In a major speech at the Brookings Institution today, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered a strong defense of the nuclear agreement with Iran while laying out a comprehensive plan to oppose Iranian influence throughout the Middle East. “We need to be clear-eyed about what we can expect from Iran,” she declared. “This isn’t the start of some larger diplomatic opening. And we shouldn’t expect that this deal will lead to a broader change in their behavior.”
The Iranians seem to agree. In a statement earlier today, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that “We agreed to talks with the U.S. only for the nuclear issue for certain reasons, and thank God our negotiators performed well. In other area, we did not allow talks with the U.S. and we will not negotiate with them.”
Five ‘strong pillars’ for confronting Iran’s regional influence
In line with her overall assessment of Iranian intentions and conduct, Clinton stated, in a modification of Ronald Reagan’s famous line, that “My approach will be distrust and verify.” She made it clear that she would take military action if Iran tries to break out of the agreement and build nuclear weapons. And she set forth what she called five “strong pillars” to raise the costs for the Iranians’ sponsorship of terrorism and to “confront them across the board.” These include:
- Deepening America’s “unshakeable commitment to Israel’s military security,” including providing Israel with the most advanced offensive and defensive weapons in our arsenal. Israel, she observed, has “every reason to be alarmed by a regime that both denies its existence and seeks its destruction.” While affirming her belief that the nuclear accord and her strategy for enforcing it will make Israel safer, she did so “with humility,” acknowledging that because she is not Israeli, she cannot fully understand what it is like to live under constant threat and with such a small margin for error.
- Reaffirming that the Persian Gulf—especially the Strait of Hormuz—is a region of “vital interest” to the United States and bolstering security cooperation with our Gulf allies. “Iran should understand,” she said, that “the United States—and I as president—will not stand by as our Gulf allies and partners are threatened. We will act.
- Building a coalition to counter Iran’s proxies—in Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, and Syria—while enforcing sanctions on every country involved in Iranian arms shipments to those proxies.
- Standing against Iran’s violations of democracy and human rights at home, including its detention of political prisoners, crackdown on freedom of expression, and continuing imprisonment of American citizens. Restating her previous position, she said that we were “too restrained” in our response to the reformers’ protest in June 2009 and to the government crackdown that followed, and, she promised, “That won’t happen again.”
- Finally, adopting a “comprehensive regional strategy that promotes stability and counters extremism.” This should include ramped-up military pressure on Syria’s Assad, a more active role in responding to the refugee crisis now engulfing Europe, and encouraging our friends and allies throughout the region to focus on providing economic opportunity to their people.
Clinton’s understanding of diplomacy and global politics
The speech was notable in other respects as well. For one, it offered insight into Clinton’s understanding of diplomacy and global politics, which I would describe as internationalist realism. “Those of us who have been out there on the diplomatic front lines know that diplomacy isn’t the pursuit of perfection—it’s the balancing of risk,” she declared, adding that “Great powers can’t just junk agreements and expect the rest of the world to go along with us. We need to be reasonable and consistent, and we need to keep our word—especially when we’re trying to lead a coalition.”
While criticizing Republican presidential candidates who have pledged to tear up the agreement on their first day in office, the speech embodied a less partisan tone than President Obama and other White House spokesmen have adopted in response to criticism of the agreement. “There have . . . been honest disagreements about the nuclear deal here at home,” she said. “Smart, serious people can see issues like these differently.” She anticipates a “robust debate” about foreign policy in the 2016 campaign. But let’s “resist denigrating the patriotism or loyalty of those who disagree with us” and avoid “undermining America’s credibility abroad.”
Clinton gave the speech against the backdrop of a Wall Street Journal story reporting that in the waning months of her tenure as secretary of state, secret talks with the Iranians had convinced her that negotiations would not succeed if the United States held fast to its “no enrichment” stance. As her closest foreign policy aide, Jake Sullivan, put it, “She recognized the difficulty of reaching a solution with zero enrichment.”
Partisan divide on the Iran agreement
Also in the background was the stark partisan divide on the Iran agreement. It is now clear that every Republican senator will vote against the deal and that all but four Senate Democrats will support it. During the question period following the speech, the former secretary of state made clear her desire to rebuild a more bipartisan approach to foreign policy. In today’s polarized environment, that will not be easy. Instead, the Iran deal will join the Affordable Care Act as a major flash-point in the 2016 election.
While President Obama has focused on building congressional support, Clinton will have to defend the nuclear agreement to the American people. That will not be easy. Just yesterday the respected Pew Research Center released a survey showing that popular support for the agreement—never robust—has fallen substantially during the past two months. In July, 33 percent of the people said they backed the deal, 45 percent opposed it, and 22 percent said they didn’t know. Now only 21 percent express approval (down 12 points since the previous survey), 49 percent stand opposed, and fully 30 percent say they don’t know. Obama may be winning the inside battle, but he is losing the outside war. If the Democratic presidential nominee cannot reverse these sentiments, foreign policy could turn out to be a consequential drag on the party’s general election prospects.