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

How imperial arrogance and veiled racism damned Obama’s signature achievement.

Kumars Salehi and Roqayah Chamseddine

President Barack Obama, standing with Vice President Joe Biden, conducts a press conference in the East Room of the White House in response to the Iran Nuclear Deal, on July 14, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Andrew Harnik - Pool/Getty Images)

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 régime change in Tehran.”

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.

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 régime 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 régime 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 régime 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, régime 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.

Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue