AIPAC ‘Neutered’ on New Iran Sanctions

Pro-Israel lobby mute on support for new sanctions

Two men by a video projection of an AIPAC logo during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference / AP
February 27, 2014

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is staying silent about a new congressional amendment that would level fresh economic sanctions on Iran, leading some insiders to say that the pro-Israel lobbying group has been "neutered" following a high profile defeat last month.

An AIPAC official sidestepped multiple requests for comment on the new sanctions measure, which was reintroduced as an amendment in the Senate this week after the White House and its Democratic allies killed similar legislation last month.

The reintroduction of the sanctions measure comes just one month after AIPAC sparked outrage in the pro-Israel community when it suddenly withdrew its support of the legislation, which had the bipartisan backing of 59 senators.

AIPAC’s reversal elicited shock and anger among many political insiders, who felt that the nation’s top pro-Israel lobbying outfit had abandoned its core legislative cause—preventing a nuclear Iran.

With the sanctions bill once again on the Senate’s agenda, AIPAC appears to be limiting its involvement both publicly and privately on Capitol Hill, according to insiders with knowledge of the debate.

This lack of action comes just days before AIPAC gets set to kick off its annual policy conference, potentially setting the stage for a showdown among the group’s more hardline supporters.

An AIPAC spokesman on Wednesday would not explain to the Washington Free Beacon the group’s position on the sanctions measure despite multiple requests.

The official instead referred a Free Beacon reporter to an AIPAC-authored New York Times op-ed that appeared on Saturday, several days before the sanctions measure received new life.

When pressed again to specifically explain whether the organization supports the new sanctions, the AIPAC official again referenced the Saturday New York Times op-ed, which reiterates the group’s continued opposition to new sanctions being passed.

AIPAC’s silence in the press is being accompanied by a quiet bid to oppose the new sanctions on Capitol Hill, according to one prominent pro-Israel community insider with knowledge of the backroom debate.

"They shot their core issue in the foot the last time they issued a statement. So I think they're hiding under their desks hoping no one noticed they've abandoned the issue they spent a decade raising millions off of," the source said.

"They've neutered themselves," the insider added. "AIPAC is missing in action."

One Capitol Hill insider involved in the sanctions debate said that AIPAC is delicately trying to straddle the bipartisan line.

"AIPAC's core lobbying mission remains foreign aid to Israel and that means keeping bipartisan support for Israel strong—especially among key committee and party leaders," the source said. "Republicans are doing what they believe is right, and I think we all understand where AIPAC is coming from."

The sanctions measure gained steam despite AIPAC’s stance on Wednesday as several senators appeared on the floor to voice their support for the measure, which has now been added as an amendment to a widely supported veterans benefits bill.

"Let’s hold Iran accountable, actually accountable," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said. "The clock is ticking, Mr. President, and the time to act is now."

McConnell went on to accuse Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) of obstructing a vote on the widely supported issue.

However, Reid cited AIPAC in defending his opposition to the sanctions measure being included in the wide-ranging veterans bill.

"The organization that is more supportive of Israel than any organization I know—AIPAC—they said publicly they don't want to vote on this now," Reid said.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R., N.H.) spoke in favor of a vote on the sanctions.

"If Iran is serious about a nuclear weapons agreement that takes away their capability of having a nuclear weapon, then they should not have a problem with prospective sanctions by this Congress, because those sanctions would only go in place again if they violate the interim agreement," she said.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) said now is the time to vote on the sanctions, which would only take effect if Iran fails to curb its nuclear program under the recently signed interim accord.

"If we don't impose additional sanctions … by the time this negotiation that's going on with the Iranians reaches the end point, it will become irrelevant because by this point in time even if you wanted to impose more sanctions it will be impossible to do," he said. "Because so many other countries will have now reengaged with commercial transactions with Iran, you're not going to be able to put this genie back in the bottle."

As the debate heats up and AIPAC sits on the sidelines, longtime supporters of the group are beginning to break ranks, according to the pro-Israel community insider quoted above.

"AIPAC donors are starting to talk about [AIPAC leader] Howard Kohr the way they talked about [former AIPAC leader] Tom Dine before the coup" that removed him from office, the said. "They are irrelevant now, the polling is with the GOP, the policy and the policies are with the GOP."