To the extent that Bernie Sanders has a foreign or counterterrorism policy, it used to begin and end with not invading Iraq in 2003. At Thursday night’s debate, Sanders added another wrinkle to his infinitely nuanced approach to foreign affairs: Don’t overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953. Live and learn. Of course, for want of a time machine, many Democratic voters – even liberal voters – are not going to be satisfied with what looks less like a foreign policy from Sanders and more like a litany of formative grievances. Hillary Clinton deserves credit for appearing to grasp the complexities of international affairs, even if only by contrast (an admittedly low bar). Clinton surely thought she was delivering the coup de grâce when she contended correctly on Thursday night that Iranian influence in the Middle East is a threat to regional stability, and that Sanders would outsource American security to Iran in order to absolve the West of the hard work of containing the Syrian conflict. It was a brazen move; one indicative of her utter contempt for media that is ostensibly tasked with holding her accountable. In making this claim, the former secretary of state was inadvertently indicting the Obama administration and herself.
In Clinton’s effort to cast herself as the more serious candidate on national security matters, Clinton has seized on Iran’s role in the Syrian civil war. For weeks, the former first lady has pounded Sanders for his utopian and, frankly, ill-informed view that a multi-nation Sunni coalition ground force can work in concert with Iranian expeditionary units to keep the peace in Syria.
Clinton attacked Sanders directly on the matter in a debate on January 17. “That’d be a terrible mistake,” Clinton added in an interview with NPR on January 20. “Syria is on the doorstep of Israel.” She called Sander’s desire to see Iranian and Saudi troops work together in Syria, despite their ongoing region-wide proxy war against one another, “concerning” at a February 2 town hall. “Putting Iranian troops right on the border of the Golan right next to Israel would be a nonstarter for me,” she said on Thursday night, calling Sanders’ plan for regional stability a “grave mistake.” It’s a strong line and good policy, so it makes sense that Clinton would repeat this refrain so frequently. It’s also a test of the integrity of the nation’s fact-checking industry, which has routinely overlooked the substance of Clinton’s assertions.
If Clinton thinks stationing Iranian troops on Israel’s northern border is such a threat to regional stability, she might have said something when they were first dispatched to Syria in 2012 while she was still serving as Barack Obama’s secretary of state. “The [Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’] Qods force includes elements of Special Forces, intelligence gathering and aid, and answers to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,” The Guardian reported. In fact, Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian military commander with direct links to deadly attacks on American military personnel in Iraq, has been repeatedly spotted in Syria directing the fighting on behalf of the Assad regime. Clinton’s righteous condemnation of Sanders for failing to understand the region’s complexities is fatally undermined by the efforts of an administration for which she worked which lifted sanctions on both Iran and Soleimani, in particular, as part of the nuclear accord with the Islamic Republic.
Hundreds of Iranian regulars are fighting in Iran alongside several more hindered Tehran-backed Hezbollah in Syria’s south. As of October of last year, 18 ranking IRGC officers had been killed in that conflict, including Major General Hossein Hamadani, along with an unknown number of soldiers. “Mohammadreza Naghdi, the commander-in-chief of Iran’s own paramilitary force, the Basij, said last week that funding for the NDF was overseen by Gen. Hamedani,” the BBC reported. “In May 2014, the general himself announced that Iran had trained and organized 70,000 Syrians into 128 [National Defense Force’ battalions. A few days ago, IRGC commander-in-chief Mohammad Ali Jafari said the NDF now had 100,000 fighters.”
If Clinton has such a problem with Sanders’ proposal to allow Iranian troops to support the Assad government in Syria, she should be taking her grievance up with the Obama administration. Given the conspicuous degree to which Clinton has embraced the president in order to appeal to his Democratic fans in the party’s grassroots, don’t hold your breath.