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 May 9, 2018

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 911 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.

Michael Arria cov­ers labor and social move­ments. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @michaelarriaSarah 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
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