By Sean Savage/JNS.org
Although they both support the Obama administration-brokered nuclear deal with Iran, the top two Democratic candidates running for president now find themselves in a high-profile disagreement about American policy on the Islamic Republic.
During the latest Democratic debate on Jan. 17, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), an avowed socialist, called for normalization in relations with Iran, which would represent a radical shift in U.S. policy in the Middle East. Former first lady Hillary Clinton, who served as secretary of state during President Barack Obama’s first term, said she considered such a move to be premature.
“I think what we have got to do is move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran, understanding that Iran’s behavior in so many ways is something that we disagree with,” Sanders said. Clinton countered, “We’ve had one good day over 36 years, and I think we need more good days before we move more rapidly—before more normalization.”
Sanders, who is Jewish, also said, “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 have done with Cuba to move in warm relations with a very powerful and important country in this world.”
Supporters of Clinton—who has long been the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, but has seen Sanders make a recent surge in polls in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire—were quick to blast Sanders’s position as naïve and potentially dangerous.
“Sadly, I’m not shocked at Bernie’s newly stated position. It follows his most-liberal-at-any-cost naïveté on some foreign policy matters,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a Jewish backer of Hillary Clinton who heads the Bluelight Strategies public relations firm. Rabinowitz has worked on the national staffs of nine U.S. presidential campaigns and served as White House director of design and productions for former president Bill Clinton.
“I’m particularly disturbed that Bernie—who has not had so much to say about Israel this campaign—chose to call for the U.S. to normalize relations with Iran on the very same day President Obama put on new sanctions,” Rabinowitz told JNS.org, referring to new U.S. sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program that were unveiled Jan. 17.
Josh Block, a self-identified Democrat who has been involved in national politics and policy for more than 20 years and now serves as CEO and president of The Israel Project, a “non-partisan American educational organization dedicated to informing the media and public conversation about Israel and the Middle East,” called Sanders’s stance on Iran “deeply concerning.”
“Iran is the engine of all misery, suffering, and instability across the Middle East. The notion that we would normalize relations with them is divorced from reality. That someone would suggest that it’s possible is deeply concerning,” Block told JNS.org.
For its part, despite this month’s implementation of last summer’s nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 nations, the White House has maintained that it will not seek to normalize ties with Iran, with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes confirming that position on Jan. 15.
Block, however, argued that Obama’s current Iran policy is more troubling than the expressed views of Sanders.
“Bernie represents a very Pollyanna and wishful thinking of the world. He’s a self-proclaimed socialist, and I think that’s what you get from people who are communists and socialists—ideas that are divorced from reality. And I would contrast that with the president’s perspective, in which the president is asking to empower [Iran] and in many ways normalize relations with Iran. That is much more dangerous than Bernie Sanders getting up as a socialist and calling for normalization,” Block said.
Brian Hook, who served as assistant secretary of state in George W. Bush’s presidential administration, said Sanders’s position on normalization “would double down on Obama’s failed strategy to accommodate Iran.”
“Senator Sanders should resist the illusion that more dialogue and deeper bilateral relations with Iran will make things better for America or its allies. Quite the opposite, in fact,” Hook told JNS.org.
Clinton’s campaign, which has attempted to portray the candidate as a sober and seasoned expert on foreign policy, has sought to capitalize on Sanders’s Iran comments. A group of 10 former diplomats and national security officials, many of whom worked under the former secretary of state or her husband as president, issued a statement criticizing Sanders’s remarks.
“These are complex and challenging times, and we need a commander in chief who knows how to protect America and our allies, and advance our interests and values around the world,” the officials said in a statement released by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “The stakes are high. And we are concerned that Senator Sanders has not thought through these crucial national security issues that can have profound consequences for our security.”
The officials—including Wendy Sherman, former undersecretary of state for political affairs, Jeremy Bash, former chief of staff to both the CIA director and defense secretary, and Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state for political affairs, among others—also called it “troubling” that Sanders has so far had a limited publicly expressed strategy for eliminating the Islamic State terror group.
Clinton’s campaign continued its targeting of Sanders’s foreign policy credentials by releasing a video starring Jake Sullivan, a former key Hillary Clinton aide at the State Department, who helped make America’s initial diplomatic breakthrough with Iran in 2012 and now serves as a policy adviser to her campaign.
Sanders’s approach to Iran “breaks with the sober and responsible diplomatic approach that’s been working for the United States,” Sullivan said. He added that the proposal to normalize ties with Iran “would not succeed, but it would cause very real consternation among our allies and partners.”
In September, shortly after Congressional Republicans failed to defeat the nuclear deal, Clinton gave a major foreign policy speech at the Brookings Institution in which she endorsed the agreement, yet promised a stronger approach than Obama has offered on containing Iran’s regional ambitions.
“My approach will be distrust and verify,” Clinton said, using a modification of former president Ronald Reagan’s famous line, “trust, but verify.” Clinton laid out several steps to this end, including bolstering U.S. support for Israel and Arab allies, building a coalition to counter Iran’s terror proxies, condemning Iran’s domestic human rights violations, and adopting a strong regional policy to address conflicts like the Syrian civil war.
Despite Clinton’s attempts to distinguish herself from Obama on foreign policy, her critics note that as secretary of state, she played an instrumental role in opening the door towards a dramatic shift in America’s Iran policy, ultimately enabling a nuclear deal in which Iran was not required to dismantle its entire nuclear program.
In July 2012, former Clinton aide Sullivan held a secret meeting with Iranian diplomats in Oman. While no agreement was reached in Oman, high-level talks continued over the next six months that eventually led both Clinton and the White House to conclude that they would need to at least allow Iran to maintain some capacity to enrich uranium and produce nuclear fuel.
Though the nuclear deal was signed under the watch of current Secretary of State John Kerry, former Bush administration official Hook argued that Clinton “was the chief diplomat during the disastrous Iran deal negotiated by the Obama administration.”
“She endorsed the Iran deal. She caved to Iran on zero enrichment. The next president will require an entirely new Iran strategy to reverse years of diplomatic accommodation and nuclear appeasement,” Hook told JNS.org.
The Israel Project’s Block explained that there are now three camps in the Democratic Party—Sanders, Clinton, and Obama—on how to deal with Iran and the Middle East.
“The [right] question for American foreign policy is not, ‘How do we abandon our traditional allies in the region and get closer to Iran?’—which is what the [Obama] administration is pursuing. [The right question is,] ‘How do we work with our partners like Israel and the Sunni Arab leaders in the region who oppose Islamic extremism?’” Block said.
He added, “I’d like to see Hillary forcefully articulate the way forward to confront and detain the Iranians, and work with our allies.”
Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.