Iranian nuclear deal strains Obama's relations with big Jewish donors

The Iran nuclear deal has put new strains on President Obama’s relationship with Jewish donors, a pillar of Democratic fundraising.

The U.S.-led agreement — endorsed by France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia — has attracted criticism from Democratic allies of Israel, including Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.).

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The timing of the pact set the stage for awkward moments at a scheduled Democratic fundraiser in Beverly Hills, Calif., Monday night. Obama attended an event, hosted by Haim Saban, an Israeli-American media mogul.

Obama attacked the issue head-on, telling about 120 donors who paid $16,200 per person to attend the dinner at Saban’s sprawling estate that the agreement with Iran opens “the prospect that we’ll be able to, through peaceful, diplomatic means, remove this cloud that has hovered over the Middle East that had the potential and continues to have the potential of triggering a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region of the world.”

“It’s good for the United States, it’s good for our allies, it’s good for Israel,” he added.

“Because I’ve said, and I will repeat, that I don’t take any options off the table as commander in chief when it comes to the security of the United States or our allies.”

Saban drew applause when he told the donors, gathered in his back yard in a heated tent bathed in orange/gold light, according to a pool reporter, that "the president’s commitment to Israel’s security has never been stronger."

"And if the Iranians are at the negotiating table today, make no mistake about it, it is only as a result of President Obama’s resolve in striking down the most strict sanctions ever,” Saban added.

A spokeswoman for Saban, a billionaire who brought the “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” to American television, did not respond to a request for comment.

Rob Fox, a Democratic fundraiser who supports federal candidates in Pennsylvania, slammed the deal.

 “I think that Iran has demonstrated for over 30 years that they’re not to be trusted. They have not allowed any inspections. The entire sanctions regime is a function of the fact that they have not been a member of the international community. They are the major sponsor of terrorism in the entire Middle East and the world,” he said.

 “I see no good reasons given those circumstances you would negotiate an interim deal that gives them any relief,” he added.

Schumer, the third-ranking Senate Democratic leader, predicted the “disproportionality” of the agreement would spur Congress to pass additional sanctions against Iran.

“It was strong sanctions, not the goodness of the hearts of the Iranian leaders, that brought Iran to the table. And any reduction relieves the pressure of sanction and gives them the hope that they will be able to obtain a nuclear weapon,” he said.

Jeff Robbins, a Democratic lawyer and fundraiser based in Boston, said many Jewish Democrats agree with Schumer.

“There is a strong concern that in the frenetic eagerness to secure a piece of paper, an eagerness that could not have been more ostentatiously advertised, the United States and others went for a deal which was not consistent with the leverage that was had.”

He said that, in pursuit of a deal, the administration took “crude, petulant and harmful swipes at Israel” that were “difficult to understand from a friend.”

Robbins also criticized Secretary of State John Kerry’s claim that Israeli officials were disparaging the emerging deal without being fully briefed on its details.

“Stuff that seems aimed of fomenting a view of those who are concerned about Israel as somehow obsessive-compulsive or worse,” he said. “We’re talking about a potential nuclear weapon in the hands of Iran.”

A Jewish donor to Obama’s campaigns who requested anonymity to discuss the deal frankly, accused the president of “selling Israel down the river,” adding that it is a “betrayal of our closest ally in the region.”

Rep. Eliot Engel, a senior Jewish Democratic lawmaker from New York, called the agreement “very disappointing.”

“We need to be very, very careful with the Iranians,” the ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee said on CNN over the weekend. “I don’t trust them. I don’t think we should trust them.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday called the deal a “historic mistake.”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a leading voice on U.S. policy toward Israel, criticized the pact in a statement Monday afternoon.

AIPAC warned that “the initial agreement raises many concerns” because it would allow Iran to continue its nuclear program while gaining sanctions relief.

The harsh criticism is the latest flare-up in what has been a sometimes tense relationship between the Obama administration and prominent Jewish Democrats.

Obama came under fire in 2011 when he said the borders before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war should serve as the guideline for future peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine.

Some Jewish donors said at the time that Obama’s statement heightened doubts about his policy stance toward Israel.

Obama tried to reassure anxious supporters at fundraising events a month after the controversial statement, a fence-mending operation he might have to repeat.

Still, some prominent Jewish donors view the agreement as a promising first step.

“I believe that what the president and Secretary Kerry have brought about is an extraordinary diplomatic coup,” said Steve Cozen, a top donor to the Democratic National Committee. “This is the least of all bad options. Military force is not a real option.”

Another prominent Democratic fundraiser who requested anonymity said, “There’s definitely a lot of different views that are going to get very contentious among Jewish donors and fundraisers.”

“A lot of people feel that peacefully getting Iran not to produce nuclear weapons is in Israel’s best interest, and there are others who just don’t trust the Iranians at all, and they’re skeptical and hoping for more pressure on Iran and possibly some military action,” said the source.

 Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is expected to launch a 2016 presidential bid, has not yet endorsed the deal.

“She’s very difficult to pin down, isn’t she?” said Cozen. “I think she will remain difficult to pin down.

“Mrs. Clinton very seldom takes positions on controversial issues that may be unpopular in a particular community that might stick to her,” he added.

Amie Parnes contributed.

This report was updated at 6:37 a.m.