by Jim Lobe
It’s been a difficult annual policy conference for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its hopes of getting Congress to set the toughest possible conditions on any final nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (the U.S., Britain, France, China, and Russia plus Germany). As readers of this blog know, AIPAC entered the conference, which ran from Sunday through Tuesday, in a rather parlous state as a result of its worst foreign policy setback in a generation; specifically, its failure to muster nearly enough Democrats to gain a veto proof-majority in favor of the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill that Obama had threatened to veto. Attacked by hard-line neoconservative groups on the right, notably the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) and the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) for sacrificing its devotion to Bibi Netanyahu’s jihad against Iran in the interests of bipartisanship — namely, not unduly alienating Democrats in Congress and thus bolstering J Street — the nation’s most powerful foreign policy lobby found itself in a seemingly dazed and unfamiliar defensive crouch, lacking until the very last moment a coherent lobbying agenda for the 14,000 attendees signed up for the proceedings.
That was bad enough. But the Russian takeover of Crimea made things worse. The event dominated the news throughout the conference, making it virtually impossible for AIPAC to break through the blanket TV news coverage of the Ukrainian crisis. Even Netanyahu’s belligerent remarks delivered to the conferees Tuesday morning, designed to psyche them up for their subsequent shleps up to Capitol Hill, were relegated to the inside pages of major national newspapers.
Even the weather refused to cooperate. The snowfall that blanketed the area Sunday night and Monday morning effectively shut down the government and downtown, closing Congressional offices, making it highly inconvenient — and, in many cases, impossible — for the usual overwhelming majority of members of Congress, who customarily make cameo appearances at the conference to ensure their good standing, to get to the convention center, and generally cast a wintry pall over the three-day proceedings.
(And then, as if to add insult to injury, on Tuesday, the same day that Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu keynoted the conference, The Hill newspaper, which basically ignored the proceedings throughout, featured a flattering full-page profile of Jeremy Ben-Ami, while the even more influential Politico published an op-ed entitled “Why AIPAC Needs to Get With the Peace Program” by the J Street founder and president. Ouch!)
Ultimately, aside from Netanyahu’s belligerence (a embarrassingly amount of which was directed against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement), what did AIPAC get on the Iran front? Although the smoke has not yet completely cleared on that question, it seems they got some form of its Plan C (after losing on Plan A — the Kirk-Menendez bill — and never getting any lift from Plan B, a non-binding resolution laying out impossible conditions for a final agreement) — a Congressional letter that the group helped to draft.
There are now, however, two such letters that are being circulated in Congress for signature — one hard-line version supposedly co-written by Sens. Lindsey Graham and Robert Menendez that clearly AIPAC and Netanyahu would prefer; the second, a softer one co-authored by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer. The question is, which version (both have been cleared by AIPAC) will get the most support on Capitol Hill?
As I’ve pointed out, both versions are ambiguous on key points, notably on the critical issue of whether Iran will be permitted — at least by Congress as a condition for lifting sanctions as part of any final agreement between the P5+1 — to maintain a limited uranium enrichment program on its own soil. The best analysis of the difference in both letters and the context in which they have been drafted and presented was provided yesterday in a statement by the National Iranian American Council’s (NIAC) policy director (and fellow-Seattle native), Jamal Abdi. Here it is:
…NIAC has serious concerns with the language in the Senate letter regarding demands for a final deal. NIAC outlined its position on what principles should guide Congressional action regarding U.S.-Iran diplomatic efforts in a recent letter to Congressional leadership that was signed by forty organizations. That letter urged that Congress uphold the JPOA [Joint Plan of Action agreed between the P5+1 and Iran last Nov 24], not issue demands on negotiations that contradict the interim terms or the terms outlined for a final deal in JPOA, and that Congress work with the Administration regarding the need to eventually lift sanctions.The House letter meets those standards. NIAC has minor concerns with the House letter, but will not oppose it and commends the efforts of those in the House who succeeded in securing a more balanced letter.
Unfortunately, the Senate letter does not meet those standards and NIAC therefore opposes the Senate letter.
The Senate letter uses new language to offer old ultimatums that will complicate ongoing negotiations, box-in U.S. negotiators, signal that the U.S. would violate the terms outlined in the JPOA, and serve as an invitation to hardliners in Iran to issue similar escalatory demands that will narrow options for compromise. Sections of the letter will be construed to rule out any final deal in which Iran retains a civilian enrichment program, in contradiction of the Joint Plan of Action. This, in combination with demands regarding dismantlement of infrastructure and facilities, and requiring the deal to have regional implications beyond its scope, can only interfere with the work of U.S. diplomats to resolve key concerns at the negotiating table.
NIAC urges that the Administration and Congress coordinate closely regarding ongoing negotiations and work towards the shared goal of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran and averting a disastrous war. NIAC urges that members of the Senate abstain from signing onto the Menendez-Graham letter and instead consider language that supports the ongoing negotiations towards a final deal instead of adding unnecessary complications.
Thus, in NIAC’s opinion, the House letter is preferable for understandable reasons, although the group doesn’t support it.
Now, the latest interesting development is that Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin, who was among the first of the senior Democrats to speak out against the Kirk-Menendez bill, has endorsed the House (Cantor-Hoyer, or C-H) letter and proposed it as a substitute in the Senate for the (Menendez-Graham, or M-G) letter. My understanding is that Levin believes that, despite its ambiguity, the House letter gives the administration the room it needs to negotiate a final agreement that would presumably permit some limited enrichment. If, as expected, other Senate Democrats, such as Banking Committee Chair Tim Johnson and Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein, follow suit, the chances are pretty good that he can get the backing of the majority caucus (although bringing around the 16 Democrats who co-sponsored the Kirk-Menendez bill will be a challenge). And, with Cantor as the chief Republican sponsor of the C-H letter, it’s almost certain that a majority of the House will sign onto that. Especially because, like the tougher M-G letter, the C-H letter has also been blessed by AIPAC.
Thus, as recently three weeks ago, AIPAC was still lobbying hard in the Senate for the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill, which was clearly designed by its drafters to sabotage the JPOA. When it failed to win at that, it tried briefly to get a resolution that would have set out conditions — known to be unacceptable to Tehran — that a final deal with Iran would have to incorporate, but the Democratic caucus would not go along. Twice rejected, it has been forced to settle for a letter and could very well wind up with the weakest one currently on the table. (See update below)
Moreover, the difference between Netanyahu’s maximalist position — no uranium enrichment, no centrifuges, no nothing — and the House letter endorsed by AIPAC is quite large, and Bibi must be rather upset by the gap. Indeed, his strongest supporters here are very upset.
Now, it bears mentioning that the White House, fearful of their effect on the negotiations and feeling perhaps a bit triumphant after frustrating AIPAC so badly over the last couple of months, opposes both letters, which could prove problematic if and when a final agreement with Iran is reached. While Obama can use his executive authority to ease or waive many sanctions, some sanctions can only be lifted by an act of Congress. Moreover, if Obama relies on his waiver authority, there’s no guarantee that his successor, who could even be a Republican, will continue waiving. As the NIAC statement warns “It is critical that Congress work with the Administration to ensure necessary authorizations are in place to enable nuclear-related sanctions to be lifted, as outlined by the JPOA. Those authorizations do not currently exist.” Thus, the administration’s opposition to Congress expressing its views on the subject could have the perverse effect of alienating key lawmakers whose support will eventually be required to fully implement a final agreement — a point made in an ironic tweet (“Pro-Israel and Pro-Iran Lobbies Agree: Iran Cannot Lift Sanctions Without Congress”) by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’ (FDD) Mark Dubowitz, who has long favored waging “economic warfare” against Tehran.
UPDATE: In the battle of the two letters on the Senate side, I understand that the Menendez-Graham version has currently fetched more signatures by a margin of 34-11. The 34 on the M-G side consist of 25 Republicans and 9 Democrats, while the 11 signatories to the Levin (or Cantor-Hoyer) substitute are all Democrats. Two Democrats who did not co-sponsor the Kirk-Menendez bill have signed both letters. I’ve been told that AIPAC is now actively lobbying against the Cantor-Hoyer version, despite the fact that it cleared the letter before the co-authors circulated it. If you have a preference, you should probably call your senator’s office.