- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
The White House and Israel are locked in an information war on Capitol Hill, and right now, Israel may be winning.
All week, the Obama administration has provided facts and figures to lawmakers on its sanctions relief proposal to build support for a deal on Iran’s nuclear program. But some members in Congress don’t trust the data U.S. officials are providing — they trust conflicting data provided privately by senior Israeli officials.
According to multiple Congressional aides, Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee are storming Capitol Hill in an effort to discredit the Obama administration’s interim nuclear deal with Iran. The effort coincides with a visit by Israel’s Minister of Economy Naftali Bennett, who is also speaking with lawmakers on the Hill. The campaign includes one-on-one briefings with lawmakers that provide data that strays from official U.S. assessments.
As a result, lawmakers have begun citing a range of facts and figures the Obama administration says are wildly inaccurate.
For instance, the Obama administration is offering Iran no more than $9 billion in sanctions relief, according to a source briefed by senior officials. But Israeli officials are telling lawmakers the U.S. is offering Iran $20 billion in sanctions relief or, if you ask Israel’s Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, up to $40 billion.
Israeli officials are also saying that Iran’s concessions would only set back its nuclear program by 24 days — a fact also disputed by the administration.
"There are very large, inaccurate, false numbers out there in terms of what’s on the table," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday. She declined to call out Israeli officials, instead referring to inaccurate "reports." (Some of the reports just so happen to be sourced to Israeli officials.)
The wide discrepancies led to a major clash of viewpoints during Wednesday’s classified briefing between Secretary of State John Kerry and members of the Senate Banking Committee. One GOP Senate aide said the administration repeatedly shot down data cited by senators provided by Israeli officials. "You’d raise the Israeli perspective and they’d say, that’s wrong — the Israelis don’t know what they’re talking about," the aide told The Cable."The administration would interrupt, ‘that information is inaccurate.’"
One of the senators citing Israeli data was Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who said Kerry’s briefing was "anti-Israeli."
"The administration very disappointingly said, ‘discount what the Israelis say," he told reporters on Wednesday. "I don’t. I think the Israelis probably have a pretty good intelligence service." Kirk said he had been briefed on Wednesday by a "senior Israeli official," but would not name the individual.
He is not alone in his belief that the Obama administration is misleading lawmakers and undervaluing its sanctions relief offer to the Iranians by at least $10 billion. The rival estimate is $20 billion — a figure supported by the Israeli government and the think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), which cites Israeli media reports in some of its analysis. During a House Foreign Affairs Committee briefing on Wednesday, a number of Republicans and Democrats nodded in agreement to the $20 billion figure during testimony by FDD’s executive director Mark Dubowitz. "The sanctions relief package offered at Geneva, if ultimately approved, will rescue Iran’s struggling economy," testified Dubowitz. "The dollar value of the proposed sanctions relief at Geneva could yield Iran a minimum of $20 billion or more."
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) pegged the sanctions relief even higher in his opening statement — suggesting the figure could be as much as $50 billion.
Dubowitz told The Cable he was not surprised at the discrepancy between U.S. and Israeli assessments on sanctions. "I would say this is not unusual," he said. "I think there have been significant disagreements between the Israelis and the Americans on these sanctions questions. Significant differences on information on research and on the analysis and conclusions."
Other arms control experts were puzzled as to why the Israeli assessment gained any traction at all over the American assessment — since Israelis are not members of the so-called P5+1 countries negotiating a deal with Iran.
"Personally, I would tend to believe the estimates and figures of the people who are actually at the negotiating table rather than people that are getting this information second-hand, even if they’re senior Israeli officials," Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told The Cable. "This is in many cases a distortion of the physics and the reality."
Regardless, the administration is struggling to win over lawmakers. On Wednesday, Republican senators expressed strong disappointment with the administration’s briefings on the Hill. Now, critics of the administration’s message include an increasing number of Democrats, such as Sen. Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Rep. Steve Israel, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey. On Thursday night, Casey defied administration pleas to halt any additional sanctions on Iran and urged his colleagues to advance sanctions legislation in the Senate Banking Committee. "At this time, I see no reason to let up the pressure," Casey said.
When asked about the "huge gap" between the administration and Congress on the Iran deal on Thursday, Psaki did not exactly beam with optimism. "Look, I’m not here to give you a whip acount of where members of Congress stand," she told reporters. "But as I mentioned a little bit earlier, the secretary felt it was an important conversation he had with members yesterday. He laid out the full construct of our approach … He doesn’t feel that anybody could come out of there without a full understanding of what the approach would be."
Yochi Dreazen contibuted to this report.