Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is interviewed by David Ignatius, of the Washington Post, during his appearance, hosted by the Center on International Cooperation, at New York University, Wednesday, April 29, 2015.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is interviewed by David Ignatius, of the Washington Post, during his appearance, hosted by the Center on International Cooperation, at New York University, Wednesday, April 29, 2015. Richard Drew/AP

A Skeptic's Guide to the Iran Deal

Democrat Adam Schiff explains what worries him about the framework nuclear agreement with Tehran—and about his Republican colleagues.

As the great (and not-so-great) powers approach a June 30 deadline—putatively the mother of all deadlines—in the march toward a final nuclear agreement with Iran, I find myself relying on the analysis of a handful of experts to help me understand the intricacies of the technical and political aspects of the so-called framework agreement—“so-called” because the framework agreement has appeared, so far at least, to be more framework than actual agreement.

These experts include Gary Samore, formerly the Obama administration’s chief Iran nuclear expert (now at Harvard’s Kennedy School), and David Albright, a nuclear expert at the unfortunately acronymed Institute for Science and International Security. Both men are appropriately, rather than demagogically, skeptical of the deal. Samore says he is waiting to assess the strength of the provisions governing monitoring and verification. Albright has raised a series of hard questions that American negotiators should be able to answer before signing off on a final deal. I also rely on the analysis of General Amos Yadlin, the former chief of Israeli military intelligence, who provides a sober, non-hysterical Israeli view of the negotiations. (His recent analysis, in which he looks at the framework agreement with skepticism but advances a line popularized by President Obama—in essence, if there’s a better alternative to a deal, no one has yet described it—is worth reading.)

On Capitol Hill, I’ve come to rely on the Iran analysis of California Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, who is a moderate’s moderate. Schiff is constructively skeptical of Iranian intentions and moderately worried about the scale of possible American concessions. As a Democrat, Schiff is interested in seeing the Obama administration have a grand foreign-policy success, but I get the sense that he is trying to balance short-term partisan concerns with other, deeper, worries. As a Jew, he is interested in making sure that the U.S. denies an anti-Semitic regime the means to cross the nuclear threshold and gain possession of nuclear weapons. And as an analyst, he is trying not to pre-judge a deal whose creation is still very much in progress. He takes what I think might be the smartest position one could take at the moment: “I am uncommitted and I will remain uncommitted.” In a recent conversation, he told me, “I think we need to keep an open mind about an agreement that may or may not materialize in a couple of months. I’m not going to express unmitigated support or unmitigated opposition when there are still significant issues remaining to be resolved.”

Though an Iran skeptic, Schiff did not align himself with Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, and other legislators who recently sought to insert Congress into the middle of negotiations. (Corker eventually got the better of the Democrats; a compromise arrangement will prevent the Obama administration from lifting congressional anti-Iran sanctions for a 30-day period while Congress reviews the deal, although this arrangement threatens to collapse under the weight of possible new Republican amendments.) Schiff said he strongly believes that Congress should play its full, constitutionally mandated role and review whatever deal Obama and his allies may eventually strike. But, he says, “I found it peculiar that we felt a need to insert ourselves in the middle of a negotiation that is going to conclude within 60 days. I didn’t understand the imperative of acting at that moment, unless the goal was to scuttle the deal. Nothing was to be gained from that.”

What Schiff and others—including yours truly—found darkly amusing about the Corker-led debate about congressional oversight was that Congress has recently shown itself, on  a more urgent and violent matter, deeply reticent to engage. Schiff has become known in Congress as perhaps the most vocal advocate for passage of a measure authorizing the use of military force—an AUMF—against the Islamic State terror group in Syria and Iraq, against which American force has already been used for several months.

“I find it very ironic that many of my colleagues feel so strongly that Congress had to weigh in in the middle of these Iran negotiations, but are ready to allow a war to go on for more than eight months without acting,” he said. “I'm continually struck by the complete apathy I see about voting on a war that has been going for months.”

On Iran, Schiff argues that Congress has missed an opportunity to help the administration win a tougher deal in its negotiations with Tehran. “In an ideal situation, when we’re negotiating with one of our most implacable adversaries, we should be working in close choreography with the administration. We could be playing bad cop to the administration’s good cop.”

Isn’t that what Congress is, in fact, doing? I asked. “I don’t feel that this is what is happening. I haven’t heard anyone who was advocating for the Corker bill argue for it because they thought it strengthened our hand in negotiations.”

If Congress’s behavior concerns him, so too do the actions of the administration’s chief Iran negotiators. Like many Iran fence-sitters, he wishes that American negotiators had been tougher at the outset of negotiations. “I did take issue early on when they conceded that Iran had a right to enrichment. I would have sought at the outset no enrichment whatsoever, or just a token enrichment capability. (This, by the way, is—or was when I asked her about it last year—Hillary Clinton’s position on the so-called right to enrich.)

Schiff went on to say, however, that “no matter who was negotiating, there were things I wouldn’t like about the deal. That’s the nature of the beast.”

Right now, he said, what worries him is what worries people like Gary Samore—the provisions of a theoretical deal that will govern the inspections of suspect Iranian sites. “I’m less concerned about the sites we know about, such as Fordow and Arak, because we’ll have a pretty good eye on things. I’ve been more concerned about what takes place in other locations. It will be important for us to understand what is happening at other sites, and what will happen with these ‘anytime, anywhere’ inspections.” In other words, how much access will be granted to international inspectors to scrutinize suspect sites, and how fast will such access be granted? “There will have to be a process established to realize this. This is something I’m watching,” he said, adding, “Another question for me is their military development. I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up somewhere where Iran doesn’t have to admit to its prior [nuclear] weapons program, but they might make these military sites accessible to our inspectors and allow us to put the pieces together.”

Regional issues concern him as well. “I'm going to be very interested in what the agreement looks like to us, but also what it looks like to people in the area,” he said. “If this agreement is not good enough to keep other nations near Iran from starting nuclear programs—Egypt, Turkey, and the Gulf states—if it’s not enough to stop a nuclear-arms race in the region, then we haven’t accomplished very much.”

Even if the U.S. accomplishes what it is setting out to accomplish, the price, Schiff acknowledges, will be high: “One of the deepest reservations I have is my concern over what Iran will do with its newfound wealth that will come from an end to sanctions. That’s what makes this such a difficult dilemma.” Some administration officials privately concede that at least a portion of the billions that may soon flow to Iran will end up being funneled to Iran’s allies in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Even under sanctions, Iran has done an efficient job of propping up the Syrian regime. Without serious sanctions, it would be unwise not to expect more Iranian adventurism in the region. “This deal would represent an agreement with the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism, and would permit them to maintain a nuclear infrastructure,” Schiff said. “It only begins to look acceptable when you consider the alternatives.”