WASHINGTON – The starkly different ways in which Minnetonka residents Andrew Parker and Mehr Jay Shahidi view the historic nuclear deal with Iran provides the emotional backdrop for what is shaping up to be the most important foreign policy debate of Barack Obama’s presidency.
The White House and congressional Democrats say the agreement is the only alternative to what would be another eventual war in the Middle East. That’s a view shared by Shahidi, a 68-year-old businessman who was born in Iran but has lived in the United States for 48 years and has gone back to his homeland seven times. Shahidi still has relatives in Iran and hears from them weekly about the toll of economic sanctions.
“We need to give them a chance to open up by increasing trade and travel,” Shahidi said. “That’s how we bring them back into the world.”
But critics, including Minnesota’s Republicans and many prominent Jewish community members, say the United States is giving away powerful leverage to an enemy and escalating regional tensions in the Middle East — including, most important, Israel.
This is what resonates with Parker, 54, a partner at a Minneapolis law firm and a longtime Israel supporter.
“They’re [Iran] responsible for more U.S. deaths than perhaps any other country in the last 50 years,” he said. “Even during negotiations, they were in the streets, by the thousands, chanting ‘death to America.’ That’s what we’re dealing with.”
In the final working days on Capitol Hill last week, Obama administration officials embarked on an aggressive campaign to sell the deal’s virtues. For Minnesota’s delegation, this included hours of classified briefings with the president’s Cabinet, visits to the Situation Room and personal phone calls from administration officials.
The accord reached earlier this month by the Obama administration, European allies and Iran says that in exchange for heavy monitoring and suppression of the country’s blossoming nuclear program, the U.S. and its allies will ease up on heavy economic sanctions crippling Iran’s economy. Congress will vote on whether to support the agreement in September, after a four-week August recess.
Among Minnesota’s delegation, support for the deal is staunchly partisan.
“I don’t know of a better deal,” Democratic Rep. Tim Walz, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said after a two-hour meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry.
But even Walz is skeptical that Iran will change its ways if sanctions are lifted. “There is no unicorn deal where everything is perfect,” he said.
Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen said his office has received dozens of calls from constituents, the majority urging him not to support the agreement.
“I do think it’s possible to get a better deal,” he said. “I think their economy has been reeling, the price of oil has dropped … Sanctions brought them to the table. They’re funding state-sponsored terrorism organizations around the world and that’s not going to go away.”
Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum called Paulsen out directly on his sentiment.
“I’d like to know how Erik constructs a better deal after we tell the Ayatollah our word can’t be trusted,” said McCollum, a large silver peace symbol necklace around her neck. “My question to Erik is what’s the alternative? The alternative is Iran goes back to processing fissile material, we lose some of the tough sanctions that we worked on with the other countries. Russia, China, France, Germany, they’re all going to say, ‘Wait a minute, we were all in this together and then your Congress has changed their mind?’ ”
The lobbying on both sides will only intensify when Congress returns in the fall.
Cathy Murphy, a St. Louis Park preschool teacher and volunteer for the Minnesota Peace Project, has spent two years traveling back and forth to Washington, pushing for an agreement like this.
“We’re thrilled. Our primary goal is to avoid going to another war in the Middle East,” she said.
Still, Murphy isn’t taking any votes, even among Democrats, for granted. “We try and stay in touch, we ask how they’re feeling about this.”
On the other side, Steve Hunegs, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, has a different message. “We’re deeply skeptical of the agreement,” he said. “There has to be a … third way forward that relates to securing the future of Israel and the Gulf states and other allies and doesn’t put them at risk.”
Conservative Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson said he’d heard from Washington’s powerful Jewish lobby.
He’s still undecided.
“I haven’t figured out what I’m doing. Some people say the sanctions are just starting to work,” he said. “I was at a couple of meetings at home where constituents asked me what I thought because they don’t know what to think. It was obvious that whatever I thought was going to have an impact on what they thought.”
Minnesota’s two Democratic senators are more reserved, though Sen Al Franken said he’s leaning toward supporting the White House.
“From what I’ve seen so far, this appears to be the best option from preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” Franken said. “I asked everyone what happens if we strike Iran and what does that look like and it’s not very pretty … And we’d be isolated diplomatically because we would have rejected what our allies have approved.”
Klobuchar said she’s still reviewing the details.
“Everyone knows they have been engaging in bad activities, so the issue you really have to confront is do you believe this will prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon?” Klobuchar said. “I think the sanctions are what brought them to the table and so if we’re going to lift the sanctions we need to make sure we’re getting national security gain on it.”
GOP Rep. John Kline, a Marine Corps veteran and member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he’s listened to the administration and is unconvinced.
“Why is this a good deal? We lift the sanctions, give them an infusion of cash and then they’ll be able to export oil and continue to take in money,” he said. “Some have suggested that the Iranians will use the money for education, infrastructure and build a better society, but they may just put more money toward terror.”