WASHINGTON — In the past, details of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s lobbying agenda for the last day of its policy conference was worth its weight in gold. Reporters bent over backward to glean nuggets of information, before thousands of AIPAC activists hit Capitol Hill, on what exactly it was that they would ask of their representatives.
But this year, with less than a month left before a deadline to reach a framework for a comprehensive deal between Iran and six world powers, AIPAC’s citizen lobbyists – and anybody else who happened to be listening – got the message on jumbotron screens in a plenary hall packed to the gills with some 16,000 people. And it wasn’t only on the screen – it was accessible together with draft bills and supporting documents on AIPAC’s conference application.
For the thousands of attendees expected to visit Congressional offices on Tuesday, hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s divisive speech before Congress, AIPAC’s policy “asks” are going to be a tough haul. With presidential vetoes promised on two of the three main agenda items, the group’s supporters will have to wrangle veto-busting 67-vote supermajorities in the Senate if they ever want the bills they are lobbying for to be signed into law.
AIPAC’s lobbying policy has three prongs, according to the giant screen and AIPAC’s legislative head honchos, who presented it onstage: support diplomacy by increasing pressure, insist on a good agreement, and review any final deal. The missing noun in all three points was, of course, Iran.
In previous years, Iran has always been part of the lobbying package, but it was far from the sole focus. In 2014, for instance, a key ask was the US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act, which Congress eventually approved. The second main element that year was the Nuclear-Free Iran Act, represented this year through the first prong of the all-Iran strategy.
That legislation, sponsored by senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who will address the conference later this week, would impose strong additional sanctions on Tehran should nuclear talks fall through.
That bill was officially filed in January, but Senate Democrats promised to hold off on a final vote until March 24. The Obama administration staunchly opposes the bill, which proposes heavy sanctions if no comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran is reached by the current, twice-extended, July 1 deadline. Proponents say the legislation will help pressure Iran to reach an agreement, but opponents say it will give it fodder to argue that the US has been negotiating in bad faith.
Netanyahu may address Congress in support of the bill on Tuesday, but already in January, US President Barack Obama used precious talking time during his State of the Union speech to guarantee he’d to veto it. Thus, AIPAC activists know that they must seek a veto-proof supermajority in order to keep the bill viable.
The lobbying strategy calls on supporters to stress that the bill does not violate the terms of the interim deal with Iran known as the Joint Plan of Action, in which Washington committed to not impose any new sanctions during talks.
The goal for lobbying day is to promote the Congressional review bill sponsored by senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Menendez. The bill, which was long-anticipated and finally submitted Friday, would establish a process whereby the Congress will be able to review any final deal with Iran. Obama has promised to veto that bill as well, but it may prove to be an easier sell en route to a veto-proof majority. Unlike the first bill, this legislation does not seek to impose or threaten any additional sanctions. Rather, Corker has argued, it merely gives Congress the same democratic power that the Iranian Majlis – the parliament – possesses to either approve or reject any nuclear deal.
Although the AIPAC rank and file will ask their representatives to reject a “bad” deal with Iran, activists are still a little fuzzy as to what constitutes a “bad” or even a “good” deal. Some of the parameters are set out in a draft House letter to Obama that AIPAC members will circulate, and on which they will solicit signatures.
“A final comprehensive nuclear agreement must constrain Iran’s nuclear infrastructure so that Iran has no pathway to a bomb, and that agreement must be longlasting,” the letter read. It also called on negotiators to “obtain maximum commitments to transparency by Iran,” and argued that “any inspection and verification regime must allow for short notice access to suspect locations, and verifiable constraints on Iran’s nuclear program must last for decades.”
The last assertion put the letter at odds with Obama administration policy, which seems to support a limited framework for a sunset clause on the bill. Such clauses stipulate that all of the terms of the comprehensive deal expire at a certain point, after which Iran faces no additional limitations on its nuclear project, beyond those that apply to all nuclear nations.