The high-profile battle over congressional efforts to extend and strengthen sanctions against Iran if it fails to dismantle its nuclear weapons program has ominous implications for Hillary Clinton's likely candidacy for the White House.
President Obama's in-your-face veto threat, delivered in his State of the Union speech last week, has elevated this issue to the point where it has become the most important early battle between him and the new Republican Congress. Even if Democrats in the Senate cave and try to delay a sanctions vote, the stark contrast between the GOP and the president has made Iran sanctions a key national issue that is likely to have a life of its own as we move into 2016.
This polarization has made it increasingly impossible for Clinton to fudge her position on sanctions, as she has been doing for years. Recognizing this fact, right after Obama spoke, the former secretary of State backed him up, calling further congressional action on sanctions a "serious strategic error," warning that it would "guarantee diplomacy fails" and that it might be the "catalyst for the collapse of negotiations."
In the past, Clinton has publicly proclaimed her backing for tough sanctions and even taken credit for their effectiveness. But all the while she has been privately sending her lobbyists up to Capitol Hill to battle against them. In fact, when Congress was considering the most effective of the sanctions imposed on Iran, legislation that targeted the country's Central Bank and made it more difficult for Tehran to sell its oil, Clinton sent her people up to Capitol Hill to testify against the proposals.
They argued that making it more difficult for Iran to sell oil might drive up its prices and unintentionally give Iran a windfall profit. Wendy Sherman, Clinton's undersecretary, explained this convoluted logic, saying "there is absolutely a risk that in fact the price of oil would go up, which would mean that Iran would, in fact, have more money to fuel its nuclear ambitions, not less."
We all know how that worked out.
But while Clinton's people pushed Congress to go slow on sanctions, she took credit for their effectiveness in her book Hard Choices. Until now, she has been able to have it both ways: seeming to back sanctions while really opposing them.
But with the high-profile confrontation looming between Congress and Obama over sanctions, her deft dance can no longer be sustained. If Congress passes sanctions and Obama, with Clinton's approbation, vetoes the legislation (and it is not overridden), she will have made herself responsible for the outcome of the process. If Iran does go nuclear or refuses to dismantle any of its centrifuges, she'll have to defend the Ayatollah's actions from the campaign trail, a hazardous undertaking for a candidate for president.
Democrats had hoped that the first big confrontation between the newly elected Republican Congress and the president would come over a government shutdown where the administration could portray its opponents as being in the grip of the Tea Party. For their part, Republicans sought to avoid the shutdown trap and were looking toward the Keystone oil pipeline as the leading issue.
But now Iran sanctions have come to the fore and loom large on center stage.
Hillary Clinton is tied to President Obama on the issue. Where he goes, she will follow. The careful distancing of herself from the failures in administration foreign policy is no longer an option for Clinton. Appeasing Iran is her plan now.