It is perhaps only an accident of history that three of the key actors in the diplomatic efforts to deny Iran a nuclear bomb are the 2004, 2008, 2012 and probable 2016 Democratic presidential nominees. But their intertwined ambitions provide a dramatic backdrop to the unfolding and unfinished story.
President Obama, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton all can claim a piece of what happened in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Thursday when the United States and Iran announced a framework agreement designed to curb the Iranians’ ability to develop a nuclear weapon.
Obama and Kerry must see the negotiations through to completion in June, a goal that remains in question, given some of the missing details. Obama, in particular, must try to sell any final agreement in the face of fierce opposition from Republicans and some Democrats at home — and Israel abroad — and skepticism across the Middle East, including from its ally Saudi Arabia.
Clinton was in the administration when economic sanctions were imposed on Iran. She has been supportive of the negotiations and wary about their chance of success. Now, as she prepares to launch her presidential campaign, she must stand on the sidelines, conscious that if she becomes president in 2017, she will inherit for better or worse what has been done since she left government two years ago.
Obama and Clinton have had moments of mutual interest and sharp disagreement over Iran. Their most important disagreement came in the summer of 2007 when, as rivals for the Democratic nomination, they clashed over how to approach a nation with which the United States has had no relations since the hostage crisis that began in 1979.
In a debate in South Carolina that summer, Obama said he would be willing to meet with Iran’s then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and leaders of some other rogue nations without preconditions during the first year of his presidency.
Clinton instantly slammed him, saying she would not make the prize of meeting with a U.S. president so immediately available to such countries. “I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes,” she said.
What happened in the next 12 hours is telling in understanding the differences in temperament and perspective between Obama and Clinton.
The consensus coming out of the debate was that Obama had made a major mistake and that he had exposed himself as foolhardy and too inexperienced to handle the presidency.
Flying back from the debate, Clinton was urged by one of her advisers to increase the criticism. Her campaign asked Madeleine Albright, a former secretary of state, to lead the attacks against Obama.
But Clinton pitched in directly. The next day, she belittled Obama during an interview with an Iowa newspaper reporter. “I thought he was irresponsible and frankly naive,” she said.
Obama knew what the conventional wisdom was in those hours after the debate. On their way to the airport, he already could see the swirling criticism appearing on the Internet. He told his advisers, some of them nervous about the position he was in, to hold the line.
“I said: ‘Don’t back down. If we go down, we’re going down swinging,’ ” Obama later told me. “It was a moment where I felt confident enough to trust my instincts and also confident about the fact that I wasn’t going to be intimidated by the pundits. . . . This was a moment where I said, ‘You know what, I’m just going to make sure that whatever I do accords with what I believe.”
Obama’s compass on Iran might have been set at that moment. Since then, he has followed a policy of pressure and engagement, looking for a diplomatic solution to the issue of Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons by employing sanctions and negotiations in the face of criticism and condemnation. Iran has maintained that its nuclear program is intended solely for peaceful purposes.
The stakes are now far greater than when the question was simply whether to meet with an Iranian leader without preconditions, but Obama again is being described as naive, foolhardy and reckless. He insisted Thursday that intrusive inspections would show whether Iran is serious.
His Rose Garden statement Thursday, as the framework agreement’s details were being made public, once again displayed the combination of defiance and self-confidence that shaped his reaction in the hours after that debate in South Carolina almost eight years ago.
Kerry’s motivation in producing an agreement with Iran is an extension of his long-held determination to affect the course of events in the Middle East. It was among his greatest disappointments in the aftermath of his defeat by then-President George W. Bush in the 2004 election that he would have no opportunity to try to bring about a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Kerry made a Middle East peace agreement a priority when he succeeded Clinton as secretary of state; he has nothing to show for it. Prospects for new negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians are nil, and relations between Israel and the United States, symbolized by the open warfare between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are at a low point in the history of the two countries.
Kerry’s legacy as secretary of state may now rest in part on whether he can reach a final deal with Iran this summer and whether Iran lives up to the terms or whether it stalls, blocks or otherwise frustrates the international community on the implementation while continuing to sponsor and export terrorism across the region.
Clinton is caught in the middle of this story. As a presidential candidate in 2008, she said she was open to lower-level diplomatic outreach to Iran (as opposed to Obama’s willingness to meet with his Iranian counterpart as president) but also threatened to “totally obliterate” Iran if that country ever used nuclear weapons against Israel.
As secretary of state in the early months of Obama’s presidency, she agreed with Obama’s decision not to express strong support for the public uprising in Tehran against the Iranian regime in the spring of 2009, which was brutally repressed.
In “Hard Choices,” her 2014 memoir of her tenure at the State Department, she said she later came to regret that decision. “In retrospect, I’m not sure our restraint was the right choice,” she wrote.
As secretary, she worked to develop international support for U.N. sanctions against Iran, which led to U.S. economic sanctions. And she was intimately involved in the secret diplomacy that led to direct talks between the two countries.
But what would Clinton have done with respect to Iran and Israel had she, rather than Obama, won the presidency in 2008? What would she have done with the direct negotiations had she stayed on as secretary of state for Obama’s second term?
Would she have pursued the talks as persistently as Obama and Kerry have done? Would she have demanded more of the Iranians? Would she have made some of the concessions the United States has made in the framework agreement? How would she have handled the outspoken opposition by Netanyahu?
Her response to the framework agreement last week was at once supportive and skeptical. She called the pact “an important first step.” She said getting to a full agreement by June “won’t be easy, but it is absolutely crucial.” She added, “The onus is on Iran, and the bar must be set high.”
She may have no choice to ride with Obama and Kerry as they try to bring this diplomatic gamble to conclusion, but her presidential campaign — and a possible Clinton presidency — will be shaped by what happens next and how she responds.