What a No Vote on the Iran Deal Would Mean

Al Drago/CQ Roll Call/AP Images

Senator Chuck Schumer arrives for a news conference after the Senate Policy luncheons in the Capitol, Tuesday, August 4, 2015.

In the least plausible alternative version of my life, I would have stayed in the San Fernando Valley rather than leaving Los Angeles over 40 years ago and moving not long afterward to Jerusalem. In that scenario, I'd be represented in Congress by Democrat Brad Sherman—and I might be less infuriated by his recent announcement that he'll vote against the Iran deal, because if I were an Angeleno rather than an Israeli, his decision wouldn't pose a threat to me, my neighbors and my country.

At this distance of years and miles, I don't normally pay much attention to an L.A. congressman, but a random tweet alerted me to Sherman's statement. New York Senator Chuck Schumer's declaration that he'll vote against the accord made more headlines, and is even more upsetting, given the relatively greater weight of each vote in the Senate. In both cases, their statements barely mention Israel, but their explanations track Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's talking points for foiling the deal in Congress. You don't have to be a cynic to suspect that Schumer and Sherman have devoted much of their study of the issue to their constituents and have concluded that voters who support the Vienna accord are a captive audience for a Democratic incumbent, while passionate opponents are swing voters and perhaps swing donors.

I imagine that Sherman, Schumer, and other Democrats who intend to vote against the agreement might respond that Netanyahu is, after all, Israel's elected leader and therefore the accredited spokesman for its security concerns. But there would be a logical absurdity in that argument. They could not even consider opposing the agreement if they believed that the elected leader of their own country is the sole authority on its national security. They know that an election granted President Barack Obama the right to govern within constitutional limits. An election is not certification of omniscience. The same is true of Netanyahu.

In Israel, the most prominent dissenters from Netanyahu's position are veterans of its military and intelligence agencies. There's Shlomo Brom, ex-head of strategic planning in the Israeli general staff, who has debunked precisely the myths about the Vienna accord that fill Schumer's and Sherman's statements. Ami Ayalon, former commander of the Israeli Navy and ex-head of the Shin Bet security service, has stated that "when it comes to Iran's nuclear capability, this [deal] is the best option." Yuval Diskin, another former Shin Bet director, this week tweeted in Hebrew that he "identifies absolutely" with Thomas Friedman's New York Times column on why Israelis should support the accord.

Yes, I'm picking my experts (though if space and patience allowed, I could list many more). What Ayalon, Brom, Diskin, and colleagues who have expressed similar views have in common is that—to use Hebrew slang—they're not "vegetarians." They know there's sometime no choice but to use military force. But they also have an utterly unromantic understanding of the costs of using force and the limits of what it can accomplish. They are the kind of security experts that a Democratic member of Congress should want to consult. (There's little point in discussing which experts a Republican lawmaker should consult: The GOP's fundamental principle is that any agreement reached by Barack Obama is illegitimate, which meshes sweetly with Netanyahu's core belief that all diplomacy is delusion.)

I could go point by point through the errors in Schumer's and Sherman's criticisms of the deal. It's either mistaken or deliberately misleading to state, as Schumer does, that there's a "24-day delay before we can inspect." That's the outside limit for re-imposing sanctions if Iran blocks inspection of a previously unknown site. It's mistaken or deceptive to imply, as Sherman does, that Iran will be free to pursue a weapons program in 15 years. Inspections, surveillance, and the ban on nuclear weapons last long after that.

But the real flaw in Sherman and Schumer's arguments—and in Netanyahu's—is that they measure the accord against the ideal agreement that those men wanted, or against the one they claim that Obama could have reached. Such arguments are appropriate for an academic seminar. Were Obama running for reelection, they could be fairly raised by opponents challenging his foreign-policy record.

But they are worse than irrelevant to a decision today about whether to vote for or against the agreement in Congress. The only relevant measurement for a member of Congress is the consequences of approving the accord versus the consequences of rejecting it.

Therefore, the burden of proof for opponents is to explain how, if the U.S. Congress manages to sabotage the accord, they propose to keep the current international sanctions intact and bring Iran back to negotiations. They must explain how, while scuttling the deal, they will avoid discrediting the moderate camp in Iranian politics and strengthening the hardline faction most committed to terrorist proxies across the Middle East. They must explain how the current reality, in which Iran's enrichment program is unlimited, is safer than the limitations imposed by the agreement, and how they propose to prevent the regional nuclear arms race that it likely to ensue if Iran does produce a bomb.

Alternatively, they must explain how any military action short of full-scale invasion would slow Iran's program more than the accord would—or explain how they'd convince the American public to support invading Iran, and why they think America would be more successful in creating a safe Iran from the ruins than it was in building a stable Iraq.

Otherwise, they must explain exactly why voting against this deal makes anyone—in the United States, Israel or anywhere else—safer than voting for it. And I'm not talking about "safe" as used in "safe seat."

Mr. Sherman, Mr. Schumer: I suggest you quickly hold a consultation with Daniel Kurtzer and the other former American ambassadors to Israel who have endorsed the agreement, that you hold a video conference tomorrow morning with Ayalon, Brom, and Diskin, and you announce that your concerns have been allayed. If a measure of integrity doesn't convince you to so, I hope that enough of your constituents remind you that you are not the only possible Democratic candidates for your seats. Because from where I sit, in Jerusalem rather than the San Fernando Valley, a vote against this agreement looks like premeditated irresponsibility. 

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