How Russia-Obsessed Democrats Set the Stage for Trump’s Disastrous Violation of the Iran Deal

Leading Democrats have bundled their push for a tough stance on Russia with escalation towards Iran.

Michael Arria and Sarah Lazare

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (R) (D-N.Y.) listens as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks during a press conference on November 1, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Leading Democrats have consistently pegged their anti-Trump resistance” to a more confrontational stance toward Russia — and bundled this demand with a push for greater escalation against Iran. Now, the danger of this strategy is undeniable: These same Democrats helped set the stage for Trump’s disastrous withdrawal” on Tuesday from the nuclear deal with Iran — and are playing a meaningful role in pushing U.S. foreign policy to the right.

Democrats showed they were willing to risk destroying the Iran agreement in an attempt to punish Moscow.

Under the 2015 Iran deal, the United States ostensibly loosened sanctions in exchange for an agreement by Iran to roll back its nuclear program (Iran did not have an active nuclear weapons program). Trump’s withdrawal puts the United States and its allies on course for further military confrontation with Iran and its allies — and forces ordinary Iranians to suffer the consequences of devastating sanctions, including medicine shortages and food insecurity. 

Every single Democrat in Congress had a hand in creating the political climate for Tuesday’s developments. Last summer, nearly the entire House and Senate voted in favor of legislation that grouped together sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea. The final version of the bipartisan legislation materialized after sanctions against Russia were tacked onto an existing Iran bill in a measure introduced by Reps. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Steny Hoyer (D-N.Y.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.).

The only no” votes on the House version—H.R. 3364: Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act—came from the isolationist Libertarian-leaning Republican wing: Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), John Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.). An anti-war front rooted in solidarity with the people of Iran, Russia and North Korea was nowhere to be found. Even Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who built her name on her courageous stand against war in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, voted for the bill.

Days later, on July 27, the Senate passed the same bill in a 98-2 vote. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was the only lawmaker in Congress who caucuses with the Democrats to issue a no” vote. Democrats showed they were willing to risk destroying the Iran agreement in an attempt to punish Moscow.

Obama’s former Secretary of State John Kerry warned at the time that the new sanctions ran the risk of upending the Iran deal. At a fundraiser in San Francisco last June, Kerry said, If we become super provocative in ways that show the Iranian people there has been no advantage to this, that there is no gain, and our bellicosity is pushing them into a corner, that’s dangerous and that could bring a very different result.”

Democrats explicitly cited Russia when supporting the bill. Sen. Dianne Feinstein told Intercept reporters Alex Emmons and Ryan Grim last July: I just looked at the sanctions, and it’s very hard, in view of what we know just happened in this last election, not to move ahead with [sanctions].”

At the time, Sanders was harshly criticized for his no” vote. Adam Parkhomenko, who served as a former aide to Hillary Clinton and founded the Ready for Hillary PAC, said on Twitter last July: Feel the Bern? Bernie Sanders voted against Russian sanctions today. 98 Senators voted for Russian sanctions today. Sanders voted the same way anyone with the last name Trump would vote if they were in the Senate. No excuses ― stop making them for him.”

With near unanimous support from Congress, Trump signed the sanctions bill into law in August. 

After Trump announced on Tuesday that the United States would pull out from the Iran deal, the same leading Democrats who voted for sanctions in 2017 immediately criticized his decision. Pelosi called it a sad day” and ranking Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. Bob Menendez — who authored the sanctions bill — called withdrawal a huge mistake.” Sen. Dick Durbin took Menendez’ assessment one step further, declaring it a mistake of historic proportions.” Even Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — who voted to block the Iran deal — said there wasn’t any reason for the United States to violate the agreement. There are no reports that Iran has violated the agreement,” Schumer told reporters.

Schumer is correct about Iran not violating the agreement, but — according to Iran — the United States had already effectively violated it last summer when Schumer and the vast majority of congress voted for the new sanctions. In our view the nuclear deal has been violated and we will show an appropriate and proportional reaction to this issue,” Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said in an interview after the sanctions passed.

While most Democrats claim they support the Iran deal despite their reckless pro-sanctions votes, Schumer is among the four Senate Democrats who voted in favor of a Republican-backed bill that would have blocked the deal, along withJoe Manchin (D-W.V.), Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). In the House, 25 Democrats opposed the agreement in 2015.

I have looked into my own soul and my devotion to principle may once again lead me to an unpopular course, but if Iran is to acquire a nuclear bomb, it will not have my name on it,” said Sen. Menendez at the time. It is for these reasons that I will vote to disapprove the agreement and, if called upon, would vote to override a veto.”

Now, Democrats who voted for sanctions — or outright opposed the Iran deal — are loudly condemning Trump for withdrawing from the accord. Missing from this discussion is a sober assessment of how Democrats’ push for sanctions and escalation — emboldened by the myopic focus on Russiagate — undermined the Iran deal and created political momentum for Trump’s disastrous decision. Regardless of what one thinks about the motives and scope of Russian influence operations — or their leverage over the Trump administration — the net effect of Democrats’ overwhelming focus on Russia for two years is undeniable: an increase of tensions with Russia and, by extension, its biggest strategic ally in the Middle East — Iran.

There is reason to be concerned that, by killing the deal, the Trump administration is paving the way for military conflict with Iran. Shortly after the president’s press conference on Tuesday, National Security Adviser John Bolton told reporters that such speculation was a mistake. However just last year, Bolton told members of the militant Iranian-exile cult the MEK that they will overthrow Iran’s government and celebrate in Tehran before 2019.

If this push for war grows louder, it’s hard to envision Democrats doing much resisting.

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

In These Times is proud to stand alongside our fellow awardees in accepting the 2024 Izzy Award. To help us continue producing award-winning journalism a generous donor has pledged to match any donation, dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,000.

Will you help In These Times celebrate and have your gift matched today? Make a tax-deductible contribution to support independent media.

Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Intercept, The Nation, and Tom Dispatch. A former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams, Sarah co-edited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. She tweets at @sarahlazare
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.