Obama Administration Linking Arms Control Treaty With Russian Cooperation on Iran

December 2, 2010 - 6:18 AM

powell-obama

President Obama and former Secretary of State Colin Powell speak to the press on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010, after meeting in the Oval Office where they discussed the New START treaty and other issues. (Image: White House)

(CNSNews.com) – Pushing to get the New START arms reduction treaty through the lame-duck Senate, the Obama administration and Democrats are looking to pro-Israel organizations, arguing that delaying ratification will jeopardize Russian support for international pressure on Iran.

The attempt to link New START to the Iran issue recalls the administration’s argument that movement on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was necessary to get Arab nations’ support for a unified stance on Iran. (Some say that assumption has now been refuted by leaked documents showing that Arab leaders themselves were urging strong steps against Iran.)

Some U.S. Jewish organizations have come out in support of New START in recent weeks. Others are adamantly opposed, contending that securing Russian support for a united front against Iran’s nuclear programs should not require acceptance of a treaty that critics say will weaken America’s security.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs voiced optimism Wednesday that the U.S. Senate will ratify the treaty “by Christmas.” A two-thirds vote is needed.

Many conservatives have deep reservations about the negotiated treaty, including concerns that it will constrain U.S. missile defense options.

The administration repeatedly has denied this is the case, most recently in a fact sheet released Wednesday as former Secretary of State Colin Powell met with President Obama and told reporters afterwards that he “fully” supports New START.

Speaking alongside Powell in the Oval Office, Obama again linked the treaty with Russian cooperation on Iran, and said that “the relationships and trust that are built from the New START treaty spill over into a whole host of other national security issues that are of vital importance to America.”

The Iran linkage has featured strongly in the outreach to Jewish organizations.

In a letter released to Politico, Democratic Sens. Carl Levin (Mich.) and Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) this week urged the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to come out in support of New START, calling the treaty “an opportunity to improve relations with Russia, a nation that has provided considerable support for U.S.-led efforts to pressure Iran.”

“As a leading voice in favor of crippling sanctions on the Iranian regime, AIPAC cannot afford to stand on the sidelines as the Senate debates the New START treaty,” they wrote.

AIPAC has maintained silence on the issue – a stance not surprising to Jewish community observers.

“AIPAC, drawing on support from both sides of the aisle, didn’t become the preeminent foreign policy lobby in Washington by stepping into the partisan crossfire when it doesn’t have to,” commented New York Jewish Week James Besser.

Other Jewish voices have come out in favor of New START, however.

“The time has come for those in the American Jewish community who care deeply about confronting Iran to help pass START now,” National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) chairman Marc Stanley said in a recent appeal. “We must lend our voices to the debate now.”

The Anti-Defamation League wrote to U.S. Senators last month, urging ratification and also citing the Iran concern.

“The U.S. diplomatic strategy to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons requires a U.S.-Russia relationship of trust and cooperation,” it said. “The severe damage that could be inflicted on that relationship by failing to ratify the treaty would inevitably hamper effective American international leadership to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program.”

In contrast, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) in a strongly-worded open letter to the Jewish community said it would not join the pro-treaty advocacy.

“We seriously question whether Russia is serious about stopping Iran, with or without New START,” JINSA president David Ganz and executive director Tom Neumann wrote. “There is no reason why the United States should be required to sacrifice its own defense capabilities to inspire Russia to a greater degree of diplomatic fortitude.”

Ganz and Neumann voiced skepticism about Moscow’s trustworthiness.

“That America’s political leaders should have confidence in Russia’s promises reflects poorly on their strategic judgment. That is a pity and, we believe, a historic blunder,” they said.

“But that America’s Jewish leaders and organizations are so willing to be drafted into the same mistake is not merely a blunder. It reflects poorly on their collective memory of Jewish history, which if anything has taught us the value of both a strong defense against potential threats and a skeptical eye towards diplomatic promises.”

The NJDC’s GOP counterpart, the Republican Jewish Committee, did not respond to queries on the issue Wednesday.

Last August, RJC communications director Shari Hillman said in an article the New START “would quietly weaken our national security and make us less safe.”

When the NJDC issued its appeal Ariel Cohen, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and an expert on Russia and the Middle East, responded that the arms control pact “is only marginally relevant to Moscow’s policy in the Middle East.”

“The Kremlin will formulate its policy towards Iran, Turkey, Israel and the Arab countries based on its own interests, and at times, in opposition to the U.S. agenda,” he said. “Dragging New START into this equation is bad politics – and bad policy.”

‘Administration misrepresented Iran link’

The need to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions has also been cited by the administration and some Mideast scholars as a key reason for the need to push for a Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. In that instance, the argument ran that progress on the Palestinian issue was crucial in getting Arab states to support a tough stance against Iran.

At his first White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in May 2009, Obama was asked about linkage between Iran and Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

“To the extent that we can make peace with the Palestinians – between the Palestinians and the Israelis, then I actually think it strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with a potential Iranian threat,” he replied.

Some analysts contend that recently-leaked State Department cables revealing the hostility felt by many Arab governments in the region towards Iran have exposed as false the notion that Arab states will only support a firm approach towards Iran if there is progress in Israel-Palestinian talks.

“[T]here is zero evidence that the Palestinian non-peace talks were essential to obtaining the assistance of the Arab states on Iran,” conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin wrote in Commentary magazine this week.

“To the contrary, what emerges [from the leaked cables] is precisely the portrait that knowledgeable critics of the administration had already painted: Obama has taken his eye off the real ball, placed friendly Arab states in a precarious situation, and misrepresented to the American people and the world that the non-peace talks are necessary to curb the Iranian threat.”

Writing in The Jerusalem Post, Israeli journalist Herb Keinon also homed in on the linkage argument.

“There was no need to crack the Palestinian-Israeli nut before getting the ‘moderate’ Arab nations in the region – Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan – on board regarding Iran, because those nations were already fully camped out on board the deck of the ship, just waiting for action against Iran,” he wrote.

“Obama was obviously well aware of the views of these leaders, most of whom he personally met, yet he continued to propagate what he must have known to be a falsehood – that these countries would only sign on to sanctions and otherwise support efforts to neutralize Iran if there were progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track.”