September 2, 2015


Was Battle Against Iran Deal a Noble Fight -- or Epic Flop? (Nathan Guttman, September 2, 2015, The Forward)

"It was misguided," said philanthropist Charles Bronfman, who also chairs the Israel Policy Forum's advisory committee. "From the get-go it seemed that those who were against the deal are going to lose, so the question is, why get into this fight and spend so much money?"

The effort did little to move the political needle. [...]

The pro-Israel lobby, second in political influence to only the gun lobby and the senior citizens' political advocacy groups, has found itself in a bind. It faced, on the one hand, an Israeli government determined to go all out to stop the deal and to demand the same of its supporters. On the other hand, an American administration that was willing to muster its full political power to ensure the passage of its key foreign policy achievement.

AIPAC chose to go full force against the deal, despite the slim political chance of winning. "When a president is dead set on a foreign policy initiative, it's virtually impossible to stop him, and the sophisticated people at AIPAC understand that," said Neal Sher, who was the lobby's executive director from 1994 to 1996. "But the Netanyahu administration has come out so forcefully that I'm not sure AIPAC had that much of a choice."

As a result, AIPAC launched the most expensive foreign policy advocacy campaign in recent history. Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, a subsidiary group the lobby established, was immediately able to secure a reported campaign chest of up to $40 million, though Patrick Dorton, the group's spokesman, put the sum at about half of that.

This money, all deployed in the compressed period between the deal's announcement in mid-July and the mid-September congressional votes, went primarily to TV ads in 40 states that sought to influence wavering lawmakers to oppose the deal. The campaign also included online ads targeting specific senators and representatives. AIPAC also conducted intense direct lobbying, from constituent pressure to high-level visits to Capitol Hill by major donors with close ties with lawmakers.

And that was not all. Opponents of the deal succeeded in getting a majority of Jewish organizations to join, with major players such as the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League speaking out against it. An additional push came from 21 Jewish federations across the country that called on their members to lobby against the agreement.

But results were limited. As the congressional summer recess drew to a close, it became clear that the campaign moved few votes to the opposition column. The biggest achievement was convincing New York Senator Charles Schumer to oppose the deal. But despite his leadership position in the Senate and his standing in the Jewish community, there was no "Schumer effect" that moved others, as advocates had hoped.

In launching its all-out campaign against all odds, AIPAC took a calculated risk. First and foremost, it risked losing the bipartisan image it has been struggling to maintain for decades. "It now becomes harder for them to say, 'We're no Republican organization,'" Rosen said, noting that AIPAC is in fact bipartisan and has made a point of keeping both Democrats and Republicans on its board.

AIPAC also risked taking a hit to its image as an omnipotent lobby ruling the Hill. Former Florida Democrat Robert Wexler told Newsweek that much of AIPAC's power lies in the perception that it is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. "But if the 800-pound gorilla challenges and loses, then the deterrence factor is seriously weakened," Wexler said.

Meet the Iran Lobby : In the fight over sanctions and the nuclear deal, how did the supposedly all-powerful pro-Israel lobby lose to the slick operatives of the National Iranian American Council? (Lee Smith, September 1, 2015, Tablet)

Trita Parsi, the Iranian-born émigré who moved to the United States in 2001 from Sweden, where his parents found refuge before the Islamic Revolution, should be the toast of Washington these days. As I argued in Tablet magazine several years ago, Parsi is an immigrant who in classic American fashion wanted to capitalize on the opportunity to reconcile his new home and his birthplace. And now he's done it: The founder and president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), the tip of the spear of the Iran Lobby, has won a defining battle over the direction of American foreign policy. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action not only lifts sanctions on Iran, a goal Parsi has fought for since 1997, but also paves the way for a broader reconciliation between Washington and Tehran across the Middle East.

In Washington, to have the policies you advocate implemented with the full backing of the president counts as a huge victory. Winning big like this means power as well as access to more money, which flows naturally to power and augments it--enhancing reputations and offering the ability to reward friends and punish enemies. And yet, Parsi (who declined comment for this story) has got to be frustrated that very few in the halls of American power--either in government or in the media--are celebrating the Iran lobby for its big win. It seems the only thing people can talk about is the big loser in this fight over Middle East policy--the pro-Israel lobby, led by AIPAC. It's as if Parsi and NIAC had nothing to do with the Obama Administration's decision to move closer to Iran while further distancing itself from Israel.

"It's a huge win for NIAC," said one Iranian-American analyst who requested anonymity. "Every other part of Iranian-American advocacy--from the Mujahedin-e Khalq, to the washed-up old monarchists--is useless, and then in comes Trita and he's slick, presentable, and knows how to build an impressive network." So, why is the rise of the Iran Lobby both Washington's biggest and also its least-heralded success story of the past six years?

In part, Parsi and NIAC's relative anonymity is the work of a White House that would rather pretend that there is no Iran Lobby, in accordance with the standard Beltway wisdom that a "lobby" is any group of people who advocate things that you are opposed to (lobbies that advocate things you are for are known as "supporters"). But the White House surely knows better, in part because so many friends and graduates of the Iran Lobby now staff key Iran-related government posts. The White House's Iran desk officer, Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, for example, is a former NIAC employee. NIAC's advisory board includes two former U.S. diplomats, Thomas Pickering, a former ambassador to Israel, and John Limbert, who was held hostage by the revolutionary regime in 1979. Past speakers at NIAC leadership conferences include Joe Biden's National Security Adviser Colin Kahl, and the White House's Middle East Director Rob Malley. Other past speakers from the political realm include: Robert Hunter, former U.S. ambassador to NATO; PJ Crowley, State Deptartment spokesperson under Hillary Clinton; Hans Blix, former director general of the IAEA. Other reputable names include figures like Aaron David Miller from the Wilson Center, Robert Pape from the University of Chicago, and Suzanne Maloney from the Brookings Institution.

Posted by at September 2, 2015 5:53 PM

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