President Obama has sold the Iran deal as the best possible deal he could have negotiated despite abandoning most of the positions he originally held, notably the demand that Iran “end their nuclear program” and submit to anytime, anywhere inspections. As I noted in Explaining the Iran vote and the next steps, the President succeeded in convincing most Democrats to support the flawed agreement. What is striking is how many expressed qualms with the deal but decided to vote for it anyway, no doubt for the reasons highlighted in my earlier blog.
Here is a sample of the comments made by supporters of the Iran deal (emphasis added):
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said, “this is not the agreement I would have accepted at the negotiating table.” In fact, the deal is so bad, he believes it immediately needs to be corrected. “The most constructive role for Congress,” he said, “is to support specific steps we can take to make it stronger and more effective. We can seek with our allies to correct the flaws in this agreement and encourage and enable effective diplomacy against Iran’s regional influence.” Blumenthal said that he and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), who opposed the deal, planned to introduce legislation to address “shortfalls, unwanted impacts and consequences revealed during congressional review of the agreement.” He said the intent is to “provide for effective ‘snap-back’ policies regarding sanctions, enhance security assistance to Israel, and improve oversight and strict adherence to the agreement.”
Blumenthal’s interest in providing additional aid to Israel echoes statements made by the Obama administration, which raises the question: If this deal is so good, and eliminates Iran’s nuclear threat, why does Israel need additional assistance to enhance its security?
Blumenthal’s Connecticut colleague, Chris Murphy, is voting for the deal despite his conclusion that it has “many unsavory elements.” In particular, Murphy said, “I would rather that its duration be longer. I would prefer our access to military sites to be less conditioned. I would like for Congress’s prerogative to impose additional non-nuclear sanctions on Iran to be clearer.”
Mark Warner (D-VA) reiterated a common theme among his colleagues about the deal when he said “I am not satisfied with it as a final measure and will support efforts to shore-up its weaker points. That includes clarifying that Congress retains the ability to pass sanctions legislation against Iran for their regime’s numerous other destabilizing activities including support for terrorism, and that there is no ‘grandfather clause’ to shield foreign firms in the event Iran violates the deal and the United States and its partners re-impose sanctions. I would also support requiring the Administration to provide additional reporting to Congress on how Iran uses any funds received through sanctions relief.”
Perhaps the most elaborate analysis of the flaws in the deal was provided by Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI):
My core concern with this agreement lies with the basic issue that has always been before us — the enrichment of uranium by Iran. This deal allows Iran, under the same leadership that refers to the United States as the Great Satan and calls for the destruction of Israel, to enrich uranium on its own soil. This core concession is in many ways a stark departure from our country’s past non-proliferation policies, and it concerns me that this agreement could set a dangerous precedent as developing nations around the world look to nuclear power to meet their growing domestic demands for energy and electricity… How can the United States say with moral authority that this deal is acceptable for Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism intent on regional hegemony, but deny it to others?… I am concerned that other nations will view this agreement with Iran as a change in U.S. policy and new precedent that may lead to increased global proliferation of nuclear enrichment and the potential for other nuclear threshold states to emerge.
Astoundingly, this supporter of the Iran deal said he remained “extremely concerned that after fifteen years, the restrictions on how much uranium Iran can enrich and to what level expire and Iran will once again return to its current status as a nuclear threshold state with a breakout time of just a couple of months, if not weeks….To be clear, in fifteen years, Iran will be allowed to be a legitimized threshold nuclear state.”
Peters added, “I along with many others, am concerned that Iran – the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism – will be able to access tens of billions of dollars in frozen assets. Given Iran’s record of financing terrorist activity, the unfreezing of these assets could lead to Iranian efforts that will further destabilize an already fragile region.”
Yet another supporter of the agreement, Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), expressed a litany of apprehensions: “Even if the Iranians comply with the letter and spirit of the agreement as negotiators for the United States understand it,” Coons lamented, “a stronger, financially stable, and economically interconnected Iran will develop an expanded nuclear enrichment program after a decade which — if it then chooses to violate the agreement — would allow it to quickly develop enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. This agreement — at best — freezes Iran’s nuclear enrichment program — it does not dismantle or destroy it as I hoped it would.”
Even as he prepared to vote for the deal, Coons acknowledged, “This is not the agreement I hoped for. I am troubled that the parties to this agreement — particularly Iran — have differing interpretations of key terms, and I remain deeply concerned about our ability to hold Iran to the terms of this agreement as we understand them.”
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) admitted that she shares “concerns about parts of the agreement, including how Iran could use funds from sanctions relief to continue funding Hezbollah and other terrorists around the world.”
Sen. Michael Bennett (D-CO) found so many shortcomings that he is working with Sen. Cardin to develop “a legislative package to address the accumulated shortcomings of our policies towards Iran, and to strengthen the agreement.” He said that “there are risks to the successful implementation of this agreement, and the President and Congress must now work to make it stronger.
One senator who many opponents of the deal had hoped would stand on principle despite the threat that his political future might be endangered by bucking the President is Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). Still, he said “this deal has clear flaws and substantial risks even beyond the obvious and disturbing short duration of its term. With this deal, we are legitimizing a vast and expanding nuclear program in Iran. We are in effect rewarding years of their deception, deceit, and wanton disregard for international law by allowing them to potentially have a domestic nuclear enrichment program at levels beyond what is necessary for a peaceful civil nuclear program.”
Many senators ignore the danger of Iran’s ballistic missile program. Colin Powell in 2004 that U.S. intelligence indicated Iran was trying to fit missiles to carry nuclear weapons. This threat is not ameliorated by the Iran deal nor is the conventional risk. Booker noted that the UN embargo on Iran’s conventional arms and ballistic missile technology will expire after five and eight years, respectively. “Even with increased vigilance by the United States and our allies,” he concluded, “this will bolster Iran’s conventional weapons threats in the region.”
Booker also admitted the deal does not reduce uncertainty about the future. “While several key forms of monitoring will continue in perpetuity,” he said, “Iran’s opportunity for a nuclear breakout can conceivably become shorter than it is now and much harder to detect given the potential future size and breadth of their program. In essence, we run the risk that, after 15 years, we crowd out the opportunity for diplomacy or effective re-imposition of sanctions. If Iran’s breakout period becomes so short that the transition to a bomb is a step that would take a matter of weeks or days, we may be left with a binary choice between accepting Iran as a nuclear state or taking military action…”
Put more directly, Booker echoes what many opponents of the deal have said, that is, contrary to Obama’s claim that his deal is the only alternative to war, the flaws in the agreement are likely to increase the likelihood of war in the future.
Another disappointment for opponents of the deal was Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY), who also may have succumbed to White House pressure despite her concerns. “I would have liked to see a period shorter than 24 days to resolve disputes over access for inspectors,” she said. In addition, “the UN embargoes on the sales of arms and ballistic weapons to Iran should have remained in place permanently, instead of lapsing after five and eight years.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) concisely expressed his criticism of the deal: “This agreement with the duplicitous and untrustworthy Iranian regime falls short of what I had envisioned…” He also admitted “critics are right that this agreement requires Iran’s leaders to freeze many activities rather than completely destroy or dismantle their nuclear infrastructure, as I and others had called for. When key restraints begin to expire in 10 to 15 years — a blink of an eye to a country that measures its history in millennia — our country will still have to deal with an Iranian leadership that wants to build an industrial-scale nuclear enrichment program… Finally, opponents are right to be concerned by the issue of access agreements between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran.
Again, the senator admits the critics are right and yet he decided to vote for the deal, another example of a member who may have had his arm twisted by the President.
Sen. Wyden’s colleague, Jeff Merkley (D-OR) also noted the agreement’s “significant shortcomings.” Specifically, Merkley said, “it does not block Iran’s importation of conventional arms, allowing Iran to acquire conventional arms after five years and ballistic missile technology after eight years. It does not dictate how Iran can spend the dollars it reclaims from cash assets that are currently frozen. It does not permanently maintain bright lines on Iran’s nuclear research or nuclear energy program, lifting the 300 kg and 3.67% enrichment limits after 15 years.”
Even with the agreement, Merkley admits it is “possible, perhaps probable, that Iran will use its additional resources and access to conventional arms to increase its support for terrorist groups. And it is certainly possible that Iran will use its nuclear research or nuclear energy program to provide a foundation for a future nuclear weapon program.”
Given all these anxieties, how can these senators support the Iran agreement? Every one of them echoed the concerns of the deal’s opponents, which only confirms that this is a very bad deal. If these 11 Democrats voted on the basis of their conviction that the deal is flawed, they would join the four senators who have announced they will vote against the deal, and provide the margin needed to ensure a veto-proof majority.