Local Jewish leaders remain deeply skeptical of the diplomatic overtures made by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and they hope the Obama administration puts them to the test.
After President Obama spoke with Rouhani by phone last week — the highest U.S. contact with an Iranian leader since the 1979 revolution — many local observers reiterated Israel’s insistence that the United States maintain severe sanctions and the threat of military action on Iran until the Islamic Republic proves that it has ended its suspected nuclear weapons program.
“I don’t think it is anything new,” said Tehran-born activist Jim Daniels, of Rouhani’s softer tone and suggestions that Iran is willing to make its nuclear program more transparent.
Daniels, a Short Hills resident, chairs the Stop Iran Task Force at the Community Relations Committee of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
He insists Rouhani’s background defies notions that he is a moderate.
“His career is entwined with the mullahs. He takes his cues from Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme ruler,” said Daniels. “He has been involved with the Revolutionary Guard. He has a bloody hand. His true intention has not changed. It still reflects the Iranian goal of achieving nuclear weapons.
“This is not anything new.”
John Rosen, executive director of the American Jewish Committee’s Metro NJ Region, was only slightly less skeptical.
“While AJC welcomes the recent diplomatic efforts presented by Iranian leaders, we believe that these words must be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable,” Rosen wrote in an e-mail. “Until we can test the commitment of Iran to follow through on its promises of diplomacy, the American-Jewish strategy should be to maintain the robust sanctions in full.”
Gordon Haas, chair of the Greater MetroWest CRC, said his organization is going to continue advocating for strong sanctions toward Iran.
“Negotiations and diplomatic actions are on the table, but we want to ensure that while we engage in these actions that our economic sanctions and all necessary steps are not off the table,” he said.
The CRC will address the issue when it and AJC cosponsor the third Step Up for Israel Advocacy Summit on Oct. 20 (see sidebar).
Among the scheduled speakers at the event is Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, DC. Dubowitz distrusts the overtures Iran made last week during the United Nations General Assembly session.
“We need to test Iranian intentions but understand that we are facing a master of nuclear deceit whose soft-sell strategy is designed to get sanctions lifted, the Iranian economy stabilized, and to provide Iran with a nuclear breakout capacity that will leave the mullahs a turn of the screw away from multiple atomic weapons,” Dubowitz wrote in an e-mail to NJJN.
“The key is to continue the sanctions pressure that is the only thing to date that has gotten the Supreme Leader’s attention.”
The CRC is calling on members of the Jewish community to sign a petition urging U.S. senators to “expeditiously pass legislation to strengthen the sanctions against Iran.”
The petition, sponsored by the Jewish Committee for Public Affairs, can be found at engage.jewishpublicaffairs.org (search: Iran petition).
For some in the community, the Iran issue is a test of American intentions in the Middle East — and one, said Livingston investor Martin J. Gross, the Obama administration is failing.
“We are in a very dangerous situation right now because our allies no longer trust us and our enemies no longer fear us,” he said. “This must be changed in order to have a successful negotiation with the Iranians.”
At the annual Washington conference of J Street, which drew nearly 3,000 participants, participants were less skeptical.
“To my mind this is wind in the sails,” said J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami, referring to the phone call between Obama and Rouhani. “The right solution to most of the problems that affect America in the Middle East is through diplomacy.”
Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, cautioned at the J Street conference that this week’s developments may be only the start of a long process of negotiation.
“If Iran says it is ready to negotiate on its nuclear program, that may be proof that the strategy of sanctions coupled with diplomacy is succeeding. The whole point was to use a series of carrots and stick[s] to try and get the Iranians to come around,” he said. “This is what victory looks like.”
JTA contributed to this report from Washington.
SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D-NJ), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged an “open hand” in dealing with Iran, but expressed doubts whether a “charm offensive” by the country’s president represented a change of course.
“We remain skeptical about Tehran’s intentions. Iranian leaders are skilled negotiators with expertise in delay tactics and obfuscation,” according to a Washington Post op-ed column Menendez coauthored with Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC). “Yet to ignore the overtures coming from Iran during this period of furious public diplomacy would have been imprudent, especially when a peaceful resolution preventing Iran from achieving nuclear capability is the outcome we all aspire to achieve.”
Menendez and other members of the Foreign Relations Committee met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his Washington visit on Sept. 30.
“Our resolve to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability remains unchanged, and we will not hesitate from proceeding with further sanctions and other options to protect U.S. interests and ensure regional security,” Menendez said in a statement following the meeting. “While we welcome Iran’s diplomatic engagement, it cannot be used to buy time, avoid sanctions, and continue the march toward nuclear weapons capability. Compliance with the UN Security Council resolutions will be the ultimate test of Iran’s intentions.” — ROBERT WIENER
THE STEP UP For Israel Advocacy Summit will take place Sunday, Oct. 20, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany.
Andrew Tabler, an expert on Syria and the Middle East with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, will present the keynote address, “Chaos in the Middle East — A Threat or Opportunity for Israel?”
The free event — sponsored by the Community Relations Committee of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, NJ American Jewish Committee, and the Washington Institute, in partnership with local synagogues and organizations — will feature experts from leading advocacy and policy organizations. Optional interactive advocacy workshops will take place 1:30-2:30.
Panel discussions will cover:
• The Race to an Iranian Nuke: Is Iranian Nuclear Physics Beating Western Pressure?
Gary Samore, president of United Against Nuclear Iran, former Obama White House coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction; and Mark Dubowitz, executive director, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
• Branding Israel: Accentuate the Positives
Gerald Ostrov, CEO, Strategic Communications Center; Itzik Yarkoni, founder and executive director, BOMAH: The Brand of Milk & Honey: Connecting People to Israel; and Jeremy Geller, social media expert, Consulate General of Israel in New York
• Step Up For Israel: What You Can Do in Greater MetroWest
Sarit Catz, CRC Israel advocacy chair and director, International Letter Writing Group, CAMERA; Rabbi Elliot Mathias, CRC Israel and world affairs chair, executive director, Hasbara Fellowships; and John Rosen, AJC NJ director
Historian Gil Troy, a professor at McGill University and Israel Action Network board member, will close the summit with “Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State.”
— ROBERT WIENER