Undecided Democrats in the House and Senate will determine the outcome on the Iran deal. To the chagrin of the White House, they are nowhere near lining up enough votes to sustain a presidential veto. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) will deliver a speech on Tuesday, one that critics of the deal expect will announce his disapproval and lay out the arguments against the deal.

What is going to sway fence-sitting Democratic lawmakers?

The intellectual argument in favor of the deal on the merits has in essence collapsed. A Swiss cheese inspection regime, a snapback mechanism that ends Iran’s obligations under the deal, the lifting of the arms and missile embargoes and leaving Iran with Fordow and the rest of its nuclear infrastructure are not what the administration was promising as a “good” deal. The overall structure of the deal — Iran gets sanctions lifted upfront, inspections are weak and the remedies for violation are exceptional — makes sense only if you believe Iran has “changed” (not even President Obama says that), will not use every opportunity to cheat and will not use sanctions money to aid its quest for regional hegemony.

So why aren’t Democrats lining up to vote no? As a preliminary matter, let me say that many may have already decided to vote no, but seeing the assault on Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), they are going to wait until the end to cast their vote, figuring there is safety in numbers from White House wrath.

The “this deal or war” argument is the administration’s last straw, but that makes little sense. To begin with, this administration is not about to go to war. It sees Iran as a new regional power, remember. Moreover, the idea that Iran would dash to make a bomb if Congress votes no (thereby compelling U.S. or Israeli action) makes no sense, Robert Satloff explains:

While it’s impossible to predict with certainty how Iranian leaders would react to congressional disapproval of the agreement, I’d argue chances are high that they would follow through on their commitments anyway, because the deal is simply that good for Iran. After Iran fulfills its early obligations, all United Nations and European Union nuclear-related sanctions come to an end. They aren’t just suspended like U.S. sanctions — they are terminated, presenting Iran with the potential for huge financial and political gain.
The “deal or war” thesis propounded by supporters of the agreement suggests that Iran, in the event of U.S. rejection of the deal, would prefer to bypass that financial and political windfall and instead put its nuclear program into high gear, risking an Israeli and American military response.

Well, at least an Israeli response, since the risk Obama will act is minimal.

To the contrary, the risks of war increase with the deal. New monies and lifting of the arms and missile embargo increase the ability of Iran and its surrogates to engage in terrorism, threaten neighbors and destabilize our allies. Moreover, whether Iran cheats (as it has historically done) or waits a decade, Iran is determined to get the bomb. Having stripped away sanctions, we will have no alternative but military action, and that action will encounter a more powerful adversary. Kicking the can down the road is always attractive, but in this case it would be grossly irresponsible.

But the sanctions won’t hold, the administration argues. Critics respond: Now whose fault is that? But “sanctions won’t hold” amounts to double talk. Why have sanctions snapbacks? Because, the administration says, the threat of sanctions remains a potent deterrent. The administration would have us believe that sanctions pressure, say, in five years once firms are doing business would be viable, but continuing existing sanctions now is not. That makes no sense. And, realistically, as Schumer pointed out, the name of the game here is U.S. sanctions. Forcing firms to choose between doing business with Iran and doing business with the U.S. is itself an effective tool. Additional banking sanctions of the type contemplated under the Kirk-Menendez bill would exert even more pressure.

What about the administration’s argument that a good deal is not achievable? John Kerry says we will lose credibility with the supreme leader (no, really, that’s his argument) if Congress does not approve the deal. Let’s agree this president can’t do any better. But with 18 more months of U.S. sanctions and a new president who brings a more credible threat of force, a better deal certainly is achievable. In fact, Satloff recommends Congress lay out some markers for what a better deal would look like:

Repair a glaring gap in the agreement, which offers no clear, agreed-upon penalties for Iranian violations of the deal’s terms short of the last-resort punishment of a “snapback” of UN sanctions against Iran. This is akin to having a legal code with only one punishment — the death penalty — for every crime, from misdemeanors to felonies; the result is that virtually all crimes will go unpunished. . . . Reach understandings now with European and other international partners about penalties to be imposed on Iran should it transfer any windfall funds from sanctions relief to its regional allies and terrorist proxies rather than spend it on domestic economic needs.

I would add: Make the disclosure of PMDs plainly a condition for lifting of sanctions, repair the inspection and dispute resolution process and keep in place and extend the missile and arms embargoes. Congress could do this in the preamble of a resolution of disapproval, which can express the will of the Congress to revisit these topics while commending the effort to reach a diplomatic solution.

To recap: War is not going to break out if Congress votes no. Wars are more likely to occur and likely to be more daunting if we help fuel Iran’s economy. If international sanctions end, the consequences can be minimized and the power of U.S. sanctions remains. A better deal, by this or the next president, is attainable. Now in the quiet of their offices, Democrats may simply be scared. The president will say mean things about them. They might draw a primary challenge. Pathetic as that may seem, it is a real consideration. Other then telling these lawmakers the Obama crowd is leaving office, opponents of the deal can point to plenty of polling data and condemnation of the deal by Jewish groups, esteemed former Democratic lawmakers and ex-officials. There will be plenty of “cover,” to put to it bluntly, if they vote no. And if they vote yes, will the administration come rushing to their defense with compelling arguments? This is the crowd that can’t and won’t satisfactorily answer lawmakers’ questions behind closed doors and the crowd that is reduced to smearing opponents. The opponents of the deal view this as a once-in-a-lifetime vote, while proponents don’t seem to view this as a litmus test. The energy is on the side of opponents. No Democrat should have faith a yes vote will be politically popular or defensible.