If you thought you knew where Chuck Schumer, the powerful U.S. senator from New York, stood on the impeding nuclear deal with Iran, think again.
“The decision about Iran is one of the most serious I’ve had to make,” he told activists from the Orthodox Union who gathered on Capitol Hill on June 3 for a lobby day. “The choice we face is this: Which is better — no agreement, or an agreement that is not close to the ideal? And to me, there’s no clear-cut answer.”
For a Democrat who has been one of the staunchest critics of the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts to reach a deal with Iran, Schumer stuck a tone not heard before — nuanced and uncertain. It’s an approach that left some Jewish activists unpleasantly surprised and others elated.
Schumer’s lengthy explanation provided participants, and later the entire public, via a cell phone recorded video of the speech on YouTube, a glance into the mindset of a leading Jewish senator torn between his belief that diplomacy is the best course of action and his self-proclaimed role as “shomer Israel,” protector of Israel, a title Schumer had long ago adopted.
Was it a first sign of wavering in light of the looming deal?
That depends on one’s political leaning. For supporters of the agreement being negotiated, Schumer signaled that the needle in the Senate is leaning toward approval and away from rebuking the president. Opponents, however, believe Schumer is still their key asset in staking out a skeptical approach to the accord.
“Schumer’s comments had been interpreted by his colleagues and by Hill staffers as indicating more openness to a deal,” said Dylan Williams, vice president of government affairs at J Street, the liberal lobby that has been working to convince lawmakers to support a nuclear deal.
On the other hand, Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s executive director for public policy, stressed that Schumer “was trying to say that he’ll make his decision based on the merits of the deal and won’t let politics interfere.”
Schumer is one of a handful of senators, three of them Jewish, who hold the key for approving a nuclear agreement if one is reached between Iran and a group of six nations. Alongside Maryland’s Ben Cardin and Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal, Schumer is a major target for lobbyists on both sides — especially since he is poised to become the Senate Democratic leader in 2016. The negotiators have set themselves a deadline of the end of August to complete their talks and produce an agreement.
Speaking at the O.U. gathering, Schumer seemed to align with President Obama’s approach that a military option is all but impossible. Calling a military strike the “next worst” option to having Iran obtain nuclear capability, Schumer responded to those pushing for such a move.
“Those who are all saying, ‘Nice and easy; let’s have a military solution,’ are not looking at the facts, and as a Jewish leader in America I have to look at the facts,” Schumer said. “I will not be pushed around on this issue by the left, by the right or by party. I have to do what’s right for the United States above all, and for Eretz Yisrael.”
Writing in Haaretz, conservative columnist Seth Lipsky said Schumer’s speech “sounds like a case of one of the most pro-Israel leaders in the Democratic Party getting ready to support Obama in abandoning the military option he’d long insisted was on the table and swinging behind an agreement with the ayatollahs.”
Marisa Kaufman, Schumer’s spokeswoman, told the Forward the senator “hasn’t come to any conclusions yet on this important decision” because the deal is not finalized. “He will carefully measure all factors and do what he thinks is right, independent of pressure from the many interested parties.”
The Senate will have an opportunity to examine the Iran deal, if reached, and to vote on approving the lifting of sanctions, essentially deciding whether to give the agreement a green light or to shelve it. A majority of 60 senators will be required to reject the deal, but if that happens, Obama will then most certainly veto the bill, forcing Congress to come up with a two-thirds majority in both chambers to override his veto. This means the White House needs only 34 senators on its side to make sure the agreement holds.
Besides Schumer, Cardin and Blumenthal, all the other Jewish senators are expected to side with Obama. Three other Democrats are still on the fence: Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey, Gary Peters of Michigan and Joe Donnelly of Indiana.
In recent weeks, these senators, as well as those who are seen as safe votes for either side, have been under a barrage of lobbying pitches.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has launched what one source called a “major mobilization,” contacting all congressional offices “outlining our concerns about the framework and the requirements of a good deal.” AIPAC lobbyists and senior donors with close ties to certain lawmakers are using a five-point memo to highlight the lobby’s talking points. It includes demands that the agreement allow for full and free inspections; that Iran come clean on its previous nuclear attempts; that sanctions against Iran be repealed only gradually and based on Iran’s performance; that limitations on Iran extend beyond the 10 to 15 years set in the framework, and that Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, which Iran says it needs only for civilian purposes, be fully dismantled.
While the language of the final deal is still unknown, it is clear that most of the AIPAC
‘Which is better — no agreement, or an agreement that is not close to the ideal? To me, there’s no clear-cut answer.’
requirements, especially those on the duration of the agreement and the full dismantling of nuclear facilities, will not be addressed.
J Street has also been on Capitol Hill for daily lobbying meetings. The group plans to put out its own memo explaining what it sees as the definition of an acceptable deal. AIPAC’s five requirements, Williams said, “are just a poison pill.”
But lobbying is not limited to activists on the Hill; other Jewish organizations are weighing in. Many are using audio-visual aids to send the message to lawmakers and constituents, such as the Clarion Project with its “How To Con America and Get a Nuclear Bomb” video, which describes America’s pursuit of a diplomatic solution as a weakness, and Hadassah, which in a rare foray into controversial foreign policy issues put out a clip calling on its members to contact lawmakers and present them with requirements similar to AIPAC’s five points.
In a sign that lobbying efforts may be having an impact, Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a major critic of the Iran deal, sent a letter to Obama expressing his alarm at the administration’s reported concessions to Iran during the negotiations.
The White House has not confirmed any of the reports of concessions, and the State Department has sought to dispel many of them, but that hasn’t stopped these reports from becoming an integral part of many lobbying conversations.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.