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Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Iran Looms over Syria Debate for Pro-Israel Groups

Inter Press Service

With Congress still deliberating over Barack Obama’s request for authorisation to take military action against Syria, the powerful Israel lobby in Washington has taken the lead in pressing the president’s case.

But in addition to echoing the administration’s view that Damascus’ alleged violations of international norms against the use of chemical weapons must be punished, pro-Israel groups are focusing their appeals at least as much, if not more, on stopping what they say is Iran’s nuclear-weapons programme.

“The Syria issue needs to be largely understood through the context of Iran,” said Michael Makovsky, the director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), as he unveiled his organisation’s latest report, “Strategy to Prevent a Nuclear Iran.".

“Stopping a nuclear-capable Iran is the gravest, most pressing national security threat facing the United States today,” he added, quoting from the introduction of the report, the product of a task force that included several former George W. Bush administration officials, several retired flag officers, and Ambassador Dennis Ross, who served as Obama’s top adviser on Iran for most of his first term.

“(I)f there isn’t a [Congressional] response to the crossing of the red line [against the use of chemical weapons], the Iranians will draw the lesson that when we create red lines, we don’t mean it,” Ross said.

“So when the administration makes it clear that prevention [of Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon] is the objective, [the failure to act on Syria] will make it look more rhetorical than real,” according to Ross, who currently serves as counselor to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a pro-Israel think tank.

“So, I think there’s a direct relationship between what’s going on in Syria and how the Iranians would perceive it.”

Those warnings came as the administration appeared to make progress on Capitol Hill in rallying Congress behind military action.

In a 10-7 vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution authorising Obama to conduct military strikes against Syria. Two Democrats and five Republicans, including presidential hopefuls Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, opposed the resolution. Another Democrat abstained.

To rally a majority, the resolution’s authors limited the authorisation to 60 days – with a possible 30-day extension – and banned the use of ground forces in Syria “for the purpose of combat operations”.

But they also appeased hawkish forces, led by Republican Sen. John McCain, by adding a statement that any action should aim to “change the momentum on the battlefield” in favour of the rebels in order to enhance the chances of a negotiated settlement to the two-year-old civil war. The resolution, which will go to the floor next week, also urged an increase in U.S. military aid to the rebels.

The draft resolution submitted by the White House had called for a “limited” action to prevent the use or proliferation of chemical weapons in Syria.

While some administration officials initially predicted a campaign of only two or three days of cruise-missile strikes that would not necessarily affect the current balance of power in the war, stronger action now appears more likely unless the Republican-led House of Representatives votes no or places more limits on its version of the authorisation.

The administration’s efforts to gain authorisation have been significantly bolstered by the Israel lobby which, until recently, had maintained a public silence on the issue. However, some of its more important institutions had been quietly pressing both the administration and lawmakers for a more aggressive policy toward Damascus for weeks, even before the alleged Aug. 21 chemical attack that killed more than 1,400 people, according to the White House.

On September 3, however, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the lobby’s most powerful group, came out strongly in support of the authorisation, as did the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organisations and the Anti-Defamation League.

They were followed by, among others, the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), a group dominated by strongly anti-Obama wealthy donors who have provided millions of dollars to Republican campaigns and are closely associated with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party.

While most of the group echoed the administration’s position that the use of chemical weapons must be punished, they also stressed that Washington’s credibility regarding its enforcement of “red lines” was at stake, particularly with respect to Iran.

“This critical decision comes at a time when Iran is racing toward obtaining nuclear capability,” AIPAC stressed in its endorsement.

“Failure to approve this resolution would weaken our country’s credibility to prevent the use and proliferation of unconventional weapons and thereby greatly endanger our country’s security and interests and those of our regional allies.”

That was very much the message conveyed by the new JINSA report and its two co-chairs, Ross and Bush’s former undersecretary of defence for policy, Eric Edelman, among other task force members present for the report’s release.

“I do think it’s important …for the credibility of the president’s statements [to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon] with regard to Iran that the Congress authorise the use of force,” Edelman said.

“Unless Iran believes there is a credible military option underpinning the willingness to negotiate, there will not be a successful negotiation,” he added in reference to the so-called P5+1 (U.S., Britain, France, China, Russia plus Germany) talks with Iran that are considered likely to resume later this month.

JINSA’s task force consists largely of members of a previous task force that issued a series of very hawkish reports on Iran for the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) over the past five years.

It said Washington’s explicit policy objective should be “to render Iran unable to develop a nuclear weapons capability” which it defined as the point at which Iran could “manufacture fissile material for a nuclear device in less time than would be required to detect and respond to such activity.” According to some experts, that threshold is likely to be reached by mid-2014.

With the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president, it said, Washington should “try to make diplomacy work,” although the task force failed to reach agreement on what terms would be acceptable.

While some members of the task force, including Ross, said the U.S. should offer a deal that would permit Iran to enrich uranium up to five percent and limit its stockpile of enriched uranium subject to a strict inspections regime, others said Iran should not be permitted any enrichment capability.

In the meantime, the task force argued against recent calls by think tanks and Iran experts for Washington to make goodwill gestures, such as recognising Iran’s right to enrich or “preemptively signal a willingness to lift sanctions during talks”.

On the contrary, the report urges increasing the pressure on Iran by imposing new sanctions and preparing and developing “a very real military strike capability against Iran’s nuclear and strategic facilities, and an array of opportunities for pursuing political warfare against the Iranian regime.”

With respect to the former, Ross suggested “we should have a demonstration [of a 30,000-pound 'bunker-buster bomb'], put it on YouTube, let it go viral, let the Iranians see it; this is a capability that was developed basically to deal with them…”

“I still think at this point, given where we are in Syria, the most important thing right now is to act on the resolution and do it in a way that is seen as being effective and meaningful and serious,” he added.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

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