Iran War Drums Begin Beating in Washington

Published on
by
Inter Press Service

Iran War Drums Begin Beating in Washington

by
Daniel Luban and Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - As nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West
continue to move slowly, U.S. President Barack Obama is coming under
growing pressure from what appears to be a concerted lobbying and media
campaign urging him to act more aggressively to stop Iran's nuclear
program.

Obama has given Tehran
an end-of-September deadline to respond substantively to his offer of
diplomatic engagement. But already hawks in the U.S. – backed by
hardline pro-Israel organizations – have pressed him to quickly impose
"crippling" economic sanctions against Tehran, and some are arguing
that he should make preparations for a military attack on Iranian
nuclear facilities.

The
pressure campaign kicked off in earnest this week. On Thursday,
hundreds of leaders and activists from the U.S. Jewish community
descended on Washington to lobby for harsher sanctions, while
widely-publicised media reports suggested that Iran is already nearing
the verge of a nuclear capability.

Leaders from Jewish groups came for a national "Advocacy Day on Iran", during which they met with key Congressional figures.

Rep.
Howard Berman, a California Democrat who heads the House Foreign
Affairs Committee, suggested that the clock "has almost run out" on
Iran's nuclear program, and indicated that he would move ahead next
month with a bill imposing sanctions on Iran's refined petroleum
imports "absent some compelling evidence why I should do otherwise".

The
bill, the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA), has for months
been the top lobbying priority of hawkish pro-Israel lobbying groups
led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). To their
frustration, Berman has held up consideration of the bill for most of
the past year

Not all U.S. Jewish groups are lining up behind the legislation, however.

Americans
for Peace Now (APN), for instance, issued a statement arguing that
"arbitrary deadlines are a mistake" and that "pursuing sanctions that
target the Iranian people, rather than their leaders, is a morally and
strategically perilous path that the Obama Administration must reject".

M.J.
Rosenberg, a foreign policy analyst at Media Matters Action Network,
suggested on the website TPMCafe that the advocacy day "marks the start
of the fall push on Iran".

The advocacy group United Against
Nuclear Iran (UANI) has launched an intensive television advertising
campaign this month claiming that the U.S. "must isolate Iran
economically to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon".

UANI's
two co-founders are now both high-ranking officials in the Obama
administration – Dennis Ross, currently overseeing Iran policy at the
National Security Council (NSC), and Richard Holbrooke, now the State
Department special representative in charge of Afghanistan and
Pakistan.

Also on Thursday, the New York Times published a
front-page story claiming that U.S. intelligence agencies believe "that
Iran has created enough nuclear fuel to make a rapid, if risky, sprint
for a nuclear weapon", although the article did not provide an estimate
of when Iran could have a nuclear capability.

The same day, the
Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by former Senators Charles Robb
and Daniel Coats and retired four-star Air Force General Chuck Wald.
Claiming that Iran "will be able to manufacture enough highly enriched
uranium for a nuclear weapon in 2010", the authors urged Obama "to
begin preparations for the use of military options" against Iran.

However,
official U.S. intelligence estimates provide a far slower timeline. In
February, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dennis Blair told
Congress that Iran would be unable to produce highly enriched uranium
(HEU) until at least 2013, and stated that there is "no evidence" that
Iran had even made a decision to produce HEU.

Iran insists that
its nuclear program is intended solely for civilian purposes. In
2007, the U.S. intelligence community released a National Intelligence
Estimate suggesting that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program
in 2003.

The campaign comes on the eve of a series of key
international meetings in late September, including the annual opening
of the U.N. General Assembly in New York and the Group of 20 (G20)
Summit in Pittsburgh.

Iran and its nuclear program are
expected to be a major topic for world leaders who will attend these
meetings, and hawks in Washington and Jerusalem hope that Obama will
use them to push for the imposition of far-reaching economic sanctions
by the U.N. Security Council as soon as possible.

While Obama
faces pressure to move quickly to sanctions, the government of Iranian
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is still struggling at home to overcome
challenges to its legitimacy resulting from the disputed presidential
election in June. Many analysts suggest that Iran's government is
currently in no position to respond coherently to U.S. engagement.

This
week, Ahmadinejad's government finally issued a formal reply to
proposals by the P5+1 powers - the U.S., China, Russia, Britain,
France, and Germany - for talks on its nuclear program and related
issues.

But the five-page-reply has been deemed too vague by
Washington, with State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley dismissing it
Thursday as "not really responsive" to U.S. concerns.

Other analysts suggested that the Iranian proposal was more promising than initial media reports would indicate.

"Iran's
uncompromising stance and its cursory references to nuclear matters are
most likely an opening bid, and not a red line," wrote National Iranian
American Council (NIAC) president Trita Parsi in the Huffington Post.

He
suggests that the proposal's language "may offer an opening to push
strongly for transparency and acceptance of intrusive inspections and
verification mechanisms".

The Obama administration, however, continues to hold out hope for the engagement strategy.

"We'll
be looking to see how ready Iran is to actually engage, and we will be
testing that willingness to engage in the next few weeks," Crowley said.

At
the same time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov all but ruled out
his country's cooperation with new sanctions against Tehran at the
Security Council, and called instead for renewed negotiations based on
Iran's reply.

Lavrov's comments came shortly after a secret and
still-mysterious visit to Russia by Israel's right-wing prime minister,
Benjamin Netanyahu.

The latest developments - along with growing
amount of attention being paid to U.S. policy in Afghanistan, at the
expense of Iran - have only added to the frustration of Iran hawks in
Washington. They believe increasingly that economic sanctions alone,
even if they are imposed multilaterally, are unlikely to be enough to
persuade Tehran to halt what they see as its drive to obtain a nuclear
weapon.

For this reason, many suggest that the U.S. should
either make preparations to attack Iran militarily itself, or step
aside and allow Israel to do so.

"No one should believe that
tighter sanctions will, in the foreseeable future, have any impact on
Iran's nuclear weapons program," former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, a
noted hardliner, wrote in the Wall Street Journal last month. "Adopting
tougher economic sanctions is simply another detour away from hard
decisions on whether to accept a nuclear Iran or support using force to
prevent it."

Earlier that month, the Journal featured an article
by Gen. Wald - who was one of the co-authors of Thursday's op-ed urging
preparations for a military strike - entitled "Of Course There's a
Military Option on Iran".

But critics suggest that the constant
threats of military action against Tehran will only make the regime's
leadership more intransigent on the nuclear issue.

"Pointing a
gun at their heads merely reinforces their desire for a reliable
deterrent, and probably strengthens the hand of any Iranian officials
who think they ought to get a bomb as soon as possible," wrote Stephen
Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University, on
the website of Foreign Policy magazine.

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