When It Comes to Iran, Bernie Sanders Is Less Naive Than You Might Think

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., listens to a question from the crowd at a campaign event on the campus of Grinnell College Monday, Jan. 25, 2016, in Grinnell, Iowa.

Jae C. Hong/AP

AA Font size + Print

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., listens to a question from the crowd at a campaign event on the campus of Grinnell College Monday, Jan. 25, 2016, in Grinnell, Iowa.

In his call to end America’s cold war with Iran, Sanders is challenging the bipartisan foreign-policy consensus in the same way Obama did in 2008.

In the final days before she and Bernie Sanders face the voters of Iowa, Hillary Clinton is leveling the same attack she leveled against Barack Obama. She’s saying that on foreign policy, she’s the only adult in the race.

In their January 17 debate, Sanders declared that, “What we’ve got to do is move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran. … Can I tell you that we should open an embassy in Tehran tomorrow? No, I don’t think we should. But I think the goal has got to be, as we’ve done with Cuba, to move in warm relations with a very powerful and important country in this world.”

When the debate ended, Team Hillary pounced. Ignoring the second half of Sanders’s statement, the campaign released a video of foreign-policy advisor Jake Sullivan asking, “Normal relations with Iran right now? President Obama doesn’t support that idea. Secretary Clinton doesn’t support that idea, and it’s not at all clear why it is that Senator Sanders is suggesting it. … It’s pretty clear that he just hasn’t thought it through.” Hillary herself added that Sanders’s comments reflect a “fundamental misunderstanding of what it takes to do the patient diplomacy that I have experience in.”

The language echoes Clinton’s attack on Obama after he pledged in a July 2007 debate to meet leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea without preconditions—a pledge she called “irresponsible and frankly naive.” That attack, like this one, was contrived: Obama wasn’t planning to rush out to meet Iran’s supreme leader any more than Sanders would rush to build an embassy in Tehran. The real debate was about America’s broader relationship with Iran. In 2007, Hillary supported a nuclear deal with Iran but didn’t support thawing the broader U.S.-Iranian cold war. Obama, by contrast, sensed that only if America thawed that cold war would nuclear diplomacy have a chance. That’s part of the reason she voted to label Iran’s Revolutionary Guards a terrorist group and he did not. Clinton wanted to fortify diplomatic efforts by pressuring Iran more effectively than George W. Bush had. Obama wanted to build a relationship with Iran that wasn’t built on pressure alone.

Almost a decade later, the Clinton-Sanders debate is similar. Hillary supports the Iran nuclear deal but insists that it does not herald the beginning of a fundamentally different relationship with the Islamic Republic. In a speech on the agreement last September at the Brookings Institution, she declared that, “This is not the start of some larger diplomatic opening.” In a debate last October she called the Iranians “enemies.”

For Sanders, there is no such thing as a noble cold war.

Sanders, by contrast, sees the nuclear deal as a first step toward “warm relations” between the United States and Iran. He doesn’t articulate the benefits of warmer relations particularly well, but they’re not hard to grasp. When Iran seized British sailors in 2007, it held them for 13 days. After American sailors strayed into Iranian waters earlier this month, Tehran released them after only 15 hours, in large measure because of the goodwill between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who spoke five times during the crisis.

A warmer relationship between the U.S. and Iran could also improve the chances of a settlement in Syria. Bashar al-Assad’s Sunni opponents cannot remove the Syrian president by force (nor is it clear that America would even want them to). Thus, the best hope for a resolution to Syria’s ghastly civil war is to convince Assad’s patrons, Iran and Russia, that they can ease him out of power in favor of a more legitimate government while retaining some influence in the country. And the better America’s relations are with Iran, the more credible its guarantees about a post-Assad Syria will be.

Granted, that kind of compromise is nowhere in sight, in part because of the militantly anti-Iranian and anti-Shiite policies in vogue among Saudi Arabia’s leaders. But Clinton would bolster Saudi militancy, thus making an agreement in Syria harder. In her speech last fall at Brookings, she pledged to “increase security cooperation with our Gulf allies, including intelligence sharing, military support, and missile defense to ensure they can defend against Iranian aggression.” (Never mind that in Yemen, it’s the Saudis, not the Iranians, who are dropping the bombs.) From her cold-war perspective, Riyadh is America’s ally, Tehran America’s enemy.

Sanders, on the other hand, wants America to use its own rapprochement with Iran to encourage one between Riyadh and Tehran. In his campaign video, Sullivan mocked the Vermont senator for proposing that Iran and Saudi Arabia “join together in a coalition to fight ISIS.” But there are more realistic ways to encourage Saudi-Iranian détente. Last fall, for instance, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace suggested that the United States push for a new regional security organization for the Persian Gulf—loosely modeled on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—that includes both Riyadh and Tehran. (Right now, the region’s only security organization, the Gulf Cooperation Council, excludes Iran and Iraq.) Regional-security architecture isn’t sexy, but it’s a way to flesh out the post-cold war vision Sanders is trying to espouse.

Sanders remains skeptical that there is a clear moral distinction between U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and U.S. adversaries like Iran.

Sanders could also note that moving toward normalizing relations with Iran might help that country’s dissidents. There’s no guarantee, of course, that anything America does will stop Iran’s oppression of its own people. But it’s significant that Iran’s hard-liners, who use the supposed American threat to justify their brutality, oppose normalization most vociferously. Iran’s dissidents, by contrast, generally support it. Akbar Ganji, perhaps Iran’s most prominent dissident, told me via email that he backs normalization. In an open letter last August, 74 well-known Iranian critics of the regime wrote that, “Movement toward normalization of Iran’s international relations could make the naming and shaming of the regime’s mistreatment of political dissidents, civil society forces (women in particular) and religious/ethnic minorities more effective.”

Above all, Sanders needs to make it clear that his differences with Hillary Clinton can’t be boiled down to maturity versus inexperience. He is heir to a different foreign-policy tradition. Hillary is comfortable with waging a cold war against Iran because she has a fairly benign view of America’s cold war against the Soviet Union. On her 2014 book tour, she told Jon Stewart that “fighting the Cold War” was part of the “great story” that America must “get back to telling” both to the rest of the world and “to ourselves.” She told Jeffrey Goldberg that in the fight against jihadist terrorism, the United States should learn from the “kind of overarching framework about what we were trying to do that did lead to the defeat of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism.”

Sanders, for his part, opposed the Cold War. He not only criticized Ronald Reagan’s policies in Central America, but praised the left-wing Sandinistas whom Reagan sought to overthrow. As a secular democratic socialist, Sanders doesn’t feel the same affinity toward the Islamist adversaries America confronts today. But he remains skeptical that there is a clear moral distinction between U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and U.S. adversaries like Iran. For Sanders, there is no such thing as a noble cold war.

There are legitimate criticisms of Sanders’s worldview. Just as Clinton has an overly benign view of America’s actions during the Cold War, Sanders clearly had an overly benign view of the communist dictatorships in Cuba and Nicaragua. But in his call to end America’s cold war with Iran, Sanders is challenging the bipartisan foreign-policy consensus in the same way Obama did in 2008. If he leans into that debate, rather than retreating into his economic-policy comfort zone, he’ll become a stronger candidate. And he’ll offer Democrats in Iowa and beyond a foreign-policy debate they deserve.

Close [ x ] More from DefenseOne

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from DefenseOne.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Software-Defined Networking

    So many demands are being placed on federal information technology networks, which must handle vast amounts of data, accommodate voice and video, and cope with a multitude of highly connected devices while keeping government information secure from cyber threats. This issue brief discusses the state of SDN in the federal government and the path forward.

  • Military Readiness: Ensuring Readiness with Analytic Insight

    To determine military readiness, decision makers in defense organizations must develop an understanding of complex inter-relationships among readiness variables. For example, how will an anticipated change in a readiness input really impact readiness at the unit level and, equally important, how will it impact readiness outside of the unit? Learn how to form a more sophisticated and accurate understanding of readiness and make decisions in a timely and cost-effective manner.

  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

  • A New Security Architecture for Federal Networks

    Federal government networks are under constant attack, and the number of those attacks is increasing. This issue brief discusses today's threats and a new model for the future.

  • Information Operations: Retaking the High Ground

    Today's threats are fluent in rapidly evolving areas of the Internet, especially social media. Learn how military organizations can secure an advantage in this developing arena.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.