The most significant political news on Thursday night was not the Republican presidential debate but Senator Chuck Schumer’s announcement that he is going to vote against the Iran deal. Schumer issued a long statement, which sounds as if he wrote every word, laying out his rationale.
He is particularly troubled by the agreement’s expiration date in 10 years and by its non-nuclear aspects: “Under this agreement, Iran would receive at least $50 billion dollars in the near future and would undoubtedly use some of that money to redouble its efforts to create even more trouble in the Middle East, and, perhaps, beyond.” (Actually $50 billion is an extremely conservative estimate; other figures go as high as $150 billion, and that’s only the first tranche of the sanctions relief Iran can expect.)
His bottom line: “Using the proponents’ overall standard — which is not whether the agreement is ideal, but whether we are better with or without it — it seems to me, when it comes to the nuclear aspects of the agreement within ten years, we might be slightly better off with it. However, when it comes to the nuclear aspects after ten years and the non-nuclear aspects, we would be better off without it.”
What does this mean? Cynics suggest that it means that the Democrats have enough votes to prevent Congress from rejecting the agreement (which only requires maintaining the support of one-third of members in one chamber, since a two-thirds vote in both chambers would be needed to override a presidential veto), thus leaving Schumer free to posture before his Jewish supporters. Some wonder if he will still whip votes in favor of the deal while maintaining his personal opposition. Others note that his statement does not call on other Democrats to follow his lead.
All that may be true, but still it means something when the likely next leader of the Senate Democrats announces his opposition to the signature foreign policy achievement of a Democratic president. Off the top of my head, it is hard to think of any historical analog for such a move. It would have been as if Sen. Hugh Scott, the Senate minority leader from 1969 to 1977, had led the opposition to Nixon’s opening to China, or if Sen. Bob Dole had led the opposition to authorizing the Gulf War in 1991. This is a sign of just how divisive the president’s outreach to the Islamic Republic of Iran truly is.
Moreover, Schumer’s opposition shows just how irresponsible and demagogic Obama is being with the rhetoric that he throws around, claiming that anyone who opposes the deal is a strident war-monger who is making common cause with the Iranian hard-liners. Obama’s claim that there is no alternative to this particular deal other than a ruinous war with Iran was never credible to begin with; now, even those have not studied the details of the agreement must understand how unconvincing the president’s rhetoric has become. Is Chuck Schumer now a war-monger too?
Schumer addressed this point directly at the end of his statement: “I will vote to disapprove the agreement, not because I believe war is a viable or desirable option, nor to challenge the path of diplomacy. It is because I believe Iran will not change, and under this agreement it will be able to achieve its dual goals of eliminating sanctions while ultimately retaining its nuclear and non-nuclear power. Better to keep U.S. sanctions in place, strengthen them, enforce secondary sanctions on other nations, and pursue the hard-trodden path of diplomacy once more, difficult as it may be.”
I still think it’s unlikely that Congress will find enough votes to scupper the agreement — and even if it did, alas, the agreement would likely live on anyway because the United Nations has already approved the lifting of multilateral sanctions on Iran. But at the very least, Schumer’s opposition exposes the deep flaws in the agreement, undermines the arguments of its more strident supporters (such as Barack Obama and John Kerry), and possibly, just possibly, could pave the way eventually for a bipartisan consensus on an alternative path to permanently end, rather than simply delay, Iran’s quest for the world’s most dangerous weapons.