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The real reason Netanyahu and the GOP hate this Iran deal

Netanyahu and Speaker of the House John Boehner.
Netanyahu and Speaker of the House John Boehner.
Handout/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The ink on the framework deal with Iran was barely dry when Sen. Tom Cotton began trying to tear up the agreement. "I'm going to do everything I can to stop these terms from becoming a final deal," the author of the now-infamous Senate Republican letter to Iran told CNN on Friday.

Cotton is hardly alone. The reaction from congressional Republicans to the nuclear deal has generally ranged from skeptical to furious. And in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has openly said he's trying to "kill a bad deal."

There are number of specific provisions of the framework deal that these critics dislike. Behind these concerns is something more fundamental: a sharp disagreement with the Obama administration about the nature of the Iranian regime.

What they hate about the deal

obama netanyahu (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Obama and Netanyahu on October 1, 2014. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Critics of the deal have made, broadly speaking, four types of arguments against the deal.

1) The nuclear architecture Iran gets to keep is way too big. The most common criticism is that the framework allows Iran to keep operating thousands of centrifuges; the nuclear facilities at Fordow and Natanz, as well as Arak, remain open. The concern here is that leaving the Iranians too much nuclear infrastructure will make it easier for them to build a bomb quickly if they decide to break the agreement. They also worry that leaving Iran too close to a bomb would freak out Iran's Arab enemies, leading to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

"Most of our guys have already staked out preventing Iran from nuclear capability as the bottom line," Sen. John Thune (R-SD), chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, told the Washington Post. "Since this deal allows them to keep centrifuges and continue to enrich in some circumstances, those kind of particulars are going to be tough for most Republicans to handle or be for."

2) Sanctions relief will enable Iranian aggression. Another common concern is that the deal doesn't cover Iran's broader bad behavior, like intervening on behalf of murderous Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or supporting militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Critics argue that the current sanctions on Iran will be lifted far too quickly under the deal, and would give the regime billions of new dollars to fund this kind of destabilizing activity.

"They're not going to use it [sanctions relief] for schools or hospitals or roads," Netanyahu said to ABC's Martha Raddatz on Sunday. "Martha, they're going to use it to pump up their terror machine worldwide and their military machine that is busy conquering the Middle East now."

3) The deal isn't strict enough in key areas. The deal's critics aren't just upset about enrichment and sanctions. They argue that the deal is too vague on possible military work that Iran may have done on its nuclear program in the past, making it easier to for the country to progress secretly toward a bomb. They think it doesn't restrict Iranian ballistic missile development enough. And they worry about the fact that key provisions only cover 10 or 15 years, which would simply allow Iran to get a bomb down the line.

"Iran won’t have to disclose the past military dimensions of its nuclear program, despite longstanding UN demands," Cotton said in a Thursday statement. "Even these dangerous terms will expire in just 10 to 15 years, even though it only took North Korea 12 years to get the bomb after it signed a similar agreement in 1994."

4) Inspections won't be as strong as you think. The key argument you hear from pro-deal experts is that the inspections provision in the framework is incredibly robust, so it'd be easy to catch Iran cheating. The critics disagree, arguing that the inspections regime will be weaker than hoped, making it easier for Iran to cheat.

"The biggest hole has to do with the inspections process," Wall Street Journal foreign affairs columnist Bret Stephens told Fox News. "The president trumpeted the fact that the deal would include something called the additional protocol to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which is a tougher set of inspections rules. But the deal does not include what you might call any time, anywhere inspections, which are the thing that you have if any kind of deal is going to be honored."

These are objections to any feasible deal

Tom Cotton

Tom Cotton. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call)

The thing about some of these arguments is that they are basically objections to any feasible deal with Iran. Many critics, particularly Netanyahu, have taken pains to deny that they oppose any deal altogether — but it seems quite clearly that they do.

Take the first condition, entirely dismantling Iran's centrifuges and eliminating domestic nuclear enrichment. US negotiators actually went into the current negotiating round hoping to secure that. But as the Wall Street Journal's Jay Solomon and Carol Lee report, that was never going to fly with the Iranians:

Iranian negotiators made clear that a dismantling of their facilities, including eliminating tens of thousands of centrifuge machines, a plutonium-producing reactor and an underground fuel-production site, wasn’t feasible, senior U.S. officials said. "It’s our moon shot," Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi told a U.S. official at one point, arguing that the program’s economic and scientific benefits were that important to Iranian society and national pride...

"As soon as we got into the real negotiations with them, we understood that any final deal was going to involve some domestic enrichment capability," a senior U.S. official said.

There's very little public evidence to the contrary. It seems like any framework that hinged on zero enrichment would have died.

Moreover, the logic of much of the criticism seems to imply opposition to any deal. Take Netanyahu's demand that "any deal must ... stop [Iranian] terrorism and aggression." But if offering sanctions relief was barely enough to get Iranians to accept the framework as it's currently laid out, why would Iranians accept a broader deal that forced them to fundamentally transform its foreign policy?

As Fred Kaplan points out, asking Iran for concessions on this stuff during nuclear negotiations would have been like asking the Soviets to "disavow communism" during nuclear arms control talks in the Cold War. That was never going to happen, for the fairly obvious reason that it's easier to agree to limit nuclear weapons than end the entire Cold War. Likewise, agreeing to limits on Iran's nuclear program is easier than getting the US and Iran to agree about how to deal with every major conflict in the Middle East.

This means that while critics are right that sanctions relief will empower Iran to do terrible things throughout the region, there isn't much that can be done about that. Either you make a deal with Iran, and give it new money that it might be use to fund terrorism, or you don't give it any sanctions relief — in which case you don't have a deal.

Not every criticism that's been lobbed at the deal represents opposition to any deal. But the core criticisms you hear from Republicans and Netanyahu — that Iran gets to do domestic enrichment and sanctions relief will empower terrorism — apply to any deal that's feasible in the near term.

Critics think the US needs to beat Iran, not accommodate it

iran revolution woman (Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)

An pro-revolution Iranian woman in Tehran in 1979. (Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)

That being said, these critics aren't necessarily lying when they say they'd be open to a deal if it was a good one. They just have radically different visions of the conditions under which a deal could be made.

The core of the disagreement between Obama and his critics is over the nature of the Iranian regime. Obama sees an Iranian government that's hostile now, but one that can potentially be reasoned with on specific issues if given the right incentives. "Iran may change. If it doesn’t, our deterrence capabilities, our military superiority stays in place," he told Tom Friedman on Sunday. The deal is a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see whether or not we can at least take the nuclear issue off the table."

The deal's most vocal critics see Iran differently. They see it as essentially malevolent; a government that's fundamentally hostile to the United States and Israel by virtue of its very identity as a theocratic Islamist state. This regime will game any compromise to its advantage, pursuing a nuclear capability and violent foreign policy so long as it's able.

This isn't a fringe position. You hear it from rank-and-file Republicans on the Hill as well as presidential candidate Ted Cruz and likely presidential candidate Marco Rubio. Netanyahu will tell it to anyone who listens.

If you see Iran in this light, then there's only one real alternative: crush the Iranians. Cotton has argued American policy in Iran should be "regime change." Netanyahu's vision of a "better deal" depends on Iran being so beaten down by sanctions that it's essentially willing to give up everything to see them relaxed.

Obama thinks this is all pie-in-the-sky fantasizing. His view, laid out very clearly at a Thursday press conference, is that war is the only actual alternative to his deal that could prevent Iran from going nuclear.

Some critics, like former UN Ambassador John Bolton, agree with that — and simply think war is a better option. But many others will deny the choice, arguing that Iran can eventually by cowed by economic pressure and a hard-line American negotiating stance. Whether you agree with that basic assessment of the regime or Obama's will determine how you feel about the framework deal that's on the table.

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