By Ryan Costello and Trita Parsi
Let the wooing begin. After her big win on Tuesday, Secretary Hillary Clinton has shifted her focus to the general election. And with that comes the task of uniting the party and wooing the Bernie Sanders supporters to her side. It won’t be easy – her pro-interventionist track record or Goldman Sachs speaking fees may be deal-breakers for some, but in a contest with Donald Trump there are voting blocs that she can win over if she meets them halfway. The Iranian American community is one such group.
There is no disputing the fact that Senator Sanders has outperformed expectations and that his message has shown particular resonance with young voters and Americans of Middle Eastern descent, including Iranian Americans. Sanders had a commanding lead in a recent poll of supporters of the largest grassroots Iranian-American organization, NIAC Action. Sanders won 62% support to Clinton’s 19%. This is a significant gap and Secretary Clinton should take note.
Clearly, Iranian Americans who have gravitated towards Sanders have largely done so for the same reasons as other Sanders supporters - because of a distrust of the Washington establishment, anti-war and anti-interventionist sentiments, disillusion with incrementalist political change and concerns about increased economic injustice.
But Clinton’s approach toward Iran is also a major reason why she lagged behind Sanders among Iranian Americans.
What it comes down to is this: President Barack Obama, against all odds and the scorn of the Washington foreign policy establishment, pursued patient and committed diplomacy and managed to score an amazing win with the Iran nuclear deal. In one stroke, two disasters were avoided: The disaster of an Iranian nuclear bomb and the disaster of war with Iran. The deal also carried the added benefit of reducing US dependency on Saudi Arabia, whose support for radical Wahhabi ideology has helped destabilize the region and threaten the West.
The question Iranian Americans ask themselves is: If diplomacy could resolve the toughest issue between the US and Iran - the nuclear dispute - what else can be resolved if America continues on Obama's path of sophisticated diplomacy? If Iran and the US can't be friends, can they at least stop being enemies? Can diplomacy be used to address Iran's deplorable human rights record? Can diplomacy that includes Iran finally put an end to the carnage in Syria? And can increased US-Iran cooperation enhance America's maneuverability vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia and counter Riyadh’s destabilizing activities?
The message from Sanders has been clear: Not only would he continue Obama’s path of diplomacy, he would work to widen the window of opportunity with Iran. The message received from Clinton has been more muddled. She supports the nuclear accord, but signals minimal desire to built upon that success. Rather than being the floor of potential US-Iran cooperation, the nuclear deal could be it’s ceiling under a Clinton Administration.
Additionally, while Sanders has signaled a willingness to challenge the conventional Washington wisdom on Iran by indicating that the U.S. should pursue normalization, Clinton has attacked him for that statement and accused him of naiveté. To many, the dispute reflected the debate eight years ago when Clinton, along with other candidates, attacked Obama for his statement that he would sit down with hostile nations, including Iran, without preconditions. According to foreign policy advisor Ben Rhodes, on the day the Iran deal was agreed upon the President traced the historic agreement all the way back to the question submitted to the candidates during the YouTube debate in 2007, showing how important campaigns can be in shaping the direction of Presidencies.
Clinton’s stance toward further Iran negotiations might not ultimately be that different than Sanders, but her attacks on normalization send a worrying signal that engagement would be the exception rather than the rule. This runs counter to the lessons of the nuclear accord. When the U.S. doubled down on isolation at the expense of negotiations, Iran’s nuclear program moved steadily forward in response. When the Obama administration demonstrated seriousness in reaching an accord, however, it succeeded in freezing Iran’s nuclear program and then significantly rolling it back. Why not signal greater openness toward addressing the full spectrum of differences with Iran? By rejecting normalization at the outset, Clinton only succeeds in shrinking the range of diplomatic possibilities during her potential Presidency.
Even if Clinton does seek a further reduction in tensions, there is a fear that her hawkish language could help close the window of opportunity with Iran. Clinton’s statement in the very first Democratic debate that she was proud to list the Iranians among her enemies remains a major source of contention for Iranian Americans. Of course, Clinton was referring to the Iranian government and not its people, but she never clarified the off-the-cuff statement. The episode suggested to many that she was more comfortable maintaining animosity at the expense of exploring conflict resolution and areas of mutual interest.
When President Obama began on the path of diplomacy, the first thing he changed was America's language on Iran. Recognizing that the hawkish and threatening language of George W. Bush rendered diplomacy next to impossible, President Obama adopted a much more sophisticated language on Iran to create an atmosphere conducive to the success of diplomacy. Obama never hesitated to criticize Iran, but he always did so while stressing that relations can change and that the U.S. is pursuing a relationship of mutual respect. If Clinton wants to score points with Iranian Americans, she could start by adopting rhetoric that sounds more like President Obama instead of a return to the saber rattling of President Bush.
Of course, the poll also shows that the inflammatory message of Donald Trump has not been well received by the Iranian-American community. Indeed, it's difficult to imagine that a large number of Iranian or Middle Eastern Americans will shift to Trump, mindful of his willingness to stoke fear and racism for political gain. But some may choose to sit out this election unless Clinton shows that she values their votes and that she is interested in building on Obama’s opening toward Iran.