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AIPAC from the Inside | Part 1: Isolating Iran

by ROBERT DREYFUSS in Washington, D.C.

11 Jun 2011 23:13Comments

Keith Weissman on joining AIPAC, the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, and the BTC pipeline.

weissman.jpg[ feature ] In August 2005, two lobbyists with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, were indicted on charges of illegally conspiring to collect and disseminate classified secrets to journalists and to Israeli diplomats. The case, in which the two men were charged under a World War I-era espionage law along with Larry Franklin, a midlevel Iran analyst at the Department of Defense, was intimately linked to efforts by the AIPAC officials and others to improperly influence U.S. policy toward Iran, said prosecutors, and it caused a political firestorm in Washington. However, in 2009, the case fell apart, and the Justice Department withdrew all charges.

Now, for the first time, one of the two AIPAC officials, Keith Weissman, is speaking out. In a series of extended interviews with Tehran Bureau, Weissman tells his story. He's come forward, he says, because he's concerned that if a confrontation between the United States, Israel, and Iran leads to war, it will be a disaster -- one that Weissman fears will be blamed on the American Jews.

"The reason why I want to tell this story now is, we may be going down a path, helped along by the American Jewish community, and maybe even Israel, that is going to be worse even than the one we're on now - some sort of military confrontation with Iran. That worries me. Because they will be able to blame [it] on the Jews, to a great extent," says Weissman, who worked at AIPAC from 1993 until 2005, much of that time as the group's deputy director of foreign policy. Though Weissman disagrees sharply with those who say that AIPAC played a critical role in pushing for the 2003 U.S. decision to invade Iraq, he believes a war with Iran -- which he says "would be the stupidest thing I ever heard of" -- might well be blamed on AIPAC's leaders and their constituents. "What the Jews' war will be is Iran," he says. "Not Iraq."

Although Weissman's comments might seem startling to those who don't know him, they're part and parcel of who he is, he says. From his days in college at the University of Chicago in the late 1970s, Weissman was in sympathy with a wide range of progressive causes, and, unusually for a man who'd end up working at AIPAC, he sported a "Free Palestine" bumper sticker on his car back then. (Last month, at a conference held by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank founded with support from AIPAC, I mentioned to Steve Rosen that I'd talked to Weissman. "Of course!" replied Rosen, who knows that I usually write for progressive publications. "He thinks just like you do!") During much of his tenure at AIPAC, Weissman served as a kind of unofficial liaison to various Palestinian officials, diplomats, and academics. Later, when he became AIPAC's chief Iran specialist, he insists that he quietly did what he could to steer the group away from direct calls for regime change in Iran, even though AIPAC was working hard to push the United States into ever stronger action against the Islamic Republic, including diplomatic isolation and tough sanctions to dissuade Iran from pursuing its nuclear program and supporting Hamas, Hezbollah, and other anti-Israel groups.

"What the Iranians feared most, and what the neoconservatives wanted most, was a policy of propaganda, of assisting groups against the government, to foster regime change," says Weissman. "I kept AIPAC away from that."

Back in 1978, as a history student at U.C., Weissman made his first and only visit to Iran, aided in parts by grants from the Department of Defense and from the Pahlavi Foundation, the then Shah's family fund. He flew to Kabul, traveled over land to Mashhad and then to Tehran, coincidentally arriving just as the first rumblings of the revolution that would topple the Shah were getting under way. "In Mashhad, they put us the floor of a dorm that was under construction at the edge of the city. Apparently, a week before we got there, we'd been scheduled to be in a dorm downtown, and before we got there the school had exploded in riots, and the school was shut down for final exams, and they put us in this dorm on the outskirts," he recalls.

Among Weissman's friends and acquaintances who were traveling back and forth to Iran at the same time were Zalmay Khalilzad, later a RAND Corporation analyst and, more recently, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, and Harold Rhode, a polyglot Middle East specialist who worked at the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment, an in-house think tank. That office was run by Andrew Marshall, a neoconservative strategist and acolyte of Bernard Lewis, a British academic and historian of the Ottoman Empire who is currently a professor at Princeton University. Though friends for a time, Weissman and Rhode had a falling-out. Says Weissman:

"[Lewis] was one of Harold Rhode's advisers. Harold was very close to him, and Lewis helped him get a job at the Pentagon, where he worked for Andy Marshall. We stopped speaking to each other in the early 1980s. I don't know what it was. I certainly wasn't an ardent Zionist, and I felt that Harold had adopted a very racist posture toward Middle Eastern people."

Later, Rhode would be a key player during the run-up to the war in Iraq, as an official working alongside Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith at DOD. When the espionage case built around Franklin, Rosen, and Weissman erupted in 2004, Rhode would be one of several U.S. officials who were forced to hire legal counsel in the face of the FBI investigation, according to Weissman. Rhode, along with Michael Ledeen, who was then a neoconservative strategist at the American Enterprise Institute, was part of a quixotic effort to enlist a discredited wheeler-dealer, Manucher Ghorbanifar, in an ill-starred regime change plan for Iran in the early 2000s.

After his visit to Tehran, Weissman traveled to Israel and Egypt, and then returned to the United States, teaching in colleges around Chicago, where he struck up a casual acquaintance with Rashid Khalidi, the Palestinian scholar. When his wife, who'd been an attorney with Sidley and Austin in Chicago, landed a job at the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Weissmans settled in the Washington area. Needing a job, Weissman started networking.

"Eventually somebody set me up with a guy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the deputy there, Rob Satloff, just back from Oxford, and he was working for Martin [Indyk], and I gave my resume to him," recalls Weissman. "And a couple of weeks later I get a call from a guy named Jack Lew. Jack Lew had [been] the legislative director for the speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill." Indyk, the vice president for policy at the Brookings Institution, served as AIPAC's deputy director of research in the early 1980s and helped found the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) in 1985. Jacob (Jack) Lew is today President Obama's director of the Office of Management and Budget. Satloff is now the executive director of WINEP.

"And there were a couple of Jewish financial guys, philanthropists, who were really pissed off because they thought that the media were pro-Arab, pro-Palestinian, and they wanted to set up a small publication, a place that translated stuff, that provided journalists with mostly translated stories from the Middle East, Middle East Week. And they hired someone to do Hebrew, and they hired me to do Arabic," says Weissman. "It was really fun, and I got to know lots of people. Jack [Lew] was the overall editor."

"This is right when the [Oslo] peace talks started, people coming in and out of Washington, and I got to know all these Arabs, Arab journalists, Israelis, and I was this left-wing Jewish guy, who became friends with Akiva Eldar, Hisham Melham, Raghida Dergham, who wrote from the U.N. for Al-Hayat. I got to know all these people! I got to learn a lot. And because of Rashid Khalidi, who for the first year was an adviser to the Palestinian delegation, I got very friendly with a lot of the Palestinians, with Said Hammad, who was the number two there, and I got to know Saeb Erekat."

Middle East Week folded, and after a stint working for a small publication called Middle East Insight, Weissman found himself without a job. But soon afterward, despite, or perhaps because of, his connections with Arab and Palestinian figures, Weissman landed an opportunity to work at AIPAC.

"I was unemployed for six months. The last month of unemployment, I get a call from Rafi Danziger, [AIPAC's] director of research, who I knew, who says, 'How'd you like to come work at AIPAC?' He said, 'People are leaving, and we'd like to combine their salaries and give it to you.' And my title would be chief Middle East analyst," he recalls.

"And the week after I started at AIPAC, Oslo happens. And here I am, this left-wing guy, I find myself at AIPAC. It was unbelievable. Imagine the reaction from my friends, my family! And I didn't know anyone there, except for Rafi Danziger, I didn't know much about them, I mean, I knew they were the pro-Israel lobby, that's about it. I hadn't paid them much attention, and I didn't agree with their position. But I got hired by them the week that the Israeli-Palestinian talks break out! I said to Rashid [Khalidi], 'Would you rather have me there, or someone who doesn't know anything about the Palestinians?' No one else had the entrée that I had. I went to meetings and lunches where me and Jerry Siegel, this radical, left-wing professor, were the only non-Arab, non-Palestinians there. Bernard Lewis's son worked down the hall from me, Michael Lewis, actually a wonderful person. He used to joke that he kept a file on everyone in my Rolodex! But it was really an asset to have that entrée. I could call up Faisal Husseini, Saeb Erekat, and it was quite fun.

"I could get information that no one else could get about the Palestinians. I became very close to Steve Rosen, who was my boss. He liked me. And he liked that I was able to go places that no one else could go. He thought that was a great addition to the work."

Though the advent of Oslo raised hopes among Israelis and Palestinians alike that a peace accord might work, inside AIPAC there was strong discontent with Oslo and its implications, and a lot of sympathy for hardliners in Israel, including Benjamin Netanyahu, the bitterest opponent of Oslo and its backers, including Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister. As M. J. Rosenberg, a former AIPAC official, has documented, AIPAC moved steadily to the right from the 1980s onward. According to Weissman, that happened mostly because the group's biggest donors were right-wing American Jews who identified with Likud rather than the Labor Party and other liberal Israelis. Many of its donors and some its staff split from AIPAC during the Rabin-Oslo era to work with more right-wing groups such as the Zionist Organization of America, says Weissman. After Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli extremist opposed to giving up the occupied territories, an increasingly right-leaning Israel and AIPAC moved more and more into sync. As Weissman tells the story:

"So Rabin is shot. I mean, he won Oslo in the Knesset by one vote! You could imagine that in America there was similar opposition [to Oslo].... AIPAC had spent the last 15 years helping the Likud, so you've got people there that were sucking at the teat of Likud, that was how they viewed things. That's why so many people left AIPAC. A lot of them went to join ZOA and a lot of them also contributed to the work of Daniel Pipes. When Rabin came in, they had taken their money and left, and there was a lot of turmoil. At the time, I remember, they'd send me around the country, to fundraisers, with a lot of older people, and I would be yelled and screamed at, 'I can't believe you're doing this!' Donors were leaving, taking the money, and that's really their bread and butter, the lay leadership. AIPAC's donors were very active in the organization. Very. They were major elements in making policy, in determining the agenda, who the leadership was.

"AIPAC did not have a lot of people who you would call Labor, the Israeli Labor Party. The ideological war that went on, over the AIPAC agenda, was unbelievable. I was involved in creating the annual AIPAC agenda. I used to write it. And then it would be debated in a meeting, right before the policy conference. You wouldn't believe what went on, people getting up, denouncing this and that, they would put things in the policy agenda to make sure that no money went to the Palestinian Authority, to move the American embassy to Jerusalem.

"I tried my best to sell the peace process. But I tried to sell it in the context of what AIPAC was, that this was the way that Israel could become a permanent Middle East country. But the ideological war inside the Israel lobby, collectively, was extremely bitter -- and very close, you know, the tally of votes was very close. I would argue that while most American Jews are probably center-left, the rich ones, the ones who give to organizations, the ones who are involved in politics, tend to be more to the right. Those are the ones who were close to the Israeli government when it was run by the Likud."

Rabin, in his last years, was angry at AIPAC's obstructionism, says Weissman. (According to M. J. Rosenberg, in New York Rabin met with liberal Jewish donors and asked them to help finance what become the Israel Policy Forum as a very small but not ineffective counterweight to AIPAC.)

"Because of AIPAC, with the assistance of the right wing in Israel, who -- even though they weren't the majority in Israel then -- they'd come over and have very close contacts with AIPAC's leaders, prominent financiers, and donors, in order to influence policy.... It was all because of the money that would go from the American Jewish community to politicians in the United States. The pro-Israel bloc in Congress has nothing to do with parties. It had to do with friendship and loyalty. I learned this over time. This is the secret of AIPAC's power, its ability to fund campaigns. When people got together, they'd find ways, even if they'd given a ton of money to AIPAC, they'd still find ways to get money to candidates, Republican or Democrat."

In the mid-1990s, Weissman began to work on issues related to Iran. Before that, at AIPAC, Iran was "an afterthought," he said. But as German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President Bill Clinton began to discuss ideas about isolating and reducing trade with Iran -- at the time, according to Weissman, the United States was Iran's biggest trading partner and Germany was second -- AIPAC saw an opening to start working on Iran, and from that the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) emerged. According to Weissman, it was originally designed by AIPAC to be focused solely on Iran, but Libya was added to the mix during the legislative process.

"I started to work on Iran in 1995. We had a new legislative director named Brad Gordon, who'd worked for [then Senator] Rudy Boschwitz [of Minnesota], and he'd been at the CIA for a while and worked on Iran, so he had a clue. We found a little-known, much-ridiculed law that [then Senator] Al D'Amato [of New York] had supported. D'Amato was Mr. Ass-Kissing of all the Orthodox in New York. Right before this, I'd been invited to lunch by the executive director of AIPAC, a guy named Neil Sher. He took us to lunch and he said, 'I'm thinking about what we can do about Iran. Maybe we could, like, model something on the Arab boycott.' Now, the Arab boycott is what is called a secondary boycott, and it's illegal under world trade rules. It's not allowed, and don't forget, one of the victories for Israel during Oslo was the ending of the Arab boycott by the Arab League. 'Why don't we try to find something, or invent some laws?' And there was this law that D'Amato had proposed a year earlier that would sanction anybody who bought Iranian oil.

"It opened up a whole world for me. Going from a guy working on, you know, talking to the Palestinians, I became a star! On Iran! And we began to work closely with D'Amato's staff, and we formulated the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act."

With Weissman's help, Rosen and a host of congressional staffers got the ball rolling on ILSA. AIPAC helped convince Clinton to cancel a deal that Conoco had struck with Iran, even though doing so angered Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then Iran's president, who backed the Conoco arrangement. "Rafsanjani still says, to this day, that canceling that deal ruined relations, and I believe him," says Weissman. "We [AIPAC] became the bitter enemies of the oil companies." ILSA passed overwhelmingly.

With the victory in 1997 of Mohammad Khatami's reformist candidacy, however, the Clinton administration backed away from AIPAC's hard line and sought to develop an opening to the new Iranian government. Weissman says that he never believed that talking to Iran's reformists would work, in the end, and that power instead remained in the hands of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the hardliners around him. AIPAC, meanwhile, was dismayed by the tentative opening to Iran that began in the late Clinton years. The organization concentrated a lot of its work then on trying to isolate Iran economically, in part by pushing Congress and the White House to support an oil pipeline from Baku in Azerbaijan that bypassed Iran and ran through Turkey to the Mediterranean Sea. Ironically, despite the enmity between AIPAC and the oil industry, the group would manage to work closely with the oil companies, especially BP -- and, surprisingly, AIPAC would even pocket financial contributions from the oil companies for its work facilitating what became the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.

Formally launched in 1998 and completed in 2005, the 1,100-mile long BTC pipeline was a $4 billion project that crossed Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, with BP, Chevron, and other U.S. companies as major shareholders. From the start, it was controversial politically, not least since the three transit countries viewed the pipeline as a geopolitical counterbalance to both Iran and Russia, and for that reason they each wanted U.S. backing. And the oil companies, still angry at AIPAC for its role in creating ILSA and blocking the Iran-Conoco deal, realized that they'd be better off cooperating with the group than confronting it.

Not only did AIPAC and the oil companies cooperate, but according to Weissman the oil companies actually funded the group's work and AIPAC officials gave John Browne, then BP's chief executive, a guided tour of Washington's Holocaust Museum. During these years, one of Weissman's main preoccupations was the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan deal:

"So we get ILSA. It passes overwhelmingly. That same year I brought some Conoco guys to AIPAC's policy conference, where half the House and half the Senate usually attend, and they knew that night that they would never win anything against us. So they began to cooperate. A lot of the oil companies realized, 'We're not gonna beat these guys in Congress, so we might as well try to tailor their activities, where we at least have some room to work.' And I was the go-between. I was the guy. I mean, BP still credits me with being the guy who greased the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, because of my work with them. That was originally designed as an anti-Iran project.

"I also became the guy who was reaching out to the Iranian Jewish community here. AIPAC thought that the Iranian Jewish community thought our way, and that they'd be a great source of funds. So I began to go regularly to Los Angeles, to have meetings with Iranian Jews. The guy from Qualcomm was one of the guys we talked to, people in Bel Air and Beverly Hills. I got to know a whole cross section of them, I appeared on Persian radio, and you know what's funny? I got a call one day from [BP].

"During the Khatami period, when Clinton was reaching out to Iran, they had a lot of support from the Iranian business community, exporters, against sanctions. I can't remember how many oil conferences I spoke at, telling them that ILSA wasn't so bad for them, which went over like a lead balloon. But I got a free education in the oil business, from BP and so on. Every time somebody from BP would come to town, their chief economist, their chief geologist, I would always get an hour with them. They'd give us money, like $10,000 or whatever. What they did was very smart. They turned me into someone who saw the world through their eyes. They started, BP, and then Amoco, giving AIPAC money. You know what? One time Steve Rosen guided John Browne through the Holocaust Museum. John Browne, the head of BP. His mother was actually Jewish. He grew up with her, alone. So he was coming to the United States and he really wanted to go to the Holocaust Museum. So we cooked up this thing, we would have Steve Rosen and Browne and his mother tour the Holocaust Museum together. It was great!"

Even Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, and Adel al-Jubeir -- then the Saudi embassy spokesman and currently the ambassador -- welcomed AIPAC's work in helping to support the BTC pipeline and isolating Iran, its Persian Gulf rival, economically. Remembers Weissman:

"Prince Bandar used to send us messages. I used to meet with Adel al-Jubeir a couple times a year. Adel used to joke that if we could force an American embargo on Iranian oil, he'd buy us all Mercedes! Because Saudi [Arabia] would have had the excess capacity to make up for Iran at that time."

End of Part 1 | Part 2: Wrangling over Regime Change

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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