Hillary Clinton has stayed silent on the controversy surrounding Benjamin Netanyahu's appearance before Congress, but she has not always been silent on the key issues facing the Obama Administration's Iran nuclear negotiators. Last August, when I interviewed her on various foreign policy matters, she took a hard line on Iran and its ambitions. When I asked her, for instance, whether the Israeli (and Arab) desire to see Iran denied any uranium enrichment capability was unrealistic, she answered, "It’s not an unrealistic position. I think it’s important that they stake out that position." She argued that she herself believes that Iran possesses no "right" to enrich.
So when Benjamin Netanyahu stakes out this exact position in his speech today to Congress, keep in mind that that a Democrat who might be the next president doesn't, in fact, see eye-to-eye with President Obama on this crucial issue.
Here are the relevant excerpts from that August interview:
Jeffrey Goldberg: It seems that you’ve shifted your position on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. By [chief U.S. negotiator] Wendy Sherman’s definition of maximalism, you’ve taken a fairly maximalist position—little or no enrichment for Iran. Are you taking a harder line than your former colleagues in the Obama administration are taking on this matter?
Hillary Rodham Clinton: It’s a consistent line. I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment. Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right. I am well aware that I am not at the negotiating table anymore, but I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran. The preference would be no enrichment. The potential fallback position would be such little enrichment that they could not break out. So, little or no enrichment has always been my position.
Goldberg: Am I wrong in saying that the Obama administration’s negotiators have a more flexible understanding of this issue at the moment?
Clinton: I don’t want to speak for them, but I would argue that Iran, through the voice of the supreme leader, has taken a very maximalist position—he wants 190,000 centrifuges and the right to enrich. And some in our Congress, and some of our best friends, have taken the opposite position—absolutely no enrichment. I think in a negotiation you need to be very clear about what it is going to take to move the other side. I think at the moment there is a big debate going on in Tehran about what they can or should do in order to get relief from the sanctions. It’s my understanding that we still have a united P5+1 position, which is intensive inspections, very clear limits on what they can do in their facilities that they would permitted to operate, and then how they handle this question of enrichment, whether it’s done from the outside, or whether it can truly be constrained to meet what I think our standard should be of little-to-no enrichment. That’s what this negotiation is about.
Goldberg: But there is no sign that the Iranians are willing to pull back—freezing in place is the farthest they seem to be willing to go. Am I wrong?
Clinton: We don’t know. I think there’s a political debate. I think you had the position staked out by the supreme leader that they’re going to get to do what they want to do, and that they don’t have any intention of having a nuclear weapon but they nevertheless want 190,000 centrifuges (laughs). I think the political, non-clerical side of the equation is basically saying, “Look, you know, getting relief from these sanctions is economically and politically important to us. We have our hands full in Syria and Iraq, just to name two places, maybe increasingly in Lebanon, and who knows what’s going to happen with us and Hamas. So what harm does it do to have a very strict regime that we can live under until we determine that maybe we won’t have to any longer?” That, I think, is the other side of the argument.
Goldberg: Would you be content with an Iran that is perpetually a year away from being able to reach nuclear-breakout capability?
Clinton: I would like it to be more than a year. I think it should be more than a year. No enrichment at all would make everyone breathe easier. If, however, they want a little bit for the Tehran research reactor, or a little bit for this scientific researcher, but they’ll never go above 5 percent enrichment—
Goldberg: So, a few thousand centrifuges?
Clinton: We know what “no” means. If we’re talking a little, we’re talking about a discrete, constantly inspected number of centrifuges. “No” is my preference.
Goldberg: Would you define what “a little” means?
Goldberg: So what the Gulf states want, and what the Israelis want, which is to say no enrichment at all, is not a militant, unrealistic position?
Clinton: It’s not an unrealistic position. I think it’s important that they stake out that position.