Carl Levin does not like AIPAC’s Senate Iran letter

Eric Cantor, the House Republican majority leader, appears March 3 in the Capitol with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Ron Kampeas(

Eric Cantor, the House Republican majority leader, appears March 3 in the Capitol with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Ron Kampeas(

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the venerable (and Jewish) chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, will not sign onto an Iran letter backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — at least not the one the AIPAC wants him to sign. He will sign onto the letter that AIPAC is distributing in the U.S. House of Representatives, however.

Here’s the text of a note he circulated to colleagues Tuesday evening:

Two letters to the president are being circulated for signature regarding the ongoing negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran on the Iranian nuclear program. One is a Menendez-Graham letter. The other is being circulated in the House of Representatives by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer. Both are enclosed.


Because I prefer the text of the Cantor Hoyer letter, I have decided to circulate the text of the Cantor-Hoyer letter for signature under my own name in the Senate.

Levin, who has said he is not running again, doesn’t explain his preference, but the likeliest reason is that he does not want to be in the business of pre-determining outcomes to the talks with Iran — he signed a letter in January that opposed a bill that included such determinative language.

As we noted earlier, AIPAC ended its conference by sending thousands of activists to Capitol Hill asking for signatures on the letters.

Both letters ask President Obama to make sure that Congress maintains plenty of oversight over the Iran talks.

There is a key difference, though: The House letter confines itself to the matter of oversight. Left out are the prescriptions for an outcome of the Iran nuclear talks that characterize the second part of the Senate letter.

The Obama administration does not oppose any of the demands in the Senate letter, which include denying Iran a “right to enrichment,” dismantling its nuclear weapons program and dismantling reactors at Fordow and Arak. But the administration is resisting allowing Congress to dictate terms.

Notably, J Street, the liberal Jewish group that has opposed many of the hawkish Iran initiatives, is backing the House letter, but not the Senate letter.

One odd element in this is that Levin is embracing language co-authored by Cantor, who of all the names popping up in this back and forth is perhaps the most hawkish on Israel issues.

The backstory is that there has been for months — since December — much to-ing and fro-ing between the offices of Cantor and Hoyer, both with close ties to AIPAC, over language appropriate for a nonbinding resolution urging new Iran sanctions. In the end, the offices could not agree, but AIPAC did not want its activists going to the Hill empty-handed, so they launched the effort to circulate the letters.

The House letter took longer than the Senate letter to write — it was not ready until Sunday night, less than 48 hours before the activists went to the Hill. The Senate letter was ready last week.

Why was Hoyer so steadfast in keeping out prescriptive language from his letter? He has a restive caucus when it comes to how the president deals with Iran; fully half of the Democrats in the House signed a letter last month that opposed new Iran sanctions.

Cantor has made clear he favors the prescriptions his letter omits. Appearing alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday in the House’s Rayburn Room, he said as much.

“I believe strongly that any agreement with Iran must require Iran to dismantle existing centrifuge facilities and its heavy water reactor,” he said.

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Ron Kampeas is JTA’s Washington bureau chief, responsible for coordinating coverage in the U.S. capital and analyzing political developments that affect the Jewish world. He comes to JTA from The Associated Press, where he worked for more than a decade in its bureaus in Jerusalem, New York, London and, most recently, Washington. He has reported from Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Bosnia and West Africa. While living in Israel, he also worked for the Jerusalem Post and several Jewish organizations.