Democrats Don't Trust Iran. Do They Trust Obama?

The president needs his own party to believe he got the best possible deal.

Democratic skeptics of the administration's nuclear deal with Iran have made it abundantly clear that they don't trust the Iranian government. The question—one they'll have to answer in two months' time—is whether they trust President Obama and his assurances that the deal is the best way to block the country from developing a nuclear weapon.

For the vast majority of Republicans in both chambers, that answer was an almost immediate "no," and the party spent much of Tuesday morning and afternoon tweaking opposition messaging against the deal. For now, most Democrats say they're reserving judgment until they've given the deal a thorough review, leaving the White House with few hard-line allies to fight back in the messaging wars.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Ben Cardin said he isn't worried about Democrats taking their time to make a decision on the deal, but was critical of Republicans for jumping the gun Tuesday. "This took two years of negotiations, plus they've been in active negotiations; I would hope it takes more than two hours to reach a decision here," Cardin said.

Cardin said Democrats who have been reluctant to jump on board with the administration's deal out of the gate are right to "keep their options open" before they've heard both sides. "I think we should take a look at it and we should be willing to at least read the agreement, hear from the administration, hear from experts. Whether we ultimately support or not support, I think we have a responsibility to understand," Cardin said.

Cardin himself is taking his time with the deal, saying that he still has several questions on human rights, the arms embargo, the ballistic-missile program, and other areas of the agreement that he needs to look at before making a final decision.

And Cardin is hardly alone.

"I for one go into it skeptical, but also believe that I have an obligation to review every noun, every verb, every paragraph, and every clause in this before making a final judgment," former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Steve Israel said Tuesday. "I go into this skeptical, I have been skeptical, and I'm not going to make a final decision until that skepticism is fully relieved."

Under a bill passed in May, Congress now has the ability to register its disapproval of the deal, though any attempts to block it would likely need the two-thirds majority required to overcome a presidential veto. Assuming that most Republicans oppose the deal, stopping it would still require about 45 Democrats in the House and 13 in the Senate.

Israel is far from the only Democrat with lingering concerns. "Verification is going to be very critical," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said. "Without verification, this is a useless agreement. Without verification that's meaningful and effective, it's not an agreement that I can support." Hoyer said he expected the 60-day review period before Congress votes on the deal to shed light on such concerns, and he urged each member to give the proposal a careful reading.

While most congressional Democrats played wait-and-see, Obama did have one important ally in the Capitol on Tuesday morning. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, attending previously scheduled meetings with Democrats in both chambers, gave the plan her backing. "I think we have to look at this seriously, evaluate it carefully, but I believe based on what I know now, this is an important step," she told reporters after the meeting. Obama called Clinton late Monday night to brief her on the deal.

And Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the vice chairwoman of the powerful Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that she will support the deal. "This is a strong agreement that meets our national security needs and I believe will stand the test of time. I stand behind the U.S. negotiating team and will support this agreement in the Senate," Feinstein said.

House Democrats inside a meeting with Clinton on Tuesday morning said the former secretary of State's support was far from tepid. "She endorsed it full-throated," Rep. Gerald Connolly said. "She was not equivocal at all in her support of the agreement as she understands it."

Clinton's stance on the issue, Israel said, carries a lot of weight, second only to Obama. "There's no question that her opinion is critically important, profoundly important," he said.

For now, though, Clinton's support does not have many Democrats rushing to back the deal. "I come to this with a great deal of distrust for the Iranian government, and as [Clinton] said, an existential threat that it poses not only to the state of Israel, but to all of our friends in the region and to our friends in Europe and the United States as well," said Rep. Joseph Crowley, vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "[I'm] certainly hoping that the agreement is something I can support if it puts out of reach of the Iranian people to create nuclear weapons."

House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Eliot Engel added: "I remain uncomfortable with the fact that we have spent so much time negotiating with a country that opposes our interests in so many ways across the region." Engel expressed concern that lifting sanctions on Iran could allow it to further destabilize the region.

Sen. Christopher Coons, another Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was also highly skeptical Tuesday, but emphasized that he and his colleagues have a lot of reading and research left to do before making any final decision.

"Iran has certainly earned our distrust. So I begin the process of reading and reviewing this historic agreement with a position of suspicion and distrust of Iran and their intentions going forward," Coons said. "And as a result, I am more-than-ever concerned that we have a strong and durable verification and inspection regime, that we have sanctions that can snap back significantly and meaningfully if—or I should say when—Iran cheats on this deal."

Other high-profile Democrats were in no hurry to take a position. "[A]ny deal must ensure that Iran can never achieve their goal of developing a nuclear weapon," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, in a statement. "As I have said from the beginning, no deal is better than a bad deal, particularly given Iran's horrific track record of deception and continued facilitation of terrorism against the United States and our allies worldwide."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi issued a statement commending the White House's efforts to find a diplomatic solution, but shied away from pronouncing the deal a favorable one. "Congress will closely review the details of this agreement," she said.

Similarly, Caucus Chair Xavier Becerra said members are waiting to see the text. "We should be prepared to read it all, to make sure that what we're reading is what we're hearing, so that we can have confidence of moving forward."

Ultimately, though, some think Democrats will have little choice but to back the deal. "[Vice President Joe] Biden's coming over tomorrow to sway us in one direction," Rep. Brad Sherman said. "It will be hard to sway us in the other direction, because you've got Obama and Hillary and Democratic activists around the country all on one side. ... The two problems in overriding a veto are every Democratic institution is saying not to and there's no crisp answer to 'and then what?' "

While leadership has mostly avoided weighing in, the plan did garner endorsements from a few progressives Tuesday. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a presidential candidate, called the deal a "victory for diplomacy over saber rattling." Rep. Barbara Lee, one of the most outspoken anti-war members of Congress, hailed it as well. "Today's announced deal with Iran, if fully implemented, will prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon while ensuring greater stability in the Middle East," she said.