President Obama Sending Two Top Foreign Policy Aides to Address the Conference on Monday.
WASHINGTON—The leadership of the most powerful pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. publicly broke Sunday from the White House over the issue of Iran policy during the first of a three-day policy conference in Washington attended by 16,000 of its members.
Leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac, outlined a strategy moving forward of working through Congress to disrupt any nuclear agreement with Tehran that is deemed too weak in denying the country a nuclear weapons capability.
This would be achieved, they said, both by seeking to impose new sanctions on Iran and to block the White House’s ability to lift standing U.S. sanctions, which would be required as part of any comprehensive agreement.
“Congress has a critical role” in determining this deal, Howard Kohr, Aipac’s executive director, said in opening remarks aimed at rallying the group’s membership. “Congress’s role doesn’t end when there is a deal. Congress must review this deal.”
Mr. Kohr and other Aipac leaders believe any final agreement with Iran must involve the complete dismantling of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, something Obama administration officials have said is no longer on the negotiating table.
Aipac also is seeking to impose new sanctions on Iran if there is no agreement by a late March deadline and to legislate an up-or-down vote in Congress. The White House is opposing both legislative actions.
Aipac’s efforts to shape the Iran deal through the Congress is being driven by what the organization believes has been President Barack Obama’s wariness of using both financial pressure and the threat of military force to challenge Tehran.
Secretary of State John Kerry sought to push back against Israeli criticism of the administration’s Iran diplomacy. In remarks Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” Mr. Kerry said “the main goal here is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. And on that, Israel and the United States agree.”
Aipac was central in lobbying for sanctions imposed on Tehran’s central bank in 2012 that were initially opposed by the White House.
Mr. Obama’s aides, including then-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner , had cautioned that passage of this legislation could lead to spike in global oil prices and undermine the U.S.’s economic recovery. Despite the White House’s opposition, 99 senators voted in favor.
In recent months, Obama administration officials have cited the same central bank sanctions as crucial to bringing Iran’s leadership to the negotiating table. Mr. Kohr and other Aipac leaders on Sunday said the penalties never would have been introduced without the organization’s lobbying of Congress.
“Congress, time and time again, has led the effort to bring pressure on Iran,” said Mr. Kohr. “The administration took ownership of this.”
Mr. Obama is sending two of his top foreign policy aides to address the Aipac conference on Monday in an effort to soften the organization’s position. They are national security adviser Susan Rice and Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power.
Senior U.S. officials have said in recent days that the hard-line position pursued by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and organizations like Aipac are unrealistic and could lead to a military conflict with Iran.
These officials are expected to argue that any agreement forged with Iran will significantly cap Iran’s ability to produce nuclear fuel and result in extensive monitoring of Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure. They also are expected to say that the U.S.’s unwillingness to accept a compromise deal with Tehran would lead to a splintering of the international coalition imposing the sanctions on Iran.
Aipac’s leadership on Sunday was already challenging the White House’s position. “We shouldn’t be afraid of Iran leaving the table,” Mr. Kohr said.
He also aggressively pushed back against the White House’s argument in recent months that no deal with Iran would lead to war. “That’s a false choice…that’s meant to silence the critics,” Mr. Kohr said. “And we won’t be silenced.”
Aipac’s strategy very much depends on its past success in winning bipartisan support for its policy suggestions, such as the sanctions on Iran’s central bank.
A number of leading Democrats have announced they’re going to boycott Mr. Netanyahu’s planned speech on Iran before a joint-session of Congress on Tuesday. Aipac leaders on Sunday urged these lawmakers to reverse this decision.
It remains unclear how many Democrats will support a White House deal with Iran heading into any election year, particularly one being so aggressively challenged by one of Washington’s most powerful political bodies.
Several top Democrats are scheduled to speak before Aipac on Monday, including the second-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, and a rising political star, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.
On Sunday, Sen. Ben Cardin (D., Md.), addressed Aipac and pursued a policy line that seemed in sync with that of the pro-Israel lobby.
“You have to have deadlines,” Mr. Cardin said of the Iran talks. “It’s only because of U.S. pressure that we’ve gotten as far as we are.”