'Great Satan' and 'axis of evil' no more? How US, Iran show similarities

As the presidents of Iran and the US lobby their publics for the nuclear accord, both countries are finding themselves entering heated electoral campaigns. And in both cases, there's searing opposition to the deal.

(L.-r.)Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP, Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
President Obama and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani are pictured in this combination photo.

For nearly four decades, Iran has seen the United States as the “Great Satan,” while for the US, Iran was a prime member of the global club dubbed the “axis of evil.”

In each case, the other was viewed as the antithesis of what it was, of how it worked as a country and operated in the world.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that the two longtime bitter adversaries find themselves displaying so many similarities as they take up the deal reached by world powers last week to limit Iran’s nuclear program.

As the presidents of the two countries lobby their publics for the nuclear accord, both countries also find themselves entering heated electoral campaigns. And in both cases, opponents of the deal are attacking it with an eye to rallying political supporters, some regional analysts say.

“It’s quite striking how in many ways the two countries are mirror images of each other,” says Robin Wright, a distinguished scholar in Middle East studies at the Wilson Center in Washington and an expert in US-Iran relations.

The presidents of both countries tout the deal as a crucial feature of a new path forward in relations with the rest of the world, but in both countries, conservative forces warn against the danger and naiveté of trusting the other’s ability to change. And in both cases, the leaders who negotiated the deal see an unprecedented opportunity for the two adversaries to test the waters of cooperation on other issues.

“Both Washington and Tehran are interested in looking at other issues [of mutual interest],” notes Ms. Wright, who says the long hours that American and Iranian diplomats spent together over recent months led to a shift in how the two sides perceive and understand each other that could lead to some degree of cooperation.

That high-level shift, she says, could feed the change that she’s sensing in each country in terms of how it views the other. “We’re beginning to get beyond the ‘Great Satan’ and ‘axis of evil’ narrative that has defined the relationship for 36 years,” she says.

Still, each president is facing searing opposition to the deal. Iran’s hard-liners reject the agreement – with its overtones of engagement with the West – as a dangerous boon to the country’s more moderate political forces, some Iran analysts say. At the same time, some US analysts see some critics of the deal – particularly Republican presidential hopefuls – firing up opposition to the agreement as a means of boosting their own political standing.

“The Republicans in general will try to put as many kinds of slash marks in the president as possible.... They are going to try to damage him ... and talk about how untrustworthy and what a terrible negotiator and terrible president he is,” says George Perkovich, an expert in nuclear strategy and nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

“They’re going to do that for as long as they can,” he adds, but then “calculate that they won’t be able to defeat it. And so it will become one of those cynical Washington exercises where at the end, they kind of do the right thing, but on the way there, [it’s] just lots of points scoring and money raising.”

Iran, the deal’s impact in the Middle East, and President Obama’s approach to foreign policy, as displayed by his Iran diplomacy, are all certain to figure prominently in the 2016 presidential election. Republican presidential prospects are already in a battle to outdo one another in blasting the deal as a disaster – with the Republican senators who are also presidential candidates offering some of the more dire assessments of the deal.

Mr. Obama, who is approaching the end of his second term, has no personal electoral stake in the fight. But the strong endorsement of the deal from Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton – Obama’s former secretary of State – promises to keep the agreement in the top tier of campaign issues.

In Iran, the deal lands as Iranians gear up for parliamentary elections in February. A sustained favorable public assessment of the deal, which grants Iran sanctions relief in exchange for nuclear program limits and monitoring, could tilt election results in favor of President Hassan Rouhani – an outcome that Iran’s hard-line establishment would not favor.

“We’re going to see an intense debate in Tehran that will be every bit as political as it will be in Washington,” says the Wilson Center’s Wright, who notes that a worried “hard-liner” told her in Tehran that Rouhani supporters would win 20 to 25 percent more seats in the parliamentary elections in the event of a deal.

In both countries, the legislative branch will have a role in deciding the deal’s fate. The US Congress has 60 days to debate the deal, with the congressional role expected to take center stage this week when administration officials involved in the negotiations – including Secretary of State John Kerry – go to the Hill to lobby for congressional approval.

Iran’s parliament is also required to play a role in that it must sign off on the toughened international inspections regime that Iran accepted as part of the deal. The so-called Additional Protocol of added monitoring and inspections safeguards would become a permanent part of Iran’s agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog.

However, not everyone agrees that the days of the Great Satan and the axis of evil are drawing to a close.

“It’s a catchy formula, but it’s wrong,” says Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington.

The reason, he says, is quite simple: “The major beneficiaries of the deal in Iran are those who believe in and perpetuate the idea of the Great Satan ... the revolutionary establishment and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).”

The “Great Satan” characterization of the US has served the IRGC well for decades as it has consolidated its role in Iran’s economy and military, says Mr. Dubowitz, who is an expert in international sanctions and their impact on Iran. He sees no reason that would change now, as the IRGC reaps the benefits of the deal’s lifting of international sanctions on Iran’s economy.

Some analysts also see a big difference in the political situations of the two countries, in that the US Congress could still scuttle the deal – by overcoming a promised presidential veto of a congressional “no” vote – whereas virtually no one sees that possibility in Iran.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has signaled his approval of the deal, making a parliamentary revolt against it unthinkable.

Any debate in Iran will reflect the tensions between the country’s “revolutionary establishment” and the political wing represented by Mr. Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, says Dubowitz of the FDD. But, he adds, the political battle will be “muted” because the deal presents no challenge to the IRGC’s hold on the country’s political and economic strings.

“There’s always an internal debate between the Revolutionary Guards and the Rouhani-Zarif elites, so [the former] are not going to praise Rouhani and Zarif too lavishly,” he says. “But we’re not seeing the kind of opposition you’d expect if they [IRGC] thought this deal really threatened them.”

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