Any Dem Who Wants to Be President Should Reject War with Iran, Not Hide Behind Process Criticisms

Here’s where 2020 Democratic hopefuls stand.

Julianne Tveten

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaking at a press conference in New Castle, DE on May 30, 2019. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

On the evening of June 20, Don­ald Trump report­ed­ly gave ini­tial autho­riza­tion to launch strikes on Iran, then revoked the order at the eleventh hour. The move — which was the lat­est action in a long-sim­mer­ing cam­paign to wage war against Iran — was false­ly framed by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion as retal­ia­to­ry: Ear­li­er on the same day, reports sur­faced that a U.S. Navy sur­veil­lance drone vio­lat­ed Iran’s air­space bor­der, prompt­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard to shoot it down, which Trump called a big mis­take.”

The moral stakes of Washington’s escalating actions against Iran couldn’t be higher.

The pre­vi­ous week, shep­herd­ed by neo­con Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Advi­sor John Bolton, the admin­is­tra­tion alleged, with no con­clu­sive evi­dence, that Iran was respon­si­ble for attacks on two com­mer­cial oil tankers near the Gulf of Oman on June 13. This occurred just over a year after the Trump admin­is­tra­tion with­drew from the 2015 Joint Com­pre­hen­sive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, putting the U.S. on a path to greater aggres­sion towards Iran.

Iran has denied the Trump administration’s oil-tanker claims, which remain unsub­stan­ti­at­ed. On June 14, the U.S. mil­i­tary released indis­tinct video footage, which the U.S. mil­i­tary insist­ed showed an Iran­ian mil­i­tary patrol boat approach­ing one of the tankers. The Pen­ta­gon fol­lowed this with addi­tion­al clear­er” pho­tos meant to prove” Iran’s involve­ment in the attack, and claimed that the Islam­ic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps (IRGC) removed an unex­plod­ed limpet mine from one of the ships, yet failed to prove that these mines were even attached to the ship. Fur­ther, the head of the Japan­ese com­pa­ny Koku­ka Sangyo Co., which owns one of the ships, con­tra­dict­ed the U.S. military’s allegations.

The cri­sis, fueled by the Trump administration’s bel­li­cose rhetoric and dan­ger­ous provo­ca­tions, has offered a glimpse into the for­eign-pol­i­cy plat­forms of some of the lead­ing 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic hope­fuls. The respons­es of these can­di­dates — Kamala Har­ris, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Eliz­a­beth War­ren, and Bernie Sanders — ranged from express­ing skep­ti­cism about the U.S. nar­ra­tive on Iran’s actions and con­demn­ing for­ev­er wars” to hand­wring­ing about whether Trump is fol­low­ing the right process for start­ing a war and rein­forc­ing the White House nar­ra­tive that Iran as a threat.” While Sanders appears to adopt the strongest and most moral­ly informed oppo­si­tion­al stance, War­ren trails just behind him, owed to her slight­ly weak­er leg­isla­tive record on Iran. Mean­while, can­di­dates like Har­ris and Biden, who con­tin­ue to espouse rhetoric about the sup­posed nation­al secu­ri­ty threat posed by Iran and focus more on pro­ce­dur­al cri­tiques, rank among the weakest.

Kamala Har­ris

Cal­i­for­nia Sen­a­tor and pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Kamala Har­ris has vowed to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal if elect­ed, com­ment­ing that Trump’s deci­sion to with­draw was not only not smart, because so far it was work­ing, but it was also uni­lat­er­al action, not bring­ing along and appar­ent­ly not con­sult­ing our allies around the globe who are also invest­ed in the right outcome.”

The Iran nuclear deal was an agree­ment between the U.S., UK, France, Chi­na, Rus­sia and Ger­many in which Iran would restrict sup­posed nuclear-weapons devel­op­ment in exchange for lift­ed eco­nom­ic sanc­tions. While the deal is a step towards deesca­la­tion, it meets a low bar, as it is premised on a pow­er imbal­ance: U.S. intel­li­gence agen­cies acknowl­edged in 2007 and 2012 that Iran does not have a nuclear-weapons pro­gram. What’s more, per the agree­ment, the U.S. is allowed to retain nuclear weapons, despite its hor­rif­ic nuclear his­to­ry. Nonethe­less, U.S. with­draw­al is dis­as­trous, as it puts the U.S. on a path to greater con­fronta­tion with Iran, and because of this, the deal should be defended.

Har­ris, how­ev­er, has remained large­ly mum on the oil-tanker canard. In May, when Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo sug­gest­ed that the U.S. could lever­age the post‑9/​11 Autho­riza­tion for Use of Mil­i­tary Force (AUMF) as legal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to attack Iran, Har­ris stat­ed that she was unaware of the com­ments. To her cred­it, Har­ris became a cospon­sor of the Pre­ven­tion of Uncon­sti­tu­tion­al War with Iran Act of 2019,” which pro­hibits funds from being used for a war with Iran with­out con­gres­sion­al approval. But she was more than three weeks behind War­ren, who signed up as a cospon­sor on May 14, and even fur­ther behind Sanders, who cospon­sored the day the bill was intro­duced: April 4. Trou­bling­ly, Har­ris vot­ed in favor of and co-spon­sored2017 bill that imposed new sanc­tions on Iran by bundling them with sanc­tions against Rus­sia and North Korea. War­ren vot­ed in favor of this bill but did not cospon­sor, and Sanders was the only con­gressper­son in the House or Sen­ate who cau­cus­es with the Democ­rats to vote against.

Har­ris has ques­tioned Washington’s Iran nar­ra­tive, but frames it not in terms of moral­i­ty — say, spar­ing the lives of Iran­ian peo­ple — but in terms of nation­al secu­ri­ty. On June 18, she tweet­ed:

This pres­i­dent likes to talk tough, but for six months now, we’ve gone with­out a per­ma­nent Sec­re­tary of Defense and he just with­drew his nom­i­nee — all as Trump march­es us toward con­flict with Iran. The pres­i­dent is mak­ing us less safe.”

She con­tin­ued on June 20:

Either the Trump Admin­is­tra­tion is angling for anoth­er dis­as­trous war in the Mid­dle East, or they’ve spent two years saber-rat­tling against Iran with no strat­e­gy and no endgame. This pres­i­dent is mak­ing Amer­i­ca weak­er and less safe.”

Har­ris’ com­ments boil down to a sub­stance­less process cri­tique. The lack of a Sec­re­tary of Defense isn’t the prob­lem: The prob­lem is a polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment clam­or­ing for war with Iran. Har­ris, then, ignores the moral stakes of the issue, while accept­ing the Trump administration’s charge that Iran is a threat to nation­al security.”

Pete Buttigieg

South Bend, Indi­ana May­or Pete Buttigieg, whose cam­paign is informed by a pol­i­cy details lat­er” approach, has endorsed the unsub­stan­ti­at­ed claim that Iran orches­trat­ed the attacks. In a June 16 inter­view on Meet the Press,” he called the evi­dence that Iran orches­trat­ed the attacks com­pelling” and stated:

It’s a lit­tle dis­tress­ing to think that because this admin­is­tra­tion’s cred­i­bil­i­ty is so low in gen­er­al, I think a lot of peo­ple are think­ing twice at a moment when America’s word should be decisive.

When the U.S. says this is some­thing that has hap­pened and this is the con­sen­sus of our admin­is­tra­tion, that should be some­thing that goes with­out ques­tion. But of course, that’s just not the case in an admin­is­tra­tion that has been extreme­ly unre­li­able in so many ways.”

The same day, Buttigieg expressed dis­agree­ment with Bolton’s efforts to ratch­et up aggres­sion when he told CNN’s Jake Tap­per that we need a mea­sured assess­ment of infor­ma­tion as it con­tin­ues to come in.” Buttigieg added:

There’s no ques­tion that Iran has a pat­tern of malign activ­i­ties. There’s also no ques­tion that there is a pat­tern that is dis­turbing­ly rem­i­nis­cent of the run-up to the war in Iraq, in some cas­es being dri­ven by the same people.

I mean, the fact that one of the archi­tects of the Iraq War is the Pres­i­den­t’s Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Advis­er right now, when the pres­i­dent him­self has pre­tend­ed that he was against the Iraq War all along, this is shock­ing. And it should be extreme­ly dis­turb­ing to all of us.”

Buttigieg is right to con­demn those who orches­trat­ed the Iraq War and to warn of the par­al­lels between Iraq and Iran as tar­gets of U.S. mil­i­tary action. How­ev­er, he is mis­tak­en to ignore the pow­er assym­e­try between the U.S. and Iran.

Joe Biden

Joe Biden’s his­to­ry as Vice Pres­i­dent from 2009 to 2017 — which includ­ed over­see­ing the Iran nuclear deal — col­ors his response to the White House. Like Har­ris, Biden has remained most­ly silent in response to the Pentagon’s recent account, but as of 2017, reject­ed Trump’s intent to with­draw from the Iran nuclear deal. Like Har­ris, his ratio­nale gave pri­ma­cy to the secu­ri­ty” of the U.S. and Israel. “[The Iran nuclear deal] is work­ing,” he wrote on Face­book. It is mak­ing the Unit­ed States and our allies, includ­ing Israel, more secure.” He added, The Iran deal does one thing: remove the imme­di­ate threat that a nuclear-armed Iran would present to the region, Israel, and the Unit­ed States.”

After the Navy drone was shot down, Biden called Trump’s Iran strat­e­gy a self-inflict­ed dis­as­ter.” He continued:

Trump also promised that walk­ing away would some­how lead to a bet­ter deal — instead, the pre­dictable has hap­pened: Iran is build­ing back up its nuclear capa­bil­i­ty. It’s sad­ly iron­ic that the State Depart­ment is now call­ing on Iran to abide by the very deal the Trump admin­is­tra­tion abandoned.”

By walk­ing away from diplo­ma­cy, Trump has made mil­i­tary con­flict more like­ly. Anoth­er war in the Mid­dle East is the last thing we need.”

The same day, Biden also tweet­ed:

Make no mis­take: Iran con­tin­ues to be a bad actor that abus­es human rights and sup­ports ter­ror­ist activ­i­ties through­out the region.

What we need is pres­i­den­tial lead­er­ship that will take strate­gic action to counter the Iran­ian threat, restore Amer­i­ca’s stand­ing in the world, rec­og­nize the val­ue of prin­ci­pled diplo­ma­cy, and strength­en our nation and our secu­ri­ty by work­ing strate­gi­cal­ly with our allies.”

While Trump’s strat­a­gems should be rebuked, Biden mis­places his focus on the sup­posed dan­ger of Iran, rather than the vio­lent pos­tur­ing of the Trump administration.

Eliz­a­beth Warren

Sen­a­tor Eliz­a­beth War­ren (D‑Mass.), who has sup­port­ed the nuclear agree­ment since its incep­tion, has levied crit­i­cism toward the White House. On June 18, in response to a New York Times report titled, Trump Adds Troops After Iran Says It Will Breach Nuclear Deal” (a ques­tion­able media fram­ing giv­en that the U.S. had already vio­lat­ed the deal), she tweet­ed:

I hope Iran choos­es a dif­fer­ent path. But let’s be clear: Trump pro­voked this cri­sis. He has no strat­e­gy to con­tain it, he’s burned through our friends and allies, and now he’s dou­bling down on mil­i­tary force. We can’t afford anoth­er for­ev­er war.”

While War­ren was cor­rect to argue against war, she opens by appear­ing to place blame against Iran, neglect­ing to acknowl­edge the U.S.’s role in vil­lainiz­ing Iran in the first place.

On June 20, after reports of the Navy drone were pub­lished, War­ren elab­o­rat­ed on her com­ments, adopt­ing a stronger oppo­si­tion­al stance to the prospect of war with Iran.

Trump pro­voked this cri­sis, and his reck­less for­eign pol­i­cy by tweet will only wors­en it. I’ve co-spon­sored leg­is­la­tion to pro­hib­it a war with Iran. We need to de-esca­late ten­sions — not let the war hawks in this admin­is­tra­tion drag us into con­flict. #NoWar­WithI­ran

That same day, she fol­lowed with

Don­ald Trump promised to bring our troops home. Instead he has pulled out of a deal that was work­ing and insti­gat­ed anoth­er unnec­es­sary con­flict. There is no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for fur­ther esca­lat­ing this cri­sis — we need to step back from the brink of war.”

Here, War­ren uses stronger lan­guage to denounce Trump’s actions, but still falls short of a moral denun­ci­a­tion of U.S. vio­lence or a more inci­sive analy­sis of the Iran nuclear deal’s pow­er rela­tions. Mean­while, Warren’s vote for new sanc­tions against Iran in 2017 weak­ens her leg­isla­tive record.

Bernie Sanders

Like War­ren, Sen­a­tor Bernie Sanders (and Inde­pen­dent from Ver­mont who is seek­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic dom­i­na­tion) has tak­en a decid­ed­ly oppo­si­tion­al stance, explic­it­ly ques­tion­ing the offi­cial Wash­ing­ton nar­ra­tive. In a June 18 inter­view on MSNBC, he commented:

If you look at the recent his­to­ry of this coun­try, I think we under­stand that the two worst for­eign pol­i­cy dis­as­ters [the Viet­nam War and the Iraq War] were based on lies that came from the White House.”

He added:

Let me just say this: I will do every­thing I per­son­al­ly can as a Unit­ed States Sen­a­tor to stop the Unit­ed States attack­ing Iran. If we go into a war with Iran, this will be an asym­met­ri­cal war which will go on and on and on. There will be nev­er-end­ing wars in the Mid­dle East…So we have got to do every­thing we can to bring the antag­o­nists, Sau­di Ara­bia, which is a bru­tal dic­ta­tor­ship, togeth­er with Iran…Use the pow­er of the Unit­ed States to work out a diplo­mat­ic solu­tion, not a mil­i­tary solution.”

Sanders repeat­ed these points on Twit­ter on June 18, not­ing Trump has no legal author­i­ty to launch an attack on Iran,” and on June 20:

If you think the inva­sion of Iraq was a dis­as­ter, a war with Iran would be worse. The Unit­ed States must bring Iran and Sau­di Ara­bia to the nego­ti­at­ing table, not foment a nev­er-end­ing, uncon­sti­tu­tion­al war in the region.”

And in a June 20 MSNBC inter­view fol­low­ing the sur­veil­lance drone reports:

I think if there was a war with Iran, it would be an absolute dis­as­ter for our coun­try, for Iran, for the region, and for the world.”

Sanders, who vot­ed against new sanc­tions against Iran in 2017, acknowl­edges U.S. provo­ca­tion and rejects the notion that Iran is a true threat. Because of this, Sanders’ cen­sure of the White House’s lat­est war attempt offers the most robust rejec­tion of war with Iran.

Sanders’ was the only cam­paign that imme­di­ate­ly respond­ed to In These Times’ request for com­ment, send­ing the fol­low­ing state­ment (which had pre­vi­ous­ly been pub­licly released).

Attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman are unac­cept­able and must be ful­ly inves­ti­gat­ed. But this inci­dent must not be used as a pre­text for a war with Iran, a war which would be an unmit­i­gat­ed dis­as­ter for the Unit­ed States, Iran, the region and the world. The time is now for the Unit­ed States to exert inter­na­tion­al lead­er­ship and bring the coun­tries in the region togeth­er to forge a diplo­mat­ic solu­tion to the grow­ing ten­sions. I would also remind Pres­i­dent Trump that there is no con­gres­sion­al autho­riza­tion for a war with Iran. A uni­lat­er­al U.S. attack on Iran would be ille­gal and unconstitutional.”

Can­di­dates, of course, are right to crit­i­cize the pow­er of Trump to wage war with­out Con­gress, thanks in part to the expan­sion of pres­i­den­tial war-mak­ing pow­ers under George W. Bush and Oba­ma. But on the eve of pos­si­ble war, it won’t suf­fice to point out this pro­ce­dur­al break­down. Can­di­dates need to make it clear they’re against a pos­si­ble war itself, rather than sim­ply the means by which Trump is exe­cut­ing it.

The moral stakes of Washington’s esca­lat­ing actions against Iran couldn’t be high­er. The war the White House seeks is, as Sanders notes, based on lies, and it would unequiv­o­cal­ly do untold harm to Iran­ian peo­ple. The evi­dence doesn’t show that Iran is a threat,” but rather that the U.S. has man­u­fac­tured a pre­text for yet anoth­er bru­tal war.

Julianne Tveten writes about tech­nol­o­gy, labor, and cul­ture, among oth­er top­ics. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Cap­i­tal & Main, KPFK Paci­fi­ca Radio, and elsewhere.
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