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Lobbying on Iran, Groups Strive to Play Down the Jewish Angle

May 10, 2006
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With concern mounting over Iran’s atomic ambitions, the American Jewish community is lobbying intensively to ensure that the threat is taken seriously by the United States, the media and the world. Careful to avoid giving the impression that it’s primarily an issue of Jewish or Israeli concern, however, U.S. Jewish groups are taking pains to highlight the greater regional and global threats posed by a nuclear Iran and its Holocaust-denying president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“We have to mobilize public opinion in this country and around the word to understand the serious threat that this represents,” Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of President of Major American Jewish Organizations, told JTA. Iran is “the fulcrum of the international terrorist movement, not only though Hezbollah and Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which they aid, but terrorist groups around the world — including in the United States and Europe.”

The American Jewish Committee bought ads last month in The New York Times, Financial Times, International Herald Tribune and New York Sun, asking, “Suppose Iran one day gives nuclear devices to terrorists. Could anyone anywhere feel safe?”

The idea, said David Harris, the AJCommittee’s executive director, was “to make sure that the global threat was understood, as opposed only to the Israel dimension.”

On Tuesday, the head of Israel’s military intelligence unit, Amos Yadlin, said that, absent sanctions, Iran would attain nuclear weapons by 2010.

According to reports, Iran already has procured North Korean missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads as far as Israel and parts of Europe. The Bush administration has said it will not tolerate a nuclear Iran, a sentiment recently echoed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

When Ahmadinejad “says that he wants to destroy Israel, the world needs to take it seriously,” Bush said in an interview with German weekly Bild am Sonntag. “This is a serious threat, aimed at an ally of the United States and Germany. What Ahmadinejad also means is that if he is ready to destroy one country, then he would also be ready to destroy others. This is a threat that needs to be dealt with.”

The foreign ministers of several key Security Council members met Monday to discuss a proposed U.N. resolution to brake Iran’s nuclear program, but did not reach consensus. Russia and China still oppose including any mention of sanctions or possible military intervention in the resolution, which is being sponsored by Britain and France and backed by the United States.

Hoenlein said the Presidents Conference is deliberately taking a quiet approach to its lobbying on Iran.

“This is an area where, I think, we do not want this to be seen as a Jewish issue; it’s not,” he said. “This is a danger for America, for the world. Therefore, I think the low-visibility but intensive approach is appropriate.”

“We’re not against protests or American Jews expressing themselves on this,” Hoenlein added, “but it shouldn’t be exclusively Jews.”

Jewish groups have publicly backed the Iran Freedom Support Act, a piece of legislation that has passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is now going through the Senate. The act would impose sanctions on companies doing business with Iran and would promote democratic organizations there. The House bill also includes language that urges American investors to divest from Iran.

Jewish groups have vigorously lobbied American and international leaders, and have held meetings to educate members of the media.

During its Washington policy conference in March, members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee held more than 450 meetings with members of Congress in which Iran was among the major topics of discussion, AIPAC spokeswoman Jennifer Cannata said.

Leaders of the American Jewish Congress have held high-level talks on the topic with the Jordanian mission to the United Nations, and will be traveling to Jordan later this month to meet with King Abdullah II.

AJCommittee officials raised the topic of Iran when they met Tuesday with French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy. Last week, the AJCommittee spoke with Merkel and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, among others. The group also has met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Despite differences in approach among world leaders, Harris said, “There is a virtual unanimity of view on the threat assessment. No one we have met takes the issue lightly or minimizes the danger.”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Iran is either No. 1 or No. 2 on the group’s agenda in all meetings with American and foreign officials. Sometimes the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority tops the list of talking points.

“The threat of a nuclear Iran is an irrational state which has declared war not only on Israel and the Jewish people, but on our values and our institutions and on everything the free world cherishes,” Foxman said.

Referring to Ahmadinejad’s threats to annihilate Israel, Foxman added that history has taught that “you pay attention to what lunatics say, especially when they have the means to effectuate their words.”

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