As talks aimed at curtailing Iran’s nuclear intentions were set to resume in Geneva, members of the Jewish community — locally and globally — were split over whether to relax economic sanctions that have brought the Iranians to the bargaining table.
Following the lead of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, many of the largest Jewish organizations — including the Anti-Defamation League and, locally, the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ — worry that the administration is on the verge of offering a “bad deal” to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
In a harsh rebuke to President Barack Obama, ADL national director Abraham Foxman said that the administration’s reported approach “will not only prematurely roll back the sanctions regime, but that it would legitimize Iran as a threshold nuclear state.”
In a Nov. 19 guest column in The Star-Ledger, federation CEO/executive vice president Max Kleinman was critical of the widely reported deal, under which the major Western powers would ease sanctions on Iran if Iran agrees to drop uranium enrichment to the low level of 3.5 percent and make more transparent a nuclear program whose intent it says is peaceful.
“Why consider relaxing some of these sanctions, worth billions, when Iran did not roll back any of its nuclear program?” Kleinman asks in the op-ed.
Kleinman sided with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who this week joined in a Senate letter to Secretary of State John Kerry stating that the Iran sanctions relief “should require Iran to roll back its nuclear program more significantly than now envisioned.”
“We must continue to exert maximum pressure on Iran, including the passage of additional sanctions by Congress, to be used as an additional tool if Iran does not give up its nuclear quest,” wrote Kleinman.
Jim Daniels, a native of Tehran who chairs the Stop Iran Task Force at the Greater MetroWest federation’s Community Relations Committee, agrees.
“I am not in agreement with softening the sanctions, no,” he told NJ Jewish News. “The only thing understood in that part of the world is sheer strength. Iran thinks they are fooling us — and they are. They are laughing at us. There is absolutely no difference between Iran’s previous leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and its current president, Hassan Rouhani.”
David Dranikoff, past chair of the CRC’s Israel and World Affairs Committee, noted the tension between Israel and the administration, which he pinned on the U.S. side.
“I think the administration has set up a pattern of appeasement that is not being accepted by the rest of us,” said Dranikoff. “Where all that leads I don’t know, but it is definitely building up to a crescendo between the administration and the Congress and the organized Jewish community. Most of us are aware that Iran is a major threat to the Middle East and the rest of the world.”
But, he added, “I don’t think it’s a serious breach with the Jewish community, but it’s one more thing added to a large list. At the core, I think Obama is pro-Israel. He has supplied Israel with cutting-edge technologies and a great deal of aid.
“But he doesn’t understand the life-and-death threats Israel faces and how imminent they are.”
Opinions were quite different at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield on Nov. 18, when J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami spoke mainly about the ongoing peace process.
J Street has echoed Obama administration fears that new sanctions will scuttle the talks, and that imposing further sanctions would strengthen the hand of Iranian hard-liners.
Following the meeting, Ben-Ami told NJJN that he agrees with critics who do not trust the Iranian government. They are “absolutely right to ask for the most intrusive possible inspections, and to ask for verification of what’s going on,” he said. “You cannot just trust; you’ve got to verify.”
However, he said, the only way to avoid war “is to have a negotiated agreement” by reducing the sanctions gradually.
Ner Tamid’s Rabbi Steven Kushner said he understood “the Israeli point of view or of those who are opposed to releasing the sanctions because they are really afraid of Iran. But I believe if you can have limited holdback on some of the sanctions” — to enable inspection of Iran’s nuclear facilities — “I believe it is a risk worth taking.”
Joseph Rosenberg, a Livingston resident, told NJJN he agrees with Ben-Ami’s approach.
“I think we should give it a shot,” he said. “We can turn the sanctions back. I think we have to take the risk.”
Elsewhere, Daniel Kurtzer — a former American ambassador to both Egypt and Israel who has served as an adviser to the Obama administration — also supported the administration’s approach.
“It makes no sense to tighten the sanctions,” he told NJJN in a phone conversation. “If you tighten the sanctions, you send a message to the Iranians that all you want to do is put pressure on them and you don’t want to deal. I don’t malign the motives of those who want to increase sanctions, but they don’t know how to negotiate.”
Kurtzer, the S. Daniel Abraham Professor of Middle East Policy Studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, added that he doesn’t know “if Rouhani can be trusted. But you need to make a decision. Are you prepared to test whether he can be trusted or do you want to act with the assumption that he can’t be trusted?
“That leaves you with one option, and the one option is war,” he said.