WASHINGTON -- Proponents of a nuclear deal with Iran got a boost Tuesday when a trio of on-the-fence Democratic senators announced they would support the agreement when it comes up for a vote in September.
What helped tip the scales for Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) was not a persuasive speech from President Barack Obama, the meticulous testimony of Secretary of State John Kerry, or the nuclear physics insights of the Beethoven-haired Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. It was a briefing held earlier in the day by foreign officials from other countries party to the deal.
At roughly 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday in the capital, ambassadors to the United States from the P5+1 nations (England, France, Russia, China, Germany) met with roughly 30 senators to discuss the contours of the deal. According to multiple Senate sources, all of whom would only speak on condition of anonymity, the presentation proved surprisingly convincing. The ambassadors fielded a variety of questions. But the conversation lingered largely on a hypothetical: What would happen if the agreement fell through?
According to one Senate Democratic aide, the ambassadors were emphatic that this would amount to a forfeiture of a successful diplomatic endgame.
"They said international sanctions were aimed at getting Iran to the table, and if we fritter away this chance, you couldn’t keep that coalition of support," said the aide. "Frankly, there are a lot of countries out there that want to buy Iranian oil."
Said another aide, summarizing what was relayed at the meeting: "These countries will not come together again in search for the best deal. This is the best deal."
The Obama administration has made similar arguments in its lobbying campaign to support the Iran deal. But there was a different type of persuasion, as it came from other P5+1 members, according to another Democratic Senate aide. For lawmakers, it was a veritable from-the-horse's-mouth confirmation of their theories and suspicions. Boxer specifically cited the presentation in announcing that she would support the deal.
“It was very important to hear from them that they believed if we walked away, it would play right into the hands of the hard-liners in Iran, Iran would build a nuclear weapon, they’d have lots of money from everybody else but America, and it’d be a very dangerous situation,” she told the Los Angeles Times.
But while news was good for supporters of the Iran nuclear deal in the Senate, setbacks were experienced in the House. Reps. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), Ted Deutch (D-Penn.) and Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) all announced their opposition, arguing that the deal would prove ineffective in curbing Iran's nuclear program and would funnel money toward its terrorist-sponsoring activities. Early reports suggested Israel would proactively try to convince his fellow House Democrats to join him. But a spokesperson for the congressman told The Huffington Post, "He won’t be whipping but he will be expressing his opposition."
The flurry of activity foreshadowed what promises to be a high-drama August recess. Already, Democratic leadership in each chamber has encouraged members to come out one way or the other on the deal before leaving town to avoid having a target on their backs from proponents and critics. But 22 of those members, including the second-ranking Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), are currently in Israel on a trip sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, an AIPAC affiliated-group. There, they will likely meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arguably the most outspoken critic of the nuclear deal with Iran.
A senior House Democratic aide said none of the members who came out in opposition on Tuesday were surprising defections. And though roughly $11 million has already been spent in an ad campaign trying to torpedo the deal (with millions more to come), backers of the deal continued to exude confidence that they would have the votes to sustain a presidential veto of a bill that effectively kills the nuclear deal.
The Obama administration, for its part, plans to continue what can only be described as a flood-the-zone lobbying campaign in hopes of bolstering the ranks. Another Senate briefing is scheduled for Wednesday with one of the deal's negotiators, Wendy Sherman. A separate briefing is scheduled for Senate Foreign Relations Committee members with Yukiya Amano, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which will lead the Iran nuclear program monitoring should the deal stay intact. On Tuesday, the president, along with Vice President Joe Biden, United States National Security Advisor Susan Rice and top foreign policy aide Ben Rhodes met with American Jewish community leaders at the White House. According to a source briefed on the exchange, the president did most of the talking, and the private case he made mirrored the public one.
"He went through it in a very lawyerly and detailed fashion and made his case and then went through the alternatives and refuted them," said the source. "Obviously he didn't convert the opponents in the room, but he forced the opponents to rethink the manner of their opposition."
The big press will come in a speech from Obama at American University, the site of John F. Kennedy's “Strategy for Peace” speech 52 years ago calling for a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. According to a White House official, Obama will use the occasion to "frame the congressional decision about whether to block the implementation of a deal that prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon as the most consequential foreign policy debate since the decision to go to war in Iraq."
Hill aides said they had not seen this type of arm-twisting and bully-pulpit use since the selling of Obamacare back in 2010 -- which makes it all the more peculiar that it was five foreign officials that proved so consequential on Tuesday. Asked why more Democratic lawmakers didn't buy the concept that foreign policy was a prerogative best left to the president, the top House aide replied: "Believe it or not, members of Congress believe they are omnipotent, all-powerful. They believe they should weigh in on everything. So that’s not a persuasive argument."
With reporting by Jessica Schulberg.