Hillary Clinton backs Iran nuclear deal, with caveats

WASHINGTON — With Donald J. Trump rallying at the Capitol Wednesday against President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, Hillary Rodham Clintonembraced the agreement a short distance away. But she warned it would work only “as part of a larger strategy toward Iran” that contained Tehran’s power in the region as sanctions are lifted.

Mrs. Clinton’s speech, at the Brookings Institution, amounted to a strong endorsement of the deal struck by President Obama and her successor as secretary of state, John Kerry, though one laced with skepticism about Iran’s intentions.

“Diplomacy is not the pursuit of perfection — it is the balancing of risk,” she said, arguing that the risks of walking away from a deal that she helped shape would turn the United States, not Iran, into the international outlier.Her appearance created a stark juxtaposition in the presidential race as Mr. Trump and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas held a joint rally to assail the agreement, with Mr. Trump saying, “Never, ever, ever in my life have I seen any transaction as incompetently negotiated as our deal with Iran.”

In her appearance, Mrs. Clinton nevertheless sought to distinguish herself from the president on foreign policy, calling for a tough reassessment of American policy toward Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and she seemed, by implication, to suggest that the Obama administration had not responded strongly enough to the annexation of Crimea and the continuing military action in Ukraine. She noted the recent reports of Russian troops in Syria and argued “we need a concerted effort to up the costs on Russia and Putin — I am in the camp that we have not done enough.”

“I don’t think we can dance around it much longer,” she said, arguing that the Russians were seeking to “stymie and undermine American power whenever and wherever they can.”

But most of her speech and discussion afterward was an effort to navigate a careful line between claiming credit for the Iran deal while also expressing skepticism by positioning herself as tougher than her former boss and perhaps more devoted to keeping rifts with Israel from breaking out into the open. She was clearly positioning herself as the candidate best poised to take on Iran’s challenge and influence in the Middle East.“Distrust and verify” would be her approach, she insisted, turning Ronald Reagan’s “trust but verify” line about the Soviet Union on its head. She went on to describe Iran as a “ruthless, brutal regime,” words far harsher than Mr. Obama has used as he has sought to coax the Iranians along in the years of perilous diplomacy. She added, “I will not hesitate to take military action” if Iran seeks to obtain a nuclear bomb despite its commitments, a deliberately stronger formulation than Mr. Obama’s “all options are on the table.”

She also took shots at former Vice President Dick Cheney, who spoke against the deal on Tuesday, reminding her audience of invited guests that the Iranian nuclear program surged ahead during the Bush administration.

A crucial part of that strategy, as she described it, would be a stepped-up effort to contain Iran’s military activity in Syria and around the Middle East, and new restrictions on conventional arms to Iran. (She did not mention one of Mr. Kerry’s last concessions, made in July during talks in Vienna, that included the expiration, over eight years, of United Nations embargoes on missile and other conventional arms sales.)

But while she described what amounts to an effort to impose sanctions on Iranian banks and organizations that support terror groups — even as other sanctions linked to nuclear activity are being lifted — she followed a careful path. For example, while she promised to sell F-35 fighter jets and missile defenses to Israel, she said nothing about selling the Israelis the United States’ most powerful bunker-busting bomb, the “Massive Ordnance Penetrator.” Israel has pressed for the weapon because it is the only one that can get into Iran’s deep underground sites, but it would also need America’s giant B-2 bomber to drop it.

Nonetheless, with some of her strongest support coming from American Jews who are skeptical of the deal and its effect on Israel, Mrs. Clinton went further than Mr. Obama in reassuring them. She said she would invite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to the White House in her first month in office — a contrast to Mr. Obama who did not visit Israel in his first term. “Israel has every reason to be alarmed by a regime that both denies its existence and seeks its destruction,” Mrs. Clinton said of Iran.

Unlike Mr. Obama’s speech at American University in July, part of his effort to sell the deal, Mrs. Clinton’s talk on Wednesday worked from the assumption that Iran will try to violate the deal. “We need to be prepared for three scenarios,” she said. “First, Iran tries to cheat.” The second, she said, was that the Iranians would seek to “wait us out” until the world is distracted, and then resume their efforts to enrich uranium, produce plutonium or develop a weapon.

And the third was that Iran would seek to flex its muscles abroad. “We shouldn’t expect that this deal will lead to broader changes in their behavior,” she said.

This article was written by for The New York Times on Sep. 9, 2015.