It depends on what the meaning of the word "I" is

Did Hillary Clinton flip-flop on Iran?

Published October 12, 2007 5:08PM (EDT)

When Barack Obama said during a debate in July that he'd be willing to meet, without preconditions, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea during the first year of his presidency, Hillary Clinton attacked him for being "naive" and "irresponsible."

Last night in New Hampshire, a voter asked Clinton whether it's acceptable for Iran to get the bomb. She said that is "not something we want to see happen," then added: "I would engage in negotiations with Iran, with no conditions, because we don't really understand how Iran works."

A flip-flop? That's how the Associated Press is playing the story: "Hillary Rodham Clinton called Barack Obama naive when he said he'd meet with the leaders of Iran without precondition. Now she says she'd do the same thing, too."

As MSNBC says, the story has the Obama campaign jumping for joy. Obama himself tweaked Hillary on it in a speech this morning at Drake University, saying: "I'm not sure if any of us knows exactly where she's standing on this issue."

The response from Team Clinton: It's not really all that. When Clinton said "I would engage in negotiations" and "I would negotiate" Thursday night, the Clinton campaign says she didn't mean that she would negotiate. What she had in mind, says spokesman Howard Wolfson, was "meetings between the United States government and Iran, not personal meetings with the president."

For what it's worth, we think that's probably right. During the discussion Thursday night, Clinton said that the Bush administration has "outsourced" negotiations with Iran to the British and the French and the Germans, and that the negotiations have suffered because "everybody knew the United States was on the sidelines." In describing her own approach, Clinton said that it's "important for the world to see we are willing to negotiate because we need the world to stand with us when it comes to sanctions and other pressure on Iran."

She wasn't asked specifically about president-to-president meetings, as Obama was during the debate, and she used the word "we" more often than she used the word "I" in describing the negotiations that she envisions: "I think we should engage in negotiations ... I want to have some leverage when we go into the negotiations ... We need to have some tools ... if we ever have the opportunity to sit down and figure out if there is any way that we can convince, persuade, threaten the Iranians not to pursue nuclear power ... some sticks that we could use to try to get leverage to move them in the direction we want."

That's entirely consistent with what Clinton said during the July debate: She said then that she'd engage in "vigorous diplomacy" and "use a lot of high-level presidential envoys to test the waters," but that "we're not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria, until we know better what the way forward would be."

Is it possible that Clinton has had a change of heart since then and that she now supports both government-to-government diplomacy and personal meetings among the leaders? Yes. But we're not sure why she would have made that switch at this point. And until we see something more than some imprecise and ambiguous language from a conversation with a voter, we're not inclined to think that she did.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Hillary Rodham Clinton War Room