Watching the fourth Democratic debate in South Carolina on January 17, many people understandably got the impression that Hillary Clinton was campaigning for President Obama's third term. But in the aftermath of the debate, her team attacked Bernie Sanders for supporting President Obama's efforts to engage Iran.
The attack was dishonest. An honest attack would have been: look, Hillary Clinton has a difference of opinion with President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry about diplomacy with Iran. Obama and Kerry want to accomplish whatever can be accomplished through engagement with Iran. Yes, enforce the agreement on Iran's nuclear program, but don't stop there. See if we can work with Iran to help defeat ISIS in Iraq. See if we can work with Iran to end the civil war in Syria. See if we can work with Iran to end the war in Yemen. See if we can work with Iran to help end the war in Afghanistan.
Clinton, on the other hand, wants to jack up confrontation with Iran on every possible front. She wants to define the "Iran deal" to be as small as possible, limited exclusively to Iran's nuclear program, so she'll have a free hand to escalate against Iran on other fronts. And her problem with Bernie Sanders on Iran diplomacy is that he supports the Obama-Kerry view, that we should accomplish whatever we can by engaging with Iran, rather than the view that we should try to have as much confrontation with Iran as we can get away with without attacking the Iran deal directly.
That would have been an honest attack.
But such an honest attack, Team Clinton might have feared, could provoke pro-diplomacy, anti-war sentiments among Democrats. So instead of the honest attack, Team Clinton took the Obama policy, crossed out Obama's name and wrote in "Sanders," and launched the same attack they did on Obama in the 2008 campaign: Obama/Sanders is naïve on dealing with Iran.
If you think I'm exaggerating, please examine with an open mind the following evidence.
On January 21, the New York Times reported that Clinton campaign senior policy adviser Jake Sullivan had attacked Bernie Sanders for supporting efforts to establish normal diplomatic relations with Iran, based on Sanders' comments in the South Carolina debate [my emphasis].
"Normal relations with Iran right now?" Mr. Sullivan says. "President Obama doesn't support the idea. Secretary Clinton doesn't support that idea. And it's not at all clear why it is that Senator Sanders is suggesting it."
This was a completely dishonest account of what happened during the debate. Sanders was responding to a question which cited President Obama saying that the U.S. should re-establish normal diplomatic relations with Iran; and while Sanders agreed with President Obama that the U.S. should work towards normal diplomatic relations with Iran, he did not say that the U.S. should do so "right now."
Here is the relevant section of the debate transcript, courtesy of CBS News: [my emphasis]
HOLT: Charleston, Andrea Mitchell has questions now starting with Iran.
MITCHELL: Thank you Lester.
Senator Sanders, the nuclear deal is now enforced. Iran is getting it's billions of dollars, several Americans who have been held are now going to be heading home. The president said today, "it's a good day. It's a good day for diplomacy. It's a time now to restore diplomatic relations for the first time since 1979 and actually re- opened a U.S. Embassy in Tehran."
SANDERS: I think what we've 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 terrorism, the anti-American rhetoric that we're hearing from of their leadership is something that is not acceptable.
On the other hand, the fact that we've managed to reach an agreement, something that I've very strongly supported that prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and we did that without going to war. And that I believe we're seeing a fall 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 that we should open an embassy in Tehran tomorrow? No, I don't think we should. But I think the goal has go to be as we've done with Cuba, to move in warm relations with a very powerful and important country in this world.
For folks who don't follow such things, "normal diplomatic relations with country X" and "opening an embassy in country X" are different words for the same thing. When we have "normal diplomatic relations" with a country, it means we have an embassy and an ambassador in that country's capital city, and they have an embassy and an ambassador in Washington. When we "restore diplomatic relations" with a country, it means we re-open our embassy in that country's capital and they re-open their embassy in Washington. When we "restored diplomatic relations" with Cuba, we re-opened our embassy in Havana, and the Cubans re-opened their embassy in Washington. "Normal diplomatic relations" doesn't mean "best buddies." It's like passing your neighbor in the street and saying hi. It doesn't mean you're best buds. It means you have normal relations.
If this kind of dishonest, gratuitous and manipulative Iran-bashing is what Team Clinton is doing now, I fear what they would do if they get back in power. I don't fear at all that a President Clinton would "tear up the Iran deal on her first day in office"; I'm very confident that she wouldn't do that. I'm afraid that she would try to undermine the scope of the deal from the margins. I fear that she would try to provoke Iran by doing some anti-Iran thing not explicitly prohibited by the agreement. If the Iranians retaliated in kind to her provocation, which is certainly something they might do, then she would likely say: OMG! Did you see what the wicked Iranians just did? And she would use that as an excuse for further escalation.
And the thing is, it's not even Iranians who would likely be the primary victims of such a policy. The Iranians, one suspects, are going to be more or less fine, because the Europeans are very unlikely to accommodate a U.S. effort to overturn the Iran deal wholesale, no matter who the next President of the U.S. is. The most likely victims of a renewed U.S.-Iran confrontation in the next Administration will be Iraqis, Syrians, Yemenis, and Afghans. Because when two big countries want to mess with each other but don't want to pay the cost of a direct confrontation, they fight a proxy war somewhere else, someplace where people aren't in a position to defend themselves from being used as pawns in someone else's proxy war. And I fear that the Saudi government, in particular, might see the prospect of an incoming Clinton Administration the way that the South Vietnamese government saw the prospect of the incoming Nixon Administration in 1968: there's no urgency to end the wars in Syria or Yemen now, because with the incoming Clinton Administration, we get to continue the wars.
The New York Times should have fact-checked Jake Sullivan's claim on Iran diplomacy when they reported it. It would be easy enough for them to compare Sullivan's accusation with the actual debate transcript. If you agree that the Times fell down on the job, you can tell them so here.