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White House reassures Jews as it readies Baghdad offer to Iran

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The differences between the U.S. and Israeli positions on Iran’s nuclear program are about to become very clear, and the Obama administration is reassuring the Jewish community that the divide is not so vast.

Administration officials in a meeting Monday with Jewish communal leaders emphasized that they will be steadfast in upholding one key Israeli demand: That sanctions not be sacrificed to the negotiating process. Iran won’t get relief just for showing up for talks, the officials said.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government may not be happy with the concessions that the major powers are likely to offer as talks with Iran continue in Baghdad on Wednesday. Under the expected proposal, the Iranians would be allowed to continue low-level uranium enrichment.

Longtime watchers of the Iran-U.S.-Israel nexus say the major powers, led by the United States, plan to offer Iran a deal under which the Islamic Republic would give up enriching uranium to 20 percent, which is just two or three steps shy of enriching it to the weapons grade of more than 90 percent. Iran also would be required to ship out uranium that it has already enriched to 20 percent.

Under the proposal, Iran must allow full inspections, particularly at Parchin, a military facility where nuclear experts believe that Iran has tested a trigger device for a bomb.

In exchange, Iran would continue to enrich uranium for civilian use to 3.5 percent, and it would get U.S. assistance in upgrading and fueling a research reactor it uses for cancer treatment. Also, no new sanctions would be introduced.

Washington-based experts Michael Adler, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, independently reviewed the deal with diplomatic sources and said that sanctions already in place or set to kick in on July 1 would remain untouched.

“Iran is going to have to accept that costly European sanctions on the Central Bank and on oil will still be on target to take full effect in July,” Adler said.

It’s not clear whether the Iranians are on board with the proposal, he added.

“These are the opening bids in what is meant to be a negotiating process,” Adler said.

In addition to the new EU sanctions, the U.S. Senate approved sanctions on Monday reducing the threshold for sanctions on business dealings with Iran’s energy sector from $20 million to $5 million a year.

Keeping such sanctions in place addresses a key Israeli worry that Iran might use the talks to buy time and win concessions simply by showing up.

Ensuring this would not be allowed to happen was a key message from top administration officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, in the Monday meeting with 70 Jewish leaders assembled by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The U.S. officials emphasized during the meeting that the U.S. would insist on tough verification measures and would not remove sanctions in exchange for pledges.

“The administration was trying to send a message they were not going to be fooled or naive when it comes to Iran,” one participant from a Jewish group said, speaking on background because the meeting was off the record.

In its statement describing the meeting, the Presidents Conference said that “senior officials reiterated the administration’s ‘ironclad’ commitment to Israel’s security and their determination to ‘keep all options on the table’ to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.”

Such pledges, however welcome they may be in Jerusalem, did not address the Israeli bottom line outlined by Netanyahu in a visit last week to the Czech Republic: No further enrichment by Iran whatsoever, the export of all uranium enriched until now and the dismantling of a reactor uncovered by Western intelligence in 2009 near the Shiite holy city of Qom.

Slavin said such Israeli requests were useful as pressure but were never likely to be put forward by the United States.

“You have to have a bad cop to a U.S. good cop,” she said. “The Israelis serve a useful purpose to that degree.”

The threat of Israeli military action has not been removed. The Obama administration has stressed that Israel has the sovereign right to defend itself against a perceived threat from Iran. At the same time, the United States

Vice President Joe Biden, left, speaking with Richard Stone, chairman, and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president, of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, May 21, 2012. (Joshua Roberts)

has asked Israel to stand back while it exhausts non-military means of pressuring Iran to comply with the international community’s demands.

Sanctions legislation passed Monday by the Senate introduces into actionable legislation for the first time the notion of capability to build a nuclear weapon as constituting a threat to the U.S. “Capability,” as opposed to “acquisition” of a nuclear weapon, is an Israel red line, and in recent months has been introduced into non-binding legislation. The new Senate legislation also explicitly cites “military planning” as an option to compel Iran not to achieve nuclear capability.

On the other hand, the legislation also includes an amendment at the behest of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that explicitly says the legislation does not authorize war.

A similar amendment was included in the National Defense Authorization Act passed last week by the U.S. House of Representatives. The amendments — proposed by war skeptics in both parties — reflect unease with the perception that Congress did not do enough to question the Bush administration’s move toward war with Iraq in 2003.

Jewish leaders are likely to seek clarification on the dual messages when they meet Wednesday morning with the Senate’s Democratic leadership.

The message from the Obama administration is that it respects Israel’s sovereign right to take action.

According to notes provided by a participant in the Monday meeting, Biden recounted an hourlong meeting he had in February with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

The vice president said he has known Barak for decades and that they had never misled one another. The participant quoted Biden as saying he told Barak, “Israel is responsible for assessing Israel’s security needs, and the United States will not stand in the way.”