Paul Pillar

The Sources of Opposition to the Iran Agreement

Once such a partisan pattern develops, it becomes, as with so many other questions both factual and prescriptive, a guide for party faithful in determining their own opinions. The partisan divide in the public's views of the Iran agreement as recorded in opinion polls reflects to a large extent individual citizens' taking of cues from leaders of the party with which they identify. The self-reinforcing nature of Republican hostility to the agreement has been reinforced further by the contest for the Republican presidential nomination, in which a platoon of contenders has to scramble to get enough attention from the party base just to make it onto a debate platform, and in which a candidate opens himself up for attack just by suggesting that it might not be prudent to demolish on one's first day in office an agreement that had been already working for a couple of years.

The Iran nuclear issue is by no means the first major national security issue in recent years in which careful consideration of what is best for national interests is superseded by reflexive partisanship. Peter Beinart notes significant parallels between the debate (or what passed for debate) on launching the war in Iraq and current debate about the Iran agreement, including how many of the same people who were the most enthusiastic supporters of that blunder of a war are among the most vocal opponents of this agreement. Another parallel, which Beinart does not go into in his piece, concerns how party politics played into each question. With Iraq when Congress voted on a war resolution in 2002, as with Iran today, most of the key swing votes were Democrats. The Democrats in 2002 faced a political hazard if they appeared to resist the post-9/11 tidal wave of American militancy that the war promoters exploited to muster support for their project. That hazard was great enough that the war resolution gained support from a majority of Democrats in the Senate (where most of the party's presidential hopefuls were to be found), though not from most Democrats in the House of Representatives. But the biggest support by far in both chambers came from the nearly unanimous yes votes of Republicans.

Michael Isikoff and David Corn in their book Hubris give an insight into some of the thinking among those Republicans with a quotation from Texas Republican Richard Armey, who was the majority leader in the House at the time. Armey had earlier expressed reservations about starting a war in Iraq. When he and other Congressional leaders received a pro-war briefing, complete with overhead imagery, from Vice President Dick Cheney, Armey was unimpressed. “If I'd gotten the same briefing from President Clinton or Al Gore I probably would have said, 'Ah, b***s***',” recalled Armey. But, he continued, “You don't do that to your own people.” Given the substantive choice between the Iran agreement and killing the agreement and what each of those alternatives would mean for restricting and monitoring the Iranian program, perhaps there are similar private thoughts among some Congressional Republicans today as they listen to arguments that opponents are firing at the agreement. And probably for most of those members party solidarity will again prevail.

Anti-Iran xenophobia. The Islamic Republic of Iran has come to fill, almost from the start of its existence but certainly since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR, the role of chief bête noire in American minds as far as foreign countries are concerned (although lately Vladimir Putin's Russia has been making a bit of a comeback in that regard). The hostage crisis of 1979-1981 was the worst possible way to get off to a start with a new regime. American emotions and attitudes about Iran have never recovered, and they certainly have not kept pace with major evolution in the Islamic Republic's own attitudes and objectives, which long ago became post-revolutionary in nearly every sense of the term. Put simply, most Americans have a visceral dislike of Iran that leads the emotional to dominate the intellectual, that colors perceptions and fuels major misperceptions of what Iran is up to, and that caters to the most primitive and most negative depictions of the country's regime and its objectives.

Anyone who made a sober and rational appraisal of the alternatives of agreement and no agreement as far as the Iranian nuclear program is concerned could still, no matter how much he or she dislikes Iran, see the wisdom of the agreement. As the administration has repeatedly and truthfully noted, this is an agreement based on distrust, not trust. And as many others have correctly noted, some of the most important agreements one makes are with one's enemies, not one's friends. But in reality, emotionalism and bias often trump sobriety and rationality, as they have to a large degree in this case. The American public's feelings in this regard provide a fertile ground on which those who, for the reasons mentioned earlier, are determined to oppose the agreement can plant mistaken beliefs and can stir up still more negative emotion.

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