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Rewriting History

The real Hillary record on Iran sanctions

Jun 9, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 37 • By JOEL WINTON
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Hillary Clinton will shortly release a memoir, Hard Choices, chronicling her tenure as secretary of state. If what she has to say in its pages resembles what she had to say from the stage at the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) annual Global Forum on May 14—where she claimed undue credit for implementing sanctions against Iran—it’s worth setting the record straight now.

Gary Locke

Gary Locke

In reality, the Obama administration, and Clinton’s State Department in particular, opposed, dragged their feet on, and sought to water down every piece of sanctions legislation introduced by bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate. With that history now being rewritten, let’s review the actual record.

President Obama took office believing that personal diplomacy without “preconditions” would convince Iran’s leaders to relinquish their nuclear ambitions. As Clinton later explained in an interview with CNN’s Candy Crowley, “We believed that the effort of seeking engagement would actually strengthen our hand.”

Others were unconvinced. In April 2009 Congress signaled its skepticism of this “carrots and carrots” approach by introducing several sticks in the form of sanctions bills—of which the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act of 2009 (IRPSA) was the most notable.

Sure enough the administration’s “outstretched hand” was met with an Iranian middle finger over the following months: There were repeated Iranian rebuffs of negotiations; a stolen election in June; Tehran’s atavistic repression of the pro-democracy Green Movement which followed that election; Iran’s rejection of a comprehensive fuel-swap deal after commitments were made to the contrary; and, finally, Iran’s disclosure of its secret underground Fordow enrichment complex after that site had been discovered by Western intelligence services.

Consequently, towards the end of 2009, congressional skepticism about the administration’s quixotic diplomacy morphed into open hostility.

On November 19, a companion to the House’s IRPSA, the Dodd-Shelby Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA) was introduced in the Senate. It took aim at Iran’s petroleum sector and prohibited financial transactions with U.S. banks on behalf of sanctioned firms.

With the House’s passage of the IRPSA on December 15, these two initiatives marked a clear repudiation of the Obama administration’s preference for carrots without sticks. They represented a serious attempt to apply pressure on Tehran in the hope of fashioning a diplomatic accord. That Mrs. Clinton now takes credit for them is curious, to say the least.

Days before the House passed its sanctions bill, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg wrote to Senator John Kerry, then chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to express the State Department’s “serious substantive concern” and fear of “unintended foreign policy consequences.” The administration felt the legislation too “inflexible” and feared that it “might weaken rather than strengthen” its diplomatic efforts. Clinton’s message to Congress at the time might be characterized as “back off.”

The Senate’s dissatisfaction with this message was emphasized in a January 27, 2010, bipartisan letter to President Obama. The senators called for “crippling sanctions” and expressed their hope that the “administration will pursue parallel and complementary measures .  .  . to increase the pressure on the Iranian government.” To buttress that hope the Senate ignored the administration’s concern and passed CISADA by a voice vote on January 28.

With sanctions legislation passed in both chambers of Congress by January 2010, one might have expected the administration to cut its losses and drop its opposition to pairing diplomacy with leverage in the form of sanctions. It did no such thing. Instead, the administration spent months trying to dilute and delay the legislation.

A Washington Times headline that April read plainly: “White House seeks to soften Iran sanctions.” And readers were left in no doubt that the impetus for delay came from the top: “One congressional staff member working on the bill told the Washington Times that Mr. Obama personally asked the House leadership this month to put off the sanctions bill until after the current work period.”

The historical record on CISADA—the first serious piece of sanctions legislation adopted during the Obama years—is unequivocal. CISADA was a bipartisan effort pushed through Congress against direct opposition from President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. It was significantly watered down by the administration. And after months of delay, during which Iran’s nuclear progress accelerated unchecked, it was reluctantly signed into law on July 1, 2010, by a president whose top brass would later claim credit for the very measures they had staunchly resisted.

When CISADA proved ineffectual at halting Iran’s nuclear progress, Congress once again seized the initiative in demanding the administration take a tougher line on Iran. In August 2011, 92 senators sent a letter to President Obama demanding his administration “do more to increase the economic pressure” on Tehran. The letter called for “crippling sanctions on Iran’s financial system by cutting off the Central Bank.” The administration responded with lip service, sharpening its rhetoric but maintaining the same failed diplomatic policies. 

Consequently, in November, Senators Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) decided to force the issue by introducing amendments to the 2012 Defense Authorization. These amendments were responsible for establishing what Mrs. Clinton now describes as “the most stringent, crippling sanctions” to date. They went after the main arteries in Iran’s economy: oil exports and the Central Bank of Iran. That’s probably why Mrs. Clinton is so eager to pat herself on the back: “We went after Iran’s oil industry, banks, and weapons programs, enlisted insurance firms, shipping lines, energy companies, financial institutions, and others to cut Iran off from global commerce,” she told the AJC forum. At the time, however, the administration was decidedly less supportive. It resolutely opposed and actively lobbied against the amendment.

First, President Obama and Secretary Clinton sought to scupper the amendment privately. On November 29, three senior administration officials—Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Treasury deputy secretary Neal Wolin, and deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough—called an emergency meeting on Capitol Hill with Senators Kirk, Menendez, and Kerry. The administration argued that the amendment would critically hinder their attempts to create a multilateral sanctions infrastructure. The senators refused to withdraw the amendment.

Next came a letter from Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to Senate Armed Services chair Carl Levin stating “the Administration’s strong opposition to this amendment because .  .  . it threatens to undermine the .  .  . approach we have undertaken to build strong international pressure against Iran.” Levin, a Michigan Democrat, was unmoved.

On December 1, administration officials spent the morning of the vote lobbying against the amendment at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. Undersecretary of state for political affairs Wendy Sherman and undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence David Cohen conveyed the administration’s disapproval. Cohen claimed the amendment “risks fracturing the international coalition that has been built up over the last several years to bring pressure to bear on Iran.”

Appalled by the opposition, Menendez took seven minutes at the hearing to excoriate the administration’s conduct. That these critical words were spoken by a Democrat emphasized how outside the mainstream the administration was on the issue. Menendez thundered:

At your request we engaged in an effort to come to a bipartisan agreement that I believe is fair and balanced. And now you come here and vitiate that agreement. .  .  . You should have said we want no amendment. .  .  . Everything that you have said in your testimony undermines your opposition to this amendment. The clock is ticking. .  .  . We should not be leading from behind, we should be leading forward.

That afternoon, the Senate voted unanimously (100-0) in favor of the amendment. According to Suzanne Maloney, an Iran specialist at the Brookings Institution, it marked “one of the most universal votes we’ve seen in a divided Capitol Hill in several years.”

The critical headlines captured the mood rather well: “Senate votes for new Iran sanctions, defying White House” (Los Angeles Times); “The wrong signals to Iran” (Washington Post); “Gutting Iran Sanctions” (Wall Street Journal); “White House on defensive over Iran sanctions” (Financial Times); “Congress rebuffs administration pleas to ease impact of potential sanctions on Iran” (Associated Press).

Not that the administration’s jiggery-pokery stopped there. After weeks of further foot-dragging, they succeeded in significantly watering down the legislation. As a report from the Bipartisan Policy Center made clear: “The administration lobbied against the Kirk-Menendez Amendment. .  .  . After it passed the Senate, the State and Treasury departments requested changes before it went to conference. As a result, the final bill for presidential consideration softened penalties for foreign banks, extended the grace period before implementing sanctions from 60-180 days, allowed exceptions for companies reducing but not ending their purchase of Iranian oil and broadened the president’s waiver authorities.”

Then having secured myriad concessions, when President Obama finally agreed to ink the bill on December 31, 2011, he carved out further scope for noncompliance. In his signing statement the president warned that several provisions, including the sanctions that target Iran’s Central Bank, may “interfere with .  .  . constitutional authority to conduct foreign relations,” and so he would retain the ability to “treat the provisions as non-binding.”

The administration’s protestations against a serious sanctions regime continued throughout 2012. When Congress introduced legislation in February aimed at forcing SWIFT—the interbank financial messaging system upon which international commerce depends—to sever ties with Iran, the administration’s lobbyists went to work again.

Prior to consideration of the amendment on SWIFT before the Senate Banking Committee, Treasury Secretary Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke phoned members of the committee and urged them to oppose the measure. “When the Senate Banking Committee began preparing legislation on SWIFT, a Treasury Department official met with aides to ask that it be watered down,” reported the Los Angeles Times.

There are those who might argue that this is all too harsh a rendering. According to Mrs. Clinton, her signature involvement with Iran sanctions was to “revitalize” a divided international community so as to build a consensus for multilateral sanctions. As she told the crowd at the AJC forum, “When President Obama asked me to serve as secretary of state back in late 2008 .  .  . with the international community divided, there was little standing in the way of Iran’s march toward nuclear-weapons capability.” But the idea of a divided international community is a canard. 

Consider Europe. When President Obama assumed office in 2009 and set about unsuccessfully engaging Tehran in personal diplomacy, sentiments among Europe’s leading powers were clear: “France, UK push for EU sanctions on Iran” (Reuters, January 19, 2009); “EU trio targets tougher Iran sanctions” (Financial Times, February 25, 2009).

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was already galvanizing the EU and agitating for sanctions long before the Obama administration was forced to countenance that course of action. What the Europeans wanted was American support and leadership. Which is why, while the Obama administration was busy lobbying against the Kirk-Menendez sanctions in 2011, the French president wrote to Congress expressing France’s desire for “decisive, extraordinary measures” and urging the president to “impose sanctions of unprecedented magnitude.”

Not content with waiting on an administration that was clearly unwilling to lead on sanctions, Sarkozy took up the mantle of leadership himself in late 2011. As the Los Angeles Times noted, “Top [U.S] administration officials .  .  . were strongly resistant when Congress slapped Iran’s Central Bank with harsh sanctions. The European Union then went further, however, imposing an embargo to halt purchases of Iranian oil by European nations over the ensuing five months.” America would eventually follow where France had led.

Realities at the U.N. were no different from those in Paris. Not that the historical record has stopped Mrs. Clinton from spinning otherwise: “I worked for months to round up the [U.N. Security Council] votes,” she now says. And “after years of division, the international community came together and sent a very strong, unified message to Iran.”

For all the rhetoric about America’s “diplomatic isolation” at the U.N. on Iran prior to Secretary Clinton’s efforts, one would do well to remember that the Bush administration was able to achieve that which eluded the Obama administration: a unanimous (15-0) Security Council vote for sanctions against Iran over its nuclear activities.

In fact, President Bush got two of them, in December 2006 and March 2007, and then a third near-unanimous resolution in March 2008 (14-0 with Indonesia abstaining), followed by a fourth unanimous resolution in September 2008, reaffirming the previous measures.

By contrast, during Hillary Clinton’s tenure at the State Department, the Obama administration achieved just one Security Council resolution on sanctions, in June 2010, and it was unable to get all members onboard. Turkey and Brazil opposed the measure, while Lebanon abstained.

There are other examples, at home and abroad, that one could invoke to make the same point: If Mrs. Clinton believes sanctions to have been a positive force in attempts to stop Iran’s march toward a nuclear bomb, she is well within her right to trumpet America’s imposition of them as a foreign policy success. She should be candid, though: It was a success in spite of her efforts, not because of them. Instead of taking credit for the work of others, she should explain why her office opposed their endeavors for so long, and with such temerity. That might be history worth listening to.

Hard Choices—Mrs. Clinton’s soon-to-be released memoir—will no doubt be a bestseller, but in which category? If her speech at the AJC is any indication, one should expect to find it next to James Patterson’s Unlucky 13—on the fiction shelves.

Joel Winton, formerly a Tikvah fellow at the Wall Street Journal, works in New York.

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