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NIAC’s Jamal Abdi: AIPAC-backed resolutions are ‘blank check for war’

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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.

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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13 Responses

  1. Kathleen on March 8, 2012, 4:30 pm

    Was a very well informed panel. Fact based. Also very compassionate. There were cameras there so someone taped

    As Medea Benjaman so articulately pointed out “where was CSpan” Where was the larger MSM outlets? When will they let the American public about press conferences like this one?

    Washington Journal has had five Iran war pushers on in a six month period. Two individuals Mr Jain and Mr Singh from the WINEP , Yoghi Dreazen, Anne Marie Slaugher and Barbara Slavin who soft pedaled an attack on Iran. NpR’s Robert Siegel just had Micheal Oren on and allowed him to repeat unsubstantiated claims about Iran. No challenges…just Siegel verbally head nodding.
    Israeli Ambassador Weighs In On Netanyahu Visit
    Washington Journal, NPR, etc not hosting Flynt , Hillary more fact based guest on their programs.

  2. ritzl on March 8, 2012, 4:45 pm

    Another excellent interview, AK.

    I hope Abdi and NIAC continue to press this simple common sense with more full page ads in establishment papers. It’s also great that NIAC is working with Code Pink, Occupy AIPAC and others to bring attention to the lack of sanity in the current discussion. I hope they all exploit the possible “step-back-from-the-brink” opening he believes to be in Obama’s AIPAC speech.

    I just gave to NIAC. I continue to give to Code Pink and others. Maybe now is the time… God I hope so…

    And to strongly agree with Kathleen, how can this voice (among many voices) of reasonableness and/or sanity be so completely excluded from, say, NPR and debating Oren? It boggles.


  3. Citizen on March 8, 2012, 7:46 pm

    Why Iran will be hit–to preemptively take out Iran’s sophisticated conventional missile system which can but big hurt on Israel even though the Iranians would never initiate a first strike itself as they know they would be blown to smithereens ASAP:

    Israel wants to always move as it pleases in the ME, without answering to anyone–like it does now.

    • Justice Please on March 11, 2012, 6:52 pm


      “Israel wants to always move as it pleases in the ME”

      make that “move as it pleases in the whole world”, with all the interfering in other people’s business. The situation in India comes to mind, where Israelis took control of the crime scene after the recent bombing near the Israeli consulate.

      Or of course, the vast spying against the United States.

  4. Citizen on March 8, 2012, 7:49 pm

    Never before in history has a tiny country dictated to a superpower:

  5. Duscany on March 9, 2012, 2:28 am

    I don’t know what Obama thought, but I was deeply offended by Netanyahu’s AIPAC speech in which he suggested that the United States owes Israel big time because we didn’t bomb Auschwitz during WWII. That Netanyahu would say something so insulting in our own country suggests to me that not only is the man ungrateful for our sacrifice in WWII, he’s deeply manipulative too.

    If Israel bombs Iran, that country’s leaders might easily conclude that the United States gave its blessing to such an attack. Under those circumstances, Iran could attack our forces in the area, which then would require Obama to order a retaliatory strike.

    Obama could avoid this by pulling American troops out of the area and ships out of the Persian Gulf. As our own war games have shown, our ships won’t easily survive massed attacks by Iran speedboats and cruise missiles in such a confined waterway. If we suffer any losses, we’ll pulled into a war against our will. And Netanyahu will get what he’s wanted all along–the US fighting Iran for him.

    Right now the biggest threat to America isn’t Iran. It’s Benjamin Netanyahu.

  6. Citizen on March 9, 2012, 4:02 am

    Obama offered Bibi our newest, most effective bunker buster bombs and eveything he needs to refuel his air strike force if Bibi will delay his attack on Iran until after our November elections:

    Since the plan to send 9,000 US troops to Israel, along with new missile systems and the men to operate them, has been rescheduled from 1st qtr to 3rd Qtr of 2012, and we will have even more ships bottled up in the Gulf bathtub, they should all be sitting ducks for Iran’s latest missiles after Bibi attacks–Obama plans to jumpstart his second term with a full-blown war for America? That sounds like a GOP plan.

    • Duscany on March 9, 2012, 7:38 pm

      This is such an insane situation. The major Republican candidates all want to bomb Iran right now. Obama also wants to bomb too, but after the election, so the rising cost of gasoline doesn’t doom his reelection.

      Hello? There are millions of Americans out of work in rust-belt states like Ohio and western Pennsylvania. Of course they cling to their guns and religion. They’ve been jobless so long that’s all they’ve got left.

  7. Citizen on March 9, 2012, 6:12 am

    Why is it that our mainstream media has not once pointed out that an attack on Iran, which is not an imminent threat to anyone, would be a major war crime under our own law and international law commencing with Nuremberg–we hung German leaders for committing aggressive war after WW2.

  8. Brewer on March 9, 2012, 7:05 pm

    America gone stupid over Iran

    By Lawrence Davidson

    10 March 2012

    Lawrence Davidson argues that, as with the war on Iraq in 2003, the USA is drifting towards aggression against Iran propelled not by evidence that Iran is working on a nuclear weapons programme, but by the lies and obsessions of a foreign state, Israel….

    Davidson, Lawrence – professor of history at West Chester University. He is the author of numerous books, including Islamic Fundamentalism and America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood.

  9. Justice Please on March 11, 2012, 6:54 pm

    Nuclear weapons are defensive weapons if potential adversaries have more of them. Thats why an Iranian bomb is no threat to either Israel or the US.

    The world has much more serious problems than a so far-imagined Iranian bomb.

  10. Justice Please on March 12, 2012, 7:40 am

    Great opinion piece in the British Economist:

    “Mr Netanyahu thinks the Zionist mission was to give the Jewish people control over their destiny. No people has control over its destiny when it is at war with its neighbours. But in any case, that is only one way of thinking of the Zionist mission. Another mission frequently cited by early Zionists was to help Jews grow out of the “Ghetto mentality”. Mr Netanyahu’s gift to Mr Obama shows he’s still in it.”

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