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Why Iran hawks can't be honest about what they really want

Sen. Lindsey Graham speaks with Sen. John McCain in Colorado
Sen. Lindsey Graham speaks with Sen. John McCain in Colorado
John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty

Senator Lindsey Graham was for the interim deal with Iran before he was against it.

Sorry, let me back up. In 2013, as a major first step in securing a nuclear deal, Iran and the US, along with other world powers, agreed to an interim deal known as the Joint Plan of Action. The agreement froze Iran's nuclear program and lifted some economic sanctions temporarily, as a holdover until the countries could reach a final, comprehensive agreement.

As the Hill's Jordan Fabian points out today in a sharp article, at the time Sen. Graham was outraged by the interim deal, saying, "You can't trust the Iranians," and pledging that Congress would pass new sanctions, thus violating America's commitment in the interim deal and killing it.

Now, as Fabian notes, Graham suddenly loves the interim deal. He's said the US should not sign a comprehensive final deal with Iran at all, but rather should just stick to the interim agreement for the remainder of President Obama's time in office. The interim deal "has worked pretty well for the world," he said on Face the Nation, but the US should "not do a final deal" until Obama leaves office. In other words, he wants to halt the diplomatic process outright.

Graham's spokesman explained to Fabian that the senator "wasn’t wild about the interim deal when it was announced but it’s looking better in light of what President Obama is now discussing."

If you want to understand Graham's seemingly baffling flip-flop, you need to understand that Iran hawks like Graham believe Obama is focusing on the wrong issue. The fundamental problem isn't Iran's nuclear program, they believe: it's that the Iranian regime is so fundamentally evil that America's only viable choice is to destroy it outright. But proposing war with Iran is wildly unpopular, so they can’t actually say that. Instead they need to say something else — something less unpopular — that makes a deal impossible.

Graham opposed the interim deal when it looked like the interim deal could be sunk; now that the interim deal is a fact of life, he opposes the next step in Iran negotiations. Republicans like him (as well as some Iran hawks in the Democratic party) in fact oppose any deal of any kind with Iran.

You see this not just in the brazenness of flip-flops like Graham's, but in the earlier Republican demands that Congress pass new Iran sanctions to "strengthen" Obama's hand in negotiations, when in fact new sanctions would violate America's promises and thus sink talks. Similarly, you see it in hawks insisting that the US make poison-pill demands that Iran could never possibly agree to, such as surrendering even the components of peaceful nuclear energy development.

These are all just different ways of trying to kill any deal whatsoever without coming out and saying as much. Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, who organized the Republican letter to Iran's leaders warning them against signing a nuclear deal, laid out the strategy clearly. "The end of these negotiations isn't an unintended consequence of congressional action. It is very much an intended consequence," Cotton said in January. "A feature, not a bug, so speak."

These Iran hawks are not just trying to deny Obama a politically beneficial foreign policy victory. If you actually listen to them, it becomes clear that they believe the fundamental problem is core to the nature of the Iranian regime, and can only be solved by destroying that regime entirely.

Any nuclear deal, in this view, no matter how favorable the terms, is a major step in the wrong direction because it creates the conditions whereby the US and Iran can peacefully tolerate one another. The more peace there is between the US and Iran, the less likely it becomes that American power can be deployed to destroy the Iranian system of government.

This is not a secret position. Leading Republicans, along with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have repeatedly compared the Iran nuclear negotiations to Neville Chamberlain's 1938 Munich agreement with Adolf Hitler, in which the UK tolerated Germany's annexation of parts of Czechoslovakia in exchange for peace.

Never mind that comparison is nonsense: the Iran deal involves Iran surrendering the vast majority of its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief; in other words, Iran is giving things up, which is the exact opposite of what happened at Munich. The point is that these hawks see the Iranian government as akin to Nazi Germany: a problem that can only be resolved once the enemy regime has been obliterated.

But Iran hawks can't openly argue for destroying the Iranian government, because that would almost certainly require a repeat of what we did in Iraq, with a massive ground invasion and a bloody, yearslong occupation that would cost thousands of American lives. And that is not a politically palatable idea.

It may not be that all hawks desire war. There are certain fantasies that the Iranian people will rise up against their government and replace it with a pro-American, free-market democracy, if only economic sanctions are given time to work. This often involves highly superficial readings of the 2009 "green movement" protests in Iran.

This is the very same argument that justified a half-century-long US embargo of Cuba that only entrenched Fidel Castro's regime and worsened the lives of Cuban families. The difference from Cuba, of course, is that in the absence of a deal, Iran will be building an ever-growing nuclear program that will at some point force the US to choose between allowing Iran to build a nuclear bomb or war. Which do you think Iran hawks will choose?

This is how you have Iran hawks arguing that the status quo is working great, even when they were arguing only months earlier that the status quo was a disaster that proved Obama's fecklessness. The more the status quo stretches on, the more Iran's nuclear program will grow and grow, and the more that military conflict between the US and Iran becomes likely.

You already see hawks like Cotton arguing that this US-Iran conflict would be a breeze, with a few days of US bombing solving the problem. The fact that arms control analysts agree that bombing Iran would only set them back a few years, and if anything would lead them to decide to build a bomb as quickly as possible, is irrelevant. The nuclear weapons program has never been the issue for hawks. The real issue has been allowing this regime to exist. If the bombings fail to forever halt Iran's nuclear program, as they surely would, then that's great news, because it would leave the US and Iran in a state of war with Tehran rushing toward a nuclear bomb, thus edging the US even closer to an all-out invasion to destroy the Iranian regime once and for all.

But the proponents of blowing up the Iran deal can't say any of this, because the inevitable conclusion of their logic is too terrible to even propose, so you have nonsense like Graham supporting the interim deal he once hated.

WATCH: Nuclear drama — a guide to negotiations with Iran

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