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In Private, Clinton Split With Obama on Iran

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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A month after President Barack Obama's historic 2013 phone call to Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, his former secretary of state privately warned that the so-called moderate only won the election because Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Revolutionary Guard Corps allowed it.

According to a speech transcript made public this weekend by WikiLeaks, Hillary Clinton on October 28, 2013, told the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago: "I believe that Rouhani was allowed to be elected by the two major power sources in Iran, the supreme leader and the clerics and the Revolutionary Guard … in part because the sanctions were having a quite damaging effect on the economy."

She continued: "I don't think anyone should have any illusions as to the motives of the Iranian leadership. What they really want to do is get sanction relief and give as little as possible for that sanction relief."

Clinton's private skepticism about Rouhani diverges from the Obama administration's effort to portray the Iranian president as a moderating force against the regime's hardline elements. The Treasury Department, for example, paused its process of blacklisting front companies meant to evade sanctions after his election in June 2013. In 2015, the Obama administration opposed a congressional proposal to increase visa scrutiny of visitors to the U.S. who had also been to Iran, using the argument that the measure would weaken moderate forces there.

Obama has talked openly about the promise of Iranian reform under Rouhani. He told NPR in April 2015: "I think that, if in fact the Rouhani administration -- the forces that are more moderating, even if, let's acknowledge, that they don't share our values and they still consider us an enemy -- if they are shown to have delivered for their people, presumably it strengthens their hand vis-a-vis some of the hardliners inside of Iran." 

The Obama approach presumes that Rouhani can bring about democratic change to Iran. Clinton, in private at least, has taken a more realistic view since leaving the administration. In her Chicago speech, she called Rouhani's outreach to the West a "charm offensive," and argued that U.S. negotiations were important as a sign of good faith to the international community, but not as a way to influence Iranian internal politics.

Republicans this election year have seized on Clinton's support for Obama's nuclear deal. And it's true that Clinton defends the deal in public as a way to keep a lid on Iran's nuclear program for the next 10 to 15 years. State Department diplomats working for her began the secret direct talks with Iran over the nuclear deal before Rouhani came to power.

But Clinton's campaign, according to newly leaked e-mails, has been far more attentive to concerns from skeptics of the deal, starting with Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. For example, e-mail exchanges between Stuart Eizenstat, a senior State Department official under President Bill Clinton, and Hillary Clinton's top national security aide, Jake Sullivan, show how the campaign sought and incorporated suggestions on her Iran deal statement from the pro-Israel and Jewish community.

A December 2015 e-mail from Eizenstat to Sullivan concerns a message from a senior aide to Netanyahu. Eizenstat says the Israeli official told him: "The prime minister always had a 'surprising good relationship' with Hillary; she is 'easy to work with,' and that she is more instinctively sympathetic to Israel than the White House." This is a marked contrast to Obama, who openly fought with Netanyahu and pro-Israel organizations in the summer of 2015 over the Iran deal.

Clinton's skepticism of Rouhani is in line with other criticisms of Obama's foreign policy she shared in her behind-closed-doors speeches. For example, at an October 2013 speech at the Goldman Sachs Builders and Innovators Summit, she was critical of Obama's decision to walk away from his "red line" on the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons. "You can't squander your reputation and your leadership capital," she said. "You have to do what you say you’re going to do. You have to be smart about executing on your strategies. And you’ve got to be careful not to send the wrong message to others, such as Iran."

All of this would have been trouble for Clinton had these speeches been released during the Democratic Party's primaries when her dovish opponent, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, asked her to release the transcripts. Sanders supporters could also have made hay of transcripts of talks to major banks showing Clinton supported trade deals she criticized during the primary.  

But WikiLeaks held onto these transcripts until just weeks before Americans will vote for their president. Candidates usually try to tack to the center for the general election. In this strange political season, WikiLeaks has performed this pivot for her.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net