Obama lobbies Jewish groups to back Iran deal

Meetings a part of administration’s broader effort to defend nuclear agreement framework amid increasing skepticism

US President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference at the Summit of the Americas at the ATLAPA Convention Center on April 11, 2015 in Panama City. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN)
US President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference at the Summit of the Americas at the ATLAPA Convention Center on April 11, 2015 in Panama City. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN)

US President Barack Obama sat down with over a dozen Jewish leaders and political supporters Monday in two separate meetings, in an effort to defuse fears over the terms of a framework long-term nuclear deal with Iran, and to assure them of his commitment to Israel.

The meetings were part of the administration’s broader effort to defend the emerging Iran deal before an increasingly skeptical Congress and public.

Participants in the first meeting said that they first met with National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who had also defended the US-led negotiations with Iran at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference last month. After about 20 minutes, the president entered the room and stayed for over an hour. Representatives of groups both supporting and opposing the terms of a framework deal with Iran said that Obama was “generous” with his time.

Obama began with approximately 30 minutes of remarks described by participants as “extensive.” In those comments, he expressed nine arguments in support of the framework agreement with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – reiterating statements he and the administration have made publicly in recent weeks.

Participants, who were told to come prepared with questions, engaged in a question-and-answer session with the president after his opening remarks. The mood was said to have been cordial, despite the displeasure that a number of major Jewish organizations have expressed regarding the emerging terms of the deal with Iran.

“They’re definitely trying to sell,” said Nathan Diament, the executive director for public policy at the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America, according to a report in Bloomberg Monday.

“He’s trying to convince the leadership of the Jewish community that this is a good deal and that not only should we be supporting the deal, but we should not be supporting initiatives on Capitol Hill that the president views as potentially torpedoing the deal,” Diament said.

Top officials from civil defense groups like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, umbrella groups like the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Federations of North America, and pro-Israel lobbying groups like AIPAC and J Street were all in attendance. Representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements were also present alongside the Orthodox Union.

Last week, the more skeptical organizations also participated in an hour-long meeting with both chief negotiator Wendy Sherman and Secretary of State John Kerry, during which they raised many of the same concerns that were reiterated during Monday’s meeting at the White House.

Later Monday afternoon, Obama met with Jewish “community leaders,” including several prominent political supporters, The Washington Post reported. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest described the attendees as “outspoken advocates who may not hold official positions or leadership positions in those organizations but are, in their own right, effective advocates,” the report said.

Sources who have been apprised of the second meeting said the group was composed of major donors to the Democratic Party who have expressed skepticism about the Iran nuclear deal, among them Israeli-American entertainment mogul Haim Saban.

Unlike in other meetings with Jewish organizational leaders, Obama did not convey any clear “asks” – requests to engage in advocacy for the deal, or even to tone down opposition to it. He treated the meeting as informational, although he repeatedly reiterated his commitment to Israel’s security and to the US-Israel relationship.

One of the representatives described the meeting to The Washington Post as “positive and very moving” and said that the president was “heartfelt about his connection to Israel.”

He also repeated the phrase often stated by State Department negotiators: that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” and affirmed the administration’s willingness to walk away from a deal that fails to meet its requirements.

Support for the Iran deal among the American Jewish community would be valuable to the Obama administration given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s outspoken opposition to it.

The administration also intensified its outreach to Congress in recent days as momentum has built behind a bill that would require the legislative body to sign off on the final terms of a deal with Iran.

Kerry arrived late Monday at Congress to brief skeptical House lawmakers about the outlines of the framework deal struck earlier this month in Lausanne, Switzerland. He told reporters before the closed-door briefing open to all 435 House lawmakers that he wanted to go into “some detail because there have been a lot of… misrepresentations.”

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to vote Tuesday on the bill, which would give lawmakers 60 days to approve the terms of the nuclear deal and decide whether to lift congressional sanctions on Iran.

The major powers and Iran earlier this month announced they had agreed the outline of the deal, which would exchange sanctions relief for restrictions aimed at keeping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Iran and the US have since been at public odds over several supposedly agreed central principles of the deal.

Netanyahu staunchly opposes the framework deal, asserting that it paves Iran’s path to a nuclear arsenal.

JTA contributed to this report.

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