Pro-Israel lobby presses for new US sanctions on Iran, but gingerly

AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, wants Congress to put more pressure on Iran, a.k.a. new sanctions, to abandon its nuclear program. But it doesn't want to pick an open fight with Obama, who opposes such sanctions for now.

Mike Theiler/Reuters
US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) at its annual policy conference, in Washington on Sunday.

This year’s annual gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington has all the trappings of another raw show of organizational power by the top pro-Israel lobby and, by some accounts, the most powerful lobby in Washington.

Some 14,000 activists – a record for AIPAC – fill the vast Washington Convention Center, meeting under tight security. Protesters, mainly from local colleges and Code Pink, shout at the main entrance. About two-thirds of members of Congress are expected to make an appearance over the four-day event, ending Tuesday.

But the tone of the meeting is cautious, even tentative, this year. AIPAC leaders are working to manage unusually public rifts within official Washington over policies important to Israel, especially how best to block Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. 

AIPAC is lobbying Congress for tougher economic sanctions against Tehran, saying they would put even more pressure on Iran to give ground on its nuclear program. President Obama pledges to veto any such measure, on the grounds that more sanctions at this time would derail diplomatic efforts to put checks on Iran's nuclear program. In Congress, Israel’s strongest supporters are falling out along partisan lines on the issue.

“It was pressure that brought Iran to the table. And only increasing pressure can bring about a good deal,” said AIPAC chief executive officer Howard Kohr, at the opening session Sunday.

For much of its history, AIPAC has been able to muster nearly unanimous support in Congress for resolutions supporting Israel, especially when the White House pushes for concessions from Israel on issues such as settlement-building in occupied territories. But AIPAC so far has secured only 59 signatures on a Senate measure to impose new sanctions on Iran – one short of the 60 votes needed to move major legislation. Republican lawmakers want AIPAC to use its muscle to push the measure through the Senate.

“I hope, as you do, that we can find a peaceful resolution in this crisis, and the only way there is a modest chance that this can happen is your tireless support,” said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, at the AIPAC conference Monday. “I believe we have to keep the pressure on." Iran’s rulers must know that if negotiations with the West fail, the next step is “more crippling sanctions or worse.”

“The whole situation cries out for American leadership, and I’m sorry to tell you, it’s MIA,” Senator McCain said. “Do you believe, in the light of the last five years, that the Iranian mullahs think we’re serious?"

A bipartisan letter by six senators, which AIPAC released Sunday, takes a more conciliatory tone, largely citing White House talking points on the issue and claiming to be advancing them.

“As you have said, Congress has always been a partner in presidential efforts to impose economic sanctions on Iran,” said the letter, signed by Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Charles Schumer of New York, and Christopher Coons of Delaware, and GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mark Kirk of Illinois, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.

“Should negotiations fail or Iran violate the Joint Plan of Action, Congress will need to ensure that the legislative authority exists to rapidly and dramatically expand sanctions,” the letter concludes.

In addition, the letter sets down principles for any final agreement, also seen as consistent with White House views. They include banning “a uranium or plutonium path to a nuclear bomb,” giving up fuel-enrichment facilities and heavy-water reactors, and submitting to “a long-term and intrusive inspection and verification regime.”

While the letter does not specify what such sanctions would be, possibilities discussed with AIPAC attendees include squeezing Iran's banking system even tighter and imposing sanctions on its mining and automobile sectors.

AIPAC members will be lobbying members of Congress Tuesday to build support for these principles.

US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew told attendees that Iran is already aware of the prospect of harsher sanctions, should negotiations fail.

“Iran is now under greater economic and financial pressure than any country has ever experienced,” he said Sunday in an address to the conference. “We have sent the very clear signal to the leadership in Tehran that if these talks do not succeed, then we are prepared to impose additional sanctions on Iran.

“All options remain on the table to block Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he added. “Israel’s security is sacrosanct. It is nonnegotiable.”

Meanwhile, some 80 top Democratic donors, including many associated with liberal Jewish groups, cautioned House and Senate Democratic leaders against any “risky” congressional action on Iran that could “take the diplomatic option off the table.”

For instance, a congressional demand that Iran give up “even low-level uranium enrichment for verifiably peaceful civilian purposes” would threaten talks, because Iranian President Hassan Rouhani “could not feasibly finalize a deal that zeroes out domestic enrichment,” they wrote, in a Feb. 27 letter to the top eight congressional Democrats.

With midterm elections looming in the US and with control of the Senate on the line, such interventions from top donors are not taken lightly on Capitol Hill.

AIPAC activists, speaking on background, say that AIPAC cannot afford a big loss on Capitol Hill, especially with Israel facing a growing international boycott. "It would not be understood," said one activist. Nor does AIPAC want to risk a break with the Obama White House and an open rift within the ranks of its Democratic supporters.

Secretary of State John Kerry, House Democratic whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, Senator Schumer, and House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia will address the conference late Monday afternoon. 

In a much-anticipated address, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, typically tumultuously received, will speak to the conference on Tuesday, along with Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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