Democrats Will Have Trump to Thank for Getting a Political Pass on the Iran Nuclear Deal
The Iran nuclear accord was supposed to be political kryptonite for Democrats in Congress. But Trump’s toxic candidacy helped sideline the issue.
Last year, Democrats in Congress found themselves squeezed in a political vise over the Iran nuclear deal. President Barack Obama leaned heavily on fellow Democrats to back the agreement in the biggest lobbying effort of his administration. And pro-Israel groups launched a full-court press against the deal, spending tens of millions of dollars on ads warning lawmakers they would have “blood on their hands” if they endorsed the accord.
In the end, the White House won the heated political battle, securing just enough support among Democrats in the Senate to stave off a bid to block the deal. But many Jewish groups and donors at the time warned Democratic lawmakers who supported the Iran agreement that they would pay a steep political price in the 2016 election.
Yet more than a year later, no Democrat has been kicked out of office over the nuclear deal in a primary and it’s unlikely that any Democratic incumbent will lose their seat in the Nov. 8 election because of it. The much-anticipated blowback has yet to materialize, despite opinion polls that show a majority of Americans oppose the agreement.
Although the Republican Party is hitting the issue hard in Senate and House races across the country, conservative Jewish organizations and activists have mostly pulled their punches and resisted funding rivals of lawmakers who voted for the Iran agreement. Both opponents and supporters of the deal agree the main reason the issue has not become a political spoiler is the man at the top of the Republican ticket, Donald Trump.
The toxic nature of Trump’s candidacy, from his comments denigrating women to his refusal to accept the election result if he loses, has dominated the campaign and pushed aside policy debates that normally occur in presidential contests. He has turned off swaths of conservative Jewish and pro-Israel activists by trafficking in anti-Semitic rhetoric, as well bashing immigrants and U.S. allies, while praising Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“If the nominee of the Republican Party was someone more mainstream, I think this issue would still be out there,” said Greg Rosenbaum, chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “And we’d be seeing a flood of ads and a flood of money about the deal.”
“It’s just not there, other than in isolated pockets,” said Rosenbaum, a vocal supporter of the nuclear deal.
In last week’s presidential debate, Trump called the Iran agreement “the stupidest deal of all time, a deal that’s going to give Iran absolutely (sic) nuclear weapons.” But the Iran agreement barely featured in post-debate media coverage, largely because of Trump’s jaw-dropping comment that he was not sure if he would accept the results of the election.
“This hasn’t exactly been a policy-oriented campaign season,” said Jeff Ballabon, a former media executive who runs a conservative pro-Israel super PAC called Iron Dome Alliance. “Like pretty much every substantive issue, Israel and the Iran deal have taken a back-burner to matters of personality, conduct, and style.”
With Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton consistently ahead in national polls and widening her lead in key states, pro-Israel hawks are mostly resigned to a Clinton victory and see no reason to antagonize the next administration — as well as a possible Democratic majority in the Senate.
Rosenbaum said many right-of-center Jewish donors and groups have “held their fire,” because of what he called the “Trump factor.”
Sheldon Adelson, the conservative Jewish megadonor known for his hawkish stance on Israel, spent at least $98 million on Republican candidates in the 2012 elections. This year, the Las Vegas billionaire and his wife have spent only about $40 million on campaigns nationwide.
And generally, Jewish donors have shunned Trump in a dramatic way.
Of all funds contributed to major party candidates this year by Jewish donors, 95 percent went to Clinton and only 5 percent to Trump, according to an analysis published last month on FiveThirtyEight. That’s a sharp contrast to the 2012 presidential campaign, when about 71 percent of the $160 million given to major party candidates went to Obama’s reelection campaign and 29 percent went to the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. The funding four years ago roughly reflected the breakdown of the Jewish vote in that election.
Until it became clear Trump would be the nominee, organizations and donors on both sides of the Iran nuclear issue were bracing for a no-holds-barred brawl in the election season. To national security hawks and conservative Jewish groups in Washington, Democrats — particularly incumbents who openly endorsed the deal — looked vulnerable and ripe for defeat at the ballot box.
Advocates of the deal, however, say Trump’s antics and insults are not the only reason the issue is not gaining more traction. They argue the agreement is working, and that there is no smoking gun that shows Iran is violating the deal and secretly building nuclear weapons.
The agreement offers “a way to defang Iran’s weapons program without firing a shot,” said Jessica Rosenblum of J Street, a progressive pro-Israel group that supports the agreement. “It’s good policy and it’s good politics.”
The agreement clinched in July 2015 between Iran and major powers, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, imposed strict limits on Tehran’s nuclear program in return for lifting economic sanctions that were choking the Iranian economy. The White House says the agreement blocks Iran’s potential path to a nuclear weapon as it imposed extensive international inspections and forced Tehran to dismantle a heavy water reactor, remove thousands of centrifuges for uranium enrichment, and ship out stockpiles of medium-enriched uranium. But opponents maintain that easing sanctions enables Iran to bankroll its militant proxies across the Middle East, and opens the door to Tehran acquiring a nuclear arsenal in 15 years when certain provisions of the agreement expire.
Critics also object to how the deal was implemented. Republicans were outraged over a $400 million cash payment that Washington sent Iran on the same day last January that several American prisoners were released by Tehran. The United States sent the funds to settle a longstanding claim by Iran before an international tribunal. The money had been set aside to pay for weapons that were never delivered because the pro-U.S. monarchy fell following the Iranian revolution of 1979.
But Republicans are calling the payment a “ransom” paid to Tehran’s theocratic regime. The State Department rejects that portrayal, and maintains the timing of the payment was used as leverage to win the release of the detained Americans.
Throughout her campaign, Clinton has never shied away from expressing her support of the deal, even though a majority of Americans say they oppose it. She has argued the agreement “lowers the threat” posed by Iran and has vowed to hold Tehran accountable for other activities that fall outside the deal.
Americans disapprove of the deal, 57 percent to 30 percent, according to a February poll by Gallup. And surveys have shown Republican voters overwhelmingly oppose the accord. Yet some polls indicate a majority of Jewish voters support the deal, despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s outspoken opposition.
Anxious to retain a GOP majority in the Senate, Republican candidates and conservative political action committees see the issue as a winner. The Iran nuclear deal is a frequent talking point in pivotal Senate races in Florida, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Illinois, with Republicans seeking to portray their opponents as naive and weak on national security.
In New Hampshire, Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte is gambling that her opposition to the nuclear deal can help her fend off a serious challenge from Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan. Ayotte made the issue a key part of a $4.2 million advertising buy for her campaign.
“This is a very bad deal for our country and is one that makes us less safe and our allies less safe,” Ayotte said in an Oct. 14 debate in Manchester. “We should’ve taken a much stronger position in not allowing them to keep their nuclear infrastructure.”
But in raising a national security issue, Ayotte and other Republican candidates open an opportunity for their rivals to also raise the specter of Trump. That’s allowed Democrats to link their GOP opponents to the presidential nominee’s often controversial, inaccurate, and isolationist statements on foreign policy.
“For over a year, my opponent has supported Donald Trump, who suggested we should weaken NATO, who suggested we should have more nuclear weapons in the world, and who won’t share a plan to defeat ISIS because he doesn’t have one,” Hassan said at the same debate.
For months, Ayotte has struggled to explain her stance on Trump. Initially, the senator said she supported Trump but would not endorse him. Then she definitively broke from the nominee this month, saying she would write in the Republican vice presidential candidate, Gov. Mike Pence. She was trailing Hassan by eight points in a CNN poll last week.
In Florida, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, an incumbent who decided late to run for reelection after his failed presidential bid, has made the Iran deal central to his campaign against Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy.
While Murphy called the deal “flawed,” he came out in support of the agreement last year. In August, the National Republican Senatorial Committee aired an ad with an ominous voice-over: “Iran is out of control, and Democrats like Patrick Murphy are failing to keep us safe.”
Rubio holds a roughly four-point lead over Murphy and some political analysts believe the Democrat’s stance on the Iran deal may be hurting him. But Florida illustrates how the Iran nuclear deal is not necessarily a game-changer. If current trends hold, Clinton — a backer of the deal — will win the presidential contest in the state while Rubio — an outspoken opponent — will also prevail.
Some Democrats running for Congress have declared their opposition to the deal and defused the issue altogether. In a closely contested race for an open seat in Pennsylvania’s eighth House district, Democratic candidate Steve Santarsiero has come out against the Iran nuclear agreement, and argued that his stance shows he is willing to stand up to his party and even the president for his beliefs.
A primary contest in June in New York’s tenth congressional district, which has the largest Jewish population in the country, served as an early referendum on the Iran deal and a barometer of Jewish voters’ attitudes. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a long-established liberal Democrat, faced his first primary challenge in two decades from a political novice, Oliver Rosenberg, who bashed the lawmaker for his support of the deal.
The New York Daily News endorsed Rosenberg, who took out newspaper ads accusing Nadler of helping Iran’s ayatollahs by supporting the agreement. Nadler, however, won by a landslide, 89 percent to 10 percent. Outside groups with a hawkish, pro-Israel stance did not weigh in with big donations to his rival.
After the nuclear deal was clinched in Vienna in July 2015, an intense political fight unfolded in Congress, pitting the White House against Republican lawmakers and pro-Israel lobbying groups. Lawmakers, including those from his own party, often have criticized Obama for his detachment towards Congress and accused the White House of failing to effectively push for its own initiatives.
But this time, the administration pulled out all the stops. Obama oversaw an aggressive lobbying effort and got directly involved, meeting with Jewish groups and personally speaking to more than 120 lawmakers. While the deal’s opponents launched a counter advertising blitz, the White House deployed senior diplomats and officials, including Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, to brief lawmakers and explain the agreement to local newspapers and radio stations.
The lobbying battle also reflected a growing rivalry between different Jewish groups that claim to best represent the interests of pro-Israel voters. The left-leaning J Street argued the administration’s case, while the much larger American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and more conservative groups campaigned against the deal.
The White House lobbying focused entirely on Democrats in Congress to prevent Republicans from securing a 60-vote majority to overturn the deal and overcome a presidential veto. In the end, a procedural vote fell two short of the 60 required to break a filibuster by Democrats.
It was a political victory for the White House, albeit a narrow and highly partisan one.
The back-and-forth over the deal left scars, with some Democratic lawmakers fearing their relationship with Israel and groups supporting Israel might be permanently damaged. It also raised questions about whether pro-Israel groups were losing their influence. The congressional debate had come months after a controversial intervention by Netanyahu, who delivered an address in February to a joint session of Congress slamming the deal. Some activists worried that traditional bipartisan support for Israel was beginning to unravel, and that the Democratic Party was shifting away from Israel.
“The whole debate about the deal had the danger of turning Israel into a partisan wedge,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former senior Pentagon official in the Obama administration and currently a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. As a result, he told Foreign Policy, senior leaders of the main pro-Israel groups wanted to “de-escalate” and defuse tensions.
Other, more hawkish voices in pro-Israel organizations disagreed with that tactic.
“The failure to make a real election issue out of it is a casualty of establishment American Jewish groups’ influence” — especially for AIPAC, said the Iron Dome Alliance’s Ballabon. AIPAC steadfastly sticks to a bipartisan formula, lobbying on legislation but refraining from challenging incumbents from either party or making contributions to candidates in elections, which Ballabon calls a mistake.
One senior official at a Jewish organization that opposed the nuclear agreement said the friction with lawmakers “made a lot of people uncomfortable.” But he said relations with Democratic senators who backed the deal have been repaired and now “there’s a huge sigh of relief that we’re getting back to American politics as usual.”
He added: “Ultimately, it’s a wash. A vote was had. The broader goal — of telegraphing of how illegitimate the deal was — was met.”
The Israeli government, which had heavily lobbied senators last year to reject the deal, also has pulled back, recognizing that the nuclear agreement is now a reality that could not be blocked in Congress. Instead, Israel and groups that support it are focusing on sending a signal to Iran that the United States remains ready to reimpose sanctions if necessary.
More than a year since the debate over the nuclear deal, there is no bipartisan push in Congress to dismantle the agreement, despite a number of proposals by Republican members. Instead, lawmakers are focused on renewing the 10-year Iran Sanctions Act, which expires at the end of 2016. The act, first adopted in 1996 and since renewed, allows the U.S. government to punish companies for investing in Iran’s energy and other sectors.
Obama administration officials have previously asked lawmakers to hold off renewing the sanctions act, saying the executive branch has all the tools it needs to reimpose economic penalties if Iran violates the nuclear agreement. U.S. officials privately say they fear the symbolic measure will undermine moderates in Tehran who are loyal to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and are under pressure to demonstrate the economic benefits of the nuclear deal. Rouhani is up for reelection in 2017.
But that might be too much of a reach for the White House after investing much of its political capital to shore up Democratic support for the nuclear deal last year. And for Democrats who took a political risk in backing the agreement, a vote for renewing sanctions is a way of demonstrating commitment to Israel and sending a warning signal to Iran, congressional staffers said.
Seven Democratic senators wrote a letter this month calling for renewing the law and arguing that a vote on the measure was “crucial” for America’s national security. Renewing the act is vital to “ensuring with the utmost certainty that the United States will continue to have the sanctions enforcement mechanism our national security demands.”
FP Senior Reporter John Hudson contributed to this article.
Photo credit: ATTA KENARE/AFP/GettyImages
Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce