2020 Dems urged toward nuance on Iran deal

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Top strategists consulted Obama veterans over how presidential hopefuls should address the JCPOA

candidates democratic debate night one miami 2020

Noticias Telemundo

Candidates at the first night of the 2020 Democratic primary debate in Miami.

Two top Democratic strategists on Jewish issues have sent a memo to presidential campaigns urging them to take a nuanced approach to rejoining the Iran nuclear deal.

Steve Rabinowitz, a veteran of the Clinton White House and a number of Democratic campaigns, and Aaron Keyak, the former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council, urged Democratic presidential hopefuls not to “turn the issue into an ideological purity test” and instead focus on “how to achieve longer lasting restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, and, separately, to address Iran’s threatening behavior in the region.” 

Rabinowitz and Keyak, who are partners at Bluelight Strategies, argue that “doing so certainly cannot be achieved if the next president unilaterally rejoins the JCPOA without regard to its terms.”

The two strategists previously organized the “No Nukes for Iran” campaign to encourage Democrats — particularly those in the Jewish community — to support the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015. They described the deal as “one of the landmark achievements of President Obama’s two terms in office” and say President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the deal was “reckless” and terrible.”

But, they point out, “while candidates may declare that they are for getting back into the Iran deal, the JCPOA as we know it won’t exist for us to return to in a few years.”

In particular, many key provisions of the deal, including sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program and limitations on testing centrifuges, will expire during the next president’s term in office. Since the Trump administration’s 2018 decision to withdraw from the deal, Iran has announced it will stop complying with some aspects of the JCPOA.

Rabinowitz and Keyak consulted on the memo with a number of former Obama administration experts and Iran experts, whom Keyak said were “similarly struggling with how to best deal with the JCPOA from a policy and messaging perspective, especially around the sunset [provisions].”

The memo includes suggested talking points for candidates including:

“When I am president, we will seek to reenter a diplomatic agreement with Iran, while simultaneously engaging in multilateral negotiations to extend some of the most important elements of the Iran deal that will be expiring around 2021 or in the few years after. That’s because key restrictions in the Iran deal of 2021 won’t still be active elements of the agreement as negotiated a half decade earlier.”

Dan Shapiro, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2011 to 2017, told Jewish Insider that the memo was “an attempt to help campaigns look forward to the situation a new president will find themselves in 2021 and try to formulate realistic proposals for their consideration of how that policy making process will unfold.”

The former diplomat noted: “We’ll be in a new situation just by virtue of [the] passage of time and by virtue of how everyone has reacted to Trump’s withdrawal [from the JCPOA].” Shapiro said the memo was “realistic in the sense it counsels against the idea you can simply act as though that decision didn’t take place, and all the fallout from it and all the ways it isolated the United States. That’s not going to be something you can return to the status quo.”

The former ambassador noted the memo was flexible, describing it as “a suggestion of ways of thinking about the issue, not a hard and fast approach” and thought it would be a useful resource as “there’s no reason for a campaign to get deep into the policy-making, decision-making process on this issue or any other issue that is not central [to] how the campaign is being run…  a year and a half [away] from the situation that a new president will face” upon taking office.

Tommy Vietor, a former spokesman for the National Security Council during Obama’s tenure said the memo represented “terrible advice.” Instead, he argued that Democrats should “get back in the deal and then renegotiate [a] longer deadline.” Vietor warned that “Democrats appearing afraid of their own shadow when it comes to the Iran deal is both bad politics and bad policy. Be for diplomacy, be for getting back in the deal and then be in a position of strength where the Iran nuclear program is being handled.”

Vietor, who is one of the hosts of the popular podcast Pod Save America, pointed to a poll of Democratic primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina that showed 84% support for re-entering the Iran deal.

“I think both the political and substantive answer here is very obvious,” Vietor said. “I think Democrats look weak and sabotage themselves where they talk about [the] Iran deal with a half dozen caveats. Every diplomatic deal in history was imperfect.”

By contrast, a Republican congressional staffer struck a more supportive note. “It’s a simple fact the Iran deal will be expiring right when the next president is being inaugurated, including the U.N. arms embargo,” a senior Capitol Hill aide told JI. “Democrats who care about national security are rightly worried how it’ll look if a Democrat president ‘reenters the deal’ [and] drops sanctions just as Iran begins purchasing planeloads of weapons from Putin. It’ll be interesting to see how much pickup this gets, since it’s true.”

But the debate is likely to still be complicated regardless of whether candidates pay any heed to the document. As Rabinowitz warned, “This has probably been the nastiest debate in the Jewish community in decades, and it’s still a volatile issue and a potential trap for anyone forced to opine who hasn’t truly had their ear to the communal ground and sought wise counsel. Simple answers have worked for a while but won’t last long among many of us.”

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