WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 21: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (L) announce new sanctions against Iran at the State Department on November 21, 2011 in Washington, DC. U.S. officials announced a new set of sanctions they hope will inspire other governments to break off transactions with both the central bank and with businesses in Iran. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Hillary Clinton on Iran through the years
02:34 - Source: CNN

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Hillary Clinton led the carrot-and-stick approach that defined the Obama administration's first-term efforts toward Iran

The Republican National Committee isn't missing a chance to hit Clinton on her foreign policy credentials

Washington CNN  — 

If Secretary of State John Kerry is the diligent quarterback who carried the Iran deal past the goal line, Hillary Clinton could be the groundskeeper who cleared and groomed the raggedy field on which no one wanted to play.

As Clinton looks to pave a path to the presidency, she’ll be intertwined with Kerry’s legacy in more ways than just the bullet points on their resumes, both of which chart a course from senator to presidential contender to secretary of state.

Supporters, critics and experts agree: Clinton’s fingerprints are all over the nuclear agreement brokered more than two years after she left the State Department.

Clinton led the carrot-and-stick approach that defined the Obama administration’s first-term efforts toward Iran – she repeatedly signaled a U.S. willingness to sit down at the negotiating table but ratcheted up sanctions when confronted with continued Iranian intransigence and nuclear enrichment activity.

Most notably, Clinton lobbied international partners to build up the bulwark of sanctions the United Nations passed in 2010, hailed by many as the toughest round of economic sanctions lodged against Iran.

The sanctions ended up largely working: They pushed the Iranian economy into a recession and forced the Iranians to agree to limit their nuclear activity and engage in negotiations.

The outcome, though, is a controversial deal that is staunchly opposed by Republicans, the Israeli political establishment and their supporters in the United States. A CNN/ORC poll out Tuesday found that 52% of Americans say Congress should reject the deal, with 44% saying it should be approved. Even some Democrats are questioning the merits of the deal sought so aggressively by their party’s president.

Clinton is stuck with the results and their political complications.

“She can’t walk away from this even if she wants to,” said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official who served under Democratic and Republican administrations.

And she hasn’t tried to, quickly expressing support for the agreement after it was announced. But in a wink and a nod to the deal’s skeptics, she said in the same statement praising the deal that “we still have a lot of concern about the bad behavior and actions by Iran, which remains the largest sponsor of terrorism … that bad behavior is something we have to address.”

Emphasizing the sticks in the deal

In that statement, Clinton gave a peak into what is likely to be her strategy as the Iran issue comes up throughout the campaign.

Clinton highlighted the leading role she played in “building the coalition that brought us to the point of this agreement” thanks to the sanctions regime it maintained – the stick aspect of the U.S. strategy.

Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist who served in the Clinton White House and now advises a pro-Clinton super PAC, emphasized Clinton’s lengthy record in favor of “cracking down on Iran” – not just as secretary of state but also as a New York senator.

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“She’s had a very tough position on Iran for all of her career,” Begala told CNN. “She has a record, a long record, of being very tough on the Iranian regime and she set up the conditions that forced the Iranians to the table.”

And Clinton will likely continue to lay out how to counter bad Iranian behavior as she outlines her would-be administration’s foreign policy.

While Iran is likely to stick to the terms of the nuclear deal in its early stages – before the 2016 election – Miller said Iran’s supreme leader might feel compelled to ratchet up some of his country’s more provocative behavior “to sanitize his own constituency by demonstrating he’s no tool of the Americans.”

That could include an uptick in its support for terrorist attacks and aid to its anti-American, anti-Western proxies in the Middle East.

Tied to the mullahs’ behavior

“To some degree, her own political future is tied to the mullahs’ behavior, which is not really where you want to be,” Miller added.

For Michael Rubin, a foreign policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute and a strong critic of the Obama administration’s Iranian policy, Clinton’s harsh words on Iran now won’t change the perception of her role in the deal.

“She can quibble that she would have negotiated a better deal, but I don’t think that at this point that sort of wordsmithing is going to work,” he said. “She is tied to it.”

That assessment comes even as Clinton’s role in crafting the deal is dwarfed by the two years of intensive diplomacy Kerry carried out, an effort whose success in many ways rested on the relationship he developed with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in hourslong discussions that often stretched into the wee hours of the morning. And he’s the one in the spotlight now, making the rounds in the media and on Capitol Hill to defend the deal, including at a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday.

That effort was a significant risk, the kind Kerry has shown himself prepared to take as he looks to drop the curtain on his political career. He’s put his legacy on the line with tricky foreign policy gambits such as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – which did not produce an agreement – and the Iran deal.

Clinton, by many accounts, was not ready to do the same – 2016 beckoned. But despite what some have described as Clinton’s risk-averse approach as the top U.S. diplomat, Kerry’s gambles will rub off on Clinton’s own legacy just the same.

The “Obama-Clinton foreign policy,” is already a staple of Republican stump speeches around the country. Republicans and conservative thinkers haven’t missed an opportunity to wrap Clinton into the mix when slamming the Iran deal Kerry brokered.

And the Republican National Committee isn’t missing a chance to hit Clinton on her foreign policy credentials, especially as Clinton has focused on domestic issues in the first months of her campaign.

“She’s desperately trying to run away from her record because she doesn’t have any accomplishments to speak of,” RNC National Press Secretary Allison Moore said.

Clinton’s constraints on Iran

Beyond Clinton’s willingness to risk valuable political capital to get the deal Kerry brokered this month, Clinton faced more significant constraints in dealing with Iran than Kerry did.

To start with, Iranian hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president during Clinton’s tenure and maintained an unflinching opposition to limiting Iran’s nuclear activities.

P. J. Crowley, who served as State Department spokesman at the start of Clinton’s tenure as well as in President Bill Clinton’s second White House, also emphasized the difference in serving in the first versus the second term of a presidential administration.

As a first-term president, Obama may not have been willing to make his riskiest moves on foreign policy, like having direct one-on-one talks with Iran – the conversations that led to breakthroughs in forging a deal.

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Then there were the specific circumstances of Clinton’s taking office. She had just lost a tough-fought contest for the Democratic presidential nomination and didn’t hit the ground running with the full trust of Obama and his aides.

Experts such as Miller asserted that the White House kept Clinton on a “tight leash” in her first years as secretary of state.

Crowley would not go so far, but he did point to remnants of the “very, very bitter campaign in 2007, 2008” between Clinton and Obama and said “some of that dynamic carried over into 2009” – when she became secretary of state – particularly among their aides.

Had circumstances in Iran been more like those Kerry faced when he came into office, Crowley said he believes she would have negotiated a deal very similar to the one Kerry reached earlier this month.

The Obama-Kerry run isn’t over yet, though, and as the end of the term nears, both will be increasingly untethered from the political consequences of their actions and might be willing to put more on the line as they reach for some 11th-hour wins – even as Clinton has to bear the political costs.

Poll: Majority wants Congress to reject Iran deal