Romney’s Iran Campaign

As Mitt Romney completes his electoral swing through Jerusalem, it is tempting to view this as just a cynical campaign maneuver.  No doubt the candidate – in an effort coordinated the Republican Jewish Coalition and Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel — aims to peel off some Jewish support from Obama, especially in states like Florida, and to seek votes from the large right-wing Israeli-American expat community.  Also, a fundraising affair in Jerusalem ($50,000 minimum ticket) promises to add quite a few shekels to his campaign coffers.  But that’s only part of the story.

Romney is no Willard-come-lately when it comes to serving the interests of Israel.  His ties to the Israeli Right and especially Likud Party President Benjamin Netanyahu go back many years.  Mitt met Ben in when the two were business school graduates in Boston.  Romney, with a Harvard MBA, and Netanyahu (then calling himself “Benjamin Nitai”) from MIT’s Sloan School, worked together at The Boston Consulting Group in 1976.  Their close relationship continued over the years, through the various political ups and downs experienced by the ambitious duo.

When Romney left office after one term as Governor his presidential ambitions were already obvious.  Only a few days after his successor, Deval Patrick, was inaugurated on January 4, 2007, Romney effectively launched his campaign for the White House — not in Massachusetts or Utah, but in Israel.   On January 20, the brand-new ex-Governor flew off to Herzliya for the annual Interdisciplinary Security Conference, whose theme that year was “Still Time to Stop Iran”.  (he was not alone; aspiring candidates Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain also spoke, though via satellite, to the assembled delegates.)

The next day, Romney was in the audience to hear Netanyahu – Likud Party leader but then out of elected office — address the Conference:

…on the economic level, we are taking action to advance voluntary sanctions on Iran…  A historic example of this is the action taken against the Apartheid regime in South Africa… An operation is needed here that isn’t partial, that is coordinated, and that Israel needs to lead. First and foremost, the action needs to focus on the United States, and must kickstart Jewish public opinion, the Congress and the Senate, American media, economic forces, and the average citizens.

Whether Netanyahu thought up this idea on his own– he had been in the US during the 1980’s when the grassroots campaign for divestment from South African Apartheid took off – or if it was whispered in his ear by any of the numerous US right-wing Zionists in his circle, is impossible to know for certain.  The idea for a US Iran divestment campaign had already been floated in a 2006 paper by Christopher Holton, who later became head of the “Divest Terror Initiative” at Gaffney’s extremist right-wing and anti-Islam Center for Security Policy.

Romney had dinner with Netanyahu in Jerusalem the next evening, where the two planned how to organize the proposed anti-Iran divestment campaign.  A couple days later, on January 23, Romney addressed the Herzliya Conference, with his own call “for economic sanctions against Iran ‘at least as severe’ as those imposed on South Africa during its apartheid era, in an effort to isolate the Central Asian nation and convince it to give up its pursuit of a nuclear weapon.”

He continued:

In my meetings in Israel this week, I have become aware of a potential US pension system to further isolate the Iranian economy. We should explore a selective disinvestment policy. After a series of briefings here, I actually contacted the Treasurer of my own state of Massachusetts and the Governors of some of the neighboring states to begin this process.

Netanyahu, however, was not on hand for Romney’s speech.  He was already in Boston that day to meet with Massachusetts State Treasurer Tim Cahill, influential legislators and leaders of the local Jewish community.  The response to the proposal from Massachusetts state officials was apparently lukewarm at first.  Cahill said he would examine the idea, but that any action would have to be approved by the legislature.

Meanwhile, members of the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council pressed the issue more widely, arguing at the February national meeting of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs “to form a ’Stop Iran’ coalition that would launch political, economic and educational initiatives against the Iranian nuclear threat, including a mass demonstration in Washington and a divestment campaign.”  But the rest of the delegates were skittish.  Jewish-American opinion had turned decisively against the Iraq war and there was little stomach for another campaign that could climax in a military confrontation against Iran.  Not only that, but Walt and Mearsheimer’s essay on The Israel Lobby had already appeared in the London Review of Books and there was intense nervousness about what might be perceived as another Jewish-establishment and Israel-supported military confrontation.

It took AIPAC to whip the troops into line.  On March 13, 2007 Haaretz reported that “various Israeli sources and the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), are also contributing to the efforts, particularly through specific legislation in various American states where pension funds hold stock in firms invested in Iran.”  At its annual Washington DC Policy Conference later in the same month there were at least two panels on Iran divestment and the tactic was formally adopted after a closed-door meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu.  Vice-President Dick Cheney got a warm reception from the AIPAC delegates, but all the 2008 presidential candidates were also there.  Obama’s speech — apparently written by WINEP’s Dennis Ross, among others — was full of threats to punish Iran and referred to Jerusalem as “Israel’s eternal and undivided capital.”

By May 9, AIPAC published its memo “Divestment: An Important Tool in Preventing Nuclear Iran” advocating “state-level campaigns to divest public pension plans from companies investing in Iran’s oil and natural gas sector provide another means to pressure the regime.”  Preparations got under way for a strategic – and bi-partisan — state-by-state campaign for Iran divestment.

However, there were some concerns about the legality of such state-based initiatives.  Earlier court decisions had struck down similar efforts as usurping federal powers and unlawful restraints on trade; there were also fears of corporate or investor damage suits if plaintiffs could show financial harm.  So lawyers at AIPAC duly arranged for the filing of Congressional legislation on May 16:  H.R. 2347, Iran Sanctions Enabling Act of 2007; a parallel and identical bill was launched in the Senate on the next day

HR 2347 was fast-tracked in the House and passed 408-6 on July 31, 2007.  However, in the Senate, where procedural rules allow a bill to be put on hold, the legislation was blocked by Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, reportedly at the request of the Bush administration.  To the discomfort of AIPAC and advocates of confrontation with Iran, Bush apparently felt that two disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were more than enough for the time being; and in any case, sitting presidents usually oppose having their hands tied by Congress on foreign affairs.

Nevertheless, the state-by-state divestment campaign took off. The legalities mattered little in the end because the effort really aimed to stir up public hostility against the Iranian regime and prepare the way for possible armed confrontation later.  The practical effect of this first round of Iran sanctions was mainly symbolic, but served to open another front in the strategic propaganda war against Iran.

The divestment campaign marched relentlessly from state to state with depressing uniformity. Everywhere the legislative initiatives was launched and trumpeted by the local Jewish communal organizations and in the Jewish press, by AIPAC supporters, in the Neocon blogosphere and sometimes among local pro-Israel Christian fundamentalists.  Sometimes token allies would be rounded up– in the labor movement or in communities of color– but this did little to disguise the true source of the effort.  The so-called grassroots campaign was strictly Zionist astro-turf.

Florida was the first state to enact an Iran divestment law on June 8, 2007, followed by Louisiana (July 9), Illinois (September 11), California (October 14) – with little publicity and usually no organized opposition.  Eventually the list included New Jersey, Ohio, Georgia, Mississippi, Iowa, Texas, Colorado, and Washington State, reaching 17 states plus the District of Columbia and many city councils too.  I gave up counting when the wave reached Alaska.  Occasionally a divestment bill was delayed or even defeated, as in Maine, when pension boards or public sector unions took notice of possible damage to state retirement fund bottom lines.  More often the law was passed with little fanfare.

What about Massachusetts — where, thanks to Romney, the Iran divestment effort all began?  It wasn’t in the first, or even the second wave of states to pass a divestment bill.  The local legislative calendar did not allow the introducing a new bill until 2008 and by then it was possible to muster some opposition in coordination with a few determined state legislators, the head of the Massachusetts pension investment board and the State Treasurer (at least before he changed his opinion after deciding to run for governor).  Embarrassingly, the Massachusetts divestment bill, camouflaged as “An Act Protecting Pension Fund Investments from the Global Securities Risk of Investment in Iran,” was defeated first time out and only passed two years later after some serious arm twisting by pro-Israel lobbyists and legislative leaders.  Democratic candidate for State Treasure Steve Grossman, a former national AIPAC president, boasted proudly of his role, not in his campaign literature but in the pages of The Jerusalem Post.

It’s worth emphasizing that the campaign against Iran was and remains “bi-partisan” in character. The Iran Divestment Enabling Act of 2007 was not the product of some Southern Republican or Neocon mouthpiece in Congress, but was introduced by that well-known Massachusetts “Progressive” Barney Frank.  The matching Senate bill was sponsored by an ambitious young freshman from Illinois named Barack Obama, — who later signed it into law during his first year as President.

By now Obama is learning the perils of electoral pandering to the Israel Lobby.  Ever more extreme AIPAC-written Iran sanction bills – some over the tepid opposition of his administration — have poured out of Congress.  The political pressure mounts to compel armed confrontation rather than diplomacy with Iran and for the President to prove his fealty to Israel by one concession after another.  The bar is constantly raised, so that no increase in military aid or security cooperation with Israel, no amount of bellicose rhetoric or overt preparation for military attack on Iran will ever suffice to prove that Obama is a “true friend” of the Jewish State.  The President is learning – perhaps too late – that feeding the Israeli crocodile never works.

Meanwhile in Jerusalem on Sunday, Netanyahu — with Romney at his side — was smiling his crocodile smile in preparation to making Obama his next meal.  And Sheldon Adelson was close by, writing another big check.

JEFF KLEIN is a retired union president, political observer and long-time international solidarity activist.


Jeff Klein is a writer and speaker on Middle East issues who travels frequently to the region.  An earlier version of this piece, with illustrations, can be found in his occasional blog: “At a Slight Angle to the Universe.” He can be reached at