Why Senator Chuck Schumer is wrong on Iran

Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear expert, in a post at Foreign Policy eviscerates the oft-repeated talking point of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu adopted by Republicans and, sadly, Sen. Chuck Shumer (D-NY) who should know better, i.e.,  “the 24-day delay” in inspections. Chuck Schumer’s Disingenuous Iran Deal Argument:

Iran-nuclear-deal-1024x576On Thursday evening, right in the middle of the first GOP debate, Schumer reached back, took aim, and heaved a large one. He penned a long piece for Medium that some anonymous hack described as “thoughtful and deliberate.” Uh, OK. Maybe compared to Mike Huckabee’s outrage about “oven doors,” but good grief our standards for political discourse have fallen. Schumer’s missive came across a bit like your crazy uncle who gets his opinions from talk radio and wants to set you straight at Thanksgiving.

(I’m probably not the only one who thinks so. But then, I don’t have to pretend Schumer is some great statesman lest he put a hold on some future appointment or nomination.)

Consider how Schumer describes the inspections regime in the Iran deal.

Schumer starts by repeating the claim that “inspections are not ‘anywhere, anytime’; the 24-day delay before we can inspect is troubling.” This would be very troubling if it were true. It isn’t. The claim that inspections occur with a 24-day delay is the equivalent of Obamacare “death panels.” Remember those? A minor detail has been twisted into a bizarre caricature and repeated over and over until it becomes “true.”

Let’s get this straight. The agreement calls for continuous monitoring at all of Iran’s declared sites — that means all of the time — including centrifuge workshops, which are not safeguarded anywhere else in the world. Inspectors have immediate access to these sites.

That leaves the problem of possible undeclared sites. What happens when the International Atomic Energy Agency suspects that prohibited work is occurring at an undeclared site? This is the problem known as the “Ayatollah’s toilet.” It emerged from the challenge of inspecting presidential palaces in Iraq in the 1990s, which — despite the U.N. Special Commission’s demands for immediate access — the Iraqis argued were off-limits.

In fact, “Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told ABC News earlier in the week that giving the Iranians 24 days to scrub military sites before international inspectors can enter is akin to giving a drug dealer 24 days to flush his meth down the toilet.” Energy Secretary Earnest Moniz, a nuclear expert, was more diplomatic in his response, but this assertion is crazy. ABC This Week (July 19, 2015).

Far from giving Iran 24 days, the IAEA will need to give only 24 hours’ notice before showing up at a suspicious site to take samples. Access could even be requested with as little as two hours’ notice, something that will be much more feasible now that Iran has agreed to let inspectors stay in-country for the long term. Iran is obligated to provide the IAEA access to all such sites — including, if it comes down to it, the Ayatollah’s porcelain throne.

But that’s not all. The Iran deal has a further safeguard for inspections at undeclared sites, the very provision that Schumer and other opponents are twisting. What happens if Iran tries to stall and refuses to provide access, on whatever grounds? There is a strict time limit on stalling. Iran must provide access within two weeks. If Iran refuses, the Joint Commission set up under the deal must decide within seven days whether to force access. Following a majority vote in the Joint Commission — where the United States and its allies constitute a majority bloc — Iran has three days to comply. If it doesn’t, it’s openly violating the deal, which would be grounds for the swift return of the international sanctions regime, known colloquially as the “snap back.”

And I would add that the “military option” would quickly be back on the table should Iran so boldly cheat on this agreement. The U.S. and Israel always have the military option. Rest assured, the Neocon calls for war would be immediate.

This arrangement is much, much stronger than the normal safeguards agreement, which requires prompt access in theory but does not place time limits on dickering.

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. Either the Iranians would never let the inspectors into the site, or its efforts to truck out documents or equipment, wash down the site, or bulldoze buildings, etc., would be highly visible. These tactics would crater the deal, with predictable consequences. (Schumer also takes a shot at the snap back. Say what you will about the probability of getting all parties to agree to reimpose sanctions, but agreements like this have never had such an enforcement provision before.)

Even if nefarious Iranian runarounds could be hidden, these efforts, over the course of a few weeks, would not suffice to hide environmental evidence of covert uranium enrichment. Schumer even admits as much. But, he insists, other weapons-related work, like high explosive testing without any nuclear materials, might go undetected.

This, too, is a specious objection. For comparison, opponents of this deal have spent enormous amounts of time demanding access to Iran’s Parchin facility, where precisely this sort of weaponization work appears to have taken place between 1996 and 2002. That was more than a decade ago. There is a certain tension between the claim that a few weeks is much too long and that access to a site 13 years after the fact is absolutely necessary. A person might get suspicious that these arguments aren’t to be taken at face value.

The simple truth is, some aspects of weapons work are hard to detect — no matter what. So what’s the alternative? To not prohibit that work? To permit Iran to do things like paper studies on nuclear weapons development because it’s hard to verify the prohibition? Again, that’s crazy. The Iran deal defines weapons work in far more detail than any previous agreement. That’s a good thing — and those of us who are skeptical of Iranian intentions should welcome it, not use it to attack the deal. The law insists that drug dealers pay their taxes. They don’t, but every now and again the feds put a gangster away for tax evasion. (Ask Al Capone.) Western intelligence services have shown considerable ingenuity in acquiring documents from Iran’s nuclear program. Even if it’s not guaranteed they would do so in the future, the prohibitions in the deal create additional opportunities to stop an illicit weapons program.

Some of us might think it’s good that the agreement puts defined limits on how much Iran can stall and explicitly prohibits a long list of weaponization activities. Opponents, like Schumer — apparently for want of anything better — have seized on these details to spin them into objections. A weaker, less detailed agreement might have been easier to defend against this sort of attack, perhaps.

But let’s not be too critical of Schumer’s insincerity. Despite having repeated these and other arguments against the Iran deal, Schumer, although a member of the Democratic leadership, has gone out of his way to signal that other caucus members should vote their conscience. Congress has a long history of members voting against agreements while working to pass them . . . Schumer appears to be . . . stating his personal opposition but not whipping votes against the deal.

“Bibi” Netanyahu’s embed blogger at the Neocon Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin, says that Sen. Schumer is whipping opposition to the Iran deal. Chuck Schumer’s sneaky whipping against the Iran deal. We’ll have to watch and see what Schumer actually does.

That might be something less than a profile in courage, but it’s how Congress works. And I think it’s a pretty good reason not to let these characters anywhere near foreign policy. But then again, I would have advised the president to veto the Cardin-Corker bill that established this farce of a process. But Obama signed it and here we are.

Fareed Zakaria of the Washington Post also takes apart Sen. Schumer’s objections in an open letter, Dear Senator Schumer: Don’t vote against the Iran nuclear deal:

Dear Sen. Schumer,

When you announced your decision to vote against the nuclear agreement with Iran, you explained your reasons in a nearly 1,700-word statement that is thoughtful in substance and civil in tone. And yet, in the end, I found it unconvincing.

I believe that the agreement is flawed. But it is the most intrusive, demanding and comprehensive set of inspections, verification protocols and snapback measures ever negotiated.

* * *

You have three sets of objections, which I will get to, but you fail to note what must happen at the outset, before Iran gets widespread sanctions relief.

Iran must destroy 98 percent of its enriched uranium and all of its 5 percent to 20 percent enriched uranium, remove and store more than two-thirds of its centrifuges (including all advanced centrifuges), terminate all enrichment at its Fordow nuclear facility and render inoperable the key components of its Arak (plutonium) reactor. All of these steps must be completed to the satisfaction of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

It is difficult to imagine that a serious military campaign against Iran would set back its nuclear program as much as this deal does from the start. Fordow, for example, is buried deep in a mountain and would probably survive all but the most intense bombardment.

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 [above], “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.”

In that scenario Sen. Schumer, you argue that the sanctions snapback provisions are cumbersome. We must have read different documents. The one I’m looking at contains the first mechanism for the automatic reimposition of sanctions ever created, to my knowledge. And they can be triggered by Washington unilaterally. Peter Feaver, a former aide to President George W. Bush, and sanctions expert Eric Lorber, in expressing skepticism about the deal, admit that “we are hard-pressed to come up with other examples when the U.N. Security Council has voted to disenfranchise future U.N. Security Councils and create legally binding decisions on the say-so of a single member.”

You argue that the United States might prefer to restore sanctions in part and that other countries might not go along with this. But the fact that Washington could unilaterally snap back all U.N. sanctions is surely extraordinary leverage that it could use to get other countries to agree to a partial reimposition of sanctions.

You further say that “after 15 years of relief from sanctions, Iran would be stronger financially and better able to advance a robust nuclear program.” Let’s be clear. Iran is going to get sanctions relief no matter what. The international sanctions against Iran were put in place by other countries solely to get to a nuclear deal. None would go along with extending the sanctions, given that Iran has produced what they all regard as an acceptable agreement.

Foreign Policy magazine reported on an extraordinary meeting this month, when top diplomats from the other five great powers involved in the deal met with senators to urge them to support it. The British and Russian envoys explained that if the deal was rejected, the sanctions would “unravel.”

Your final objection is that Iran would use some of its newly freed-up resources “to redouble its efforts to create even more trouble in the Middle East.” That might be true, but the deal does not stop the United States and its allies from countering these activities, as they do today. The non-nuclear tensions between Iran and the United States predate Tehran’s nuclear program, continue today and will persist in the future. But they would be much worse if Iran had a nuclear threshold capacity.

Your basic conclusion is that “if one thinks Iran will moderate . . . one should approve the agreement. . . . But if one feels that Iranian leaders will not moderate . . . then one should conclude that it would be better not to approve this agreement.” This is the most puzzling and, frankly, illogical part of your case. If Iran remains a rogue state, all the more reason to put its nuclear program on a leash.

Rejecting this deal would produce an Iran that ramps up its nuclear program, without inspections or constraints, with sanctions unraveling and a United States that is humiliated and isolated in the world. You cannot want this. I respectfully urge you to reconsider your position.

Well said.

Finally, Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo says Sen. Schumer is Disqualified to be the Democratic Senate leader:

[I] think it is possible that Schumer believes this to be a free vote for him personally – that he can vote in opposition, either knowing that it will pass (sustain a presidential veto) or at least that he won’t be blamed for it going down.

We’ll know after the vote how that all shook out. And in terms of what one makes of Schumer, there is some difference over what the truth turns out to be. Just after Schumer’s announcement, James Fallows said that it was one thing for Schumer to vote this way himself but if he lifts a finger to lobby other senators against the deal, he should be disqualified from becoming the next Senate Majority/Minority Leader, an office he very much wishes to fill.

I would take it a step further. I think Schumer should be disqualified on the basis of this decision alone. In fact, I would personally find it difficult to ever vote for Schumer again as my Senator, though I doubt he’ll lose much sleep over that since he is amazingly entrenched as New York’s senior senator.

I say all this with some regret since I’ve always liked Schumer. And I should make clear that I see fidelity to a President of one’s own party – even on an issue central to his presidency – as a non-issue in this case. The issue is that this agreement is a matter of grave importance. And Schumer’s position is wrong. Indeed, what makes it an issue for me is that it is more than wrong. His stated arguments are simply nonsensical and obviously tendentious. In this case, Schumer’s ample brain power stands as an indictment against him. There are plenty of senators who are voting against this deal because of a combination of bellicosity and partisan fervor. And there are a good number of them who either cannot or do not care to apply a real logical analysis of the question at hand. Let’s put that more bluntly, they’re either lazy or dumb. And of course this general point applies to senators on both sides of the aisle.

But Schumer is neither lazy nor dumb. And that’s why his decision is really unforgivable.

He argues for instance that even if even if the agreement keeps Iran from building nuclear warheads for a decade (false time frame, by the way), this deal makes things worse because the nuclear Iran ten years from now will be a supercharged Iran made more powerful and bold by sanctions relief.

This is a stupid argument.

* * *

chumer also calls the 24 days canard “troubling”. Again, here Schumer’s own smarts indicts him. He’s not that dumb. We shouldn’t accept Fox News arguments as legitimate points of argument from someone who aspires to be Senate Majority Leader.

Finally he notes that the deal only makes sense if you believe that Iran will become more moderate and less belligerent under the deal. Again, a bad faith argument.

I think there are actually good reasons to think the consequences of the deal may lead to that outcome. To at least grant that this is a possibility one need only look at the fact that the Iranian reformers we allegedly love are all for it and the hardliners in the regime are all against it. But the deal is actually more important if you have the most dire read of the regime and its future. If you do think the worst, is it better to put in place what is unquestionably the most rigorous inspections and surveillance regime ever devised or leave the Iranians entirely free to start building nuclear weapons immediately? The answer to this question is so blindingly obvious it really ends the debate.

* * *

So why did Schumer oppose the deal? I think he moves in circles, personal and financial, where this deal is simply anathema and he doesn’t feel he can or wants to buck that opinion. He may also believe he can have his cake and eat it too – vote against, satisfy, and stay good with key supporters and not block its adoption. This is actually what I see as the most likely answer. He may also feel uncomfortable enough on this hot seat that he simply won’t look at the logic of the situation.

I can know and frankly I don’t care. The bright line is that he’s smart enough to know better.

I’ve heard some say that this creates tension for him “on the left” in his quest to become Minority or Majority Leader. This is silly pundit talk. This isn’t the public option. This isn’t something supported by the foreign policy “left”. It’s very basic and mainstream and necessary. The fact that the neoconservatives who gamed the country into the Iraq disaster favor it does not change that.

Democratic senators who don’t reconsider support for Schumer as the leader of their caucus are making a big, big mistake. He should be ruled out of consideration for the job.

2 responses to “Why Senator Chuck Schumer is wrong on Iran

  1. I had hope that Jeff Flake would have some sense where Chuck didn’t. Not so much. He said he would vote against the deal….the perfect is the enemy of the
    good for him.

    • Flake is just as much of a right wing nut job as the rest of them. He just wants to maintain a semblance of centricism in order to pull the wool over the voters’eyes. He was never going to vote for the agreement in the first place.