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Big Democratic Donors Urge Congress to Back Off Iran Sanctions

Days before the AIPAC conference, letter could be boon to Obama's diplomatic efforts.

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The new push from Democratic donors could go a long way toward convincing Democrats that supporting their president's interim agreement with Iran is a politically tenable option.(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Dozens of major Democratic donors are urging congressional leaders to oppose any new sanctions or legislation that could jeopardize ongoing negotiations between world powers and Iran.

The letter, signed by 82 donors, the majority of them Jewish, could be a boon for President Obama's diplomatic efforts, which resulted in a controversial deal that curbed major aspects of Iran's nuclear program temporarily as negotiations to reach a permanent deal continue.

 

Obama has promised to veto new sanctions, but Republicans are trying anyway to revive a sanctions bill by Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., which had 59 cosponsors. In the coming days, key speakers, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are expected to press Congress to keep the financial noose tight around Iran at a conference held by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Washington's best-known pro-Israel lobby.

The donors' letter may help weaken some of that momentum.

"Although success in achieving a final agreement is far from guaranteed, Congress should allow these fragile negotiations to proceed without making threats that could derail them or tying the hands of the negotiators by imposing unrealistic terms for a final agreement," the donors wrote Thursday to senior Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Majority Whip Dick Durbin, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, and House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer.

 

National Journal previously reported that diplomacy with Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, and the growth of alternative pro-Israel groups make it easier for lawmakers to oppose Iran sanctions than it has been in years past.

The new push from Democratic donors—including Ben Cohen, formerly of Vermont-based Ben & Jerry's ice cream; Victor Kovner, a fixture in the Democratic fundraising world since the Clinton administration; and former Sierra Club Foundation President Guy Saperstein—could go a long way toward convincing Democrats that supporting their president's interim agreement with Iran is a politically tenable option.

"This is the political center of gravity of the Democratic Party telling Congress there is no political need to do what the organizations pushing hawkish actions on Iran want you to do," a lobbyist arguing against new Iran sanctions said under condition of anonymity.

Praising the agreement between six world powers and Iran in November as a "first step" toward a comprehensive agreement to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, the donors echoed Obama's State of the Union claims that Iran has begun to freeze, and roll back, parts of its program under stringent international monitoring for the first time in a decade.

 

The donors insist that lawmakers should be aware of Iran's threats that new sanctions—even if they did not take effect immediately—would be seen as a violation of the interim agreement and could rupture negotiations. "Passing such legislation would likely lead to an immediate and substantial lessening of economic pressure on Iran because other countries, like China, Russia, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, India and Turkey might cease implementing sanctions on the ground that the U.S. had undermined negotiations," the letter said.

Congress could always pass new sanctions if Iran violated the agreement, the donors said. However, for their part, Netanyahu and pro-Israel groups in the U.S. supporting Israeli leadership on this issue want to keep the pressure tight during the interim deal, which does not fully dismantle Tehran's nuclear program.

The donors also take what is sure to be a controversial stand on uranium enrichment.

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Some members of Congress are insisting that Iran give up enriching uranium, even to low levels, which the Islamic Republic has already decried as a deal-breaker. Putting such a provision into law would threaten talks by "tying the hands" of both U.S. negotiators and Rouhani, "who could not feasibly finalize a deal that zeroes out domestic enrichment," the letter said.

"Like sanctions, such a legislative poison pill would only serve to erode the prospects for diplomatic success," the letter continued. "Even if congressional action took the form of a nonbinding resolution, or if the president vetoed such legislation, its initial passage would strengthen the hand of Iranian hard-liners arguing against negotiations on the ground that Congress will not accept any deal reached at the negotiating table."

Diplomacy's failure now, the donors continued, would either lead to military action or Iran getting a nuclear weapon. "We urge you to oppose risky congressional action that, if taken, may lead you to wake up the next morning knowing the result has been to take the diplomatic option off the table," they wrote.

To see the full letter, click here. The complete list of donors who signed the letter follows:

Naomi Aberly, Boston, Mass.

Gerald H. Acker, Southfield, Mich.

Ralph Alpert, Santa Cruz, Calif.

Kathleen C. Barry, Berkeley, Calif.

Marc Baum, New York, N.Y.

Georgia Berner, Zelienople, Pa.

David Blair, Dublin, N.H.

Leonore Blitz, New N.Y.

Bob Bowditch, Boston, Mass.

Bob Burnett, Berkeley, Calif.

Connie Caplan, Baltimore, Md.

Diana Shaw Clark, London, UK

Simon Clark, London, UK

Ben Cohen, Burlington, Vt.

Steven H. Cohen, Chicago, Ill.

Suzanne F. Cohen, Baltimore, Md.

Gary Collins, Portland, Conn.

Pilar Crespi, Robert, N.Y.

Stephen Davis, Cambridge, Mass.

Laurie Dewey, Lincoln, Mass.

Kirk Dornbush, Atlanta, Ga.

Andrew Faulk, San Francisco, Calif.

Chris Findlater, Miami, Fla.

Fathali Ghahremani, New York, N.Y.

Morton Halperin, Washington, D.C.

Martin Hellman, Stanford, Calif.

Lawrence Hess, San Diego, Calif.

Suzanne Hess, San Diego, Calif.

Arnold Hiatt, Boston, Mass.

Daniel Solomon, Bethesda, Md.

Amb. (ret.) Alan D. Solomont, Weston, Mass.

Marc R. Stanley, Dallas, Texas

Alexandra Stanton, New York, N.Y.

Mary Ann Stein, Bethesda, Md.

Robert Stein, Berkley, Calif.

Faye Straus, Lafayette, Calif.

Carolyn Summers, Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Amb. (ret.) Louis B. Susman, Chicago, Ill.

Ritchie Tabachnick, Carnegie, Pa.

Marge Tabankin, Marina Del Rey, Calif.

Valerie Tarico, Seattle, Wash.

Lester S. Hyman, Washington, D.C.

Frank Jernigan, San Francisco, Calif.

Wayne Jordan, Oakland, Calif.

Amb. (ret.) Samuel L. Kaplan, Minneapolis, Minn.

Sylvia Kaplan, Minneapolis, Minn.

Sarah Kovner, New York, N.Y.

Victor Kovner, New York, N.Y.

Janet Kranzberg, Berkeley, Calif.

Betsy Krieger, Baltimore, Md.

Ira Lechner, Escondida, Calif.

Stephanie Low, New York, N.Y.

Priscilla McMillan, Cambridge, Mass.

Roger Milliken, Cumberland, Maine

Holly Mosher, Venice, Calif.

Edward J. Nalbantian, London, UK

Rebecca Newman, Irvine, Calif.

Riley Newman, Irvine, Calif.

Sandy Newman, Washington, D.C.

Arthur Obermayer, West Newton, Mass.

Zach Polett, Little Rock, Ariz.

Eleanor Ravelle, Evanston, Ill.

William Revelle, Evanston, Ill.

Stephen Robert, New York, N.Y.

Charles Rodgers, Boston, Mass.

Marjorie Roswell, Baltimore, Md.

Guy Saperstein, Piedmont, Calif.

Deb Sawyer, Salt Lake City, Utah

John Schram, San Francisco, Calif.

William S. Singer, Chicago, Ill.

Michael Thornton, Boston, Mass.

James A. Torrey, New York, N.Y.

Philippe Villers, Boston, Mass.

George Wallerstein, Seattle, Wash.

Marc Weiss, New York, N.Y.

Beverly Westheimer, Petersborough, N.H.

Tom Westheimer, Petersborough, N.H.

Carol Winograd, Stanford, Calif.

Terry Winograd, Stanford, Calif.

Judith Zee, Steinberg, Colo.

Robert Zevin, Cambridge, Mass.

Tal J. Zlotnitsky, Trinity, Fla.

This article appears in the February 28, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.

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