AIPAC Throws In The Towel On The Iran Fight

The group will now shift its focus to ensuring "the strictest possible enforcement of the agreement."
Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) speak at the AIPAC conference in March. 
Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) speak at the AIPAC conference in March. 

WASHINGTON -- The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying group that led the fight to kill the Iran nuclear deal, admitted defeat on Friday.

In an email to its supporters, Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, an AIPAC-funded affiliate, pledged to maintain “the pressure on all of Congress, whether they voted for or against the deal, to ensure the strictest possible enforcement of the agreement.”

Noticeably absent from the email was any indication that the group is planning to throw its weight behind a lawsuit against the Obama administration over the nuclear agreement, as was suggested by House Republicans earlier this week. AIPAC and CNFI did not respond to requests for comment about the House’s lawsuit threat.

CNFI thanked its members lobbying against the deal, pointing to the House's rejection of a resolution to approve the Iran deal earlier in the day as proof that a bipartisan majority of the chamber opposed the agreement.

Friday’s votes in the House were largely symbolic, as Senate Democrats already blocked a vote on Thursday night that aimed to kill the nuclear accord. “Despite today’s vote in the House of Representatives, the Senate has cleared the way for this flawed deal to move forward,” CNFI conceded in the email.  

The admission of defeat comes after a two-month-long, nearly $30 million effort by AIPAC to convince lawmakers to sink the nuclear agreement negotiated in July between Iran, the U.S. and five world powers. 

AIPAC and its CNFI affiliate ran a deluge of television ads and personally lobbied undecided Democrats, whose support was necessary to create a veto-proof opposition to the nuclear accord. Ultimately, they fell short, with only four Senate Democrats straying from their party and pledging to block the deal. In the House, 25 Democrats voted against a symbolic resolution of approval on the deal, but only two gave their support to the resolution to suspend the president’s ability to waive sanctions -- the vote that could have carried serious implications for the nuclear accord.

AIPAC always faced an uphill battle in convincing lawmakers to break with a president of their own party on a major national security initiative. But the extent of the defeat came as a surprise and led some to question the future influence of the pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse.

The truth is, AIPAC’s track record for head-to-head battles against sitting presidents partially suggested this outcome. In 1991, the group lost a battle against President George W. Bush over his decision to delay $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel in response to its expansion of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. Ten years prior, AIPAC failed to block President Ronald Reagan from selling advanced surveillance planes, known as Airborne Warning and Control Systems, to Saudi Arabia.

What stands out about AIPAC’s present-day defeat with the Iran deal is the highly partisan split when it came to bucking the influential pro-Israel group. In both the House and the Senate, an overwhelming majority of Democrats defended the Iran nuclear deal as the best option to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. And in both chambers, not one Republican member supported the nuclear accord -- despite top former Republican officials including Richard Lugar, John Warner, Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell backing the deal.

This outcome can, of course, partially be attributed to the fact that the nuclear agreement was the work of Democratic President Barack Obama, and is already being framed as the legacy of his presidency. But cause for the split aside, injecting partisanship into support for AIPAC is a relatively new phenomenon and one that poses more threat to the group than a one-off loss on a policy matter.

Fueling the shifting party dynamics in the support for AIPAC is the emergence of J Street, a progressive pro-Israel group. Despite a comparatively small budget -- J Street spent closer to $4 million lobbying lawmakers to protect the nuclear accord -- the group’s growth in prominence has provided an alternative outlook for Democrats who feel strongly about U.S. commitment to Israeli security but struggle with some of AIPAC’s policy recommendations.

"This was foremost a victory for diplomacy and a realist worldview,” said Dylan Williams, J Street’s vice president of government affairs. “It also will have repercussions in terms of how lawmakers and those around them view the political landscape around Middle East policy issues, especially those in which U.S. and Israeli government policy differ."