Will Schumer Follow Obama on Iran Deal?

How the senator from New York could change the game in Congress if he has the guts.

In April 2010, following a series of deliberate slights and insults by the Obama administration directed at Israel and its prime minister, including a threat by the State Department that the depth of the US-Israel alliance would depend on the progress of peace talks, Senator Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s ranking Democrat and Obama ally placed a call to the White House. The senator had had just about enough. He informed White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in no uncertain terms that the administration’s conduct was “counterproductive” and its attacks on Israel needed to stop immediately. But he didn’t stop there. He told the White House that if the State Department didn’t retract its deleterious statement concerning the US-Israel alliance, he would publicly “blast” the administration. The pressure worked and the White House backtracked.

That was perhaps the only time during Obama’s tenure where members of Obama’s own party, led by its ranking member, openly challenged the president on his vituperative policies with respect to Israel. There were other challenges as well, such as those which occurred with the Chuck Hagel nomination but they were more circumspect and behind closed doors.

As noted by Robert Satloff in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed in Vienna poses serious national security concerns as well as grave security concerns for Iran’s neighbors, including the Gulf States, but chiefly Israel. In the next 60 days, Congress will be called upon to review the terms of the JCPOA and either reject or accept it. 

President Obama has already publicly stated that he intends to veto any congressional attempt to thwart implementation of the JCPOA. Since Republicans control the Senate, rejection of the JCPOA is a virtual certainty and judging by Obama’s public statements on the matter, a veto is all but guaranteed, setting the stage for a massive showdown between the legislative and executive branches of government and attention will be focused on Democrats sitting on the fence line 

Naturally, as a ranking member of the Democratic Party and one of its most senior members, Chuck Schumer will play the most pivotal role in this unfolding scenario. Despite being an Obama ally, Schumer is widely viewed as being a strong supporter of the Jewish State. Schumer is fond of pointing out that his name derives from the Hebrew word “Shomer” which translates to “guardian.” In a speech before a pro-Israel group in 2010, Schumer noted that “We need to be guardians of America and its strongest ally – Israel.”

Schumer’s opinion carries weight not only because of his rank and seniority, but also because of his pro-Israel credentials. If he votes in favor of the JCPOA, other Democrats citing to Schumer’s support and using him as cover will fall in line with Obama.

Given his investment in the JCPOA and his desire to create a legacy for himself with a crowning foreign policy “achievement,” Mr. Obama is expected to call out the big guns in an unprecedented and intense lobbying effort and much of that effort will be fixated on Schumer. In public statements, Schumer has not given any hint of how he would vote except to say that he would review the JCPOA with a “fine-tooth comb.”  He subsequently told MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki that he had not yet read the text in its entirety and would “make up his own mind” and “do the right thing” for America and Israel. He further noted that he had broken with Obama on past occasions and cited the recent Trade Bill as an example.

But at least one Israeli parliamentarian who spoke with Schumer less than a month ago believes the outcome is a forgone conclusion and somberly noted that Schumer would vote in favor of the JCPOA. As reported by Israel National News, Yair Lapid, the leader of the Israel’s Yesh Atid party relayed the following about his interaction with Schumer concerning a possible showdown with Obama in the event of an Iran deal;

“I sat with him less than a month ago; we spoke about this. I looked him in the eyes; he didn’t say it outright, [but] I am telling you, he’ll vote for the deal. All these discussions are inventions… There will be a Senate decision not to remove sanctions, there will be a presidential veto and there won’t be 67 votes to override the veto.”

That assessment might be accurate but four things should weigh heavily on Schumer’s mind when issuing his vote. First, it is a rarity when Arabs and Israelis agree on anything let alone agree on matters pertaining to regional security. But on the Iran issue, the Gulf States, Egypt and Israel see eye-to-eye and believe that this agreement undermines regional stability.  

Second, it is even rarer to find unity among Israel’s fractious ruling and opposition parties, but last week, Israel’s leading opposition member, Isaac Herzog, stated unequivocally that on the issue of Iran and the JCPOA, there was no daylight between him and his rival, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and that he would be working diligently with Netanyahu to thwart the deal, which he termed “dangerous.”   

Third, Schumer will be around long after Obama is gone and will have to deal with the mess that will inevitably occur when Iran cheats – and let’s be clear, Iran will cheat. From building secretive underground centrifuge facilities at Fordow to illicit procurement activities in Germany, the Islamic Republic’s history is replete with a record of cheating and fabrication

Fourth, the JCPOA which was just ratified on Monday by the UNSC is already showing ominous signs of unraveling. Iran’s defense minister, Brigadier General Hossein Dehgan, as well as Ayatolla Khamenei’s top foreign affairs adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati both issued statements to the effect that military sites would be off limits to IAEA inspectors in direct contravention to the terms of the JCPOA. Moreover, even if they were open to inspection, the lag time provided under the terms of the JCPOA, between notice to inspect and actual inspection, gives the mullahs ample time to cover-up evidence of malfeasance.

Schumer has served as a congressman and senator for nearly 35 years. During that time, he’s cast a multitude of votes on a plethora of issues. Arguably, none has had greater consequences for the safety of the United States and its allies than the present one. His vote will determine whether the United States capitulates to the Islamic Republic or stands fast and confronts the nation that Joint Chiefs nominee General Joseph Dunford described as “the most destabilizing element” in the region and “clearly a malign influence.” Let’s hope Schumer acts like the _shomer-_Guardian he professes to be and makes the right decision.