from Candidates Answer CFR's Questions

The Democratic Candidates on the Iran Nuclear Deal

July 30, 2019

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

CFR invited the Democratic candidates to articulate their positions on twelve critical foreign policy issues before the second set of presidential debates. The questionnaire was sent to all candidates on July 8, 2019. Candidates’ answers are posted exactly as they were received. View all questions here.


Would you rejoin the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)? What changes to the existing agreement, if any, would you require before agreeing to rejoin the accord?

Joe Biden

Joe Biden Former Vice President of the United States

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Iran is a destabilizing actor in the Middle East; it must never be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. President Trump abandoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—a deal that blocked Iran’s paths to nuclear weapons, as repeatedly verified by international inspectors—with no viable plan to produce a better one. His reckless actions have produced a deep crisis in transatlantic relations and pushed China and Russia closer to Iran. As a result, the United States, rather than Iran, has been isolated. Predictably, Iran has restarted its nuclear program and become more aggressive, moving the region closer to another disastrous war. In short, Trump’s decisions have left us much worse off.

What Iran is doing is dangerous, but still reversible. If Iran moves back into compliance with its nuclear obligations, I would re-enter the JCPOA as a starting point to work alongside our allies in Europe and other world powers to extend the deal’s nuclear constraints. Doing so would provide a critical down payment to re-establish U.S. credibility, signaling to the world that America’s word and international commitments once again mean something. I would also leverage renewed international consensus around America’s Iran policy—and a redoubled commitment to diplomacy—to more effectively push back against Tehran’s other malign behavior in the region.

Read all of Joe Biden’s responses.

Cory Booker

Cory Booker Senator, New Jersey

It was a serious mistake for President Trump to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, and I never would have done it. The JCPOA brought transparency into Iran’s nuclear program and pushed back a nuclear breakout by at least 10 years. Without an agreement, Iran is now able to rapidly enrich uranium and drastically reduce the time it would take for them to produce a nuclear weapon.

While I strongly support a nuclear deal with Iran, we cannot turn back the clock and pretend the damage that President Trump has caused over the last 3 years hasn’t happened. The 2015 deal was premised on continued negotiations with the Iranians so that we could work towards a longer-term solution. We will have had four years wasted under Trump, and the sunset clauses, after which key provisions will phase out, are now that much closer. We must take stock of facts on the ground, including Iran’s recent breach of its enrichment limit, and negotiate an updated agreement to stop the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program.

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Read all of Cory Booker’s responses.

Steve Bullock

Steve Bullock Governor of Montana

Yes. I would rejoin the JCPOA, if it is still an option by January 2021. A nuclear Iran would further destabilize the entire Middle East and we must prevent it. I would work closely with our European allies and collaborate towards our common goal of a non-nuclear Iran and a Middle East that can work toward peace and prosperity without the constant threat of nuclear conflict.

Read all of Steve Bullock’s responses.

Pete Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg Mayor of South Bend, Indiana

I have been clear: walking away from the JCPOA was a strategic mistake. We didn’t develop the deal as a favor to Iran; we did it because it was in our national security interest. The deal represented a detailed and verifiable arrangement that permanently prohibited Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. And the JCPOA was effective: Iran was upholding its commitments, as confirmed repeatedly by international inspectors and our own intelligence community, when President Trump withdrew from it. Walking away from the JCPOA also cost us credibility and the trust of our partners, hindering our ability to work with allies to solve difficult collective challenges. 

We should have no illusions about the reality that Iran poses challenges to U.S. interests beyond its nuclear program: its ballistic missile program, malign behavior in the region, threats to our ally Israel, and human rights abuses. But having the JCPOA in place created a foundation from which we could begin addressing those concerns, all of which will be even more intractable if we lack a mechanism to verifiably and permanently prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. 

If Iran resumes implementing its commitments, then I would rejoin. But I would take the agreement as a floor, not a ceiling. I would revive P5+1 diplomacy and direct US-Iran dialogue at the appropriate levels and would want to pursue follow-on agreements that extend the timeframe of certain nuclear restrictions, cover Iran’s missile program, and address its role in regional conflicts, all in return for targeted sanctions relief. 

Read all of Pete Buttigieg’s responses.

John Delaney

John Delaney Former Representative, Maryland

Yes, I would rejoin, but I would insist on a longer duration. The JCPOA was the best arrangement that six of the leading nations in the world, plus the European Union, could reach to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. At the time the Trump Administration withdrew from the JCPOA, Iran was in compliance with the terms. U.S. withdrawal has become a provocation for the Iranians to not feel constrained to abide by the JCPOA, which has made the situation with Iran inherently more dangerous. The most significant weakness of the JCPOA was the tenor- it was not long enough in duration to provide hope for a successor Iranian regime to confirm long-term compliance. I would seek a longer term - 20 years - as a condition for rejoining the JCPOA. In addition, I would make clear to the Iranians that, while the JCPOA does not address Iranian ICBM developments or Iranian complicity in terrorist activities, the United States will independently of the nuclear deal take strong measures to respond to any such conduct. Iran is a bad actor, and the JCPOA with a longer duration is an important part of eliminating the threat that Iran can possess a nuclear weapon, a situation that must not be accepted.

Read all of John Delaney’s responses.

Kirsten Gillibrand

Kirsten Gillibrand Senator, New York

Abandoning the Iran nuclear deal was reckless and dangerous. We need to rejoin our allies in returning to the agreement, provided Iran agrees to comply with the agreement and take steps to reverse its breaches, and strengthen the deal. While President Trump’s reckless policies have moved American security and the security of allies backwards, I would - together with our allies - press Iran to extend the agreement for a longer period, and tackle other security issues from Iran’s missile program to its support for terrorists. I believe that our leverage will increase if Iran sees the benefit of agreeing to a deal.

Read all of Kirsten Gillibrand’s responses.

Seth Moulton

Seth Moulton Representative, Massachusetts

Yes. The best and most durable way to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed state is to do so through a diplomatic agreement with verification and monitoring, which we had in place before President Trump unilaterally withdrew from it. Therefore, our first goal should be rejoining the Iran deal and strengthening it, focused on extending the timelines for the specific provisions that have sunset clauses. We should also work to conclude separate agreements addressing issues such as ballistic missiles. The secondary, longer-term goal should be to move Iran towards less belligerent behavior in the region, where Iran is not threatening our allies or our interests. Neither of these goals can be achieved by simply backing Iran into a corner with no escape. We need to use sanctions, open a direct dialogue with Iran, and give them a path forward that does not include outright war. 

Read all of Seth Moulton’s responses.

Beto O’Rourke

Beto O’Rourke Former Representative, Texas

Yes, as President, I will rejoin the JCPOA, conditioned on Iran’s compliance with its commitments under the agreement. President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA was short-sighted, reckless, and against the recommendations of both the U.S. and Israeli intelligence communities. The nuclear agreement was not perfect—no negotiated agreement can be—but it significantly advanced American interests and was succeeding in blocking Iran’s pathway to achieving nuclear capability. Moreover, our sudden withdrawal has made the United States and our allies less safe and weakened our credibility as a good-faith negotiator for subsequent dealings with Iran and other regimes. 

As President, I will reverse these policies. I will restore US credibility, and use the agreement as a starting point for future negotiations, along with our allies, aimed at reigning in Iran’s most destabilizing behavior in the region, limiting Iran’s ballistic missile capability, and ensuring that Iran never becomes a nuclear weapon state. 

President Trump’s reckless and cavalier saber-rattling is moving us closer to a military confrontation with the Iranian regime. As President, I will put an end to this irresponsible approach. I will work with our allies in Europe and in the region to tackle the serious challenges posed by the Iranian regime and restore our commitment to the hard work of diplomacy.

Read all of Beto O'Rourke responses.

Tim Ryan Representative, Ohio

At this point, it would be impossible to rejoin the JCPOA as it was written in 2015. I would absolutely support entering a new version of the JCPOA that extends restrictions even further into the future, but I would not compensate the Iranians for economic losses suffered after the U.S. left the agreement. It is in Iran’s interest to reenter the agreement in order to lift sanctions, they do not need to be compensated beyond that, especially given the possibility that this money could end up in the hands of terrorist organizations and malicious actors throughout the region.

Read all of Tim Ryan’s responses.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders Senator, Vermont

Yes. The agreement achieved by the US, Europe, Russia and China with Iran is one of the strongest anti-nuclear agreements ever negotiated. It prevented a war and blocked Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon. I would re-enter the agreement on day one of my presidency and then work with the P5+1 and Iran to build upon it with additional measures to further block any path to a nuclear weapon, restrain Iran’s offensive actions in the region and forge a new strategic balance in the Middle East.

Read all of Bernie Sanders’s responses.

Joe Sestak

Joe Sestak Former Representative, Pennsylvania

I would move to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) as soon as possible upon my swearing in. We never should have left it in the first place. We broke our word, so we should not be demanding changes to the agreement, but rather recognize the value of the nuclear accord as is. Certainly, the JCPOA was not a perfect agreement. It did not deal with the threat from Iranian missiles, or their support for violent extremism. And it contains a “sunset clause,” meaning it  expires after a decade. But it was accomplishing the one goal it set out to achieve: stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons. On that metric alone, it was a success. International disarmament agreements are complicated, and it’s normal for them to sunset after a given period of time. In this case, the deal was good enough to be supported by all of our European allies, along with Russia and China, and of course Iran itself. Iran was abiding by its terms. If the deal had been given the chance to hold for the full decade, it would have created a reservoir of goodwill between Iran and the world that would be the basis for the next agreement. After decades of animosity between Iran and the United States, it takes time to build trust. The JCPOA was doing that. Our leaving the agreement not only destroyed a carefully crafted international agreement, it also sapped our credibility in negotiations with other countries, like North Korea. 

What’s worse, our Iran policy now seems to dismiss the principle that “militaries can stop a problem, but militaries cannot fix a problem.” Our diplomacy had convened the world and reached agreement on economic sanctions, including with new bedfellows such as Russia and China. Now our military is poised to “stop” a problem we had already “fixed” by diplomacy. Even if this were to occur, such as with strikes to destroy their nuclear infrastructure, at most, such strikes would result in delaying Iran’s timetable for creating a nuclear weapon by only four years. The results would also include fractured alliances, economic disarray, more nuclear arms races, and a loss of U.S. credibility and leadership within our rules-based world order – requiring fixing.

Read all of Joe Sestak’s responses.

Marianne Williamson

Marianne Williamson Author

I would rejoin the JCPOA, a historic achievement in multilateral diplomacy. Every IAEA report confirmed Iran's compliance. US withdrawal and severe sanctions violated the trust that had been painstakingly built. Rejoining the JCPOA will require healing from this rupture and rebuilding trust. 

After the deal, Iranian moderates gained popularity and fundamentalists lost power. President Rouhani was elected to restore the economy and improve relationships with the West. Foreign Minister Zarif, who led negotiations, had a good relationship with then Secretary Kerry. This deal was intended as a first step toward improving relationships. 

The Supreme Leader and hardliners opposed the deal. US withdrawal increases their popularity and justifies their mistrust of the US. Our sanctions are harming the Iranian people. 

US propaganda exaggerates threats, and falsely claims the deal lets Iran get nuclear weapons within 10 years. This disregards the likelihood of changed dynamics and improved relationships. Iran is a potential ally against Sunni extremism with many common interests to build upon. 

Over half of Iran’s graduate students are women. About 60% of the people are under 30. Many of them want normal relations with the West. 

Iran is a political football. The UAE and Saudi Arabia do not want the US to improve relations with Iran and would like to provoke a war. It is said that the Saudis want to fight Iranians to the last American. We need to be careful to not be drawn into war by those who want us to fight Iranians for them. I would increase diplomacy, decrease tensions, and transform relations to create a context to address human rights and other issues. Sanctions relief and purchasing Air Buses would support travel, entrepreneurship and normalization.

Read all of Marianne Williamson’s responses.

Andrew Yang

Andrew Yang Entrepreneur

Iran is a destabilizing force in the region, and the JCPOA gave us both short-term victories in stabilizing the region through minimizing their influence, and inroads to further discussion to find a solution that would work over a longer period. Leaving the JCPOA was a massive strategic mistake, and one that only served to increase the likelihood of armed conflict in the country. The American people have no desire for armed conflict with Iran, which would lead to another multi-decade engagement that would spread throughout the region and have no clear benefit for the American people.

We need to work with our allies that are still party to the agreement to negotiate a new JCPOA, with longer terms and delayed deadlines to reflect the time wasted with Trump and Bolton’s posturing. We need to get Iran back in compliance with the limitations placed on them under the agreement on nuclear materials and enrichment capabilities.

Then, we need to build on the agreement to get Iran to stop destabilizing the region, attacking our allies, funding terrorist organizations, and causing conflict in the Strait of Hormuz.

Read all of Andrew Yang’s responses.

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