US, Iran pledge to play nicer on home front

The US and Iran have attacked each other in public to sell nuclear talks to skeptical audiences at home. But harsh words have eroded trust.

Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters
People pass by Palais Coburg hotel where nuclear talks are taking place in Vienna February 19, 2014. Iran and the P5+1 (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) are in Vienna this week for nuclear talks.

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The US may begin to ease its strident rhetoric against Iran after complaints from Tehran that the tough statements are undermining Iran's ability to sell the nuclear talks at home.

“All of the countries in this negotiation have domestic audiences, have partners, have points of view, have perspectives, will say things that the other side won’t like. That’s going to happen,” said a senior US official after the first round of Iran nuclear talks resumed in Vienna this week.

“What we have agreed to try to do is to be thoughtful about the impact those statements will have on the negotiation, and to the extent we can – and we can’t always because things need to be said sometimes – we will try to be thoughtful,” said the US official.  

That reaction came after a senior Iranian diplomat told The Christian Science Monitor that a string of US statements in recent months, especially those portraying Iran as the loser in an interim agreement signed in Geneva in November, was making it difficult to “convince” Iranians it was a win-win deal. Iran and the P5+1 (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) are negotiating a comprehensive agreement to prevent Iran from ever developing the capacity to make nuclear weapons – an aim Iran says it rejects.

President Barack Obama has repeated that “all options are on the table” for resolving the nuclear issue, including military ones, while other US officials emphasized negative aspects of that deal for Iran and minimized the scale of sanctions relief. The comments became a focus at rallies in Iran and complicated the job of negotiators. 

In Vienna this week, Iranian senior negotiator Seyed Abbas Araghchi found himself “defending” his American counterpart during a closed-door briefing for Iranian journalists, describing the lead US negotiator, Wendy Sherman, as being committed to finding a deal and not anti-Iran, according to a journalist who attended. Last fall, Ms. Sherman said that “deception is part of the DNA” in Iran, sparking a hostile campaign by hard-line media.  

For its part, Iran has kept up its own anti-American rhetoric, a staple since the Islamic revolution of 1979.

“We are eager for the options on the table,” read one poster at the rallies to mark the 35th anniversary of the Islamic revolution. Chants of “Death to America” rang out in every city and some US flags were burned. Denigrating images of Mr. Obama and Sherman also appeared.

“Comments from both sides have been strong,” the senior Iranian diplomat told the Monitor. “If one can gauge the attitude of some members [of the six world powers at the negotiating table], especially the Americans, we cannot be very optimistic.”

Even if it eases, partisan rhetoric is unlikely to end. Iran hawks in Congress have pushed for more sanctions and accused Obama of caving in to Iran. Likewise in Tehran, officials favoring a nuclear deal must confront hardliners opposed to any opening at all to the West.

Moreover, US public officials don't have the option to keep quiet for the duration of the talks. “Members of the administration testify to the Congress, give public television interviews, the President of the United States speaks on a regular basis, the Secretary of State speaks on a regular basis,” said the senior US official in Vienna. 

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