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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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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).

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