Hillary Clinton’s Aggressive Approach to Iran

by Peter Jenkins

Many Europeans are indifferent to whether the occupant of the White House is a Democrat or a Republican. What concerns them is that he or she be a “safe pair of hands.” They want someone who is knowledgeable and intelligent on the one hand, and dispassionate and free of prejudice on the other hand.

Measured against that yardstick Hilary Rodham Clinton’s speech on Iran last week, at the Brookings Institution, is cause for concern. It was not just her malevolence towards Iran and Iranians that was remarkable last week. It was also her lack of knowledge of the recent past.

This lack of knowledge is particularly disturbing in the passage that relates to her four years at the State Department.

Facts Matter

Clinton struck a warning note with her claim that, by the time she became secretary of state, “Iran was racing toward a nuclear capability.” Well, actually, no. By the time Clinton took office in January 2009, at least five years had elapsed since Iran had abandoned research into nuclear weapons and fourteen months had passed since the director of national intelligence had made knowledge of that available to the nation.

“[They had] expanded their secret facilities.”

No. By January 2009 many centrifuge machines had been installed at the Natanz enrichment facility, but nearly six years had passed since the facility was declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency (so it was in no sense “secret”) and the facility itself had not been expanded at all.

“[They had] defied their international obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

No. More than five years had elapsed since Iran had placed under IAEA safeguards, as the NPT requires, some nuclear material that had previously been undeclared. Since then the IAEA had not found any evidence for the existence of further undeclared material (it still hasn’t).

“They hadn’t suffered many consequences.”

Actually by January 2009 Iran had been reported to the UN Security Council for “non-compliance” with its IAEA safeguards obligations (prior to mid-2003) and had been the target of four UN Security Council resolutions, three of them adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which had entailed mandatory sanctions. These were consequences far more severe than any that Israel, for instance, has ever suffered for its illegal occupation of the West Bank or its use of force against civilians in its operations in Gaza and Lebanon.

“Iran didn’t really feel the heat [of sanctions] until we turned this into an international campaign so biting that Iran had no choice but to negotiate.”

No. Negotiations got under way in Istanbul in April 2012, well before the Iranian economy “felt the heat” of the sanctions to which Clinton is referring here. The Iranians came to that meeting because the US and EU had quietly dropped a precondition that had been unacceptable to Iran: the suspension of all uranium enrichment activity during the negotiating process.

I could go on. The speech is littered with questionable assertions and factual inaccuracies (which raises doubts about what Clinton has in mind when she invites her political rivals to “debate on the basis of facts not fears”). But to do so would be tedious. Let me instead turn to the malevolence that oozes from much of this speech.

The reason this matters is simple. Malevolence colors the broader Iran policy that Clinton says she would pursue if elected president. Malevolence—or should we call it, more neutrally, “a lack of dispassion”?—inclines her to lay all the ills of a troubled region at the door of Iran, and to pledge to “confront [Iran] across the board.” It even leads her, at certain points, to sound like a bad-tempered school ma’am scolding a small boy who has had a hand in the cookie jar.

Dispassion, Please!

The trouble is that this approach amounts to a grave misjudgment. Far from reinforcing the July 14 nuclear agreement with Iran, it risks ensuring that when restrictions on Iran’s civil nuclear program lapse 15 years from now, reasons to fear Iranian nuclear intentions will soon re-emerge.

The nuclear agreement has created an opportunity to draw Iran back into the global economy and the “community of nations.” It has created huge incentives for Iran’s leaders to exercise their right to make peaceful use of nuclear energy with extreme prudence—not just now but 15 years from now and forever thereafter.

The director of national intelligence pointed towards this in 2007 when he assessed that Iran’s nuclear decision-making would be determined by cost/benefit considerations. He has not deviated since from that assessment. This being so, the confrontational, aggressive approach that Clinton favors is counter-productive. (Is she simply desperate to appease a prime minister of Israel whose behavior towards the president of the United States has left much to be desired?)

Blaming Iran for the mayhem that is transforming the Middle East, interfering in Iran’s domestic affairs, failing to acknowledge that states are entitled to withhold recognition from other states, and seizing every opportunity to deny the Iranian people the benefits of international trade and investment will not produce a long-term solution to the nuclear problem.

On the contrary a “broader policy” of that sort will turn the July 14 agreement into a more elaborate version of the October 2003 nuclear understanding between the UK, France, Germany, and Iran. It will provide a respite from concern, a breathing space, but it will leave the long term as fraught with uncertainty as before.

It matters to much of the planet that the occupant of the White House, when taking a decision that will affect people living beyond the borders of the United States, be free of prejudice. Most states want the US to use its unequalled leverage to resolve international feuds not fuel them by taking sides.

Does Clinton understand that? As president would she be capable of dispassionate decision-making where Iran is concerned? Would she be capable of resisting Israeli pleas to punish Iran for disliking the Israeli state in its current form and disapproving of certain Israeli practices? On the basis of her performance last week, one has a right to entertain doubts.

Photo of Hillary Clinton courtesy of Brett Weinstein via Flickr

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.



  1. It’s hard not to think that this hard-nosed approach is Hillary’s way of one-upping Trump in his “Make America Great Again” campaign.

    But more important, it pays to remember that Hillary has been anti-Iran since at least the last time she ran for president when she promised to “annihilate” Iran for . . . can’t remember what for.

    I think Ambassador Jenkins is right about Israel. Just as Obama, on the day after he was nominated, scurried over to the AIPAC convention to genuflect before the American Likudniks, Hillary needs get the Zionists — inside and outside Israel — onside, as they are clearly too dangerous to any presidential campaign that doesn’t pay them enough of the right kind of attention.

  2. Truly, when the US and GB removed the elected Iran Mossadeh in 1953, at the direction of the AngloIranOilCompany –now BP– the US and GB have nothing but apologies and restitutions obliged to the Iranians– that would be called JUSTICE, Why? Because Mossadeh wanted to nationalizeTHE OIL FOR IRAN CITIZENS, OR SOVEREIGNTY.

  3. I love to see a woman in the WH in my life time but NOT Hillary Clinton! She is a member of AIPAC, a Zionist and a boring and foolish Democrat ( far right of democratic party but not quite a fascist)!

  4. I recommend Philip Stephens’ comments in the Financial Times yesterday, regarding the need for US engagement with Iran.

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