Deconstructing Senator Chuck Schumer’s Pro-War Statement About the Iran Nuclear Deal

Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has announced that he will oppose the nuclear agreement between Iran and P5+1 – the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. He has released a detailed statement, explaining his reasons for opposing the agreement. Given Schumer’s influence in the U.S. Senate, particularly among the Democrats, it is important to scrutinize his statement and reasons. Unfortunately, they are replete with inaccuracies, misunderstanding of the relevant international laws, and even totally false statements. This is unfortunate for someone of his stature, particularly a Senator who voted in October 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq by the George W. Bush administration, which has contributed mightily to the present carnage in the entire Middle East.

Before analyzing Schumer’s statement, it is important to recognize that the nuclear agreement is not a treaty, as it creates no new legal obligations for any of the two sides. It only sets the conditions under which the sanctions imposed on Iran will be suspended, and the legal obligations will expire in due time. Accordingly, the agreement should not be reviewed by Congress as if it were a newly-signed international treaty to agree on mutual obligations. Rather, because the sanctions are permissible only as long as the deed that caused them to continue, the sole inquiry for Congress is whether Iran’s current nuclear program continues following the conclusion of the agreement.

Schumer: In the first ten years of the deal, there are serious weaknesses in the agreement. First, inspections are not "anywhere, anytime."

Any agreement with any member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is governed by the Safeguards Agreement of the member state with the IAEA and its Additional Protocol. Nothing in both documents indicates that the IAEA has the authority for "anywhere, anytime" inspections. The IAEA currently has access to all of Iran’s nuclear sites. The issue is not about access, but about any "suspicious sites" in the future. Demanding visits to sites that are not covered by the international agreements and Iran’s obligations will only add to the Islamic world’s perception of the United State as a bully that abides by the international laws only when it suits its interests, but abandons them when the laws go against its wishes. It will also strengthen the resolve of Iran’s hardliners who oppose the agreement.

At the same time, Iran is an old civilization with a proud people who are fiercely nationalist. Among all the Islamic nations of the Middle East and North Africa, Iran is also the only country whose population is generally pro-West "Anywhere, anytime" inspection of Iran that is not part of Iran’s obligations will provoke angry reactions by the Iranian nation who will consider them as infringement on their nation’s sovereignty. Why should we destroy such good will by demanding illegal visits that will not be necessary, or even contribute to preventing Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal?

Schumer: The 24-day delay before we can inspect is troubling. While inspectors would likely be able to detect radioactive isotopes at a site after 24 days, that delay would enable Iran to escape detection of any illicit building and improving of possible military dimensions (PMD) – the tools that go into building a bomb but don’t emit radioactivity.

The Senator misunderstands the current state-of-affairs regarding inspection of Iran’s nuclear program. The IAEA inspectors are currently in Iran, taking samples, and visiting various sites. It has and will have the most advanced technology to detect anything. Satellites are taking pictures 24/7 and any "illicit" building is noticed. Iran is under the most intrusive inspection in the entire history of the IAEA.

The Senator has also completely misunderstood the PMD. This refers to allegations that Iran carried out some nuclear weapon-related research in 2000 or earlier using non-nuclear explosives. In addition to the fact that the PMD remains unproven, there is no allegation about any more recent work related to the PMD. So, if Iran were to "escape" the PMD, it has had ample time to do it by now.

Schumer: Even when we detect radioactivity at a site where Iran is illicitly advancing its bomb-making capability, the 24-day delay would hinder our ability to determine precisely what was being done at that site.

This is purely hyperbole. Once the agreement goes into effect, the IAEA will have up to 150 inspectors on the ground, armed with the most sophisticated technology, satellites, and other intelligence-gathering to monitor everything. But, there is also logic behind the 24 day period: preventing new baseless allegations against Iran by a third party whose whole purpose is scuttling the agreement and overwhelming the IAEA by as flood of baseless "evidence." The IAEA must present convincing evidence of an illicit activity, and the 24 days period will allow establishing the authenticity of the evidence, while Iran remains under strict inspection.

Schumer: Even more troubling is the fact that the US cannot demand inspections unilaterally. By requiring the majority of the 8-member Joint Commission, and assuming that China, Russia, and Iran will not cooperate, inspections would require the votes of all three European members of the P5+1 as well as the EU representative. It is reasonable to fear that, once the Europeans become entangled in lucrative economic relations with Iran, they may well be inclined not to rock the boat by voting to allow inspections.

The Senator has once again demonstrated his ignorance of international laws. This is not a bilateral agreement between Iran and the United States. Thus, the US has no authority to demand anything unilaterally. If the Senator is concerned that our allies will abandon us once the agreement is kicked in, that says something about the nature of the US accusations against Iran, which have been too many, but almost none of which has turned out to be true.

Schumer: Additionally, the "snapback" provisions in the agreement seem cumbersome and difficult to use. While the US could unilaterally cause snapback of all sanctions, there will be instances where it would be more appropriate to snapback some but not all of the sanctions, because the violation is significant but not severe. A partial snapback of multilateral sanctions could be difficult to obtain, because the US would require the cooperation of other nations. If the US insists on snapback of all the provisions, which it can do unilaterally, and the Europeans, Russians, or Chinese feel that is too severe a punishment, they may not comply.

Let us assume that the Senator is right. What is his suggestion for getting around the "cumbersome" nature of the "snapback" provision? The provision takes away the veto rights of Russia and China in the Security Council, a very significant concession by Iran’s allies. At the same time, the world does not operate the way the Senator wishes, namely, if the US demands "jump," the rest of the world would ask "how high." This is a multipolar world.

Schumer: Supporters argue that after ten years, a future President would be in no weaker a position than we are today to prevent Iran from racing to the bomb. That argument discounts the current sanctions regime. After fifteen years of relief from sanctions, Iran would be stronger financially and better able to advance a robust nuclear program. Even more importantly, the agreement would allow Iran, after ten to fifteen years, to be a nuclear threshold state with the blessing of the world community.

First of all, there is no evidence that Iran actually wants the bomb. To the contrary, there ample evidence that it does not, and the US own intelligence community has expressed confidence in this assertion through its National Intelligence Estimate of 2007, reaffirmed multiple times since then, that Iran stopped completely its nuclear weapon research program in 2003, assuming that it had one before then, although no evidence of the existence of the program before 2003 has ever been publicized.

Secondly, Iran has been a de-facto nuclear threshold state for years. It has mastered the complete nuclear fuel cycle for producing enriched uranium. It has developed the necessary centrifuge technology for the enrichment, and it has the necessary infrastructure for a robust nuclear program. The key is to keep this potential latent and under control. Short of Iran capitulating and giving up its entire nuclear infrastructure akin to what Libya did – which will never happen – the best way to control the program and keep its potential latent is by engaging Iran.

Schumer: Iran would have a green light to be as close, if not closer to possessing a nuclear weapon than it is today. And the ability to thwart Iran if it is intent on becoming a nuclear power would have less moral and economic force.

The key world is "if," but there is no evidence that Iran wants to be a nuclear-armed state. If it did have a nuclear weapon research program, we should ask why it was stopped in 2003: Because its archenemy, the regime of Saddam Hussein was toppled that year and, therefore, Iran no longer needed deterrence against a regime that had used chemical weapons against its population. This also goes to show that, despite their rhetoric, the Iranian leaders consider neither the United States nor Israel as the main threat to their country. The fact that Iran did not retaliate against Iraq by chemical weapons of its own is also a glaring evidence of its intention.

Schumer: If Iran’s true intent is to get a nuclear weapon, under this agreement, it must simply exercise patience. After ten years, it can be very close to achieving that goal, and, unlike its current unsanctioned pursuit of a nuclear weapon, Iran’s nuclear program will be codified in an agreement signed by the United States and other nations. To me, after ten years, if Iran is the same nation as it is today, we will be worse off with this agreement than without it.

This statement is again based on a big "if" and the assumption that Iran does want a nuclear arsenal. As former IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei put it, we cannot measure the "intentions" of a nation, but can only deal with facts on the ground, and the facts give us confidence that Iran does not want a nuclear weapon.

Schumer: In addition, we must consider the non-nuclear elements of the agreement. This aspect of the deal gives me the most pause. For years, Iran has used military force and terrorism to expand its influence in the Middle East, actively supporting military or terrorist actions in Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and Gaza. That is why the US has labeled Iran as one of only three nations in the world who are "state sponsors of terrorism." Under this agreement, Iran would receive at least $50 billion dollars in the near future and would undoubtedly use some of that money to redouble its efforts to create even more trouble in the Middle East, and, perhaps, beyond.

First of all, the $50 billion or so that Iran is to receive is its own money. No one is giving Iran any gift or reward.

Second, as terrible as the regime of President Bashar al-Assad may be, Iran has a legitimate, internationally-recognized mutual defense agreement with the government of Syria, similar to many similar agreements that the United States has with many countries, unlike the US allies that are interfering there. If Iran is to be condemned for interfering in Syria, so should the US allies in that region. As Vice President Joe Biden made it clear last October in his speech at Harvard University, it was our allies in the region, Saudi Arabia, the Arab nations of Persian Gulf, and Turkey that turned the struggle for democracy in Syria into a sectarian Shiite-Sunni war. Iran cut off its support for Hamas. Iran is allied with the central government in Iraq, allies that came to power democratically after the United States toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime. Some Iraqi politicians believe that were it not for Iran, Baghdad would have fallen to the Islamic State by now. There is no firm evidence that Iran has actually interfered in Yemen. It is Saudi Arabia, a US ally, which has been bombing defenseless civilians in Yemen, killing and injuring thousands of them.

Third, Iran has supported its allies through thick and thin. When there were no sanctions against it, Iran supported its allies, and continued to do so during the tough sanction years. But, there is no evidence that Iran will suddenly increase dramatically its support for its allies.

Fourth and most importantly, Iran needs the funds to shore up its economy, create jobs, invest in its infrastructure, and address the aspirations of 80 million highly educated Iranians, 65 percent of whom is under the age of 35. President Hassan Rouhani was elected based on a platform of improving the economy. If he does not deliver, he will not be re-elected in 2017, if not toppled earlier by the hardliners.

Schumer: To reduce the pain of sanctions, the Supreme Leader had to lean left and bend to the moderates in his country. It seems logical that to counterbalance, he will lean right and give the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) and the hardliners resources so that they can pursue their number one goal: strengthening Iran’s armed forces and pursuing even more harmful military and terrorist actions.

Quite the contrary, the Supreme Leader is concerned about the survival of his regime, which will not survive if the economy does not improve dramatically. Iran was near explosion during 2012-2013, when its economy was under huge distress. Even the IRGC commanders understand this, which is why they have supported the agreement, even though their hardline social base opposes the agreement.

Schumer: Finally, the hardliners can use the freed-up funds to build an ICBM on their own as soon as sanctions are lifted (and then augment their ICBM capabilities in 8 years after the ban on importing ballistic weaponry is lifted), threatening the United States. Restrictions should have been put in place limiting how Iran could use its new resources.

Restricting Iran on how to spend its own money is tantamount to violating its sovereignty. The United States has tried this route with many other nations, and in each and every case, it has backfired. In addition, Iran is already quite advanced in its missile program, despite the sanctions. Finally, whatever Iran does for strengthening its armed forces, is purely for defensive purposes. For years, and most recently in June, the Pentagon has reported to Congress that Iran’s military doctrine is a purely defensive one.

Schumer: When it comes to the non-nuclear aspects of the deal, I think there is a strong case that we are better off without an agreement than with one.

And, the alternative, in the absence of the agreement, is?

Schumer: Using the proponents’ overall standard – which is not whether the agreement is ideal, but whether we are better with or without it – it seems to me, when it comes to the nuclear aspects of the agreement within ten years, we might be slightly better off with it. However, when it comes to the nuclear aspects after ten years and the non-nuclear aspects, we would be better off without it.

And, the alternative, in the absence of the agreement, is? If the Senator is hoping for a "better" deal, it does not exist because it would entail Iran capitulating. That will not happen, which means that there will be war. If that is what the Senator has in mind, he should say so explicitly.

Schumer: Ultimately, in my view, whether one supports or opposes the resolution of disapproval depends on how one thinks Iran will behave under this agreement. If one thinks Iran will moderate, that contact with the West and a decrease in economic and political isolation will soften Iran’s hardline positions, one should approve the agreement. After all, a moderate Iran is less likely to exploit holes in the inspection and sanctions regime, is less likely to seek to become a threshold nuclear power after ten years, and is more likely to use its newfound resources for domestic growth, not international adventurism.

While no one can predict with absolute certainty how Iran will be behaving in 10-15 years, one thing is absolutely certain: no nation will moderate if there is threat to its survival and national security. The biggest winners of invasion of Iraq by the United States and the constant threat of military attacks against Iran by the Bush administration and Israel have been Iran’s hardliners, who used the threat to consolidate their power. The biggest winners of the economic sanctions against Iran have also been its hardliners who enriched themselves fabulously by controlling the black market. At the same time, only when the middle class in a country feel more secure about their economic well-being, it begins demanding more personal, social, and political freedom. Thus, Iran with a growing economy is far more likely to become more moderate in its foreign and domestic policy, than when it is constantly under siege.

Schumer: Admittedly, no one can tell with certainty which way Iran will go. It is true that Iran has a large number of people who want their government to decrease its isolation from the world and focus on economic advancement at home. But it is also true that this desire has been evident in Iran for thirty-five years, yet the Iranian leaders have held a tight and undiminished grip on Iran, successfully maintaining their brutal, theocratic dictatorship with little threat. Who’s to say this dictatorship will not prevail for another ten, twenty, or thirty years?

One important reason that the aspirations of Iranian people for a democratic state have not been realized is that Iran has been, almost constantly, under sanctions by the United States since the 1979 Revolution, as well as the threat of military attacks by the US and its allies in the region. Only when the shadow of war and economic hardship is lifted, can a nation demand democracy and take concrete steps for achieving it.

Schumer: To me, the very real risk that Iran will not moderate and will, instead, use the agreement to pursue its nefarious goals is too great.

Based on what evidence? Could the Senator predict the election of the former reformist President Mohammad Khatami in 1997, or the moderate Hassan Rouhani in 2013, or the Green Movement in 2009? More than any other nation in its region, Iran has all the prerequisites for transitioning to a true democracy.

Schumer should reconsider his position. If a war with Iran breaks out, the current wars in that region will be child’s play by comparison. The nuclear agreement will be good even for Israel’s security. The campaign to defeat the agreement is concerned only with shortsighted partisan politics and motivated by ideology. The Senator should stop listening to the far right, and consider the national interests of the United States.

Read more by Muhammad Sahimi