WASHINGTON (JTA) -- The release of a U.S. intelligence report stating that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003 has American Jewish groups scrambling to head off efforts to end the international isolation of the Islamic Republic.
The National Intelligence Estimate, an assessment reflecting the consensus of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies that was declassified this week, says the principal reason for the freeze was the isolation the regime suffered for pursuing the bomb.
Normally such an assessment would vindicate the decades-long drive by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to enact sanctions against Iran.
AIPAC was the lead group -- at times the only group -- making the case in Congress and through the U.S. media that Tehran was pursuing a bomb, and that it should be stopped through economic and political sanctions.
President Bush embraced the policy and spearheaded international efforts to isolate the Islamic Republic.
No one in the pro-Israel lobby or at the White House is uncorking champagne, however. AIPAC and the Bush administration have pushed harder than ever in recent months to escalate Iran's isolation -- a drive that Congress and the media has treated with pronounced skepticism in the wake of the Iraq war fiasco and the major prewar overestimates of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capability.
Against this backdrop, the NIE is being held up by Congress, the presidential candidates and the media as an argument for tamping down isolation of the Islamic Republic rather than a vindication of earlier warnings that Iran indeed was pursuing a bomb.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations organized an emergency conference call of its members on Tuesday to address how the news could threaten its recent campaign to isolate Iran.
Malcolm Hoenlein, the umbrella group's executive vice chairman, told the membership that the NIE presented a "challenge" and suggested that advocates of isolating Iran should reframe the argument to stress that Tehran still backs terrorism and could potentially provide nuclear material to terrorists.
Hoenlein said the Presidents Conference would send a letter to the presidential candidates urging them not to make the NIE a campaign issue.
Within hours of the NIE's release, AIPAC spokesman Josh Block was outlining to JTA the thrust of the argument for sustaining Iran's isolation. If anything, he suggested, the NIE made the case for isolation.
Block said two points were paramount: the NIE confirms that Iran continues to enrich uranium, despite calls from the international community to stop, and confirms that a weapons program existed.
"All in all, it's a clarion call for additional and continued effort to pressure Iran economically and politically to end its illicit nuclear programs," he said.
The timing of the NIE could not be worse for advocates of Iran's isolation: The U.N. Security Council is considering a third set of sanctions.
The two Security Council veto holders most reluctant to enhance sanctions, Russia and China, immediately hailed the NIE as vindication of their less confrontational approach.
"I think we all start from the presumption that now things have changed," Guangya Wang, the Chinese envoy to the United Nations, said Tuesday.
The pervasiveness of the argument that the tide is changing was underscored Tuesday when U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and the lead sponsor of far-reaching legislation aimed at sanctioning Iran, issued a statement saying the NIE made the case for diplomacy.
Lantos, a close ally of AIPAC and the only Holocaust survivor in Congress, called the Bush administration "belligerent and stiff-necked" for refusing to talk with Tehran, and cast his own sanctions legislation as a stick that needed the carrot of outreach to effectively work.
The NIE, Lantos said, "suggests that Tehran may be open to a combination of pressure and incentives to keep it from returning to developing a nuclear arsenal."
He cited the Iraq war to explain his call for a different approach.
"The White House may try to change the subject or dispute the conclusions," Lantos said, "but the facts are clear: the intelligence community has drawn valuable lessons from the chain of events that led to the invasion of Iraq, and there now appears to be no reason for us to go down that road again in Iran."
His comments were a measure of the fight the pro-Israel lobby now faces in sustaining the effort to isolate Iran.
In Jerusalem, several Israeli officials voiced skepticism over the notion that Iran had abandoned its nuclear arms program and noted previous blunders by U.S. intelligence services.
Ephraim Sneh, a top Labor Party voice on security issues and a member of the Knesset Foreign and Defense Committee and its Intelligence Subcommittee, said Israel must further develop its own self-protection capacities in the wake of the U.S. intelligence report. He argued that the NIE contradicted itself.
"If the enrichment of uranium continues, and the development of technology applied in nuclear weapons continues, what exactly was stopped in 03?" Sneh asked in a JTA interview.
He suggested that the NIE's findings meant that Israel could no longer rely on the United States to lead the battle to force Iran to back down from enriching uranium.
"I for years have advocated that to forestall the threat of a nuclear Iran, Israel should enhance the development of its own indigenous capacities to develop the defense systems which protect the Israeli civilian population and to rely on ourselves," Sneh said.
An AIPAC official who declined to be identified argued that it makes no sense to say that an NIE which vindicates the earlier isolation of Iran is now an argument against isolating Iran.
"The message should be pressure works, and we should keep up the pressure," the AIPAC official told JTA.
In a news conference Tuesday, President Bush said Iran's continued enrichment of uranium, validated by the NIE, was on a par with developing weapons.
"In order for a nation to develop a nuclear weapons program, they must have the materials from which to make a bomb, the know-how on how to take that material and make it explode, and a delivery system," he said. "Now the Iranians -- the most difficult aspect of developing, you know, a weapons program, or, as some would say, the long pole in the tent, is enriching uranium."
Bush's approach echoes Israel's longstanding argument that waiting until Iran can build a bomb would be too late -- enrichment capability should be the red line .
The NIE sharply disagrees, however, with Israel's assessment that such a capability could be in place by next year. The State Department's intelligence arm predicts enrichment capability no earlier than 2013 because of "foreseeable technical and programmatic problems."
Bush administration critics say that switching the emphasis from bomb making to enrichment know-how amounts to shifting the goal posts.
"I think they're on a mission to look for a new casus belli" to attack Iran, said Steve Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, whose focus has been Bush policy on Iran.
Clemons said the lesson of the NIE should be to examine whether the Bush administration had ignored overtures from relative moderates within the Iranian regime in seeking to push for isolation.
"What we have done since 2003, we've kicked Iran, we've demonized it," Clemons said.
The danger, he added, was that punishing Iran even after it suspended its weapons program strengthened the hand of extremists.