The stage at the 2017 AIPAC conference..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – Congressional Democrats are still nursing wounds from last year’s fight over the nuclear deal with Iran, which the American Israel Public Affairs Committee aggressively opposed. But in a shift, Republicans are now the ones expressing dissatisfaction with the lobby.
Top GOP lawmakers are questioning its will to wage small legislative battles for Israel after suffering such a consequential and public loss last summer.
Aides to Republican leadership on Capitol Hill tell The Jerusalem Post
of widespread disappointment in the lobby over the last several months, which the politicos view as dragging its feet on anything unrelated to its new, central concern: renewal of the Iran Sanctions Act, a move that the Obama administration has yet to oppose or endorse.
The law has been in place throughout implementation of the nuclear accord. The White House has not said whether renewal of the law would be a technical or spiritual violation of the agreement, or conversely, whether it would bolster the administration’s ability to enforce it.
The nuclear deal does not allow the US to pass any new nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, but it remains unclear whether renewal of existing law – and the continuation of executive orders waving enforcement of parts of that law – amounts to passage of new sanctions, or simply to renewal of an existing infrastructure of sanctions mechanisms.
Some in the Obama administration fear that renewal of the act would maintain a culture of sanctions detrimental to a burgeoning US-Iranian rapprochement.
But AIPAC considers the Iran Sanctions Act – a bill it aggressively lobbied to pass in the first place – to be the essential architecture of existing and future sanctions on Iran, critical throughout enforcement of the deal and even more so should the deal begin to crumble.
At its annual policy conference this year, AIPAC told its members to lobby Congress aggressively on support for the Iran Sanctions Act. But in pushing for bipartisan consensus to ensure ISA renewal, Republicans believe that AIPAC is shirking its mission statement on a host of other battles.
“There’s a level of frustration stemming from AIPAC’s seeming refusal to mobilize on any legislation with teeth this year,” said one such senior Republican aide. “There are solid, bipartisan bills out there, yet they [AIPAC] seem to be waiting for some unicorn proposal from Royce-Engel [Rep. Ed Royce (R-California), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York), ranking member of the committee] that would gain 100 percent support.”
One oft-cited effort in Republican circles is an amendment offered by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), which would have barred the US from using taxpayer dollars to buy heavy water from Iran. Roughly 32 metric tons of the substance, key material in nuclear facilities designed to weaponize plutonium, was purchased by the Obama administration earlier this year as part of the deal’s implementation.
AIPAC chose not to join Cotton’s fight – which failed to pass the Senate’s 60-vote threshold by three votes – because the lobby’s leadership concluded it was never going to move. It has come to a similar conclusion on a GOP-led fight against Iran’s indirect access to US dollars.
"The Iran deal put AIPAC's mantra of bipartisanship to the test, and it failed miserably," said another senior aide to Republican leadership. "When the chips were down, most Democrats abandoned Israel to side with the president. AIPAC's mistake is prioritizing bipartisanship over policy by refusing to touch an issue unless members on both sides of the aisle are supportive."
Several members believe that AIPAC’s first priority is to shore up the bipartisan consensus that has made it such a historically powerful lobby – a consensus that was threatened during the high-profile debate over the Iran deal, which pit the organization against a sitting Democratic president on his signature foreign policy achievement.
“It’s not just Republican members. It’s also Democratic members who aren’t happy with AIPAC at the moment – they’ve dug themselves a deep hole,” said one Democrat who works closely with members of Congress on these issues.
“I’m sure for certain members, AIPAC is trying to salvage the relationship. But Democrats remember the meetings in their offices, they remember the vitriol aimed against them when it came to the Iran deal, and that stuff isn’t easily forgotten.”
AIPAC maintains that its access to members of Congress during last year’s debate was unprecedented, that a majority of Congress and the American people oppose the nuclear deal, and that its fight against the agreement ultimately revealed bipartisan consensus against it.
That consensus, the group says, is what it seeks to maintain, and is its reason for not joining what it dismisses as unwinnable, partisan fights.
“We are working hard to move bipartisan legislation that actually has a chance to be passed that will hold Iran accountable for its nuclear commitments, punish it for its malign regional behavior and prevent further concessions to Tehran,” said Marshall Wittmann, spokesman for AIPAC, in response to this report. “As part of that effort, it is important to pass ISA reauthorization which will maintain the sanctions infrastructure to respond to Iranian violations.”