U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz backs Iran nuclear deal

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz talks with the media after meeting with Jewish community leaders at David Posnack Jewish Community Center on Thursday in Davie.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz talks with the media after meeting with Jewish community leaders at David Posnack Jewish Community Center on Thursday in Davie. EL NUEVO HERALD

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, who heads the national Democratic Party, has announced she will support the controversial Iran nuclear deal that is a top priority for President Barack Obama but has faced widespread voter criticism, including in Florida.

In a five-and-a-half page statement released exclusively to the Miami Herald on Sunday morning, Wasserman Schultz wrote that after wrestling with the agreement she still has concerns but will support it.

“I have subsequently come to the conclusion that the agreement promotes the national security interests of the United States and our allies and merits my vote of support ...” she wrote. “This agreement is not perfect. But I join many in the belief that with complex, multilateral, nuclear non-proliferation negotiations with inherent geopolitical implications for the entire world, there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ deal.”

She appeared on CNN’s State of the Union Sunday morning to speak about her decision.

When CNN’s Jake Tapper asked her what she will say to her constituents and Jews who will say she sold out, Wasserman Schultz teared up.

“There is nothing more important to me as a Jew to ensure that Israel’s existence is there throughout our generations,” she said.

Wasserman Schultz wrote that both supporters and critics of the deal say that Iran can’t be trusted, and she worries about Iran getting “additional resources to divert to their nefarious activities.”

“Initially sharing those concerns propelled me to thoroughly explore the viability of an alternative agreement,” she wrote. However, Wasserman Schultz said that after speaking with experts, she concluded that “regardless of whether the U.S. approves the agreement, the robust sanctions regime we have in place now will erode, if not completely fall apart,” because other nations won’t continue the sanctions.

“Analysts across the academic and political spectrum agree that if the U.S. walks away from this agreement it will be impossible to maintain a robust sanctions program against Iran, including President George W. Bush’s Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, who told the Aspen Institute as much just a few weeks ago,” she wrote.

Wasserman Schultz highlighted what she sees as the benefits of the deal: monitoring of nuclear sites, various monitoring systems ranging from 10 to 25 years and requiring Iran to eliminate 98 percent of its highly enriched uranium stockpile.

“In an unprecedented standard, the agreement requires monitoring and inspections at every stage of the nuclear supply chain, starting with mining to milling to processing and storing,” she wrote. “Even if Iran cheats, with this agreement in place it is clear to me that we will know much more about their nuclear program than we do now, which will give us the ability to more effectively eliminate it if that ever becomes necessary.”

The Associated Press reported in August that it saw a document that Iran will be allowed to self-inspect Parchin, a military site some believe Iran has used to develop nuclear weapons. Wasserman Schultz said that after she saw that story, she sat in on an intelligence briefing in the White House situation room and told the administration that if it was true she would vote against the agreement.

“While I cannot go into detail here, I received a thorough and classified briefing about the intricate process the [International Atomic Energy Agency] has in place to assess Iran’s PMDs that satisfied my deep alarm over this issue. Iran cannot self-inspect,” she wrote in her statement to the Miami Herald.

Wasserman Schultz said that she had been in the Situation Room 20 times over two years.

Congress is expected to vote on the Iran deal this week, and the Senate is expected to debate it. In July, six major powers — including the United States — reached an agreement with the goal of preventing Iran from obtaining or developing a nuclear bomb. The agreement allows inspectors from the IAEA to monitor Iranian assets and lifts sanctions.

Obama secured the deal’s passage Wednesday when the 34th senator, Barbara Mikulski from Maryland, agreed to support the deal. That gives Obama the votes needed to uphold a veto if Congress rejects the deal. Republicans control both the House and Senate, and the party opposes the deal, which would be considered one of Obama’s top foreign policy achievements. Wasserman Schultz told Obama and Vice President Joe Biden of her decision Saturday night.

Wasserman Schultz, who was first elected to Congress in 2004, represents a liberal Broward-to-Miami Beach district where she can expect to easily win reelection next year despite the heat she will face from some voters over backing the Iran deal.

Still, what she’s said and done over the deal has been closely watched in recent weeks due to her role as Democratic National Committee chairwoman. Wasserman Schultz usually serves as a loyal cheerleader on behalf of Obama’s policies; it could have been awkward for her to oppose the deal.

However, her decision does put her at odds with many Jewish voters who fear the agreement could hurt the United States or Israel. Wasserman Schultz was the first Jewish woman elected to Congress in Florida. Nationally, she’s one of the leading Jewish voices in Congress.

“My commitment to the security of Israel as an American ally, but more personally as a deeply committed member of the Jewish community, has weighed heavily on me throughout my review process,” Wasserman Schultz wrote. “Make no mistake: this is an American national security issue. But when Iran continues to call for the destruction of the Jewish people and the state of Israel, our most staunch ally in the region, and its proxy Hezbollah continues to launch attacks against innocent civilians, it is irresponsible not to consider this agreement’s impact on that nation.”

A July Quinnipiac poll showed that Americans nationwide oppose the deal 2-to-1, while an August Quinnipiac poll showed Florida voters oppose the pact 61 percent to 25 percent. Polls of Jews have shown mixed results, and experts have criticized the methodology of some of those polls, making it difficult to reach a definitive conclusion about Jewish opinion on the Iran deal.

Three days before announcing her decision, Wasserman Schultz held a meeting with Biden and South Florida Jewish leaders at the David Posnack Jewish Community Center in Davie. Wasserman Schultz hinted that ultimately the polls would not guide her. She described her eventual vote as the most consequential one of her career — one that she would make with her “Jewish heart.”

“I am not afraid to make this decision,” she said Thursday. “I am never afraid to stand alone when necessary to stand on principle and based on a thorough review of facts.”

Wasserman Schultz collected input from both supporters and critics of the deal, including political leaders, non-proliferation experts and Jewish organizations. She held a few invitation-only meetings with Jewish leaders in South Florida to gather input — and she told the press after her Biden gathering that the majority of those participants opposed the deal.

In addition to speaking with Obama and Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, Wasserman Schultz spoke with Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer, who grew up in Miami Beach. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes the deal.

Wasserman Schultz said that if the agreement goes forward, she would work toward the United States developing a security package for Israel. She announced that Obama has asked her to be part of a group of members of Congress to implement the Iran agreement.

“I am disturbed to my core over how much of the debate around this hugely consequential issue has devolved into thinly veiled and sometimes blatant tropes of anti-Semitism,” she wrote, adding that she expects more attacks to come based on her position.

However, she wrote that she is confident in her decision.

“But the thorough, pragmatic, and factual analysis I have done and my fervent desire as a Jewish mother to ensure that Israel will always be there — l’dor v’dor — from generation to generation — leads me to the conclusion that this agreement provides the best chance to ensure America’s, Israel’s and our allies’ security today and tomorrow.”

Miami Herald political writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.

Related stories from Miami Herald