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Why Democrats are backing nuclear deal, despite distrust of Iran

President Obama now has enough votes in the Senate to fend off Republican efforts to kill the Iran deal. But many Democrats came around reluctantly and only after an unusually thorough and wrenching examination of the issues.

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    Sen. Chris Coons speaks at the University of Delaware Institute for Global Studies on Tuesday in Newark, where he announced his support for the Iran nuclear deal. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland followed a day later, giving President Obama the support he needs in Congress to uphold the deal.
    Kyle Grantham/The Wilmington News-Journal/AP
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From the start, Sen. Chris Coons had grave misgivings about the Iran nuclear deal.

The Democrat from Delaware, a key undecided vote, read every page of the 159-page document – and reread them – plus the classified annexes.

“Frankly, this is not the agreement I hoped for,” the senator stated somberly on Tuesday.

And yet, standing before a clutch of reporters and others at the University of Delaware, he went to great lengths to explain why he would ultimately back the deal – from an eye-opening meeting with world-power diplomats to his many consultations with Vice President Joe Biden, his close friend and Senate predecessor.

Senator Coons’s “yes” brought President Obama to within inches of victory on a major foreign-policy legacy item.  That win was sealed Wednesday when Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland became the 34th senator – all Democrats – to support the deal. That is enough to beat back blanket GOP opposition. In her statement, Senator Mikulski offered echoes of Coons's comments the day before.

The Iran deal stands out for the thoroughness and deliberation that Democrats such as Coons have brought to this difficult vote. Many of them consider it among the most important and agonizing votes of their careers.

“Politically, it’s very big,” says Ross Baker, a congressional expert at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “For some members, there was a real moral struggle going on in their minds.” 

Tens of millions of dollars have been spent by opponents of the deal, which lifts sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits on its nuclear program. The issue has leapt into the 2016 presidential campaign. Coons even told The Washington Post that a longtime friend said the senator should never speak to him again if he voted for the deal.

But the seriousness and even-handed tone with which he and others have considered the deal could have a calming effect for some. For one, it can help bridge the divide in the Jewish community, said retired Rabbi Douglas Krantz, speaking of Coons’s approach.

“The way he handled himself, the way he avoided any hyperbolic language, the way he was measured in his study … that helps the Jewish community heal,” said Rabbi Krantz, who was at Tuesday’s announcement and supports the deal. 

Among the other senators to dive into the depths of the deal, Sen. Angus King (I) of Maine, who caucuses with the Democrats, marked up his text with 39 questions in the margins. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York – the Senate’s most senior Jewish member and one of only two Senate Democrats so far to oppose it – studied it in his “little chair” at home in Brooklyn. Sen. Bob Casey (D) of Pennsylvania announced his approval Tuesday in a 17-page memo, complete with footnotes.

Coons’s scrutiny began before the final text was even released July 14. Using the parameters of the agreement that came out in April, he and his staff developed a set of criteria to measure a final version.

That final text raised deep concerns, which echo those of the Israeli government and many in America’s Jewish community – including some of his friends and supporters.

A lawyer, Coons likens the agreement to a marriage built on mistrust. He told reporters on Tuesday: “My job was not to be the wedding-day guy but the divorce-day guy and to look ahead to how this agreement will be reviewed when everybody is finally no longer enamored with each other.”

And so he took his divorce-day questions to the experts. What about the fact that the Iranian nuclear infrastructure, while diminished, is still intact? What about the billions of dollars flowing to Iran – a terrorism sponsor – once sanctions are lifted? What about inspections issues related to a known cheater?

Like other senators, he attended more than a dozen Foreign Relations Committee hearings and classified briefings. He met with specialists and administration officials and with opponents and supporters up and down his state. Having studied chemistry in college, he went into the technical weeds of nuclear capability with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz – a nuclear physicist.

An “ah ha” moment arrived when he and other senators attended a classified briefing with ambassadors from the five world powers that, along with the United States, negotiated the agreement.

There, in the basement of the Capitol, the diplomats said that, essentially, there was no “better deal” to hold out for. They would not return to the negotiating table or revisit sanctions; they were committed to enforcing the deal before them. If the United States wanted to try to wring more concessions from Iran, it would be on its own.

But even that realization – that this imperfect deal was preferable to no deal – left Coons still undecided. The administration was trying to sell the deal rather than answer honest questions.

“There have been moments where leaders in the administration have dismissed the concerns of those who have questions about the deal and have marginalized those who are opponents of the deal,” Coons said in an interview with the Monitor. “It took a while for the administration to recognize that there were also potential supporters of the deal who had similar questions or concerns.”

This is where the vice president played a crucial role.

The two have been talking all along, but about 10 days ago, Coons told reporters, he and Biden went through a whole series of Coons’s concerns. The senator wanted public assurances that the administration would use military force against Iran if necessary, that it would redouble efforts to maintain Israel’s military edge, and that it would pursue enforcement with as much vigor as it did this deal, among other things.

The result was a last-minute exchange of letters with the president, in which Coons raised his issues and the president addressed them. The senator credits Biden – whom he also said he supports for a presidential bid – “for providing advice and making sure I got access and answers in areas where I was troubled…. But my vote is my vote and I’m responsible for it.”

When it comes down to it, Coons told the Monitor that the choice here is one between hope and fear, and finding a way to balance them.

In his speech, this former graduate of Yale Divinity School concluded with a reference to Scripture. From Genesis to Isaiah, stories encourage the pursuit of “diplomacy before resorting to conflict,” he said. 

“My support of this agreement heeds that advice. We cannot trust Iran, but this deal, based on distrust, verification, deterrence, and strong, principled multilateral diplomacy offers us our best opportunity to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.”

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