The Usual Suspects Aim to Spoil Iran Nuclear Deal

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks as he chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday, March 9, 20
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks as he chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday, March 9, 2014. Netanyahu is calling on the European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, currently visiting Tehran, to confront Iranian officials about the weapons Israel says it caught last week en route from Iran to militants in Gaza. (AP Photo/Gali Tibbon, Pool)

As the negotiations over Iran's nuclear program proceed -- apparently with steady progress toward a comprehensive agreement -- and Iran demonstrates to the world it is abiding by the interim agreement signed last fall, the usual suspects who hope to derail this progress have been relatively quiet. But we can expect the calm to end soon. That's the longtime pattern of the U.S.-Iran relationship: spoilers never go away, they just regroup and try to despoil again and again.

The attempt by the Israel Lobby in particular to scuttle the negotiations at the behest of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu failed earlier this year. The gambit was to intimidate Congress into passing crippling conditions on the talks and indeed new sanctions, even as Iran was complying with the interim deal. The most powerful pro-sanctions group, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, finally backed off, seeing that several Democratic leaders in the Senate were not going to be coerced.

So the last three months have been quiet as the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany) negotiate with Iran to reach a comprehensive -- that is to say, final -- deal that will constrain Iran's capacity to "weaponize" its civil nuclear power program, to which it's entitled under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The high probability is that a final deal will permit Iran some capacity for enrichment of uranium, also permitted under the NPT, but at levels so low that there is no danger of weaponizing. The interim deal implicitly has that provision, and Iran would not accept anything less. (Israel, not so incidentally, is not a signatory of the NPT and has up to 200 nuclear weapons.) It will be this aspect of the final agreement that will provoke the spoilers yet again, even though airtight inspection and monitoring provisions will prevent breakout toward a weapon.

But the spoilers are gearing up using a different tactic, which is to undermine the legitimacy of Hassan Rouhani, the reform-minded president elected nearly one year ago. The Wall Street Journal, owned by right-wing majordomo Rupert Murdoch, chimed in this week with an attack on Rouhani for the treatment of some prisoners in a Tehran lockup. In a piece entitled "Rouhani's Republic of Fear" (recalling Kanan Makiya's book about Saddam Hussein), the Journal opined:

"Perhaps a regime, and a president, that can brutalize political dissidents as a matter of routine can prove reasonable at the nuclear negotiating table. We wouldn't count on it, and neither should the West."

Coming from a country that has the highest number of imprisoned citizens and a shameful system of racial bias in sentencing, that's a bit much. But the strategy is clear: disparage and delegitimize the popular Rouhani, who has pushed for more openness in society and is, by all accounts, adhering to nuclear obligations.

The Heritage Foundation has similarly been at work. In a forum last week, it raised not only the human rights issue, but Iran's alleged support for terrorism. The longstanding protocols of arms control have always excluded extraneous issues, not because they're unimportant, but because the challenge of nuclear restraint -- filled with technical details and political compromises -- is complicated enough without entering into a rhetorical contest over who is worse on other issues.

Then there's the tempest-in-a-teapot over Iran's naming an envoy to the U.N. who had served as a translator in the 1979-80 U.S. embassy hostage crisis. This appointment of a reformer who has long served as a diplomat was turned absurdly into a virtual new 9/11 threat. From this thin reed the right-wing Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin went ballistic:

"Iran remains a terrorist state and will manipulate international institutions to its advantage with no intention of changing the underlying nature of the regime," she wrote on April 3. This view, she avers, "is so obviously true, one wonders why any responsible lawmaker would indulge the administration in its folly."

So, you see, Rouhani is an abuser of human rights and a terrorist. Iran is hence beyond redemption and should not be treated as a "normal" state. The implication, of course, is that a nuclear deal of any kind -- no matter how much in keeping with the NPT and how tightly regulated Iran's nuclear program would be -- is not worth pursuing.

This is classic spoiler behavior. Just about everyone sees a nuclear deal as a godsend to a region in perpetual turmoil. Such an agreement could have powerful, salutary effects on Iran's relations with its Gulf neighbors, on possible diplomatic approaches to the Syria crisis, and other nettlesome problems. And one suspects that because it has such potentially positive effects, the deal is opposed by Israel, which has fed off the specter of a nuclear Iran for many years.

We will see more of this hysteria as an agreement between Iran and the P5+1 draws near. It would be a small miracle if the United States and Iran, who have nourished each other's misperceptions of the other for 35 years, could ignore the spoilers and write a new narrative of a new relationship.

John Tirman is coauthor and coeditor, most recently, of U.S.-Iran Misperceptions: A Dialogue (Bloombury).