By Jacob Kamaras
Amid a rocky week for the relationship between U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice and the pro-Israel community, Rice’s assessment of the nuclear talks between Iran and world powers put her at odds with attendees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference on Monday night.
After Rice noted that some members in the AIPAC audience would be going to Congress to urge that a nuclear deal suspend all of Iran’s enrichment capacity, she followed a round of applause for that concept by stating, “As desirable as that would be, it is neither realistic or achievable.” If a complete halt to Iranian enrichment is the goal, Rice said, America would lose its negotiating partners within the P5+1 nations and sanctions against would be undermined.
Regarding sanctions, Rice again referenced members of the AIPAC crowd by acknowledging that some of them would suggest that “we should just impose sanctions and walk away.” That concept, too, received a round of applause, prompting a visibly frustrated Rice to throw her arms up in the air.
Rice said, “We cannot let a totally unachievable ideal stand in the way of a good deal [with Iran].” Sanctions, she said, “have never stopped Iran from advancing its [nuclear] program.” New sanctions “would blow up the talks, divide the international community,” and cause the U.S. to be blamed for causing negotiations with Iran to fail, she said.
The national security advisor’s discord with the AIPAC audience comes in the aftermath of an interview with Charlie Rose of PBS in which she called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to a joint session of Congress on March 3 “destructive of the fabric” of the U.S.-Israel relationship. A subsequent advertisement in the New York Times by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s This World: The Jewish Values Network said, “Susan Rice has a blind spot: Genocide. Both the Jewish people’s and Rwanda’s.” The ad was widely condemned by Jewish organizations.
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who spoke after Rice at the AIPAC conference on Monday night, said that while he agrees “with some Democrats that the political timing of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress tomorrow may have been unfortunate,” he “must disagree” with those who say the speech is “destructive” to U.S.-Israel relations—a specific reference to Rice’s comments.
Naturally, Menendez also presented a sharp contrast to Rice on the issue of Iran—given that he is the co-author of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015, which would impose new sanctions on Iran if the Islamic Republic does not reach an agreement with the P5+1 powers by March 24. President Barack Obama has vowed to veto that legislation if it passes in Congress.
“Iran needs to understand that there are consequences to an impasse and those consequences are additional consequential sanctions,” Menendez told the AIPAC crowd, adding that Iran must choose between a nuclear weapons program or the welfare of its people.
Menendez called for legislation ensuring the oversight of any nuclear deal the Obama administration reaches with Iran, both before and after a deal goes into effect. Congress, said the senator, is the body that brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place, through sanctions.
“As long as I have an ounce of fight left in me… Iran will never have a pathway to a weapon,” Menendez said. “It will never threaten Israel or its neighbors, and it will never be in a position to star a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Not on my watch.”
While Menendez’s speech received a series of thunderous rounds of applause, Rice’s talking points on Iran also pleased the AIPAC crowd before the two standing ovations for viewpoints she opposed.
“Given Iran’s support for terrorism, the risk of a nuclear arms race in the region, and the danger to the entire global non-proliferation regime, Iran with a nuclear weapon would not just be a threat to Israel, it’s also an unacceptable threat to the United States of America,” Rice said.
“Now I want to be very clear: a bad deal is worse than no deal,” the national security advisor said. “And if that is the choice, there will be no deal.”
Rice said that the U.S. is “not taking anything on trust” in the nuclear talks. “What matters are Iran’s actions, not its words,” she said.
“We’ve kept the pressure on Iran,” said Rice. “Today, even with limited sanctions relief, Iran’s economy remains isolated from the international system and cut off from the vast majority of its foreign-currency reserves. … All told, sanctions have deprived Iran of more than $200 billion in lost oil revenue.”
But Rice’s remarks then pivoted, going down the path of arguing against increased sanctions on Iran. She said Congress “shouldn’t play the spoiler now” by imposing new sanctions.
“We can always bring consequences to bear for the sake of our (Israel and the U.S.) shared security,” Rice said. “Harsh consequences. But precisely because this is such a serious issue, we must weigh the different options for us, and choose the best one. Sound bites won’t stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Strong diplomacy backed by pressure can. And if diplomacy fails, let’s make it clear to the world that it is Iran’s responsibility.”
Leading up to the AIPAC conference, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) questioned Rice’s suitability as a speaker for the gathering, citing her recent characterization of Netanyahu’s Congress speech as “destructive.”
“Should a major Jewish pro-Israel group like AIPAC ignore Rice’s vicious comments against the Jewish state of Israel and the Israeli prime minister and welcome her appearance and give her a podium? Is Susan Rice entitled to such respect from the Jewish community? … Should there be no consequences for her threats that the U.S./Israeli relations are now badly damaged, even destroyed?” ZOA said in a press release.