Clinton Backs Iran Deal, Robust U.S. Role in Mideast

Clinton Backs Iran Deal, Robust U.S. Role in Mideast
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Hillary Clinton promised Wednesday to enforce, if elected president, the nuclear agreement negotiated with Iran and, in turn, make clear to Tehran through her eventual White House successor that “the United States will never allow [Iran] to acquire a nuclear weapon.”

In a muscular speech delivered at the left-leaning Brookings Institution in Washington, Clinton laced appraisals of Iran, Syria, the broader Middle East, Israel and Russia under Vladimir Putin with references to diplomacy, U.S. military power, and “leadership,” a word she used multiple times.

Clinton embraced the restrictions negotiated with Iran as “a strong agreement” that she said followed her efforts as secretary of state to win support from the international community to impose strict sanctions on Tehran, which eventually brought the country to the negotiating table.

Republicans in Congress are poised to disapprove of the agreement via a resolution that promises to spark a detailed public debate. President Obama, however, has secured sufficient support among Democratic senators to avoid having to veto a resolution of disapproval. After months of discussions, classified briefings, and lobbying, 42 Democrats in the upper chamber announced their support for the Iran deal, giving Obama and the agreement breathing room to move forward. It means GOP senators may not overcome a filibuster to bring their resolution to a vote in the first place, a hurdle that requires 60 votes.

“We should absolutely not turn it down,” Clinton said, noting her view that even the deal’s shortcomings related to accessing Iranian sites do not undercut the overall benefits of the agreed-upon restrictions imposed over 15 years, and other provisions that are permanently in place to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

“This deal does the job,” she added in hoarse voice aggravated by what Clinton said were allergies and “Republican histamines.”

Surrounded by foreign policy experts and a media audience, Clinton outlined a strategy to enforce the deal, which is intended to lift international sanctions imposed on Iran in exchange for its compliance with provisions intended to dismantle or handcuff Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Describing five “pillars” of her “distrust and verify” approach to Iran, Clinton said she would back Israel with sales of military equipment, fighter planes, missile defenses, and intelligence gathering. She said she would invite the prime minister of Israel to the White House in her first month as president, underscoring the unshakeable bonds between the two nations. “This isn’t just about policy for me. It is personal,” she said.

She also vowed to sustain a “robust military commitment” in the Persian Gulf region to hammer home to Iran the risks of bad behavior: “We will act,” she said of the United States under a President Hillary Clinton. To combat Iran’s support for terrorists, including Hezbollah, Clinton advocated building an “international coalition” to “choke off” support and funding to the group, and to block the flow of arms to and from Iran, through sanctions.

Without explicitly mentioning Obama, the former secretary of state several times made clear that her advice to the White House about events tied to Iran, Syria, Russia and even Congress had not been heeded in the past, to her regret. In contrasting her preferred approach with the administration’s efforts in some cases, Clinton sought to put her foreign policy on post-Obama footing, should she be the Democratic nominee in 2016. In a conference call with reporters after her speech, a senior campaign adviser said Clinton was not rebuking the administration when referencing provisions of the Iran nuclear deal that she said were “not perfect.”

“No deal is going to be perfect,” said Jake Sullivan, a former State Department aide who played a role in outreach to Iran through Oman at the outset of talks, and who is now a senior policy adviser to Clinton’s campaign. Her concessions about the deal’s flaws were “pragmatic” and essential for any president who wants to keep the pressure on Iran and enforce an agreement designed to extend far into the future, he said.

Asked about Russia, Clinton warned that Putin backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with military assistance under the guise of thwarting terrorism and the Islamic State, while his overarching strategy is aimed at the United States. “I think Russia's objectives are to stymie and to confront and to undermine American power whenever and wherever they can. I don't think there's much to be surprised about that,” she said. Clinton defended her much-criticized “reset” efforts with Russia while secretary of state, arguing that then-President Dmitry Medvedev did not share Putin’s “czar-like behavior” and appetite for “intimidation,” and worked constructively with the United States.

Clinton urged the United States and its allies to push back against Putin as he continues to involve Russia in Syria’s civil war, and she said sanctions and reprimands are not reshaping the Kremlin’s posture. She was not specific about how she believes Obama and U.S. allies should reckon with Putin. “I believe that we've got to regroup quickly, because I worry very much about what's happening in Syria right now,” she said.

On Tuesday, the administration sought to cut off a suspected Russian military ramp-up in Syria by obtaining Bulgaria’s agreement to close its air space to Russian transport planes, and it asked Greece to do the same. Intelligence assessments indicate Russia is establishing an operating base and flew supplies and equipment to the Syrian port city of Latakia over the weekend, crossing Iranian and Iraqi air space.

Clinton’s speech and a question-and-answer session after her remarks played up her global experience and intimate familiarity with world leaders, including Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. She believes her knowledge surpasses the bona fides of most Republican presidential contenders, and could prove attractive in a general election to independent voters who are concerned about national security. Her remarks Wednesday also shifted her State Department record away from her email controversy and implicitly contrasted her experience around the world with that of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is concentrating on a domestic economic platform.

Clinton appealed to Washington’s elected leaders to seek a bipartisan U.S. foreign policy, acknowledging the odds against success. She argued the importance and impact abroad of U.S. unity and cooperation. She said it was “short-sighted” and “wrong-headed” for 47 GOP senators to communicate directly with Iran’s ayatollah in March, delivering a message that the party in control of the U.S. Congress had the power to undo the nuclear pact President Obama and U.S. allies were then still negotiating.

“I think we really have to work at it,” she said of non-partisan collaboration. “And we can't work at it if we don't have a set of strategic pillars and organizing principles that we can present to our own people and present to the Congress and present to the world.”

Republican presidential candidates will be called on to debate international issues, and to offer alternatives, not just critiques, Clinton said.

“Where we have disagreements, we should lay them out, like if American ground forces in Iraq should engage in direct combat, as [Wisconsin Gov.] Scott Walker wants, or if we should keep Cuba closed, as [Florida Sen.] Marco Rubio and [former Florida Gov.] Jeb Bush want. Let's debate these issues,” she said. “But let's debate them on the basis of facts, not fear. Let's resist denigrating the patriotism or loyalty of those who disagree with us, and let's avoid at all costs undermining America's credibility abroad. That only makes us weaker, and I am going to call it out whenever I see it.”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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