The usual gang of political observers and commentators (apologies to the soon-to-be-departed Mad magazine) seem to agree that this year’s Democratic candidates for President haven’t been paying much attention yet to foreign policy. Here’s my explanation: The more many of them say about the subject, the clearer their ignorance and incoherence will become, and the last few weeks have just provided a splendid example – public positions stake out on whether to rejoin the 2015 international deal aimed at curbing and slowing Iran’s nuclear weapons development.
You’ll recall that the Iran deal (officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) was signed by the Islamic Republic on the one hand, and China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States on the other. Under its terms, Iran agreed to certain restrictions on its nuclear program in return for substantial relief from various, mainly economic, sanctions imposed by some of these individual countries, along with the United Nations as a whole, in retaliation both for Iran’s nuclear and some other activities deemed unacceptable threats to international security.
Even the deal’s backers conceded some serious flaws, but insisted that its terms were the best possible given divisions among the United States, its allies, and Russia and China about how hard to press Iran (generally due to differences over the value of resuming commerce as usual with Iran). I initially bought this line, too. But as I recently wrote, ensuing developments – mainly the devastating impact on Iran’s economy of unilateral U.S. sanctions reimposed by Washington once President Trump withdrew from the agreement in May, 2018 – makes clear that Iran’s interlocutors had much more leverage than they (including then President Obama) claimed, and that a better deal was always possible.
Enter the 2020 Democrats. Understandably, they’re seeking to criticize the Trump foreign policy record whenever they can, and many have attacked his decision to pull out of the JCPOA. But most of these attackers have implicitly expressed agreement with the Trump view that the deal can and must be improved.
Take Flavor of the Month Kamala Harris. According to the first-term California Senator, Mr. Trump deserved the blame for the recent rise in tensions in the Persian Gulf that culminated in alleged Iranian attacks on oil tankers and an American drone because he “put in place a series of events that led to” those moves. By this she of course meant Iran’s apparent decision to follow through on its threats to defend legitimate interests it sees as threatened by (a) the United States’ overall economic “maximum pressure” campaign aimed at ending Tehran’s alleged regional aggression, and (b) more specifically by the Trump administration’s cancellation of sanctions waivers that had permitted other countries to buy some of the oil Iran desperately needs to sell in order to stay afloat economically.
As the Islamic Republic stated, it would seek to press the other signatories to convince the United States to back off the sanctions by pulling out of several provisions of the nuclear deal (chiefly, those limiting its ability to create bomb-grade uranium) and by preventing any other countries from importing any Persian Gulf oil themselves.
How would Harris respond? She told a CBS News reporter, “Well frankly, I believe that we need to get back into the Iran nuclear deal.” That’s certainly logical, since respecting the deal’s terms would require that Washington drop its sanctions, presumably granting Iran the economic support it’s seeking and eliminating any reason for attacking Gulf shipping.
But she then (unwittingly, it seems) endorsed the position of the President and other critics that deal improvements are urgently needed – and possible: “I would strengthen it. I would include ballistic- ballistic missile testing. I think that we can strengthen what we do in terms of monitoring and verification, of progress.” Never mind, of course, that there’s no sign to date that any of the other signatories agree.
And to compound the confusion, Harris proceeded to pivot back to praise for the agreement as-is: “But there’s no question that a lot of negotiation with a great deal of depth took place over a long period of time to reach that agreement, and it was it was an agreement that was being complied with by all parties.”
My head is spinning, and yours should be, too.
But evidently Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota understand Harris’ message perfectly. Because it’s their message, too.
In their initial presidential debate appearances, both these supporters of the original deal attacked the Trump pull-out but their support for reentry seemed linked to implementing changes.
Said Booker ““It was a mistake to pull out of that deal. Donald Trump is marching us to a far more difficult situation.” But he then promised, “If I have an opportunity to leverage a better deal, I’m going to do it.”
Klobuchar charged that the Trump pullout “made us less safe” because although the agreement “was imperfect…it was a good deal for that moment.” But apparently she now worries that – just a few years later – the moment has passed. For she suggested that (according to the McClatchy News Service summary cited above) “the agreement’s ‘sunset periods’ – caps on Iran’s enrichment and stockpiling of fissile material set to expire five to 10 years from the next inauguration– [are] a potential point of renegotiation.” Of course, the short duration of these caps was cited by deal critics as a major weakness.
A common aphorism holds that it’s “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” If these Iran deal stances are any indication, most Democratic candidates are demonstrating major political smarts, at least, by avoiding foreign policy issues.