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Mega-donors opposing Iran deal have upper hand in fierce lobbying battle

GOP kingmaker Sheldon Adelson’s foundation has given $7.5 million since 2010 to several groups fiercely fighting the Iran deal. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

On one side of the fight are Sheldon Adelson, Paul Singer and Haim Saban, whose foundations have given a total of $13 million since 2010 to advocacy groups battling the Iran nuclear deal in Congress.

And on the other are George Soros and a smattering of smaller donors. Soros and his foundation chipped in at least $68,500, a comparatively meager sum, over the same time period to lobbying groups who want the controversial pact to be adopted.

They’re all marquee names usually associated with free-spending presidential candidates or super PACs. But this time the mega-donors and their foundations have spent big on advocacy groups vying to influence the fierce debate over the Iran agreement, which is playing out like hand-to-hand combat in Congress.

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The financial disparity between those opposing the deal and those supporting it is vast, at least where wealthy donors are concerned. And  normal political alliances can be scrambled — while Adelson and Singer are generous contributors to GOP candidates and causes, Saban is a close ally of Hillary Clinton’s. Soros, on the other hand, is a veteran Democratic donor whose latest cause is voting rights.

Since 2010, Adelson’s foundation has given at least $7.5 million, Singer’s foundations have given at least $2.6 million and Saban’s foundation has given at least $2.9 million to groups that oppose the nuclear deal.

At least five groups and their affiliated organizations — such as a super PAC or charitable arm — that publicly oppose the deal received significant donations from the foundations of Adelson, Singer and Saban since 2010, according to a review of the foundations’ tax filings and other publicly available information.

The pact’s supporters haven’t found as many prominent backers. At least three groups lobbying for the deal have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the foundations of billionaire investor Soros and the Rockefeller family. They have also received significant contributions from Ploughshares Fund.

Soros and his foundation have given at least $68,500, while the Rockefeller Brothers Fund has given at least $425,000, and Ploughshares Fund has given at least $803,000.

Several officials at these groups noted that such funding predates the groups’ advocacy work on Iran. But the money certainly helped to lay the groundwork for the groups’ activism on the issue. Representatives for Adelson and Singer’s foundation did not immediately return requests for comment. A spokeswoman for Haim Saban said the Saban Family Foundation has not made any contributions in connection with the Iran deal to any organization, and that past donations were made for different reasons.

Ploughshares’ largest donors (those contributing $100,000 or more) include billionaire hedge fund executive Bill Oberndorf, Carnegie Corp. of New York, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (founded by HP co-founder Bill Hewlett and his wife Flora), the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Schooner Foundation (founded by Vin Ryan of investment management firm Schooner Capital), according to Ploughshares’ 2014 annual report.

The big money being poured into the Iran fight reflects the high stakes for President Obama in passing the deal. Congress has 60 days to review the agreement, but won’t vote until it returns from the August recess. The administration has deluged Capitol Hill with briefings from senior officials, but several key Democrats still haven’t made up their minds.

One of them — the likely future leader of Senate Democrats, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), came out against the deal last week in a move that could cast a long shadow over undecided lawmakers. Congress needs a two-thirds majority to override the White House’s assured veto should Congress reject the deal. If at least 34 senators or 146 members of the House still support the deal, naysayers won’t be able to get a veto-proof supermajority.

[Schumer’s Iran decision could cast a shadow over others’ decisions]

The New York Democrat called 20 to 30 colleagues to explain his decision and is being careful not to whip them on it after a battering from ex-White House aides.

Another Democrat that supporters of the deal are watching is Foreign Relations ranking member Ben Cardin (Md.), who is neutral at the moment.

[After Schumer, Cardin holds the most cards on Iran]

Cardin congratulated the Obama administration for concluding a deal where it “got an awful lot,” but openly worried about the strength of the inspections regime and the U.S. ability to impose other sanctions on Iran for non-nuclear infractions. 

He has expressed confidence in the way the U.S. and its allies handled the negotiations, but also criticized Obama for not being more willing to include Congress in the process. And he has stressed, carefully but repeatedly, that the administration hasn’t been doing enough to ensure that side agreements between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran are transparent and available.

Other undecided senators key to the deal’s approval include Democrats Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Chris Coons (Del.), Jon Tester (Mo.), Michael Bennet (Colo.), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

In the House, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has enlisted supporters of the deal to persuade the dozens of undecided lawmakers to back the president. Thus far, only about ten House members have come out as hard-and-fast nos.

With so much at stake, the lobbying has been furious and well-funded. Groups backing and fighting the deal hope to sway on-the-fence lawmakers with television ad campaigns and personal visits while they’re home for summer recess.

Some of the highlights include:

The opposition:

  • The Republican Jewish Coalition is lobbying lawmakers to oppose the deal and urging its 40,000 members to attend legislators’ town hall meetings in August to pressure them to vote against the agreement. The coalition’s affiliated super PAC, the Republican Jewish Coalition Victory Fund, was solely funded by Adelson and his wife Miriam in 2012, who contributed $2 million. 
  • United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), which in late June announced a multi-million dollar TV, radio, print and digital campaign to urge lawmakers to view the deal with skepticism, received $500,000 from the Adelson Family Foundation in 2013. 
    UANI chief executive, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Mark Wallace said “that information from several years ago does not accurately reflect our current effort.” This week, the group’s president Gary Samore, a former adviser to President Clinton on nonproliferation issues who supports the nuclear agreement, stepped down from that role “to avoid any conflict with UANI’s work in opposition to the agreement,” the group announced Monday. In the same announcement, UANI appointed former U.S. senator Joe Lieberman as its new chairman. Lieberman is also on the board for the AIPAC-backed Citizens For A Nuclear Free Iran and The Israel Project, both of which are also opposing the deal.
  • The Israeli American Council (IAC)The day after Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) came out against the deal, the group thanked him on its Facebook page and encouraged people to urge other members of Congress “to follow Sen. Schumer’s example and #KillTheDeal.” “It is a bad agreement and we need to do anything we can to stop it,” said Shawn Evenhaim, the group’s chairman. The IAC received $5 million from the Adelson Family Foundation in 2013, according to the foundation’s IRS 990 form. The group’s top-tier donors, who contribute $100,000 or more, also include the Paul Singer Foundation and Haim and Cheryl Saban, among others. The Saban Family Foundation gave the group $400,000 in 2011 (though at the time, the group was called the Israeli Leadership Council; it later changed its name to the Israeli American Council).
  • American Israel Education Fund (AIEF) is the charitable organization affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which is lobbying against the deal. AIEF, which sponsors biannual travel to Israel for freshman House members, has received major backing from Singer’s and Saban’s foundations. The group has received $1.5 million from the Paul E. Singer Foundation — $1 million in 2011 and $500,000 in 2010 — and a combined $2.5 million from the Saban Family Foundation since 2011. In 2013, the Saban foundation approved a future payment of $1 million. AIPAC is also backing a new group, Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, which is aggressively opposing the deal and spending up to $40 million in advertising in 35 states.
  • The Israel Project: The group’s leaders are lobbying against the deal through social media campaigns, meetings with editorial boards, polls and the newly created website The organization received a combined $1 million from the Paul E. Singer Foundation and the Paul Singer Family Foundation in 2010.

The supporters:

  • J Street: The liberal advocacy group has raised $5 million since the nuclear agreement was announced in July, and is spending much of that on advertising in support of the agreement. Since 2011, J Street and its affiliated organization J Street Education Fund have received $325,000 from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, $300,000 from Ploughshares and $43,500 from Soros’ foundation Open Society Institute. It has received $210,000 from the Arca Foundation since 2012. J Street’s top-tier donors (the 44 individuals and foundations that give $25,000 or more) include George Soros and his son Alex Soros, according to the group’s 2013 annual report
  • The National Iranian American Council (NIAC). The council just created a new affiliated lobbying group, NIAC Action, that is running ads and urging lawmakers to support the deal. NIAC has received $403,000 from Ploughshares, $100,000 from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and $50,000 from Arca Foundation since 2011.
  • Global Zero, which produced this celebrity-filled video and spoke at rallies in support of the deal, got $100,000 from Ploughshares in 2013.

Tom Hamburger and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.