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Israel Lobbies Visiting U.S. Lawmakers to Reject Iran Pact

August 6, 2015
In The News

Visiting Jerusalem, freshman Democratic U.S. Representative Brad Ashford of Nebraska said Wednesday he’d “vote no” if asked now to decide on the Iran nuclear agreement backed by President Barack Obama.

“There’s a lot of skepticism” about the deal among the other Democratic members of the House of Representatives traveling with him in Israel, Ashford said.

That skepticism is being stoked by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top Israeli government and security officials who are meeting with the 22 House Democrats visiting Israel this week. The trip is sponsored by an arm of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the group leading lobbying against the pact in the U.S.

As Congress weighs whether to reject the deal, Israeli opposition to the agreement reached between Iran and world powers has strained relations with the U.S. That hasn’t deterred Israeli officials such as President Reuven Rivlin.

While reaffirming the importance of Israeli ties to the U.S., Rivlin told the visiting lawmakers that Israelis “fear that this agreement is a first step in the legitimization of Iran’s policies and strategies,” which he described as a mix of “fundamentalism and state-sponsored terrorism.”

On Tuesday, Obama and Netanyahu both appealed to American Jewish leaders with their conflicting visions of the accord, which trades curbs on Iran’s nuclear work for sanctions relief. Obama went to American University in Washington on Wednesday to try to frame the congressional debate on the accord as the most consequential foreign policy issue since Congress decided in 2002 whether to go to war in Iraq.

Israeli Concerns

While Aipac says the congressional trip was scheduled for this month’s House recess long before the current debate over Iran, as was one next week by a contingent of House Republicans, the accord is dominating the visit.

Representative Gwen Graham of Florida said an Obama administration official had told her that the Israeli people support the agreement.

“Based on what I’ve heard in Israel,” she said, “the people of Israel feel concern that Iran could be potentially empowered in the region through this agreement.”

Graham, whose father Bob is the former Democratic Florida senator and governor who opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, says she hasn’t made her final decision on Iran. Mail from her constituents in Florida’s northwest panhandle “is running about 90 percent against the deal,” she said.

‘Incredibly Divisive’

Brendan Boyle, whose Pennsylvania district encompasses Jewish areas of Philadelphia, said his constituents’ reaction to the deal “has been incredibly divisive,” and “more no than yes.” Boyle said he’s still “struggling” with verification issues and concern that lifting sanctions will enable Iran to boost its funding of groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, which Israel, the U.S. and the European Union consider terrorist organizations.

“Being here in Israel, it is yet a reminder of just how close Iranian proxies are, and what five or six thousand miles away seems like a more abstract issue, becomes more real here,” he said.

Despite such concerns, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has said she’s confident that her caucus would uphold the president’s veto of a potential congressional resolution rejecting the deal.

Boyle, like Ashford of Nebraska, said the prospect of opposing his president and party leader on Iran won’t deter him if he concludes that the accord is fatally flawed.

Party Considerations

“I’m going to do what I think is right based on the issue, and put party considerations secondary,” he said. “That’s the sort of approach every Democratic member is taking.”

In Washington, where the Senate remains in session, Senator Tom Carper of Delaware said Tuesday that senators are hearing from Obama and administration officials as they prepare to break for the August recess.

“We’ve heard from everybody, including the president, the vice president, secretary of state, Secretary Moniz,” said Carper, referring to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

Congress has until the end of the day on Sept. 17 to vote on approving or disapproving the agreement.

Ad Campaign

Meanwhile, a television ad campaign against the Iran deal is being aired by the American Security Initiative, a nonprofit started by former senators Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican; Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican; and Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat. Paperwork filed with the Federal Communications Commission shows the group bought time during August at stations in North Dakota, Montana and Maryland.

Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, a group tied to Aipac, has purchased broadcast air time in 22 states and the District of Columbia.

Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a briefing Wednesday at the Capitol with Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Congressional critics of the Iran deal have demanded to see confidential agreements reached by the UN agency with Iran on methods to be used to verify compliance with the nuclear accord.

After the closed-door session, committee Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee told reporters, “I think most members left with even greater concerns.”

Amano told reporters the agreement with Iran gives nuclear inspectors wider access and said, “We have a unique opportunity to resolve past issues and undertake a wide range of verification.”