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Breaking with White House, New York's Schumer opposes Iran nuclear deal

Breaking with White House, New York's Schumer opposes Iran nuclear deal
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) praised President Obama even as he broke ranks with him. (Andrew Burton / Getty Images)

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the most influential Jewish member of Congress, announced Thursday night that he will oppose the nuclear deal with Iran, a major blow to President Obama's most important foreign policy initiative.

Schumer, who is on track to lead Senate Democrats in 2017, said in a statement that though he saw some merit in the international agreement, he decided that ultimately the risk was too great that Iran would "use the agreement to pursue its nefarious goals."

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The senator disclosed his decision a day after Obama warned in a major speech that the only alternative to the nuclear deal is another war in the Middle East.

Schumer's opposition was expected, and it wasn't clear whether he would lobby other senators to vote to disapprove the deal when Congress returns from recess in September. Schumer praised Obama in his statement even as he broke with him.

Some top Democrats predict that he won't lobby other senators because active campaigning would put him at even more difficult position with the White House and Democratic leaders.

Earlier Thursday, New York's other senator, Democrat Kristen Gillibrand, said that she will support the deal. But another New York lawmaker, Rep. Eliot L. Engel, the leading Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, came out in opposition shortly after Schumer's announcement.

Opponents of the deal are likely to win support from majorities in both houses when a resolution comes to a vote. But Obama has vowed to veto a disapproval vote, and the White House believes it has enough lawmakers in its corner to sustain the veto.

Schumer cited "serious weaknesses" in the agreement between Iran and a diplomatic bloc consisting of the United States and five other world powers. The deal would limit Iran's nuclear activities in exchange for easing of economic sanctions.

He said the provisions for unfettered inspections of suspect nuclear facilities were insufficient, and that the system to reimpose sanctions if Iran cheats was "cumbersome and difficult to use."

He said that after 15 years, Iran would have "a green light to be as close, if not closer, to possessing a nuclear weapon as it is today."

He also said he worried that the deal would allow the Iranian government to expand its aggression in the region.

He said he feared that after agreeing to the deal, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would "lean right" and give hard-liners more resources to pursue "even more harmful military and terrorist actions."

Under the terms of the deal, Tehran would regain access to more than $50 billion in Iranian funds now frozen in overseas accounts, and is likely to see its economy rebound as it resumes trade with the outside world.

Schumer predicted that Iran would use some of the money to develop intercontinental nuclear missiles that could be aimed at the United States.

Instead of proceeding with the deal, the United States should try to step up its unilateral sanctions and "pursue the hard-trodden path of diplomacy once more, difficult as it may be," he said.

Twitter: @richtpau

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