Chuck Schumer’s Disingenuous Iran Deal Argument

The good senator from New York may be voting his conscience, but he’s got the facts all wrong.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 19:  Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) talks to reporters after the weekly Democratic policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol May 19, 2015 in Washington, DC. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has said he supports Schumer becomiing the next Senate Democratic leader after Reid retires in 2017.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 19: Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) talks to reporters after the weekly Democratic policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol May 19, 2015 in Washington, DC. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has said he supports Schumer becomiing the next Senate Democratic leader after Reid retires in 2017. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

What can be said of the role that the U.S. Congress has tried to establish for itself when it comes to foreign policy? At the risk of out-Dicking former Vice President Cheney himself on the subject of executive authority, Congress is a “branch of government” in precisely the same way that college basketball fans are a “sixth man.” We don’t let fans call plays, other than as some kind of preseason stunt. I am not particularly interested in congressional views about the Iran deal.

Could the debate in Congress be less dignified if the members removed their shirts, painted themselves red or blue, and started screaming like the Cameron Crazies?

Read more from FP on the Iran nuclear deal

Which brings us to New York Sen. Chuck Schumer.

Schumer is one of the most powerful members of the Senate, which is not quite the same thing as saying he’s dignified. Back in the 1990s, when he was a congressman, his House colleagues had a phrase for waking up to find he’d upstaged them in the media: to be “Schumed.” Washingtonians have long joked that the most dangerous place in town is between New York’s senior senator and a microphone. The Washington Post’s Emily Heil has suggested we retire that hackneyed cliché, replacing it instead with this bon mot from former New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine:

“Sharing a media market with Chuck Schumer is like sharing a banana with a monkey,” Corzine was quoted as saying in New York magazine. “Take a little bite of it, and he will throw his own feces at you.”

On 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.

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.”

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. Sen. Mitch McConnell, when he was minority leader, openly opposed the New START agreement, while paving the way for a small number of Republican senators to cross party lines to secure its ratification. Schumer appears to be doing something similar in this case, stating his personal opposition but not whipping votes against the deal.

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.

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk