In Victory for Obama & "Stinging Defeat" for Israel Lobby, Iran Nuclear Deal Survives Senate Vote

September 11, 2015


Reza Marashi

research director at the National Iranian American Council.

In a major foreign policy victory for President Obama, Republicans in the Senate failed to secure enough votes Thursday to derail the Iran nuclear agreement. The Senate voted against clearing the way for a debate of the bill in a 58-42 vote, less than the 60 votes needed to advance a resolution of disapproval. The New York Times described the vote as a "stinging defeat" for AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In a major foreign policy victory for President Obama, Republicans in the Senate failed to secure enough votes Thursday to derail the Iran nuclear agreement. The Senate voted against clearing the way for a debate of the bill in a 58-to-42 vote, less than the 60 votes needed to advance a resolution of disapproval. Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, who last week became the decisive vote backing the president, explained her support for the agreement.

SEN. BARBARA MIKULSKI: The conditions for the lifting of the sanctions are strict and verifiable, and that the lifting of the sanctions, though it comes more quickly than I would like, I believe that snapback could work. But after looking at all of the alternatives, which I believe have limited efficacy, I want to declare that I will support the agreement.

AMY GOODMAN: Four Democrats joined Republicans in opposing the Iran deal: New York Senator Chuck Schumer, Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, and this is New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ: Frankly, in my view, the overall sanctions relief being provided, given the Iranians’ understanding of restrictions on the reauthorization of sanctions, along with the lifting of the arms and missile embargo well before Iranian compliance over years is established, leaves us in a weaker position and, to me, is unacceptable.

AMY GOODMAN: After the vote, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell vowed to continue to fight against the deal.

Well, for more on the Senate vote and what it means for the six-nation nuclear deal, we turn to Reza Marashi. He is the research director at National Iranian American Council.

Welcome to Democracy Now! You’re there in Washington, D.C., Reza. Talk about the significance of what took place yesterday on the Senate floor.

REZA MARASHI: Well, I think we can classify what happened yesterday on the Senate floor as a first-round knockout for President Obama and for the American people. At the end of the day, because the Iran deal isn’t a treaty, it didn’t technically require any ratification by the Senate or the House of Representatives, for that matter. But they inserted themselves into the diplomatic process, and the president decided he would rather fight this fight once the deal was done, as opposed to back in May, when they inserted themselves in the process. It was a calculated risk that he took, but precisely because the president knew that he had a war-weary population on his side in the United States that preferred the use of diplomacy over the use of war and force, he calculated correctly. And it’s arguably the most significant foreign policy achievement in at least a generation.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you talk about some of the Democrats who initially opposed the deal and then came around to it?

REZA MARASHI: I think in the House and in the Senate there were a variety of Democrats that were, at the very least, skeptical, if not outright hostile, to the deal. But part of the president’s calculated gamble in not only getting the deal done, but bringing it back to Washington, D.C., was that he was able to provide classified briefings to any member of Congress, in the House or the Senate, that wanted to learn about any aspect of this deal, including the deal between Iran and the IAEA, which the United States is not party to because the IAEA is a separate international institution. And as those briefings took place, from the intelligence community, from American negotiators, and even from leaders and diplomats from our allies in Europe, it became increasingly clear to a variety of Democrats across the spectrum that this deal was not only a good deal, but it was light years better than any of the alternatives, because, frankly, there is no alternative except war.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you comment on the power of AIPAC right now? Both AIPAC and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu—AIPAC poured in, how much was it? Tens of millions of dollars to fight this, $30 million to fight this. What this means for AIPAC, the chief lobbying arm for the Israeli government, but also for the prime minister? While he spoke out fiercely against this deal, afterwards he seemed to just go on to other business.

REZA MARASHI: That’s a great question, Amy. I think there’s a two-part answer here. On the one hand, for AIPAC, make no mistake: This is a huge blow to not only their credibility, but to this veneer of invincibility that they have, that they’ve had for quite some time. The reality of the situation is that if you go against a sitting American president and you go against the preferences of the vast majority of the American people, you’re not only going to be fighting an uphill battle, but you’re going to be fighting a losing battle. And it’s not any surprise to me. I’ve heard from sources inside the U.S. government that AIPAC went to the Israeli prime minister, Netanyahu, before the deal was even being fought over in Congress, after it got done, and they told him point blank, "We don’t have the votes to defeat it." And Prime Minister Netanyahu said, "Do it anyway." So that speaks volumes about really the significant blow that AIPAC has suffered, and the fact that, frankly, they’re not representing the majority of views within the Jewish-American diaspora, because most Jewish Americans were staunchly in favor of using diplomacy and supporting this deal as the best way to ensure that we don’t have a war or an Iranian bomb.

As it pertains to Prime Minister Netanyahu, unfortunately, because there is very little willingness on the part of U.S. government officials and, to a greater extent, Western government officials outside the United States, very little willingness to hold the Israeli prime minister accountable for, frankly, anything that he does, whether it’s vis-à-vis the Palestinians, vis-à-vis his insertion into American domestic politics, the Iranian nuclear issue, a variety of issues—because there’s very little accountability, a lot of Israelis don’t necessarily see what their prime minister is doing as a bad thing. And we know that to be true because the man just got re-elected. So, until there is some kind of accountability being shown, you’re not going to see any kind of shift within the Israeli body politic or within Israeli politics writ large.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Reza Marashi, could you also explain how this deal has been received in Iran? Is there a great deal of opposition there, as well?

REZA MARASHI: Very little opposition. Opposition certainly does exist, but the majority of folks who are opposing this deal inside of Iran are cut from the same political and social cloth as the people who supported the policies of former President Ahmadinejad. Those people were trounced in the 2013 presidential election inside of Iran.

I would argue that a very diverse socioeconomic swath of Iranian society support the nuclear deal for a variety of reasons. The most important reasons is because they want to be reintegrated politically and economically with the rest of the world. They want the dignity and respect that’s associated with Iran’s passport to return, because it certainly took a hit under President Ahmadinejad. And when we look at Iranian civil society, more specifically, human rights and democracy defenders, they overwhelmingly support the deal, because they think that de-escalating foreign tensions, external tensions, provides the greatest hope for actually addressing the internal shortcomings and tensions that exist inside of Iran between state and society. So, really, almost across the board, support inside Iran for this deal is quite strong.

AMY GOODMAN: Hillary Clinton gave a foreign policy speech at Brookings Institution Wednesday. She spoke primarily about her support for the Iran nuclear deal and addressed her support on strengthening Israel.

HILLARY CLINTON: I will deepen America’s unshakable commitment to Israel’s security, including our long-standing tradition of guaranteeing Israel’s qualitative military edge. I’ll increase support for Israeli rocket and missile defenses and for intelligence sharing. I’ll sell Israel the most sophisticated fighter aircraft ever developed, the F-35. We’ll work together to develop and implement better tunnel detection technology to prevent arms smuggling and kidnapping, as well as the strongest possible missile defense system for northern Israel, which has been subjected to Hezbollah’s attacks for years.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about what a post-Obama presidency will look like in regards to the Middle East, Reza, and also what the Iran nuclear deal—where it goes from here?

REZA MARASHI: Great questions. First and foremost, I give Hillary Clinton credit, because she didn’t have to come out and support Obama’s Iran deal, the deal that he himself was the driving force behind, but she did. So I think that bodes well for the future. The flipside of this, of course, is that a lot of what she just said in that soundbite that you played about supporting Israel is not unique to her. This is something that pretty much every presidential candidate that’s viable for the upcoming election in 2016, they’d say the exact same thing. And a lot of people on the right from the Republican Party would go even further. So, she’s not unique in that regard.

The problem, frankly, hasn’t been in Washington. The problem has been in Israel, and we have a prime minister in Israel who hasn’t been willing to meet us halfway on a variety of issues. And this is not just my opinion. You can do a very quick Google search, and you can see the degree to which he has gone to really embarrass this sitting president. So, there’s no reason to believe that it would be any different for whoever comes after.

But when we look at what could potentially come in 2016, not just with regards to U.S.-Israel relations, but also America’s role in relations with the Middle East broadly conceived, it’s important to remember that whether we’re talking about Republicans or Democrats, first-term presidents have a propensity to be risk-averse, on foreign and domestic policy, for that matter, because they’re worried about getting re-elected. And President Obama is a great example of that. He has been much more forward-leaning and, as a result, much more successful in his second term, especially in the Middle East, than he was in his first term. Leaders have to be willing to take risks for peace, and that’s exactly why he was able to achieve this Iran deal. The viability of the Iran deal and our ability to end quagmires in the Middle East and find a greater level of stability that allows us to achieve not just our interests, but also our values, is going to be predicated on shifting the paradigm more towards the path that Obama has pursued second term, and leaving old, stale and largely failed ideas of the past exactly where they belong, which is in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: Reza Marashi, we want to thank you for being with us, research director of the National Iranian American Council in Washington, D.C.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, what is happening in Turkey? An unprecedented crackdown. Are we talking about a possible civil war? Then we look at possible war crimes in Afghanistan, U.S. soldiers there. We’ll speak with an award-winning journalist who uncovered the story. Stay with us.

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