Pantsuit on Fire?

Hillary Clinton Celebrates the Iran Sanctions That Her State Department Tried to Stop

The former Secretary of State claimed Wednesday she was responsible for tough sanctions on Iran. But while they were being crafted, her State Department opposed them again and again.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Hillary Clinton is now claiming to be the architect of crippling sanctions on the Iranian economy. But during her tenure as Secretary of State, her department repeatedly opposed or tried to water down an array of measures that were pushed into law by Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

Speaking at the American Jewish Committee on Wednesday, Clinton said that she and President Obama faced a “hard choice” when deciding to both reach out to Iran and increase the pressure on the Iranian government and economy, a not so subtle pitch for her upcoming memoir Hard Choices, which hits bookstores next month. She portrayed the multi-year effort to impose several increasingly tough sanctions measures against Iran as largely led by the administration.

“With the help of Congress, the Obama administration imposed some of the most stringent crippling sanctions on top of the international ones… our goal was to put so much financial pressure on Iran’s leaders that they would have no choice but to come back to the negotiating table with a serious offer,” she said. “We went after Iran’s oil industry, banks, and weapons programs, enlisted insurance firms, shipping lines, energy companies, financial institutions and others to cut Iran off from global commerce.”

Clinton referred indirectly to a series of bills passed from 2009 through 2012 that attacked Iran’s ability to export goods, participate in international financial markets, and continue with its illicit activities and money laundering.

What Clinton didn’t mention was that top officials from her own State Department—in conjunction with the rest of the Obama administration—often worked hard against many of the measures she’s now championing. Some bills Foggy Bottom slowed down; others, the State Department lobbied to be made less strict; still others were opposed outright by Clinton’s deputies, only to be overruled by large majorities in the House and the Senate.

For the senators who worked against the administration to pass the sanctions, Clinton’s comments Wednesday were an attempt to rewrite the events without acknowledging the administration’s actions at the time.

“Secretary Clinton’s comments are a blatant revision of history,” Kirk told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “The fact is, the Obama administration has opposed sanctions against Iran led by Senator Menendez and me every step of the way, as was thoroughly documented at the time.”

The most egregious example of the administration’s effort to slow down the sanctions drive came in late 2011, when Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez openly chastised top administration officials for opposing an amendment to sanction the Central Bank of Iran that he had co-authored with Sen. Mark Kirk. Leading administration officials including Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman publicly expressed “strong opposition” (PDF) to the amendment, arguing that it would anger allies by opening them up for punishment if they did not significantly reduce their imports of Iranian oil.

Clinton’s top deputies fought the amendment at every step of the legislative process. Clinton’s #2 at the State Department, Bill Burns, even joined an emergency meeting with top senators to urge them to drop the amendment. They refused. The amendment later passed the Senate 100-0. Menendez said at the time that the administration had negotiated on the amendment in bad faith.

"At your request we engaged in an effort to come to a bipartisan agreement that I believe is fair and balanced. And now you come here and vitiate that agreement.... You should have said we want no amendment," Menendez said at the time.

Senior lawmakers said that Clinton does deserve some credit for working to marshal support for United Nations Security Council resolutions sanctioning Iran, for working with European countries to urge them to levy their own sanctions, and for working to pressure countries to stop importing oil from Iran after the sanctions were passed.

In her talk on Wednesday, Clinton also took credit for weaning several other countries off of their dependence on Iranian oil. Clinton said. “Most of all, I made it my personal mission to convince the consumers of Iran’s oil to diversify their supplies and buy less from Iran.”

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But the record of the administration’s pushback against several sanctions bills is public and undeniable, Sen. Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said.

“I take comments from administration officials saying they were so involved in this as a compliment. It was Congress who pushed this on a bipartisan basis,” said Corker. “Let’s face it. You saw the public pushback from the administration. People can say what they wish, but there’s no way we would be where we are today without Congress’s actions.”

There were several other instances of the administration and Clinton’s State Department working to scuttle or dilute Iran sanctions measures during her time in office.

The administration opposed the passage for gasoline sanctions on Iran in 2009 that were proposed by Kirk and Democrat Evan Bayh in the Senate and Democrat Howard Berman in the House. That bill, the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, was later rolled into the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010. The administration worked behind the scenes to oppose that legislation, which passed the Senate 99-0 and the House 408-8.

In 2012, toward the end of Clinton’s tenure, the administration opposed congressional efforts to bar Iranian financial institutions, including Iran’s Central Bank, from doing business with the SWIFT, the global financial clearinghouse. The Wall Street Journal reported that the administration was afraid that the SWIFT-related sanctions would cause too much disruption to the system and unnerve allies. Lawmakers said the sanctions were needed to close a huge loophole through which Iran was laundering money.

More recently, Obama administration officials negotiated a provision in the Iran Freedom and Counterproliferation Act of 2012 (PDF) that delayed the implementation of new sanctions and updates to existing sanctions for six months.

Experts said that in those six months, Iran and Turkey schemed to subvert the sanctions through what is now known as the “gold for oil” scandal, whereby Iran exploited loopholes in the sanctions regime to earn over billions in hard currency. That scandal now threatens to upend Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“That decision not to crack down immediately on gold exports, when there was a lot of pressure on the administration to do that, ultimately allowed the Iranians to blow a massive whole in the international financial sanctions regime,” said Mark Dubowitz, an Iran sanctions expert and executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “The overwhelming success of Iran sanctions is certainly motivating many folks to claim credit. The reality is that there is no doubt that the toughest sanctions were imposed by Congress over the objections of the administration.”