Barack Obama

President Obama returns to the Oval Office from the Rose Garden on Thursday after announcing a breakthrough in nuclear talks with Iran. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

By Dan Balz, Chief Correspondent
April 4, 2015 at 2:35 PM

It is perhaps only an accident of history that three of the key actors in the diplomatic efforts to deny Iran a nuclear bomb are the 2004, 2008, 2012 and probable 2016 Democratic presidential nominees. But their intertwined ambitions provide a dramatic backdrop to the unfolding and unfinished story.

President Obama, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton all can claim a piece of what happened in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Thursday when the United States and Iran announced a framework agreement designed to curb the Iranians’ ability to develop a nuclear weapon.

Obama and Kerry must see the negotiations through to completion in June, a goal that remains in question, given some of the missing details. Obama, in particular, must try to sell any final agreement in the face of fierce opposition from Republicans and some Democrats at home — and Israel abroad — and skepticism across the Middle East, including from its ally Saudi Arabia.

Clinton was in the administration when economic sanctions were imposed on Iran. She has been supportive of the negotiations and wary about their chance of success. Now, as she prepares to launch her presidential campaign, she must stand on the sidelines, conscious that if she becomes president in 2017, she will inherit for better or worse what has been done since she left government two years ago.

Obama and Clinton have had moments of mutual interest and sharp disagreement over Iran. Their most important disagreement came in the summer of 2007 when, as rivals for the Democratic nomination, they clashed over how to approach a nation with which the United States has had no relations since the hostage crisis that began in 1979.

In a debate in South Carolina that summer, Obama said he would be willing to meet with Iran’s then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and leaders of some other rogue nations without preconditions during the first year of his presidency.

Clinton instantly slammed him, saying she would not make the prize of meeting with a U.S. president so immediately available to such countries. “I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes,” she said.

What happened in the next 12 hours is telling in understanding the differences in temperament and perspective between Obama and Clinton.

The consensus coming out of the debate was that Obama had made a major mistake and that he had exposed himself as foolhardy and too inexperienced to handle the presidency.

Flying back from the debate, Clinton was urged by one of her advisers to increase the criticism. Her campaign asked Madeleine Albright, a former secretary of state, to lead the attacks against Obama.

But Clinton pitched in directly. The next day, she belittled Obama during an interview with an Iowa newspaper reporter. “I thought he was irresponsible and frankly naive,” she said.

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