Don’t Be So Quick To Count AIPAC Out

Given AIPAC’s prominent role in the fight against the Iran deal, questions have already been raised about the impact of its defeat—it won’t convince enough Democratic members of Congress to vote against the agreement—on its influence in DC. It’s a perhaps inevitable question to ask, but the answer should be obvious: the effect will be minimal. The influence of interest groups like AIPAC can’t be measured by a single political fight.

It was never likely that AIPAC could derail the deal in Congress. Presidents are the dominant players in the making of foreign policy. When they are committed to a specific policy, there is little that can push them back. Since the mid-twentieth century Congress and the Supreme Court have generally accepted that preeminent role.

So AIPAC was starting at a disadvantage. Add to that the fact that this Democratic President sees the Iran accord as his signature piece of foreign policy, and the chance of lining up Democratic Senators and Representatives became even slimmer.

The incline was made steeper by the fact that a lot of security and nuclear proliferation experts—both in the United States and in Israel—contended that the deal wasn’t so bad, or was good enough to build on. This made the case for opposing it weaker.

Nobody with any experience in DC who drops their ideological blinders thinks that under these conditions, a failure to gather enough opposition votes means AIPAC is losing influence.

More important is the fact that AIPAC is embedded in the policymaking system. That’s what gives it influence, not its wins or losses in specific cases. It’s the fundamentals of participation that matter.

AIPAC’s ability to influence Congress stems from Israel’s place in the political game, and the conflation (as inaccurate as it is) between Israel and American Jewry. Jewish voters are concentrated in key electoral districts; public sympathy and support for Israel is consistently high, and politicians don’t pick unnecessary fights; Republicans have for the last few presidential cycles worked under the assumption that US Jews are about to migrate en masse to their party; and both Democrats and Republicans think taking a position on Israeli security wins Jewish votes.

Elected officials are open to hearing the ideas of an organization claiming to represent the Jewish community on Israel-related issues. AIPAC officials regularly participate in the writing of bills that touch on the American-Israeli relationship, even if indirectly (such as aid to third parties in the region).

AIPAC officials and board members have regular access to politicians and their staff. AIPAC-approved donors are courted during election campaigns.

So to judge the influence of AIPAC, or any lobby group, look to its daily operations and to policy outcomes over time. On the most important issues that define its mandate, such as military aid to Israel and a close American-Israeli relationship, AIPAC “wins” all the time. Partly that’s because the issues are easy for politicians to endorse, and partly because AIPAC has successfully built its capacity over time.

AIPAC picked a losing issue to spend its money on this time. But nobody in Congress is going to ignore AIPAC when it comes to thinking about the next foreign aid bill or funding for an Israeli anti-missile system. Nobody is going to refuse an invitation to its annual policy conference. Nobody did any of these things after previous defeats to American presidents on specific issues.

Where AIPAC might be constrained is the growth of other Jewish advocacy organizations making claims on the community’s resources and representation and intensifying divisions within the community at large. The fight over the Iran deal might represent an example of how this process play out, but it’s not a cause of it.

These divisions are related not just to expanding fractures in the community across religious, denominational, political, and generational lines, but also due to changes in Israel itself. The community’s once-famous ability to mobilize in support of Israel during moments of crisis is declining as individuals and specialized organizations now donate to and work on behalf of specific social, religious, or political issues in Israel that fit with their narrow mandates.

This is a long term process. We need more time, and more political fights, before the outcome becomes clear.

On AIPAC and Lobbying

AIPAC’s prominent role in the fight against the Iran deal has, unsurprisingly, led to increased attention about its advocacy activities. Those who support the deal, and oppose AIPAC’s own position against the deal, have made some inaccurate or misleading claims about its activities. The crudest simply argue that AIPAC is a foreign agent and is looking out only for Israel.

But the more sophisticated have tried to draw a connection between AIPAC’s stance on the Iraq War and the Iran deal. That is, they claim AIPAC lobbied in favor of the war, and so cannot be trusted to make smart policy arguments today.

But there’s no evidence that AIPAC did lobby for the invasion of Iraq. The claim is supported only by statements by AIPAC leaders and others (sometimes second hand) that they lobbied. But while those seeking to undermine AIPAC’s arguments credit these few statements as truth, they ignore statements by other AIPAC people saying the exact opposite. That’s selection bias.

Moreover, some of these statements aren’t explicit acknowledgement of actual lobbying, but hypotheticals and qualified “we might do so.” One should also note that lobby groups prefer to play up their credentials and their successes; power is partly perception, especially in a place like D.C.

Finally, this is D.C. we’re talking about. People meet other people all the time, and talk about policy and political issues all the time, sharing ideas and information. That’s perfectly normal, but it’s not lobbying.

I’ve yet to see any actual evidence of lobbying. This might include specific meetings or strategy documents about lobbying, a chronological discussion of a politician changing her mind on the invasion of Iraq after a series of meetings with AIPAC officials or board members, or highlighting the same language used by AIPAC on a potential Iraq invasion in a Congressional resolution or some other official policy document.

Without any of this, claims about AIPAC and the Iraq war are at best uninformed, at worst conspiratorial. Surely a serious public debate about an important foreign policy like the Iran deal deserves much more than either of those.

Tehran’s Post-Deal Rhetoric

Guest post by James Devine:

Everyone expected the vitriolic reaction to the Iran nuclear deal from the Republicans and Benjamin Netanyahu. The rhetoric coming out of Iran, however, is less easily understood. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, recently tweeted a picture of what appeared to be Barak Obama with a gun to his own head. He also claimed that Iran’s hostility toward the US was unabated and that the deal needed to be examined very carefully before it was accepted, suggesting his support was in doubt. Similarly, Ali Jaffari, the head of the powerful Republican Guard, claimed the deal crossed several of Iran’s red lines and was therefore unacceptable.

It is not surprising that there was some hardline opposition to the deal in Tehran. A segment of the political elite prefers to maintain an ideologically driven confrontational policy toward the West no matter what the economic and diplomatic cost. Iran’s current moderate president also has political enemies who would rather see the deal fail than allow their adversary to score a political victory. Nevertheless, Khamenei is the dominant figure in Iranian politics and if he approves the deal, it would be very difficult for Rouhani’s opponents to attack it too vigorously without seeming to be challenging his authority. There is little doubt that Khamenei was well briefed throughout the negotiating process, and he made it clear on numerous occasions that the negotiating team had his support. While it is possible that he was not aware of a few details before the deal was signed, it is not likely that there was anything so unexpected in the deal that he would change his position. Indeed, Jaffari had also given his support to the draft framework earlier. So why the change in heart?

Part of the reason is Iran’s complex and tumultuous political system. Khamenei is the most powerful figure in the state, but he guards his political capital jealously. He has traditionally avoided getting too closely associated with any one of Iran’s political factions for fear of alienating the others. He has only broken this pattern under the most extreme circumstances, such as the 2009 election unrest. This allows him to maximize his political influence and maintain the stability of the political system. Khamenei’s current rhetoric can therefore be seen as consistent with his leadership style. He could push the deal through if he wanted to, but it would mean snubbing his traditional power base among the conservatives, and moving closer to Rouhani and his pragmatist-Green party supporters, whom he does not trust. Moreover, if the deal does get blocked in Congress, or somehow breaks down later, it is better for Khamenei that the deal is seen specifically as Rouhani’s work. That way its failure would be a black mark on the President’s resume, not his. Therefore, distancing himself from the deal, at least a little, makes good political sense.

The rhetoric is also likely a response to the debate taking place in the US. With the deal under attack, the Obama Administration has defended it by saying the US can reapply the pressure on Tehran whenever it wants, and bring the Islamic Republic to heel. Khamenei therefore needs to send a message back to Washington: Tehran cannot be bullied. At the same time, it is also a message for the Iranian people. The regime may have compromised with the Great Satan, but it has not lost its teeth.

It is possible that the rhetoric is a sign that the deal is in serious trouble in Iran, as some have suggested. The spiral of inflammatory rhetoric continues to escalate, it could reach such a point that Khamenei feels he has to disavow the deal to protect his own position. However, it is more probable that the rhetoric will have an impact on the US side, where no one will want to look soft on Iran lest they weaken their position for the upcoming presidential elections. In all likelihood though, the deal will be ratified in both countries. Obama still has a veto over congressional overview, and Khamenei would probably not have let the process get so far if he did not really want to have a deal in place.

The real problem is likely to be further down the road. Indeed, the rhetoric we are experiencing now is likely just a taste of what there is to come. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is a complex document. As it is put in practice, there will be debates at each step about what was agreed upon and how it must be implemented. Both sides will fight strenuously to protect their interests and demonstrate resolve. If the rhetorical posturing grows too intense, one side or the other may decide that they no longer have a negotiating partner, or that the domestic costs of the agreement are too high.

Bargaining always involves both carrots and sticks. It would be unrealistic to hope for no rhetoric or posturing, or for either side to make concessions without the threat of punishment at least implied. However it is essential that both parties recognize the complex dynamics behind the other’s signaling, and understand the underlying meaning. They must also realize their own rhetoric and coercive threats strengthen hardliners on the other side, and force their negotiating partners to respond in kind. Carrots and sticks therefore need to be carefully calibrated.

Rouhani and Obama have been able to manage these dynamics so far, something few people would have predicted as recently as 2013. If the deal is to survive, there is 10-15 years of more work ahead.