U.S. officials push Iran deal in Michigan meeting

David Shepardson, and Holly Fournier

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and the State Department’s top negotiator held an unannounced meeting Thursday with Michigan’s two senators and members of Michigan’s Jewish community to win support for the administration’s Iran deal, The Detroit News has learned.

The meeting in Birmingham with Moniz included Wendy Sherman, the No. 4 official at the State Department and lead negotiator in the Iran talks and was not announced publicly but confirmed after The Detroit News learned of it.

A spokesman for Moniz confirmed the meeting took place but didn’t elaborate. “The secretary was invited by the senators, so I would say it is their info to share,” Eben Burnham-Snyder said.

Several of the roughly 40 Jewish leaders who attended the meeting at the Townsend hotel in Birmingham confirmed to The News they attended, but declined to discuss the private meeting, which was billed as a discussion of the issues by participants.

Mark Bernstein, a member of the University of Michigan Board of Regents, attended the roughly two-hour meeting with his wife. He praised the administration’s outreach: “It was an effort to communicate with domestic stakeholders about the facts related to the deal because the more people know about the deal the more comfortable they become with it because so much of the rhetoric is based on misperceptions.”

The event started at 5:30 “and there was a robust, civic, thoughtful and balanced” conversation, said Bernstein, who added he supports the deal. He said it was remarkable to hear from Sherman — who helped negotiate the deal — “to address the biggest and gravest fear” of most in the audience “regarding Iran's nuclear aspirations as they related to the security of Israel.” He said it was less an effort to convince people than to answer questions.

It’s unclear if the meeting changed any minds. U.S. Sens. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, and Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing didn’t disclose at the meeting how they intend to vote. The two senators are increasingly critical in the Obama administration’s efforts to win congressional support for a controversial deal aimed at preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

It’s unknown if the White House has sent key figures in the Iran talks to meet with leaders in any other states.

On Thursday, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the highest ranking Jewish Democrat in the Senate, said he would oppose the bill. The administration needs to convince Democrats to support the president to prevent a veto override or block consideration of a congressional resolution of disapproval that will come up for a vote in September.

On Friday, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, became the 16th Democrat to back the agreement and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, the 17th — meaning the White House needs 17 more “yes” votes to prevent Republicans from overturning the Iran deal.

Moniz had been in Dearborn for an earlier meeting with union officials on the administration’s power plant rule announced this week.

In a Detroit News interview Friday on the sidelines of an event in Detroit, Peters confirmed the meeting took place and said he would not use Schumer’s opinion to help form his own. A spokeswoman for Stabenow, Matt Williams, confirmed Sherman took part.

“(Moniz) had a meeting with a number of folks. Certainly, there are very strong feelings in the community (on the Iran deal). It was very helpful for me to be there. Now that I’m back (in Michigan), it’s giving me the opportunity to hear directly from citizens,” Peters said.

Peters said he is focusing on feedback from the public to help form his official position.

Stabenow, in a separate interview, also confirmed the meeting. “There are big opinions and they’re all important,” she said.

Last month, Stabenow called the deal a tough issue.

“We have to look at what the alternatives are and really be very thoughtful because it is incredibly serious for the United States and for Israel and for the world,” she told The News.

On Wednesday, Obama urged the public and undecided members of Congress to back a deal aimed at preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

“The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy and some form of war,” Obama said at a speech at American University.

“If Iran cheats, we can catch them and we will.”

The president derided some critics as “armchair nuclear scientists” and some Republicans for immediately denouncing the agreement before they had even read it. He also pointedly noted only Israel has spoken publicly against the agreement.

“Without this deal, Iran will be in a position ... to steadily advance its capabilities,” he said.

He emphasized his preference is for a peaceful agreement, saying the deal cuts off all pathways to a possible nuclear weapon, adding Iran will get rid of 98 percent of its enriched uranium for 15 years.

“By killing this deal, Congress would not merely pave Iran’s pathway to a bomb, it would accelerate it,” Obama said.

He compared critics in Iran to Republicans.

“They’re making common cause with the Republican caucus,” Obama said.

GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush of Florida said “this deal paves the way to Iran getting the bomb and gives $150 billion to the mullahs. That’s not leadership.”

Moniz said in a Detroit News interview Wednesday the agreement would ensure the United States could track the Iranian nuclear supply chain for 25 years.

Moniz said if Congress rejects the deal, the United States could have the worst of all worlds: Iran getting relief from crippling economic sanctions and no nuclear inspection program.

Among the Michigan delegation, Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, joins Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Detroit, and Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, in favor of the deal. Democratic Reps. Brenda Lawrence of Southfield and Debbie Dingell of Dearborn remain undecided.

Most of Michigan’s nine House Republicans have opposed the deal.


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