Barack Obama called Ron Wyden Thursday.
The Oregon senator, like many others, has a policy of not discussing conversations with the president. But at a time when the issue of Congress upholding or rejecting the anti-nuclear treaty with Iran is all over Capitol Hill and the presidential campaign trail, it’s not hard to imagine what came up.
Sometime in about 50 days – which Congress will spend mostly on its August recess – the Senate and House will vote on the treaty. In all likelihood, both houses, controlled by Republicans, will reject it, Obama will veto the rejection, and it becomes a matter of enough Democrats standing with the president to prevent a two-thirds override of his veto.
It seems like something for a president and a senior senator to talk about, especially when it’s coming up a lot in other places.
“We’re getting a lot of calls at the office” – besides the ones from the White House – “and a lot of questions at town meetings,” said Wyden last week, which doesn’t even count a TV ad campaign against the agreement blasting across national television.
“People ask about it in the grocery store,” he reports. “I’ll be out and about in August listening to people, and I think I’ll get a pretty good cross-section of Oregon’s views.”
Plus occasional calls from the president, although Wyden carefully says, “I wouldn’t characterize it as pressure.”
The Oregon senator starts out with the same clear position that everybody else in Congress does.
“A nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable,” he says. “Iran has a long history of providing support for bad actors in the region.”
But he also comes at it from some particular positions of his own.
“I’ve got a long history of supporting diplomatic intervention,” Wyden points out. “I voted against going to war with Iraq. I was very supportive early of cutting off support for the war in Afghanistan.”
But listening to rhetoric from Iran, and especially from its Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, about wiping Israel off the map reminds Wyden of another part of his record.
“My family came to America in the 1930s, and not everybody got out,” Wyden remembers. “We lost some at Theresienstadt,” the Nazi death camp in Czechoslovakia. It causes Wyden to listen to Khameini “on the basis of my family’s experience.
“Supporters of the treaty will say (Khameini’s comments are) just for domestic politics. But it doesn’t sound like he’s just mouthing off.”
The image became more prominent in the argument last week when GOP presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, charged that with the deal, Obama “will take the Israelis and march them to the doors of the oven.”
Even the Israelis objected to that.
The Israelis, of course, also object to a lot of things about the treaty. The treaty could, presumably, leave Iran in a position to become a nuclear power in 10 or 12 or 15 years – although as former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas said in Portland last week, “In the absence of an agreement, Iran would have become nuclear within months.”
There are also objections that the end of sanctions would provide billions for Iran to continue to make trouble – although the rejection of the deal might cause some of the other negotiators, such as China, Russia and the Europeans, to jump off the sanctions wagon.
Wyden has some other questions, such as the news last week that side agreements between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Commission had not yet been read by Secretary of State John Kerry.
So far, the congressional divisions seem largely partisan, with just about all Republicans sounding opposed, and some Democrats coming out in support. Last month, Oregon’s junior senator Jeff Merkley called the agreement “a significant milestone in the effort to preclude Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon,” while he pledged to “be deeply engaged in examining the details in preparation for the upcoming review by Congress.”
Wyden gets another view from his position as second-ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, which involves both questions on the enforceability of the agreement, and relations with unhappy Israelis after the agreement went into effect.
“On the intelligence committee,” he says, “you go twice a week into a room that almost feels like it’s locked, and you get reminded that it’s a dangerous world.”
Unfortunately, you can never quite know what will or won’t make it more dangerous.
It seems like something worth discussing with the president.
And that Wyden, and other Senate Democrats, will get lots more opportunities to chat.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 8/2/15.