Occupy AIPAC protesters gather near the White House during the Obama-Netanyahu meeting (Photo: Paul E. Talbot/Flickr)
Amidst the incessant Israeli war mongering over Iran last weekend, the Occupy AIPAC counter-summit tried to insert some reality into the discussion. A March 5 press conference at the National Press Club was one attempt to do that, as former State Department official Ann Wright and retired U.S. Navy Commander Leah Bolger spoke out against Israeli and U.S. policy on Iran. Joining Bolger and Wright was Jamal Abdi, a former aide to Rep. Brian Baird and the current policy director for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).
In response to a comment from an activist noting that an Israeli official had advocated for the starving of Iranian civilians, Abdi spoke passionately against the U.S.-led policy of sanctions on the Islamic Republic. “This was a quote from an Israeli official, but it aligns pretty nicely with what Congress has been saying,” said Abdi. “The sanctions regimes that are in place can be called nothing but collective punishment. These are broad sanctions aimed at hurting the Iranian people.”
For more on the U.S., Israel and Iran, I caught up with Abdi for a brief interview after the press conference in the lobby of the National Press Club. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, which took place last Monday in Washington, D.C.
Alex Kane: What did you think of President Obama’s speech to AIPAC?
Jamal Abdi (Photo: NIAC)
Jamal Abdi: I think it was a very important speech. The question was, is the president going to capitulate to the demand that he change his “red line” regarding Iran–that he go from where the United States has been, which is that he’s committed to preventing Iran from actually acquiring a nuclear weapon, to a “red line” in which we say Iranian nuclear weapon capability is unacceptable and would be grounds for war. And I think that there was immense political pressure on the president to do that, and he did not cave. He stood firm, he said that we need to invest in the diplomatic track.
I think that some of his comments about sanctions may be a little misguided, because the sanctions are not going to yield success on this, particularly if we’re not willing to sit down with the Iranians and in exchange for Iranian concessions, agree to lift some of those sanctions. The [point] of sanctions is to leverage them to get Iran to open up its nuclear program. If we’re not willing to leverage those sanctions, then they’re just in place as a monument to how tough we are and they’re completely useless and are going to pave the path for war.
So I was heartened that he didn’t cave to the demand about “red lines,” but I think that this is not over yet. It’s an open question as to whether the GOP candidates are going to side with Netanyahu instead of the president.
AK: I don’t think that’s an open question.
JA: Are they explicitly going to say that Iranian nuclear weapons capability is unacceptable? Because the problem with that is, you’re already there then. Your bluff is already being called. Nuclear weapons capability is not a defined term. It’s just a blank check for war. Nuclear weapons capability could describe the programs in the Netherlands, in Japan, in Canada. So if we use that as grounds for whether or not we go to war, we’re on incredibly shaky ground, and war is going to be even more likely than it already is. So is Mitt Romney going to say this? Is he going to endorse this blank check for war? Is Congress, where you have the Senate and the House that have now introduced resolutions that endorse this framework of war to prevent capabilities? So this game’s not over, we’re going to see this play out, and I sincerely hope that the president sticks to his guns and is firm on this, that we’re not going to capitulate to this demand.
AK: I think there was a little bit of both the hawkish rhetoric and the more diplomatic rhetoric in Obama’s speech. What do you make of his insistence that a military component is on the table?
JA: Yeah, I think that that is the politically expedient position to take, and that a lot of people in this town do believe that we can’t take the military option off the table. My problem with that, is that the war threats become self-fulfilling, and that every time we issue a “red line,” it’s a signal to Iran that we’re more interested in war and imposed regime change than we are in actually the issue we claim to be concerned with, which is the nuclear program and human rights abuses.
So I think it confuses things. I think that it’s dangerous. And I do commend the president for talking about the “loose talk” about war with Iran and how harmful that is. That’s what this is–this is loose talk. Hopefully the president found a balance where he wasn’t engaging in this harmful rhetoric that becomes self-fulfilling.
The proof will be in the pudding. Is he actually going to invest in the diplomatic track, are we going to have talks with Iran in the coming weeks, are we going to maintain that Iranian enrichment is not the issue–the issue is the potential decision to go nuclear, to build a nuclear bomb. Israel has demanded that the U.S. put an ultimatum on the table that Iran has to suspend enrichment, otherwise we won’t talk to them. That sounds really familiar. That’s exactly what the Bush administration did, and that’s exactly why we are as far into this as we are now, as close as we are to war, because for so many years we refused outright to engage the Iranians because of this ultimatum. Netanyahu and AIPAC said, when Obama came into office, that they said we support diplomacy with Iran, but not endless diplomacy. So we need to put some time limits on it. As soon as those time limits expired, it was, okay now we need to do sanctions. The sanctions have played out and have apparently not done anything but hurt regular people, [and] they’re saying, OK, we can’t talk to Iran. They think that they’ve taken that option off the table, and that it’s been long enough, we’re not going to go back to that option.
So I think the cat’s out of the bag. They were never for diplomacy, and imposing this ultimatum is the way to prevent diplomacy from happening.