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Hillary Clinton's argument with Bernie Sanders about normalizing relations with Iran, explained

After clashing on guns, bank regulation, health care, and Planned Parenthood's status as part of the "establishment," the increasingly heated Democratic primary is turning to Iran, with the Clinton campaign going on the offensive. The campaign released a video starring Jake Sullivan, a key Clinton aide at the State Department and on the campaign, criticizing Sanders's statements on Iran and Syria, and followed up with a conference call featuring even more pointed criticisms.

Sanders's approach to Iran "breaks with the sober and responsible diplomatic approach that's been working for the United States," Sullivan charged on the call. "The proposal would not succeed, but it would cause very real consternation among our allies and partners."

Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon piled on with the observation that "Republicans would love to have a debate with someone who thinks we should move quickly to warmer relations with a major sponsor of terrorism like Iran."

What did Sanders say?

The controversy regards remarks Sanders made about Iran during the NBC Democratic debate in response to a question from moderator Andrea Mitchell, in which she asked, "Is it time now to restore diplomatic relations for the first time since 1979, and actually reopen a US embassy in Tehran?"

Here's Sanders's response:

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. Their support for terrorism and the anti-American rhetoric that we’re hearing from some of their leadership is something that is not acceptable.

On the other hand, the fact that we managed to reach an agreement, something that I very strongly supported, that prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and that we did that without going to war, and that I believe we’re seeing a thaw in our relationships with Iran is a very positive step. So if your question is, do I want to see that relationship become more positive in the future? Yes.

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.

Why is Clinton criticizing this?

The fundamental source of the disagreement here is that Iran, unlike Cuba, is embedded in an overlapping series of regional conflicts with American allies, including, most importantly, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Completely separately from the nuclear issue, these conflicts manifest themselves in a Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen, in Iranian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Assad in Syria, and a range of other conflicts.

One major fear both Saudi Arabia and Israel had about the US-Iranian nuclear deal is that by strengthening the Iranian economy, the deal would leave Iran as a more powerful regional actor after it gives up its nuclear weapons program. An even bigger, albeit more remote fear is that the nuclear deal is just a first step toward a larger US-Iranian rapprochement that would see the United States less willing to categorically side against Iran in any regional dispute. In Riyadh, this fear of abandonment is one of several factors driving erratic Saudi decision-making recently.

The Obama administration's official approach has been to try to allay Saudi and Israeli fears about the implications of the nuclear deal by reasserting his support for those traditional alliances. Obama has been emphasizing America's commitment to maintaining Israel's qualitative military superiority and reaching out to Saudi leaders to try to calm their nerves.

The restrained version of the Clinton critique, then, would be that Sanders is playing the diplomatic game wrong. Whether or not you hold out hope for normalization with Iran as a theoretical future goal, saying so out loud undermines the Obama administration's concrete foreign policy objectives, which are to get the nuclear deal with Iran done without completely blowing up the US-Israel or US-Saudi relationship.

Rather than limit itself to this critique, the Clinton camp is also throwing in a more demagogic argument that Sanders is soft on Iran or blind to the problems with existing Iranian behavior.

What's really going on here?

Proposing to rebalance American alliances in the Middle East and adopt a more even-handed approach to America's dealings with Sunni- and Shia-led dictatorships would be an interesting idea worth having a big argument about. But, crucially, Sanders does not actually appear to favor doing any such thing.

Sanders has always been a pretty conventional pro-Israel Democrat, and he's praised America's relationships with Arab monarchs in the past. In other words, rather than deliberately lay out a controversial new regional policy for the United States, Sanders seems to have simply stumbled somewhat accidentally across a diplomatic tripwire. The actual idea he was outlining in the debate is fairly banal. Sanders says he would like to see a warming of America's relationship with Iran if Iran stopped doing things America doesn't like — a policy that on some level is very hard to disagree with.

In attacking Sanders on this point, Clinton is raising two issues, one of which clearly works in her favor and one of which is less clear.

On the one hand, Clinton is unquestionably the more experienced and better-briefed foreign policy thinker. If Democrats needed to draft someone to go head to head with a Republican nominee in a foreign policy debate tomorrow, Clinton is going to be the stronger choice, while Sanders is going to need time to build up a foreign policy team and work through all his talking points in a clearer, more precise way.

On the other hand, Clinton is raising an issue of substance here. She ran to Obama's right on foreign policy in the 2008 primary, was generally on the right flank of Obama administration internal debates as secretary of state, and has generally indicated that a Clinton administration's foreign policy would be a bit more hawkish than the Obama administration's.

Sanders's positioning is generally the reverse of this — also broadly continuous with Obama's approach but shading in a more left-wing, more dovish direction. It's impossible for Clinton to raise the advantage of her greater experience without getting into the substance of things, but this is also risky terrain for her, as it invites Sanders to revisit her support for the invasion of Iraq and other issues that hurt her badly in 2008.

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