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White House Trolls Netanyahu, as Iran Stakes Out Hard-Line Position on Sanctions Relief

Both Rouhani and Obama are attempting to contend with hard-line constituencies at home.

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With international negotiators having struck a framework for a final agreement to govern Iran’s nuclear program, public posturing over just how to understand that deal is kicking into overdrive, illustrating the many obstacles that remain for the talks. In the last 24 hours, the White House has attacked — trolled, really — its most public critic on the issue, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while Iran’s supreme leader has expressed a willingness to walk away from the talks entirely.

In a speech Thursday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that he is “neither for nor against the deal” and demanded that the sanctions regime against Iran be lifted immediately after a final agreement is inked.

“I was never optimistic about talks with the U.S.,” Khamenei said during his remarks, adding that “I have and will support the negotiators.”

The pace of sanctions relief appears to be one of the major sticking points going into final negotiations on the nuclear agreement, the deadline for which is June 30. “It has never been our position that all of the sanctions against Iran should be removed from day one,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Monday.

Earlier Thursday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani echoed Khamenei’s remarks. “We will sign no agreement but the one that immediately abolishes all the economic sanctions on the first day of the implementation of the agreement,” Rouhani said.

The dual statements may be part of an effort to mollify hard-liners at home or an attempt to strengthen Iran’s negotiating positions going into the next round of talks — or it could be both.

Meanwhile, the White House has launched a not-so-subtle jab at one of its own hard-line critics, Netanyahu. The Israeli leader famously appeared in 2012 before the United Nations brandishing a cartoon bomb to illustrate the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. Now the White House has published its own version of that graphic, meant to show how the deal defuses Iran’s nuclear threat.

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That graphic is itself a bit misleading. While the agreement would certainly restrict Iran’s nuclear program in significant ways, it would hardly cap its progress toward a nuclear weapon at 0 percent. Much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would be allowed to remain in place under the framework agreement, though enrichment, the number of centrifuges, and stockpiles of enriched uranium would all be significantly restricted.

In short, we now see the two major negotiating powers — Iran and the United States — gravitating toward their respective extremist positions, with Iran proclaiming the need for immediate sanctions relief and the White House defending the deal as entirely eliminating the possibility that Iran will attain a nuclear device.

The White House line on the issue should come as no surprise given intense opposition in Congress to a possible rapprochement with Iran. A bill authored by Republican Sen. Bob Corker and Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez threatens to scuttle a possible final deal by suspending President Barack Obama’s authority to temporarily lift sanctions. Support for that bill may be approaching a veto-proof majority and represents perhaps the greatest threat to what would be a signature achievement of Obama’s time in office.

Indeed, in their efforts to secure domestic support for their efforts abroad, Obama and Rouhani face many of the same challenges.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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