The Democratic Party’s Iran Warhawks Who Fly Under the Radar

Junior Democrats who voted against an anti-war amendment have ties to the Saudi and UAE lobbies.

Sarah Lazare July 23, 2019

U.S. Representative Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) at the American Zionist Movement / AZM Washington Forum: Renewing the Bipartisan Commitment Standing with Israel and Zionism in the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, DC. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

On July 12, sev­en Demo­c­ra­t­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tives qui­et­ly vot­ed against an amend­ment to the 2020 Nation­al Defense Autho­riza­tion Act pro­hibit­ing unau­tho­rized mil­i­tary force in or against Iran.” Intro­duced by Reps. Ro Khan­na (D‑Calif.) and Matt Gaetz (R‑Fla.) in the midst of the Trump administration’s esca­lat­ing provo­ca­tions toward Iran, the amend­ment ulti­mate­ly was approved 251 – 170. By vot­ing against it, these Democ­rats were plac­ing them­selves in the most hawk­ish wing of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Yet most are new to Con­gress and rel­a­tive­ly low-profile.

These junior members of Congress are also notable recipients of contributions from lobbyists for Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Accord­ing to For­eign Agents Reg­is­tra­tion Act (FARA) records, which dis­close lob­by­ists’ and oth­er agents’ polit­i­cal rela­tion­ships with for­eign gov­ern­ments, four of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tives who vot­ed against the amend­ment — Tom O’Haller­an (Ariz.), Stephanie Mur­phy (Fla.), Josh Got­theimer (N.J.) and Hen­ry Cuel­lar (Texas) — have been aggres­sive­ly court­ed by lob­by­ists for Sau­di Ara­bia and the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates. And three — O’Halleran, Got­theimer and Mur­phy — have col­lec­tive­ly received $18,000 in con­tri­bu­tions from lob­by­ing firms rep­re­sent­ing Sau­di Ara­bia and the UAE.

Sau­di Ara­bia and the UAE are geopo­lit­i­cal foes of Iran and have secured U.S. back­ing for a ruth­less war on Yemen that they claim is a proxy war with Iran (great­ly over­stat­ing Iran’s role). Both have pressed the U.S. to take a more con­fronta­tion­al stance toward Iran. The Pen­ta­gon announced July 19, in the midst of ris­ing U.S. ten­sions with Iran, that it is deploy­ing mil­i­tary per­son­nel and resources” to Sau­di Ara­bia, a key U.S. ally in the region.

On Sept. 7, 2017, after Hur­ri­cane Har­vey dev­as­tat­ed south­east­ern Texas, Texas Rep. Cuel­lar received an email from the lob­by­ing firm Hagir Elawad & Asso­ciates, which rep­re­sents the UAE, pro­vid­ing notice of UAE’s intend­ed con­tri­bu­tion to Hur­ri­cane Har­vey recov­ery efforts,” a FARA doc­u­ment shows. While Rep. Cuellar’s office did not respond to In These Times’ ques­tions about what com­mu­ni­ca­tions ensued, the UAE pledged that same day to give $10 mil­lion to help with local and state recov­ery efforts.” 

Cuel­lar was also court­ed by Sau­di Ara­bia. Lob­by­ist Glover Park Group emailed the Texas Rep. in March 2018 regard­ing an invi­ta­tion to an event” on behalf of the Sau­di embassy. While Cuellar’s staff did not respond to In These Times’ ques­tions about that con­tact, chances are the event relat­ed to Sau­di Crown Prince Moham­mad Bin Salman (MBS), who soon after went on a high-pro­file vis­it to the U.S.

Sau­di lob­by­ists also made over­tures to Reps. O’Haller­an and Mur­phy that month. Both were invit­ed to dine with MBS by Sau­di lob­by­ing firm Brown­stein Hyatt Far­ber Schreck, FARA doc­u­ments show. Nei­ther office respond­ed to In These Times’ ques­tions about whether they accept­ed the invi­ta­tion. How­ev­er, accord­ing to a Jan­u­ary 2018 press release from the Sau­di gov­ern­ment, Mur­phy attend­ed a meet­ing with MBS and then-House Speak­er Paul Ryan (R‑Wisc.).

Mur­phy was also court­ed by Hagir Elawad & Asso­ciates on behalf of the UAE. The firm set up a Jan­u­ary 2018 meet­ing between the con­gress­woman and Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Com­man­der of the UAE Armed Forces, and UAE ambas­sador Yousef Al Otaiba.

Rep. Gottheimer’s office, mean­while, received three sep­a­rate emails in March 2018 from Glover Park Group invit­ing the con­gress­man to an unspec­i­fied event on behalf of the Sau­di embassy. The FARA doc­u­ments do not pro­vide more details about what the call entailed, and Got­theimer also did not respond to queries from In These Times.

As The Intercept’s Ryan Grim report­ed in May, Got­theimer has deep ties to the Sau­di and right-wing Israeli lob­bies (which are in a de fac­to alliance), and has orga­nized behind the scenes to sink con­gres­sion­al efforts to end U.S. involve­ment in the Sau­di-UAE war on Yemen. Grim describes Got­theimer hob­nob­bing with pro-war con­ser­v­a­tives, This spring, he was one of just a hand­ful of Democ­rats at a pri­vate retreat on Sea Island, Geor­gia, host­ed by the con­ser­v­a­tive Amer­i­can Enter­prise Insti­tute, min­gling with Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence, Don­ald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kush­n­er, Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo, and oth­er Repub­li­can heavy­weights.” The AEI is the for­mer employ­er of noto­ri­ous Iran hawk John Bolton and has long advo­cat­ed for war with Iran. Pom­peo, for his part, has joined Bolton — now Trump’s nation­al secu­ri­ty advi­sor — in push­ing the Trump admin­is­tra­tion to esca­late towards Iran.

Accord­ing to Ben Free­man of the Cen­ter for Inter­na­tion­al Pol­i­cy, the many over­tures to these three Con­gress mem­bers should raise eye­brows. These are all fair­ly junior mem­bers that would­n’t oth­er­wise get much atten­tion from Sau­di and UAE lob­by­ists unless those lob­by­ists thought there was a chance they’d vote their way,” says Free­man, who pro­vid­ed In These Times with the FARA doc­u­ments cit­ed in this report. This vote is at least one indi­ca­tion those lob­by­ists bet right.”

Reps. O’Haller­an Mur­phy and Got­theimer have only served in Con­gress since 2017; Rep. Cuel­lar has been in Con­gress since 2005.

It’s not just meet­ings: These junior mem­bers of Con­gress are also notable recip­i­ents of con­tri­bu­tions from lob­by­ists for Sau­di Ara­bia and the UAE. In 2017 and 2018, Reps. Got­theimer, Mur­phy and O’Haller­an have col­lec­tive­ly received $15,250 from lob­by­ing firms rep­re­sent­ing Sau­di Ara­bia, and $2,750 from firms rep­re­sent­ing the UAE. Rep. Got­theimer accounts for 75 per­cent of these dona­tions, receiv­ing a total of $13,500 from firms rep­re­sent­ing the UAE and Sau­di Arabia.

(While Hagir Elawad & Asso­ciates lob­bies sole­ly on behalf of the UAE Embassy, the oth­er firms have mul­ti­ple clients, and fed­er­al dis­clo­sure rules don’t indi­cate on whose behalf the firms are donat­ing to campaigns.)

Got­theimer is absolute­ly extra­or­di­nary for such a junior mem­ber of Con­gress,” said Free­man. He’s one of the top recip­i­ents of mon­ey from Sau­di and UAE lob­by­ists. Just about every­one ahead of him is either a mem­ber of lead­er­ship or chairs key committees.”

The left-lean­ing groups Roots Action and Indi­vis­i­ble NJ 5th Dis­trict said they are con­sid­er­ing Rep. Got­theimer as a tar­get for a pro­gres­sive pri­ma­ry chal­lenge, due to his con­ser­v­a­tive track record. Cuel­lar faces a pri­ma­ry chal­lenge from Jes­si­ca Cis­neros, a pro­gres­sive endorsed by Jus­tice Democrats.

Has­san El-Tayyab is co-direc­tor of Just For­eign Pol­i­cy, which agi­tates against war. He told In These Times, It’s a very unfor­tu­nate deci­sion by these sev­en Democ­rats to vote with the Repub­li­can Par­ty against the abil­i­ty of Con­gress to keep pres­i­den­tial author­i­ty in check. And to know that they’re receiv­ing con­tri­bu­tions from for­eign gov­ern­ments in exchange for these votes is even worse.”

In These Times request­ed com­ment from all of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tives who vot­ed against the amend­ment to end the war with Iran, includ­ing the three who are not list­ed on FARA doc­u­ments as recip­i­ents of con­tri­bu­tions or lob­by­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions from Sau­di Ara­bia and the UAE: Reps. Stephen Lynch (Mass.), Kath­leen Rice (N.Y.), and Jef­fer­son Van Drew (N.J.). Of the sev­en, only Rep. Lynch pro­vid­ed an expla­na­tion for why he vot­ed against the Iran amendment.

Dur­ing the debate over the Nation­al Defense Autho­riza­tion Act (NDAA), the gen­tle­man from Cal­i­for­nia, Mr. Khan­na offered an amend­ment which in rel­e­vant part stat­ed, ‘[N]othing in this Act may be con­strued to autho­rize the use of mil­i­tary force,’” Rep. Lynch’s spokesper­son told In These Times over email. Since the sin­gu­lar and cen­tral pur­pose of the NDAA is to autho­rize and pro­vide funds for the defense of U.S. forces and of our Nation, Con­gress­man Lynch was com­pelled to vote nay.”

But accord­ing to Robert Naiman, pol­i­cy direc­tor for Just For­eign Pol­i­cy, this expla­na­tion doesn’t hold up. The text Lynch found objec­tion­able is boil­er­plate that sim­ply restates the U.S. law that only Con­gress can declare war. In fact, this lan­guage is includ­ed in numer­ous bills, includ­ing one Rep. Lynch sup­port­ed. The recent War Pow­ers Res­o­lu­tion to with­draw unau­tho­rized U.S. forces from Yemen states, noth­ing in this joint res­o­lu­tion may be con­strued as autho­riz­ing the use of mil­i­tary force.” On April 4, Rep. Lynch vot­ed for this res­o­lu­tion with­out complaint.

Accord­ing to El-Tayyab, all sev­en Demo­c­ra­t­ic votes against the amend­ment are inex­cus­able: Every­body should want to keep Pres­i­dent Trump from start­ing an unau­tho­rized war with Iran.”

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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