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Iraq Vets Take On Obama Over Iran Deal

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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A group of Iraq war veterans is launching a million-dollar effort to oppose President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran, trying to counter the president's argument that those who are against the deal are in favor of war.

Obama has said recently that there are only two camps: those who support the deal versus those who would prefer a bloody and costly war like the conflict in Iraq. The new ad campaign complicates that, asserting that the deal itself will lead to more war. And the voices putting forth that case do not prefer war; they are soldiers who have had enough of it.

The group, Veterans Against the Deal, was founded last month as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, and it does not disclose its donors. Its national campaign starts today, including television ads in states whose members of Congress are undecided on the Iran deal. Lawmakers will vote on it in September.

The first of the group’s videos features retired staff sergeant Robert Bartlett, who was badly injured by an Iranian bomb while serving in Iraq in 2005. “Every politician who is involved in this will be held accountable, they will have blood on their hands,” he says in the ad. “A vote for this deal means more money for Iranian terrorism. What do you think they are going to do when they get more money?” 

 The first ad will go up in Montana, aimed at Democratic Senator Jon Tester. Subsequent ads will air in North Dakota, West Virginia and elsewhere. The group will also send veterans to speak at events in key states.

“We are going to challenge those people who are on the fence,” Executive Director Michael Pregent, a former intelligence adviser to Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Ray Odierno who served in Iraq, told me. “Our main argument is that veterans know Iran better than Washington, D.C., does. You’ve got a lot of veterans out there who are pretty upset about this, so we are looking to capture their voices and make sure they are heard.”

The campaign does not actually dwell on the nuclear issue, but on a more immediate threat: When Iran receives up to $100 billion of its frozen assets as part of sanctions relief, it could use that money to increase its nefarious activities all over the region. Top officials including Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have testified that Iran is likely to use at least some of this cash to fund violence in places like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. According to Dempsey, Iran was directly responsible for the deaths of at least 500 American service members during the Iraq war.

The Obama administration has said that the nuclear deal is separate and distinct from Iran’s regional mischief and officials are not counting on any positive change in Iran’s behavior abroad -- although as recently as this morning, Obama has said he hopes that Iran might moderate its behavior. The president has also said most of the money is likely to go toward fixing the Iranian economy.

At his speech at American University last week, the president said those opposed to Iran deal were the same people who supported going to war in Iraq in 2003 -- implying that deal opponents are hoping for a similar approach to Iran. He also said Iranian hardliners were making common cause with Congressional opponents, leading top Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to call on the president to tone down his rhetoric when accusing deal opponents of being pro-war.

Pregent said his campaign will point out that U.S. soldiers who were victims of Iranian bombs aren't inclined to ally with Iranian hardliners. The group has recruited U.S. service members who were victims of the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, when 241 U.S. troops were killed by Iranian-backed Hezbollah forces. Their efforts will also feature parents and children of service members who were killed in the war in Iraq.

"Do they fall into the category of those aligned with the hardliners in Iran," Pregent asked, "because they oppose this deal?”

Pregent told me that the group's donors include Democrats, Republicans and veterans who oppose the deal. The board of the group includes Pregent, retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Brian Sanchez, retired Marine Corps Col. Stephen Robb, and Iraq war veteran Pete Hegseth, the chairman of the group Concerned Veterans for America. That group was financed by the Koch brothers' donor network.

“We don’t want to make this a partisan issue,” Pregent said. "We’ll have Democratic vets who voted for Obama participating in this as well."

He said the veterans and families who are involved are motivated only by their own experiences and views.

“These guys want to be heard. They know this enemy. They have a constant reminder of permanent loss because of Iran,” he said. “If someone said to me, ‘Aren’t you exploiting these veterans and families?’ I would say, ‘No, aren’t you ignoring these veterans and families?’”

Retired Gen. Mike Flynn, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012 to 2014, is an adviser to the group. He said soldiers by and large weren’t advocates of the war in Iraq, but were simply called on to serve and did their duty. But now, many of those individuals are veterans, and they want to have a say.

"They have a right and a responsibility to speak up,” Flynn said.

This new campaign pales in size and scope to some of the other efforts to influence the debate over the Iran deal. AIPAC has raised tens of millions to oppose the deal, and pro-deal lobbying groups have raised several million to convince lawmakers to support the pact. But those efforts have been largely based on technical arguments; this one could be uniquely powerful because it puts a human face on the issue.

President Obama keeps trying to frame lawmakers' decision as war without the deal or peace with it. The new ads will make that harder to do, showing veterans who oppose the deal without supporting war -- who in fact believe the deal will lead to more war, not less.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net