The 59 senators who signed on to new Iran sanctions know President Obama opposes them—and they did it anyway.
On the surface, the vote count—which includes 16 Democrats—looks grim for the White House, which strongly opposes the threat of new sanctions, in favor of diplomacy. But the tally is far from the 100-vote rebuke the Senate handed to the White House on the issue in 2011.
The truth is that it is now easier to vote against Iran sanctions than it has been in years past—and to oppose one of the strongest, most influential lobbying groups in the country: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
For two decades, AIPAC has made pressuring Iran its top issue, driving Democrats today into an uncomfortable position, wedged between an adamant White House and a powerful lobby trying to equate support for sanctions with support for Israel.
"Being anti-Iran today is like being anti-Soviet during the Cold War," said Doug Bloomfield, the group's former legislative director. "Who wants to be tagged by being called pro-Iranian and opposing [sanctions]?"
Officials at AIPAC declined to comment. But others, like Sen. Mark Kirk, the Illinois Republican who coauthored the sanctions bill, have been upfront about "heavy" contact with the pro-Israel community and "regular" briefings with AIPAC leadership about the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, which includes measures to punish Iran's oil industry if it breaches diplomatic commitments.
"[I'm] very happy that this has become the kind of test issue for the pro-Israel community," he said. "The pro-Israel community is going to be heavily present in most states. This is a chance for a senator to go back and tell them that, 'I'm with you … on a critical issue, like the survival of Israel in the 21st century.' "
Yet a significant minority of senators is declining that opportunity.
The rise of J Street, a younger pro-Israel lobby pushing hard against the new sanctions, is serving as a counterweight to AIPAC on this issue. Revived hope for a diplomatic breakthrough with new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani helps J Street's cause. So does political pressure from Obama. By decoupling support for Israel with support for new sanctions against Iran, the group is making it easier for lawmakers inclined to support the White House.
"We've been working diligently on Capitol Hill and in the Jewish-American community to raise support for the president's diplomatic efforts vis-a-vis Iran, and oppose any legislation which would threaten it," said Dylan Williams, director of government affairs at J Street. "We feel very strongly that the current bill in the Senate would threaten diplomacy."
J Street's influence is also clear in the money it spends. Among pro-Israel groups, JStreetPAC was the largest single political donor during the 2008 and 2012 cycles, contributing nearly $2.7 million to federal candidates, parties, and outside groups.
And some lawmakers supported by J Street have been vocal in support of the group's position. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, for instance, has spoken out strongly against the new Iran sanctions.
As one congressional aide put it, "Those are the political calculations that are made easier when a group like J Street gives you cover."
Policymakers for and against sanctions have legitimate differences of opinion on strategy to achieve the same goal: getting Iran to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The administration believes new sanctions now will interfere with the final deal the U.S. and world powers are trying to negotiate with Iran. Yet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin 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. AIPAC and the bill's supporters in Congress believe the threat of new sanctions will actually strengthen the ongoing negotiations. The legislation gives Iran a "clear choice," AIPAC's director of policy and government affairs Brad Gordon said in a video on the group's website. "Give up your pursuit of a nuclear-weapons capability, or face further crippling economic sanctions."
On Capitol Hill, the debate is less over tactics than ideology. Lawmakers are left in a tricky position: Those optimistic about diplomacy or wanting to side with the White House are often left with the impression that failing to back more sanctions against Tehran is tantamount to breaking faith with the Jewish state.
"It's been a very clever lobbying campaign, because those who are promoting [sanctions] … have framed the discussion: You're either for Iran, or against Iran," Bloomfield said. "What the hell kind of choice is that?"
The most direct influence AIPAC exerts on the Hill is via lobbying; the group spent $2.2 million in 2013, more than three-fourths of the total spent on pro-Israel lobbying that year. AIPAC's educational arm is one of the biggest sponsors of congressional travel, too, spending about $9 million on nearly 900 lawmaker trips to Israel since 2000, according to Legistorm.
Unlike J Street, AIPAC does not directly contribute to candidates. However, donations from the organization's leadership have long been tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics as pro-Israel political contributions.
AIPAC's support for sanctions has sometimes forced lawmakers into verbal acrobatics. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, for instance, stresses how he has voted for "the strongest" sanctions in the past. If negotiations fail, he said, "then I'm going to vote for even stronger sanctions in the future. But at this point, I think negotiations are our best hope of taking the nuclear weapons out of Iran and avoiding war."
Does he feel this a politically difficult position to take, given that pro-Israel groups are pushing so hard? "Yes," Durbin said. He also acknowledges the pressure is prevalent on Capitol Hill. As for how he's felt it, he said, "I'm not going to get into that."
A Pro-Israel Alternative
Founded in 2008, J Street introduced an alternative definition to what, exactly, it means to be pro-Israel.
"There was a very clear definition of what was considered to be part of the mainstream Jewish community, and it basically had to do with agreeing with most of the Israeli government's policies," the aide said.
Now there's a divide. "What J Street says is, 'We don't have to agree with Bibi Netanyahu, when we agree with some of the opposition leaders in Israel.' " the aide said. "They've definitely broadened the definition, the boundaries, of what it means to be pro-Israel, and they've empowered these voices, which exist in both the American-Jewish community, in Israel—and in Congress."
The message is, apparently, resonating. Not one of the seven Senate candidates that J Street officially endorsed in 2012 have signed onto the recent sanctions bill. "Obviously we're excited to see when folks take what we think is the best position," said Dan Kalik, J Street's director of political affairs.
Of course, these senators are a minority. But it is significant that, rather than avoiding cosponsoring sanctions or voting quietly against them, some lawmakers—including Feinstein—are coming out to say publicly they do not believe this is the time for new sanctions.
Introducing new sanctions now, Feinstein said on the Senate floor last week, "defies logic, it threatens instant reverse, and it ends what has been unprecedented diplomacy. Do we want to take that on our shoulders? Candidly, in my view, it is a march toward war."
Feinstein received $82,171 through JStreetPAC during her 2012 run, making the California Democrat the fifth-top recipient of the group's money that cycle, and the group her second-largest individual donor.
In the battle for influence, groups supporting sanctions will continue to highlight the Iranian threat. Ben Chouake, a physician who heads NORPAC, a New Jersey-based group backing candidates committed to the "strength, security, and survival" of Israel and that is pushing for sanctions, said the message is well-received.
"When you go to a member of Congress and say, 'This is an existential threat to the world,' you explain why, and it's a logical explanation, people usually get it," he said. "And they understand their responsibilities."
A major player among pro-Israel groups, NORPAC contributed nearly $2 million to federal candidates, parties, and outside groups in election cycles from 2008 to 2012. While NORPAC offers no ultimatums in exchange for monetary support, Chouake said, Iran "is clearly the No. 1 issue."
"What's on the table is the prospect of nuclear genocide," Chouake said. "They want to do to the Jews in 12 minutes what Hitler did in 12 years. You just can't let crazy people get nuclear weapons. There's nowhere to hide."
Convincing presidents, however, can be a different story. "Virtually every president hates these sanctions bills," said Chouake, who has been at NORPAC for 15 years. "Clinton hated it; Bush fought it tooth and nail. But every administration, after it was passed, took great advantage of these sanctions and ultimately appreciated they could be used as a tool to facilitate American policy."
In his last term, Obama was forced to learn to love the Iran sanctions Congress muscled through. This time, he may not have to.
This article appears in the January 23, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.