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Sanders Should Challenge Clinton on Iran/Syria

Hillary Clinton spoke to a gathering at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. earlier this week where she let her hawkish foreign policy positions shine. (Photo: Brookings Institution)

Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gave a speech Wednesday in which she 1) re-affirmed her support for the Iran nuclear agreement and 2) asserted that as President, she would be very aggressive in enforcing the agreement and in challenging Iran on other fronts.

Diplomacy advocates welcome and appreciate Clinton's strong endorsement of the agreement. But Clinton's aggressive posturing towards Iran should concern diplomacy advocates. Clinton is the candidate of Democrats who are determined to limit the impact of the agreement on improving U.S.-Iran relations and in particular are determined to prevent the U.S. from cooperating more openly with Iran in Iraq and Syria.

In her speech Wednesday, Clinton planted the flag of the "that's all the diplomacy with Iran you get" Democrats for all to see:

Hillary's people shared this quote with the New York Times in advance of the speech - an indication of how much importance they attached to it:

"We need to be clear eyed about what we can expect from Iran," Mrs. Clinton is expected to say. "This isn't the start of some broader diplomatic opening. And we shouldn't expect that this deal will lead to a broader change in their behavior. That shouldn't be a premise for proceeding."

Clinton was wrong to try to foreclose the possibility of a broader improvement in the U.S. - Iran relationship. Trying to rule out a broader improvement in the U.S.-Iran relationship is something that President Obama and Vice-President Biden have not done and would not do.

A policy of being as anti-Iran in every arena as the Iran agreement allows would help Republicans destabilize the agreement. If the U.S. adopted a policy of being as anti-Iran as the agreement allows, Iran would likely reciprocate - wouldn't you? If Iran reciprocated, Republicans would accuse Iran of violating the spirit if not the letter of the agreement, and demand further anti-Iran provocations in response. There would likely be a new escalation cycle outside of and on the margins of the agreement, undermining benefits of the agreement - which is exactly what the Republicans want. They want the Iran agreement to fail as much as possible. If they cannot make it fail at its main objective, they will try to limit its benefits - just like they did with the Affordable Care Act.

Former Ambassador Thomas Pickering has been a leader of the wing of the U.S. foreign policy establishment that wants to take diplomacy with Iran as far as it can go. On September 4, Pickering argued that there is more room for improvement: [video is here]:

The successful negotiation of the Iran nuclear agreement could present an opportunity for the United States to coordinate more openly with Iran on mutual interests in Syria and Iraq, retired US career ambassador Thomas Pickering said at a Friday press conference.


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"There will be, as a result of this, certainly an opportunity... to begin to talk to Iran, about two issues that constitute, in the view of many of us, potential low-hanging fruit," Pickering said at a Center on Global Interests conference on the Iran nuclear deal.

Both the United States and Iran share an interest in ensuring that a Taliban government does not come to power in Afghanistan, and in coordinating operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Pickering stated.

He explained that the United States has already been working with Iran "in a backhanded way" in Iraq, by coordinated US bombing and training missions with Iranian training and military operations.

In Syria, the United States has "in effect, a no fly zone" based on an understanding by the Syrian government that its air force should be grounded "when American planes are bombing," Pickering added. [...]

Pickering noted that as a result of the Iran nuclear agreement, "there are opportunities that lie out there, hidden at the moment, in Syria." He underscored the possibility of the two countries "coming together on a transitional government."

In the wake of televised images of the Syrian war refugee crisis, there have been new calls to "do something" about the Syrian civil war. But for the always-more-war crowd, "do something" means bombing more people and sending more weapons - despite the mountain of evidence that bombing more people and sending more weapons will only produce more killing and more refugees.

The obvious alternative is to apply the lesson that we just learned about Iran's nuclear program - diplomacy can work - to the Syrian civil war.

Hillary's move to the right Wednesday on Iran creates an opening for pro-diplomacy Democrats to insist that the Democratic presidential nominee remain true to Obama's policy of keeping the door open to deeper U.S.-Iran cooperation. Calling for direct U.S.-Iran talks to help end the Syrian civil war would be a great place to start.

Robert Naiman

Robert Naiman

Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy. Naiman has worked as a policy analyst and researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. He has masters degrees in economics and mathematics from the University of Illinois and has studied and worked in the Middle East. You can contact him here.

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