The Duck of Minerva

Convincing Waverers to Support the Iran Deal

14 August 2015

When the Iran Deal was announced and supported by the P5 of the UN Security Council, I would have thought that the tide of elite opinion among US lawmakers would break  in support of the Deal, possibly including some Republicans (maybe Jeff Flake?), possibly enough to filibuster a no vote in the Senate. Now, it comes down to whether President Obama has the votes in either the House or Senate to forestall a veto override of what will certainly be no votes by both chambers to the deal.

While it still seems likely that the president has the votes to prevent an override, possibly in both the Senate and the House (though he only needs one chamber), it is going to be closer than it should.  It is a shame that it has come to this. Even if the notion of partisanship stopping at the water’s edge was always something of a myth, we are so far away from anything that ever gave a shred of evidence to support it.

An agreement that is overwhelmingly supported in the rest of the world (save by the current Netanyahu government in Israel) will likely narrowly survive an attempt to override a presidential veto of Congressional disapproval. I’m wondering what messages and what messengers could conceivably convince the waverers (that is, Democrats in the House and Senate) to announce their support for the deal?

We’ve had prominent Democrats (including Jewish Democrats such as Al Franken and Bernie Sanders) come out in favor of the deal, though Senate Majority Leader in waiting Chuck Schumer, also Jewish, opposes the deal.  Who are the other influentials? What are they saying?

In this post, I’ll bring in some strong arguments and signals of support from prominent Republicans of yore (like Brent Scowcroft and former Senator John Warner), military leaders (including a tantalizing hint from David Petraeus, nuclear weapons experts such as Gary Samore, treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Israeli security officials, prominent members of Congress who have come out in support of the deal, and columnists such as Fareed Zakaria, Nick Kristof, and Tom Friedman. I am not convinced Republicans are open to persuasion so the notion that Obama’s rhetoric turned them off of potentially coming around is risible. Democrats on the other hand may need some more ammunition. Here goes.

  • What’s needed to prevent the override?

President Barack Obama needs 34 senators or 144 House members to stick with him in support of the nuclear deal recently negotiated with Iran.

  • Greg Sargent on the whip count in the Senate and how many no votes were needed after Schumer:

And remember, whatever happens in the Senate, there’s another potential firewall in the House, which could fail to override and the deal would go forward….Right now I count 18 Senators as genuinely possible votes against it: Heitkamp, Blumenthal, Donnelly, Bennet, Menendez, Reid, Coons, Cardin, Manchin, Booker, Carper, Peters, Casey, Wyden, Stabenow, Merkley, Mikulski and Murray.

Opponents need 13 Dems to side with them to override the veto. With Schumer, they now need 12. That means opponents need 12 of the 18 remaining Dems to side with them.

  • James Fallows on why Schumer’s opposition means the deal is going through!

For rococo parliamentary reasons, the crucial voting showdown is still several legislative rounds into the future. First the Congress would have to pass a measure condemning the deal, which Republican majorities in both the House and Senate will certainly do. Then President Obama would have to veto the measure, which he will certainly do. Then the Congress would have to override the veto, which requires a two-thirds majority in both chambers—and this is what the Democrats, even in their diminished numbers, should still be able to blockwith some votes to spare.

Schumer doesn’t put it this way, but obviously he is hoping that one of those spare votes will be his. His life will be easier in many ways—in minimizing hassle during his upcoming reelection run in New York, and thus maximizing his efforts to help other Democratic candidates so that he has a chance of becoming Senate majority rather than minority leader—if he doesn’t have to spend time explaining away a vote for the deal to his conservative and AIPAC-aligned constituents. If the deal goes through despite Schumer’s opposition, people who support the deal won’t care, and those who oppose it can blame evil Barack rather than valiant Chuck.

  • What’s the scene in the House?

In the House, 219 of 246 Republicans have signaled their willingness to disapprove of a deal by co-sponsoring a resolution to do so. Nine Democrats also have announced they will vote to disapprove.

Republican leaders will need to keep all 27 of the undeclared GOP members on board and pick up another 35 Democrats to have a chance at a veto override.

  • Will Obama hold the line in the House?

Close to 40 House Democrats have come out in favor of the deal since it was first announced in mid-July…Most notably, not one of the 151 House Democrats who signed a May letter in support of the broad outlines of the agreement have announced opposition to the final product.

Obama needs at least 144 House Democrats to stick by him to sustain a veto of any GOP legislation that would undermine or dismantle the deal with Iran.

  • Nuclear expert Gary Samore stepped down from leading a pro-sanctions advocacy group because he supports the deal

When the bipartisan advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran decided last week to mobilize opposition against the nuclear deal with Tehran, Gary Samore knew he could no longer serve as its president.

The reason: After long study, Mr. Samore, a former nuclear adviser toPresident Obama, had concluded that the accord was in the United States’ interest.

  • Former US negotiator Bob Einhorn walked through the likely diplomatic consequences of rejection:

So, in the worst case, congressional rejection could thrust the United States into a damaging standoff, threatening and possibly imposing sanctions against the world’s leading economies in the uncertain hope of forestalling a rapid hemorrhaging of oil sanctions. In the best case, the United States could win grudging support for token additional reductions. But the likelihood of persuading Iran’s principal customers to accept dramatic new cuts in purchases—on a scale that could pressure Iran to make major concessions it has been unwilling to make under the devastating sanctions it has faced for years—is extremely small, especially when all those customers view the negotiated deal as reasonable and would resent Washington’s decision to walk away from it.

  • 36 former U.S. military leaders sign letter saying that this deal is the best way to protect the country:
  • 29 leading U.S. scientists, many of them nuclear physicists, endorse the deal:

Twenty-nine of the nation’s top scientists — including Nobel laureates, veteran makers of nuclear arms and former White House science advisers — wrote to President Obama on Saturday to praise the Iran deal, calling it innovative and stringent.

  • David Petraeus signaled that there would still be a military option if Iran tries to break out

Nick Kristof wrote in support of the Deal and marshaled a set of rhetorical arguments in support of it. While it is unclear if Petraeus now supports the deal, Kristof did get him to acknowledge force will still be an option if Iran tries to break out.

I asked David Petraeus, retired four-star general and former head of the C.I.A., about that. “I strongly believe,” he told me, “that there will continue to be a viable military option should Iran seek to break out and construct a nuclear device after the expiration of many of the elements of the inspections regime at the 15-year mark of the agreement.”

  • Many in Israeli intel community think the deal is good for Israel:

But many former senior intelligence and national security officials in Israel disagree. While they think the deal is flawed and that Netanyahu deserves credit for raising the alarm on Iran years ago, they also believe that the historic agreement is—on balance—in the national security interest of the State of Israel.

I spoke recently with Ami Ayalon, a former head of Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security service, and a former chief of the Israeli Navy. Even as he explained that the issue “is not black and white,” he reeled off a list of former defense ministers and chiefs of Shin Bet and Mossad who agree with him that “when it comes to Iran’s nuclear capability, this [deal] is the best option.”

  • Treasury Secretary Jack Lew warns of dire consequences for the U.S. international order if the deal goes down.

Lew is not someone I consider to be a man of hyberbole. He warns of sanctions fatigue by other countries and the illusion of using secondary sanctions to get them to the toe line with if the U.S. walks away from the deal:

The major importers of Iranian oil — China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Turkey — together account for nearly a fifth of our goods exports and own 47 percent of foreign-held American treasuries. They will not agree to indefinite economic sacrifices in the name of an illusory better deal. We should think very seriously before threatening to cripple the largest banks and companies in these countries. Consider the Bank of Japan, a key institutional holder of Iran’s foreign reserves. Cutting off Japan from the American banking system through sanctions would mean that we could not honor our sovereign responsibility to service and repay the more than $1 trillion in American treasuries held by Japan’s central bank. And those would be a direct consequences of our sanctions, not to mention the economic aftershocks and the inevitable retaliation.

  • Former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft who served in that capacity under George H.W. Bush warned of the consequences for our relationships with allies if we reject the deal:

“To turn our back on [the JCPOA] would be an abdication of America’s unique role and responsibility, incurring justified dismay among our allies and friends,” Scowcroft wrote.

  • Democratic Senator Carl Levin and former Republican Senator John Warner, both former Chairmen of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote that rejecting this deal would make military action harder and leave us without partners if force was required:

If we reject the agreement, we risk isolating ourselves and damaging our ability to assemble the strongest possible coalition to stop Iran. In short, then, rejecting the Iran deal would erode the current deterrent value of the military option, making it more likely Iran might choose to pursue a nuclear weapon,and would then make it more costly for the U.S. to mount any subsequent military operation. It would tie the hands of any future president trying to build international participation and support for military force against Iran should that be necessary.

  • EU foreign policy heavyweight Javier Solana echoed these concerns:

  • Foreign Ambassadors from Germany, the UK, and Russia suggest the sanctions regime will unravel if the deal goes down:

Some of Washington’s less reliable partners are worried too: Top diplomats from Russia and China joined a rare meeting of world powers’ envoys on Capitol Hill this week with roughly 30 Senate Democrats to tamp down concerns over the nuclear agreement. “The prospect of the rejection of a deal makes us nervous,” Philipp Ackermann, the acting German ambassador to the United States, said Thursday. “It would be a nightmare for every European country if this is rejected.” British Ambassador Peter Westmacott insisted any chances of getting a better deal were “far-fetched,” according to two individuals in the room. He also speculated that international sanctions against Tehran would fall apart even if Congress blocked the deal — a view seconded by Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

  • Former Obama NSC official Phil Gordon explains the logic of how rejection puts on a path for war with Iran, eventually:

Even if Congress rejects the nuclear deal when it votes in September, it is highly unlikely that Tehran will make a mad dash for the bomb, and that the United States, Israel or anyone else will respond by using military force. The bad news, however, is that it’s even less likely that if Congress rejects the agreement Iran will continue to freeze its program and then come back to the table to accept a “better deal.” That means that in the long run, we will indeed face a choice between accepting an Iranian nuclear weapons capability and the use of force. That’s what Obama and others mean when they say the alternative may well be war, and what Members of Congress need to keep in mind when they cast their votes.

  • Fareed Zakaria punctures Chuck Schumer’s arguments on the so-called weaknesses in inspections:

 Your first objections are about the inspections and sanctions. You argue that the inspections are not “anywhere, anytime” and have a 24-day delay that is “troubling.” But all of Iran’s known nuclear facilities are subject to anywhere, anytime monitoring. And for new, suspicious sites, as nuclear expert Jeffrey Lewis points out, “what opponents of the deal have done is add up all the time limits and claim that inspections will occur only after a 24-day pause. This is simply not true. Should the U.S. intelligence community catch the Iranians red-handed, it might be that the Iranians would drag things out as long as possible. But in such a case, the game would be over.”

  • Tom Friedman weighs in on the consequences of no deal, no better one and Iran gets to go ahead without unified sanctions, without oversight, and Israel isolated blamed for that outcome:

And I’d recognize that if my lobbyists in Washington actually succeeded in getting Congress to scrap this deal, the result wouldn’t be a better deal. It would be no deal, so Iran would remain three months from a bomb — and with no intrusive inspectors, with collapsing sanctions and Israel, not Iran, diplomatically isolated.

  • Most Jewish Senators rallying in support of the deal. 

For example, some say that, should the Senate reject this agreement, we would be in position to negotiate a “better” one. But I’ve spoken to representatives of the five nations that helped broker the deal, and they agree that this simply wouldn’t be the case. Instead, these diplomats have told me that we would not be able to come back to the bargaining table at all, and that the sanctions regime would likely erode or even fall apart, giving Iran’s leaders more money and more leverage — and diminishing both our moral authority throughout the world and our own leverage.

3. Rejecting the agreement would lead to a splintering of the international partnership that has been critical to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Some have argued that we should reject this deal so we can return to the negotiating table and extract a better deal.  Yet I recently met with the Ambassadors representing the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China, and not one of them believed that abandoning this deal would result in a better deal. Instead it would allow Iran more time to build up its nuclear infrastructure. The countries that have been our partners in this effort would no longer be unified. The sanctions regime would start to fray, splintering the international consensus on Iran and leaving its nuclear program unconstrained.

I have carefully reviewed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), attended numerous classified briefings, heard from experts and constituents, and examined detailed arguments for and against the agreement. I have also been guided by the hard lessons that should be learned when America chooses to engage in military action and war in the Middle East. Simply put, I do not believe that rejecting this agreement is in our national security interest.

  • Among Dems, looks like Schumer is an outlier
  • Austin Long on why hawks should embrace the deal:

In addition to increasing benefits of military options, the deal can reduce costs of action. One of the main costs of military action now is that it could cause the current sanctions regime to collapse, as a U.S. (or Israeli) strike would be seen as an act of unprovoked preventive war. The collapse of sanctions could benefit Iran immensely, particularly in terms of reconstituting its nuclear program. In contrast, if Iran is seen to be violating the deal through attempted breakout, sanctions are to be rapidly reinstated. In this case, military action would not be seen as a decision to give up on diplomacy. Instead, it would be seen as a response to Iranian violations of a diplomatic deal that already had the blessing of the United Nations.

  • Nuclear policy expert Nicholas Miller debunks 5 criticisms of the Iran deal in The National Interest 

Second, critics argue that Tehran might covertly violate the agreement, perhaps using its increased financial resources to fund a sophisticated weapons program. This is possible, and certainly more likely than Iran openly violating the agreement. However, the deal gives the international community unprecedented, increased access to the Iranian nuclear program, including monitoring its supply chains. Thus, the likelihood of detecting a covert Iranian program is higher under the deal than without a deal. This makes the threat of military action more credible.

  • Bob Jervis notes that no diplomatic bargain is going to be perfect, as both sides have to move from their preferred ideal point but this is a good deal considering what it achieves and the alternatives

Indeed, unless all parties in the P5+1 had agreed that it was Iran’s unreasonableness that put an agreement beyond reach, sanctions would have been extraordinarily difficult to maintain, let alone increase. In that case, the alternative to an agreement would seem to be either bombing, which Obama would not do (and even a critical successor would have to undertake over the objections of the military) or greater unilateral sanctions, and few observers believe that these would be sufficient to coerce Iran into the sort of agreement that the critics seek.

  • Colin Kahl, National Security Advisor to Vice-President Biden, defends deal at CSIS:

Makes two big points: (1) Big paradox of is that critics focus on verification, while arms control experts think that’s best part, (2) Hardest argument to overcome is how do you make a deal with a bad regime, but we deal with Soviets thru Cold War