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.
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.”