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Cory Booker Wants to Torpedo a Major Obama Achievement. What's His Endgame?

Alex Wong/Getty

American and Iranian negotiators came to an agreement Sunday on a six-month deal to put the Iranian nuclear program on hold in exchange for easing sanctions slightly, in the hopes of reaching a more permanent agreement in the interim. Meanwhile, at last count, 59 senators are supporting a bill that would impose new sanctions—among them Cory Booker, the brand-new New Jersey senator. President Barack Obama has threatened to veto it.

The bill's supporters insist that they're simply trying to improve the U.S. negotiating posture. On Twitter, Booker insisted that he favors a peaceful solution, adding, "I'm 4 additional sanctions if current negotiations fail 2 start or fail 2 work."

A senior Democratic aide told Joshua Hersh and Ryan Grim, "The goal isn't to disrupt things, it's to make Iran even more willing to make serious concessions by making them aware of what will happen if they don't."

This isn't credible. First of all, the administration presumably has some idea of what's best for its negotiating position, and it has been lobbying furiously against new sanctions. Second, the timing is suspect—these senators hurriedly drew up this bill only after the breakthrough in negotiations was announced. Third, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif himself said new sanctions would signal a lack of good faith that would kill any long-term agreement.

No, this bill is an attempt to kill the Iran deal, whether Booker and company admit that or not. No other explanation makes half as much sense.

Which raises a political question: Why is Booker taking such a risky stance? Future presidential candidates, after all, tend to behave cautiously.

One of the most striking things about the hard-fought Democratic primary in 2008 was that there was practically no difference between Obama and Hillary Clinton on policy. Obama even hammered Clinton over the individual mandate in her healthcare plan (which his did not have), only to include one in Obamacare after he took office. The real issue of the campaign, and the central reason Clinton is not president today, is that Obama did not support the Iraq war, and Clinton did. Many on the left wanted to punish her for supporting the war, and to make it clear to the bipartisan cast of elites who embraced the war that there was a cost to doing so.

It may seem to Booker et al. that dynamiting sanctions is the smart political play, given the strength of AIPAC and other neoconservative groups. Or it could be that he really believes this stuff: Booker has long been strongly pro-Israel, and has key rabbinical allies with similar views. Or perhaps he hasn't grasped the danger yet. As Peter Beinart has pointed out, the anti-war left has never been very good at teaching politicians to head off conflicts in the making, as opposed to punishing them for it after the fact.

Regardless of the reason, Booker and company are making a serious error if they think that the anti-war left is dead forever, or that they'll pay no price if they manage to successfully sabotage these negotiations. Despite Booker's insistence that he "STRONGLY" favors peace, the bill contains a provision encouraging defense of Israel should they choose to attack Iran:

The bill includes a non-binding provision that states that if Israel takes "military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran's nuclear weapons program,"  the U.S. "should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence."

Will that, by itself, encourage Israel to start a war that could drag the U.S. in? Probably not. But given America's recent history in the Middle East, one could be forgiven for being wary of such language.

Booker insists he will not run in 2016, but he clearly has his eye on the White House. He's relatively young, and probably plans to burnish his credibility and national image in the Senate. He's highly skilled at image and media management, to which he owes much of his popularity. He won his Senate campaign handily. But no amount of Twitter charisma will be able to calm progressives enraged by this kind of knee-jerk hawkishness. It's telling that even Clinton is keeping silent on the Iran bill.

The activist left has been disappointed by much of the Obama presidency, wrong-footed in the face of an austerian coalition between the center and an energized, reactionary right. But from New York to Los Angeles, there is clearly some new momentum on the left. If these Senate Dems manage to kill the Iran negotiations, or push us into yet another Middle East catastrophe, none of them will ever be president.

Clarification: The senior aide who spoke with Joshua Hersh and Ryan Grim was identified as an unnamed "senior Democratic aide," not a Booker aide.