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Iran sanctions bill's demise shatters the myth of AIPAC's invincibility

As top diplomats from Iran, the European Union and six world powers convene in Vienna this week to negotiate the terms of a long-term agreement on Iran's controversial nuclear programme, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), by far the most influential pro-Israel lobbying group in the United States, seems to be in the midst of a political crisis that has weakened the long-standing perception of its invincibility.


All this only a few weeks prior to its major yearly conference set to take place in Washington on March 2-4.

Immediately following last November's interim nuclear deal, AIPAC expressed its opposition by pointing to the agreement's "implicit acceptance of Iranian enrichment" and urging the US Congress to "legislate additional sanctions".

The lobbying group managed to gather some momentum but failed to convince the US Senate Banking Committee – the committee usually in charge of sanctions legislation – to enact new sanctions. Committee Chairman Tim Johnson noted at the time that the president's efforts had led him to "hold off on committee action for now".

That is when momentum shifted to the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee. Together with Senator Mark Kirk, Committee Chairman Robert Menendez introduced S. 1881, the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act of 2013, more commonly known as the Menendez-Kirk Iran sanctions bill.

Hailed as a bi-partisan bill with strong support from both Democrats and Republicans, the bill was meant to show that imposing new sanctions on Tehran was a top priority for both sides. However, less than two months later, the bill reached its demise in the same committee that had seen its birth.

According to sources closely involved with the Iranian file in Washington, AIPAC's lobbying has all along been the main force behind these legislative proposals. In the meantime, other influential groups also joined the effort, including The Israel Project and the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, two notoriously conservative groups.

AIPAC's strongest asset, however, has always been its claim to be a truly bi-partisan organisation, acting on behalf of the entire American Jewish community and supporters of Israel, regardless of their political affiliation. Up until the demise of the Menendez-Kirk Bill, this has largely been true, but recent events have in some ways alienated the group's Democratic supporters.

All of a sudden, AIPAC found itself solely supported by Republicans, something it has always sought to avoid. And that is when it realised it had lost its battle.

Following the bill's introduction in December, several statements by Obama administration officials urged Senate Democrats to re-consider their support for the legislation. Additionally, dozens of civil society and non-profit organisations also joined the White House in opposing the bill. In January, over 70 groups including NIAC, the Arab American Institute, the Islamic Society of North America, but also groups more closely aligned with AIPAC itself such as J Street signed a joint petition in which they warned that "new sanctions would set us on a path to war".

But two key events officially decreed the bill's demise.

The first was President Obama's State of the Union address last month. In his speech, Obama made it clear that "if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it," emphasising that for "the sake of [US] national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed."

The second was a letter sent by a group of 42 Republican senators to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. In the letter, the senators urged Reid to hold a vote on the bill after it became clear that the Obama administration had succeeded in pushing Democrats away from the legislation.

"The letter, sent out right after the State of the Union, made it very clear that the issue had become a purely partisan one," Jamal Abdi, the policy director at the National Iranian American Council, told the Middle East Monitor in an interview.

According to Abdi, when Senator Menendez warned against making the bill a partisan issue during a Senate floor speech on February 6, "that was the bill's death knell".

Immediately following Menendez's speech, AIPAC was quick in changing its course.

"We agree with the Chairman that stopping the Iranian nuclear programme should rest on bipartisan support and that there should not be a vote at this time on the measure," AIPAC said in a statement to The Hill newspaper.

AIPAC's quest for bi-partisanship

AIPAC now finds itself in a thorny situation. Early next month, the group is set to hold its yearly Policy Conference. The three-day event will bring to Washington over 14,000 supporters of Israel from across the country, in addition to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. AIPAC's policy is not to reveal the conference's agenda until the eve of the event, although a discussion of the Menendez-Kirk bill was expected to take place. Not anymore.

According to sources familiar with the conference, the event will include several workshops, off-the-record exchanges and some fundraising activities. On the third and last day of the conference, invitees will head to Capitol Hill to present their legislative priorities for the year ahead.

Now that the bill is dead, however, what is most likely to take place during the three-day event is a discussion of a draft resolution on Iran's programme which will lay out the expectations of the group and its supporters from the ongoing nuclear negotiations.

"They will probably go for a 'Plan B', that is, an informal resolution or a letter that would set the terms for a final deal," said Abdi. "It will most likely be a non-binding measure, but it could end up limiting the president's ability to negotiate at the table."

Netanyahu's presence means the conference will also touch on the ongoing peace talks. But it is not clear whether AIPAC will take any firm stance on the issue. In the past, the group's position on the two-state solution has been rather blurry, with some statements supporting "a demilitarised Palestinian state" and others calling for an undivided Jerusalem, since "the united city is Israel's capital".

Given the disconnect between these positions, the demands of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and US Secretary of State John Kerry's plan, progress on the peace-talks agenda during the conference itself is unlikely.

What the conference will probably focus on instead, will be an effort to rebuild Democratic support for Israel and AIPAC's agenda. After Obama made it clear that a new sanctions bill would go against US national interests, AIPAC now finds itself in the difficult situation of having to reassure its Democratic supporters and the administration that US national interests still come before Israeli national interests.

Ultimately, regardless of the conference's agenda, what seems to be clear at this point is that AIPAC's aura of invincibility is no longer there. What the sanctions bill demonstrates is that the group will forego a victory that can portray it as a partisan and divisive force and, perhaps more importantly, that the US executive can still exert some influence.

Ramy Srour writes for MEMO from Washington. Follow him on Twitter. He is the founder and managing editor of Foreign Policy Today.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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