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Differences emerge on sanctions

WASHINGTON – As long as the Iran conversation was broad and dealt only with “sanctions,” the Congress, the White House, and the pro-Israel community seemed to be on the same page.

But now that Iran has rejected just about every bouquet sent its way and the talk has turned to the details, longstanding differences over how best to go forward are taking center stage.

News Analysis

With the backing of many Jewish groups, Congress appears to be pressing ahead with a package that targets Iran’s energy sector.

While the White House appears to support new congressional sanctions, it appears to favor more narrow measures targeting the Iranian leadership and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, considered especially vulnerable because of the recent anti-government turmoil.

In part the debate is over which approach would do more to help opposition forces in Iran. But also playing a role is the Obama administration’s continuing emphasis on securing international backing for tougher measures against Tehran, the idea being that sweeping U.S. sanctions aimed at the Iranian energy sector could turn off several key nations.

Additionally, the Obama administration has not counted out the prospect of engagement with Iran, although the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad government has put to rest any notion that it will entertain the West’s offer to enrich Iran’s uranium to medical research levels in exchange for transparency about the Islamic Republic’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

“Our goal is to pressure the Iranian government, particularly the Revolutionary Guard elements, without contributing to the suffering” of Iranians, “who deserve better than what they currently are receiving,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a news conference Monday.

Opponents of the congressional sanctions, which target just about any investment anywhere in the world in Iran’s energy sector, say they would be inhumane and rally support for the regime.

“Having opposed the adoption of crippling sanctions all along, Americans for Peace Now is glad to see further affirmation from the White House that it does not seek such crippling sanctions,” said Ori Nir, a spokesman for APN, the only major Jewish group opposing the congressional package.

In defense of the proposed legislation, one insider from a centrist pro-Israel group recounted a much-repeated scenario: The cab driver who runs out of gas in the middle of a traffic clogged street, gets out of the car, and raises his fist and curses — not the West as he might have just a year or so ago, but Ahmadinejad and the rest of Iran’s leadership.

“In tyrannies, the fiction that keeps people under control is the trust they have in government to take care of them and the fear they have of confronting the government,” the insider said. “In Iran, the trust is gone and the fear is still there, but going.”

Concerns that the congressional package will lead to human misery are overstated, its backers say. The bills include provisions for presidential waivers and are meant first as leverage.

Similar sanctions packages passed by Congress in the 1990s also were never implemented by Presidents Clinton and Bush, yet they had an almost immediate effect because of the threat of being implemented. Major Western traders pulled out of Iran, which is partly why the country’s refinement capabilities are in disarray. Iran, a major oil exporter, still must import up to 40 percent of its refined petroleum.

The principals in shaping the previous sanctions — in Congress, the Clinton administration, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — now openly admit that they were playing a coordinated “good cop-bad cop” game: Republicans who backed the sanctions would quietly shape their criticisms of the Clinton administration in consultation with administration officials; Clinton officials then would cite that “pressure” in getting European nations to join in efforts to isolate Iran.

It’s not clear now whether a similar dynamic is at work between the White House and Congress. Some insiders say it is; others say the Obama administration is genuinely wary of punishing sanctions and is unhappy with the pressure from Congress and the pro-Israel community.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed its sanctions package in late December, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has pledged to attend to the Senate version as soon as the chamber reconvenes Jan. 19.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said he is willing to consider the White House’s objections, particularly to a proposed blacklist of companies that deal with Iran and to sanctions that target third-party entities — companies and nations that deal with Iran.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is moving ahead with the following actions:

• Pressing other major powers to back a proposed U.N. Security Council resolution that would expand existing sanctions on travel and business dealings to 3,000 individuals associated with the Revolutionary Guards;

• Intensifying enforcement of existing U.S. sanctions on doing business with Iran;

• Intensifying efforts to uncover and fine companies that cover up their financial dealings with Iran.

JTA

 
 

Westboro case poses dilemma for Jewish groups

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Members of the Westboro Baptist Church protested against The Jewish Standard, standing at a nearby corner, a year ago this month. Josh Lipowsky

WASHINGTON – Jewish defense organizations long — and proudly — have upheld a delicate principle in defending the First Amendment: Hate the speech, defend the speaker.

But a Supreme Court case whose arguments were scheduled for Wednesday have put that precept to the test: A Maryland family is suing the Westboro Baptist Church for picketing the funeral of its son, Matthew Snyder, a soldier killed in a noncombat accident in Iraq.

Jewish organizations that routinely have defended free speech that others might find abusive are sitting this one out. The American Jewish Committee has not filed a brief; the Anti-Defamation League filed a brief arguing that the case has no merit.

The case pits the Snyder family’s right to privacy and protection from defamation against the rights of Westboro church, which is well known for its message that America’s woes derive from its tolerance for homosexuality. The tiny Kansas-based church also has a long record of anti-Semitic activity and regularly pickets Jewish institutions throughout the United States. [Editor’s note: The Jewish Standard was among Westboro’s targets last year.]

“Free speech encompasses hate speech,” said Marc Stern, the associate legal counsel at the American Jewish Committee, “but this church is off the wall. They’re not just saying things, they’re shoving it down people’s throats.”

The Snyders sued Westboro after church founder Fred Phelps picketed the Catholic church where Snyder’s funeral was held, protesting against U.S. soldiers for not rising up and overthrowing the “sinful” U.S. government.

Ultimately the family won $5 million, but an appeals court threw out the award. The Snyders brought the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On the side of the Snyders is a coalition of state attorneys general who argue for the family’s right to privacy. Civil rights groups, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, are defending the Westboro church’s right to political and religious expression.

In its brief, the ADL argues that the court should not have taken the case because there was no actual conflict. Police had separated the protesters from the service to the extent that the Snyders were not aware of the event until afterward, when Matthew’s father read about it online.

“ADL unequivocally condemns the anti-Semitic and homophobic rhetoric of the Westboro Baptist Church and its funeral protests,” said a statement by Deborah Lauter, ADL’s civil rights director. “However, the Supreme Court need not and should not address the constitutionality of their conduct in the absence of a real conflict.”

The key danger, said Steven Freeman, the ADL’s director of legal affairs, is that by addressing a theoretical confrontation instead of an actual one, the court risks ruling in an advisory capacity, expanding the judicial branch’s powers.

“That would set them down a path of issuing advisory opinions, giving advice as opposed to resolving people’s disputes,” he said. “It’s a bad path.”

Westboro increased its anti-Jewish profile about a year ago, picketing outside federations and synagogues, drawing publicity in the process. The anti-Semitic rhetoric in its published materials dates back at least to the 1990s, when the church compared its own tribulations to the persecution of Jews in the Holocaust.

In 2004, writing about Gen. Wesley Clark’s decision to drop out of the Democratic primaries and endorse John Kerry, a Westboro church statement said, “His Christ-rejecting, God-hating Jew blood bubbled to the surface. Yes, like his boss Kerry, Clark is a Jew.”

Clark and Kerry had fathers whose Jewishness was revealed to them only in adulthood.

Freeman said it was clear for a long time that the ADL would be presented eventually with a dilemma about whether to defend virulent anti-Semites and homophobes. In recent years, the ADL has condemned the explosion of hate speech on the Internet but maintained that it is constitutionally protected.

“This isn’t the right case to address this thorny issue,” Freeman said. “We’ve been reporting on Westboro for a long time — by the same token we have a long tradition of defending First Amendment rights.”

Stern, who left the American Jewish Congress and joined the AJCommittee after the decision was made not to file a brief in the case, said the Supreme Court ruling could have broader — and worrisome — repercussions should the court uphold the ruling for the Snyders, who sued the church both for violation of privacy and defamation.

Should the court rule solely on the issue of privacy, the free speech ramifications would be minimal. However, should it emulate foreign courts that have banned certain forms of hate speech, it would amount to a major change in interpretation of the First Amendment.

Stern noted the appeal of such a ruling to otherwise incompatible bedfellows: conservatives who are repulsed by the Westboro church’s targeting of the bereaved, and leftists who in recent years have held that hate language is an instrument of oppression, citing laws in countries such as France, Germany and Israel.

“There are strong free speech arguments for the church,” Stern said. “If the court rules that certain kinds of speech are not protected at all or of such little utility as to deserve protection, that would be a really radical change in American law.”

JTA

 
 
 
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