It was David versus Goliath: the classic underdog matchup. In the battle over a Congressional resolution calling for war with Iran, the lines were drawn between the smaller grassroots Iranian-American movement (NIAC) on one side and the hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) mega-lobby on the other. No one expected the Iranian Americans and their coalition partners to be able to stand up to the belligerent giant intent on amplifying hostility with Iran.
But with the Congressional session expiring this week, our proverbial David in Washington has delivered the knock-out blow to the pro-war forces’ Goliath. The Iran war resolution is down for the count.
Yes, you read that right – NIAC beat AIPAC.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I should make it clear that I am a NIAC member and I, like many other Iranian Americans, participated in this effort by calling and emailing my representatives, and engaging family, friends, and co-workers to do the same. I also attended a meeting with Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s (D-MD) top advisor to oppose this resolution.)
Introduced in May, House Concurrent Resolution (H.Con.Res.) 362 would have recommended that the US President impose a blockade to prohibit shipments of refined petroleum from reaching Iran. Such a move would elicit an Iranian military response, thereby igniting another disastrous confrontation in the Middle East with unimaginable consequences for the US military and the vital oil traffic throughout the Persian Gulf. But these obvious dangers didn’t stop some of the most powerful special interest groups in the country from making H.Con.Res. 362 a top priority in their legislative agenda this year.
With the full weight of the dominant pro-war movement behind it, this resolution garnered well over 200 cosponsors within the first two weeks of its introduction. Ultimately, more than half of the 435 members of Congress went out of their way to sign on. For those familiar with Washington politics, it appeared that AIPAC’s flagship piece of legislation was all set to breeze through Congress and pass by virtual decree.
But the resolution’s overtly aggressive language immediately caught the attention of some members of the Iranian-American community who mobilized in opposition to the bill with a speed and efficacy never before seen from the historically under-engaged group. Led by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and a coalition of peace and security groups, Iranian Americans from around the country called, emailed, wrote, and visited their members of Congress to declare in no uncertain terms that passing H.Con.Res. 362 would be disastrous.
“This is a victory for the Iranian-American community,” NIAC’s Legislative Director, Emily Blout, told me earlier this week, “and it is a testament to the hard work and determination of the thousands of Iranian Americans who made their voices heard within the walls of Congress by opposing this push for war.”
The main focus of NIAC’s efforts to stop the blockade resolution came in the form of encouraging Iranian Americans to press their Representatives to either oppose the bill or withdraw their cosponsorship if already a cosponsor. In all, over 10,000 emails were sent, 6,000 phone calls were placed, and dozens of constituent groups met face to face with members of Congress or their top staff members to voice their disapproval. Additionally, NIAC and the coalition groups worked hard to make this a full-fledged media concern, placing op-eds in prominent newspapers like the Washington Times and providing expert commentary for media sources from around the country.
As a direct result of this grassroots groundswell, five Representatives who had initially signed onto the resolution withdrew their cosponsorship – a very drastic move that elected officials are hesitant to make at any time, much less during an election year. Additionally, some prominent Democrats, including Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida, publically declared their position that, while they would remain nominal cosponsors of the resolution, they would not support it unless the language first underwent a drastic overhaul.
As the summer came to a close, members of Congress remained divided over the controversial measure, and many key lawmakers from both sides of the issue approached Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi about the prospects for the bill to be given a proper vote. According to Congressional sources, the bill was set to be placed on the House calendar on three separate occasions. In all three instances, it was removed at the last minute due to intervention by organizations like NIAC and its partners. In the end, the bill was never allowed to be brought up for a vote on the House floor, nor was it even considered by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, thanks to groups like NIAC working behind the scenes with members of Congress to discourage consideration of the bill.
(Under Congressional rules, if a bill is not passed before Congress adjourns for the year, it must be resubmitted after the start of the next session and start the whole process over again.)
Thus the prospects of an “October surprise” military conflict with Iran appears to be averted for the time being. And in what many hope is a sign of things to come, the Iranian-American community’s efforts at grassroots organizing – long a cause of cynicism within our oftentimes fractious community – has its first major legislative success on which to build further momentum. “This victory has shown members of our community just how much we can accomplish,” Trita Parsi, President of NIAC, told me and other NIAC members involved in the process. “Now, we should take this opportunity to make our voice heard in the debate about America’s future in general, and our policy towards Iran in particular.”
With the blockade bill defeated, Iranian Americans can no longer claim to be the perennial underdogs, resigning themselves to the minor leagues of civic engagement. Rather, the victory over the pro-war hawks should usher in a new era for Iranian-American political participation, one in which no fight is too big, no opponent too mighty, and no opportunity beyond the collective reach of a newly engaged citizenry eager to leave a positive mark on the American political landscape. David’s work wasn’t finished when he beat Goliath on the battlefield; the real task ahead for Iranian Americans is only just beginning.