POLITICS
09/16/2015 02:13 pm ET Updated Dec 19, 2016

Kyrsten Sinema, Former Anti-War Organizer, Explains Her Vote Against The Iran Deal

"A conventional arms race with an escalation of a fiery war in the Middle East isn't worth it."
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema said a vote against the Iran deal was not a vote for war.
Bill Clark via Getty Images
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema said a vote against the Iran deal was not a vote for war.

WASHINGTON -- Of the 25 House Democrats who voted against approving the Iran nuclear deal last week, the most unexpected name in the mix was Rep. Kyrsten Sinema.

The Arizona Democrat is a moderate in her party, but her roots are firmly in the anti-war movement. In the early 2000s, she was an active organizer against the Iraq War.

So how did she end up voting against a nuclear deal that her party's own president said is the inverse of going to war with Iraq and the only alternative to war with Iran?

In a Tuesday interview with The Huffington Post, Sinema bridged her two, seemingly at-odds positions by making the case that the accord will actually lead to more violence and instability in the Middle East, not less. She firmly rejected the idea that being opposed to the Iran nuclear agreement, which was struck in July between Iran, the U.S. and five other world powers, means choosing war.

"I think it's hyperbole and I think it's not necessarily true," she said. "It's possible that if the deal didn't go through, war could be one option and it could become more likely. But it doesn't mean we don't have options in front of us. I'm frustrated by these false dichotomies."

Sinema's problem with the Iran deal is similar to that of other critics: She believes it doesn't prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon; it only delays the possibility by 10 to 15 years. She also notes that if Iran sticks to the agreement, billions of dollars will flow into the country as sanctions are lifted. Moreover, the Iranian government will be able to legally buy conventional weapons in five years and ballistic weapons in eight years.

Her fear, then, is that Iran will use all that money and those weapons to fund more regional terrorism and expand proxy wars. The U.S. will likely need to step up its sale of military weapons to allies in the region to counter the spike in violence, she said.

"Every administration official I spoke with" agreed that will probably happen, Sinema said, but they think the risks are worth the benefit of Iran agreeing not to develop nuclear weapons for 10 to 15 years. (Secretary of State John Kerry told The Huffington Post that those post-deal sales to Gulf countries will primarily involve "defensive" weapons.)

"For me, a conventional arms race with an escalation of a fiery war in the Middle East isn't worth it," said Sinema. "This is pretty close to 50-50 in terms of which side is the better side of the coin. They're both bad options."

Reminded that even the pope backed the deal, she replied, "Yeah. I don't know. I don't know him."

Fourteen years ago, one would have been hard pressed to imagine Sinema in this position. In the weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she was a vocal advocate for a nonviolent response, and she ultimately opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She was among those dressed in all pink at anti-war rallies, and she helped to organize a Phoenix-based group that later became the Arizona Alliance for Peaceful Justice.

Her time in the anti-war movement suggested Sinema would be a yes vote on the Iran deal. So when she came out against it, she incurred the wrath of her onetime philosophical compatriots. Some anti-war groups have gone so far as to threaten to unseat her in the next election.

"It's unfortunate that Rep. Sinema says both 'sides of the coin' are bad options," said Nick Berning, communications director for MoveOn.org. "It's clear that the strong, verifiable nuclear agreement with Iran that reduces 98 percent of its stockpile and prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is the only choice for a United States that embraces a diplomacy-first foreign policy and intends to avoid costly wars of choice."

But a handful of other Democrats voted against the deal for the same reasons as Sinema did. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), an Air Force veteran and a member of the Progressive Caucus, put out a 23-page press release explaining that his opposition to the deal came from one of his "guiding principles," which is avoiding war.

"I have concluded the [Iran agreement] increases the chances of more regional conflict and U.S. entanglement in the Middle East in the short term, and a lengthy, difficult and more deadly war with Iran in the long term," Lieu said.

Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) had the same concerns.

"What does Iran currently spend its money on? It is the single largest funder of terrorism in the region," Boyle wrote in a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed last month. "It funds Hezbollah in Lebanon, supplying it with more than 80,000 rockets, all located just over the Israeli border. It funds Hamas in Gaza."

"The nuclear agreement with Iran doesn't make war less likely," he concluded. "It makes war more likely."

For all the squabbling in Congress, including the failed effort to pass a resolution of disapproval, the Iran deal is set to take effect on Sept. 17. Sinema said that despite her opposition to it, she's ready to move forward and "make it the best it can be" in terms of keeping Iran accountable.

"We have to make sure, in and out of the context of this deal, that when Iran spends more money on terrorism and sends more weapons to their proxy allies in the region to escalate proxy wars, that we take action," Sinema said. "We can sanction them for terrorism."

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