By opposing the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York is threatening to topple President Obama’s signature foreign policy just as Schumer prepares to accept the mantle of the Senate Democratic leader next year.
While Schumer’s decision announced Thursday evening hardly comes as a surprise – as he and other Jewish members of Congress have claimed that the agreement poses a long-term threat to Israel – it nonetheless creates the spectacle of the presumptive leader of the president’s party torpedoing one of the most important planks in Obama’s agenda. While few doubt that Schumer has a lock on the leadership position thanks to the blessing of retiring Democratic Leader Harry Reid, his break with Obama might rekindle interest in two of Schumer’s chief rivals, Minority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington State.
Schumer’s lengthy statement, which was released while Republicans were holding their first presidential debate in Cleveland, could have been written by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, the leading GOP opponent of the agreement that would lift economic sanctions against Iran in return for that country’s agreement to curb its nuclear weapons program for at least another decade or so.
“I examined this deal in three parts: nuclear restrictions on Iran in the first 10 years, nuclear restrictions on Iran after 10 years, and nonnuclear components and consequences of a deal,” he wrote. “In each case I have asked: Are we better off with the agreement or without it?”
Schumer said he feared that the international inspection regime in the first decade of the agreement would be far too weak and porous – leaving the Iranians with plenty of opportunities to cheat. And if the U.S. and other countries decided to try to reinstitute economic sanctions to retaliate for violations it would be too hard to do effectively.
Schumer said his biggest concern is that Iran would be free after 10 years to quickly resume a full-blown nuclear program and develop a nuclear weapon in short-order that could be used against Israel and other U.S. allies in the Middle East. “To me, after 10 years, if Iran is the same nation as it is today, we will be worse off with this agreement than without it.”
Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also announced on Thursday night that he would oppose the nuclear agreement.
Schumer dropped his bombshell just a day after Obama delivered a toughly worded speech at American University in defense of the agreement between the U.S., Iran and five other major countries. Obama said it was sheer fantasy that the U.S. could get a better deal if the agreement were rejected and efforts were made to reopen the talks. He also said that many of the Republicans who backed the U.S. invasion of Iraq are now advocating the defeat of the accord– an action that likely would make Iran an even graver threat to the region and put the Middle East on the path to another war.
With most congressional Republicans likely to support a resolution of disapproval of the agreement when Congress returns in September from a summer recess, Obama’s speech appeared designed to rally Democrats to his side and try to build a political firewall in the Senate and House to either block the resolution or uphold a presidential veto if it comes to that. The president would need 34 votes in the Senate to sustain his veto, but for now only 14 have either come out in support of the deal or signaled they were leaning in that direction, according to The New York Times.
Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is trying to assemble at least 146 House Democrats to back the president in a veto showdown.
Schumer reached his decision after having individual meetings with Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and Wendy R. Sherman, the chief negotiator, according to reports. Schumer, currently the third ranking Democrat in the Senate, said he would share his views and try to “persuade” his colleagues to oppose the deal, but that he believes a vote of this importance to the future of the Middle East must be a matter of conscience.
"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," Schumer said. "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."
Many Democrats reacted with outrage to Schumer’s announcement, treating it as a betrayal of the president. Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to Obama, tweeted that “Schumer siding with the GOP against Obama and [Hillary] Clinton, and most Democrats will make it hard for him to lead the Dems in ’16.”
Former Obama campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt tweeted, “Timely endorsement of the foreign policy of the GOP candidates on stage from Chuck Schumer.”