Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton chose her words carefully Tuesday, calling President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran an “important step” but holding back a full-fledged endorsement of the agreement struck by her former boss.
The Iran deal once again had Mrs. Clinton torn between her loyalty to Mr. Obama and a campaign that wanted to distance her from a divisive and potentially explosive White House policy.
“This is an important step in putting a lid on Iran’s nuclear program,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters at the Capitol, where she was holding private meetings with groups of Democratic lawmakers.
The former secretary of state said that Mr. Obama called her Monday night to inform her a deal had been reached.
“This is an important moment,” Mrs. Clinton said, adding that she applauded Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry for their efforts in completing the negotiations.
But as soon as she gave the deal a tepid thumbs up, Mrs. Clinton quickly pivoted to calling for additional moves that she said were needed to keep Iran in check, including strict enforcement of the deal to ensure the rogue nation halts its nuclear weapons program.
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“This agreement will have to be enforced vigorously [and] relentlessly,” she said. “We have to treat this as an ongoing enforcement effort that I certainly strongly support and as president will be absolutely devoted to ensuring that the agreement is followed.”
Looking beyond the nuclear threat, she said that the United States and its allies also should undertake actions to stop Iran’s other “bad behavior,” which includes its sponsoring of terrorism, threats against Israel, destabilizing other Middle East countries and unlawfully imprisoning Americans.
“That bad behavior is something we have to address,” said Mrs. Clinton.
Democratic political strategist Christy Setzer said Mrs. Clinton found “exactly the right way to play it.”
“This is primary season. She’s not going after independents. Anything Clinton can do to ally herself with Obama, distinguish herself from the hyperbolic reactions of the GOP contenders, and remind primary voters that she was secretary of state, is a win-win-win,” she said. “And calling it an ‘important step’ allows Clinton herself to finish the job.”
Mrs. Clinton handled the Iran deal much like she did Mr. Obama’s massive trade pact with Pacific Rim countries, though unlike the trade agreement, the nuclear deal had support from many Democrats and strong backing from the party’s liberal base.
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In both the trade deal and the Iran deal, Mrs. Clinton voiced modest support and then attached conditions that needed to be met to win her full approval.
Other Democratic presidential contenders also took a cautious approach.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said called the deal “promising” but needed a closer examination. Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb said he would reserve comment until he fully reviewed it.
But former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and Sen. Bernard Sanders embraced the deal.
“I salute President Obama and Secretary Kerry in this historic breakthrough. Cuba and now Iran, both good. Strong, patient diplomacy should continue to be the model for resolving conflicts,” said Mr. Chafee.
Mr. Sanders, the Vermont independent and avowed socialist who has emerged as the chief rival to Mrs. Clinton, called the agreement “a victory for diplomacy over saber-rattling.”
He said it would prevent the United States form “being drawn into another never-ending war in the Middle East.”
Still, the politics of the Iran deal could continue to challenge Mrs. Clinton, the party’s all-but-inevitable presidential nominee.
As secretary of state, she helped build international support for the sanctions that forced Iran to negotiate. She wanted credit for her role, but she didn’t want to be too closely tied to the final agreement brokered by Mr. Obama and her successor, Secretary of State John Kerry, in the event the deal turns out bad for the U.S. or proves unpopular with voters.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle assailed the agreement as soon as it was announced, opening a fierce debate in the Senate that promises to keep the issue in front of voters for weeks.
Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has been an outspoken critic of the deal, refused to second Mrs. Clinton’s view that it was an “important step.”
“That is the secretary’s view. It may not be mine,” he said.