Since November 2013, the Obama administration has engaged with Iran in tense, drawn-out nuclear negotiations which optimists hope could bring an end to decades of hostility and mistrust.
Throughout it all, Congress has threatened to play the spoiler, with a tough sanctions bill passing the House and looming in the Senate which would almost certainly scuttle the fragile talks over the Iranian nuclear program.
Now, as the deadline for the end of the talks approaches, a coalition of legislators, advocacy groups, and White House officials are working to hold Congress back from the brink of thwarting what they see as a historic window of opportunity. They’re fighting against legislators and conservative groups like The Heritage Foundation and The Free Enterprise Institute who are pushing for the US to take a hawkish stance.
Legislators, led by Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, have been manoeuvring quietly behind the scenes in Congress to keep the talks alive. At the same time, officials from the White House have been leaning heavily on Senate Democrats to refrain from bringing a sanctions bill to the floor.
On the outside, a diverse range of pro-diplomacy groups, led by organisations like the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and the liberal Jewish organisation J Street, have found a common cause and rallied together to lobby for restraint. Even the Quakers are energized.
“This is a do-or-die moment, either we succeed, or we go in a much more negative direction,” said NIAC co-founder Trita Parsi at the group’s annual conference last weekend.
Parsi sees the negotiations as a historic moment during a narrow window of opportunity. Presidents on both sides have sunk significant time and energy into the talks and Parsi believes the current leadership in both countries is more likely to make a deal than those who came before — or might come after.
“The next president, whatever political party they’re in, is not going to spend precious political capital battling Congress… [Obama] is the guy,” Parsi said.
Supporters fear that failure of the talks could trigger increased sanctions, the rise of hardliners in Iran, and relations spiraling toward military confrontation.
For his part, Congressman Ellison said he was urging fellow members to restrain from exploiting domestic fears with inflammatory rhetoric.
“What you say on the floor of the house in Washington DC is going to be heard in Tehran,” he told the NIAC conference.
Some of the organisations that support the talks have been working on grassroots campaigning while others are utilising personal connections at higher levels.
“There’s been a perception for decades now in Washington DC, that if you step out of line on Middle East issues, in the sense that you fail to enunciate the most hawkish issues, there will be a significant punishment,” said Dylan Williams, Director of Government Affairs at J Street.
William’s told the conference that while the perception certainly existed, the reality was false. More than 80 significant political donors had written to political leaders to warn them against disrupting the ongoing negotiations, Williams said.
“It is in both Israel’s and America’s interests to ensure that diplomacy succeed… the vast majority of Jewish Americans understand that and the vast major to Jewish Americans support that,” Williams added.
Congressman Ellison said the role of J Street was critical to “helping congress see that there is more than one way to be a friend of Israel.”
As well as pushing back against increased sanctions, the groups have been responsive to diplomatic hiccups, and have been fastidiously laying the groundwork for a potential deal. The deadline for the talks runs out Nov. 24.
Williams said J Street was committed to seeing diplomacy succeed. Supporters must “make sure congress doesn’t screw it up at the eleventh hour,” Williams said.
For his part, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has suggested the “short-lived dustbowl” kicked-up by opponents of the negotiations would dissipate as awareness a deal could be a win-win grows on both sides.
Congressman Ellison says representatives have to be prepared for compromises in the deal, “it doesn’t matter if you’re negotiating international diplomacy or buying a cow, you never get everything you want, that’s the nature of a deal.”
Urging congressional support, Ellison said, “Whatever comes out of the deal on November 24, it’s better — in my opinion — than what is going on now.”
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