Top Democrats Say They Support the Iran Deal—But Here’s How They’ve Undermined It

Despite the diplomatic frills and savoir-faire, the United States has committed itself to a policy of extortion for decades: threats and mounting sanctions designed to bring Iranian civil society to its knees.

The U.S. government’s targeted assasination of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani, characterized by the Trump administration as a preemptive “defensive strike” after the death of a military contractor, was the latest U.S. military provocation against Iran. A gleeful John Bolton, former assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, congratulated “all involved in eliminating Qassem Soleimani,” calling the assassination a “decisive blow” that he hopes will lead to “regime change in Tehran.”

While war hawks like Karl Rove and Ari Fleischer salivated at the prospect of another war, Democrats were quick to feign outrage over the killing of Suleimani, leaning into what they characterize as Trump’s strategic failures: Elizabeth Warren described the incident as “reckless.” Biden’s said “Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox.” And Cory Booker criticized “a president who has had, really, a failure in his Iranian policy and who’s had no larger strategic plan.” Former Obama aides, meanwhile, have been swift in blaming this latest provocation on President Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly referred to in the United States as the Iran nuclear deal.

Signed in 2015 after almost two years of negotiations, the JCPOA eased the U.S.-led sanctions regime imposed on the Islamic Republic by successive administrations since 1979 in exchange for severe restrictions on Iran’s civilian nuclear energy program. Democrats in Congress and running for president have told the U.S. public that by ripping up Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement just to tar his predecessor’s legacy, Trump undid a deal that was working. But how was the deal so easy to undermine? How have the most hawkish elements of the Republican party reasserted themselves at the highest level of a supposedly isolationist administration?

The answer is that Obama’s legacy was to momentarily sideline the neoconservative project in the Middle East without questioning its key premises. The Democrats damned the Iran deal—they damned it with faint praise, veiled racism, and colonial arrogance. In fact, the Democrats have been undermining the cause of peace with Iran since before the JCPOA was a glimmer in John Kerry’s eye.

In 2010, Obama was asked by a reporter for BBC Persian if he saw any contradiction between his conciliatory Persian New Year address (a gesture of goodwill on the hallowed spring equinox that his administration had already been established as an annual tradition) and the draconian sanctions he’d just imposed against Iran, sanctions his administration would tout as “crippling.” He replied that “what the Iranian government has said is, it’s more important for us to defy the international community, engage in a covert nuclear weapons program, than it is to make sure that our people are prospering.” Here’s the thing: Iran wasn’t engaging in a covert nuclear weapons program, and every single U.S. intelligence agency would have told him so.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went further the following year, telling BBC Persian that “eventually the Iranian people will be free, they will not be oppressed by the kind of totalitarian regime that currently rules Iran.” In other words, without declaring it the stated policy of the U.S. government that the Islamic Republic is illegitimate and should be overthrown, Clinton nevertheless suggests that it would be a nice idea. The de facto endorsement of regime change by Clinton’s State Department is echoed in the public position of her counterpart in the Trump administration, Mike Pompeo, who has said that “the objectives are to change the behavior of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Then as now, the administration’s rationale presents Iranians with a particularly cruel catch-22: No matter what the facts are, we know your government is up to no good, and if ordinary Iranians don’t like it, you can just overthrow your supposedly totalitarian government. The logical conclusion of this paradox is, of course, regime change.

Obama and Clinton could have just said that Iran wasn’t developing nuclear weapons. Instead, they repeatedly reminded Iran, the government and its people, that “all options are on the table,” a genocidal threat of preemptive military invasion justified by the image of a scary Islamic Republic whose fanatical leadership is a death cult, secretly pursuing nuclear weapons to “wipe Israel off the map.” They affirmed the fiction that a nuclear-armed Iran poses an “existential threat” to Israel, a claim that is predicated on the Islamophobic assumption that the government of Iran is suicidal and simply cannot be trusted with a nuclear deterrent against belligerent aggressors constantly threatening to bomb it. Only a view of the Middle East steeped in racism can explain the automatic according of victim status to America’s junior partner in the Middle East, an outpost of white supremacy apparently entitled to undeclared nuclear monopoly as carries out its settler-colonial expansion.

The nuclear deal was conceived in sin, an imperialist shakedown to guarantee U.S. and Israeli regional hegemony without becoming embroiled in another protracted military engagement. During her failed 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton reminded Iranians that the United States “would be able to totally obliterate them.” This menacing disclosure was an effort on Clinton’s part “to get back to what worked during the Cold War,” as she put it in remarks during her campaign. Despite the diplomatic frills and savoir-faire, the United States has committed itself to a policy of extortion for decades: threats and mounting sanctions designed to bring Iranian civil society to its knees.

As Kerry, newly sworn in as Secretary of State, began talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in 2013, Democrats who opposed negotiations with Iran found the image of Iran as an irrational actor quite useful. Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the latter currently running for president, were vocal critics of Obama’s Iran policy from the right. When Booker (who just dropped out of the presidential race) ultimately declined to buck Obama, it was begrudgingly and with half a heart. He wrote by way of explanation that while negotiations with Iran “have only delayed—not blocked—Iran’s potential nuclear breakout…we have now passed a point of no return that we should have never reached, leaving our nation to choose between two imperfect, dangerous and uncertain options.” He urged that “we must be more vigilant than ever in fighting Iranian aggression.”

And before Gabbard finally came around, she earned considerable attention from conservative media for her record of voting with Republicans on anti-Iran legislation aimed at scuttling diplomacy and for her hawkish rhetoric parroting GOP talking points about “the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.” She was lauded on the right for her “concerns” about the deal, which she voiced on Fox News and as a speaker at the 2015 conference of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). And—implicitly but undeniably—she supported efforts to undermine the deal by attending Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress on the invitation of Republican leaders that same year, a speech openly aimed at rebuking Obama’s Iran policy and boycotted by 56 of her colleagues, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass), both of whom are running for president. Gabbard’s recent attempts to reposition herself as an anti-war politician notwithstanding, the only extended discussion of Iran policy during last year’s Democratic primary debates revealed how much ground the party shares on the need to actively restrict Iran’s sovereignty.

Booker was the only then-candidate who said at the June 26 debate that he would decline to rejoin the JCPOA to allow for the “opportunity to leverage a better deal.” Gabbard ceded that changes to the deal would be necessary after rejoining: “It was an imperfect deal, there are issues like their missile development that need to be addressed. We can do both simultaneously to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.”

In a September 2019 interview with CNN, Gabbard claimed with great confidence and urgency that “Iran is moving forward towards developing a nuclear weapon.” However much Rep. Gabbard, who is not running for reelection in Hawaii, may differentiate herself from the mainstream of the foreign policy establishment, she remains in lockstep with her party’s overwhelming instinct to play up the threat of a nuclear Iran without a deal in place in hopes of frightening conservatives back towards the JCPOA.

It was unavoidable that this racist caricature of suicidal mullahs, hellbent on Israel’s destruction knowing full well that assured US retaliation means it would entail their own, informed the Democratic response to US withdrawal from the deal. Nowhere was the folly of this gambit more grotesquely typified for the Trump era than in the decision by Daily Show alumnus John Oliver and his producers at HBO’s Last Week Tonight to buy ad time for a “pro-Iran deal” PSA in April of 2018 during Sean Hannity’s time slot on Fox News, when the president is presumed to be watching. Oliver is the current golden child of a satirical news subgenre whose previous poster boy, Jon Stewart, was beloved by Democrats and even called to testify before Congress on issues close to their hearts. Like Stewart and Stephen Colbert, he is influential among liberals and symptomatic of their ideological blind spots.

“0 is less than 10,” an actor dressed as a cowboy repeats in the ad: 10 is the number of years the deal would have constrained Iran’s insatiable hunger for nukes due to its so-called sunset clauses (this is not true), and 0 how many years it would take Iran to develop one without it (this, too, is not true). “The Iran deal may not be perfect,” the cowboy concedes, “but it restricts Iran’s ability to start making a bomb.” The spot concludes with a black-and-white image of a mushroom clad. Even in supposed defense of the bill, the liberal framing validates the most fevered neoconservative fantasy of all, that a sovereign Iran is an existential threat to the United States, Israel and ‘global security,’ whatever that is.

In an interview with CNN, after he was barred from entering the United States where he had planned to to address the United Nations Security Council, Zarif delivered a pointed summation of Iranian attitudes in light of offenses committed by past and present administrations: “The United States has to wake up to the reality that the people of this region are enraged, that the people of this region want the United States out, and that the United States cannot stay in this region.” The retaliatory strike against US bases in Iraq marks a dynamic shift in U.S.-Iran relations, one which may potentially transform the region.

Trump has already promised further sanctions against Iran. As Democrats decry the president’s strategy as misguided, it is worth remembering that the first major violation of the nuclear deal occurred with their full support back in 2017, when every Senator save for Sanders and Kentucky Republican Rand Paul voted in favor of a sanctions package targeting Iran along with Russia and North Korea.

Now, at the current point in the administration’s “Maximum Pressure” campaign, which has targeted food and medicine and sought to bring the Islamic Republic’s oil exports “to zero,” it is unclear what there is left to sanction. What should be clear to anyone seeking to meaningfully counter the momentum of military conflict is that diplomacy cannot be war by other means. An agreement between those who live in fear of annihilation and their prospective annihilators is no less coerced than any promise you’d make with a gun to your head. As long as the United States attempts to dictate the future the Middle East in any capacity, half-measures in the name of progress will be undermined by the very relationship of domination that persists.


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