Our Hardliners, and Iran's
As the Senate wraps up debate this week on Iran legislation, expect to hear a lot about "hardliners."
The Senate's alleged hardliners have tried to add conditions to a nuclear deal the U.S. is currently negotiating with Iranian moderates, but there is little chance the senators will succeed. The majority leader, Mitch McConnell, is expected to call for an end to debate on their meddling amendments.
President Obama views the politics of the Iran deal in these terms himself. Back in March when Senator Tom Cotton and 46 other Republicans sent a letter to Iran's leaders, reminding them that any deal signed with Obama could be reversed by Congress or future presidents, the president played the hardliner card: "I think it's somewhat ironic to see some members for Congress wanting to make common cause with the hardliners in Iran."
There is definitely a political logic to pinning this "hardliner" label on the senators. The White House can artfully shift the conversation away from the contents of the deal it is negotiating. Instead the debate is framed as the Americans and Iranians who seek peace (moderates) versus those in both nations who want war (hardliners).
It's simple, but deceptive. This tactic understates the power of Iran's hardliners and dramatically overstates the power of U.S. hardliners.
In Iran, the people inside the system who are negotiating a deal, such as Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, must take the agreement to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for approval. In Iran, the hardliner approves the deal.
In the U.S. system it's the other way around. Senators like Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz support amendments that would set new conditions before lifting Congressional sanctions on Iran. But there are not enough votes in the Senate to overturn an Obama veto on the legislation if these amendments are attached. In other words, Obama frames the conversation in the U.S., because he has the power to ignore his hardliners whereas Zarif is obliged to placate his.
Then there is the substance of the amendments themselves. Democrats and Republicans have derided certain Republicans' amendments to the bill as "poison pills," aimed at making a deal with Iran impossible. But these amendments would require Iran to end its war against its neighbors, release U.S. citizens who have been jailed and recognize the right of the world's only Jewish state to exist. Outside the context of Iran negotiations, these are hardly radical views. Obama has expressed support for these positions himself.
Compare those demands with those of the Iranian hardliners. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, the chief of staff of Iran's armed forces on Sunday reiterated the red line that no military installations would be accessible for international inspections. This would pose a problem, given that the U.S. and other great powers have agreed to allow Iran to keep most of its nuclear infrastructure in exchange for tough inspections. The Iranian hardliners appear to be putting back in play something Obama's team believed was already agreed.
The most important distinction between Iran's hardliners and America's hardliners however is their political legitimacy. Iran's people have supported reform, but nonetheless the country's Revolutionary Guard Corps and domestic spy agency have tightened the grip on power despite elections when reformers won the presidency.
Contrast their ascent with the plight of Iran's moderates: In 1997, Iranians elected a reformer president, Mohammed Khatami, who promised to open up Iran's political system. But throughout his presidency he was unable to stop the arrests of student activists or the shuttering of opposition newspapers. By the end of Khatami's presidency, some of his closest advisers were tried in public for charges tantamount to treason. In 2013, Iranians elected Hassan Rouhani, who ran as a reformer even though under Khatami he had overseen crackdowns on reformers. Rouhani has not freed the leaders of the 2009 green movement from house arrest or most of the activists who protested elections in 2009.
When Obama talks about his Iran negotiations, he glosses over all of this. He emphasizes instead that Rouhani has a mandate to negotiate and that he is taking advantage of this diplomatic window.
Obama had threatened to veto legislation that would give Congress a chance to review, but not modify, any agreement the administration reaches with Iran and five other world powers. Now the president says he will sign the legislation, but only if it doesn't include the kinds of amendments favored by the so-called hardliners. After all, those amendments are unacceptable to the hardliners who actually have sway -- in Iran.
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