Former Vermont governor Howard Dean surprised and delighted critics of President Obama’s Iran policy with the most cogent and forceful criticism of the interim deal from any Democrat to date. Speaking before a controversial anti-mullah group, he bashed Obama’s entire approach:

U.S. President Barack Obama smiles as he arrives to deliver his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington January 28, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
President Obama smiles as he arrives to deliver his State of the Union address. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Dean said the United States has not placed enough emphasis on human rights issues in its talks with Iran and has failed to protect and resettle nearly 3,000 members of the Iranian opposition group Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK) who are living at Camp Liberty in Iraq.

“We need to stand up to the mullahs,” said Dean. “These are not people we ought to be negotiating with.”

He added that if Tehran walked away from a deal due to pressure over human rights issues, then the regime is “most likely going to kill the negotiations as soon as they get out of the economic problems their sanctions are causing them.”

This was important for a bunch of reasons, aside from making crystal clear how far out of the mainstream of his own party is Obama on this issue.

First, it highlights that Hillary Clinton is AWOL on this issue. What does the “smartest woman” in the United States say on the most important issue she had to address as secretary of state? If she agrees with the president, she should have the nerve to say so. If not, she owes the country an explanation as to how the disastrous Iran policy devised on her watch led us to this point.

The incident also raises the fascinating possibility that a challenger who runs right on foreign policy and left on domestic policy could escape the Obama baggage and pose a real problem for Clinton. Clinton, at least for now, will bear the burden of the president’s exhausted statism and his foreign policy failures. Dean or someone like him could rightly say to the base that he knew the individual mandate would be a flop, wants to go after Clinton’s big business cronies and will be the liberal idealist and pro-human rights Democrat Obama never managed to be. He’s not exactly Scoop Jackson, but he might in this instance have the right mix of views and rhetorical strengths.

Dean’s attack on Obama should put some additional pressure on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Foreign Relations Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) to bring sanctions legislation to the floor. The president’s unconvincing, if not embarrassing, State of the Union remarks on Iran, should have already made responsible Democrats very, very nervous. Right now, these Democrats look like the president’s puppets, sacrificing their own principles for partisan loyalty.

Dean’s comments also may make Sen. Rand Paul’s extremism on the Iran issue that much more unpalatable to Republicans. He is to the left of Howard Dean on Iran. Paul has been the sole GOP voice among 2016 contenders to side with the president on holding off on sanctions. That has unsurprisingly infuriated pro-Zionist Christians. Penny Nance, executive director of Concerned Women for America, told me, “It seems that Sen. Paul is the odd man out when it comes to Republican presidential hopefuls. I strongly believe that in order to win a Republican primary he must grow in his understanding of the essential relationship between the U.S. and Israel.” She reiterated, “This is not a point on which conservative primary voters vacillate.” This is a significant problem if Paul wants to be taken seriously as a presidential contender.

At a time the left is making support for Israel as objectionable as opposition to abortion on demand (even attacking one of their own, the New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio) and isolationist right-wingers are making a fuss about standing up for U.S. interests, Dean is a pleasant throwback to an earlier era in which Democratic support for the Jewish state was a given. Unfortunately, the Democrats have gone from President Harry Truman to Obama, and a faction of the Democratic left — and the isolationist right — seem inclined to follow Obama’s lead.

UPDATE: Rand Paul’s views are drawing more criticism. Michael Makovsky of JINSA, which recently put out a detailed analysis highly critical of the interim deal, says Paul’s notion that Congress shouldn’t interfere with negotiations is dead wrong. He e-mails, “Even under the deal the Iranian program is continuing and perhaps might advance, so we also need to create all the leverage available to us to ensure an acceptable final deal.” He explains, “Congress needs to ensure that  Iran — and even the Obama Administration — understands that there must be consequences if Iran cheats or if the talks drag on endlessly.”

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.