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2020 Democratic Candidates Explain Their Iran Strategy

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Among the candidates who didn’t mention Iran was Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who says she’s running specifically as the peace candidate; she made only the broadest, passing reference to conflict in her promise to “end the wasteful regime-change wars.” Massachusetts Representative Seth Moulton, who’s tried to center his own fledgling campaign around national security, skipped over the subject too. When I spoke with him late Friday, after his remarks, Moulton pointed out that he had talked about his own service as a decorated Marine, and had contrasted himself with “a reckless commander in chief” whom he argued has brought the country to “the brink of war.”

“People say Trump doesn’t want to go to war, but the one thing that Trump is more concerned about than going to war is looking weak,” Moulton told me just before midnight, as the heat of the South Carolina night was finally starting to break and the last of the fried fish was being dished out.

The Democrats I spoke with about Iran framed the president as an agent of blundering chaos. “Americans are tired of the country going to war based on lack of planning, a haphazard policy,” said former Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro. When I asked if he thought Trump wants a war, he offered a noncommittal “I hope not.”

When asked for their own approach to Iran, the candidates I spoke with all landed on the same optimistic generalities: They’d rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, pursue alliances, and prioritize diplomacy. In a race haunted by the assumption—in international relations, at least—that there’s a way of turning back the clock to a pre-Trump order, the situation in Iran is like a blister, reminding the world that the friction isn’t just going to go away.

Imagine, I said to a few of the candidates: Tomorrow morning, you’re president—what do you do on Iran?

“The first thing you do is work with our allies, engage in diplomacy, try to deescalate the situation,” Klobuchar told me. “The second thing is, if I’m president, on day one—if this is still going on—you negotiate yourself back into the Iranian agreement.” Klobuchar also noted that she’s eager for the coming political fight over the 9/11-era Authorization for Use of Military Force, which has been stretched so far to cover military actions across the Middle East.

Buttigieg, who did a tour in Afghanistan in the Naval Reserves, raised that point as well at a town hall in North Augusta, South Carolina, on Saturday. “Congress has been asleep at the switch, but in this country, Congress decides when we go to war,” he said, responding to a question about Iran from a voter.

“I’m so disturbed by what appears to be an escalation toward war with Iran, engineered, by the way, by some of the people who got us into Iraq,” Buttigieg said. Responding to Trump’s about-face on a military strike, he said, “I guess I’m glad he changed his mind, but what does this mean? It means we have a president who is easy to manipulate, who has trouble making decisions, who does not have a defense secretary and is taking advice from people who made some of the worst decisions of my lifetime.”

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