WASHINGTON — In the last debate before the first votes are cast in the 2020 presidential primary, Democratic candidates on Tuesday promised to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon while vowing to try re-entering the landmark nuclear deal US President Donald Trump withdrew from.
Less than a month from the Iowa caucuses, 2020 hopefuls castigated Trump for inflaming tensions with Tehran. Trump’s pulling out of the nuclear pact, they said, precipitated the current crisis.
“Because of the actions of Donald Trump, we are now in a situation where Iran is starting to enrich uranium again, in violation of the original agreement,” said Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar.
Former Vice President Joe Biden also suggested Trump was to blame for increased Iranian aggression.
“I was part of that deal to get the nuclear agreement with Iran, bringing together the rest of the world, including some of the folks who aren’t friendly to us,” Biden said. “And it was working. It was being held tightly. There was no movement on the part of the Iranian government to get nuclear weapons. And look what’s happened: It was predictable from the day he pulled out of the agreement what would happen.”
Last week, the United States and Iran appeared headed for an armed confrontation after Trump ordered a strike that killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.
On Tuesday night, several 2020 Democrats, including Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, said they suspected the administration wasn’t being truthful when saying Soleimani had been planning “imminent” attacks against American facilities and had to be stopped.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg said he would not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, should be become president, and said the drone strike killing Solemani “set off the chain of events that we’re now dealing with as it escalates even closer to the brink of outright war.”
While Klobuchar also vowed to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, neither she nor Buttigieg specified what exactly they would do to prevent Tehran from crossing the nuclear threshold, besides conducting negotiations.
All of the candidates who spoke on the subject of Iran praised the Obama-led 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the Iran deal is formally known, and said they would try to re-enter the accord or negotiate a new one.
“I would start negotiations again and I won’t take that as a given, given that our European partners are still trying to hold the agreement together,” said Klobuchar.
“I would not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon, and then you have to get an agreement in place,” she added. “I think there are changes you can make to the agreement… but overall, that is what we should do.”
After the US-Iran flare-up last week, 2020 hopefuls used the Tuesday debate — held at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa — to discuss their positions on matters of war and peace.
Non-interventionist Senator Sanders assailed Biden over Iraq, saying that while he opposed an Iraq war that was “based on lies,” Biden trumpeted the effort.
“I thought they were lying,” Sanders said of the Bush administration’s justifications for it in 2002. “I didn’t believe them for a moment. Joe saw it differently.”
Biden said he acknowledged years ago that it was a “mistake to go to war,” but he largely declined to clash with Sanders over Iraq.
Instead, he called for leaving special forces and some troops in the Middle East to patrol the Gulf, pushing back against Sanders’s and Senator Elizabeth Warren’s call to bring all American forces home.
“I think we need to get our combat troops out,” said Warren, who is battling Sanders for the right to wave the progressive flag in the 2020 Democratic race.
While Biden, the 77-year-old establishment candidate, is leading national polling, he and Sanders are in a dead heat in Iowa, followed closely by Buttigieg and Warren.
But the race remains extremely fluid, with a recent Des Moines Register poll saying six in 10 likely caucus voters could still be persuaded.