WASHINGTON – The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most influential pro-Israel lobby group in Washington, was perhaps the most significant political avatar for opposition to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, devoting significant resources to scuttling support for the Obama administration’s agreement, which was also heavily criticized by then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
While it has kept a conspicuously lower profile as the Biden administration attempts to revive the agreement following then-President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the deal in 2018, AIPAC’s opposition remains. It continues to advocate for a significantly different U.S. approach to curb Iran’s nuclear program.
“We oppose reentry to the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] without first addressing its key flaws. Our views are well known by the administration and members of Congress,” says AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Wittmann. “We continue to call on the [Biden] administration to lead the international community in enhancing the diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran to end its quest for nuclear weapons,” he adds.
According to a policy memo circulating around Capitol Hill and obtained by Haaretz, AIPAC is advocating for five separate principles for the U.S. to push “in the face of ineffective talks.”
The first point reads that “Iran must not be allowed to achieve a nuclear weapons capability,” and that the U.S. cannot accept Iran as a nuclear threshold state and “simply seek to deter Iran from taking the final steps to acquire an actual nuclear weapon.”
The next so-called imperative argues that “talks cannot stretch on endlessly, enabling Tehran’s nuclear advances.”
AIPAC notes that Iran has a history of using talks to stall for time while it tries to lock in nuclear advances, calling this unacceptable for America and its allies.
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AIPAC then argues that “Iran must face increased pressure if it won’t halt its program,” saying it has a track record of only making concessions when faced with “regime-threatening economic pressures or a credible threat of military force,” adding that neither condition exists today.
The pro-Israel lobby also argues that Iran has been provided with economic relief due to sanctions not being fully enforced.
“Iran’s perception of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, combined with limited U.S. responses to Iranian attacks on U.S. interests in the region, have undermined the credibility of a forceful U.S. response to Iran’s nuclear escalations,” the memo states.
It continues that “reducing restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program is unacceptable,” directly attacking a so-called “less-for-less deal” the Biden administration had reportedly been mulling prior to the most recent round of talks, which ended in Vienna over the weekend. AIPAC describes this approach as “fatally flawed” and something that “should be rejected outright.”
Finally, AIPAC says “the concerns of IAEA inspectors must be resolved,” saying its refusal to cooperate undermines both the International Atomic Energy Agency’s authority and the legitimacy of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. It also calls on the Biden administration to push for a resolution at the IAEA Board of Governors to censure Iran and refer the violations to the UN Security Council.
Despite the parallels between the AIPAC points and the Israeli government’s position, Wittmann says AIPAC’s position “is developed independently and not in coordination with any outside organization or entity.”
First rule of holes
AIPAC’s efforts come as former Israeli security, political and intelligence officials have grown more emboldened in criticizing the Trump administration for withdrawing from the deal and its subsequent maximum-pressure campaign on Iran. Further, American Jews have largely indicated their support for the deal and President Joe Biden’s handling of relations with Iran.
Recent GBAO polling commissioned by J Street – AIPAC’s foil within the U.S. Jewish community concerning Iran – found that 69 percent of American Jews support reentry to the deal and 65 percent support continued diplomatic efforts.
“It’s a recognition that the prior agreement was working and the position of the majority of Jews from 2013-2015 was proven correct,” says J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami. “The position that AIPAC and [then-Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and the Trump administration took was proven wrong. It’s not just what we think, it’s now a matter of historical fact that the JCPOA worked and Iran was further away from the possibility of developing a nuclear weapon.”
He adds: “It’s a matter of fact that there’s only one way to constrain and put an end to this potential threat – and that’s through diplomacy and through agreement. The idea that some magical form of maximum pressure or saber-rattling is going to work doesn’t work. We’re right back at it trying to repair the damage that they caused. And they’re acting like amnesiacs with an ahistorical context, fact free.”
J Street, however, is not at the point where it is arguing for a specific policy. “The goal should be to find some common ground among all parties, whether they’re in the agreement or out of the agreement, that – at a minimum – presses pause,” Ben-Ami says.
“We’re going in the wrong direction. The first rule of holes is stop digging. Let’s at least stop the situation from getting worse via diplomacy and then we can see if there’s any road forward to build a better agreement,” he continues. “Right now, the most important thing is to stop the Iranians from going down the path that they’re on.”
Despite the fundamental differences between J Street and AIPAC – and, by proxy, the Israeli government – Ben-Ami does not expect a clash between Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Biden similar to the one between Netanyahu and then-President Barack Obama.
“I don’t think the mistake will be made again: an Israeli prime minister coming before Congress to oppose the policy of a sitting U.S. president. That was a real landmark moment that broke the bipartisan understandings around the U.S.-Israel relationship. I don’t think this government would make that kind of mistake again, and that certainly is a lesson that’s been learned.”
That being said, Ben-Ami recognizes the Bennett government’s loud and clear opposition to U.S. diplomacy on Iran. “I do expect that they would be pretty vocal in their advocacy to American-Jewish organizations and also toward elected U.S. officials that [this] kind of an agreement would be bad.”
The seventh round of indirect talks ended in Vienna on Friday with no sign of progress. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the talks ended because Iran “does not seem to be serious about doing what is necessary” to return to compliance with the original deal.
Should talks ultimately fail, Ben-Ami anticipates that AIPAC and other hawkish forces in both countries may press for more unilateral sanctions or press for some authorization regarding military force.
“Neither of those are going to go down without a fight. There is no evidence whatsoever that maximum pressure is actually working to stop the Iranian nuclear program. It seems to be having the opposite results,” he says.
“We would oppose in Congress any effort unilaterally to go even further down a road that is unproductive and ultimately only sparks deeper tension and potentially leads us down the road to conflict.”