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Politicizing Iran: Obama Sanctions Bill, Palin’s Rally Gig Fall Prey


Just when you thought it was safe to put the issue of Iran back in the bipartisan closet, out it roars into a food fight between the Republicans and Democrats.

The two parties are tussling over who should have appeared at a Jewish-sponsored anti-Iran rally on Monday and who is responsible for the failure of sanctions legislation in Congress.

Each side accused the other of using a life-and-death issue for politicking.

Republicans said Democrats had the GOP running mate disinvited from the rally to keep her out of the public eye, while Democrats said Republicans trashed the sanctions legislation to keep the Democratic presidential candidate from scoring a major legislative victory.

Caught in the middle are the Jewish organizations that hoped presidential politicking would advance, not hinder, efforts to shine a spotlight on the nefariousness of the Iranian regime and sanction the Islamic Republic in efforts to halt its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Just days ago, Jewish groups appeared to have secured two major victories: The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the other groups behind the rally had scored a superstar from each party to appear at their New York demonstration, which was timed to coincide with the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly.

U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), whose bid for her party’s nomination dogged Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) until June, had agreed to appear weeks ago. And Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the running mate to Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), was to take up the Republican mantle, JTA learned Sept. 15.

Meanwhile, far-reaching legislation in Congress that would facilitate divestment from Iran and enhance existing sanctions had overcome Republican objections in the Senate and was ready for passage.

But within a couple of days, nicey-nice gave way to oh-no-you’re-not: Clinton pulled out of the rally with a plaint that Palin’s participation cast a partisan pallor over the proceedings, setting off a chain reaction culminating in the decision Sept. 18 to move ahead without Palin and any of the other elected officials who had been invited to speak at the event.

The evening before that decision, Republicans had pulled the rug out from under the sanctions package that had been assured passage in the Senate.

In both cases, presidential campaign politics appeared to have provided the obstacles to good will.

The rally flap grabbed the headlines, but the bigger policy setback for Jewish groups came in the Senate.

For months, Democrats have been trying to push through two bills passed overwhelmingly last year in the U.S. House of Representatives. One would close loopholes that allow foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies to deal with Iran, shut down dealings with any company that conducted substantial business with Iran’s energy sector and cut off Iran’s banking system from any U.S.-controlled markets.

The other measure, authored by Obama, would enable pension plans to disinvest from Iran by protecting them from investor lawsuits and publishing a list of companies that deal with Iran.

Republicans had pushed back against the bills for various reasons.

The Bush White House, which jealously guards its foreign policy prerogatives, saw both bills as undercutting delicate negotiations with European nations, Russia and China to coordinate Iran’s isolation. U.S. business interests saw the sanctions as a gift to overseas companies. And according to pro-Israel insiders, Republicans did not want to hand Obama an election-year legislative victory, especially as they try to depict him as lacking experience.

Pro-Israel lobbyists, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, wore down the objections. By last week Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), a close ally of Obama, had wrapped both bills into an amendment to be attached to the Defense Authorization Bill, which must pass this congressional term. Dodd had virtual wall-to-wall backing for the legislation, as well as a Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).

Bush still threatened a veto.

“The bills would also serve, if enacted, to divide the multilateral coalition that has come together to oppose Iran’s nuclear programs by requiring the Administration to submit ‘blacklists’ of foreign companies investing in Iran’s energy sector,” said a Sept. 9 statement from the Office of Management and Budget, an arm of the executive branch.

Still, the legislation was guaranteed a veto-proof majority in the Senate and the House — a victory that would have handed Obama a significant boost just weeks before Election Day.

Then, on Sept. 17, Republicans added several more last-minute amendments to the package, which Democrats saw as a delaying tactic and rejected. In retaliation, Republicans blocked all amendments to the bill, including the one on Iran.

Dodd, undeterred, took the Iran sanctions legislation to the Senate floor in a last-minute plea to allow his Iran amendment, if not the 100 or so others to which both sides had agreed.

“This is the one opportunity for this body to embrace an economic sanctions proposal which would give us tremendous leverage in our efforts to bring Iran to negotiations to end its weapons program,” Dodd said. “To lose that opportunity would be a serious loss of opportunity for this country.”

Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who is retiring at year’s end and thus faces no political repercussions, rose to exercise his prerogative to block the amendment. He made sure to say he supported the amendment, leaving unanswered the question of why he killed it.

“I, personally, approved of putting in the amendment,” Warner said in a disavowal of his own action — unusual even under the Senate’s arcane traditions. “It had been my hope, I say it is now no longer my hope, my disappointment, that that could not be achieved.”

The Obama campaign cried foul.

“John McCain had a real opportunity today to stand up for Israel’s security, but he refused to stand up to his own party,” it said within hours of Warner’s block. “Instead of supporting Barack Obama’s legislation to pressure Iran by accelerating state and local divestment initiatives, John McCain ignored the very real threat to Israel and took a pass. We cannot afford four more years of this kind of failed judgment that has left Israel endangered and America less secure.”

When asked about the claim that the GOP was sinking the bill for political purposes, McCain’s campaign said it would not accept criticism on the sanctions front, noting that the GOP nominee long had advocated the strategy, if not the specific legislation in question.

“Senator Obama is again playing politics with the truth to cover up his weak and inconsistent record when it comes to Iran,” said campaign spokeswoman Crystal Benton. “While Senator McCain has been calling for divestment from Iran since early 2007, Senator Obama has pledged to meet unconditionally with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and opposed the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment that would have designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a foreign terrorist organization.”

Obama has backed away somewhat from his pledge in 2007 for an unconditional meeting with Ahmadinejad and supported separate legislation labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group. Obama also repeatedly has said he objected to the amendment by Sens. John Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) because it included language that linked Iran to attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq — language that some Democrats said could be misused by the Bush administration to justify military action against Iran.

Left unexplained was why McCain, who indeed has vociferously backed sanctions, did not support Dodd’s amendment.

Dodd blamed politics.

“Clearly the idea of giving Barack Obama credit for having authored a critical section of the amendment was on the minds of some,” he told JTA. “I guarantee that was part of it.”

At the same time that the sanctions deal was breaking down in the Senate, the high-profile plans for the New York rally also were unraveling.

Clinton pulled out Sept. 15, with her aides saying she was blindsided by Palin’s booking for the same event. Palin, the first woman on a Republican ticket, has been hankering after the women who had pledged allegiance to Clinton; the New York senator was not about to hand over that photo op.

Additionally, Clinton had been invited as a lawmaker and Palin as a candidate — an imbalance that Democrats said would tip the rally from a nonpartisan event to a partisan rally.

Democrats were furious with the Presidents Conference, accusing the Jewish group of being manipulated in a bid by Republicans to shine some foreign policy experience on Palin.

The political accusations flying back and forth all but buried the aim of the rally.

Palin spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said Palin “believes that the danger of a nuclear Iran is greater than party or politics.”

Democrats countered that it was the Republicans that seeded the partisanship by offering a candidate and not another lawmaker. Presidents Conference officials said they had tried to get Republican lawmakers to come to the rally but had been rebuffed.

Ann Lewis, a close adviser to Clinton who was a key figure in her Jewish outreach operation during the Democratic primaries, told JTA that “the way to keep it nonpartisan, in our mind, is you invite both candidates.”

On the morning of Sept. 17, following Clinton’s decision to back out and in the face of mounting criticism over the decision to tap Palin, the Presidents Conference did just that, extending an invitation to the Obama campaign. The Obama camp agreed to send U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), one of the Democratic nominee’s top Jewish backers.

By the next afternoon, the conference had withdrawn the invitation to Palin and all other elected officials.

One of the impetuses: 20,000 Jews signed a petition organized by J Street, the dovish pro-Israel lobby, urging the conference to ask Palin to pull out. The National Jewish Democratic Council issued a similar call after its own executive director, Ira Forman, criticized the top professional at the Presidents Conference, executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein.

Hoenlein and others involved in planning the rally insisted that they simply had been motivated by a desire to focus as much attention as possible on the rally against Ahmadinejad while also keeping the event bipartisan.

On Sept. 18, the Presidents Conference acknowledged a shift in planning was needed.

“In order to keep the focus on Iranian threats and to ensure that this critical message not be obscured, the organizers of the rally have decided not to have any American political personalities appear,” the group said in a statement.

The organization also announced that Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and Israeli Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik would address the demonstration.

Following the announcement, McCain’s campaign lashed out at Democrats.

“Governor Palin was pleased to accept an invitation to address this rally and show her resolve on this grave national security issue,” it said in a statement. “Regrettably that invitation has since been withdrawn under pressure from Democratic partisans.”

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