Tricky business.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

How Obama's Iran Policy Undermines Clinton's Campaign Message

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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In a year when the GOP has grown increasingly fractured, it's easy to lose sight of a foreign-policy schism inside the other major party. After all, the presumptive Democratic nominee was the current president's first secretary of state. Her Republican opponent, on the other hand, now touts his opposition to a war his party's last president launched in 2003.

Yet despite their governing partnership, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have very different views of Iran following last summer's nuclear deal. Both support that pact and say that it makes the region and the world safer. But Obama has sought to integrate Iran into the community of nations, while Clinton promises to punish Iran's bad behavior. 

This rift came to the fore last week at a conference in Washington hosted by the Truman National Security Project, a group that was formed after the Sept. 11 attacks to develop young progressive foreign policy leaders. At the conference, Jake Sullivan, Clinton's top national security aide, said it was time to "rebalance" the U.S. position in the Middle East and address the proxy war between Iran and America's traditional Sunni allies. "We need to be raising the costs to Iran for its destabilizing behavior and we need to be raising the confidence of our Sunni partners," he said. Sullivan said persuading Sunni allies the U.S. intended to remain engaged in the region would be a way to blunt their own dangerous "hedging behavior" against Iran.

Now, it should be said that Obama has sought to reassure the Gulf kingdoms, particularly since completing the Iran deal nearly a year ago. He has sold more arms to U.S. Gulf allies than any U.S. president before him. The U.S. quietly supports the Saudi-led war in Yemen against Iran's proxies with munitions, mid-air refueling and intelligence on targeting.

But Obama has also sought reconciliation with Iran since the nuclear deal. His administration approved a deal for Boeing to sell new commercial aircraft to Iran, despite evidence that Iran has used its commercial aircraft to arm the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In Iraq, the U.S. Air Force has supported military operations that include Shiite militias backed by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Obama's secretary of state, John Kerry, has also tried to assure European banks that it's safe to invest in Iran's economy, even going so far as to propose ways for Iranian institutions to gain access to the U.S. dollar. Just last week, the White House endorsed a decision from the Financial Action Task Force, a governing body of the international banking system, to delay penalties on Iran's banks for money laundering and support for terrorism.

Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an expert in Iran sanctions, told me Monday that Sullivan's comments at the Truman conference were similar to what he has said to other experts. He said this Clinton policy would be one of "pushing back aggressively against Iran's malign behavior while reassuring fearful and anxious allies who are no longer confident about American leadership."

This approach veers away from Obama's. The president, for example, mused earlier this year to the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg that Iran and Saudi Arabia must learn to share the Middle East and work towards a cold peace.

Clinton, on the other hand, has emphasized how she will be watching Iran like a hawk.

Speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) in March, Clinton said, "The United States must also continue to enforce existing sanctions and impose additional sanctions as needed on Iran and the Revolutionary Guard for their sponsorship of terrorism, illegal arms transfers, human rights violations and other illicit behaviors like cyber-attacks."

Obama has been reluctant to punish Iran since the agreement. While his government belatedly imposed mild sanctions on Iran for its test of ballistic missiles, it has not sanctioned Iran for its support for terrorism or human rights violations since completing the nuclear agreement last July.

For now, many foreign policy progressives prefer Obama's Iran policy. After her Aipac speech, the National Iranian American Council issued a statement bemoaning Clinton's "containment" approach to Iran. "At a time when President Obama is seeking to make his historic Iran policy change as irreversible as possible," the statement said, "we are concerned by Secretary Clinton downplaying the possibility of a larger diplomatic opening."

Sometimes an outside group can say something a sitting president cannot. In this case, Obama's efforts to make his Iran policy "irreversible" could render Clinton's campaign promises hollow if she wins the election. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net