Unlikely coalition links groups opposing Iran sanctions

A loose coalition of advocacy groups and policy experts, including a pair of dovish Jewish organizations, has been coordinating messaging in support of the Obama administration’s Iran strategy.

The coalition was convened by the Ploughshares Fund, which advocates for a nuclear-free world. Participants — J Street and Americans for Peace Now among them — have been in touch through email and conference calls since September, after it emerged that the Obama administration was advancing toward talks with Iran over its nuclear program.

President Obama at State of Union photo | ap-larry downing

A focus for the coalition has been opposing new sanctions under consideration in the Senate, something the Obama administration says could scuttle the talks.

The proposed legislation, sponsored by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), would implement new sanctions should Iran violate the interim agreement or walk away from the negotiations.

Americans for Peace Now and J Street have warned that passage of the legislation could lead to war with Iran.

Congressional staffers on both sides of the issue say opposition to the new sanctions has been intense and that the coalition’s lobbying and advocacy are likely factors. On at least one occasion, White House officials briefed the groups about the Iran talks in a bid to spread the administration’s message through the network.

The consensus among participants is that the coalition has empowered voices that often viewed themselves as being in the political wilderness when it comes to influencing U.S. policy on Iran.

“This is the best we’ve ever been coordinated,” said Lara Friedman, director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now.

Others involved in the coalition include the National Iranian American Council; the American Security Project, which advocates for nuclear security; the Atlantic Council, a foreign policy think tank; and the Arms Control Association.

Additionally, scholars from think tanks such as the Carnegie Endowment and the Center for a New American Security have participated in individual capacities.

While united in opposing the new legislation, coalition members have differed in the past on Iran sanctions backed by the Obama administration. For instance, the National Iranian American Council and Americans for Peace Now opposed past economic sanctions, while J Street supported them.

Coalition participants said the utility of their grouping was in sharing resources.

“There’s a whole bunch of groups, we’re disparate, we have our own agendas, our own boards and positions, but we’re sharing information the way an informal coalition should, and it’s empowering people to be more effective,” Friedman said.

Participants who spoke to JTA on and off the record about the grouping have emphasized that the coalition is informal and the groups are not beholden to each other.

Josh Block, president of the Israel Project, cast the coalition as an extension of forces that for years have sought to undercut the mainstream pro-Israel lobby.

“The very same groups that make up the core anti-Israel and relentlessly critical of Israel movement in Washington are those that are working together to oppose sanctions on Iran,” he said.

Participants say their lobbying is having an effect; they are hearing from congressional staffers that calls opposing the new sanctions substantially outnumber those in favor.

Proponents of the new sanctions legislation, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, have summoned a majority of 59 senators to endorse it, but have been stalled in their effort to gain the support of the 67 Senate members needed to override a presidential veto, something President Barack Obama promised again in his State of the Union address this week.

“I do think the group has had a measurable impact on how policy has been discussed on the Iran issue and ultimately on how policy has been formulated and whether legislation has moved or not moved,” said Dylan Williams, the director of government affairs for J Street.