In a speech before a packed pro-Israel crowd in New York, Senator Hillary Clinton made a forceful, if measured, case for the need to engage with Iran and Syria, while reaffirming her commitment to denying Tehran nuclear weapons.
“If we are having to pursue potential action against Iran, then I want to know more about the adversary that we face,” Clinton told the 1,700 people gathered for the February 1 Northeast regional dinner of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “I want to understand better what the leverage we can bring to bear on them will actually produce. I want to get a better sense of what the real power centers and influentials are, and I also want to send a message, if we ever do have to take more drastic actions, to the rest of the world that we exhausted all possibilities.”
Clinton, a Democratic frontrunner for the 2008 presidential nomination known for her methodical, lawyerly approach to complex problems, built her case for engagement carefully. Acknowledging that “there are no easy answers to the complex situation we face today,” she called President Bush’s steadfast rejection of talks with Iran and Syria a “good-faith position to take” that was, nevertheless, perhaps not the “smartest strategy.” She had “no expectations whatsoever,” she admitted at the outset, that “anything positive would come” from talks.
Still, Clinton argued, engagement is a way to gain more information about a formidable adversary, as it was with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In addition, she said, opening a diplomatic track could make it easier to build support among allies should America decide that military action is needed.
Democratic hopefuls have been in agreement about the importance of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. In a January 22 speech to American and Israeli security officials and experts, another 2008 contender, former North Carolina senator and vice-presidential nominee John Edwards, said, “Let me be clear: Under no circumstances can Iran be allowed to have nuclear weapons.”
His address, in contrast with Clinton’s speech, made no mention of engaging with Iran. But when an audience member asked afterward, “Would you be prepared, if diplomacy failed, to take further action against Iran?” the former senator said he supported talking with Tehran.
“As to what to do, we should not take anything off the table,” Edwards said. “More serious sanctions need to be undertaken, which cannot happen unless Russia and China are seriously on board, which has not happened up until now. I would not want to say in advance what we would do, and what I would do as president, but there are other steps that need to be taken. For example, we need to support direct engagement with the Iranians, we need to be tough. But I think it is a strategic mistake to avoid engagement with Iran.”
At Clinton’s speech, while a faint smattering applause could be heard as the senator referenced Bush’s policy of shunning all talks with Tehran, hearty clapping greeted her own call for diplomatic engagement. The night’s strongest, most sustained response came earlier in Clinton’s speech, when the senator echoed the pro-Israel community’s longstanding position that a nuclear Iran would be a grave and impermissible threat.
“U.S. policy must be clear and unequivocal,” Clinton told the crowd. “We cannot, we should not, we must not, permit Iran to build or acquire nuclear weapons, and in dealing with this threat, as I have said for a very long time, no option can be taken off the table.”