Iran Sanctions, the Left Wing split and fears about nuclear containment

 I just finished writing another Iran story, and space issues forced me to leave out one interesting element: the emerging split between Jewish pro-peace process groups over Iran sanctions.

This week J Street, the lobby and political action committee that remains the target of choice of Jewish conservatives, announced it is now supporting the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, which  will impose sanctions on companies that help Iran obtain refined petroleum products.

Several months ago, the group was arguing that the time wasn’t right for sanctions; now, mirroring an emerging shift in Obama administration policy, J Street director Jeremy Ben-Ami says it is.

"J Street has consistently supported President Obama in his efforts to engage Iran diplomatically and to resolve issues relating to its nuclear program through negotiations,"  he said in a statement. "However, in the face of Iran’s continued defiance of the international community and its rejection of the most recent diplomatic offer on nuclear enrichment, we believe the time has come to pass the Iran sanctions legislation currently pending in the House of Representatives.”

Critics further to the left quickly filled the blogosphere with charges that J Street switched positions to curry favor with a pro-Israel establishment that has, for the most  part, shunned it, but others say the change reflects a growing consensus that diplomatic outreach has failed and that the time has come for sterner action.

Americans for Peace Now staked out a different position. The group  said it can’t support the current sanctions measure without sweeping revisions “to focus the legislation on smart, targeted sanctions rather than on ‘crippling’ sanctions that inflict widespread suffering on the Iranian people.”

The measure is “akin to using a chainsaw when a scalpel is in order,” said APN President and CEO Debra DeLee. “The threat posed by Iran cannot be bludgeoned away. It calls for a careful and delicate approach.”

Well, right. But “careful and delicate” isn’t what Congress does best, especially in matters involving pro—Israel political interests.

But the the split on the left isn’t what really interests me right now.

 As I wrote this week, the sanctions fight has a peculiar quality to it. 

Publicly , most major major Jewish and pro-Israel groups have made passage of tougher U.S. sanctions a priority, even if other countries aren’t on board. Privately, many of their leaders acknowledge that making sanctions work is a tall order even IF countries like China and Russia get on board. Tehran’s leaders have become adept at sidestepping sanctions; after all, they’ve had years of experience. And they something others desperately want – oil.

But these same Jewish leaders say, basically, that there aren’t many other choices, so sanctions are worth a try. And you can’t sit back and do NOTHING as Iran generates the material and technology to make A-bombs.

More and more, I think the real engine driving the sanctions train is the fear that Washington, bereft of good options in Iran, will ultimately opt for a policy of containment, much like U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

And it’s here that U.S. and Israeli interests may diverge in a way we haven’t seen in a long time.

 For Washington, a nuclear Iran is bad,  but it’s not an immediate existential threat.  And we survived almost 40 years under the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction in the Cold War.

No American leader will opt for a policy of containment, but we have the luxury of tolerating it if all else fails, and we’re faced with an Iranian nuclear fait accompli.  As negotiations fail and if and when sanctions fail, at least we have that to fall back on.

But containment is a profoundly unsettling concept to Israel.

Sure, Israel’s alleged nuclear stockpile will serve as a deterrent; no doubt Israeli strategic planners are working on second-strike scenarios.

But tiny, vulnerable Israel isn’t big enough to absorb even one nuclear hit.  There’s no margin for error for the Jewish state when it comes to a nuclear Iran.

That’s the big fear gripping Jewish leaders here: that the depressing logic of containment will eventually lead America to concede the inevitability of Iran’s nuclear arsenal and focus instead on developing strategies for dealing with it.

I can understand how there are situations in which that will look like the best available strategy to policymakers here in Washington.  I can also understand why Israeli leaders are unlikely to accept that, and why their supporters here are desperately hoping there are alternative U.S. policies that may actually work.

With military action essentially off the table because U.S. forces are already overextended with two wars and our treasury is essentially depleted, sanctions sure look good, even with the obvious shortcomings of the strategy.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.