WASHINGTON — During Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate, Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, claimed that the Iran accord, which will expire in 10 to 15 years, has eradicated the threat of Tehran developing a nuclear arsenal.
Kaine’s comments led to a fervent exchange with his Republican counterpart, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, regarding the pact, which has only been in effect for nine months now, and they also revealed a difference between his and Clinton’s evaluations of the deal.
“She worked a tough negotiation with nations around the world to eliminate the Iranian nuclear weapons program,” Kaine said admiringly of the former secretary of state, “without firing a shot.”
Later in the 90-minute debate, at Virginia’s Longwood University, when asked if the world is safer now than it was eight years ago, he added: “The terrorist threat has decreased in some ways because an Iranian nuclear weapons program has been stopped.”
Clinton has certainly boasted of her role — as President Obama’s first-term sectary of state — in laying the groundwork for a deal to be reached, but she has never gone so far as to say it “eliminated” the danger of Iran developing nukes.
Since backing her old boss’s signature diplomatic initiative, her most common line has been that it “put a lid on” Iran’s nuclear program, a phrase she used in her March 2016 speech at the AIPAC Policy Conference.
In her address at this summer’s Democratic National Convention, she again said: “I’m proud that we put a lid on Iran’s nuclear program without firing a single shot — now we have to enforce it. And we must keep supporting Israel’s security.”
“To put a lid on” something does not suggest completely “eliminating” or “stopping” it. Rather, it means to keep something under control or prevent the threat from increasing. That is why, perhaps, Clinon has repeatedly asserted the US approach to Iran “must be distrust and verify” when it comes to enforcing the deal.
Kaine’s more dramatic assessment drew an immediate challenge from Pence, who said the pact “guaranteed that Iran will someday become a nuclear power, because there’s no limitations once the period of time of the treaty comes off.”
Kaine also channeled President Barack Obama, who in August suggested Israel’s security establishment now backs the deal. The “Israeli military and security community… acknowledges this has been a game changer,” the president said during a press conference. “The country that was most opposed to the deal.”
During a back-and-forth about the accord, Kaine said, “Even the Israeli military says [the deal] stopped” Iran from going nuclear. He then referred to IDF Chief of General Staff Gadi Eisenkot for the fact checkers.
While Eisenkot has called the agreement “a strategic turning point” and “a big change in terms of the direction that Iran was headed, and in the way that we saw things,” he has never endorsed the deal or maintained that it curtails Iran’s nuclear program.
After Obama said the Israelis were now behind the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — as the Iran deal is formerly known — Avidgor Liberman’s Defense Ministry compared it to the Allies’ 1938 Munich Agreement with the Nazis, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu politely rejected the president’s assertion.
Clinton has, to be sure, argued forcefully that the accord is working, but not quite as forcefully as Kaine, who has long been a darling of the Washington-based lobbying group J Street, which spent roughly $5 million helping to push the deal through Congress.
“Today, Iran’s enriched uranium is all but gone, thousands of centrifuges have stopped spinning, Iran’s potential breakout time has increased and new verification measures are in place to help us deter and detect any cheating,” Clinton said in March, before going on to say the deal “must come with vigorous enforcement.”
Such comments certainly amounted to a robust endorsement of the deal. But they did not add up to Kaine’s proclamation that the issue has been definitively resolved.