The Iran nuclear deal announced in Vienna yesterday means that the tough international negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran are finally over. But now attention shifts to the 60-day period during which Congress has the option of voting to approve or disapprove the agreement or doing nothing at all. A resolution of disapproval, as Obama most recently warned yesterday, will provoke a presidential veto. At that point, the question will be whether the opponents can muster the necessary two-thirds of members in both chambers of Congress to override, effectively killing by far the most promising development in U.S.-Iranian relations since the 1979 revolution.
This process not only represents a key test of Obama’s ability to deliver his most significant foreign-policy achievement to date. It also sets up a major showdown between the GOP’s single biggest donor, Sheldon Adelson, and the president of the United States.
Adelson is a big supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and finances Israel’s largest-circulation newspaper, Israel Hayom, often referred to as “Bibiton,” or Bibi’s paper. He makes no secret either of his hawkish views toward Iran or his animosity toward the Obama administration. Adelson has proposed launching a first-strike nuclear attack on Iran as a negotiating tactic and was treated as a guest of honor during Netanyahu’s controversial speech before Congress last March. (A number of pundits speculated about Adelson’s role in securing Netanyahu’s invitation from Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).)
Adelson and the Republicans
The casino magnate, whose net wealth is estimated by Forbes at $29.4 billion, and his Israeli-born wife, Miriam Adelson, are heavily invested in the current GOP members of the House and Senate.
In the 2014 election cycle, Adelson was the biggest single donor to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Super PAC closely tied to Boehner and dedicated to electing Republicans to the House, according to public filings. He contributed $5 million—or nearly 40%–of the Fund’s $12.6 million in total contributions. Boehner’s Super PAC’s second largest contributor, and only other seven-figure donor, was Chevron. It contributed a mere $1 million.
The loyalty of Republican senators to the Las Vegas-based multi-billionaire may run even deeper. Sheldon and Miriam Adelson reportedly contributed up to $100 million to help the GOP retake the Senate last year.
Adelson’s close relationship with Netanyahu is well documented, but his influence in Congress will soon be tested.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) already pledged to Netanyahu that he would “follow your lead” before a January vote on the Kirk-Menendez sanctions legislation. Graham joked about having the “first all-Jewish Cabinet in America [if elected president] because of the pro-Israel funding,” an apparent reference to the critical role played by campaign contributions by Adelson and other wealthy supporters of Israel—a number of whom are on the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition—in making or breaking Republican presidential candidacies. (The Adelsons’ generosity in 2012 virtually singlehandedly kept alive the presidential candidacy of former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who told NBC that Israel’s survival was “the central value of [Adelson’s] life.”)
Yesterday, Graham declared that the Iran deal was “akin to declaring war on Israel and the Sunni Arabs.” Not to be outdone, other GOP candidates, most of whom, no doubt, are also seeking Adelson’s endorsement and financial support, slammed the deal.
Jeb Bush, for instance, denounced the agreement as “appeasement.” Having received a bitter complaint from Adelson, Bush had earlier distanced himself from his father’s secretary of state after James Baker publicly criticized Netanyahu at a J Street conference earlier this year. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), reportedly an Adelson favorite, blasted the accord as “undermin[ing] our national security,” while Gov. Scott Walker characterized it as “one of the biggest disasters of the Obama-Clinton doctrine.” And Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) described it as “a fundamental betrayal of the security of the United States and of our closest allies, first and foremost Israel.”
All of these candidates may, of course, truly believe what they are saying (no doubt having personally studied the 100-plus-page agreement in detail). But Adelson’s largesse may also have played a role in their summary rejections of a deal that has been negotiated over more than three years and that has been endorsed by Washington’s most important NATO allies, not to mention the overwhelming majority of recognized U.S. non-proliferation, nuclear policy, Iran, and national security experts.
GOP Reservations about Adelson
But other Republicans, including those who don’t necessarily harbor the national ambitions that require raising tens of millions of dollars from wealthy donors, may feel some reservations about the growing influence Adelson exercises over their party’s leadership. Indeed, a closer look at Adelson, beginning with the way his gambling interests may not precisely align with the values of the party’s social conservatives, suggests a degree of disconnect between the man and a core Republican constituency.
Adelson’s interests in China, which many Republicans believe poses the greatest long-term threat to U.S. national security, may also be cause for concern. After all, in order to run his highly profitable Macau-based casinos, Adelson would presumably require some friendly relations, or guanxi, with the Communist government in Beijing. Indeed, reports that Adelson played a key role—at the personal behest of Beijing’s mayor—in scuttling a proposed House resolution opposing China’s bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics on human-rights grounds should give pause to some elements in the party, including both China hawks and neoconservatives who profess a devotion to democracy. The fact that Adelson also faces accusations of ties to Chinese organized crime groups at his Macau properties and that a former Sands executive charged him with personally approving a “prostitution strategy” at his properties should raise a few questions in the minds of some Republicans. Adelson has rejected all these charges, which may soon be tested in court.
And despite having personally promoted the use of U.S. military (and nuclear) forces against Iran and funded a number of hawkish groups, including the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, that have similarly advocated the threat or use of U.S. military force, Adelson appears at least ambivalent abouthis own service in the U.S. armed forces.
Speaking to a group in Israel, in July 2010, Adelson said:
I am not Israeli. The uniform that I wore in the military, unfortunately, was not an Israeli uniform. It was an American uniform, although my wife was in the IDF and one of my daughters was in the IDF … our two little boys, one of whom will be bar mitzvahed tomorrow, hopefully he’ll come back– his hobby is shooting — and he’ll come back and be a sniper for the IDF. … All we care about is being good Zionists, being good citizens of Israel, because even though I am not Israeli born, Israel is in my heart.
With a deal now reached in Vienna, Adelson is undoubtedly placing calls to the GOP leadership in Congress urging them to vote down a nuclear accord supported by an overwhelming number of experts in the relevant fields, as well as a majority of Americans, according to the latest polls. How they respond will tell us a great deal not only about Adelson’s influence in the Republican party, but also about the impact of enormously wealthy, highly focused, one-issue donors on U.S. foreign policy and national security.