Donald Trump and his administration are on a roll – threatening historical allies, undermining major international accords, and risking nuclear war. So it is strange to watch leading Congressional Democrats prepare to hand over to President Trump new authorities to undo the Iran nuclear accord – a historic agreement that places long-term restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program while avoiding a costly and altogether unnecessary war. For what reason do Democrats seek a share of the blame if and when President Trump leads us into a cataclysmic war with Iran?
Sometime over the next several weeks, Congress is likely to vote on new sanctions that would mandate and encourage President Trump to impose sanctions on Iran – some of which could fatally undermine the U.S.’s JCPOA commitments and scuttle the nuclear accord. Democrats have signed up as co-sponsors for Senate and House legislation, believing their political fortunes best lie in supporting aggressive action against Iran rather than acting as a buffer against the Trump administration’s efforts to derail a nuclear accord that, by all accounts, is working as intended.
Democrats are risking a historic mistake – an error in judgment that could end up both alienating their progressive base and costing them hoped-for electoral gains, not to mention setting the stage for a new conflict in the Middle East. Instead of allying themselves with Republican-led assaults on the JCPOA, Congressional Democrats should be seeking to protect President Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement from attack, including by limiting – not aggrandizing – President Trump’s authorities to undercut the nuclear accord. Several issues merit consideration:
First, Democrats appear to be miscalculating the political moment. We are no longer in the Obama era, where Congress could push new sanctions on Iran that risked the nuclear accord with confidence that President Obama would act as a backstop, utilizing his executive authorities to insulate the agreement from bad legislation. Instead, we have a Trump administration that is keen on undermining or altogether scuttling the nuclear accord and will use Congressional encouragement as a ripe excuse to render its fatal blow to the agreement. In short, Congress is no longer firing blanks: If Congress passes new sanctions legislation that threatens to undermine or undo the nuclear accord, it will be Congress that absorbs the political consequences – not a President Trump. Congressional Democrats – particularly those who offered their support for the Senate and House legislation – will not be immune from these consequences.
Democrats will be sure to face the music from their progressive base, which almost unanimously views Trump’s conduct of foreign policy as irrational, unpredictable, and aggressive. Just last week, President Trump was engaged in close consultation with John Bolton – a man who has long advocated war with Iran – and has refused to rein in hawkish NSC voices that have threatened to undo the JCPOA. Democratic voters will be unlikely to forgive those who entrusted a historic diplomatic agreement – President Obama’s signature foreign policy legacy – to a President unmoored from either convention or sense.
Second, if new U.S. sanctions undermine or undo the Iran nuclear accord, a diplomatic resolution to the Iran nuclear dispute will be forever out of reach and the road to war will have been paved. Contra U.S. hawks, Iran will not return to the negotiating table if the United States fails to live up to its JCPOA obligations. Instead, Congress and the Trump administration will have confirmed the predictions of Iran’s own hardliners that the U.S. cannot be trusted to follow through on its commitments, undermining Iranian moderates and foreclosing a political settlement. In doing so, the Trump administration will be left with two options: either accede to an unrestricted Iranian nuclear program or prepare for war with Iran. It is unnerving that Democrats trust a President Trump to handle with care such indelicate options.
Third, undoing the Iran nuclear accord will deal a serious blow to U.S. credibility overseas and spell doom to the possibilities for a diplomatic resolution to the budding crisis with North Korea. Much as with Iran, the United States has sought leverage over North Korea by imposing sanctions and restricting North Korea’s access to global trade markets. Any potential diplomatic resolution will thus require the United States to lift these trade restrictions in favor of limitations on elements of North Korea’s nuclear program.
However, if the Trump administration fails to live up to its JCPOA obligations or upends the nuclear accord – especially with bipartisan support from Congress – not only will a peaceful settlement to the Iran nuclear dispute have been inevitably scuttled, but any diplomatic resolution with North Korea will have been effectively foreclosed. North Korea will view the U.S.’s abrogation of the Iran nuclear accord as clear evidence that the U.S. cannot be trusted to keep to its commitments and will refuse to deal with the Trump administration. In this case, peace will be impossible and war inevitable. Congress’s failings on Iran will spill over and deter peaceful settlement in other areas of conflict such as the Korean peninsula. Democrats will be on the hook once again.
Rather than encouraging President Trump to take steps to undermine or undo the nuclear accord, Congressional Democrats should be acting as a buffer between the Trump administration and the JCPOA – ensuring the sustenance of the nuclear accord and keeping the frame of the Iran debate one of peace versus war. This should not be a perplexing issue: the Iran deal is working as intended and continues to draw the unanimous support of the international community. Democrats who see political benefit in effectively allying with President Trump and Republican-led attacks on the JCPOA are gravely misjudging the moment and will be sure to assume the political costs of leading us down the path to war.