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Lauren Carroll
By Lauren Carroll January 17, 2016

Sanders: Obama was right, Clinton was wrong on Iran

Recent positive developments in the United States’ relationship with Iran proves that President Barack Obama was right, and Hillary Clinton was wrong, said Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders.

On Jan. 17, 2016, Obama announced that Iran released several American prisoners, among other diplomactic achievements, including a legal settlement over a military equipment dispute. NBC’s Meet the Press host Chuck Todd asked Sanders Jan. 17 if he thinks Iran is still an enemy of the United States.

"It’s funny," Sanders replied. "If you think back to 2007 during the campaign in which Secretary Clinton ran against Barack Obama, she was critical of him. A question was asked to Obama that said, ‘Would you sit down and talk to the Iranians?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I would." Point being, you talk to your adversaries. You don’t run away from that. Secretary Clinton, I think, called him naive. Turns out that Obama was right."

Clinton and Obama’s back-and-forth on Iran and other foreign policy issues was a main feature of the 2008 Democratic primary. At one point, Clinton did call Obama’s position on Iran diplomacy "naive," but Sanders is leaving out important nuance that misrepresents her position at the time.

Fighting words

This all started at a July 2007 Democratic presidential debate, where CNN took questions from YouTube users.

One user asked, "Would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?"

Obama was the first to respond, saying, "I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them, which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of (the George W. Bush) administration, is ridiculous." (Obama made similar comments throughout the campaign.)

Clinton also answered the question, saying she agreed that she would approach adversaries differently than the Bush administration and "get back to diplomacy." But she distinguished herself from Obama by saying she, as president, would not necessarily meet with these leaders in her first year, without any preconditions, which is what the YouTube question asked specifically. Instead, she would first send envoys.

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Clinton’s "naive" comment came the next day in an interview with the Quad-City Times in Iowa.

"I think it is wrong for any president to say he or she will not talk to people because they’re bad or evil," she said. "But the question was very specific, asking whether either of us would talk to a list of leaders of five countries with which the United States has serious difficulties within the first year of becoming president, and I thought that was irresponsible and frankly naive to say he would commit to meeting with Chavez and Castro and others within the first year. As I said last night, there has to be a lot of diplomatic effort."

Sanders’ made it sound like Clinton shut the door on diplomacy, when in reality she was supportive of diplomacy, though she advocated for a more cautious approach than Obama.

Competing memos from both campaigns emphasized this distinction, and the two candidates argued about it at another primary debate. At the time, we gave Obama a Mostly False rating for claiming that Clinton "agrees with (John McCain) in embracing the Bush-Cheney policy of not talking to leaders we don't like." Clinton clearly said she would approach diplomacy differently than the Bush administration.

It’s worth noting that Obama did not personally meet with Iranian leaders in his first year. It wasn’t until 2013 that he spoke over the phone with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — the highest-level talks between the two countries in 30 years.

Obama did announce in April 2009, four months into his first term, that the United States and five other countries would engage in talks with Iran — the P5+1 group that eventually negotiated the nuclear deal. For her part, Clinton as secretary of state was personally involved in diplomatic efforts to increase global sanctions on Iran that helped move the nuclear deal forward.

Our ruling

Sanders said that Clinton called Obama "naive" for saying he was would "sit down and talk to the Iranians" during the 2008 Democratic primary.

This is a simplified description of the back-and-forth between Clinton and Obama. Both candidates said they supported more diplomacy between Iran and the United States than what the Bush administration had pursued. Clinton’s position differed from Obama’s in that she supported a slower approach, starting with lower-level talks. Obama, on the other hand, said he would be willing to meet with Iranian leaders in his first year as president, without preconditions. It was Obama’s approach to diplomacy with Iran that she called naive, not the idea of pursuing diplomatic relations in general. Ultimately, Obama did not meet himself with Iranian leaders in his first year.

Sanders’ statement is partially accurate but takes things out of context, so we rate it Half True.

Our Sources

Quad-City Times, "Clinton, Obama trade barbs in Quad-City Times interviews," July 24, 2007

Associated Press, "Clinton: Obama is ‘naive’ on foreign policy," July 24, 2007

CNN, "CNN/YouTube Democratic presidential debate transcript," July 24, 2007

CNN, "The CNN Democratic presidential debate in Texas," Feb. 21, 2008

New York Times, "Clinton and Obama Campaigns Spar Over Debate," July 25, 2007

PolitiFact, "Clinton endorses diplomacy," Feb. 1, 2008

PolitiFact, "Bush gets Obama wrong on foreign policy," Feb. 12, 2008

PolitiFact, "He has said it again and again," May 21, 2008

PolitiFact, "Kissinger and Obama aren't really on the same page," Sept. 27, 2008

Arms Control Association, "Timeline of Nuclear Diplomacy With Iran," January 2016

Radio Free Europe, "Iran Nuclear Negotiations: How We Got Here," accessed Jan. 17, 2016

U.S. Institute of Peace, "Timeline of Iran's Nuclear Activities," accessed Jan. 17, 2016

Email interview, Sanders spokespeople Michael Briggs and Warren Gunnels, Jan. 17, 2016

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Sanders: Obama was right, Clinton was wrong on Iran

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