How the Anti-Iran Lobby Machine Dominates Capitol Hill
This story was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
In the basement of Washington’s swank Mandarin Oriental Hotel on a balmy spring day, the conference guests were finishing up their boxed lunches as the conversation shifted to their host’s pet topic—Iran. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, perhaps DC’s premier neoconservative think tank, had gathered donors, supporters, press and other interested parties for a two-day meeting on Middle East policy. And some of the Hill’s most rapacious hawks for sanctions on Iran were in the room that day to receive awards.
The moderator, a veteran Bloomberg reporter, hailed FDD executive director Mark Dubowitz as “the architect of many of the sanctions we have against Iran right now, who advised Congress on how to draft that legislation and has also advised Treasury and the White House on his opinions about sanctions.” The praise was telling. Although Dubowitz tried to give credit to Congress, the White House and the departments of Treasury and State, groups like the FDD play an outsize role in shaping policy on the delicate and potentially explosive issue of Iran’s nuclear program.
Since the moderate Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran last June, the Obama administration has engaged in an intensive round of diplomacy aimed at placing permanent curbs on that program. The talks have progressed further than anyone expected, with an interim deal in November that set a late July deadline for reaching a final accord. On Capitol Hill, though, diplomacy has been dismissed by a parade of influential naysaying hawks. And these organizations are already talking up ways of making sure that a deal, if one is reached, is dead on arrival.
Within Washington’s corridors of power, the institution that has done the most to focus attention on the alleged Iranian nuclear threat—Congress—has also been among the most skeptical when it comes to using diplomacy to do anything about it. But the members of Congress don’t come up with these ideas on their own. A handful of organizations—especially the FDD, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI)—do most of the legwork in shaping policy. An even smaller network of right-wing donors funds these groups (see the sidebar below).
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Over the past decade, this small network of advocates has become incredibly effective at getting its way. A 2010 bill slapping sanctions on foreign banks and companies doing business—especially oil business—with Iran passed the Senate 99–0, and a 2011 amendment sanctioning international companies dealing with Iran’s Central Bank passed 100–0. In 2012, another sanctions amendment passed the Senate 94–0, and a 2013 resolution backing Israel should it attack Iran was passed 99–0. “By far and away the most powerful voices are what you can term the hawkish groups on Iran policy,” says a former congressional aide.
In the boxing ring that is Washington, the match-up isn’t even. Compare, for example, the budgets of groups that oppose diplomacy with those that support it. Four of Washington’s pro-diplomacy groups are significant players on the Hill: the Center for a New American Security, the National Iranian American Council, the American Iranian Council and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. According to their most recent tax filings, these organizations boasted an annual combined budget of approximately $9.4 million.
Meanwhile, the latest tax filings for just two of the groups that push hardline policies, the FDD and AIPAC, have a combined budget of approximately $75 million. And that doesn’t include the annual budget of an AIPAC offshoot, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy ($8.7 million), or aggressive right-wing PR groups like United Against Nuclear Iran ($1.6 million), whose spokespeople are regularly quoted by national media.
All that cash helps produce papers and reports advising Congress, flashy DC conferences and other ways of accessing power. For example, a more modestly funded dovish group might request a meeting with members of Congress, but some members will meet only with advocates who bring along a constituent, which could require buying a plane ticket. “That’s obviously easier for lobby groups that have a lot of money, because they can fly someone out,” says Kate Gould, a lobbyist with the pro-diplomacy Friends Committee on National Legislation.