Despite sanctions, Dems look to engage Iran’s new leaderby ron kampeas, jta
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In increasingly strident tones, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been telling his American friends that the purported moderation of Iran’s new president is a ploy aimed at relieving international pressure and buying the Islamic Republic more time to cross the nuclear threshold.
But in ways both subtle and direct, some of those friends — among them Israel’s closest allies in Washington — are saying that maybe Hassan Rohani is worth hearing out.
That was the message delivered this week by Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the second-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives.
The divergence represents a rare public gap on a crucial security issue between pro-Israel lawmakers and Netanyahu, who in a succession of meetings this month with congressional delegations to Israel has lobbied hard to persuade American leaders to ignore Rohani’s overtures.
“I know that some place their hopes on Iran’s new president,” Netanyahu told a delegation led by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) on Aug. 7. Noting that Rohani has “called for more talks,” Netanyahu said that “while everybody is busy talking to him, he’ll be busy enriching uranium.”
In his first news conference as president, Rohani said Iran wants to improve its relations with the United States and intimated he was prepared to increase transparency of his country’s nuclear program.
An official in the office of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the minority leader, said her thinking on Iran was consistent with Hoyer’s, pointing to a floor speech July 31 when she joined the overwhelming majority of the House in voting to stiffen sanctions against Iran. But Pelosi also welcomed Rohani’s openness to talks aimed at ending the nuclear standoff.
Like Pelosi, Hoyer backs both increased economic pressure and an openness to talks — a position he said is not inconsistent with Netanyahu’s tough line. Nor is a letter signed by 131 House members urging President Barack Obama to test Rohani’s offer, Hoyer said.
For Netanyahu and some in the pro-Israel community, the clock has run out on that approach.
In July, Netanyahu told the news program “Face the Nation” that Iran was “within a few weeks” of crossing the red line — a boundary the prime minister defined as possessing 250 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium — and vowed it would not be permitted to do so.
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in his July 31 floor speech backing the intensified sanctions suggested there was no point in waiting out Rohani. “We must respond to Iran’s policies and behavior, not to its rhetoric,” he said.
Nevertheless, the letter urging Obama to test Rohani — spearheaded by Reps. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) and David Price (D-N.C.) — appears to have had an impact. Its signatories include 18 Republicans, most of them from the party’s mainstream. Also included were pro-Israel stalwarts Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) and Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.).
The following week, J Street and Americans for Peace Now urged senators to join a similar letter to Obama initiated by Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The letter has yet to be sent — a sign that the California Democrat may be having a hard time finding signatories.
A separate and tougher letter to Obama backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and initiated by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had 76 signers. The Menendez letter, sent Aug. 2, emphasized intensified sanctions and urged threatening Iran with military engagement.
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