Joe Biden pushing Iran nuclear deal to Jewish leaders in South Florida
By Anthony Man
Vice President Joe Biden delivered a lengthy, impassioned defense of the nuclear agreement with Iran on Thursday, telling a group of prominent South Florida Jewish leaders that the deal is in the best interests of the U.S. and Israel.
The main selling point: keeping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is paramount, even if it means making a deal with a reprehensible regime.
"If we can take the nuclear bomb off the table, it's better to deal with those bad guys than if we're dealing with the bad guys and the nuclear bomb is on the table," Biden said at an at an invitation-only event at the David Posnack Jewish Community Center — in the heart of the district represented by a prime target of his salesmanship, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston.
"Whatever bad thing they are doing, and they are in the region and the world, their ability to do more exists if they have a nuclear umbrella under which they can operate," he said.
Wasserman Schultz hasn't yet said how she'll vote on the nuclear agreement, which is President Barack Obama's top foreign policy priority. Wasserman Schultz said she's studied the deal intensely and met with the president, vice president, three cabinet secretaries and others. She said she still has questions and doesn't have a timetable for making a decision.
"I am and have been going through a very careful evaluation process," she said. Among her concerns: whether Iran can be adequately policed. "Iran is an evil regime. There isn't anything about this deal that changes that."
Biden spoke for about 45 minutes to 32 prominent Jewish leaders, many of whom are active in Democratic politics as activists or campaign contributors, before beginning a closed-door question-and-answer session.
The group knows Biden. Before TV cameras, Wasserman Schultz introduced him as an ally of American Jews — she called him a "mensch" — and a decades-long champion of Israel — which is fiercely opposed to the Iran nuclear deal.
Biden described himself as someone who has "given his vote and his heart and emotional commitment to Israel. And I take a back seat to no one."
Wasserman Schultz is fiercely loyal to the president, who made her chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. And she's been a longtime, close ally of Biden, dating to his time as a U.S. senator and her early days in the House of Representatives.
Wasserman Schultz is also the first Jewish woman from Florida to serve in Congress, and many organizations and leaders in the Jewish community oppose the deal. She's a staunch supporter of Israel, whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is the world's leading opponent of the agreement.
Calling the decision the most consequential one of her 23 years in office, Wasserman Schultz said it would be "based on one thing and one thing only: What I ultimately believe is the most likely to achieve preventing Iran from achieving its nuclear weapons goals."
She said it would be based on her head, but also "be made with my Jewish heart and that is equally important to me."
As of Wednesday, the Obama administration secured the support of enough U.S. senators to ensure the agreement will go into effect. Even though majorities in Congress are likely to oppose the deal when it's voted on, Obama would then veto the disapproval, and the latest tally shows he has enough supporters in the Senate to block an override of the veto.
The Biden appearance comes in the final days before Congress is set to return next week to the capital following its five-week summer break.
Though Wasserman Schultz and U.S. Reps. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, and Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, have yet to announce how they'll vote, the ultimate outcome is no longer in doubt.
Biden said opposition to the deal is "not an irrational position. And I respect those who after really thoughtful consideration disagree with me or the president."
He went through a lengthy explanation of U.S. international agreements with governments, such as the old Soviet Union, that can't be trusted.
Biden said the deal is supported by legions of arms-control experts as well as many who have worked in the Israeli military and intelligence services.
"It's a good deal for the world, the region, and it's a good deal for Israel and the gulf cooperation states," Biden said. "It will make us and Israel safer, not weaker."
Vice President Joe Biden is set to pitch the Obama administration's Iran nuclear deal to South Florida Jewish leaders Thursday morning.
He also downplayed opponents concerns about the money Iran would get once its overseas accounts are unfrozen. He said it wouldn't be as much as many think, and the nation's leaders need to use the money to rebuild the nation's infrastructure to satisfy the needs of a restless population.
Biden said the agreement would greatly limit Iran's ability to develop a weapon, result in extensive inspections lasting decades into the future, and allows the possibility of reimposing sanctions.
He said anti-deal ads that claim Iranian military facilities aren't subject to inspection are false. "Not true," he said. "We can inspect any place in Iran if we believe there is illegal activity taking place."
Biden also said that the deal must be approved to avoid major damage to American credibility abroad.
"Just imagine the amount of our influence, guys, that the president can deliver on an agreement that the world … thinks is important," he said.
After Biden's speech, the media were removed during a question-and-answer session with Jewish leaders, who were required to turn off phones, could not record and told to keep details quiet. Wasserman Schultz said it was the only way to ensure "an open and candid conversation."
It's unclear if the vice president changed many, or any minds despite lengthy public and private sessions. Steve Zach, a Miami lawyer who arrived undecided and said he remained undecided, estimated about 50 questions were posed to the vice president.
"Based upon an hour and a half of conversation, I don't think anybody was swayed to switch sides," said Barry Wilen, of Hollywood, who opposes the deal. "I think people were impressed with what he had to say … He was forceful."
Also unmoved was Barbara Effman, president of the West Broward Democratic Club. "I came in 110 percent opposed to the deal," she said, and left the same way.
"I can't really support the deal because I really think that Iran is a country that is horrible on human rights, that supports terrorism around the world, not jut in Israel. I don't see this as a Jewish or Israeli decision. I see this as a world peace issue."
Andrew Weinstein, a Coral Springs lawyer and major fundraiser for national Democrats, said he had the sense that Biden's presentation changed some minds, though he said he hadn't been able to talk to other attendees to know for sure.
"I came in supporting the deal and strongly support the deal," he said. "I believe the vice president laid out the facts. And as the president has said, he wants people to vote on the facts. He wants people to vote on their conscience, not on advertising."
Debby Eisinger, former mayor of Cooper City and former president of the Broward League of Cities, has mixed feelings. She said she's "not against the deal," but is "amenable" to it and still has "a number of concerns."
Outside the community center, about 800 protesters wore T-shirts and shouted, "We need a better deal," as the vice president's motorcade arrived.
There were dozens of teens and many retirees, as well as middle-aged adults, and at least a half dozen organizations were represented, from the Tea Party to The Israel Project to the Zionist Organization of America.
"It is yet to be over; we are going to make sure our message will be heard everywhere. Make sure our message is clear, we will not accept this deal," Joe Zezuloni, of Americans United Against the Deal, said in a speech to protesters.
Louis Reinstein, 40, an attorney from Plantation, brought his 7-year-old son Daniel to the protest. As Daniel clutched a small wooden pole with an American flag attached, Reinstein said that although the deal won't likely be rescinded at this point, the U.S. should still consider future sanctions against Iran.
"We're here to let the world know, to let the vice president know, that we believe this deal is a bad one and that we can do better," he said.
An Aug. 24 Quinnipiac University Poll reported 61 percent of Florida voters opposed the nuclear agreement with Iran. Just 25 percent said they supported it.
Most of the intense opposition comes from Republicans. Only 6 percent support the deal. It was supported by 50 percent of Democrats, 24 percent of independents, 27 percent of men, 24 percent of women, 29 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds and 24 percent of those 65 and older.
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, senior rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue, said the Jewish community is divided. "There's no unanimity," he said.
At his congregation in West Boca, he said, "the overwhelming sentiment is that this deal is dangerous. This deal is naïve. This deal is a concession to Iran on issues that we were told would be ironclad."
Critics of the deal, including U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-West Boca, are convinced at least some of the money Iran would get under the deal would be used to fund terrorism. Supporters, including U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, a Democrat from northern Palm Beach County, said there's no better alternative and he considers the deal "the best available option to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon."
Goldberg was among a group of rabbis who met recently with Frankel to urge her to oppose the deal, and he is part of a delegation of rabbis organized by the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center who plan to travel to Washington on Wednesday in an attempt to derail the accord.
"We don't believe it's over until it's over," he said. "Until the vote is taken, people's minds can still be changed."
Biden has made more than 30 trips to Florida since he became vice president, but an unusually large contingent of news reporters was on hand to cover his remarks on Iran — less because of his pushing for the agreement and more because he's considering whether to challenge Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.
News reporters and camera operators outnumbered participants by at least 2:1 on Thursday, something Biden and Wasserman Schultz both noted as they entered the room. He pointed out noted the huge media contingent and she quipped that it was typical for events in her district.