WASHINGTON – The American Israel Public Affairs Committee sent a message on Thursday to those who doubt its influence in Washington.
On Monday, the New York Times declared a victory for US President Barack Obama over AIPAC, the largest pro-Israel lobby in the United States. AIPAC has aggressively pushed for legislation in Congress that holds diplomats in Geneva accountable— by AIPAC's standards— in their efforts to negotiate a settlement to the longstanding nuclear crisis with Iran.
Progress has been slow— "blunted," according to the Times report. But with a strongly-worded letter from the Republican Senate caucus, and with a forceful speech from Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez on the chamber floor on Thursday, AIPAC is pushing back, and reasserting its influence on Capitol Hill.
Dozens of Senate Republicans sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Wednesday night demanding a vote on Menendez's bill, which would trigger additional sanctions tools against Iran should Obama’s efforts at diplomacy fail to end the longstanding nuclear impasse.
Their letter aimed to call attention to a significant shift in the dynamic in Congress on Iran policy, one of the sole bipartisan issues left on the Hill.
That bipartisanship is in jeopardy, the 42 Republican members said, as Reid – following the lead of the president and an apparent majority of Democrats who oppose the bill at this time – has given no indication he has any plans to bring the legislation to a vote.
The letter called the moment a “crossroads” in the two parties’ unified effort to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons capacity.
Obama told Congress in his fifth State of the Union address last month that he would veto any sanctions legislation during the negotiation process, fearing that such action would fray an international consensus at the negotiating table with Iran and prompt Iranians to leave the table altogether.
“The American people - Democrats and Republicans alike – overwhelmingly support this legislation,” the letter reads. “We should not allow the administration to turn one of the most bipartisan issues in America into a partisan one.”
The letter charges Reid with having taken “unprecedented steps” to strip Republicans of rights in the Senate and notes that 16 Democratic senators have endorsed the bill, amounting to a near-filibuster- proof majority.
Senior Republican Senate aides told The Jerusalem Post that Reid should expect them to exercise the gamut of subterfuge strategies in their effort to give the bill, formally known as the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013, a vote on the floor.
Iran negotiated with the US and world powers a six-month freeze in much of its nuclear work, in exchange for roughly $7 billion in sanctions relief, while the parties attempt to negotiate a solution to worries over its expansive nuclear program.
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, the chief US negotiator with Iran, said the interim deal was “not perfect,” but bought time for the US and its allies to achieve a peaceful solution to the crisis.
Sherman was questioned by Menendez, who authored the bill that Senate Republicans are now pushing Reid on for a vote.
She said that some dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program would be required for the US to agree to a deal and that no deal is better than a bad one.
In an interview with Press TV this week, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said that Iran would be willing to make some “design changes” to its heavy-water plutonium facility in Arak, which could provide their government with a second path to a nuclear weapon.
“We can do some design change – in other words, make some change in the design in order to produce less plutonium in this reactor – and in this way allay the worries and mitigate the concerns,” he said.
But in recent weeks, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have granted several press interviews in which they have rejected the idea of dismantling their uranium facilities, spanning over 20,000 centrifuges across multiple facilities.
On Tuesday, Sherman characterized those comments as Iran’s “maximalist negotiating position,” meant for domestic consumption.
Zarif replied with sharp words, calling on the US diplomat to “stick to the reality” in her public remarks.
Bucking Obama's veto threat, Menendez said on Thursday that the bill should be seen as a "win" by the White House, urging his colleagues to support the bill and warning against a rare partisan fracture on the longstanding national security issue.
But for the first time, Menendez raised doubt that now was the "appropriate time" for a vote on the bill.
"I hope that we will not find ourselves in a partisan process trying to force a vote on a national security matter before its appropriate time," he said.
"Troubling signs have already appeared" since an interim deal between Iran and world powers took effect last month, the Senate Democrat said, that lead many in the upper chamber of Congress to remain distrustful of Iran and its intentions in negotiations over its expansive nuclear program.
"The Administration and the Senate have a common interest– to prevent a nuclear-weapons-capable-Iran," Menendez (D-NJ) said. "We have differences as to how to achieve it. We have an obligation to debate those differences and concerns. But I will not yield on a principled difference."
Menendez introduced a bill in December that would trigger new sanctions tools for the president against Iran should negotiations fail to produce a comprehensive nuclear agreement.
Menendez laid out his vision for such a deal: over twenty years of constant oversight in Iran's facilities, and broad dismantlement of its uranium enrichment facilities.
"I would urge everyone to look at the legislation I’ve drafted with my colleague from Illinois and members of both Caucuses," he added, "as a win for the Administration."
Menendez said he feared the issue of a nuclear Iran would become a partisan issue should Reid deny the bill a vote— and claimed the majority leader felt the same.
"While we in the Senate are not at the negotiating table – we have a tremendous stake in the outcome," Menendez said. "My sincere desire is for the Administration to succeed."
AIPAC put out a statement commending Menendez's speech shortly after he left the floor of the Senate on Thursday afternoon.
"We agree with the Chairman that stopping the Iranian nuclear program should rest on bipartisan support," AIPAC's statement read, "and that there should not be a vote at this time on the measure."
That position marks a shift: before Menendez's speech, AIPAC officials were insisting the lobby would continue to build support for the bill, and that it expected a floor vote before the expiration of the interim nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Plan of Action.