WASHINGTON, May 19 (Reuters) -
Some Democrats vying for the party's 2020 presidential nomination shifted the focus of the race to foreign policy on Sunday, criticizing Republican President Donald Trump as a weak commander in chief who is escalating tensions with Iran.
The relationship between Washington and Tehran has become increasingly strained in recent weeks, raising concerns about a potential U.S.-Iran conflict.
Trump and hawkish foreign policy advisers like national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo want Tehran to give up its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Trump has tightened economic sanctions against Iran, aimed at forcing its leaders into negotiations. Pompeo last year outlined a list of demands on Iran that critics said showed he was pushing for regime change.
Representative Tulsi Gabbard, one of 24 Democrats vying for the White House nomination, said on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" that Trump was "leading us down this dangerous path towards a war with Iran."
"He says he doesn't want it, but the actions of him and his administration, people like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, tell us a very different story. They are setting the stage for a war with Iran that would prove to be far more costly, far more devastating and dangerous than anything that we saw in the Iraq war," Gabbard said.
Trump has said he is not pushing for war with Iran. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he promised to stay out of overseas conflicts, saying the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were too costly.
In May 2018, Trump withdrew the United States from a multinational deal with Iran negotiated by the Obama administration that reduced economic sanctions on Tehran in exchange for scaling back its nuclear program. Trump criticized the deal as weak, saying he would negotiate a stronger one.
Gabbard, 38, enlisted in the U.S. Army National Guard after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and was twice deployed to the Middle East. Gabbard has said she is running for president to end regime-change wars, though she currently trails most of her 2020 opponents in opinion polls.
Another White House hopeful, Representative Seth Moulton, a 40-year-old former U.S. Marine Corps officer who did four tours in Iraq, told "This Week" that if the Trump administration sends additional troops to the Gulf it could "drag us into war."
"Make no mistake, this is exactly what John Bolton wants to have happen," said Moulton, who also trails in 2020 opinion polls. "The world is so dangerous when you have a weak commander in chief in the president of the United States."
Moulton counts as a mentor former Vice President Joe Biden, who currently leads the 2020 Democratic field in support. When asked why Democratic primary voters should back him over his mentor, Moulton said: "I think it's time for the generation that fought in Iraq and Afghanistan to take over for the generation that sent us there."
Gabbard resigned her post at the Democratic National Committee in 2016 when Hillary Clinton was the nominee because she said the former secretary of state's foreign policy positions were too hawkish. Gabbard was asked by ABC if that also applied to Biden, given both he and Clinton served in the Obama administration.
"We'll see what Vice President Biden's foreign policy vision is for this country. We may agree on some issues, disagree on others," Gabbard said.