Explaining the Iran vote and the next steps

It should have come as no surprise that President Obama lined up the votes in the Senate to secure approval of his deal with the radical Islamic government of Iran. Still, many people ask me why Senate Democrats, especially Jewish ones, sided with the president, and what opponents of the deal should do next.

At least six explanations can be given for the decision by senators, many of whom criticized the failings of the agreement, to vote for the Iran deal:

1) National Security. It is often said that politics stops (or should stop) at the water’s edge, meaning that Congress typically defers to the president on matters of national security. Obama made the case that the Iran deal was in the interest of the United States. Furthermore, he successfully – albeit speciously – argued the alternative to approval was war. Whether members believed this false dichotomy or not, it gave them a pretext for siding with the president given the general opposition to further military engagements in the Middle East.

2) Loyalty. Democrats feel obligated to support Democratic presidents. In this case, the pull of loyalty was particularly strong because the Iran deal was portrayed as the most important accomplishment of Obama’s presidency. This legacy may look very different after Obama leaves office, but, for now, few Democrats were willing to deny him this victory.

3) No Better Deal Was Possible. Ignoring many experts who suggested otherwise, Democrats accepted the president’s argument that the agreement was an improvement over the status quo and that it was impossible to negotiate a better deal.

4) Presidential Carrots and Sticks. We will eventually learn what the president did behind the scenes to secure the vote. Despite the anti-Semitic notion that the Israeli lobby is omnipotent, the truth is the president is by far the most powerful lobbyist in Washington. He undoubtedly offered senators a variety of carrots to win their support, such as approval of pet projects and appointments, help in fundraising and access to the White House. Obama also likely used threats to pressure reluctant members. This was evident in the reaction to Senator Schumer’s decision to oppose the deal; leaks from the White House suggested Schumer should kiss his dream of becoming the party leader goodbye. That threat was surely conveyed before Schumer made the decision and, afterward, served the purpose of intimidating other members who might have considered a no vote.

5) Taking the Jewish Vote for Granted. Democrats saw that even after adopting policies widely criticized as hostile to Israel in his first term, Obama still received 69 percent of the Jewish vote (albeit down from 78 percent in 2008). Many of the Democrats who backed Obama are stalwart supporters of Israel, and some have relatively safe seats, so they understandably saw no downside to approving the deal.

6) Naked Self-Interest. Though some members said their votes were acts of conscience, most were based on political calculations. Schumer was one of the few senators who set aside his ambition by opposing the deal. Unfortunately, the usually astute politician blundered by managing to make everyone angry at him. The president obviously was furious, but he also failed to obtain much credit from opponents of the deal because of his refusal to lobby his colleagues to join him in voting against the agreement. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, on the other hand, chose self-interest over principal out of fear she might lose her position as head of the party, and knowing that voting with the president carried little risk because of her overwhelming popularity in her district.

One other observation regards AIPAC and the pro-Israel lobby. I’ve seen some suggestions that this defeat means that the lobby will no longer have influence over Middle East policy. This may be wishful thinking on the part of the anti-Semites, but they will quickly learn it is nonsense. The lobby ordinarily does not engage in fights it knows it will not win; nevertheless, AIPAC’s leaders decided this deal was so dangerous they had to lobby against it regardless of the outcome. Losing on national security issues is the norm, so the outcome was neither unusual nor unexpected. In 1981, AIPAC lost the vote on the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia, but continued to thrive, and its influence in Congress on foreign aid will be equally unaffected by the Iran vote.

What Next?

Ideally, a number of actions will be taken to mitigate the damage of the Iran deal.

1) Punish the Democrats. Yes, many of the members who voted for the deal are good friends of Israel, but on the most important vote in decades they failed the test of leadership and endangered Israel’s security. They should be voted out of office or at least given enough of a scare that they will stop taking the pro-Israel vote for granted.

2) Make Obama Come Clean on the Agreement. According to the congressional legislation, the president is obligated to present all of the documentation related to the Iran deal to Congress. He has not done so. In particular, we know that secret agreements were made between the IAEA and Iran related to verification of Iranian compliance with the deal. Leaks from one of these have indicated the IAEA has made unacceptable compromises. The administration has been hiding behind IAEA confidentiality, but, the U.S. has ways of gaining access to the documents. If Congress is not provided the secret agreements, it should cut U.S. funding for the IAEA.

3) Insist on Knowing Penalties for Non-compliance. Based on past history, Iran can be expected to cheat on the deal; the president should specify what actions he will take for violations small and large. Congress should require the president to impose stricter sanctions for any violations and withhold frozen assets. Sanctions should also be applied to foreign companies that engage in business with Iran if it violates the agreement.

4) Authorize the Use of Force. As Alan Dershowitz has suggested, Congress should enact a law authorizing the president (and his successors) to employ military force to prevent Iran from ever developing or acquiring nuclear weapons.

5) Sanctions Should Be Strengthened for Non-Nuclear Issues. The president insists the deal he agreed to applies only to Iran’s nuclear program and that was why it says nothing about Iran’s support of terrorism and threats to its neighbors. Congress should impose draconian sanctions against Iran unless it ceases support for Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorists, and desists from provocative actions against its neighbors. Sanctions should also be applied if Iran engages in any military cooperation with North Korea or develops ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

6) Compensate the Americans Held Hostage by Iran. Monies should be deducted from the amount released to Iran to compensate the 52 Americans held hostage for 444 days by Iran (November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981), and for the damage to the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

7) States Should Impose Sanctions. The Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act of 2010 passed by Congress granted states the authority to impose sanctions. At least 30 states have adopted their own sanctions, but more could be done according to United Against Nuclear Iran. Additional state measures they recommend include:

Debarment. Bar companies and financial institutions from doing business in U.S. states and receiving state government contracts if they continue “business as usual” in Iran.

Divestment. Deny state funding to international corporations that do business in Iran.

Banking Legislation. Compel banks, insurance companies, and other financial institutions to divest themselves of all Iran business. Florida, for example, passed legislation to mandate that all state-chartered banks certify that their correspondent banks are not engaged in proscribed activities with Iranian linked financial institutions.

Insurance Legislation. States can also require that insurance companies licensed by the State Insurance Commissioner will not hold stocks in, or bonds of, any foreign company actively engaged and invested in the Iranian energy sector, or any aspect of developing Iran’s military or nuclear programs.

It is not the president who achieved a victory in Congress, it was the radical Iranian Islamic regime, which out-negotiated the United States and succeeded in getting the administration to drop nearly all its original demands. A majority of the Senate has been deceived, but that does not mean those who recognize the danger posed by Iran regime have to accept their decision. Steps can and must be taken to prevent Iran from getting the bomb, sponsoring terrorism and threatening its neighbors or the West.

About the Author
Dr Mitchell Bard is the Executive Director of the nonprofit American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) and a foreign policy analyst who lectures frequently on U.S.-Middle East policy. Dr. Bard is the director of the Jewish Virtual Library, the world's most comprehensive online encyclopedia of Jewish history and culture. He is also the author/editor of 24 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.