You couldn’t ask for a better time for face time with Iranian experts.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey is sponsoring a program, “A Nuclear Iran: What It Means For You,” on Sunday at the Bergen County Y in Washington Township, from 2 to 4 p.m.
It comes in the wake of a historic effort by Iranian leadership to achieve rapprochement with the west as years of increasingly tough sanctions take their toll.
It is an effort that has reached the White House, as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and President Barack Obama exchanged phone calls. Just how seriously to take the effort – the most determined effort to end Iranian-American hostilities since a 2003 Iranian proposal, rejected by the Bush administration, which would have put sanctions, nuclear weapons, and even Iranian support for Hamas on the negotiating table – is an open question.
On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered his perspective from the U.N. podium.
“When it comes to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, here’s my advice: distrust, dismantle, and verify,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu delivered a mixed message in addressing the principal disagreement between him and the Obama administration over Iranian uranium enrichment.
On the one hand, Netanyahu kept emphasizing that he wanted to see the “weapons” or “military” program ended, which may have hinted at a degree of flexibility on his part. Successive U.S. administrations have accepted the concept of an Iranian civilian nuclear program.
On the other hand, Netanyahu maintained his opposition to any Iranian uranium enrichment.
Western powers reportedly are ready to allow Iran to enrich to 3.5 percent, well short of its current 20 percent level and the 90 percent required for weaponization.
Israel is prepared to strike on its own if Iran is poised to obtain a nuclear weapon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the United Nations General Assembly.
“Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said in his speech. “If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone, but in standing alone Israel will know we are defending many, many others.”
Netanyahu’s pledge to act alone if necessary came a day after his meeting with President Obama. During the meeting, the prime minister sought assurances that the United States would maintain a credible military threat against Iran, even as it opens up diplomatic engagement with the Islamic Republic.
Netanyahu and Obama differ on the sincerity of Rouhani’s willingness to reach an agreement on ending the suspected military nuclear program in Iran.
The Israeli leader has called the newly elected Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” while Obama has welcomed his overtures. The American president spoke with Rouhani by phone last week – the highest U.S. contact with an Iranian leader since the 1979 revolution.
Rouhani has insisted his country’s nuclear program is peaceful, but has said he is willing to make it more transparent.
Obama on Monday said that U.S.-led sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and agreed with Netanyahu that “words are not sufficient.”
“We have to see if in fact they are serious about their willingness to abide by international norms, international laws,” Obama said. “We enter these negotiations with a clear eye. Anything we do will require the highest standards of verification.”
Obama repeated that all options, including military, remain on the table.
“I believe it’s the combination of a credible military threat and the pressure of the sanctions that has brought Iran to the negotiating table,” Netanyahu said Monday during a break in his White House meeting with Obama. “Both pressures must be kept in place. They should not be lessened until there is verifiable success.”
That Iran would be in the news come September and the United Nations General Assembly, which regularly drew Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to New York when he served as president, is not much of a surprise. But that there would be so much uncertainty – the JCRC got lucky when it drew up its plans over the summer.
“It struck us that one of the most important issues facing Israel and the world at large was a nuclear Iran, in terms of the threat it would pose not just to Israeli security, but American security and global security,” said Alain Sanders, chair of the JCRC’s Israel and World Affairs Committee, the group that planned the program.
“These sort of issues are discussed at a very global level. We thought it was important to bring them down to earth: What would it actually mean to ordinary Americans, in terms of their personal security and national security,” he said.
In addition, the program “will bring us up to date on the dizzying events that have taken place in the last few weeks about Iran and its nuclear program. As is often the case with authoritarian regimes, they speak a good game. But you have to look behind the rhetoric.”
Sanders teaches American politics at St. Peters University in Jersey City.
The panel discussion will feature three speakers: Emanuele Ottolenghi, a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington and the author of four books on Iran; David Ibsen, executive director of United Against Nuclear Iran; and Hindy Poupko, director of Israel and international affairs for the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
Ibsen said the Iranian “charm offensive” is “a somewhat sophisticated public relations effort by elements in the Iranian regime who are looking to achieve as much as they can from the international community without giving up anything significant.
“It’s certainly a significant tonal shift from what we saw with Ahmadinejad. It’s all about what the objective of the tonal shift is. It’s clear the underlying objective is not to see an overhaul of the regime’s conduct and behavior; it’s to change the behavior of the international community which rightfully sees the Iranian regime as a threat.
“We’re looking for something much more serious than a change in rhetoric; we’re looking for verifiable substantive change as relates to their nuclear program. I don’t think we’ve seen that. We’re still clearly very far apart on the substance of the nuclear program.
“The Iranians insist on maintaining a large indigenous enrichment facility. That has always been a non-starter. Until you see significant movement from the Iranians in terms of the caps they’ll put on the enrichment program, there really hasn’t been any change at all.
“The Iranians can do a number of things right now to build trust with the international community and the U.S. They could stop enrichment immediately. They could open facilities to inspection. They could address unanswered concerns about the military dimensions of their program. They can do that right now; they don’t need six months to come to those results. Until we see that, it’s more of the same,” he said.
“The goal for the Iranians is to achieve sanctions relief. That was the reason for election of Rouhani in the first place,” Ibsen said.
However, Iran faces the prospect of still worse sanctions. The House of Representatives has passed a bill increasing sanctions on Iran. The leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee recently wrote an op ed saying that they’ll give Rouhani 100 days to prove his seriousness, Ibsen said, before “putting the final turn of the screw on the sanctions regime.”
Ibsen has been with United Against Nuclear Iran since it was founded in 2008. Before that he had worked at the State Department as a U.N. delegate and analyst.
The group was formed to mobilize public opposition to the Iranian regime’s conduct and mobilize public support for increasing its political and economic isolation.
Poupko will speak about the New York JCRC’s experience in generating grass roots activism on Iran, in particular the formation of Iran 180, a coalition of diverse organizations willing to take a stand on the Iran issue, with the motto “human rights not nuclear rights.”
“It is important to remind the public about the true nature of the Iranian regime,” she said. “Iran 180 is consistently focused on finding ways for everyday New Yorkers to voice their opposition to the regime.”
“We would love to see a diplomatic solution to the conflict, but until there’ s real tangible change it’s important to keep up the pressure. It would be naÃ¯ve to say anything has changed until the centrifuges stop spinning,” she said.
The coalition boasts a number of legislative victories in Albany in setting up state sanctions against Iran. (The northern New Jersey JCRC has been instrumental in passing similar measures in Trenton.)
JTA Wire Service contributed to this story