Iran Nuclear Deal Opponents’ Relations with Lobbying Firms

Iran Nuclear Deal Opponents’ Relations with Lobbying Firms
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Senior Expert Bilgehan Alagöz

In the US, claiming global leadership, it is acknowledged that the interest groups make considerable efforts to influence both the executive-branch decision-making processes and public opinion. This is called lobbying. Lobbying takes several forms in the United States. Foremost among these are the professional organizations established for lobbying. The lobbying firms are obliged to comply with the clearly defined regulations in the domestic legal system. In that regard, The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), enacted in 1938, is of great importance. Similarly, the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (LDA) and later the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 (HLOGA), enacted to complete the deficiencies, strictly regulate lobbying activities within the US on behalf of foreign countries.

In this context, while the negotiations between the (P) 4 +1 countries and Iran on the future of the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) continue in Vienna, the countries in the region, deeply unhappy with the deal, have started to concentrate on the lobbying activities to exert pressure on Washington. Saudi Arabia is at the top of the list. In this regard, the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington hired lobby firm Off Hill Strategies on November 13, 2020. The mentioned firm was established by Tripp Baird, who was once director of government relations at the conservative organization Heritage Action for America. According to the contract, the focus of Off Hill’s lobbying efforts is “formulating legislative advocacy strategies, implementing legislative advocacy strategies, drafting documents with background information, emailing information to congressional offices, and meeting with congressional members and/or their staff.” The rationale for the contract signed with Off Hill shows that through professional lobbying firms, Saudi Arabia will put pressure on the members of the US Congress either to prevent any action taken by the Biden Administration regarding Iran Nuclear Deal or to be a part of possible negotiations with Iran. In that case, Saudi Arabia’s lobbying efforts are also carried by other firms. Booz Allen Hamilton, actually a consulting firm, has started to advise the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington on the US foreign military sales and help to promote Saudi Arabia-US relations and support the Embassy in pushing forward the Saudi Arabia-US collaboration since 2017. However, in July 2020, the firm, which took its support a stage further, registered for lobbying under FARA. Another significant Saudi lobbying effort is the contract signed with Arena Strategy Group through the Larson Shannahan Slifka Group. The effective date of the contract was subsequent to the announcement that Joe Biden was declared president-elect. Arena’s efforts are led by Mark Graul, a political strategist who ran George W Bush’s re-election race in Wisconsin in 2004 and is known for his neoconservative (neocon) identity. This situation is remarkable as Saudi Arabia’s preference for these people in order to precent Iran-related initiatives is a sign that neoconservatism will be effective in the US policy-making system during the Biden Era.

The last organization regarding Saudi Arabia’s lobbying efforts in the US is the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee (SAPRAC), founded in 2016. The committee, which played an active role in deepening of US-Saudi relations in the Trump Era and also helped to propagate anti-Qatar campaigns during the 2017 Qatar crisis, obliged to register with FARA after a complaint made by Barry Bennett of Avenue Strategies, which is a lobbying firm on behalf of Qatar. It is thought that SAPRAC will actively work to de-escalate possible tensions between the US and Saudi Arabia and create a negative perception about Iranians in the American public opinion. Ultimately, all these contracts signed with lobbying firms show that Saudi Arabia is determined to put pressure on legislative and executive authorities in the USA on multiple fronts.

Besides Saudi Arabia, the lobbying efforts of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are also attention-grabbing. The UAE has preferred to sign a contract with "American Defense International via Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP". The focus of American Defense International’s lobbying efforts is described as strategic consulting, strengthening the bilateral relationship between the United States and the United Arab Emirates, and ensuring regional security of the UAE. Although it does not directly focus on the Iran Nuclear Deal, this is also an effective factor for the UAE's lobbying activities in Washington. It is also prime of importance that this firm has played a crucial role in developing and propagating UAE’s anti-Qatar and anti-Turkey lobbying efforts.

Besides the aforementioned efforts, the Jewish lobby in the United States aims to create negative public opinion on the Iran Nuclear Deal, which is also of great importance. John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt analysed the influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on the US Foreign policy and brought this issue up for discussion academically in their study that was written in 2006 and later turned into a book titled “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy". AIPAC’s crucial role in forming Washington’s Iran policy during Trump Era has increased the possibility of the arm’s length relationships with AIPAC in the Biden Era. In this regard, it is remarkable that a group of 150 House Democrats in the US House of Representatives sent a letter to President-elect Joe Biden supporting the new administration's plan to rejoin the Iran Nuclear Deal without any further conditions on December 10. Ultimately Brad Sherman of California, who has longstanding ties to the Israel community and helped found The Israel Project in the early 2000s, is also among the House Democrats who signed the letter. However, AIPAC has advocated against the letter and announced that it will closely follow this issue for Biden to negotiate a new, broader agreement before re-entering the deal.

It is expected that AIPAC will be at the forefront of opposition to re-entering the deal in the Biden Era because it has positioned itself as the fierce opponent to the agreement. However, the Israel Policy Forum’s attitude, which declares its opposition to Biden’s plan to re-enter the deal, is the most surprising one. It is quite remarkable that Yossi Klein Halevi stated that returning to Iran Nuclear Deal would be seen by Israelis as a betrayal on December 16, in the virtual event of Israel lobby group which is on the left-center, supports the two-state-solution and opposes the Trump “peace” plan and Israeli annexation plans. Although pro-Israel groups, which are in the center-right pro-Israel community, have come to the fore with their criticisms over Iran-related issues, such criticism from the left-wing pro-Israel group will especially intend to have an influence on the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, represented by Bernie Sanders. Thus, as in 2015, this situation has strengthened the possibility that the president and the Democrats in the US Senate will hold divergent attitudes and Democrats will resist rejoining the Iran Nuclear Deal with an approach that prioritizes Israel’s arguments.

Trump, when he came to power in 2016, defined the order in Washington as a swamp and promised to drain it. Ultimately, according to Trump, the US foreign policy is under the control of lobbying firms and think tanks through donations and so America’s national interest is of secondary importance. Trump’s broken promise once again reveals the fact that the lobbying efforts on behalf of foreign governments in Washington will gain momentum during the Biden Era. At this point, the most prominent issue is lobbying activities against the Iran Nuclear Deal.