07/14/2015 13:33 EDT | Updated 07/14/2016 01:12 EDT

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

WASHINGTON — Hillary Rodham Clinton offered a qualified endorsement of the landmark nuclear deal with Iran on Tuesday, underscoring the deeply tangled links between President Barack Obama's foreign policy legacy and the presidential aspirations of his former secretary of state.

It's a bond that Republicans believe will eventually trip up the likely Democratic nominee. After the deal was finalized, they warned of violent chaos in the Middle East and called on Congress to try to halt the agreement.

"This isn't diplomacy — it is appeasement," said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, one of the many Republicans who lashed out of the landmark deal.

For Clinton, however, navigating the political nuances of a historic agreement with a decades-long U.S. enemy is far more complicated.

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

Clinton praised the nuclear deal with Iran as an "important step," saying the agreement would end up "putting the lid on Iran's nuclear program."

She was on Capitol Hill for a series of closed-door meetings with congressional Democrats, where she's been detailing her early work on the landmark agreement and expressing her support for the final deal — the result of nearly two years of intense negotiations.

House Democrats who met with Clinton described her as a strong backer of the program, which aims to curb Iran's nuclear program for more than a decade in exchange for billions of dollars in international sanctions relief.

"She endorsed it. Full-throated," said Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly, who attended the closed-door meeting.

Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., said Clinton "talked about the fact that no deal is ever going to be a perfect deal. But we have to have a deal that not just works but measurably moves us in the direction that we hope to achieve."

Still, Clinton warned that the agreement would not end Iran's "bad behaviour" in the region, such as sponsoring terrorist actors, and noted that the country remains a major threat to Israel.

"This agreement will have to be enforced vigorously, relentlessly," she said, noting that Obama called Monday night to inform her that a deal had been reached. "As president, I would be absolutely devoted to assuring the agreement is followed."

The vast GOP presidential field sharply criticized the deal Tuesday, although they were short on details of how they would stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons or rescind an agreement other countries have already agreed to.

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."

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called for Democrats and Republicans in Congress to join forces and vote down the deal with a sufficient margin to override a threatened Obama veto. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal issued a statement calling on Hillary Clinton to condemn the agreement.

The lone dovish voice in the Republican field, Kentucky Sen Rand Paul, had not yet issued a statement.

The Republican-controlled Congress can't block the complex nuclear agreement, but a veto struggle is a near certainty as lawmakers try to undermine it by insisting that sanctions remain in place. Congress has 60 days to assess the accord and decide whether to pursue legislation imposing new sanctions or prevent Obama from suspending existing ones.

As Obama's secretary of state, Clinton helped set the talks in motion. Her background, coupled with her status as the Democratic presidential front-runner, means her opinion carries significant weight with skeptical congressional Democrats.

"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.

Clinton told House Democrats that Iran ramped up its nuclear capabilities during President George W. Bush's two terms, building covert facilities and intimidating its neighbours.

Once Obama entered the White House, "we inherited an Iranian nuclear weapons program and we had to figure out what we were going to do about it," Clinton said. An agreement, however, would not be a cure-all, she said.

"Just because we get the nuclear deal...doesn't mean we're going to be able to be breathing a big sigh of relief," Clinton said.


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

Lisa Lerer And Ken Thomas, The Associated Press