In Debate Focused on Foreign Policy, Democrats Warn of New War With Iran

Candidates criticize Trump's Iran policy as Sanders takes pride in his vote against the Iraq war, attacking Biden for supporting it

Democratic candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former Vice President Joe Biden during a Democratic presidential primary debate in Des Moines, Iowa, January 14, 2020.
Patrick Semansky,AP

WASHINGTON – The Democratic debate on Tuesday night, the last before voting for the party’s presidential nomination begins on February 3, was heavily focused on foreign policy and the threat of war between the United States and Iran.

The first 30 minutes were exclusively devoted to issues of war and peace, with the Middle East becoming the main focus of the different candidates. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is currently leading in most of the polls, accused President Donald Trump of creating a crisis with Iran by leaving the 2015 nuclear deal, which was negotiated by the Obama administration. “The deal was working, look what’s happening now,” Biden said. “We’re isolated. Our allies in Europe are comparing the U.S. and Iran, saying both have to stand down. We have lost the support of our allies.” 

Biden added: “Our next president has to insist that Iran goes back into the agreement,” in order to stop the Islamic Republic from developing nuclear weapons. 

Television monitors are seen in the press room of the seventh Democratic 2020 presidential debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on January 14, 2020.
BRENNA NORMAN/ REUTERS

On Tuesday, Haaretz reported that Israeli military intelligence estimates that Iran could get enough material for a nuclear bomb within a year. Senator Amy Klobuchar said on the debate stage that “because of Donald Trump,” Iran was once again enriching uranium and the Middle East was experiencing a “dangerous escalation.” Klobuchar said she would “start negotiations again” with Iran, and that she was open to making certain changes to the nuclear deal – on issues like its termination date and the level of inspections at Iran’s nuclear sites.

While Klobuchar did not specify what exactly her changes to the agreement would look like, her past record suggests she would demand a tougher approach toward Iran as part of a new agreement. Klobuchar voted in favor of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015 but had some criticism over its terms, and opponents of the deal believed she could be persuaded to vote against it. 

Senator Bernie Sanders warned that Trump was “lying and trying to drag us into war with Iran.” He compared Trump’s actions to lies that were offered by U.S. administrations before the Iraq and Vietnam wars. “We have got to undo what Trump did, and make sure that Iran never gets nuclear weapons,” Sanders said. 

Sanders took pride in his vote against the Iraq War, and criticized Biden for supporting it. Biden admitted that his Iraq vote was “a mistake,” but shot back by highlighting his work to get U.S. troops out of Iraq under President Barack Obama.

Biden also mentioned that his late son, Beau Biden, served in Iraq as a soldier. “I know what it means to send a son to war,” Biden said, promising that as president he would work to limit U.S. military involvement in the Middle East to “special forces operations” against the Islamic State group. 

Sanders also spoke about a resolution he pushed in Congress in 2018 against the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which won the support of several Republican senators but was eventually vetoed by Trump. Sanders said this shows he can “bring together new coalitions” on foreign policy, including with conservatives who oppose wars in the Middle East. 

Senator Elizabeth Warren took a different line, calling to bring back U.S. troops from the Middle East and ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We need to get our combat troops out,” she said, “and stop this mind-set that we can do everything with combat soldiers.” Warren added, “Our military is the finest military on Earth, and they will take any sacrifice we ask them to take. But we should stop asking our military to solve problems that cannot be solved militarily.”

Biden and Klobuchar offered a different view. Both said they support leaving small numbers of special forces in the Middle East – including in northeast Syria, the area from which Trump recently withdrew several hundred soldiers. Klobuchar clarified, however, that she believed Trump was sending too many new troops to the Middle East because of the crisis with Iran. “Donald Trump is taking us to another war,” she said.

Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, mentioned his service in Afghanistan and said that Trump “said he will end the endless war, and pretended to be against the war in Iraq even though he supported it, but he now has more troops in the Middle East.”

Buttigieg said he would ensure Iran never gets nuclear weapons, but that Trump “has made it much harder” for the next president to handle the Iranian threat, “by gutting the Iran nuclear deal that his own administration admitted was working.” Buttigieg said Trump “has made the region more dangerous.” 

Buttigieg also said that “the next president will be confronted with national security challenges that are very different from anything we’ve seen before,” including cyberthreats and the growing dangers of global warming. “We need a president who will take a view into the future,” said Buttigieg, the youngest candidate on stage. 

Billionaire Tom Steyer, participating in his first televised debate, said the United States was now looking at “20 years of mistakes in the Middle East,” and blamed Trump for bringing the country to the brink of war. He added that, as president, he would make climate his number one priority and put an end to U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, in order to focus on urgent internal priorities.