In US and Iran, hard-liners see eye to eye on rejecting nuclear accord

Hawkish conservatives in Iran and in the US Congress are fighting the framework nuclear agreement. Both view 'regime change' as a key issue.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain (R) of Arizona and other Republicans have been hammering the Obama administration about nuclear talks with Iran, accusing President Obama of being so keen to strike a deal that he’s ignored Iranian moves to expand its influence across the Middle East.

The recently negotiated framework for a nuclear agreement with Iran exemplifies President Obama’s core conviction that diplomacy and dialogue are the best means of resolving differences with adversaries and getting old foes to see eye to eye.

Some Obama critics lament what they see as the naiveté of that notion. But as it turns out, the nuclear deal is putting some die-hard enemies on the same page in opposition to the pact: foreign-policy conservatives in Tehran and Washington.

Both Iranians who still only see “the Great Satan” when the subject is the United States, and Americans who believe nothing short of “regime change” is a viable Iran policy, reject the agreement as nothing but a gift to the other side by weak officials desperate for an accord.

Senate hawk John McCain (R) of Arizona typified the rapprochement of US conservatives with their Iranian counterparts this week when he sided with Iran’s supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on his interpretation of the framework deal. Speaking on the “Hugh Hewitt Show” Thursday, Senator McCain said “the ayatollah is probably right,” while Secretary of State John Kerry is “delusional” about the deal’s limits on Iran’s nuclear activity and the lifting of sanctions. 

Speaking on Iranian state television Thursday, Mr. Khamenei did not outright reject the accord; if he had, that would be the end of it. He did, however, label the US as “devilish” for issuing a fact sheet on the framework accord that differed on key measures from the summary that Iran officials released. For example, he faulted the US statement for not giving much detail on existing economic sanctions on Iran, which he said would have to be lifted as soon as a deal is reached.

“I was never optimistic about negotiating with America,” Khamenei said, adding that he would “neither support nor oppose” the framework deal but would wait for the details hammered out before a June 30 deadline for a final deal.

Nevertheless, he said he continues to support Iranian negotiators’ efforts to secure a deal that secures Iran’s “interests and honor.”

Other Iranian officials have sounded more strident, and – like the US Congress within the American political context – the Iranian parliament has been a focal point of conservative opposition to the deal taking shape.

When Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently appeared before parliament to update members on the negotiations, conservative clerics and other officials mounted a demonstration outside to condemn the deal.

Subsequently, a member of parliament and vociferous critic of the negotiations with the US, Mahmoud Nabavian, delivered a long diatribe focused on the US-issued fact sheet, which he said was further evidence of America’s deceptive nature and proof that the US still cannot be trusted.

Khamenei’s tough words for the US and his noncommittal pronouncement on the framework accord were seen by some regional analysts as the supreme leader’s way of easing in the idea of a final deal that will entail some difficult compromises – especially with resistant hard-liners.

At the same time, Secretary Kerry insisted that under the deal, sanctions will be lifted only in response to Iran taking agreed steps on its nuclear program.

But those assurances have not mollified administration critics, especially hard-liners who want no agreement but rather military measures to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.

Earlier this week, freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R) of Arkansas called for military action against Iran’s nuclear sites and dismissed the framework deal reached April 1 as “a list of dangerous White House concessions.”

Senator Cotton says the US policy toward Iran should be “regime change” and replacement of the current government “with a pro-Western regime.”

The “regime change” question gets to the heart of not just the divide between Mr. Obama and US hard-liners over Iran, but also the reason that foreign-policy conservatives in both countries reject a nuclear deal.

Simply by negotiating with Iran, Obama is saying he believes the nuclear threat is such that it must be negotiated separately – and that the current government in Tehran can be trusted to hold up its end of a final agreement.

When asked recently why an Iran nuclear deal shouldn’t also require Iran to recognize Israel and renounce terrorism, Obama said including such issues “is really akin to saying that we won’t sign unless the nature of the Iranian regime completely transforms.”

But many US critics of a deal really reject any opening to Iran’s current leaders, saying a deal that leaves Iran any nuclear program would be “appeasement” with “a terrorist nation,” as McCain says.

In response, Iran’s hard-liners want nothing to do with the US, insisting the Great Satan has demonstrated it can never be trusted to respect Iran and its honor.

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