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Iran nuclear deal sets up 2016 clash between Clinton and Republican White House hopefuls

07/14/2015 04:06 EDT | Updated 07/14/2016 05:59 EDT
WASHINGTON - Hillary Rodham Clinton embraced a landmark nuclear deal with Iran on Tuesday, calling it the most effective path for the U.S. to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But she warned it would need strict enforcement, underscoring the tension between President Barack Obama's foreign policy legacy and the White House aspirations of his first secretary of state.

In a lengthy statement released late Tuesday, Clinton said she supported "the agreement because it can help us prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon."

But her written statement, following a day of meetings with Democratic lawmakers in Congress, also called for a "clear-eyed" assessment of the threat Iran represents to the U.S. If elected, she vowed a tough response if Iran failed to live up to its end of the bargain.

"We can never permit Iran to evade its obligations or to place any suspicious site off limits to inspectors," Clinton wrote. "And the response to any cheating must be immediate and decisive - starting with the return of sanctions but taking no options off the table, including, if necessary, our military options."

Clinton has largely supported the Obama administration's negotiations over the past two years. She has stayed involved with their progress with regular briefings, according to aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to publicly discuss private meetings.

But navigating the political nuances of a historic agreement with a decades-long U.S. enemy heading into a presidential election year may end up being far more complicated.

On Tuesday, Republican candidates signalled that Clinton would be forced to defend her position in the general election and warned of violent chaos in the Middle East as a result of the agreement while calling on Congress to try to halt it.

Campaigning in Iowa on Tuesday, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called Obama's actions "naive and wrong."

"This isn't diplomacy — it is appeasement," said Bush, one of the many Republicans who lashed out over the agreement.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said the bargain "will be remembered as one of America's worst diplomatic failures." Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who, like Walker, has vowed to rescind the agreement should he be elected president, said: "I believe this deal undermines our national security."

Though a slim majority of Americans back diplomacy with Iran, 56 per cent consider Iran an enemy of the U.S., according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll taken before the deal was announced.

Israeli leaders — who hold sway with some Jewish voters — see the agreement as a threat to their country's very existence. And Republicans have already spent months trying to link Clinton to Obama, who has seen approval ratings for his foreign policy sink in his second term.

Clinton's current place in the Iran debate marks a striking role reversal for the second-time presidential candidate and her long-ago rival. In 2008, she called Obama's offer to meet with Iran's leader without preconditions "irresponsible and, frankly, naive." And when Clinton said she would "obliterate" Iran if the country used nuclear weapons against Israel, Obama likened her "bluster" to the "tough talk" of then-President George W. Bush.

Four years later, as secretary of state, Clinton dispatched a top adviser, Jake Sullivan, to participate in the secret meetings with Iran through the sultan of Oman that led to the start of the international negotiations.

Sullivan, who could serve as Clinton's national security adviser if she's elected, declined to speak for Clinton during a breakfast with reporters. When asked for his own views, Sullivan said: "I believe that this deal is the best and most effective way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. That's my personal view."

Clinton, however, has long wondered publically whether a deal would ever take shape. She told an American Jewish organization last year that she was "skeptical the Iranians will follow through and deliver." She said she had "seen many false hopes dashed through the years."

Now, skeptical congressional Democrats are looking to Clinton for direction as they weigh the completed agreement. With the deal between the world powers now finalized, Congress has 60 days to assess the accord and decide whether to pursue legislation imposing new sanctions on Iran or try to prevent Obama from suspending existing ones. If Clinton wins, her commitment to implementing the agreement will play a huge factor in its potential success.

"She's one of two of the most important, most influential voices in this debate, the other being President Obama," said New York Rep. Steve Israel, who met with Clinton on Tuesday morning. "Her opinion is critically important."

Though Clinton praised the deal, she warned that the agreement would not end Iran's "bad behaviour" in the region, such as sponsoring terrorists, and noted that the country remains a major threat to Israel.

The Democratic Senate leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, said Clinton had told the rank-and-file privately "let's find out for sure what's in it."

After meeting earlier with Clinton, House Democrats said she offered a far more positive assessment behind closed doors, though they noted that Clinton did not explicitly urge them to vote in favour of the deal.

"She endorsed it. Full-throated," said Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly, who attended the closed-door meeting. "She was not equivocal at all in her support of the deal as she understands it."

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Associated Press writers Nicholas Riccardi in Las Vegas and Laurie Kellman and David Espo in Washington contributed to this report.