How Bernie Sanders Should Respond to Hillary Clinton's Attack on Iran

Clinton has a fairly benign view of America's cold war against the Soviet Union. For Sanders, there is no such thing as a noble cold war.


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.”

This article was first published in The Atlantic.