The Iran nuclear deal is already grist for the presidential candidates, but the one to watch – the one with the most at stake – is clearly Hillary Clinton.
I could list all the Republican harrumphs about the nuke deal, but that would be a waste of time. They forfeited all claim to wisdom when they enabled the Bush-Cheney disaster in Iraq, and, besides, they’re programmed to hate virtually everything President Obama does – a la the Groucho Marx song,“I don’t know what they have to say / It makes no difference anyway/ Whatever it is, I’m against it”). Jeb Bush, for instance, says it’s wrong to negotiate with bad guys, to “enable people or regimes that don’t embrace democratic values,” apparently forgetting that his dad negotiated arms reductions with the Soviets and that his brother negotiated a nuke deal with Muammar Qaddafi. Whatever.
Hillary is the real story here, because she partially owns the Iran deal. Even though she has long been rhetorically aggressive toward Iran – far more so than her ’08 campaign rival, Obama – she helped launch the nuke talks three years ago when she sent a top State Department aide to participate in secret backchannel meetings with Iranian envoys. Hence her favorable, albeit nuanced, reaction to the deal yesterday:
“This is an important step in putting a lid on Iran’s nuclear program….As president, I would be absolutely devoted to assuring the agreement is followed,” by ensuring that its terms are enforced “vigorously, relentlessly” – while mindful that this deal isn’t likely to erase our “concerns” about Iran’s “bad behavior.”
Hillary has reportedly been briefed all along about the negotiations, and she’s reasonably satisfied with the terms – some of which will remain in force for 25 years, some of which include a 98 percent cut in Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium, a 67 percent cut in the number of centrifuges that are used to enrich uranium to bomb-grade levels, regular on-site international inspections, and regular technological monitoring. She’s also well aware (as are we all) that if the other party was in the White House, mouthing its usual bellicosity, it would have achieved nothing.
But, substance aside, Hillary’s only political play is to praise the deal. If she had signaled otherwise yesterday, she would’ve essentially rebuked her own diplomacy – and the president whom she served. The last thing she wants to see are headlines like, “Hillary Breaks With Obama,” something that would split the Democratic party and sow anger on her left flank. Still, she she seems sufficiently comfortable with the finalized terms – despite saying last year that zero enrichment capability would be the best of all terms.
For better or worse, she and Obama and joined at the hip on this one. That’s ironic, in a sense, because they battled about Iran during the ’08 primaries, sometimes bitterly. Obama at one point said he’d be willing to meet personally with the leaders of Iran, in his first year in office without preconditions, and Hillary fired back by saying that Obama was “irresponsible and frankly naive.” But that was all in the heat of competition, and the issue was very narrowly framed (a personal meeting in year one). Hillary never said it was wrong to negotiate with hostile nations.
The GOP thinks it can exploit her ties to the Obama team’s negotiations (the Republican National Committee is already referencing “the Obama-Clinton nuclear talks”), but if the deal surfaces in the autumn ’16 debates, she has ample ammo to protect herself. She has long been hawkish about Iran; as a senator, she voted for every sanction, she backed a Senate effort to list the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group, this month she told voters that Iran is still “an existential threat” to Israel, and said that even with a nuke deal, “we will still have major problems with Iran.”
In other words, she can essentially argue (and is starting do so already) that America would be best served by a president who supports the aspirations of this historic deal – but who, by dint of skeptical instinct and experience, is determined to enforce it “vigorously, relentlessly.” Whereas Ronald Reagan used to say that his credo for doing nuke deals with the Soviets was “trust, but verify,” Hillary is already signaling that her Iran credo would be roughly the reverse – verify, then trust.
We’ll see whether the Republican hopefuls, virtually all of whom are national security novices, can trump that.
Speaking of Trump, and his presidential prospects, here’s the line of the day – courtesy of columnist Carl Hiassen:
“The only way he could win is if the Democrats nominate Bill Cosby.”