How the Anti-Iran Lobby Machine Dominates Capitol Hill
The hawkish groups skillfully work the Hill with regular briefings and frequent contacts with staffers. Their battalions of policy analysts and lawyers “package [sanctions] bills and hand them to congressional offices,” says the former Hill aide. They also assiduously ply the mainstream media, regularly providing op-eds and quotes in news coverage. In other words, this is a full-scale operation: the hawks generate the ideas, translate them into policy, shepherd bills through Congress and celebrate their passage.
To see how deeply these groups have influenced Congress, one need only glance at the docket of House and Senate committee hearings on Iran. It’s at these hearings that members of Congress vie to burnish their credentials as being tough on Iran, calling for ever-harsher sanctions. “Congressional hearings are not weighted to be some objective analysis of some foreign policy issue,” says the former congressional aide. “The people who are calling the hearings have an agenda.”
Since November 2012, eleven separate hearings on Iran policy have considered a total of thirty-six expert testimonies from outside groups. Of that number, two neoconservative organizations dominated: FDD fellows made five appearances, and those from the AEI had four. Neoconservative allies like David Albright, who co-chairs a nonproliferation group with Dubowitz and spoke before Congress four times in this period, also gave testimony. All told, people associated with groups taking a hard line on Iran sanctions accounted for twenty-two of the thirty-six testimonies solicited by House and Senate committees.
Centrist think tanks, on the other hand, were underrepresented. Employees of the Council on Foreign Relations testified twice, while the Brookings Institution, the RAND Corporation, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Center for Strategic and International Studies fielded only one witness apiece over the period reviewed by The Nation. Experts from dovish think tanks hardly appeared at all: the only witness from such a group, Barak Barfi of the generally left-of-center New America Foundation, made one appearance.
Since 2010, when the GOP retook the House, the Foreign Affairs Committee has been led by hard-liners. Florida’s über-aggressive Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was replaced last year by California’s Ed Royce, who is only slightly less extreme. In 2013, Royce’s committee unanimously approved legislation that the FDD helped write—and that AIPAC has backed—which would tighten the screws on Iran, giving “the ayatollah a choice between the collapse of his economy or compromise on his nuclear weapons program and giving up that program,” in Royce’s words. The bill came to a full House vote at the end of July, just days before Rouhani’s inauguration.
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However, the determination by the White House to take advantage of Rouhani’s overtures brought about a remarkable change in Congress, stiffening the spines of liberal Democrats. Led by Jim McDermott, John Conyers, Keith Ellison and Jim McGovern, they issued a letter on July 31 urging delay, saying it would be “counterproductive and irresponsible to vote on this measure before Iran’s new president is inaugurated.” More than a quarter of the House—including more than 100 who would later vote for the bill Royce co-sponsored—signed another letter encouraging the Obama administration to explore diplomacy with Iran. “It would be a mistake,” warned the signatories, “not to test whether Dr. Rouhani’s election represents a real opportunity for progress toward a verifiable, enforceable agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.” Even so, Royce’s bill would pass by a lopsided 400-20 vote.
Nonetheless, by late November of last year, several rounds of intense negotiations yielded the Joint Plan of Action, which saw the United States and its partners—the four other permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany, called the P5+1—modestly ease sanctions in exchange for Iran’s reducing its stockpiles of nuclear material and ceasing enrichment to higher levels. A key component of the interim deal was that the P5+1 would refrain from imposing new sanctions. The two sides agreed to aim at striking a final accord within six months—and both would need to keep their respective hardliners in check.
The Obama administration would soon face another hurdle with hawks on the Hill. In December, Senators Robert Menendez, Mark Kirk and Charles Schumer introduced their counterpart to the Royce bill. AIPAC threw its weight behind it, helping to amass fifty-nine co-sponsors. Though vaguely worded, the Senate bill sought to destroy negotiations by imposing deeper sanctions, insisting that any final deal must “dismantle Iran’s illicit nuclear infrastructure, including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and facilities.”
The sanctions hardliners heaped praise on the measure. In a video posted online, AIPAC’s policy director, Brad Gordon, claimed the effort would “dramatically enhance our chance” of striking a deal with Iran and urged AIPAC’s members to write their senators to garner co-sponsors. But the bill raised alarms among advocates of diplomacy—including, most importantly, the White House. “This bill is in direct contradiction to the administration’s work to peacefully resolve the international community’s concerns with Iran’s nuclear program,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan. Obama issued a veto threat.