In Surprise Move, Ilhan Omar Signs on to AIPAC-backed Policy Letter

Document calling for extending UN embargo on Iran draws support of the fierce critic of the pro-Israeli lobby, along with more than 390 other lawmakers

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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Rep. Ilhan Omar, at a rally in February 2020.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, at a rally in February 2020. Credit: Susan Walsh,AP
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON – Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota who made headlines several times last year by clashing with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, surprised many political actors in Washington on Monday by adding her name to a policy letter promoted by the powerful pro-Israel lobby.

Omar joined more than 390 other members of the House of Representatives by signing on to a public letter drafted by Rep. Eliot Engel, a fellow Democrat from New York, and by Republican Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, in support of extending the international arms embargo against Iran. The letter was praised by AIPAC for drawing an “overwhelming bipartisan majority” on Capitol Hill.

Omar’s signature on the lobby-backed letter, first reported on Monday by the Al-Monitor news site, is perhaps the most surprising. A member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee chaired by Engel, she has strongly criticized the Trump administration’s policy regarding Iran over the past year – including its involvement in the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force, in January, and the increasing economic pressure on Tehran spearheaded by the United States.

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The international arms embargo on Iran is scheduled to end in five months, and AIPAC noted in its statement that, according to press reports, “Russia and China are eager to resume exports [to Iran] unless the UN arms embargo is extended beyond its Oct. 18 expiration date.” AIPAC also warned that “Iran remains the principal obstacle to peace and stability in the Middle East.”

In the letter spearheaded by Engel and McCaul, the members of Congress – including Omar – signed on to the following statement: “Iran’s illicit transfers of weapons directly contribute to some of the most destabilizing threats to the United States and our partners in the Middle East such as Israel and the Gulf States.”

The letter also warns that not extending the arms embargo “could have disastrous consequences for U.S. national security and our regional allies.”

One key sentence in the document states that the way to prolong the arms embargo is “not through snapback or going it alone, but through a careful diplomatic campaign” – meaning that, in the view of the hundreds of lawmakers who support the letter, American pressure and the reimposition of more sanctions on Iran is not the way to achieve this goal. Instead, they encourage international diplomatic moves in order to arrive at a consensus on the issue.

In a statement to Al-Monitor, Omar's office said that the congresswoman “has consistently, for a long time, supported arms embargos against human rights abusers. However, that is not to say that she supports [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo’s tactics [on Iran] or that her position on sanctions has changed, or that she is not in support of the [nuclear deal]. It was just a narrow ask that we couldn’t find anything wrong with.”

Last week, Pompeo and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, argued publicly over how the administration is handling the arms embargo situation. Warren shared a news report stating that, as part of its effort to keep that status quo in place, the administration is citing provisions from the global 2015 Iran nuclear deal – the same accord that Trump withdrew from in 2018 and bashed as “the worst deal in history.” Warren said that Trump’s policy was “limiting our options and making us less safe.”

For his part, Pompeo responded that “America and Israel are safer outside the Iran deal, which was a failed effort to appease terrorists,” and accused Warren of wanting the arms embargo to end in October.

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