2020 Dems rebuke Trump on Iran, say they'd put US back in nuclear deal

2020 Dems rebuke Trump on Iran, say they'd put US back in nuclear deal
© Greg Nash

Most of the Democrats running for president are vowing to put the United States back in the Iran nuclear deal that President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenators demand more details from Trump on intel watchdog firing Overnight Health Care: Trump steps up attack on WHO | Fauci says deaths could be lower than first projected | House panel warns federal stockpile of medical supplies depleted | Mnuchin, Schumer in talks over relief deal Trump says he'll look into small business loan program restricting casinos MORE withdrew from nearly a year ago.

“Our intelligence community told us again and again: The #IranDeal was working to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. If Iran continues to abide by the terms of the deal, you bet I will support returning to it,” Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOn The Money: Mnuchin, Schumer in talks to strike short-term relief deal | Small businesses struggling for loans | Treasury IG sends Dems report on handling of Trump tax returns Trump says Obama knows 'something that you don't know' about Biden Senators push for changes to small business aid MORE (D-Mass.) recently tweeted.

Warren, whose campaign pointed to the February tweet when contacted this month by The Hill, backed the Iran deal in a Senate vote like several of the other Democratic senators running for president.

Trump angered U.S. allies in Europe after he broke from the 2015 deal, arguing the pact endangered Israel and was poorly negotiated by the Obama administration. 

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“This was a horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made,” Trump said in announcing his decision in May 2018. Former President Obama, in a rare response to Trump, said his successor’s decision would make the world less safe and war more likely.

Hoping to further dial up pressure on Iran, Trump on Monday announced he will not renew sanctions waivers that allowed eight foreign governments to continue buying Iranian oil.

Trump and other opponents of the deal argued it fell short of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon because several provisions sunset and inspectors cannot demand to see some military sites. They also pilloried it for not addressing other troubling behavior such as Iranian support for terrorist groups. 

It’s not surprising that Democrats running for president would oppose Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Iran deal.

But the agreement itself was controversial, and Democrats were not united in backing it.

Four Senate Democrats — including Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerHouse Republicans, key administration officials push for additional funding for coronavirus small business loans Rep. Massie threatens to block next relief bill, calls for remote voting Democratic senators call for funding for local media in coronavirus stimulus MORE (N.Y.) — broke with Obama over the deal when the Senate voted on a measure that would have rejected it.

Israel’s government was strongly opposed to the Iran deal, and Trump has signaled he intends to use his support for Israel as a wedge issue against any Democrat who runs against him next fall.

Still, while some Democrats are attaching qualifiers to their support for the deal, they all are indicating they’d seek to put the United States back into the agreement.

And they are casting Trump’s decision to withdraw as a textbook case of his penchant for isolationism that they argue is damaging to U.S. interests.

An aide to Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump says Obama knows 'something that you don't know' about Biden The Hill's Campaign Report: Sanders exits, clearing Biden's path to nomination Former Clinton staffers invited to celebrate Sanders dropping out: report MORE (I-Vt.) told the news site Al-Monitor last month that the candidate would “rejoin” the Iran deal “and would also be prepared to talk to Iran on a range of other issues, which is what Trump should’ve done instead of simply walking away.”

Sanders, considered a front-runner for the Democratic nomination, like Warren backed the deal in a 2015 vote in the Senate.

A spokesman for Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisOn The Money: Mnuchin, Schumer in talks to strike short-term relief deal | Small businesses struggling for loans | Treasury IG sends Dems report on handling of Trump tax returns Former Clinton staffers invited to celebrate Sanders dropping out: report Michael Bennet endorses Biden for president MORE (D-Calif.) told Al-Monitor she supports re-entering the deal “if the U.S. could verify Iran is not cheating.” Harris was not serving in the Senate when it voted on whether to block the deal from entering into force.

Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegFormer Clinton staffers invited to celebrate Sanders dropping out: report Sanders exit leaves deep disappointment on left Michael Bennet endorses Biden for president MORE, the South Bend, Ind., mayor who is rising in Democratic presidential polls, would rejoin the deal, a spokeswoman told The Hill. Buttigieg, who would have the least experience with the deal of all the top candidates in the race, “sees it as a floor not a ceiling,” the aide said, suggesting he would like negotiations to expand the agreement.

A spokesman for former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) said he supports rejoining the deal. During his failed Senate campaign last year, O’Rourke said the deal was “imperfect,” but that it “demonstrably makes the world and especially the Middle East a safer place.”

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's Campaign Report: Sanders exits, clearing Biden's path to nomination Former Clinton staffers invited to celebrate Sanders dropping out: report Sanders exit leaves deep disappointment on left MORE, who has led a number of 2020 polls but has yet to enter the race, served in the administration that negotiated the deal. A spokesman did not respond to three requests for comment.

The other three senators in the race — Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerFormer Clinton staffers invited to celebrate Sanders dropping out: report Michael Bennet endorses Biden for president Democrats salivate over Obama coming off sidelines MORE (D-N.J.), Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandFormer Clinton staffers invited to celebrate Sanders dropping out: report States battle each other for equipment in supply chain crunch The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden struggles to stay in the spotlight MORE (D-N.Y.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharFormer Clinton staffers invited to celebrate Sanders dropping out: report Sanders exit leaves deep disappointment on left Michael Bennet endorses Biden for president MORE (D-Minn.) — all voted in favor of the deal. So did Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanDemocrats eye additional relief checks for coronavirus Lawmakers call for universal basic income amid coronavirus crisis Democrats tear into Trump's speech: It was a 'MAGA rally' MORE (D-Ohio).

During a stop at the University of Colorado in Boulder over the weekend, Klobuchar cited the Iran deal as she talked about getting back in step with U.S. allies.

“Joining in these international agreements, and climate change is one of them, but the other is getting back in the nuclear agreement with Iran and allies — that would be one example of that,” Klobuchar said.

The 2015 debate over whether to support the deal was heated, with pro-Israel lobbyists pushing hard against it and some high-ranking Democrats such as Schumer opposing it.

But things have changed since then, said Logan Bayroff, a spokesman for the progressive Jewish group J Street.

For starters, he said, international inspectors have repeatedly found Iran to be in compliance with key aspects of the agreement.

Second, Trump’s decision to withdraw can be framed by Democrats as one of several moves that have alienated allies and “pander to a far-right political base,” Bayroff said.

“We just think this is a clear slam-dunk policy position for a Democrat,” he said, citing a May 2018 Morning Consult survey that found 68 percent of Democrats supported the deal.

Experts say bringing the U.S. back into the deal could be done simply and with executive action, and that it would not require votes in Congress.

J Street has been pushing an online petition calling on Democratic candidates to support re-entering the deal, while highlighting on social media which ones have and have not voiced support.

Bayroff did not provide an exact tally for the petition, but said signatures are in the “thousands.”

He added that J Street has also met privately with campaigns to discuss the issue.

Several long-shot presidential candidates also said they would put the U.S. back in the deal, though a few raised caveats.

Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellKey House chairman cautions against remote voting, suggests other options amid coronavirus outbreak House Democrats plead with key committee chairman to allow remote voting amid coronavirus pandemic Congress tiptoes toward remote voting MORE (D-Calif.) said he would “lead negotiations” with Iran and the deal’s other signatories to return the United States to the agreement.

“We have to hold Iran accountable for its funding of terrorism, its actions in Syria and Lebanon, and its threats to Israel and America. But more than anything else, we cannot allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon,” he said in a statement to The Hill.

The accord “dismantled Iran’s nuclear capabilities and allowed U.S. monitoring and verification,” he added. “Alienating ourselves from the world and acting alone accomplishes neither.”

A spokesman for Rep. Seth MoultonSeth MoultonThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Debruyne Says Global Response Platform Needed; Navarro Saw It Coming Asian American lawmaker warns of fear of racism over coronavirus stigma Pressley experiencing flu-like symptoms, being tested for COVID-19 MORE (D-Mass.) said he would rejoin the deal, directing The Hill to his congressional record. Moulton voted in support of the deal in 2015 and in 2018 said Trump's withdrawal "turns our back on our allies" and "makes the world more dangerous."

Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi Gabbard20 House Dems call on Trump to issue two-week, nationwide shelter-in-place order The Hill's Morning Report — ,000,000,000,000: GOP unveils historic US rescue effort Gillibrand endorses Biden for president MORE (D-Hawaii) told The Hill she would return to the deal, saying Trump's withdrawal "increases the likelihood of war and undermines talks with  Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnTired of worrying about the pandemic? There's always Pyongyang Overnight Defense: Pentagon orders bases to stop reporting coronavirus numbers | Hospital ship arrives in NY | Marines pause sending new recruits to boot camp | Defense bill work delayed North Korea: 'Reckless remarks' by Pompeo show US doesn't want nuclear talks MORE to denuclearize North Korea."

“While the Iran deal is far from perfect, Iran is in compliance and the deal is working by preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and preventing an all-out war,” she said in a statement.

A spokesman for former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyJohn Delaney endorses Biden Nevada caucuses open with a few hiccups Lobbying world MORE (D-Md.) said he would “seek” to rejoin the deal, but added Delaney would “look to strengthen aspects of the deal as part of re-entering, including extending its duration.”

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro tweeted in March that “if Iran continues to comply with the terms of the agreement as determined by the intelligence community, I will re-enter the U.S. into the #JCPOA as President.”

A spokesman for Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeWashington, Oregon show promising coronavirus trends Overnight Defense: 10,000 more National Guard troops to join coronavirus fight | Democrats float bill to restore Pentagon watchdog to virus oversight panel | Afghanistan releases 100 Taliban prisoners Washington state returning field hospital to FEMA MORE told The Hill “he would return to the deal.”

Long-shot candidates Wayne MessamWayne Martin MessamKey moments in the 2020 Democratic presidential race so far Wayne Messam suspends Democratic presidential campaign 2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the November forum MORE and Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonThe Hill's Campaign Report: Biden looks to stretch lead in Tuesday contests Pelosi: 'I usually always cast my vote for a woman' Pelosi: 'We'll have a woman president' someday MORE are also on board, they said in comments to Al-Monitor and The Hill, respectively.

Other groups that have been pressing Democrats to take a position include the National Iranian American Council, which released a paper in November saying a return to the Iran deal should be “central to the foreign policy platform of those seeking to challenge Trump in 2020.”

The Democratic National Committee adopted a resolution in February calling on the U.S. to rejoin the agreement.

Experts say part of the reason Iran continues to follow the deal is because Tehran hopes Trump is a one-term president and that his successor rejoins the agreement.

But the Trump administration is putting increased pressure on Iran, most recently by ending the oil sanctions waivers. Trump also recently designated its Revolutionary Guard a “foreign terrorist organization.”

U.S. allies in Europe strongly opposed Trump’s decision to withdraw, and they have been scrambling to save the pact.

As a workaround to Trump's sanctions, the European Union set up mechanism to facilitate trade with Iran. But no transactions have gone through it, leading to mounting frustration from Tehran, said Barbara Slavin, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative.

“Clearly there are people in the administration and outside … who are trying to make it extremely difficult to return” to the deal, she said.

But Iran knows that if it leaves the deal it would be “falling into trap” set by the administration, Slavin said, adding that Trump’s withdrawal and Revolutionary Guard designation could likely be undone with executive action.

“I would expect that [returning to the deal] will be in the platform for the [Democratic National Convention], assuming Iran stays in the agreement,” she said. “Everything depends on Iran staying through the election. If it leaves the agreement, all bets are off.”