AIPAC expected to lobby for Iran sanctions bill that Obama has vowed to veto

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As Senate Democrats and Republicans traded blame Thursday over blocked veterans’ benefits legislation to which Republicans had tried to attach an Iran sanctions amendment, the pro-Israel lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) faced questions about its position on the matter just days before its big annual policy conference here.

“The Republicans are trying to mislead the American public by saying that a bipartisan majority supports moving forward with new sanctions right now,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) said in a statement Thursday. “In fact, many Senators….as well as Israel’s strongest supporter, AIPAC…agree that now is not the right time to bring a sanctions package to the floor.”

“AIPAC was unequivocal in its request for a delay on additional sanctions,” Reid’s statement continued. “This is what AIPAC said: ‘Stopping the Iranian nuclear program should rest on bipartisan support and… there should not be a vote at this time on the measure.’”

An AIPAC official, speaking to reporters at a lunch at Morton’s restaurant Thursday, said AIPAC members would next week lobby for more Senate co-sponsors for the Kirk-Menendez Iran sanctions bill (S1881), sources at the lunch told Al-Monitor on condition they not be identified since the lunch was off the record. President Obama has vowed to veto the measure, which was shelved last month after gaining 59 co-sponsors, short of the 67 needed to override a presidential veto. (The House passed a version of the measure overwhelmingly last summer [.pdf], before an interim Iran nuclear deal was reached in November; a separate House Iran sanctions push was shelved in January.)

AIPAC lobbyists may urge Democrats to co-sponsor the bill by arguing, “We don’t support a vote, but why not cosponsor?” a Hill staffer, speaking not for attribution, suggested Thursday.

“They burned their fingers very badly on S1881,” Douglas Bloomfield, a former AIPAC official and columnist told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday, referring to AIPAC. “And I think they are trying now to put some balm on it. But they still haven’t given up on pushing it.”

AIPAC officials, writing in the New York Times last week, were “vague” about when they would push to bring the bill to a vote, Bloomfield noted.

“We support the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, sponsored by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s chairman, Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and by Senator Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois,” AIPAC officials Michael Kassen and Lee Rosenberg write in a February 22, 2014 New York Times op-ed. “Earlier this month, we agreed with Mr. Menendez on delaying a vote in the Senate, but we remain committed to the bill’s passage.”

“I think they are torn,” Bloomfield said, by the desire to maintain bipartisan appeal in Congress and among its membership, while at the same time, he said, “they are under pressure from what has become their Republican base on the Hill and they also have big money people.”

Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) Executive Director Matthew Brooks agreed that AIPAC may be “shackled” by having to maintain bipartisan appeal, a constraint that he, as head of a Republican-aligned group, said he was glad not to suffer.

It’s a “luxury for me, I am not shackled by the handcuffs of bipartisanship,” Brooks said in a telephone interview from Dallas Thursday, where he Tweeted he was successfully fundraising over GOP support and Democratic opposition to moving forward now with the Iran sanctions bill. “AIPAC is in a much more difficult and challenging box, to maneuver to balance policy and practical considerations.”

An AIPAC spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Hill sources said that for now, an alternative resolution that would seek to define what should be the terms of a final Iran nuclear deal appeared to be off the table.

EU, Iran reach agreement on implementing nuclear deal


Diplomats from Iran and the European Union said Friday that they were able to reach agreement on implementing the Iran nuclear accord. Pending review by capitals of six world powers, an announcement on a start date for the accord to go into force could come as soon as the weekend.

Negotiators “made very good progress on all the pertinent issues,” Michael Mann, a spokesman for the EU, said Friday. “This is now under validation at political level in capitals.”

The announcement came after two days of talks in Geneva between European Union deputy foreign policy chief Helga Schmid and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi.  Lead US negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, accompanied by her non-proliferation advisor James Timbie and Treasury Department’s Adam Szubin, also held bilateral meetings in Geneva Thursday with Araghchi’s team as well as met with Schmid, the State Department said.

“A final decision is to be made in capitals and a result to be announced within the next two days, ” Araghchi told Iranian media Friday.

The progress in Geneva came as Iran sanctions legislation opposed by the White House had by Friday attracted a total of 59 Senate co-sponsors, not yet the 67 needed to override a presidential veto.

But notably, the bill has gotten mostly GOP support, attracting only two Democrats and 25 Republicans as co-sponsors since it was first introduced last month by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois). Continue reading

Who will Obama nominate to be US envoy to Iraq? A short list

In the wake of Obama’s nominee for Iraq ambassador withdrawing his name from consideration last week after an unusually bruising ordeal, it’s a fair bet the Obama administration is inclined to go with a safe, more easily confirm-able pick for its next nominee for the post.

Washington Iraq experts say they expect the new nominee to be announced in the next couple weeks, and have offered a somewhat lengthy list of diplomats they have heard are in the mix for the post overseeing the largest US embassy in the world.

The last US Ambassador to Iraq, Jim Jeffrey, left Baghdad earlier this month and formally retired from the State Department in a ceremony last week. His deputy, the Chargé d’affaires at the US Embassy in Baghdad, Robert Stephen Beecroft, is currently the de facto acting ambassador, conducting meetings that the ambassador otherwise would have. Several Washington Iraq hands consider that the administration may decide to keep Beecroft, a former US Ambassador to Jordan and career foreign service officer, in the job.

Another leading contender on the short list is the current US Ambassador to Jordan Stuart Jones, according to a source close to the administration who declined to be identified. Jones was confirmed last summer as the US Ambassador to Jordan—perhaps the best indicator of his ability to get confirmed in the current atmosphere. He previously served as the deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Iraq and was very involved in the transition from Pentagon- to State-lead of US efforts in the country. Jones also previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, DCM in Cairo, Governor Coordinator for Al Anbar Province, Iraq; and as Iraq/Iran director in the NSC, among other assignments and is considered to be a rising star in the State Department (and White House). Meantime, the situation in Jordan is considered to have stabilized sufficiently after some initial jitters early into the Arab uprisings that it is not considered overly disruptive to possibly move Jones next door to Iraq, if the nomination proceeds, all things considered, sources suggested.

Other contenders: several Washington Iraq “hawks” are rumored to want US envoy to Syria, Robert Ford, for Iraq. (Though some of the same hawks previously moved to block Ford’s confirmation for the Syria post in 2010, but later changed their minds.) Ford, one of the State Department’s leading Arabists, previously served as the deputy ambassador in Iraq, and as ambassador to Algeria,  speaks fluent Arabic and has impressed Republicans and Democrats alike with his principled and brave show of support for Syrian demonstrators even as the US embassy in Damascus had to close for security reasons late last year. Continue reading