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Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., On Why He Supports The Iran Nuclear Deal


Now let's hear from a California congressman in the middle of a hot debate. The issue - the nuclear agreement between Iran and six global powers.


With most Republicans in Congress denouncing it, the future of that deal hinges on Democrats. They are being pushed by the president to get behind it and pulled by Israel to reject it.

MONTAGNE: Democratic Representative Adam Schiff is a powerful voice on the issue. As the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, he has deep knowledge of Iran. He is friendly, also, with pro-Israel groups, and in his words, as a Jew, it's personal to him. Up to now, Adam Schiff has been a skeptic of the nuclear deal. Yesterday, he became a supporter. The congressman came into our studio to tell us why. Welcome.

ADAM SCHIFF: Great to be with you.

MONTAGNE: Now, was there one thing or just a small amount of things that, in a sense, put you over the top in deciding you would support this agreement?

SCHIFF: No, I wish it were a single thing or a single persuasive argument, but it really, for me, required just going through the intelligence about what we know about Iran's history, in terms of its nuclear program, what the agreement said, the practicality of the agreement and then wrestling with a basic trade-off. The really - I think the challenging heart of this deal, which is it pretty well seals off any path for Iran to get the bomb the next, at least, 15 years. But in exchange for that, we give Iran an internationally sanctioned and very modern and efficient enrichment process. And that is really the difficult price that is being paid to prevent them from getting the bomb.

MONTAGNE: Let's break this down, then. When you say enrichment process, in other words, there's an acceptance here of a civilian nuclear program, and based on the notion that there will be very tough inspections.

SCHIFF: That's exactly right. They're never permitted to get the bomb. The question is and the challenge is if they have this enrichment capability - if after 15 years they can bring on a new generation of centrifuges that work much faster, then what had been the chief impediment to Iran getting the bomb - that is, the enrichment process - is no longer the chief impediment. The chief impediment then becomes weaponization, and that work is more difficult to detect. So that's the risk with the agreement. Of course, the risks without the agreement are also considerable and, in my opinion, even greater than with the agreement.

MONTAGNE: Well, let me stand for a moment - the inspections - the administration has long implied that inspections would happen anywhere, anytime. Not those exact words, but effectively, you know, 24-7, we can do something. It has come out, when you look carefully at the deal, that it can take up to 24 days between a complaint by the U.S. or other power and the actual inspection of the facility. Are you not concerned that this is plenty of room for Iran to act in secret or to keep the secret that it's working towards a nuclear bomb?

SCHIFF: There are two kinds of inspections. The inspections that are 24-7 are of all of the declared nuclear facilities. So with those declared facilities, they will have access, essentially any time, anywhere, because they'll be monitored 24 hours. It's the undeclared sites. It's military bases. It's places where they may do militarization work that you have this process set up that could have stretched out - go at least 24 days. So that is an issue, but the reality is we're dealing with a sovereign nation. And it was never realistic to expect that they were going to allow inspectors from around the world to go poking into any military facility they want. So I don't think any of us prudently expected that was going to be the result at the end of the day, but nonetheless, they do have 24 days to play rope-a-dope with inspectors. And it's all the more reason why I'll be doing everything I can on the intelligence committee to make sure that we have every resource directed to finding out exactly what Iran is doing.

MONTAGNE: Why do you think all of that has not persuaded AIPAC or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, many people in Israel - why do you think what you've just laid out as the vision of this deal has not penetrated in that way?

SCHIFF: Renee, I'm not sure I can answer that question, and I have wrestled with this. Why, for example, in Israel is the opinion really across the political spectrum against the deal? What is it that Israelis see differently than what we see? And I'm not sure I have the answer to that. I think that there may have been very different expectations about the kind of deal that could emerge with Iran.

It was certainly my hope, in the beginning of this negotiation, that we could end up with - if Iran was going to be required to have some enrichment capability, it would be a token capability, where they would have to ship out whatever they produced or produce only small amounts for medical isotopes, but would only have a symbolic enrichment capability. That is not what we ended up with, and it may be that the expectations were strong enough in Israel - that the fact that the final agreement ended up as far from that starting point as it did makes it a bridge too far. But I'm not really sure that I can fully appreciate or step into the shoes of those in Israel, except to understand that the threat is so proximate, so existential that their perspective is different.

MONTAGNE: One big concern about this deal has to do with something the deal was not about at all. And that is that if sanctions are lifted - even some sanctions - we all it's clear that billions of dollars will flow into Iran. And the U.S. says Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism. It's revolutionary guard certainly has a free hand to finance and supply groups like Hezbollah. Again, a side effect of the deal, but it would seem to put Iran in a better position to support terrorist groups. Why would they not do that?

SCHIFF: Well, I'm sure that some of the resources that Iran gets, they will use for their nefarious ends, which is why what I'm urging is that Congress strengthen this deal rather than rejecting it, and strengthen it in several ways. Strengthen it by assuring our Gulf allies and Israel that every action by Iran that it takes with its newfound resources will meet an equal and opposite reaction by the United States and our allies. By making it abundantly clear that if they cheat, there'll be serious repercussions. We'll snap back some or all of the sanctions, making it clear that at the end of this deal, in 15 years or in 50 years, they will never have the right to highly enriched uranium.

MONTAGNE: And what if - let's just say - by some way, Iran does cross that threshold - the nuclear threshold - what then?

SCHIFF: We use force to stop them. I mean, the basic agreement here is they're allowed to have a civilian enrichment program. They are not allowed to develop the bomb. And we see them taking steps to do that, and we will use force to stop them. And that has to be made very clear from the outset.

MONTAGNE: Adam Schiff, congressman from California is the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. Thank you for joining us.

SCHIFF: Great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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