The Obama administration’s battle to win congressional backng for the nuclear deal signed last month with Iran took a double hit early Friday, Aug. 7, when two influential Democrats, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who is expected to take over as Senate Democratic leader in 2017, and New York Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, announced they would vote against the accord.
Secretary of State John Kerry responded by saying he "profoundly disagrees" with the reasoning behind their decision.
Sen. Schumer cited “serious weaknesses” in the first ten years of the deal. “First, inspections are not ‘anywhere, anytime,’ and the 24 hour delay would hinder the U.S.’s “ability to determine precisely what was being done at that site,” he said, explaining that it would enable Iran to “escape detection of any illicit building and improving of possible military dimensions (PMD) – the tools that go into building a bomb but don’t emit radioactivity.’’
“Even more troubling is the fact that the US cannot demand inspections unilaterally,” Schumer said. “By requiring the majority of the 8-member Joint Commission, and assuming that China, Russia, and Iran will not cooperate, inspections would require the votes of all three European members of the P5+1 as well as the EU representative. It is reasonable to fear that, once the Europeans become entangled in lucrative economic relations with Iran, they may well be inclined not to rock the boat by voting to allow inspections.’’
Rep Engel argued that the inspectors would not be able to “finish their investigation into the potential military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program.’’ He added: “I also view as a dangerous concession the sunset of the international sanctions on advanced conventional weapons and ballistic missiles. I was told that these issues weren’t on the table during the talks. So it’s unacceptable to me that after a maximum of five and eight years, respectively, Iran could repeat past behavior, without violating the accord or being subject to “snapback sanctions.”
Schumer and Engel are influential enough to turn a number of fellow Democrats around to joining Republicans for a majority that could be large enough to override the veto the president has pledged to impose on a negative vote on the nuclear accord.
This defeat would be a crushing blow to President Obama in the last lap of his presidency.
One of the factors contributing to the two lawmakers’ negative decision was the conduct of the International Atomic Energy Agency Director Yukiya Amano. He told the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, Aug. 6, that he cannot divulge “confidential details” on the arrangements to examine Iran’s nuclear research "for any possible effort to develop a nuclear bomb." Although the inspection arrangements are the linchpin of the nuclear accord, Amano stonewalled on the many questions about its details, saying he was not “authorized to share or discuss confidential information.”
The committee chairman Sen. Bob Corker R-Tenn. commented after the hour-long session with Amano, “I would say most members left here with greater concerns about the inspections regime than they came in with.”
Congress was already fuming after Kerry claimed at a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, in answer to multiple questions, that he had not seen the contents of the two “side agreements” to the Iran nuclear deal reached between Iran and the IAEA.
Pressed for answers, Kerry said he had been briefed on this material but had not seen it himself. The Secretary also said, “I don’t believe Susan Rice, national security adviser, has seen it,” when he was quoted as saying on another occasion that she had seen the document.
In Tehran, senior officials have reiterated that Iran will not authorize intrusive inspections of military sites or “sensitive” sections of its nuclear program.
President Obama, for his part, warned that failure to endorse the nuclear accord would quickly spark a Middle East war, with Israel coming under “a hail of Hizballah rockets.”
The case for the accord was hardly enhanced by the president’s comment Wednesday, Aug. 5, at the American University that the Iranian hardliners who chant “Death to America” and are most opposed to the deal “are making common cause with the Republican Caucus.”
In the statement he issued Friday, Sen. Schumer explained his decision by saying: “After deep study, careful thought and considerable soul-searching, I have decided I must oppose the agreement and will vote yes on a motion of disapproval.
Before deciding, the New York senator interviewed administration officials closely connected with the nuclear talks, including senior US negotiator Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman. He also took advice from elder statesman, the still influential Henry Kissinger.
The decision taken by Sen. Schumer and Rep. Eliot Engel go far toward vindicating the all-out battle Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu continues to wage against the Iran nuclear deal.