Sen. Dick Durbin’s Leadership Crucial to Upholding Iran Deal, Advancing Diplomacy-First Foreign Policy

By Ilya Sheyman, Executive Director of Political Action

Sen. Dick Durbin — thank you.

From the millions of Americans, including your constituents in Illinois, who worked tirelessly to avoid another costly war in the Middle East by ensuring Congress didn’t sabotage the historic nuclear agreement with Iran, we thank you for your leadership and tireless work ensuring Democrats stood strong for diplomacy over war.

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Recently, The Washington Post called Sen. Durbin’s leadership in ensuring Democrats voted to uphold the agreement the “most consequential effort in his decade-long tenure as the Senate Democrats’ chief vote counter.”

That’s not an overstatement — and the Post isn’t alone.

Flickr / Center for American Progress

The Chicago Tribune said Durbin’s work securing votes “has put a new spotlight on his role, even though he has served as Democratic whip since 2005.” Roll Call reported “many see the last month as a reminder of why the veteran lawmaker was chosen for leadership in the first place.” And The Hill noted Durbin’s efforts “have shown him to be a valuable ally of liberals at a crucial moment for Obama that could make or break the administration’s’ vision for Middle Eastern stability,” and continued, “liberal senators may remember his effort and the value of having a colleague with strong ties to progressive constituencies in next year’s leadership election.”

Consequential decisions, such as a vote on war with Iraq or a vote like this one to back hard-fought diplomacy, aren’t easily forgotten, and neither are the leaders who champion a diplomacy-first foreign policy.

MoveOn members launched a “SchumerMobile” mobile billboard in response to Sen. Charles Schumer’s opposition to the deal.

When Sen. Charles Schumer of New York — who many presume will take over the top Democratic leadership spot in the Senate — bowed to intense pressure and a multi-million lobbying campaign against the deal, Sen. Durbin stepped in. Sen. Durbin understands that the historic agreement with Iran is a strong, verifiable, and bottom-line good deal for the safety of the American people and our allies abroad.

This is a good deal — a conclusion shared not just by Durbin and many of his colleagues, but by dozens of nuclear scientists, former ambassadors, and the general public. This is a deal that will require Iran to reduce its low-enriched uranium stockpile by 98 percent. It’s a deal that includes strict inspections and the transparency necessary to ensure Iran is complying. And it’s a deal based on verification, not trust; if Iran cheats, we’ll know, and every option will still be on the table.

Lawmakers have praised Durbin for his tactics in helping them understand how good the deal is. An early briefing Durbin organized featured ambassadors from the world powers who negotiated the deal (the P5+1, which includes China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Germany) along with former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer. Durbin also held smaller briefing sessions with his colleagues and worked tirelessly to answer questions, drum up support, and convey the significance of the vote.

“There aren’t many votes that you remember for a congressional lifetime and beyond. And one that will be with me forever is the vote on the war in Iraq,” Durbin told the Huffington Post in August. “I view this vote in the same context. This is a historic decision. This isn’t just another political decision. This is one the senators are going to remember for a long time.”

Durbin and his backers were met with well-funded opposition, as groups like AIPAC funneled tens of millions into TV advertising and lobbying efforts. But progressives and anti-war activists across the country helped support diplomacy champions, with members of and other similar groups showing up in force during August recess. Progressives made hundreds of thousands of phone calls to congressional offices and collected more than 1 million petition signatures supporting the deal. Ultimately, Durbin was able to show Democratic lawmakers, with the help of third-party experts, that the agreement is strong and the best possible option.

After months of negotiations, the long-term agreement that emerged is comprehensive, based on rigorous verification and not trust, and blocks Iran’s pathway to a nuclear weapon. “There is not an alternative that would better protect U.S. interests,” the Chicago Tribune editorial board wrote. “Rejection of this deal by Congress would likely isolate the U.S. and carry significant risks for this nation’s security.”

Certainly, the political survival of the Iran agreement is thanks to many parties in addition to Durbin — from White House officials, to Sen. Harry Reid, Leader Nancy Pelosi, and others. And hundreds of thousands of progressive activists across the country played an important role in ensuring undecided Democrats heard their pro-diplomacy voices throughout August.

“ This is a historic decision. This isn’t just another political decision. This is one the senators are going to remember for a long time.” –Sen. Durbin

But Durbin’s ongoing role as the Senate’s leading voice for a diplomacy-first, progressive foreign policy that says no to wars of choice is crucial as Senate Democrats prepare for a leadership transition. Beyond remembering how Durbin voted, Americans will remember how he united his party in standing up for diplomacy. Because of Durbin’s leadership, America will be safer and we will avoid another costly war of choice — an outcome that may have helped save many American servicemembers’ lives.

Ilya Sheyman is the executive director of Political Action, a community of more than 8 million Americans from all walks of life who are using innovative technology to lift up their voices in our democracy and build progressive power in campaigns for progressive change and in elections.

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