Iran Lobbying Battle Heats Up On The Airwaves

Aug 20, 2015
Originally published on August 20, 2015 6:49 pm

A lobbying battle is ratcheting up as members of Congress prepare to vote on President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran.

The lobbying followed lawmakers home for the August recess, as advocacy groups run TV ads, telephone congressional offices, use social media and attend legislators' public meetings.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., says she'll support the deal when Republican leaders in Congress bring up a resolution to disapprove it next month.

Her announcement brings President Obama one vote closer to blocking the resolution. If Congress were to pass the measure, it would still need a two-thirds majority in each chamber to override a presidential veto.

TV ads both for and against the deal are plentiful with new ones appearing regularly, and almost all of them are meant to scare viewers.

Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, a group with ties to the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, released an ad Thursday with what lobbyists call a "validator" — in this case, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, a former deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

"Let's not forget that Iran is the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world," Deptula says in the ad. "The deal will increase the likelihood of terrorists getting ahold of a nuclear weapon."

Americans United for Change, a liberal group in the coalition supporting the deal, also released a new ad. Over photos of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton and former Vice President Dick Cheney — all proponents of the 2003 assault on Iraq — an announcer said: "They're back. The same people that rushed us into war in Iraq want to sink the new agreement that would help stop war with Iran."

Measured in raw numbers of lobbyists and dollars, this lobbying battle doesn't match the big domestic issues — the Affordable Care Act, for instance, or international trade agreements — where corporations have big stakes.

That may explain the absence of one regular lobbying activity, as noted by former Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.: "The difference in process is you're not holding fundraisers for members. There's not a money connection here. This is an education connection. I mean it's not, you know, we're going to have a fundraiser and please support this."

But it makes the fight over the Iran deal no less intense.

"This battle over the Iran agreement rises to that kind of a level because it really is a once-in-a-decade fight between two competing world views," said Dylan Williams, vice president for government affairs at J Street, a pro-Israel group helping to lead the pro-deal coalition.

"I think that saturation point has been reached," he said of the ad campaigns. "And that's why the dollar advantage that opponents of this deal have is not materializing into a vote advantage."

J Street uses validators in its messages, too. According to its current spot, "Israeli security experts say this agreement is the best existing option, the best possible alternative. It must not be rejected."

The anti-deal coalition counters J Street's validators with veterans.

Coleman is co-founder of a bipartisan group, the American Security Initiative, that has produced an ad featuring a retired Army staff sergeant. The ad was co-produced with another group, Veterans Against the Deal.

The sergeant, Robert Bartlett, was wounded in Iraq in 2005, the period when Iran reportedly began supplying explosives to Shiite militia.

"I was blown up by an Iranian bomb. It cut me in half from the left corner of my temple down through my jaw," he says in the ad, the scars clearly visible. "Total devastation. Every politician who's involved in this will be held accountable."

Williams, at J Street, said his coalition is being outspent on advertising. Coleman said his groups may have money for lobbying, but they're up against the entire Obama administration.

"Everything else pales in comparison," Coleman said. "All the relationships that are entwined with a sitting administration, there's no balance there."

The ranks of undecided lawmakers are starting to dwindle. Coleman said the anti-deal coalition is reaching out even to some of the Democratic lawmakers who have already endorsed the deal.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Members of Congress are feeling the pressure as even during their August recess, advocates for and against the Iran nuclear deal press their arguments. Democratic senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri said today she'll support it. Her announcement brings President Obama one vote closer to blocking a congressional resolution of disapproval. That vote is planned for next month. NPR's Peter Overby has been watching the lobbying escalate.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Like any big-time lobbying battle, this one has plenty of TV ads. Mostly they're meant to scare you. Here's one just out today featuring what lobbyists call a validator, a former Air Force general in charge of intelligence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID DEPTULA: Let's not forget that Iran is the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. The deal will increase the likelihood of terrorists getting a hold of a nuclear weapon.

OVERBY: That's from Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran. It's an advocacy group connected to the powerful and conservative American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Also new today, an ad from Africans United for Change, a liberal group that's promoting the deal. It starts with a photo of former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD RUMSFELD: They're back. The same people that rushed us into war in Iraq want to sink the new agreement that would help stop war with Iran.

OVERBY: In numbers of lobbyists and dollars, this lobbying battle doesn't match, say, the fight to pass the Affordable Care Act or conflicts over trade agreements. Norm Coleman is a former Republican senator, now a leader and opposing the deal. He noted one big lobbying activity that's missing.

NORM COLEMAN: The difference in process is you're not holding fundraisers for members. This is - there's not a money connection here. This is an education connection. I mean, it's not a, you know, we're going to have a fundraiser and please support this.

OVERBY: But for intensity, the Iran nuclear deal ranks up near the top.

DYLAN WILLIAMS: This battle over the Iran agreement rises to that kind of a level because it really is a once-in-a-decade fight between two competing worldviews.

OVERBY: Dylan Williams is head of government affairs at J Street, a pro-Israel group helping to lead the coalition for the deal.

WILLIAMS: I think that saturation point has been reached, and that's why the dollar advantage that opponents of this deal have is not materializing into a vote advantage.

OVERBY: J Street uses validators too, as in this ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Israeli security experts say this agreement is the best existing option, the best possible alternative. It must not be rejected.

OVERBY: The anti-deal coalition has countered those validators with veterans. Norm Coleman's group, the American Security Initiative, joined with another group, Veterans Against the Deal, for a TV ad featuring retired Army staff sergeant Robert Bartlett. He was wounded in Iraq in 2005. That was when Iran reportedly started supplying explosives to Shiite militia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT BARTLETT: I was blown up by an Iranian bomb. It cut me in half from the left corner of my temple down through my jaw - total devastation. Every politician who's involved in this will be held accountable.

OVERBY: Coleman said groups opposing the deal may have money for lobbying, but they're up against the entire Obama administration.

COLEMAN: Everything else pales in comparison. All the relationships that are kind of entwined with a sitting administration - there's no balance there.

OVERBY: As Congress's August recess winds down, the ranks of undecided lawmakers are starting to dwindle. Coleman said the anti-deal coalition is reaching out even to some of the Democratic lawmakers who've already said they're for it. Congresses is due back in Washington after Labor Day. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.