"To be successful in the way that I expect, we're going to watch Iran like the proverbial hawk."
- Hillary Clinton, on Meet The Press, January 17, 2016
Ever since the signing of the Iran deal last summer, Hillary Clinton has been taking credit for it.
As the contest for the Democratic nomination for president heats up, Hillary Clinton continues to promote her foreign policy experience, acumen and expertise more and more, dismissing Bernie Sanders' own international affairs chops as either wrong-headed, too idealistic or simply nonexistent.
Surely, in an atmosphere where the specter of her Iraq vote still looms large and her chumminess with war criminals like Henry Kissinger is starting to raise eyebrows, there is still time for Hillary's hawkish record to come back to haunt her this primary season.
In the meantime, though, Clinton is hoping to cash in on - and partially take credit for - one of the Obama administration's signature diplomatic achievements: the Iran Deal.
"Look," Clinton told NBC News' Chuck Todd on January 17, "I have said for a long time that I'm very proud of the role that I played in getting us to the point where we could negotiate the agreement that puts a lid on Iran's nuclear weapons [sic] program."
That evening, at the Democratic debate in Charleston, South Carolina, Clinton said basically the same thing:
I'm very proud of the Iran Nuclear Agreement. I was very pleased to be part of what the president put into action when he took office. I was responsible for getting those sanctions imposed which put the pressure on Iran. It brought them to the negotiating table which resulted in this agreement.At the next debate, on February 4 at the University of New Hampshire, Clinton went even further:
You know, I did put together the coalition to impose sanctions. I actually started the negotiations that led to the nuclear agreement, sending some of my closest aides to begin the conversations with the Iranians.By casting her tenure at the State Department as instrumental in laying the groundwork for the nuclear accord, which lifts international and unilateral sanctions in return for the application of strict limitations on Iran's nuclear energy program, Clinton is attempting to rewrite history.
In reality, her lockstep adherence to neoconservative and Israeli demands regarding Iran's safeguarded uranium enrichment program during her four years as Secretary of State put a deal with Iran further out of reach, not closer to happening. It was not until an executive decision was made in the White House to change long-standing U.S. policy about Iranian enrichment - an about-face that Clinton herself opposed but was begrudgingly forced to accept, but never herself articulate - that progress could be made toward ending the nuclear impasse.
Sanctions Didn't "Work"
Essentially, negotiations with Iran were able to succeed primarily due to the Obama administration's acknowledgment that Iran would continue to operate a fully-monitored, comprehensively safeguarded domestic uranium enrichment program. It had nothing to do with sanctions, which served only to deepen Iran's resolve to maintain and expand its nuclear program and create resentment toward the United States and harm the health, food security and livelihoods of Iranian citizens.
Sanctions were not only ineffectual from a political standpoint, they actually totally backfired. Forced to diversify its economy, Iran increased its non-oil exports and expanded privatization, in turn growing Iran's middle-class and reducing government control over the economy, thus rendering the pressure of trade sanctions even less effective. As a result, Moody's Investors Service recently reported that, due to its experience under sanctions, the Iranian economy is now far more resilient to low oil prices than other crude exporters and "won't suffer from capital flow volatility amid U.S. interest-rate increases because it has had minimal exposure to external debt and foreign direct investment."
Nevertheless, Clinton's own campaign website boasts about how "she twisted arms in the international community to impose the strongest-ever international sanctions on Iran."
Sanctions did not, as we are so often told, bring Iran to the negotiating table. Iran had been at the table for a decade already, offering its international interlocutors proposals that guaranteed a severe reduction in enrichment capacity, the setting of limits on enrichment levels, enhanced monitoring and inspections, expanded safeguards protocol, and the opening up of its program to international partnership and investment. The only condition consistently insisted upon by Iran before it accepted these stringent terms was the acknowledgement and acceptance of its inalienable right - as affirmed by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty - to a peaceful nuclear program, and full domestic control of its own nuclear fuel cycle, including uranium enrichment.
For 10 years, Iranian offers were routinely rejected by Western negotiators, who long maintained the irrational position that Iran capitulate to the American and Israeli demand of zero uranium enrichment on Iranian soil and refused to acknowledge Iran's national right to enrich uranium.
"We cannot have a single centrifuge spinning in Iran," declared George W. Bush's undersecretary of state for arms control Robert Joseph in early 2006. Such a stance had already scuttled chances for a comprehensive nuclear deal in 2005 and this outrageous precondition - that Iran give up all enrichment capability indefinitely until the West said so - poisoned subsequent talks until the Obama's White House officially changed course in early 2013.
It was Obama's realization that this was a failed policy, not the "crippling sanctions," that led to successful negotiations. That, and John Kerry taking the lead - both during his tenure in the Senate and subsequently as Clinton's successor.
Indeed, as recently as March 2015, Clinton was still indicating her preference for "little-to-no enrichment" in Iran and refusing to recognize Iran's inalienable rights.
Clinton's Backchannel to Nowhere
Despite being given - and eagerly taking - undue credit for laying the groundwork for a nuclear agreement with Iran, Clinton's role is far less impressive than it sounds.
Laura Rozen has laid out the timeline in articles for Al-Monitor, noting that it wasn't until March 2013 that the Obama administration officially let go of the "zero enrichment" demand and signaled that Iran's nuclear rights and domestic control of its nuclear fuel cycle would be respected.
This was the game-changer Iran had been awaiting for close to a decade, not Clinton's tentative and dismissive approach to opening secret talks with the Iranian government.
As former weapons inspector Scott Ritter has pointed out:
Ultimately, it was the United States that was compelled to change course and acknowledging not only Iran's right to enrich, but the fact that this enrichment would be allowed to continue in perpetuity. It wasn't economic sanctions that drove Iran to the negotiating table, but rather the reality of 20,000 spinning centrifuges inside Iran that drove the United States to the negotiating table. And far from capping a non-existent nuclear weapons program, the Obama administration had to surrender to the reality that Iran got what it always wanted — the ability to exercise its rights under the nonproliferation treaty to enrich uranium for peaceful nuclear energy.This is the truth. But don't expect to hear much about it as this campaign season continues.