Cory Booker Says He Won't Necessarily Rejoin Obama's Iran Deal

The senator from New Jersey said he would try to craft a new agreement to address international concerns over the Islamic Republic's nuclear capability.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) stood out among 10 contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination during Wednesday night’s debate by saying that he would not recommit the U.S. to the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran.

“If I have an opportunity to leverage a better deal, then I’m going to do it,” Booker said, adding that he would consider security conditions in the Middle East at the time he entered the Oval Office and would not “say unilaterally” that he would rejoin the accord as it stands now.

President Barack Obama viewed the deal as a signature accomplishment, and most of Booker’s rivals in the Democratic field have publicly said they want to reverse President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the agreement in May 2018. Booker and most Senate Democrats voted for the pact ― under which Iran accepted years of limits on its nuclear capabilities in exchange for relief from tough international sanctions, and which every key world power supported ― when the GOP challenged it in Congress.

When Trump ended U.S. participation, Booker criticized his move.

“I had concerns about the Iran nuclear agreement when I voted on it, but an imperfect deal with years remaining to conduct further diplomacy was and remains better than a nuclear-armed Iran,” he said in a statement at the time. “The President’s decision puts the U.S. in default of our commitments to the international community and our closest allies. It jeopardizes the ability of the [International Atomic Energy Agency] to keep inspectors on the ground in Iran and maintain continuous monitoring of Iranian nuclear sites, putting the security of our allies, including Israel, at risk. And it is an unequivocal blow to our friends and a gift to our adversaries, moving the United States further down a path of isolation and retreat and adding further instability to the Middle East.”

Lawmakers and U.S. allies have continued to talk about preserving the deal, noting that international experts have certified that Iran is continuing to abide by its commitments even as Trump has slashed the benefits it was promised in exchange and threatened countries that do business with it. Now Tehran says it is considering violating the terms of the agreement unless the pressure abates soon.

More hawkish Trump officials and critics of Iran in the U.S. and abroad, notably Israel and Saudi Arabia, have celebrated the apparent demise of the deal and Washington’s new appetite for confrontation with Iran.

Booker has historically been close to pro-Israel donors and communities who are wary of Iran. He is a strong critic of the campaign to isolate Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians, and this spring he told a closed session of activists from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee ― one of the most influential forces lobbying against Obama’s Iran deal ― that he and the organization’s president “text message back and forth like teenagers,” according to a recording obtained by The Intercept.

Still, though Booker’s position on the deal places him apart from most others in the 2020 field, his general campaign pitch for now downplays the prospect of conflict. And it’s increasingly common for foreign policy experts to argue that it simply won’t be feasible for the next president to rejoin the agreement as it is because of the way tension between Iran and the U.S. has continuously grown under Trump and how close the end to certain limits on Iranian activity will be come 2021.

The senator may spark a turn in conversation toward what’s more realistic ― or he could face blowback from antiwar groups and voters. Either way, he’s ensured this is an issue he will have to talk about further. 

Booker joined nine other 2020 Democratic presidential candidates in the two-hour debate carried live Wednesday night on NBC. Ten other candidates are scheduled to debate Thursday night on the network.