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Why bother with Iran sanctions again?

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The United Nations Security Council, shown in session on Feb. 18, has passed sanctions measures three times against Iran but has failed to curb the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions. U.N. Photo/Eskinder Debebe

For years, sanctions have been the world’s answer to Iran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Three times already — in 2006, 2007, and 2008 — the U.N. Security Council passed sanctions measures aimed at obstructing Iran’s nuclear capabilities and prodding the government in Tehran into cooperating.

News Analysis

The result: Iran moved ahead with building clandestine nuclear facilities, installing centrifuges and enriching unranium while refusing full access to international weapons inspectors and turning down deals with the West. Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a report saying it had evidence of “past or current undisclosed activities” by Iran to build a nuclear warhead.

Tehran repeatedly has made clear that its policy toward the West — on the nuclear issue and other matters, including last year’s disputed election — is defiance and obduracy, not cooperation or capitulation.

Now, in the face of mounting evidence that Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear bomb continues unabated, pro-Israel groups and U.S. and European governments again are pushing for new sanctions.

Given that sanctions haven’t worked in the past, is there any hope that things will be different this time?

“We won’t know the answer until we actually try,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the main U.S. Jewish umbrella group on Mideast-related issues.

“Sanctions can have an impact if they’re the right kind of sanctions, if they’re not going to be put off,” Hoenlein said. “The question is implementation. It’s not moving fast enough. The Iranians only understand one language: They have to understand this is showdown time.”

For now the approach among Jewish organizational leaders who have led the campaign to halt Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is to continue to promote sanctions — both by the United Nations and by individual countries, including the United States. The thinking is that sanctions under consideration are considerably tougher than earlier rounds and must be tried before any other options can be explored.

“If we’re willing to put meaningful, painful sanctions in place, it can work,” said Josh Block, spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has been the main lobbying group pushing Congress for sanctions on Iran.

“Do we have the ability to create significant economic pain for the Iranian government? Yes. Are they willing to change their behavior based on that impact? We don’t know,” Block acknowledged.

The new U.N. sanctions would target Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and more severely restrict Iran’s banking industry. For enactment, nine of the U.N. Security Council’s members must vote for them, and none of the five permanent, veto-wielding members — China, Russia, the United States, Britain, and France — can block them.

Russia, an early holdout, is sending signals it favors new sanctions, but China has yet to agree. Four more yes votes would be necessary from the 10 rotating members: Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina , Brazil, Gabon, Japan, Lebanon, Mexico, Nigeria, Turkey, and Uganda. The four votes are not yet in place, insiders say, and the date for a vote on sanctions continues to be pushed back.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress is set to pass broad unilateral sanctions that would target Iran’s energy sector.

As the day of reckoning with a nuclear Iran fast approaches, advocates in the Jewish community are being forced to confront the question of where to go beyond sanctions.

There are no sure answers. Sanctions have not worked so far, and the U.S. administration doesn’t appear close to considering the military option.

Even if Israel were to circumvent the United States and strike Iran, it would be hard to wipe out the country’s nuclear facilities, which are thought to include sites that are hidden, underground, scattered, and heavily fortified.

Some Jewish groups have begun talking about how to live with a nuclear Iran.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, the founder and president of The Israel Project, said that even if sanctions couldn’t stop Iran from going nuclear, they still could help deter a nuclear Iran from using its weapons.

“The idea that the game is over if Iran has a nuclear device is mistaken,” Mizrahi told JTA. “As long as Iran hasn’t used a nuclear device to shoot anybody or give it to terrorists, we still have to give it a full-court press.”

It’s possible, she noted, that Iran already has obtained a nuclear device from North Korea or other clandestine methods.

“Even if they were to have a nuclear device and a rocket today, it would still be useful to have sanctions,” Mizrahi said. “They can still be dissuaded from using their weapons and giving them up.”

With the time remaining for effective sanctions to have an impact on the Iranian regime dwindling, is it time to go to Plan B?

“There are plan Bs,” Hoenlein said. “We have not advocated military action. We don’t believe that’s our role. We believe all options should be on the table, including that. If they don’t believe all options are on the table, they will never move.”

Plan B, he said, could entail anything from a naval blockade to military strikes. The United States does not yet appear to be at that point, but of course Israel at any point could move to its own Plan B.

Even as they concede that serious questions remain about the efficacy of new sanctions and other options, U.S. Jewish organizational leaders are canvassing the country and holding meetings around the world to warn about the dangers of a nuclear Iran — and not just so they can feel that they’re doing something or to give their audiences a reason to lay awake at night.

“I’m not trying to suggest this as a panacea,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a policy umbrella group. “We still have to get the sanctions thing passed.”

Talking about the dangers of a nuclear Iran can energize people to lobby their elected representatives, press the issue at consulates and embassies, and talk to associates with business interests overseas about the imperative to isolate Iran, he said.

The point, several Jewish officials said, is not to give up.

“Because of our history, because of our teachings, I think we’ve been taught that one cannot just sit by and watch evil win,” Gutow said, citing Theodor Herzl’s famous line “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Mizrahi also cited Herzl.

“I’m not optimistic about any of these things, but as Golda Meir put it, Jews don’t have the option of being pessimists,” Mizrahi said. “If every time the world said it’s impossible for Israel to accomplish something, if they’d listened, Israel wouldn’t have gone back to reclaim the land, drain the swamps, and build the country. I believe very strongly in what Herzl said.”

JTA

 
 

Former Sharon adviser Gissin tells what it takes to make Mideast peace — and it will surprise you

Iran’s influence in the Middle East must be curbed before Israel and the Palestinians can make peace, according to Raanan Gissin, former senior adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Whether the Israelis and Palestinians like it or not, he said, the Iranian regime holds the key to Middle East peace.

Gissin spoke twice at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly last week about the Iranian threat, first to the general public on May 6 and again in a special Hebrew-only session with the local Israeli community on May 8. Gissin, who has a more than 30-year career in Israeli government and strategic affairs, shared his insights with The Jewish Standard at a private Teaneck home late last week.

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Iran is the key to the Middle East, says Raanan Gissin. Jerry Szubin

When Sharon would visit with President George W. Bush before the Iraq invasion, Gissin related, he would always say that Iraq is the immediate threat in the Middle East, but Iran is the long-term threat.

“Today the Iranian threat is like global warming,” Gissin said. “Everybody talks about it. Everybody is concerned about. It affects everyone, but nobody knows what to do about it. With global warming you still have some time. With the Iranian threat, time is running out.”

The Obama administration has renewed its focus on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, while Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is pushing his own plan to unilaterally declare a state in 2012. Neither of these paths, however, will succeed in bringing about full peace, Gissin said, because terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah take their marching orders from Tehran, which is comfortably brushing off the West’s demands to curb its nuclear program and has an interest in keeping global attention focused on Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

“Without Iran being weakened or contained, there’s no prospect for these developments to take place,” he said. “If Iran wants to change its policy, Hamas and Hezbollah will also have to change. It all comes back to Iran right now.”

The nuclear issue

The Iranian threat is not just its burgeoning nuclear program or the concern that a nuclear Iran might hand off an atomic bomb to one of its terrorist proxies. According to Gissin, the Iranian regime has designs on redrawing the map of the Middle East, and then the West, into a Muslim empire with Tehran at the helm. Israel would be first on its chopping block, but Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan stand to lose a great deal as well.

“Iran is trying to relentlessly push for its ultimate goal and achieve hegemony of its brand of Islam over the rest of the world,” Gissin said.

The Sunni Islamic world is frightened that Shi’ite Islam, led by Iran, is gaining a stronger foothold, according to Gissin. The response, he said, has so far been appeasement. Turkey, for example, has been hedging its bets and moving closer to Iran’s extremist corner.

Israel, however, is “the one joker in the card deck.”

“They’re afraid of [Israel],” Gissin said. “They fear it because Israel has in its hands the capability to really spoil their plan.”

But Gissin doesn’t recommend military action against Iran. That, he said, would lead to a regional war with Iranian proxies Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as traditional armies such as Syria’s.

U.S.-led negotiations with Iran are not the answer to the nuclear problem either, according to Gissin. Iran’s negotiations with the West are meant only to buy the regime more time, according to Gissin, and the regime is very patient.

“If they are set out to achieve Islamic domination, then there is no way to negotiate,” he said. “They can negotiate the terms of your surrender. You can’t have any kind of meaningful negotiation.”

What America needs to do, he said, is change the behavior of the regime by threatening what it values most: its power. By instilling a sense of fear within the government hierarchy that it could be overthrown, the government will be forced to focus on its own survival instead of regional domination. For example, if the regime is forced to spend its resources on its own security because of increased threats from Iranian dissidents, then there are fewer resources for its nuclear program or global terrorist organizations.

“The only way you can prevent Iran from taking action is if they’re concentrated on their own lives inside Iran,” he said.

The West, therefore, needs to work from within Iran to cultivate fear in its leaders that their power could be taken away, Gissin said. That means supporting the growing protests in the streets and increasing pressure on the government. At present, the Iranian government doesn’t have a sense that it is being pursued and therefore can comfortably delay negotiations with the West while stoking the fires in regional conflicts.

Gissin projected that the West has a deadline of maybe two years before Iran completes its nuclear work. He proposed that Western powers spend that time in a concerted effort to operate inside Iran to create an atmosphere of fear within the government,

“Iran is creating fear among Arab countries,” he said. “I don’t think there is any Arab leader today who doesn’t think about what will be Iran’s next move. They don’t sleep well at night in their beds. You have to create a situation where [the Iranian leadership] can’t sleep peacefully in their beds.”

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process

Analysts who believe solving the Israel-Palestinian problem is the first step to peace in the Middle East and then taming the Iranian threat are mistaken, he said. It’s the other way around.

“If the United States will take action to contain Iran, then there will be peace,” he said.

Only after the Iranian issue is resolved — or the regime is at least preoccupied with its own survival — can the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians move forward, Gissin said.

Israelis and Palestinians this month revived stalled peace negotiations with proximity talks featuring shuttle diplomacy from U.S. Middle East Envoy George Mitchell. Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said in The Jerusalem Post last week that peace talks are doomed to fail because no Palestinian leader can accept less than what the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat was offered in 2000, and no Jewish Israeli leader can offer more. Gissin agreed, and shared Shalom’s pessimism about the success of the talks, but said that the appearance of movement is still better than allowing the entire process to fall apart.

Gissin was witness to Israel’s last major concession for peace: the disengagement from Gaza and parts of the west bank, orchestrated by the Sharon government. The plan, which resulted in the removal of thousands of Jewish settlers and eventually paved the way for Hamas’ takeover of the strip, achieved partial success, Gissin said. Israel gained certain security guarantees from the United States as a result of the move, as well as relative freedom from international pressure to carry out its wars against Iranian proxies Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in 2008-09.

“It didn’t succeed in being a corridor to peace,” he said. “The reason is not because of good will in Israel or [from] the Palestinians. It has to do with Hamas and Iran. These two definitely don’t want to see a peace process under way.”

Turning his attention to regional peace in the Middle East, Gissin said that the Arabs are not ready for peace with Israel, nor has Israel succeeded in arguing its case to them.

Israelis do not want peace as much as they want peace of mind, Gissin said. Peace of mind, he continued, means acknowledging that Israel has problems, but continuing to run the country, send kids to school, and have a thriving economy.

“It’s carving some security out of chaos,” he said. “That’s what most Israelis want. If you have strong leadership, you can do it.”

Israel-Arab relations

The Arab world is not ready for peace with Israel, according to Gissin, and part of that is Israel’s fault. The country has failed to explain its position to its neighbors, he explained. The Jewish state has focused too much on its security needs and not its right to be there in the first place. Aside from Egypt, he said, Israel is the only country in the region with historical boundaries.

“It’s the power of our rights and not our right to use power,” he said. “Everybody knows that we’re powerful. In order to have normal relations between Israel and the Arab world, they must realize we also have the right to self-determination.”

The media battle is Israel’s new war, Gissin said, and to win it, Israel needs to turn to its strongest advocates, especially non-government organizations. The college campus, he said, is one area where Israel is losing the battle. Israel advocates are intimidated, he said, because the level of animosity toward the Jewish state is so high, and Israel should be sending its best representatives to the campuses.

Gissin recalled that Abba Eban once said there are three elements to being a good spokesperson for Israel: speaking with conviction about your rights, speaking with compassion toward your enemies, and speaking with passion to your people.

“We excelled at fighting terrorism,” Gissin said. “We excelled at fighting suicide bombers. There’s no reason we can’t excel at changing the war on the media battlefield and win,” he said.

 
 
 
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