by Ryan Costello
Nine out of ten Democrats on the debate stage last night announced that they favor returning to the Iran nuclear deal, which should be commended. Trump’s efforts to kill the deal just brought the United States to the edge of a disastrous war. After staying in the deal for little benefit for over a year, Iran has begun to fray the edges of the nuclear accord. Moreover, the administration’s strategy is likely to get more extreme as National Security Advisor John Bolton and other hawks search for a pretext to enact their plans for war.
Which is why it was so strange that Cory Booker refused to raise his hand and commit to returning to the nuclear deal. With Trump eroding American credibility by the day, getting back into the nuclear deal would help save the United States from the unmitigated disaster of Trump’s approach.
In explaining his position, Booker said
We need to renegotiate and get back into a deal, but I’m not going to have a primary platform to say unilaterally I’m going to rejoin that deal… I am going to do the best I can to secure this country and that region and make sure that if I have an opportunity to leverage a better deal I’m going to do it.
Perhaps Booker is simply keeping his options open to avoid boxing himself in. Or, less generously, perhaps he has been swayed by his donors. Regardless, the Trump administration is currently trying to “leverage a better deal” as a result of its maximum pressure policy, and it is failing miserably because Trump’s approach has reduced U.S. leverage.
There is no reason to believe that Iran, merely by the force of Booker’s presence and a few better advisors, will suddenly submit to similar demands that Trump is making now after weathering the maximum pressure storm. The United States is now the isolated party due to its unilateral decision to exit the nuclear deal and impose sanctions on allies that helped negotiate the agreement. Continuing Trump’s approach of maintaining sanctions on these allies despite all they have done to maintain the accord would deeply shake their faith in the new administration. Moreover, the United States must overcome Trump’s damage to moderates in Iran who staked their political future on engagement with the West. To convince Iran of the merits of future negotiations, a future president would need to show that, contra the claims of Iranian hardliners, the United States is once again committed to upholding its international obligations, including on sanctions relief.
If someone new enters the White House in January 2021, this president will have to contend with an incredibly short political timeline. Iran holds critical presidential elections in May or June 2021, meaning that Iran is unlikely to engage in substantive negotiations under a lame-duck Rouhani administration. Rather than hold firm and risk the election of a hardliner opposed to any accommodation with the West, a future president should immediately take steps to bring the United States into compliance with the accord.
Given the profound damage Trump is doing to U.S. credibility, swinging for the fences on Iran in the opening months of a successor administration—as Booker suggests—is almost certain to end in a damaging strikeout with the game on the line.
Booker’s comments aside, however, the Democrats as a whole need to do a far better job talking about Iran and the nuclear deal. The agreement was a landmark multilateral achievement that resulted in the farthest-reaching nonproliferation restrictions ever negotiated. Iran won’t get a nuclear weapon, and the United States won’t launch a disastrous war over Iran’s nuclear program, so long as it is upheld. Republicans have been slandering it for years, not because it was a bad deal, but because their party didn’t negotiate it. When Democrats, like Amy Klobuchar, buy into their bad-faith critiques by arguing that the deal is “imperfect,” they do profound damage to their own cause.
It’s time for Democrats to own Obama’s accomplishments with Iran. Their party rolled back Iran’s nuclear program and took the United States off the path to war. Trump has put the country back on the warpath. And, just like the Paris Climate Accord, the Democrats should make clear that they are going to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, whether the Republicans like it or not.
Ryan Costello is policy director of the National Iranian American Council. Follow him on Twitter @RN_Costello.