Bernie Sanders’s Lonely 2017 Battle to Stop Iran Sanctions and Save the Nuclear Deal

With Iran tensions soaring, Bernie Sanders stands as a leading anti-war candidate — and a 2017 fight over sanctions bolsters his case.

An Iranian woman walks past a mural painting of the Islamic republic's national flag in central Tehran on November 7, 2019. - Iran resumed uranium enrichment at its underground Fordow plant south of Tehran in a new step back from its commitments under a landmark 2015 nuclear deal. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/afp/AFP via Getty Images)
An Iranian woman walks past a mural of the Iranian flag in Tehran on Nov. 7, 2019. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

In the days since President Donald Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, leading Democratic presidential candidates have condemned the escalation and sought to differentiate themselves on the issue of foreign policy.

The Suleimani strike brought the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war, but the incident was preceded by years of Trump’s efforts to ratchet up tensions. He pushed new sanctions to undermine President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal — which had dramatically dimmed the likelihood of a confrontation — and, eventually, followed through on a campaign promise to back out of it entirely.

The history of Iran sanctions — both during Trump’s administration and Obama’s — as well as the maneuvering over the nuclear deal as it came into focus and was eventually signed, offer a rich history of 2020 candidates’ credentials for dealing with Iran.

Sanders has often led the way against conflict with Iran — frequently as a lonely yet strikingly consistent voice in the early years of the Trump administration.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who’s currently surging in polls across early primary states, has used the foreign policy debate over Iran as an opportunity to highlight his staunch anti-war record, while drawing sharp contrasts between himself and former Vice President Joe Biden, an enthusiastic backer of the disastrous Iraq War.

In the aftermath of the strike that killed Suleimani, Sanders co-introduced a bill to block funding for any military action in Iran. He also released a video saying that he’s “not sorry” for his opposition to past U.S. wars, from the Vietnam War when he was a young man to voting against the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “If you think the war in Iraq was a disaster,” he warned in the video, “my guess is that the war in Iran would be even worse.”

Another 2020 contender, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., joined Sanders’s bill, and every candidate in the Democratic presidential contest issued statements that cast the strike as reckless. As more facts emerged about the killing, other candidates also began questioning the legal justification for the strike — which Sanders had strongly denounced as an “assassination” out of the gate.

The united Democratic response of skepticism and alarm at Trump’s Suleimani strike was remarkable for a caucus that has so frequently been fractured over Iran policy. Even many of the 2020 contenders have gone back and forth on Iran issues. Yet Sanders has often led the way against conflict with Iran — frequently as a lonely yet strikingly consistent voice in the early years of the Trump administration.

Fight Over 2017 Iran Sanctions

As Trump has been pushing aggressive policies toward Iran since entering office, establishment Democrats in Congress helped pave the way through their consistent support for sanctions on the country.

In 2017, new sanctions spearheaded by the Trump administration began making their way through Congress. Out of all the candidates from congress on the January 2020 debate stage who served during this period, Sanders was the only one in either the Senate or House to defend the nuclear deal by consistently voting against the new measures. In contrast, other candidates in this cycle, like Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Michael Bennet of Colorado, joined Republicans to co-sponsor the new sanctions despite Iranian leadership’s repeated warnings that expanding sanctions would constitute a violation of the deal. (New Jersey’s Sen. Cory Booker, who officially dropped out of the presidential race on Monday morning, co-sponsored the legislation as well.)

Sanders’s dovish positioning became clear well before the final vote on the bill. Shortly before an early vote to move the bill forward in the Senate, a terrorist attack on the Iranian parliament killed 12 people and left more than 40 injured. Sanders called for delaying the vote to debate the measure on account of the attack. “On a day when Iran has been attacked by ISIS, by terrorism, now is not the time to go forward with legislation calling for sanctions against Iran,” he said on the Senate floor. “Let us be aware and cognizant that earlier today, the people of Iran suffered a horrific terror attack in their capital, Tehran.”

Yet all but five of the Senate’s Democrats — including current 2020 rivals Klobuchar, Bennet, and Warren — bucked Sanders and voted to move debate forward. The Vermont senator ended up being the only current Democratic presidential hopeful to vote against moving forward.

The Only No Vote in the Caucus

The original codification of the Iran deal also provides ample history to examine candidates’ records. Biden, for his part, played a critical role as vice president in persuading congressional Democrats to support the deal. The Obama White House tapped him to lead the lobbying effort on the Hill, to make sure the votes were there to prevent Congress from blocking the deal. Jeffrey Prescott, a former deputy national security adviser to Biden, co-authored an op-ed as the 2017 sanctions gained momentum saying that they gave “Iran an excuse to undermine the deal.” And another Obama administration veteran, former Secretary of State John Kerry, who negotiated the nuclear deal, came out publicly calling the new sanctions “dangerous.” Yet Biden himself was nowhere to be found.

When it came down to a vote on the 2017 bill in the full Senate, Sanders would be the only current 2020 contender to vote against it.

When a group of bipartisan senators reached a deal to add Russia sanctions to a bill sanctioning Iran, Sanders did join Warren, Klobuchar, and Bennet in voting for the amendment, though he would ultimately vote against the passage of the bundled sanctions. While urging the Senate to add the sanctions on Russia, Klobuchar singled out Iran, saying that senators “must protect our own citizens and our allies by enacting strong legislation to ensure that Iran does not cheat on its international commitment.”

When it came down to a vote on the 2017 bill in the full Senate, Sanders would be the only current 2020 contender to vote against it. The Senate passed the new sanctions on Iran nearly unanimously, on a 98-2 vote, with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., joining Sanders, while Warren, Klobuchar, and Bennet voted for the package.

Sanders would later take heat from a Democratic-aligned group for opposing the bill because it also contained the Russia sanctions, though his statements at the time were clear that his vote was over the danger posed to the Iran deal. “I have voted for sanctions on Iran in the past, and I believe sanctions were an important tool for bringing Iran to the negotiating table,” Sanders said in a statement. “But I believe that these new sanctions could endanger the very important nuclear agreement that was signed between the United States, its partners and Iran in 2015. That is not a risk worth taking, particularly at a time of heightened tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia and its allies.”

Because the House and Senate had different language in their bills, a unified, negotiated version of the sanctions package came back before the Senate a month later; Sanders and Paul were again the only ones to vote against the final sanctions package against Iran, Russia, and North Korea, known as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017. Warren, Klobuchar, Bennet, and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard all voted in support of the sanctions passage. Sanders cited concerns over Trump’s refusal to recertify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal, adding that the “new sanctions on Iran at this time take us in a dangerous direction.”

Iranian officials were furious over the new sanctions, which Trump signed into law, and filed a complaint accusing the U.S. of violating the Iran deal. The Iranian government also defiantly accelerated its ballistic missile program and fast-tracked funding for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the military branch whose elite force Suleimani commanded until his death.

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