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HomeBlogAs Iran Debate Heats Up for 2020 Democrats, Sanders Represents a Historic Shift in American Foreign Policy

As Iran Debate Heats Up for 2020 Democrats, Sanders Represents a Historic Shift in American Foreign Policy

From Bernie Sander’s Tweet: “I am proud to stand with my colleagues today to reassert our constitutional authority and introduce legislation—the No War Against Iran Act—to stop President Trump from leading this country into an illegal war against Iran.”

 The common sense radicalism of Sanders’ foreign policy is arguably his most distinguishing feature in the 2020 Democratic Primary; whereas other contenders have begun to shift left, none have come close to Sanders’ willingness to cross traditional redlines in American discourse.

By Amadeus Narbutt

As the first electoral battle of the Democratic Party presidential primary nears, foreign policy is becoming an increasingly prominent and divisive issue among the candidates. A recent Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll found foreign policy among the most important issues in voters’ minds. Foreign policy and national security ranked as more important than impeachment or climate change – and on a par with gun control – with a third of respondents saying it will impact their vote for President in 2020. As Commander-in-Chief, the President has an unprecedented amount of control over foreign policy relative to other policy areas, thus candidates for President deserve increased scrutiny over these issues. 

Recent escalations by the Trump Administration in regards to Iran have pulled the question of America’s involvement in the Middle East to the fore, and have illuminated a very obvious split between the hawkish and dovish candidates in the race. While all the candidates – as well as the Democratic Party as a whole – have condemned Trump’s assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, their statements have nonetheless drawn distinctions between how they view American foreign policy, the role of American forces abroad, and what approach they would take as Commander-in-Chief. 

Early fluctuations and spikes in popularity in the Democratic primary race seem to have abated and stabilized in recent weeks, with four contenders for the nomination securing their place as frontrunners: former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Mayor of South Bend Pete Buttigieg, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Of those four, only Bernie Sanders represents a clear break from the bi-partisan foreign policy consensus in their discussion of recent events regarding Iran. 

Joe Biden has made it clear that he is the candidate of the foreign policy establishment. Much of his campaign has been animated by the idea of ‘returning to normalcy’, with an often comical reliance on his position as Obama’s Vice President as justification for his ability to do so. Biden has also secured endorsements of 133 foreign policy officials and former Secretary of State John Kerry has become a surrogate for Biden on the Iowa campaign trail. In his recent rhetoric on Iran, Biden has been uncharacteristically dovish –  though even then only marginally so – by cautiously warning against military engagement in the Middle East. This stands in stark contrast to Biden’s legacy as a hawk, who former Secretary of Defence Robert Gates has stated has “been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” 

This uncharacteristic nuance likely comes as a result of Biden’s electoral calculus, not as a sincere expression of his political beliefs. The move comes at a time in the Democratic primary where Bernie Sanders – Biden’s toughest opponent in the race – has aimed to distance himself from Biden on foreign policy. In response, Biden has aimed to moderate his own beliefs and present a more palatable view of foreign policy to the increasingly progressive Democratic base. Yet regarding Soleimani, Biden said that he would not rule out killing Soleimani if he were President, but that he is not willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt regarding the intelligence and justification for the strike. In other words, the murder of a high-ranking military official of a country with which the United States is not at war is not necessarily disqualifying in itself. Rather, Biden was simply not pleased with the circumstances of the assassination. 

Pete Buttigieg, who is Biden’s greatest competition for the ‘moderate lane’ of the primary, provided a similarly substance-free response to the killing of Soleimani: “There is no question that Qassim Suleimani was a threat to that safety and security, and that he masterminded threats and attacks on Americans and our allies, leading to hundreds of deaths. But there are serious questions about how this decision was made and whether we are prepared for the consequences.”

Note that Buttigieg – without providing specific justification – immediately characterizes Soleimani as a threat, thus lending some level of support to Trump’s reckless actions. The statement’s characterization of Soleimani echoes a point made by Current Affairs editor Nathan J Robinson in regards to war propaganda, where state information paints our perceptions of individuals and thus frames the acceptable boundaries of debate when mass media takes this information as unquestioned truth. Robinson notes that Mike Pence used a similar tactic to link Soleimani to the 9/11 hijackers; reference is made to the 9/11 Commission report which states that 9/11 hijackers passed through Iran, journalists ignore the part of the report where it is stated that Iran was not aware of the hijackers plans, and eventually Pence’s claim is published uncritically in Vox as undisputed fact. Buttigieg is using the same unjustified characterizations of Soleimani’s motives to simplify American aggression against Iran. 

Whether the American military does or should have the authority to murder military officials of other countries without a declaration of war – regardless of whether you can paint them as a villain –  is not a question that Buttigieg wrestles with; only Buttigieg rivals Biden in his bid to continue America’s role as the unilateral global military superpower. Instead, the statement suggests that in regards to Soleimani, Mayor Pete merely has a procedural qualm with ‘how this decision was made’. 

Elizabeth’s Warren’s response to the killing of Soleimani is also nuanced like Biden’s, but to her credit far more accurate. Warren’s strategy in the primary thus far has seemed to be to provide a sensible unifying option between the progressive and centrist wings of the party. In essence, she is selling herself as the best of Biden and Sanders combined; progressive enough to win over Sanders’ enthusiastic and increasingly influential base, but pragmatic enough to win support for Democratic Party centrists who abhor anyone that rocks the boat. On foreign policy, she has tried to toe a similar line, but straddling those two camps is no difficult task, especially with her record. 

In response to Soleimani’s assassination, Warren wavered between positions that sounded at times like Buttigieg – where she precludes any discussion of American aggression with a characterization of Soleimani as a murderer, and at other times like Sanders – where she rightly characterizes Trump’s actions as an assassination. When pressed on her position, Warren concluded that “the point is not whether or not Iran is a bad actor; they are”, but then stated that some problems cannot and should not be solved militarily. 

While Warren may try to present herself as a break from the bi-partisan consensus on foreign policy, this break is at best surface-deep. Warren has agreed with Trump’s devastating economic sanctions in Venezuela which killed 40,000 people between 2017 and 2018, has a legacy of being a war hawk on Israel, has praised the military-industrial complex as an important ‘21st century job’ creator, and has voted for increases to Trump’s military budget. Thus, while Warren’s statements on Soleimani’s killing may sound progressive, her record provides voters with no confidence that she would significantly alter American foreign policy norms as Commander-in-Chief. 

In contrast to these three frontrunners, Bernie Sanders provides an incomparable legacy of anti-war activism and criticism of American aggression abroad. In response to the strike on Soleimani, Sanders correctly described the event as an ‘assassination’ and later compared it to the killing of dissidents in Putin’s Russia. Sanders highlighted how Soleimani’s killing was a violation of international law, and how such flouting of a rules-based international order could lead to ‘anarchy’. Further, Sanders not only criticized the waste of US government resources on war over domestic concerns, but also characterizes war itself as a class-issue, stating that “it is rarely the children of the billionaire class who face the agony of reckless foreign policy. It is the children of working families.”

In recent days Sanders has campaigned with Barbara Lee – the lone voice of dissent in the US Congress in the otherwise unanimous vote for the authorization of the use of military force after 9/11 – to start a wave of protests across the country under the banner of #NoWarWithIran. Further, Sanders has introduced the No War Against Iran Act to withhold funds from the Pentagon for any unauthorized use of military force against Iran. Sanders has spearheaded similar efforts in the past in regards to the conflict in Yemen. The common sense radicalism of Sanders’ foreign policy is arguably his most distinguishing feature in the 2020 Democratic Primary; whereas other contenders have begun to shift left, none have come close to Sanders’ willingness to cross traditional redlines in American discourse like US-Israeli relations and American interference in Latin America. 

Sanders’ biggest impact on this race so far has been to shift the boundaries of discussion of domestic policies in the Democratic Party leftwards. But in the long-term, his influence on the foreign policy debate may be even greater. It is a struggle he has been fighting for decades, and if he succeeds in winning the nomination and defeating Donald Trump – which he is poised to do at the moment – it will represent a monumental realignment of the role of the United States abroad.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor