Israel is worried and the president in the interviews acknowledged the concerns — not just those of the prime minister and the intelligence minister but of Israeli [civilians] regarding Iran’s intentions and behavior,” Salberg said.
That concern was apparent at a play area in a Jerusalem mall Monday as Grazia Mizrachi watched her granddaughter. Although the mood in the mall was especially festive due to the Passover holiday, she said she felt weighted down by the Iran framework agreement.
“If I could tell the American president one thing,” she said, “it would be: ‘Don’t do it; it will endanger Israel.’ Unless you live in Israel, you can’t comprehend our fears.”
And then, glancing at the children at play, Mizrachi added: “I’m more fearful for my granddaughter and her generation than I am for myself. They’re growing up in a world where war is more likely than peace.”
But Davida Chazan, a research development writer visiting the mall, wants to give the deal a chance to succeed.
“I think Iran is more of a barking dog than people think, and I think the Israeli government has done everything in its power to make it sound more dangerous than it actually is,” she said. “I’m sure there is some danger there, but anything that says `let’s put down our weapons and give peace a chance’ is the right direction.”
Salberg of the ADL pointed out that in one of his weekend interviews, Obama tried to reassure Israelis by saying, in essence, that if Israel were in trouble, America would have its back.
“If anybody messes with Israel, America will be there,” Obama vowed.
Salberg said it is “important for Israel and the U.S. to figure out precisely what that means.”
On Monday, Israel’s minister of intelligence, Yuval Steinitz, produced a list of 10 suggested changes to the proposed nuclear deal that he believes would make the agreement “more reasonable.”
Among the items: close the Fordo site, halt all research and development into advanced centrifuges and ship out of the country the entire stockpile of enriched uranium.
Binyamin Huga, whose Jerusalem store sells flat screen TVs, said he would add one more stipulation to the agreement: that Iran recognize Israel as a “legitimate” country with the right to exist.
“If Iran wants concessions from the Western world it needs to make concessions,” he argued. “It’s time Iran stopped calling for our destruction.”
How Much Time?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had voiced similar sentiment, but Obama told an interviewer that such a stipulation is out of the question.
“The notion that we would condition Iran not getting nuclear weapons in a verifiable deal on Iran recognizing Israel is really akin to saying that we won’t sign a deal unless the nature of the Iranian regime completely transforms,” Obama said. “And that is, I think, a fundamental misjudgment.”
In that same interview, Obama acknowledged that Iran’s breakout time – the time in which it could quickly develop a nuclear weapon — would increase from the current two or three months to one year, and then to almost zero in years 13 to 15 of the agreement. But at that point, he said, the U.S. would have “much better ideas about what it is their program involves.”
Gary Samore, executive director for research at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a former senior official in the Obama administration, cautioned in a conference call with the Israel Policy Forum that the breakout period refers only to the time it would take to “produce enough fissile material for a bomb — not the bomb itself.”
He said it would take about another year to “fashion it into a nuclear weapon, including all of the parts of a nuclear bomb… Now all of this is very theoretical because I don’t know anybody who thinks that Iran would run the risk of trying to break out at its declared nuclear facilities because … the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] would detect it within days, certainly weeks. And that would leave plenty of time for the U.S. or Israel to destroy those facilities.”
Although the wording of the proposed agreement is unclear, Samore said he understood that it requires Iran to disclose information related to its “previous research and development of a nuclear weapon — the so-called possible military dimension. If we had a better understanding of how far Iran got before they suspended the program in 2003, we could make a better judgment about how long it would take for them to actually make a nuclear device after they have the raw material.”
The IAEA has requested that information in the past, but Iran has consistently refused to provide it.
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, cited that refusal in questioning whether Iran could be trusted to abide by any agreement it signs and if inspections would be sufficient to monitor compliance.
“We know that once sanctions are lifted, and that is supposed to happen in response to specific steps taken by Iran, they will be difficult to put back in place” should Iran violate the agreement, he said in a statement.
Harris added that the AJC would continue to support congressional review of the agreement. The White House is opposed to any legislation that would permit Congress to cancel or modify any deal that is reached.
A Surprise From Schumer
But legislation proposed by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is slated to be voted on by the committee next Tuesday. It would require any agreement to receive congressional approval. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the leading contender to be the next Senate minority leader and a strong ally of Obama, surprised many this week when he said he supports the bill, which would put him at odds with Obama.
“I strongly believe Congress should have the right to disapprove any agreement and I support the Corker bill which would allow that to occur,” he said in a statement.
But Lara Friedman, who handles policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now, said her organization opposes the bill because among other things it would require the U.S. to certify that Iran is not supporting or engaging in terrorism against the U.S. or Americans anyplace in the world. Such a provision, she said, is nothing but a pretext “to scuttle the deal.”
“There is an argument being made that if the proposal does not deal with Iran’s behavior, it should not happen,” Friedman said. “But we spent 20 years talking of Iran as an existential threat — and this deal focuses on that. We should now take a step back and wait to see what they can achieve” in the coming talks.
Alan Eisner, a vice president at J Street, a lobby group that bills itself as a pro-Israel group that lobbies for a two-state solution, agreed that the agreement should cover only Iran’s nuclear program.
“There is a difference between what is a desirable agreement and what is a realistic agreement,” he explained. “Israel has put forth conditions we all wish could be achieved in this agreement, but in reality won’t be. And the history of arms control agreements going back to the days of the Soviet Union is that they don’t cover the whole gamut of relations.”
Gideon Aranoff, CEO of Ameinu, a progressive Zionist membership organization in the U.S., echoed those views.
“We encourage dialogue between Israel and the U.S. to help develop the strongest agreement possible,” he said. “We will be working with our partners in the Jewish community and the administration to push back against threats to Israel from Iran, but believe nuclear negotiations are not the place to address every bad action of Iran.”
Israel correspondent Michele Chabin contributed reporting from Jerusalem.