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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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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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