Democratic Candidates on Iran

July 12, 2019
Updated

The majority of Democratic presidential candidates have called for returning to the 2015 nuclear deal, although some believe the agreement should be revised and strengthened. They have criticized the Trump administration for escalating tensions with Iran and raising the potential for an armed conflict. “The American people need to understand that this war with Iran would be far more devastating, far more costly than anything that we ever saw in Iraq. It would take many more lives,” Representative Tulsi Gabbard (HI) said at the first Democratic presidential debate on June 26. “This would turn into a regional war. This is why it’s so important that every one of us – every single American – stands up and says, ‘no war with Iran.’”

In July 2019, a Pew Research survey revealed a deep divide along partisan lines about U.S. policy on Iran. Overall, 49 percent of Americans said that the most important priority should be avoiding a military conflict with Tehran, whereas 44 percent said taking a firm stand against Iranian actions was most important. The majority of Republicans (68 percent) favored taking a firm stand, while the majority of Democrats (71 percent) gave priority to avoiding a military conflict. Overall, 65 percent of Republicans said Iran’s nuclear program represented a major threat to the well-being of the United States, compared to 50 percent of Democrats.
 
In the first round of the two-night debate, moderators asked 10 of the 20 candidates to raise their hands if they would rejoin the nuclear deal between Iran and the world’s six major powers. (Trump withdrew from it in May 2018). Nine of the 10 candidates raised their hands; Senator Cory Booker (NJ) did not but still called for diplomacy with Tehran. “We need to renegotiate and get back into a deal, but I’m not going to have a primary platform to say unilaterally I’m going to rejoin that deal,” he said. “If I have an opportunity to leverage a better deal, I’m going to do it.”
 
Senator Amy Klobuchar (MN) called the deal “imperfect, but a good deal for that moment.” She criticized the deal’s “sunset clause” but said that it was something that could be worked out in negotiations. “What I would do is negotiate us back into that agreement, stand with our allies give, and not give unlimited leverage to China and Russia, which is what he [Trump] has done. And then finally, I would make sure that if there’s any possibility of a conflict--and we’re having this debate in Congress right now--that he comes to Congress for an authorization of military force.” 
 
On June 27, during night two of the debate with 10 more candidates, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) said that Iran is the first foreign relationship she would like to reset as president. “President Trump is hell-bent on starting a war with Iran. My first act will be to engage Iran to stabilize the Middle East and make sure we do not start an unwanted never-ending war,” she said. Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT)  also said he would try to ease tensions with Tehran. “I will do everything I can to prevent a war with Iran, which would be far worse than disastrous war with Iraq.” The following are remarks by Democratic candidates on Iran. 

 

Joe Biden

“The historic Iran Nuclear Deal we negotiated blocked Iran from gaining nuclear weapons with inspectors on the ground, international inspectors confirming that the agreement was being kept. Trump cast it aside, prompting Iran to restart its nuclear program and become more provocative and raising the risk of another disastrous war in the region. If Tehran returns to compliance with the Deal, I would rejoin the agreement and work with our allies to strengthen and extend it while more effectively pushing back against Iran’s destabilizing activities which we are allowed to do and we had partners to do with us.”

–– July 11, 2019 in a foreign policy speech at CUNY

"President Trump's Iran strategy is a self-inflicted disaster. Two of America's vital interests in the Middle East are preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and securing a stable energy supply through the Strait of Hormuz. Trump is failing on both counts.”

“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.”

June 20, 2019, in a statement to Politico

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Trump’s erratic, impulsive actions are the last thing we need as Commander-in-Chief. No president should order a military strike without fully understanding the consequences. We don’t need another war in the Middle East, but Trump’s actions toward Iran only make that more likely.</p>&mdash; Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) <a href="https://twitter.com/JoeBiden/status/1142605692085272581?ref_src=twsrc%5…">June 23, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>

“The way to keep Iran from being a nuclear power is to stay in the agreement. That’s what was negotiated.”

—May 14, 2019, at a New Hampshire campaign stop

 

Senator Bernie Sanders (VT)

“Rejoin the Iran nuclear agreement and talk to Iran on a range of other issues.”

––Platform, Enact a Responsible Comprehensive Foreign Policy

 

“And our job as the most powerful country on Earth is to bring Saudi Arabia, which is a terribly despotic government, and Iran, which is also undemocratic, bring them in to the damn room and saying, we’re not going to be fighting eternal wars.  You guys, we’re here. You’ve got to work it out, but don’t think that the United States is going to get involved in never-ending wars.”

––July 10, 2019 on the Rachel Maddow Show

 

“And thirdly let me be very clear, I will do everything I can to prevent a war with Iran which would be far worse than disastrous war with Iraq.”

—June 26, 2019, at the second Democratic debate
 

 

Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA)

“If the administration wants to go to war against Iran, then the Constitution requires them to come to Congress to ask for an authorization for the use of military force. This is Constitutional Law 101, that it is Congress, not the president, that declares war… We would have to have a debate on the floor of the Senate. And if the administration doesn’t believe that they can withstand a debate, then they shouldn’t be aiming themselves toward war.”

–– June 14, 2019 in an interview with The Intercept

“If the administration wants to go to war against Iran, then the Constitution requires them to come to Congress to ask for an authorization for the use of military force. This is Constitutional Law 101, that it is Congress, not the president, that declares war… We would have to have a debate on the floor of the Senate. And if the administration doesn’t believe that they can withstand a debate, then they shouldn’t be aiming themselves toward war.”

––June 14, 2019 in an interview with The Intercept

 

Senator Kamala Harris (CA)

“I believe that we need to get back into the Iran nuclear deal. I would strengthen it. I would include ballistic missile testing. I think that we can strengthen what we do in terms of monitoring and verification, of- of progress. But there's no question that a- a- 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. And so under a Harris administration, we would attempt to get back into the agreement, and again, strengthening it, but understanding that we are in the best situation when we are working with our allies and are able to monitor Iran's activities, and- and do it in a way that requires full compliance with our standards.

--June 24, 2019 in a CBS interview.

 

“I would also look toward expanding [the Iran nuclear deal]. … To be honest with you, I would like to see it also cover ballistic missile testing.”

—June 18, 2019, in an MSNBC Interview 
 

“Whether it’s the nuclear threat of North Korea and Iran, chaos and oppression in Venezuela, or confronting China’s unfair trade practices, the U.S. is most effective at confronting global challenges when we work in lockstep with our partners.”

––Platform, American Leadership at Home & Abroad

 

“[Kamala will] stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but without isolating the United States diplomatically and risking an unnecessary war.”

––Platform, American Leadership at Home & Abroad

Pete Buttigieg

“ I think we have got to look at the Iran nuclear deal as a floor. The problem I think in the way it was talked about politically was – you saw all these malign activities by the Iranians in terms of the sponsorship of Hezbollah and other regionally destabilizing activities. And folks are saying is: see the deal is no good because they're doing all this. That's not what the deal was for. The deal was to restrict nuclear activity, and it worked. It worked. And so by the same token, the policy priority I would take would be to ensure that we contain and restrict the nuclear activity. Of course, we care about all of the other problems emanating from the Iranian regime. I just don't think that we need to solve everything in order to solve anything. And if you have to pick one thing to prioritize, I believe the Obama administration got this right, that the one thing to prioritize is to make sure they are not nuclear.”

-- October 28, 2019 in an interview at the 2019 J Street conference

 

“Right now there is more than enough destabilizing the Middle East and the Persian Gulf without fears that a president could destabilize it further with the next tweet. We need to make sure that we create options to prevent things from escalating further and since this appears to be spillover from the Yemen conflict, making sure that the United States is playing a constructive role in guiding that conflict toward resolution.”

“The problem is the president has actually reduced our leverage by unilaterally removing us from the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA. Look, the good news in a case like this, when you think about the United States’ ability to be a constructive force is that we have leverage with both sides. We have leverage with the Saudis because of our alliance and have had leverage with Iran. The problem is we’re either taking our own options off the table or not using them well.”

— September 15, 2019, in an ABC interview

 

“There is certainly concern that this is consistent with a pattern of malignant behavior by Iran… this appears to be part of an escalation where this administration might be leading us on a path to war that could get away from this White House very quickly.”

Look, it – it is nothing new for Iran to be acting in destabilized, destabilizing ways in their region… We see it quite a bit. The question is what are we going to do to make things more stable before the situation becomes uncontrollable.”

June 16, 2019 on Face the Nation

 

But what we see out of the White House is something disturbingly reminiscent of the kind of accelerating drumbeat that got us into the war in Iraq. Worse, it's got some of the same cast of characters. I'm still mystified that John Bolton, who was one of the architects of the Iraq conflict, is said to be behind a lot of the administration's policy on Iran as well. And it's not only allies in the region, but allies across the globe who have an interest in stopping any pathway toward the Middle East becoming any more violent, any more unstable than it already is.”

“Yes, it could certainly be appropriate for the U.S. to use our sea power to make sure that there is safety and freedom of passage in that part of the world that's so vital to the world economy.”

—June 16, 2019 on Meet the Press

 

“For this reason, I will rejoin our international partners and recommit the United States to the Iran nuclear deal. Whatever its imperfections, this was perhaps as close to a true ‘art of the deal’ as it gets. As even this Administration repeatedly certified, it was preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. It has helped constrain the military threat that Iran poses to Israel and Europe without leading us down a path to another Middle Eastern war. This agreement was concluded not to do Iran a favor, but because it is in our national security interest—just as a parallel policy of confronting Iran’s support for terrorism and abysmal human rights record reflects our values and security interests.”
––June 11, 2019 in Bloomington, Indiana


“The next president must set a high bar on the use of force, and an exceedingly high bar on doing so unilaterally. When America acts alone, it can only be because core interests are at stake and because there is no alternative. Notably, this is not currently true of the situation in Venezuela. It is not currently true of the situation around Iran. It is the difference between the necessary response to 9/11 in Afghanistan and the self-defeating invasion of Iraq. It is in short the difference between Normandy and Saigon.”

––June 11, 2019 in Bloomington, Indiana

 

"I think the Iran deal is something that we should be party to and should strengthen. We didn't do it as a favor to Iran. We did it to reduce a nuclear threat. And it's still a good policy.”

—May 13, 2019, on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah

 

Andrew Yang (NY)

“I think it was a mistake that we withdrew from the agreement … I would rejoin that agreement, which is multilateral. … What we can’t do is saber-rattle and make it so that the tensions in the region escalate to armed conflict.”

––June 26, 2019 in an interview with WBUR
 

Rep. Beto O’ Rourke (TX)

“What I believe is that this is an administration that is gunning for war with Iran.”

What I believe is that we can resolve our differences with that country, which are significant, peacefully without invading yet another country in the Middle East. I want to make sure that we get to the bottom of the facts and find the evidence that the secretary of state is talking about.”

June 13, 2019 on PBS Newshour

 

“You asked about Iran, as well.  You know, I think during the Obama administration, we had a guide to how we could resolve otherwise intractable problems peacefully, without invading yet another country, without firing another shot, without sacrificing another U.S. service member.  Negotiating directly with Iran, the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, we were able to halt that country`s progress towards development of a nuclear weapon.”

—May 13, 2019, in an interview with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC

 

Senator Cory Booker (NJ)

“First and foremost, it was a mistake to pull out of that deal. And one of the reasons why we are seeing this hostility now is because Donald Trump is marching us to a far more dangerous situation. Literally, he took us out of the deal that gave us transparency into their nuclear program and push back a nuclear breakout 10—20 years. And now we see Iran threatening to go further and who are pulled—being pulled in further and further into this crisis. We need to greet renegotiate and get back into a deal, but I’m not going to have a primary platform to say unilaterally I’m going to rejoin that deal because when I am president of the United States, I’m going to do the best I can to secure this country and that region and make sure that if I have an opportunity to leverage a better deal, I’m going to do it.”

—June 26, 2019, at the first Democratic debate

 

Senator Amy Klobuchar (NH)

“It was imperfect, but it was a good deal for that moment. I would have worked to get longer sunset periods, and that’s something we could negotiate to get back in the deal. But the point is, Donald Trump told us when he got out of it that he was going to give us a better deal. Those were his words. And now we are a month away from the Iranians who claim now that they’re going to blow the caps on enriching uranium and the Iranians have told us this. And so that’s where we are right now. He has made us less safe than we were when he became president. So what I would do is negotiate us back into that agreement, is stand with our allies give unlimited leverage to China and Russia, which was what he is done. And then finally, I would make sure that if there’s any possibility of a conflict, and we’re having this debate in Congress right now, that he comes to Congress for an authorization of military force. I would do that. And this president is literally every single day 10 minutes away from going to war, one tweet away from going to war, and I don’t think we should conduct foreign policy in our bathrobes at 5:00 in the morning.”

—June 26, 2019, at the first Democratic debate

 

“That means not balking on the Iran nuclear agreement.  Again, another number one fear and that agreement may not have been perfect, but now the European countries are struggling with how to make sure it keeps being enforced so that Iran doesn`t develop a nuclear weapon.  And so yes, you can make changes to things and negotiate things. But to me, it is – we must stand with our allies, we must be consistent with our foreign policy and we must listen to our troops, listen to what the military is saying, listen to the intelligence officers…”

—February 11, 2019, in an interview with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC

 

Senator Tulsi Gabbard (HI)

“Let’s deal with the situation where we are, where this president and his chicken hawk cabinet have led us to the brink of war with Iran. I served in the war in Iraq at the height of the war in 2005, a war that took over 4000 of my brothers and sisters in uniforms’ lives. The American people need to understand that this war with Iran would be far more devastating, far more costly than anything that we ever saw in Iraq. It would take many more lives, it would exacerbate the refugee crisis, and it wouldn’t be just contained within Iran. This would turn into a regional war. This is why it’s so important that everyone of us, every single American stand up and say no war with Iran. We need to get back into the Iran nuclear agreement And we need to negotiate how we can improve it. It was an imperfect deal. There are issues like their missile—their missile development that needs to be addressed. We can do both simultaneously to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and preventing us from going to war.”

“Look, obviously if there was an attack against the American—our troops, then there would have to be a response. But my point is, and it’s important for us to recognize this, is Donald Trump and his cabinet, Mike Pompeo, John Bolton and others are creating a situation that just a spark would light up a war with Iran, which is incredibly dangerous. That’s why we need to disk de-escalate tensions. Trump needs to get back into the Iran nuclear deal and swallow his pride, put the American people first.”

—June 26, 2019, at the first Democratic debate

 

“Because in their [the President and Secretary of State] mind, they could unilaterally start a war with Iran, without congressional authorization, which would be unconstitutional and illegal.”

––June 14, 2019 in an interview with The Intercept

 

“President Trump seems determined to go to war with Iran, even after he campaigned on the platform of ending regime change wars. Trump’s move yesterday to deny sanctions waivers to countries purchasing Iranian oil drives us closer to war with Iran, increasing tensions in the region, and putting the U.S. at odds with many of our allies. His actions make our country less safe, damaging our non-proliferation efforts and negotiations to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula,” said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. “The Trump Administration continues to do the bidding of Saudi Arabia without regard for our own national security and economic interests. It is in our national security interest to rejoin the Iran nuclear agreement, and in that regard, lift the sanctions that are hurting the Iranian people. Whatever concerns we may have apart from Iran’s nuclear program can be dealt with in separate agreements.”

—April 23, 2019, in an official statement

 

Julian Castro

“The issue that I have with this administration is that they seem to be hell-bent on moving us toward a war with Iran.  And the first step of that was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement. The Iran nuclear agreement was the best, strongest agreement that we had to make sure that a country did not develop a capacity to launch a nuclear weapon. 

And instead of embracing that and making sure, as all of the intelligence agencies said, that Iran continued to abide by the terms of the agreement, this president haphazardly came in and said, you know what, we’re going to throw that out the window. 

That makes the situation in Iran less stable.  It makes it more likely that we're going to get into conflict, which I don't believe in.  And it sends a signal to the rest of the world, including places like North Korea, that even if we engage in diplomatic efforts and move towards some sort of agreement that would keep them from developing further their nuclear capacity, that we’re going to honor it.”

––June 14, 2019 in a Fox News Townhall

Representative Seth Moulton (MA)

“I fought against Iranians when I was in Iraq. If necessary, I’d do so again. But right now, going to war with Iran is not necessary,” said Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass. who is running for president. (Members of) the Trump administration are trying to drag us into Iran just as they dragged us into Iraq.”

—June 14, 2019, in a statement according to the New York Times

 

Congressman Tim Ryan (OH)

"We must have our military engaged to the extent—to the extent they need to be but the reality of it is this president doesn’t even have people appointed in the State Department to deal with these things. Whether we’re talking about central America, whether we’re talking about Iran, whether we’re talking about Afghanistan we have got to be completely engaged. And here is why—because these flare ups distract us from the real problems in the country. If we’re getting drones shot down for $130 million because the President is distracted that’s $130 million we could be spending in Youngstown, Ohio or Flint Michigan.”

––June 26, 2019 at the first Democratic debate

 

John Delaney (MD)

“I will seek to rejoin the JCPOA but negotiate tougher terms with Iran upon re-entry.”

––June 26, 2019, in a speech at the Johns Hopkins SAIS
 

Steve Bullock (MO)

 

“The Iran nuclear deal wasn’t perfect, but you know what? They stopped. They stopped because America didn’t go in alone. We came together with our partners, and I think that when we start treating sort of our allies as adversaries and our adversaries as allies, we’re losing track of what’s—since post-World War II, I mean—the established order of this world.”

––May 14, 2019, in an interview with CBS News

 

Michael Bennett (CO)

“Anybody who thinks that Trump has somehow intimidated Iran by doing what he is doing, you only need to study the reports of the Iranian attack on a Saudi Arabia oil infrastructure. The precision of that attack and how that whole region is now having to think about their national security in the wake of a blown up Iran nuclear deal and in the wake of their demonstrated capacity, which we didn’t really understand to that degree.”

“I would get the parties back together and say, where do you want to start? Including the Iranians, including our allies, and say: should we start with the deal as it was? I’d be happy to start with the deal as it was. Are there other things we’d like to negotiate? I was never thrilled about the term of the agreement, wish the ballistic missiles had been part of it.”

--October 28, 2019 in an interview at the 2019 J Street Conference.

“Since taking office, President Trump has produced no strategy to counter Iran’s malevolent activities across the Middle East, all of which would be more dangerous if backed by a nuclear weapon. U.S. intelligence has assessed Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], and the President has offered no alternative path forward to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear capabilities. The President’s abandonment of the agreement is reckless.”

––June 22, 2019, in a Senate news release

 

Candidates who have ended their campaigns

 

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (NY)

“President Trump is hell-bent on starting a war with Iran. My first act will be to engage Iran to stabilize the Middle East and make sure we do not start an unwanted never-ending war.”

—June 27, 2019, at the second Democratic debate

 

John Hickenlooper (CO)

“I would be willing to consider resuming U.S. participation in the Iran nuclear agreement, but only after working with our allies to include tougher conditions against Iran’s support for regional terror groups, its ballistic missile program, and its long-term ability to pursue a nuclear program.”

––May 20, 2019, in a speech at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs

 

Governor Jay Inslee (WA)

“We need to go back and restore the international agreements we had to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear power. That’s a path to peace. Look, I saw the Iraq War, I voted against the Iraq War. We should not allow that to happen again in this country.”

––June 22, 2019, in an interview with MSNBC

 

Representative Seth Moulton (D-MA)

“I fought against Iranians when I was in Iraq. If necessary, I’d do so again. But right now, going to war with Iran is not necessary,” said Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass. who is running for president. (Members of) the Trump administration are trying to drag us into Iran just as they dragged us into Iraq.”

—June 14, 2019, in a statement according to the New York Times

 

Representative Tim Ryan (D-OH)

“We must have our military engaged to the extent—to the extent they need to be but the reality of it is this president doesn’t even have people appointed in the State Department to deal with these things. Whether we’re talking about central America, whether we’re talking about Iran, whether we’re talking about Afghanistan we have got to be completely engaged. And here is why—because these flare ups distract us from the real problems in the country. If we’re getting drones shot down for $130 million because the President is distracted that’s $130 million we could be spending in Youngstown, Ohio or Flint Michigan.”

––June 26, 2019 at the first Democratic debate

“The Iran Nuclear Agreement remains our best chance for lasting peace and nuclear nonproliferation in Iran. … The President is committing an egregious national security miscalculation rooted in politics, not fact.”

––May 8, 2019, in a news release

 

Updated