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Will Hard-Line Critics Scuttle Iranian Talks?


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. The diplomatic push to answer questions about Iran's nuclear program has generated some hope for a peaceful solution. It has also inspired a backlash and negative response in both Iran and the West. On both sides, conservatives who would not normally agree about much seem to agree that nuclear negotiations are a dangerous idea that could produce what they would see as a bad deal.

Reaching a diplomatic deal would require navigating the domestic politics inside both Iran and the United States. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: In Geneva, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad-Zarif spoke reassuringly, in English, about his country's willingness to curb its nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. When speaking in Farsi to his own country's media, however, a harder edge crept into Zarif's message - one perhaps intended to placate conservative critics back in Tehran.



KENYON: Zarif said Iran had learned important lessons from what he called past bitter experience, and declared that the West finally appears to understand that punitive measures would never change Tehran's policies. Paraphrasing western negotiators, Zarif said Iran will be testing the other side's sincerity.

There are at least two ways of interpreting such comments - critics led by Israel see Zarif and his boss, President Hasan Rouhani, as little more than pleasant faces fronting the same hostile Islamic regime. But others see a politically astute administration in Tehran that is well aware that any nuclear deal must be sellable at home as a national victory if it's to have any hope of success.

Analyst Farideh Farhi, who recently returned to Tehran, says while there's a general mood of cautious optimism in the country, conservative attacks are growing. Hardliners call Rouhani's new team naïve for believing America can be trusted to lift sanctions. The crucial issue, says Farhi, is whether Iran will be allowed to keep enriching its own uranium, under tougher restrictions and increased scrutiny. Any move to give up enrichment altogether, she says, would be politically disastrous for Rouhani.

FARIDEH FARHI: There is politics here, as well as in the United States, and if you ignore domestic political environment, there is no way the Iranian negotiating team would have the leeway to show the kind of flexibility that is required to reach some sort of an agreement.

KENYON: Conservative critics are also gearing up in the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel. indeed, there are some pro-Israel hardliners who make Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's dire warnings sound tame. Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire American casino magnate, for instance, recently told an audience at Yeshiva University in New York that instead of negotiating with Iran, the U.S. should launch a nuclear strike. Amateur video of his comments was posted on the website mondoweiss.


SHELDON ADELSON: What I would say is: Listen, you see that desert out there? I want to show you something. You pick up your cell phone and you call somewhere in Nebraska and you say OK, let it go. So there's an atomic weapon goes over, ballistic missiles, in the middle of the desert that doesn't hurt a soul - maybe a couple of rattlesnakes and scorpions or whatever. And then you say: See? The next one is in the middle of Tehran.

KENYON: Analysts say it's not the super-hawks who are the biggest worry, though, but the U.S. Congress. It holds the key to unlocking much of the web of sanctions imposed against Iran over the years. It could also undo the tentative goodwill established since Rouhani's election by approving even more sanctions. Analyst Michael Adler at the Wilson Center in Washington says his concern is what happens if the nuclear talks drag on.

MICHAEL ADLER: And when they drag, the hardliners on both sides, both from Iran and from the United States, could take steps which will ruin this very good atmosphere, and really make negotiations difficult.

KENYON: Iranian conservatives are already mobilizing. On November fourth, the 34th anniversary of the occupation of the American embassy in Tehran, hardliners are promising what they call a grand day of death to America, a reference to the anti-American slogan that has been a staple in Iran since the Islamic revolution swept to power. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.