Sanders and Soleimani

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.

The drone attack ordered by US President Donald Trump has shaken up the entire Middle East, raising fears of a regional conflict – or worse, a world war.

But it has also shaken up the Democratic primary, sharpening the differences between Senator Bernie Sanders and all the other candidates.

To the extent to which foreign policy has played a role in the Democratic contest so far, it has largely focussed on the past. Sanders is often quick to point out that he opposed the Iraq war, and voted against it, while Biden and other Democrats were cheering George W. Bush on. This echos the 2016 race, when Sanders and Hillary Clinton clashed over the same issue and in the same way.

But now that debate has moved suddenly from the past to the present, as every candidate has to instantly respond to events.

And the result has been a triumph for Sanders and a body blow for interventionist Democrats like Biden.

Nearly all of them, Elizabeth Warren included, responded more or less in this way to the killing of Soleimani: While Soleimani was no doubt a very bad man whose death we do not mourn, we don’t trust Trump and we worry that his ill-thought out actions could lead to disaster.

Sanders was different. He responded by saying nothing at all about Soleimani or the Islamist dictatorship in Iran. He condemned what Trump did, and a couple of days he later introduced legislation in Congress to try to block a war on Iran.

His immediate reaction to the attack was not dissimilar to that offered up by Jeremy Corbyn.

The difference is that Sanders’ views are likely to give him a big boost in the polls and on polling day. Here’s why: Opposition to further US military intervention is, strangely enough, hugely popular among Trump supporters. On this issue, as on his attitude to most free trade deals, Sanders and Trump share a rare bit of common ground.

By threatening war on Iran, Trump has betrayed his own supporters, who were already beginning to lose faith in him (being the most corrupt president in American history has not helped). Those who were looking for a Democrat who could promise them no more pointless wars in the Middle East will only find one who fits the bill – Bernie Sanders.

And among Sanders own supporters, especially the young, his gut-level response to Trump’s decision to take out Soleimani will be hugely popular. There is no appetite for a further war in the Middle East there either.

But here’s the problem: Democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders get that the Islamist regime in Iran is an utterly reactionary and dangerous force. Its record on human rights – including workers’ rights – is one of the worst in the world. And its proxy armies like Hezbollah in Lebanon are no better.

It is not a bad thing that Soleimani is dead; the man was a brutal murderer responsible for thousands of deaths, including many innocent civilians.

That’s why the Left should adopt a smart position on what happened and what happens next by supporting neither Trump nor Ali Khamenei, and why the call for “no war on Iran” must be coupled with a second one opposing the Islamist regime and supporting its overthrow.

The Left cannot be seen as supportive of the Iranian rulers not least because it will lose all credibility with the victims of Iranian fascism – both in Iran and elsewhere in the region. We must surely be on the side of those Iranians who regularly take to the streets to challenge the regime. We do not stand with the regime, but with its victims.

For those reasons and more, we must hope that Bernie Sanders will say not only the popular thing but the right thing too, and not be seen – as Corbyn was – as uncritical of the terrible regime Soleimani represented.