Obama pleads with Jewish groups to back Iran deal

Obama pleads with Jewish groups to back Iran deal
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President Obama pleaded with Jewish groups to back his nuclear framework deal with Iran during a private meeting at the White House on Monday.

The president held separate meetings on Monday with leaders of major Jewish organizations and a group mostly comprised of Jewish Democratic supporters and donors.

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Obama made an “emphatic and passionate” case during the nearly 90-minute meeting with Jewish organizations that the deal is the best way to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, according to an official from a group that participated.

“Concerns were raised and there was a fair amount of back and forth,” the official, who requested anonymity to describe the events of the meeting, said. “There were some folks walking in who support and favor the deal and there were some who have deep, deep concerns about the deal. I don’t think anyone’s fundamental view was changed by the conversation.” 

The White House released the list of attendees late Monday but did not provide a summary of the meeting. Sources said the meeting was intended as an off-the-record event, and groups contacted by The Hill would only speak without attribution about it.

The closed-door meeting highlights Obama’s ramped-up sales pitch to Jewish leaders, who the White House and Democrats fear could side with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against the agreement.

More broadly, Democratic strategists have expressed concern that big Jewish donors could turn away from Democrats and toward Republicans over the deal, which would lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for concessions on Tehran’s nuclear program.

More than a dozen groups on both sides of the debate participated in Monday’s meeting of Jewish organizations.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), J Street, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Jewish Federations of North America were among those that attended the first meeting. Representatives from all three major Jewish movements, the Orthodox Union, the conservative Rabbinical Assembly, and the Union of Reform Judaism also participated.

Obama was joined at the gathering of Jewish groups by national security adviser Susan Rice, who defended the Iran talks at AIPAC’s annual policy conference last month. 

Haim Saban, a major Democratic donor and supporter of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, attend the second meeting along with more than a dozen other Democratic fundraisers, former ambassadors, and former leaders of Jewish groups, according to a list provided by the White House. 

The meetings are part of a broader push by the White House to defend the Iran deal from skeptics in Congress and the public as negotiators attempt to reach a final agreement by June 30.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz will also hold classified briefings for members of the House and Senate over the next few days. 

The Senate is poised to move forward this week on a bill sponsored by Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) that would require Congress to sign off on any agreement. The White House on Monday reiterated it would veto the bill as it is currently written out of concern it would undermine the talks. 

The administration is looking to stymie momentum behind the legislation, and sees the outreach to Jewish groups as key to that effort.

Several groups thought to have participated in the meeting with Obama support congressional review of a deal out of concern its limits on Iran’s nuclear program do not go far enough and cannot be properly enforced. 

“Because these questions and concerns are central to the definition of what constitutes a good deal, we believe this framework and any subsequent agreement must come before Congress for review,” AIPAC said in a statement earlier this month. 

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday the meetings allowed the president to make his case that that reaching a final pact is in the best interest of the United States and Israel.  

Earnest admitted everyone at the meeting would not be swayed, but said “we certainly would welcome any public expression of support,” including to lawmakers.

The Jewish group official who spoke with The Hill said his organization remains supportive of the congressional review legislation and urged members to call their members of Congress. 

Still, the official said it was “important and useful” for Obama to speak directly with Jewish groups because he has final say over the Iran policy. 

“We do not question the president’s motives here, we do not think he is trying to do anything at odds with Israel’s security or at odds with American security,” the official said. “This is a disagreement over whether this particular strategy is going to serve the goals that he articulates and we support.”

The White House is intensifying its outreach as Congress moves closer to advancing an approval bill. 

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday is scheduled to hold a vote on the legislation, which would give lawmakers 60 days to review a nuclear agreement and decide whether to lift congressional sanctions on Iran. 

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Monday said his chamber would take up the legislation, and predicted it would receive a strong vote. 

Earnest urged lawmakers to hold off on acting until the deadline to reach a final agreement at the end of June. 

He described outreach to members of Congress as “the beginning of the process of helping members of Congress understand what commitments Iran has made so far.”  

— This post was updated and corrected at 6:53 p.m. amd at 9:07 p.m.