In his January 17 debate with Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders made what appeared to be a sensible comment about the future implications of the international accord between Iran and the P5+1 world powers, including the United States. “What we’ve got to do is move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran,” said Sanders. “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 [toward] warm relations with a very powerful and important country in this world.”
For Sanders, the statement was consistent with his long-held view that Iran, as a major regional power, has an important role to play in helping to stabilize the Middle East. In a press release last October, for instance, Sanders acknowledged that Iranian military forces could be useful in the regional struggle to suppress the Islamic State: “The war against ISIS, a dangerous and brutal organization, cannot be won by the United States alone. It must be won primarily by nations in the region—Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan, and Iran—which must be prepared to send ground troops into action to defeat Islamic extremists.”
But Clinton pounced.
The Clinton campaign released a letter, written by ten foreign policy establishmentarians, ridiculing Sanders. “Senator Sanders’ call to ‘move aggressively’ to normalize relations with Iran—to develop a ‘warm’ relationship—breaks with President Obama, is out of step with the sober and responsible diplomatic approach that has been working for the United States, and if pursued would fail while causing consternation among our allies and partners,” said the letter, whose principal author is Wendy Sherman, the former State Department official who led negotiations with Iran until last year. Sanders’ “call for more Iranian troops in Syria is dangerous and misguided and the opposite of what is needed. Supporting Iranian soldiers on Israel’s doorstep is a grave mistake.” Clinton cited the Sherman letter in the February 4 debate, where she continued her hawkish criticism of Sanders.
But in calling for urgent efforts to develop an improved relationship with Iran, Sanders is exactly correct.
The Iran accord, whose formal implementation took effect last month, is by far the most significant diplomatic achievement by the administration of President Obama. It drastically curtails Iran’s program, eliminating nearly all of its enriched uranium, severely curtailing its operation of uranium centrifuges, transforming its Arak heavy-water reactor to prevent the production of plutonium, and creating an iron-clad regime of inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, in exchange for an end to the international economic sanctions against Tehran. It virtually erases the threat of war that hovered over Iran since the Bush administration first placed Iran into an “axis of evil” in 2002, and it allows Iran reintegrate itself into the world economy.
More broadly, however—as Sanders indicates—the Iran accord creates an opening for Iran to play an expanded role in the Middle East and South Asia. In a region where country after country is wracked by chaos and civil war, Iran is a stable nation with great influence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and beyond. Were the United States to forswear regime change as a strategy toward Iran, and to seek to build on the P5+1 accord by reaching out to Iran diplomatically, at the very least Tehran could help support an accord ending the conflict in Afghanistan between Kabul and the Taliban and encourage the US-backed government in Baghdad to develop a new political compact that might begin to reconcile Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish factions there. And, as Sanders notes, Iran is an implacable enemy of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), which currently dominates swaths of northwest Iraq and parts of Syria and Libya.