By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 25, 2005
After years of unwavering support for the Bush administration, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC has begun to sharply criticize the White House over its handling of Iran's nuclear program.
In lengthy news releases and talking points circulated to supporters on Capitol Hill, AIPAC describes the Bush administration's recent policy decisions on Iran as "dangerous," "disturbing" and "inappropriate." One background paper suggests that White House policies are actually helping Iran -- a sworn enemy of the Jewish state -- to acquire nuclear weapons.
The tough words from one of Washington's most well-connected and influential lobbies come at a difficult time for President Bush, who has been struggling with low poll numbers and growing public discontent over the war in Iraq.
Bush raised AIPAC's concerns in a recent telephone conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair when the two discussed Iran, U.S. officials said.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has tussled with past administrations -- Democratic and Republican -- but not with Bush, who has staked his presidency on a vow to bring democracy to a region dominated by Israel's enemies -- chiefly Iran, Iraq and Syria.
At issue for AIPAC is Bush's decision last month to hold off on pushing to report Iran's nuclear case to the U.N. Security Council. The president and Israel have favored reporting it for the past two years. But with little support from other key U.S. allies, Bush reversed course and endorsed a Russian offer that would allow Iran to conduct some, but not all, of the nuclear work it says it needs for an indigenous nuclear energy program.
Iran has not been receptive to the Russian offer. Iranian diplomats met with their European counterparts in Vienna on Wednesday to discuss the offer. Diplomats said there were no breakthroughs, but the parties agreed to meet again in January.
If Iran accepts the terms, it would be allowed to produce unlimited quantities of converted uranium. That material would be shipped to Russia for enrichment and then returned to Iran to fuel a nuclear power reactor.
In a statement to members of Congress, AIPAC said that it "is concerned that the decision not to go to the Security Council, combined with the U.S. decision to support the 'Russian proposal,' indicates a disturbing shift in the Administration's policy on Iran and poses a danger to the U.S. and our allies."
National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said he hopes the plan "may provide a way out" of a two-year crisis over a nuclear program that Iran says is peaceful but was secretly built over 18 years.
Critics of the Russian plan, including some inside the administration, argue that it would allow Iran to master a critical component that could be diverted for atomic weapons work. Converted uranium, if enriched to bomb-grade, can be used for the core of a nuclear device.
U.N. nuclear inspectors are on the third year of an investigation of Iran's nuclear program. They have not found proof of a weapons program, but mounting evidence suggests that the Iranians have spent the past two decades acquiring the knowledge and technology that could be used to build an atomic bomb.
"This decision will facilitate Iran's quest for nuclear weapons and undermines international efforts to stop Iran from achieving such a capability," AIPAC told supporters and policymakers in a paper circulated after Thanksgiving. The position paper urged the Bush administration to work quickly toward reporting Iran's case to the Security Council, where it could face sanctions or an oil embargo.
AIPAC, which describes itself as nonpartisan, has criticized nearly every administration's Middle East policies, often speaking out when Israeli government officials express private frustration with U.S. policies.
But the news releases mark the first major criticism of the Bush White House and come as the administration is focused on problems in Iraq and has no clear path on Iran.
At the same time, Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has become increasingly hostile toward Israel. In October, two months after he took office, Ahmadinejad said that Israel should be "wiped off the map." Earlier this month, he told Iranians in a nationally televised speech that the murder of 6 million Jews at the hands of the Nazis during World War II is "a myth."
"AIPAC is taking the public statements seriously. They're alarmed by a nuclear capability, and the administration appears to be adopting an approach that isn't changing Iranian behavior," said Dennis Ross, a U.S. envoy to the Middle East during the Clinton administration.
Ross said the criticisms, though serious, are unlikely to lead to an all-out rift between AIPAC and the administration. "At the end of the day, every administration does what it needs to do, but obviously they will have to pay attention to this," he said.