How Rep. Adam Schiff weighs the Iran pact vote
As he prepares to decide on the Iran nuclear deal, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) talks to advocates on both sides of the controversy. He consults well-informed, open-minded experts. From his seat on the House Intelligence Committee, he digs deep into classified details. Schiff knows he faces “one of the most challenging decisions” of his career, with “profound consequences of war and peace.”
Some time after Labor Day, Schiff, who represents a district ranging from Glendale to Echo Park, will vote on whether to support or oppose the agreement the United States, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and Germany made with Iran to halt sanctions on that nation in return for Iran scaling back its nuclear program. The six nations said the agreement will prevent Iran from making a nuclear bomb. Critics of the pact strongly disagree, saying the deal clears the way for Iran to become a nuclear power and will permit it to extend its power throughout the Middle East.
If the Republican-controlled Congress votes to oppose the deal, President Barack Obama certainly will veto the action. It would take a two-thirds vote of the Senate and the House to override his veto, and nobody knows what would happen after that.
The pressures on Schiff are great. There are the special challenges of being a Jewish congressman concerned about Israel’s security. As a Democrat, he must decide whether to stand with Obama on the president’s biggest foreign policy initiative. And most important, as a leader in the House, the highest-ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, Schiff must weigh the advantages and threats the Iran agreement presents for America’s national security.
The pressures on Schiff are great. There are the challenges of being a Jewish congressman concerned about Israel’s security. As a Democrat, he must decide whether to stand with Obama on the president’s biggest foreign policy initiative.
The man with all this weight on his shoulders is a thoughtful, cautious lawmaker. “On Capitol Hill,” wrote The Atlantic’s respected journalist and analyst Jeffrey Goldberg, “I’ve come to rely on the Iran analysis of … Adam Schiff … who is a moderate’s moderate.”
I was curious about Schiff’s thought processes as he gathers information and analyzes what he has learned. Last week, I called him in Washington to find out.
“I have been meeting with people from both sides of the issue,” he said. “I’ve met with the White House, Secretary [of State John] Kerry, folks from AIPAC [the anti-agreement American Israel Public Affairs Committee], some of the Iranian-American groups opposed [to the pact]. Then I am reaching out to parties with no entrenched positions.”
Among these is Dennis Ross, who served in the State Department under President George H.W. Bush; he also was a Middle East coordinator for President Bill Clinton and special adviser to Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state. Another is veteran diplomat Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and adviser to the first President Bush and Colin Powell when he was secretary of state.
In addition, Schiff’s post on the intelligence committee has permitted him to find out government intelligence assessments of Iran’s ability to cheat on the agreement.
Schiff said he mentally arranges the information in “three different buckets of issues.”
One is: “How workable is the agreement?” This involves questions such as: How quickly can we get into sites if we suspect Iran is violating the agreement? What about the so-called “snapback” mechanism for re-imposing economic sanctions if Iran does not comply? What if the United States wants to “snap back” with sanctions, but the other nations don’t want to give up lucrative trade with Iran? Suppose, for example, Russia signs a long-range oil deal with Iran and doesn’t want to stop.
The second bucket, he said, revolves around the question of what Iran will do with the billions of its funds that will be unfrozen by the agreement. “Iran will have more money for good and ill,” Schiff said. “Iran has been able to do a lot of bad things on a shoestring. So they are already doing a lot of things we don’t want them to do. How can we contain those actions? How can we work with our allies?”
And finally, there is the bucket with the most difficult question of all: What happens if Congress overrides Obama’s veto?
“There are many paths you have to walk down,” Schiff said. “You can have one scenario where Iran decides to go forward with the rest of the world and America goes ahead with sanctions. Another possibility is that Iran says, “We reached agreement, America reneged and we go back to enriching.’ ”
And if it does, what will be the response of the United States and Israel? To bomb Iran?
“This is the most difficult for critics [of the agreement] to answer,” Schiff said. “It is difficult for all of us because none of us have a crystal ball.” He said if Congress rejects the agreement, “You are in a game of chicken. … [the Iranians] may want to come back to the table [but] I wouldn’t want to bet on that.
“Anybody who says they know exactly what happens doesn’t deserve credibility,” Schiff added. “None of us know precisely what will happen. No one can say whether Iran will comply or cheat or that we can see a better alternative.”
In a statement he issued July 14, the day the Iran deal was announced, Schiff put the matter this way: “If the agreement is flawed, it should be rejected; at the same time, we must not compare the proposal to an ideal but rather to any credible alternative. Will rejection of the deal lead to additional sanctions and an Iran willing to concede more, or to renewed enrichment and a path to war?”
In the weeks ahead, pressure will increase on Schiff and other Democrats in Congress. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) supports the president and will work hard to line up votes for him, as will his supporters in the Senate.
As our conversation concluded, Schiff said, “At the end of the day, you want to make a decision where you can look your family in the eye, and I can look at myself in the mirror, and say, ‘I did the right thing.’ ”
Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).