Why Hillary Clinton Is Taking a Hard Line on Iran’s Missile Tests
Policy + Politics

Why Hillary Clinton Is Taking a Hard Line on Iran’s Missile Tests

REUTERS/David Becker

Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton has gotten considerable political mileage out of embracing much of President Obama’s legacy, from the Affordable Care Act and the 2009 economic stimulus to the Dodd-Frank financial reforms on Wall Street.

But Clinton has made it clear from the start that there would be times when she and Obama would part company on policies. On Wednesday, she gave administration officials heartburn by calling for new sanctions against Iran. That came after the Islamic Republic disregarded repeated U.S. objections and went ahead and test-fired two ballistic missiles that it acknowledged were designed to be able to reach Israel.

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Indeed, Iranian state television aired footage of two Qadr H missiles being launched from northern Iran, according to Reuters, which the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps boasted could hit targets 870 miles away.

To add insult to injury, the Iranians stamped the missiles with the Hebrew words for, “Israel should be wiped from the pages of history,” although the phrase wasn’t apparent from available photographs.

Prior to her comments Wednesday, the former secretary of state, something of a hawk, had toned down her concerns about Obama’s handling of Syria and other hot spots in the Middle East. She even gave mild approval to last year’s U.S.-Iranian nuclear deal, despite widespread concern among many Republicans and some Democrats that the Iranians couldn’t be trusted and they would ultimately develop a nuclear weapon that would threaten Israel’s existence.

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Clinton at one time claimed early parentage of the deal in which Iran eventually promised to mothball its nuclear weapons program for more than a decade in return for the United States and its allies lifting a series of sanctions that partially paralyzed the Iranian economy.

In a tough speech to the Brookings Institution last September, Clinton said that her approach to the Iranians would be to “distrust but verify” their compliance with the agreement before lifting economic sanctions against Tehran. She was emphatic that U.S. policy would never allow Iranian leaders to develop a nuclear weapon.

But yesterday, she said she was “deeply concerned” about the missile testing and called for tough action. “Iran should face sanctions for these activities and the international community must demonstrate that Iran’s threats towards Israel will not be tolerated.”

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The White House and the State Department have voiced concern as well about Iran’s in-your-face actions, although Clinton appears to be taking a much harder line than is being enunciated, for the time being, by the administration. Last year’s Iran nuclear deal — which barely made it through Congress — is a centerpiece of Obama’s foreign policy legacy. Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry are doing everything they can to nurture it to success.

"We know that Iran is in a season of carrying out a number of military activities, and so it certainly would not be a surprise if there are additional launches over the next several days," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

The missile tests highlight a major split in Iran between hardline factions opposed to normalizing relations with the U.S. and the West and President Hassan Rouhani's more moderate government, which is trying to lure foreign investors to Iran, according to press reports. As a former secretary of state, Clinton understands better than most the delicacy of negotiating with the Iranians and the importance of showing patience as well as an occasional firm hand.

But she is caught up in a tough presidential contest with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and has no choice but to occasionally break with the president over sensitive foreign policy issues, just as she did over Obama’s unpopular Asian-Rim Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement that has drawn sharp fire from Sanders, liberal Democrats and labor leaders. Moreover, if she wins the Democratic nomination and faces Republican Donald Trump in the general election, Clinton will have to demonstrate that she can be as tough as the billionaire businessman in staring down the enemy, including the Iranians.

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“She’s not in lockstep with the president on all things, and she’s been quite consistent from the start that the Iran agreement had to be carefully monitored, first of all, and secondly that the existence of the agreement is no reason to tolerate assertive Iranian behavior in other realms,” William Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton now with the Brookings Institution, said in an interview on Wednesday. “She has staked out from the beginning of the campaign and even in the administration a position noticeably tougher than the president’s on all sorts of things.”

“This [call for new sanctions] is part and parcel of that,” Galston added.