VP Joe Biden meets with Jewish leaders in Davie on Iran deal

Published September 3 2015
Updated September 3 2015

DAVIE —Vice President Joe Biden gave his longest public defense of the Iran deal in a 45-minute meeting with U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Jewish leaders in South Florida on Thursday morning.

Biden told the group he had been "very skeptical" about the ability to constrain the activities of Iran related to its nuclear ambitions. But ultimately he said he concluded that it is a good deal.

"This is a good deal first and foremost for the United States, it's a good deal for the world, the region and it's a good deal for Israel," Biden told three dozen Jewish leaders at the David Posnack Jewish Community Center in Davie. "I firmly believe it will make us and Israel safer, not weaker."

In July, six major powers including the United States reached an agreement with the goal of preventing Iran from obtaining or developing a nuclear bomb. The agreement has several components that include allowing inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor Iranian assets and lift sanctions. The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously in favor of it, while the deal is expected to receive a vote in Congress later this month.

Biden walked the group through the process of the superpowers that already have the bomb coming together to prevent another country from obtaining a nuclear device.

Biden said he respects those who have decided to oppose the deal, but "the only thing I don't have a lot of time for" is "the idea that we can't do business with the bad guys."

Biden laid out his rationale for supporting the Iran deal, covering some of the particulars of the agreement, including the inspections of Iran's facilities and the sanctions. The deal puts in place the most transparent inspections ever negotiated, he said.

"It includes 24-7 surveillance of all their nuclear sites," he said, as well as "potential clandestine sites."

Any suggestion that the agreement means that the United States can't inspect military facilities is not true, Biden said.

"I want to get this straight," he said. "Look at me. As one person once said, 'Read my lips.' It's not true. We can inspect any place in Iran if we believe there is illegal activity taking place."

Iran's foreign assets could be unfrozen when sanctions are lifted — a concern among critics who fear that Iran will use that money for terrorist activities or weapons. (The amount of those estimates have ranged from $25 billion to $150 billion.)

But Biden predicted that Iran's Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will make decisions based on what it means for his own power.

"He is not going to fix the roads, and rebuild the schools and power plants because he is a good guy, he is going to do it because that is the basis of his legitimacy," Biden said.

He added that the majority of non-proliferation arms control experts as well as "more than 100 countries" and former Israeli intelligence officers support the deal.

What he left out: a July Quinnipiac poll showed that, nationwide, Americans are against the deal 2-1 while an August Quinnipiac poll showed that Florida voters oppose the nuclear pact with Iran by a 61-25 margin.

Reporters were only allowed to hear opening remarks by Biden and Wasserman Schultz and were then removed from the room so the politicians could meet privately and answer questions from Jewish leaders. Wasserman Schultz instructed the guests to turn off their cellphones and keep the meeting private.

Wasserman Schultz, who is also Democratic National Committee chair, gave no indication of which way she is leaning on the Iran deal. She said that she had met one-on-one with President Barack Obama and Biden as well as with non-proliferation experts about the deal. If she opposes the deal — a major priority for Obama — that will create an awkward position for her as chair of the DNC. Although Obama has now secured the necessary votes in the Senate, the decision still creates pressure for Wasserman Schultz — a leading Jewish and national figure who is part of a shrinking group of undecided members about the deal.

Wasserman Schultz said she will make her decision based on what is most likely to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapon.

"That's the only way I'm going to reach this decision: based on substance, not on politics. I am not afraid to make this decision," she said. "I am never afraid to stand alone when necessary to stand on principle and based on a thorough review of facts."

Wasserman Schultz also said that this is a personal decision for her and called it the most consequential vote that she has had to make in her 23-year public career.

"This is a decision not only to be made based on your head but one that will be made with my Jewish heart, and that is equally as important to me."

Participants in the closed-door session said that the group posed dozens of questions to Biden during a serious policy discussion that did not venture into Biden's political intentions.

Some participants in the closed-door meeting said the majority in the meeting were against the deal at the outset. And it doesn't appear that there was any widespread change of heart afterward, although it raised some additional points to consider.

"At the end of the responses, I think people — whatever side you're on — had a better understanding of some of the reasoning that has not (previously) been discussed," said lawyer Steve Zack. "What I am going to do is reflect on some of the things he said. I had come to an absolute conclusion well before the meeting (against the deal) but I think he's raised enough things that I'm going to rethink it."

Barry Wilen, a board member of the JCC who sat in on the meeting, said Biden was forceful.

"I think the majority was against the deal but he was very persuasive," Wilen said.

In a press conference with reporters after Biden left, Wasserman Schultz gave no indication as to which way she is leaning or when she will announce her decision. But she talked about concerns she is still wrestling with as she reaches a decision.

"One would be that you want to make sure that there is vigilance in terms of enforcement throughout the life of the deal," she said. "Iran is an evil regime — there isn't anything about this deal that changes that."

Wasserman Schultz said that the majority of the Jewish leaders in the meeting Thursday as well as other invitation-only meetings she has held have opposed the deal.

During the event, hundreds of protesters outside waved signs such as "we need a better deal."

"Every single senator and House member deserves the opportunity to vote on this deal, which is poised to change the course of history in a catastrophic manner," said Joe Zevuloni, one of the gathering's leaders, in a prepared statement.

Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.