Politics & Government

Some 2020 Democrats hedge on rejoining Iran nuclear deal at first debate

Two Democratic presidential candidates said they would try to renegotiate terms of a landmark nuclear deal with Iran before reentering the U.S. into the agreement if elected.

Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota hedged when asked at the first Democratic debate of the 2020 primary whether they would rejoin the 2015 nonproliferation agreement in its original form.

Booker and Klobuchar, who both voted in 2015 in favor of the deal, said they would take the opportunity to negotiate a better agreement. Trump has called for a broad new deal with Iran that would demand fundamental changes to their foreign policy.

“It was a mistake to pull out of that deal,” said Booker, who was the only candidate who declined to raise a hand when asked if they would adopt the original accord wholesale as president. “Donald Trump is marching us to a far more difficult situation.”

But he added: “If I have an opportunity to leverage a better deal, I’m going to do it.”

Klobuchar said that Trump’s strategy on Iran had “made us less safe,” after debate moderators took note of increased military tensions in the Strait of Hormuz last week. Washington has accused Iran of targeting shipping vessels, and Tehran acknowledged it shot down an unmanned U.S. drone on Thursday, nearly prompting Trump to order a retaliatory military strike.

The 2015 nuclear deal “was imperfect, but it was a good deal for that moment,” Klobuchar stated, characterizing the agreement’s “sunset periods” – caps on Iran’s enrichment and stockpiling of fissile material set to expire five to 10 years from the next inauguration– as a potential point of renegotiation.

The deal, brokered by former President Barack Obama with Iran and five other world powers, is meant to cap Iran’s nuclear work and prevent them from acquiring atomic weapons in exchange for sanctions relief. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the accord in May of last year, resuming sanctions and thus throwing the fate of the agreement in doubt.

The Democratic field has roundly criticized Trump for his approach to Iran. Many of the leading candidates said last week’s military confrontation spawned from a crisis of the president’s own making, precipitated by his withdrawal from that landmark accord.

But up until now, the Democratic candidates have not specified how they would salvage a deal that continues to fray – and that may collapse completely under the weight of steadily broadening U.S. sanctions by the time a new president could be sworn in.

While Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement last year, other parties to it – France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China– are still working to preserve the deal and shield Iran from returning American sanctions. Iran says it will increase its enrichment of uranium beyond limits set by the deal starting on July 8 if European capitals cannot deliver on their commitment to sanctions relief.

Few Democrats had thus far hedged over adopting the agreement entirely should they win the presidency even if the deal survives that long. Leading candidates have characterized the nuclear agreement as “imperfect” and in need of “strengthening,” suggesting subtle distinctions within the field over the potential conditions of U.S. re-entry into a pact.

“I would strengthen it. I would include ballistic missile testing – I think that we can strengthen what we do in terms of monitoring and verification, of progress,” Sen. Kamala Harris of California said in an interview with CBS News over the weekend. “But there’s no question that a lot of negotiation with a great deal of depth took place over a long period of time to reach that agreement, and it was it was an agreement that was being complied with by all parties.”

South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg said in a foreign policy speech earlier this month that the United States should “rejoin our international partners and recommit the United States to the Iran nuclear deal.”

“Whatever its imperfections, this was perhaps as close to the real ‘art of the deal’ as diplomatic achievements get,” he said.

With ten candidates on stage at the first debate in Miami, most candidates were not given time to weigh in on the foreign policy matter. And ten more candidates– including prominent figures such as former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Harris and Buttigieg, among others– are scheduled to debate in a second round in Miami on Thursday night.

Despite Democratic opposition, the Trump campaign believes the administration’s Iran policy is a political winner in Florida, where the Democratic debates are taking place and where the president formally launched his reelection bid last week.

In that speech, Trump touted his withdrawal from the Obama-era agreement as a campaign promise delivered.

“We recognized the true capital of Israel and opened the American embassy in Jerusalem and we recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” Trump stated in Orlando. “And I withdrew the United States from the disaster – it’s a disaster, a disaster, the disastrous Iran nuclear deal and imposed the toughest ever sanctions on the world’s No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism.”

Michael Wilner joined McClatchy as its White House correspondent in 2019. He previously served as Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post, where he led coverage of the Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 US presidential campaign. Wilner holds degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Columbia University and is a native of New York City.