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Why Is J Street Backing Rep. Berman’s Iran Sanctions Bill?

Earlier today, progressive groups (and some conservatives) were surprised to see the pro-peace/pro-Israel/pro-Palestine American Jewish organization J Street come out in favor of a bill sponsored by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) granting the Obama administration additional powers to place gasoline sanctions on Iran in response to Iran’s intransigence on nuclear diplomacy. At its most optimistic, the bill, expected to come up for a vote in the House as early as next week, would continue a tradition of unilateral U.S. sanctions on Iran that for decades have failed to dislodge the Iranian regime. Yet with the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts left unrequited and the Iranian regime growing more boastful on the nuclear issue, the bill is especially totemic among many American Jewish organizations. And those groups have spent practically J Street’s entire brief existence questioning its authenticity as a Jewish enterprise. Is J Street’s support for the Berman bill about Iran or is it about intra-community politics?

To find out, I spoke with J Street’s executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

The Washington Independent: Why in the world is J Street supporting the Berman bill? Hasn’t the experience of the last three decades shown that unilateral sanctions only benefit the Iranian regime?

Jeremy Ben-Ami: The reluctance and the unwillingness of the Iranian regime to engage in any diplomacy and to accept — or at least begin negotiations on the basis of the offer that has been made — can’t go unanswered. We’ve said all along that our position on the Berman bill was simply a question of timing. This need to follow, first, the diplomatic engagement. And even then the president said, that we can’t go on with [the outreach] indefinitely. So this gives the president this tool, this additional tool, to work with in trying to convince the Iranians that there’s no time.

TWI: Aren’t unilateral sanctions inferior to multilateral sanctions?

Ben-Ami: Absolutely. And this bill doesn’t rule out [multilateral sanctions]. As Berman himself has said, the hierarchy of preference is first, resolve thiss diplomatically; second, resolve this multilaterally through the UN; third, resolve this multilaterally through a non-UN regime by putting a coalition together, and last, calls for the unilateral route. But this doesn’t rule out [multilateral sanctions]. Our preference is still, absolutely, to make this as broad an international coalition as possible.

TWI: What do you say to groups like Americans for Peace Now who’ve come out against the Berman bill because of the harm sanctions can do to the Iranian people without damaging the regime, or to some in the Green revolution in Iran who’ve warned that a new sanctions regime — unilateral or multilateral for that matter — is going to basically preempt any space they’re trying to open up to dislodge the regime or drastically change the character of the Iranian regime?

Ben-Ami: There might be a better bill that one could construct, but this is the one that’s there. And this is the tool that we’re giving to the president. There are very few other routes that are open and lots of the things that prompted the deliberations have been put in place. This is in conjunction with all of the diplomacy that the United States is going to pursue and it’s in conjunction with all of the outreach from the international community. It’s not a standalone policy. It fits into the broader approach that the Obama administration has taken.

TWI: What about its possible impact on the Iranian people?

Ben-Ami: Well, there’s no question that the sanctions ultimately does hurt people. This is also important in putting a real squeeze on the government. The petroleum sector is vital to the economy of the country as a whole. And so this is going to put pressure on the government and its going to put constraints on their economic growth generally. And it’s maybe one more incentive to them hopefully, to abandon this [nuclear] course and to come back to the table and accept what, in our opinion, is a very fair offer related to the fair enrichment.

TWI: What do you say to those who think that this is a capitulation by J Street to those — particularly on some of the American Jewish right — that have been attacking your credibility and your authenticity as a Jewish organization and your bona fides as a pro-Israel organization?

Ben-Ami: They haven’t been listening to us. We have said from the very first day that J Street was created that we’re very seriously concerned about the threat of Iran getting a nuclear weapon. That we really believe that diplomacy is the right approach, but that diplomacy can’t be open-ended. Every one of our statements says we are not opposed to sanctions per se. Back in June, when Berman introduced this particular bill we said that we supported the bill, but we agreed with him that the time wasn’t right to move it. So this is completely consistent with everything we’ve ever said. We are ardently opposed to military action. We are deeply supportive of the diplomatic route. But if the diplomatic route is completely disregarded and the offer [rejected] — after probably ten or 20 warnings, they’re practically beyond saying no. They’re sticking a finger in the eye of the world. The U.S. has really tried to find a way to offer them a path to full engagement. There have to be consequences. We can’t just allow that kind of disregard of the international community.

TWI: Is it too wily to think that you’re doing this in order to basically signal your stand with the rest of the pro-Israel community in this country while saving the harder battles for things like Jerusalem, the two-state solution and so forth?

Ben-Ami: Well look, those are issues where we are definitely not in line with most of the other organizations. For us, we’ve always said that is the issue. The real existential threat to a Jewish democratic Israel is the failure to reach a two-state solution. There is a threat from a nuclear-armed Iran. But the real existential threat that we’re focused on is that we have got to reach a two-state solution now or else we’re going to lose Israel.

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