Pro-Israel lobbyists heap Iran pressure on US Congress
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Pro-Israel lobbyists heap Iran pressure on US Congress

AIPAC attendees to push their elected officials to adopt a hard line on Tehran’s nuclear program

The audience stands to applaud Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., while he speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, Sunday, March 1, 2015 (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
The audience stands to applaud Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., while he speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, Sunday, March 1, 2015 (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

WASHINGTON (AFP) — Israel’s prime minister and lobbyist-in-chief Benjamin Netanyahu addresses Congress on Tuesday, but US lawmakers will also get an earful from pro-Israel citizen-lobbyists warning Capitol Hill against a singular threat: Iran.

Thousands of members of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, will pack the halls of Congress, a second act of sorts after Netanyahu’s speech in which he too will highlight the need to stop Iran’s nuclear program cold.

They will huddle with senators and representatives, including some skeptical Democrats and fully supportive Republicans, urging them to expand punitive sanctions on Tehran in the midst of negotiations over limiting Iran’s nuclear capacity.

“Iran’s the only thing they’re focusing on,” 27-year-old Cesar Degracia-Morales from Texas told AFP a day before he marches up Capitol Hill.

“I hope the lobbying effort tomorrow will achieve what we all want: more sanctions on Iran, so we can use that as a deterrent to stop their nuclear program.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2015 Policy Conference, March 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. (photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2015 Policy Conference, March 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. (photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)

That goal remains elusive. Tightening the economic noose on Iran at the height of international negotiations to rein in Tehran’s nuclear program is strongly opposed by President Barack Obama, who has argued that would push Iran away from the negotiating table.

He has threatened to veto such legislation, including a bipartisan bill sponsored by Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez.

Robert Menendez speaks to AIPAC on March 2, 2015 (AIPAC screenshot)
Robert Menendez speaks to AIPAC on March 2, 2015 (AIPAC screenshot)

The bill’s supporters say they will wait until after March 24 before calling for a vote. Congress is in recess the final week of March, and world powers and Iran have given themselves until March 31 to hash out the political framework for a nuclear deal.

That gives AIPAC, which has made halting Iran’s nuclear program a top priority for a decade, a crucial window.

On Sunday its leaders told some 16,000 attendees in a stadium-sized convention center to demand Congress be allowed to review any final deal on Iran.

Iran is ideologically driven to acquire a nuclear weapon, and “only dramatic pressure can compel them to give it up,” AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr told the crowd.

Clipped wings

AIPAC enjoys great sway on US Middle East policy, but its wings were clipped with two stinging defeats over the past 18 months.

In September 2013 it backed Obama’s effort to strike Syria in response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, but Congress did not go along. Then last month, facing opposition from Obama, an Iran sanctions bill backed by AIPAC was delayed.

AIPAC’s annual lobby effort remains one of the most organized and effective in the nation, according to several lawmakers who engage the activists on the Jewish group’s policy recommendations.

“AIPAC has been a very aggressive driving force in educating members of Congress,” House Republican Mario Diaz-Balart told AFP.

“It is unique, and it has the impact,” added Democrat Marc Veasey. “AIPAC does a fantastic job of informing and engaging.”

Secretary of State John Kerry, right, with House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Edward Royce. (photo credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Secretary of State John Kerry, right, with House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Edward Royce. (photo credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster)

House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce told AFP he is arming AIPAC’s lobbyists with a letter he wrote to Obama saying he and top committee Democrat Eliot Engel “are prepared to evaluate any agreement” the US strikes with Iran to ensure it will “foreclose any pathway to a bomb.”

On Tuesday AIPAC will try once again, through its citizen lobbyists, to drive the point home to lawmakers.

US National Security Adviser Susan Rice speaks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee 2015 Policy Conference, March 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. (photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)
US National Security Adviser Susan Rice speaks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee 2015 Policy Conference, March 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. (photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)

US National Security Advisor Susan Rice warned AIPAC to take a soft approach and allow the crucial negotiations to work their will without Congress acting as “spoiler.”

But when she acknowledged to the large crowd Monday that she knew “some would argue that we should just impose sanctions and walk away,” she was greeted with a roar and a standing ovation.

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