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"It was intense": Sen. Bob Casey on the politics of backing the Iran deal

Sen. Bob Casey.
Sen. Bob Casey.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On Wednesday, President Obama got his 34th vote in the Senate in support of the Iran nuclear deal — which means that, assuming nothing changes, Republicans will not be able to kill the deal in Congress.

That same day, we sat down with the 33rd voter, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), in his Washington office. Casey discussed how senators go about making this kind of decision, what made him decide to back the deal, and the intense lobbying pressure he faced from both sides over the past several weeks. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Zack Beauchamp: Talk to me a little about the last few days. What was it like? Did you talk to people in the administration or elsewhere?

Bob Casey: It was intense, but it wasn't just a couple of days. It was intense for a longer period of time, especially when you're doing what I did. I had to physically sit down and start writing, and start incorporating what I had heard or what I had read and "does this argument fortify the conclusion I came to about this part of the deal?"

And then there's having some engagement with people for and against the deal. I had a conversation on Sunday. I was moving my daughters to college, and I was carrying bags up the stairs and sweating, and I'm talking to my friend on the phone, and he's really angry and upset about what I might do and where I was leaning. There's an intensity to that.

But you've got to make a decision, and concentrate on the facts. And I kept staring into the face of that fact, which is, "They are two to three months from breakout — what the hell are you going to do about it?" You can't just say, "They won't make a bomb," because you don't know that. That fact, and a couple of other facts, has a disciplining effect on you. You can't daydream. You have to act.

ZB: Given the news about Sen. Mikulski this morning, do you think the deal is really safe now? Do you think there's a chance people might change their minds?

BC: Well, I'm Irish, so I'm superstitious. I think we still have some work to do to make sure that we go through the process of voting. We don't know how that will play out procedurally.

The longer I'm here — I'm here eight and a half years — I learn a lot of lessons. One of the things I've learned is that even when something is enacted, your work is just beginning. We're going to have to have more than a quarter-century of vigilance on this; there are going to be bumps in the road. This is not a self-executing situation.

ZB: Do you think there's going to be more partisan fighting over trying to blow up the deal, or do you there will be real cooperation on trying to get the implementation right?

BC: I have no doubt that extreme voices will, unfortunately, play some games. I hope that's only a few, but we have to assume that there's gonna be efforts to derail, sabotage — use whatever metaphor you want. We have to keep pushing folks to get to a place of common ground, which is that if the agreement is going to be in place, we need to make sure it works.

We're going to have to do something that Congress doesn't always do well — real, credible, substantive oversight. Not just blowing a lot of hot air, as some people around here do. And that has to be bipartisan.

Annett Meiritz: I'm interested in how it works behind the scenes. Can you describe, in a few words, how the pressure process worked from groups and constituents?

BC: Lots of engagement. And that comes in various forms; calls, emails, letters, things like that. And also personal sit-downs with a lot of people — frankly, with more intensity against than for [the deal].

And it made it a lot more difficult. Usually when you're in a debate like this, even with something that's a serious matter, you don't often have the kind of disagreement with very good friends. Personal friends of mine, urging me to vote against it, genuinely worried what it might mean now and years from now.

I think nationally the debate, at times, became ugly. The television ads...

ZB: Did you see the one with the puppy?

BC: No, but I heard about that.

I don't think the back and forth on that scale was productive. With me, with regards to the engagement with the people against the deal and the arguments they made and their pleas with me to vote against it — plus the engagement with the people in favor of the deal, whether they were in the administration or a think tank — [there was] not a single instance of any inappropriate conduct, people threatening, or suggesting that if you vote one way [something] would happen to you politically. Not a word of that.

That was heartening. I was expecting someone, at some meeting, to level some kind of a threat.

ZB: Why, is that normal?

BC: People are usually smart enough not to threaten US senators. Even politically.

But no, one of the reasons it was so intense is that people are genuinely worried. And it's understandable: This is a regime we've been in conflict with for decades. I guess I was 19 when the hostages were taken [at the US Embassy in Tehran]. For most of my life, we've been in conflict with this regime. So they know that and about the volatility of that region. They worry about what's happening there coming back at us. And they worry about Israel.

ZB: That was one of the things I wanted to ask you about. Israel is usually such a bipartisan issue on the Hill — but it seems to me that you had AIPAC, specifically, siding with Republicans against the administration on the Iran deal. Does that change the dynamics of their influence on the Hill, or the conversation around Israel?

BC: I can say without qualification or equivocation that the relationship between Israel and the United States is unshakable, unbreakable. I don't care what leader doesn't like the other leader, back and forth, whatever. This debate was intense, and it was harmful in some ways to the relationship.

But that relationship is as solid as it ever was. The cooperation on intelligence is stronger than it ever was. The cooperation on ways to fortify Israel's security is stronger than it ever was. It doesn't mean we don't have some work to do, but as difficult as a chapter as this has been, I'm not worried about this relationship being cracked or undermined. I think of Israel as part of our family.

ZB: Did you talk through the Iran deal with other Democrats? Or is this mostly a decision you came to by consulting your own experts?

BC: It was mostly on my own. You want to give other people space, and they want to give you space. But in the conversations I had, especially in the last couple weeks, with other members, it's clear that they were wrestling with the same issues.

How do we make sure we're countering Iranian aggression in the region, and doing it effectively and maybe even with a greater degree of urgency? In many ways, how we deal with the Iranians on violations and how we deal with the region will send a message that we mean business. How we deal with them strengthens the agreement, whose foundation is ultimately deterrence. If the deterrence is questionable, weak, or subject to some doubts or head-scratching, that's very bad for the deal.

AM: I read your 17-page document supporting your agreement. I saw that there were still some doubts, and you've said you still don't trust the Iranians. Can you explain when the exact moment was that President Obama convinced you of this plan? I read that you met with him three times...

BC: He didn't. I convinced myself.

It's a process where you have consider the agreement itself, which was challenging enough.

AM: So you read it.

BC: I read it, and I re-read it, and then read analyses of it. The Bob Einhorn analysis of the most contentious issues, that was helpful. But that's just one component: Even if you have a fairly good sense of the agreement itself, then you have to consider, What are the implications of having this agreement in effect? How does it affect our security? How does it affect Israel's security? How does it affect the region?

It's layers and layers of analysis. There wasn't one source, one conversation, or one discussion that really persuaded me. It was a combination of circumstances.

ZB: Was there a particular part of the deal you found to be most persuasive?

BC: On enrichment: the reduction in 98 percent of the Iranian stockpile of low enriched uranium. When you get to the point where they were prior to the interim agreement in November of 2013, they had a stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium. What I learned was that when you get to that 20 percent, you're 90 percent of the way [to weapons-grade material]. To use a football analogy, they're at the 10-yard line in your territory. They're very close, both because of the quantity and the quality of the enriched uranium.

The interim agreement took that off the table, thank God. Going forward, if you can take that 12,000-kilogram stockpile and reduce it to 300 kilograms, literally a 98 percent reduction, that makes us all safer. Just that point alone.

But then the reduction in centrifuges: 19,000 down to 5,000. The limitations on R&D. The remarkable elements on plutonium reprocessing — shutting down, in essence, Arak. That was persuasive.

The verification was, as well. Because of the degree of scrutiny — inspection, monitoring, verification — almost any expert on prior nuclear arms agreements say it's unprecedented. You have, connected to that, new technology — seals and cameras and whatnot. And then when you add to that the reach of 25 years of mining, milling, that whole process, and the continual surveillance, that's persuasive. What's lost in the sanctions debate is that Iran has to implement 36 different items, which then have to be verified by the IAEA. Listening to some people on television, you'd think they get sanctions relief immediately. But they've gotta jump through lots of hoops.

And then the question of alternatives. I thought, in the weeks and weeks of debate, I'd be able to read some document that would say, "Here's the alternative, here's where we get all of those constraints a different way." But I never saw anything that persuaded me.

ZB: I assume you were in contact with the groups that opposed the deal.

BC: Right.

ZB: When you presented these arguments, what did they say?

BC: Part of the argument was that you should keep the sanctions pressure on even if it's unilateral, even if we're all alone. That the American economy is so vast and so significant that we can, on our own, pressure the Iranians back to the table, and ultimately our partners and allies will join us.

And look, there may be a way to achieve a measure of success on that. But I was persuaded that it was a very small chance. Nor would it in any way approach the kind of unanimity and strength of the original sanctions regime. The world has never seen a stronger sanctions regime; it just never has.

And that took a lot of work! If you had asked me five years ago if we're going to have a sanctions regime that would get all these players to the table — the Russians, we fight on everything! — and they're going to negotiate for 18 months, and we're going to get an agreement, and it's going to be an agreement that constrains them, I would have said you're out of your mind.