Dick Durbin’s Case for Iran Deal Puts Party Loyalty First


On Tuesday, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) delivered a strident speech on the Senate floor supporting the Iran nuclear deal. The speech is very important, for three reasons.

First, Durbin is one of the Senate’s most powerful Democrats. Second, Durbin owes his career to the “pro-Israel” movement, which helped him unseat an anti-Israel congressman in 1982, giving his speech extra weight (or irony). And third, Durbin’s address lays out the talking points that will define the Obama administration’s message over the next two months in Congress.

Deal vs. war. The most important part of Durbin’s argument is the claim that war is the only alternative to the Iran deal. That is a profound shifting of the goalposts.

Before the deal, the Obama administration promised it would rather have “no deal” than a “bad deal.” Now that it has negotiated a very bad deal, even by its own initial standards (which sought to trade sanctions relief for a full end to Iran’s illegal nuclear program), it says that a vote against the deal is a vote for “the invasion of Iran,” a military option not even the deal’s opponents contemplate.

Obama made the same argument even more sharply on Tuesday evening’s Jon Stewart Show, asking the audience to fight the “money” and “lobbyists” that oppose the deal (an anti-Jewish trope he has been using regularly in recent months). Obama said: “Either we stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon through diplomacy, or potentially we have a military option,” adding that those who allegedly want to go to war are the same people who supported the Iraq War, whom he slandered further as “folks who are not going to be making sacrifices” to fight it.

This is a very seductive argument to the uninformed. Who prefers war to peace? But there are many opponents of war who are against the Iran deal because they fear that its weak terms make war likely.

For one thing, the deal will give Iran hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief, some of which will be used to fuel Iran’s wars in the region. For another, the deal allows Iran to continue building ballistic missiles that have no purpose other than to target Israel, Europe and eventually the U.S.

And Israel, which is united in opposition to the deal, fears it will have to go to war because the deal “paves the way” to a bomb.

The argument is for a better deal–not war.

Admittedly, it is harder to argue that a better deal is possible when Obama has already gone to the UN Security Council to lift international sanctions before Congress has had a say. “If we walked away, the international sanctions regime would crumble,” Durbin says, ignoring the fact that Obama has killed international sanctions already.

But U.S. sanctions are still powerful on their own. That–not war–is what the Iran deal’s opponents want.

Republicans, too, negotiate. Durbin uses the history of American diplomacy to make the case for the Iran negotiations themselves. In doing so, his purpose is to cast Republican critics of the deal as motivated by narrow partisan interests.

He begins by citing President John F. Kennedy’s negotiations during the Cuban Missile Crisis, praising Kennedy for resisting “hawks” that wanted to invade Cuba. He ignores the fact that Kennedy was willing to go to war if talks failed–unlike Obama–and that Kennedy had, in fact, used war in Cuba the year before.

Next, Durbin cites Republican presidents who negotiated with dangerous enemies. President Richard Nixon pursued talks with China, he says–ignoring the fact that Nixon had spent his career fighting communism, while Obama has spent his opposing the war on terror.

Durbin also cites Reagan, who negotiated with the Soviet Union, adding that Reagan had the support of Democrats in Congress, unlike Republicans who oppose the Iran deal. But Durbin leaves out the fact that Reagan had built up the U.S. military–unlike Obama, who has diminished it.

The cleverest part of Durbin’s argument is when he points out that conservatives opposed Reagan’s negotiations. For example, he cites an issue of National Review in May 1987 entitled, “Reagan’s Suicide Pact.” He neglects the fact that one of the critics in that issue was Nixon himself, whom Durbin has just tried to use as an exemplar of diplomacy. (Critics feared missile reductions would leave the USSR with a huge conventional military edge in Europe. Reagan responded–without Obama’s typical pique–that the U.S. would retain nuclear leverage.)

Ultimately, the weakness in Durbin’s argument is that every president prior to Barack Obama had the will to walk away from talks if the deal on the table was too dangerous.

The one word you will never hear a Democrat use when citing Reagan as an example is “Reykjavik,” the 1986 summit where Reagan walked away from a comprehensive nuclear deal because it would have limited U.S. missile defense tests. The result was that Reagan secured a much better deal in the end.

Obama’s pattern–in Russia, in Cuba, in Iran–is to accept any deal our enemies want.

Partisan attacks. If the Iran deal were any good, Durbin would have appealed to Republicans to support it.

In 2010, after all, Republicans gave President Obama the benefit of the doubt and ratified the New START treaty with Russia (a mistake, it turns out, as Russia had little interest in improving relations, though Obama has continued to argue for even further unilateral concessions).

Durbin instead attacks Republicans–perhaps because he knows that if Democrats unite, Congress will not override Obama’s veto, and the Iran deal will stand.

Durbin brings up the letter that 47 Senators wrote to Iran’s leaders during the talks, which he calls a “reckless move trying to undermine talks and Iranian moderates.” He ignores the context for the letter, which is that Obama was determined to circumvent Congress entirely, as he has now done at the UN–and which no president has ever done before on such an important issue.

The signatories weren’t trying to “undermine talks and Iranian moderates”–they were trying to strengthen his hand in talks in the hope that he would make a better deal.

Going further, Durbin claims that Republicans “denounced the final deal last week before even having possibly had the time to read all 100 plus pages.” It is clear, however–as I will note below–that Durbin has not read the deal himself.

Durbin also blames the George W. Bush administration for the growth of Iran’s nuclear program–“the problem our diplomats inherited from the Bush administration”–instead of acknowledging Bush’s diplomatic efforts, which paved the way for sanctions.

It is a nasty approach, one that confirms the deal’s weakness.

False information. Finally, Durbin lies about what is actually in the Iran deal. For example, he says that the Iran deal “is the strongest nuclear verification system ever imposed on a peaceful nation–second only to the inspections we imposed on Iraq in the 1990s after its defeat on the battlefield.”

That is not true. Several nations have given up their nuclear programs voluntarily, without war, including apartheid South Africa. The fashion in which it did so shows what a country must do if it wants its peaceful intentions to be taken seriously by the world.

Durbin claims that “Iran must also abide by the Additional Protocol forever,” which he says means inspectors would have “access to non-nuclear sites in a timely fashion, in as little as two hours.”

That false claim is proof that he has not read the deal, or does not care what is in it.

First of all, the Additional Protocol only imposes “voluntary commitment” on Iran (p. 6) Second, the Additional Protocol still has to be approved by Iran’s parliament–and there is no deadline for it to do so, unlike the one-year deadline outlined in the interim deal of 2013.

Durbin spins other details of the deal. He claims, for example, that the Iran deal “prevents Iran’s underground facility at Fordow from being used for uranium enrichment.” Yet the deal allows Iran to retain every one of the centrifuges there, of which Obama himself said in 2013: “They don’t need to have an underground, fortified facility like Fordow in order to have a peaceful nuclear program.”

Durbin does not even bother to defend Obama’s concessions to Iran on ballistic missiles and the arms embargo–perhaps because he knows they are indefensible.

In closing, Durbin claims: “Over the longer term, if Iran were to fail or cheat despite its international commitment, we retain the right to use military force and we would be in a much better position internationally to do so.”

On the contrary–we will be in a weaker position, both militarily (since Iran will have better conventional defenses) and diplomatically (because more nations will have a stake in Iran’s economy).

Durbin’s speech will not withstand the scrutiny of the next two months, or history. But it sets the tone for a grueling, partisan battle ahead.

Updated to include Israel’s stance.