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American and Iranian hard-liners await the end of the nuclear deal

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We are entering the final stretch ahead of President Trump's likely decision to pull out of the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. His administration has to decide by May 12 whether to reimpose economic sanctions on Tehran, ones that have been repeatedly waived since the agreement was signed by the Obama administration in 2015. The recent appointments of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton — two vociferous Iran hawks who were doggedly opposed to the deal — seem to make it all the more likely that Trump will follow through on his threats to scuttle the deal.

Many of America's key allies, especially European leaders, have pleaded with the Trump administration to keep the deal intact. Over months of negotiations, they have sought to convince their American interlocutors that adhering to the agreement and working to improve it are preferable to scrapping it altogether. In the view of international monitors, foreign governments and even the State Department, Iran is complying with the terms of the agreement, and there is no better option on the table to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

"We should not scrap it unless we have a good alternative," said U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres to the BBC on Thursday, calling the agreement an "important diplomatic victory" that is necessary amid "dangerous times."

As Iran and Israel square off in Syria, things could get even more dangerous. A Monday presentation by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — which featured supposedly new revelations of Iranian perfidy and bad faith — emboldened Trump and his lieutenants, though experts and European diplomats pointed to Netanyahu's document trove as further reason to preserve an arrangement that keeps Iran's program firmly in check.

The deal's critics are unmoved, and they are pushing for what they consider a long-overdue confrontation with Tehran. "The president should stop waiting for Congress or the Europeans to get serious about renegotiating the JCPOA," wrote Bush-era official Jamil Jaffer, using the formal abbreviation for the Iran deal. "Instead, he should force everyone’s hand and restore American leverage by reimposing sanctions now."

"When the Iranians fear American power, they either back down or they stall," Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, an influential anti-Tehran think tank in Washington that has the ear of the administration, said to the New York Times. "When they don’t fear American power, they push forward. With Trump, the question is: Are they going to feel American power, or American mush?"

But while the deal's most vocal opponents see it as a feckless pact with the great malign power of the Middle East, other analysts point to the complexity of the situation within Iran itself. If Trump does pull out of the deal, it seems increasingly unlikely that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — who championed diplomacy with the West — will be able to resist calls from his country's hardliners to also renege on their end of the bargain.

As Iran's economy tanks, Rouhani faces growing criticism from opponents who never supported his efforts at détente with the West. They include elements of the Revolutionary Guards, the powerful military organization that largely runs the Iranian proxy wars so reviled in Washington and is also implicated in the detention of numerous dual nationals on Iranian soil.

"Hardline social media accounts depict reformists and moderates who continue to push for more negotiations and engagement with the West as weak, incapable, gullible, and corrupt," wrote Georgetown University's Ariane Tabatabai in a lengthy survey of Iran's internal political conversation. "Although the Rouhani government wishes to sustain the deal and build on it for greater international integration and economic recovery, it is constrained by pressure from its political opponents."

"An unraveling of the nuclear deal would really render President Rouhani a lame duck, and strengthen the Revolutionary Guard, who I would argue have already been strengthened the last two years," noted Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Iran hawks argue that the idea of rival political camps is an illusion and that Rouhani was always beholden to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the theocratic cabal surrounding him. But the imminent collapse of the pact upon which Rouhani staked his credibility, even in the face of heated domestic opposition, may lead the world down a far darker path.

"It will be nearly impossible to bring Iran back to the negotiating table with the U.S. for years to come, as its leaders will conclude that there is no point in concluding agreements with the United States," wrote Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for New American Security.

Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, argued that Trump should take a totally different path. "Washington should find ways to reduce tensions by engaging Iran directly, picking up where the nuclear deal left off," wrote Nasr. "It should also encourage Iran and Saudi Arabia to cooperate to resolve regional crises, starting with those in Syria and Yemen."

But that looks unlikely now. "We will be left with a world where Iran inches towards a nuclear weapon, does not face sufficient pressure, and has no interest in negotiations," wrote Goldenberg. "That means in a few years, the U.S. will be left with a stark choice: military action or living with a nuclear-armed Iran."

It's a similar scenario that confronted the Obama administration before it embarked on the turgid rounds of talks that led to the current deal. Iran watchers can be forgiven for feeling a sense of deja vu.

"While the reformist president Mohammad Khatami was in office, George W. Bush undermined him and shattered Iranians’ hopes of rapprochement by labeling the country part of the 'axis of evil'," wrote Saeed Kamali Dehgan in the Guardian. "Trump could be about to make exactly the same mistake with Rouhani."

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