Hillary Clinton was deeply involved as secretary of state in President Obama’s decision to hold direct talks with Iran about its nuclear program and has supported the process since she left the State Department, putting her at the center of a policy that Republicans are unified in opposing and even some Democrats are wary of.
In Clinton’s own telling, as described in her 2014 book “Hard Choices,” she personally helped initiate the negotiations. She details a one-on-one meeting on January 12, 2011 in Muscat, Oman, where the Sultan of Oman told her “I can help” in setting up a process for talks between the two nations. Returning home, the secretary of state briefed President Obama on the discussion.
Obama, according to Clinton, was “wary, but interested.”
For the first meeting in Oman between Iranian officials and the U.S., Clinton sent Jake Sullivan, one of her top aides, writing, “his presence would send a powerful message that I was personally invested in this process.”
Out of government, Clinton has remained a supporter of Obama’s policy.
In December, as prominent Jewish-Americans were raising concerns about Obama’s negotiations with the Iranians, Clinton urged people to “forget about the press coverage and the back and forth.”
“Nobody can argue with the commitment of this administration to Israel’s security. And that has to continue, and that has to deepen, regardless of the political back and forth,” Clinton said at the Brookings Institution, defending the president.
In January, Clinton publicly opposed new congressional sanctions on Iran, arguing they would destroy any chance of a nuclear agreement by irritating Russia and China. This echoed the Obama’s administration’s view.
I remained skeptical that the Iranians would deliver a final comprehensive agreement; I had seen too many false hopes dashed
And when the informal agreement with Iran emerged earlier this month, Clinton issued a careful but supportive statement. Her embrace was significant, as she chose to wade into a controversial issue and support Obama on the eve of announcing her own presidential run.
If Clinton openly disapproved of the agreement, other Democrats may have publicly abandoned the president as well.
Her support of the president’s policy could present a political challenge for Clinton. Obama’s engagement toward controversial countries like Iran and Cuba has emerged as one of the chief dividing lines of the 2016 campaign. And Clinton was an advocate of both moves.
“Near the end of my tenure, I recommended to President Obama that he take another look at our embargo,” she wrote in her book, referring to the U.S. policy on Cuba.
She added, “It wasn’t achieving its goals, and it was holding back our broader agenda across Latin America,” words very similar to those the president has used in describing his decision to reverse 50 years of U.S. policy on Cuba.
Nearly every Republican candidate has condemned Obama’s engagement with both countries and linked Clinton to the president’s decisions.
“His foreign policy has been deeply destructive,” says Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the leading 2016 GOP candidates. “Now we have the architect of his failed foreign policy running for president of the United States.”
In Clinton’s view, the nuclear negotiations in Iran were an outgrowth of ideas she advocated during her first presidential campaign. In her book, Clinton quotes from a 2007 Foreign Affairs essay in which she wrote, “The Bush administration refuses to talk to Iran about its nuclear program, preferring to ignore bad behavior rather than challenge it.”
Clinton, in the 2014 book, notes that she and Obama differed on how these talks with Iran should take place. Obama, in a 2007 presidential debate, suggested he would meet with the leaders of several rogue nations, including Iran, “without precondition” in the first year of his presidency. Clinton dismissed this as naïve.
Clinton does not directly say this in the book, but her view on how the negotiations should take place with Iran won out once she and Obama were in office. Not only did Obama not meet with Iranian leaders in his first year in office, he has still not done so, although he has exchanged letters with Ayatollah Khamenei and spoken on the phone with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Clinton cast herself as a key figure in developing the administration’s policy approach during Obama’s first four years in office: an initial attempt at engagement with Iran, a ramping up of sanctions after that engagement failed and then the talks that eventually lead to the informal agreement between the U.S, Iran and a group of other world powers.
“When we came into office back in 2009, the international community was fractured, diplomacy was stalled, and the Iranians were marching steadily toward a nuclear weapon,” she writes. “Our dual-track strategy of engagement and pressure reversed those trends, united the world, and finally forced Iran back to the negotiating table.”
Obama has at times spoken in optimistic terms about the potential of a nuclear agreement with Iran leading to greater changes in the country that might strengthen its relationships with the U.S. and other nations in the Middle East.
Clinton has not shared that enthusiasm.
“I remained skeptical that the Iranians would deliver a final comprehensive agreement; I had seen too many false hopes dashed over the years to allow myself to get too optimistic now,” she wrote in her book, which was released last June.
She added, “But this was the most promising development in a long time, and it was worth testing to see what could be achieved.”
Clinton, in an interview with the Atlantic last fall, laid out what she wanted to see in a final agreement with Iran: “little or no enrichment,” “a discrete, constantly-inspected number of centrifuges,” allowing Iran to enrich only 5 percent of its uranium, and the time in which Iran could develop a nuclear weapon at “more than a year.”
By this measure, it’s not clear if President Obama has reached initial Clinton’s goals. The current agreement does extend the time Iran could develop a weapon to a year, but not more than that.
And after 13 years, as the president himself has acknowledged, Iran could quickly have the capability to develop a nuclear weapon. The informal agreement includes a very thorough inspections process, but Iranian officials have said since the deal was reached that they will not agree to inspections at its military facilities.
After the announcement of the informal agreement a few weeks ago, Clinton detailed parameters for a final deal in June that “verifiably cuts off all of Iran's paths to a nuclear weapon, imposes an intrusive inspection program with no sites off limits, extends breakout time, and spells out clear and overwhelming consequences for violations.”
She reserved the right to oppose the final agreement Obama crafts, although it seems she will not directly blame him if she does.
“The devil is always in the details in this kind of negotiation,” she noted.
She added, "The onus is on Iran and the bar must be set high."