No, Iran’s Hardliners Aren’t Making Common Cause with the GOP
President Obama's speech to sell the Iran deal ended up as little more than partisan jabs.
President Obama’s speech on Wednesday at American University was an opportunity to take the high road, to show himself to be presidential as he seeks to win over the public so that he can hold on to Democratic votes for his Iran deal. He did not take that opportunity.
For whatever high ground the president was trying to stake out when he spoke about the importance of diplomacy or what he considers the merits of his deal, the president nevertheless played politics — and in a grossly offensive manner.
Obama’s most memorable remarks were about his opponents in Congress. This remark, in particular, stands out:
I realize that resorting to force may be tempting in the face of the rhetoric and behavior that emanates from parts of Iran. It is offensive. It is incendiary. We do take it seriously. But superpowers should not act impulsively in response to talks … Just because Iranian hardliners chant “Death to America” does not mean that that’s what all Iranians believe. In fact, it’s those hardliners that are more satisfied with the status quo. It’s those hardliners chanting “Death to America” who’ve been most opposed to the deal. They’re making common cause with the Republican Caucus.
Let’s break this passage down because it manages to reveal Obama to be simultaneously unpresidential, obfuscating, and maybe even ignorant of whom the United States is dealing with in Tehran.
First, the president implied that his GOP opponents were like emotion-driven children reacting to incendiary rhetoric. His critics can have no serious rational objections to the deal; rather, they are offended at negative rhetoric and bad behavior. But this is not simply rhetoric the mullahs are spewing. They are the constant declarations of a government committed in every way to the fulfillment of these declarations and which has been acting on them for decades. The organizing principle of the Iranian Islamic revolution and the government it birthed is exactly this: “Death to America, Death to Israel.” Not even the North Korean regime has been as committed to fulfilling their rhetoric as have the leaders of Iran. When the people who are the leaders of a government say they want to do something and actually are doing it — i.e., kill Americans and Israelis — then they have to be treated as the enemies that they are. That is not being impulsive; that is being prudent.
Second, let us not pretend the “Death to America” chanters are simply the hardliner faction in a parliamentary democracy. The president wants us to believe that Iran is like the United States or any other democratic government with its parties and factions squabbling and jockeying for position and the current power-holders have to manage them. The people making these statements and following through on them are the only government that matters in what is the radical Islamic dictatorship of Iran. These are facts the president and his secretary of state continually ignore. It is beside the point that many Iranians don’t agree with their leaders; they have no power or influence. But it is odd for Obama to reference them at all given that he has put the inking of a deal over their welfare from the beginning of his administration.
Third, and incredibly offensive, is the president’s implication that the Iranian government that chants “Death to America” has a common cause with his critics in the Republican Conference (a quick note: the Republicans have a conference; the Democrats have a caucus and that is not just semantics). This is a new low even for the president. To compare any American political leader to the gang ruling Iran is out of bounds. That is the unpresidential part. But it is also offensive and crass to suggest that his GOP critics and the Iranian hardliners both desire to reject a peace deal precisely because they prefer conflict. Besides, his statement is inaccurate: the Iranian hardliners are the government (it bears repeating) and it has made clear that it very much likes this deal and that it will not change anything about its behavior or posture or goals in the world. They’ve won; their chants are not the desperate attempts of a faction to undo a deal made by the Iranian government.
Why did the president take this tack? I do not think it is because he is desperate; the Senate is unlikely to disapprove his deal by a sufficient margin. Rather, I think this is just who the president is. He is the “I won, John” president who does not need the counsel of his critics or the irksome procedures of constitutional government.
Another question: Will this speech change the public’s negative impression of the deal? Thankfully, I have my doubts that it will.