Obama’s Iran Legacy Comes at Big Cost for Clinton
President Barack Obama is one step closer to a legacy on foreign policy after he secured a nuclear deal with Iran. But it comes at a political cost for many Democrats, especially Hillary Clinton, who is tied to the deal in several ways.
Clinton's dilemma was clear when she appeared at the Capitol on Tuesday. She told Democratic lawmakers she supported the broad outlines of the deal and told reporters that she saw the deal as productive. But she was quick to emphasize that Iran must soon be confronted for its nefarious non-nuclear activities around the world.
"Having been part of building the coalition that brought us to the point of this agreement, I think we will have to immediately, upon completion of this agreement and its rigorous enforcement, look to see how we build a coalition to try to prevent and undermine Iran's bad behaviors in other arenas," she said.
Obama struck a notably more optimistic and cooperative tone during his press conference Wednesday, when he talked about possible future cooperation with Iran on issues like Syria and expressed hope that the deal would lead to a more moderate Iran working more constructively with the international community.
"My hope is that building on this deal, we can continue to have conversations with Iran that incentivize them to behave differently in the region, to be less aggressive, less hostile, more cooperative, to operate the way we expect nations in the international community to behave," Obama said. "But we're not counting on it."
The GOP wasted no time pointing out that on the Iran deal, the president's political interests and Clinton's were not aligned. Only minutes after the deal was announced, candidate and Senator Lindsey Graham told me, "Obama has made every Democrat including Hillary choose between a legacy for him and nightmare for them."
Clinton's campaign has not cleared up her position. A spokesman said Tuesday that "everybody lives somewhere between support and opposition." The campaign has alternated between messages about Clinton's record on Iran. In April, campaign chairman John Podesta said that Clinton was responsible for the sanctions that brought Iran to the table and that the talks were one of her major foreign policy accomplishments. (Her State Department actually opposed most of the crippling sanctions pushed by Congress while she was in office.)
This month, at a rally in New Hampshire, she said she voted for sanctions on Iran while she was a senator from 2001 to 2009 and worked hard to increase sanctions on Iran in the United Nations when she was secretary of state. It's also true that her State Department worked hard to implement the congressional sanctions, after resisting them.
"I spent the first 18 months trying to get sanctions through the Security Council of the UN, and we succeeded in June of 2010, with Russia, with China, and then we really began to put pressure to Iran -- and we did finally bring them to the negotiating table," she said.
But Clinton rarely mentions that in late 2012, she secretly sent two top aides, Bill Burns and Jake Sullivan, to have a set of meetings with Iranian officials that even the other world powers that would negotiate with Iran did not know about. Those discussions laid the groundwork for the diplomatic process led by her successor John Kerry, which produced a comprehensive deal Tuesday morning.
Neither Clinton nor her top aides are enthusiastically trumpeting that role. In a meeting with reporters this week, Sullivan simply said that Clinton was "centrally involved in the outset of all of this." Former officials and experts said that Clinton has difficulty taking credit for her role in the deal because she knows the public perception of the deal could get worse and worse, especially if Iran remains combative.
"Walking away from the deal means she frankly wasn't a consequential secretary of state. She won't do that and can't do it. So she's in a bind," said former Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller, now vice president at the Wilson Center. "She has to figure out a way to reconcile an agreement that’s fraught politically with the fact that she’s got to win and Republicans are going to hammer her on this mercilessly."
Miller predicted that Iran's behavior in the region is only going to get worse over the next 18 months, which could validate GOP criticisms of the deal and complicate Clinton's defense of it. Her focus on curbing Iran's bad influence, beyond what this deal would do, could mean she is making the same calculation.
Officials who worked on the Iran issue in the first term said that Clinton was also hampered by the fact that the final deal didn't meet the expectations she voiced when the negotiations began. Only last year, Clinton said in an interview that she only wanted to leave Iran with "a little bit" of enrichment and that Iran's breakout time to make a bomb "should be more than a year."
Richard Nephew, former White House and State Department official involved in the Iran negotiations, said between then and now several circumstances have changed that were out of Clinton's control. For one thing, Iran had several thousand more centrifuges by 2014, meaning that negotiating down to a very small number was more difficult.
"The scope of the problem you have to deal with all changed. The facts on the ground changed," he said. "She wasn't secretary while we were really in the weeds of the negotiations."
All this week, House and Senate Democrats have carefully avoided committing to either supporting or rejecting Obama's Iran deal. They are waiting to see how strenuously their constituents, their donors and lobbying groups like Aipac pressure them to vote against it in September. In addition to hearing from their voters, dozens of Democratic lawmakers will also travel to Israel over the August recess.
They are also looking to their party's prospective standard-bearer, Hillary Clinton, for guidance. The odds are that President Obama will be able to muster enough Democrats to sustain a veto of any resolution to kill the deal. But Democrats will pay some political price. That may not affect Obama, but for Clinton it's a big problem her campaign has yet to solve.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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