by Derek Davison

With the rumored extension of the negotiations in Vienna on Iran’s nuclear program hanging in the air, a group of legislators and right-wing thinkers gathered on Capitol Hill yesterday to talk about what they believe a comprehensive deal with Iran should entail.

Senator Dan Coats (R-IN) told the assembled crowd that he was there to “ring the alarm” about the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran, and, indeed, that alarm rang over and over again throughout the event. The afternoon’s speakers were clear on one thing: nothing short of total Iranian capitulation would be an acceptable outcome to the talks, and even that would really only be acceptable if it came in the aftermath of regime change in Tehran. They were decidedly less clear as to how that outcome might be achieved.

The forum, “High Standards and High Stakes: Defining Terms of an Acceptable Iran Nuclear Deal,” was sponsored by the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) (successor to the now-defunct Project for the New American Century), the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), and the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), which specializes in finding Democrats who agree with the neoconservative agenda when it comes to Iran. The speakers broadly agreed on the need to maintain and even increase sanctions to encourage the Iranians to negotiate, which seemingly ignores the fact that the Iranians are already negotiating and that the sanctions are in place precisely so that they can be traded away in exchange for Iranian concessions.

Among the materials distributed at the session was a paper by a group called the “Iran Task Force,” which has a few members in common with the “Iran Task Force” formed within the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs but nonetheless seems to be a different group. The paper was titled, “Parameters of an Acceptable Agreement,” though it might better have been called “Parameters of a Deal That Would Certainly Be Rejected by Iran.”

The task force’s “acceptable agreement” requires, among other items, the complete dismantling of Iran’s enrichment capabilities and extraordinary monitoring requirements that would remain in place permanently. Again, this would not be a deal so much as it would be unconditional surrender by the Iranians, and would impose restrictions on Iran that even retired Israeli generals don’t seem to believe are necessary. If this is how the “Iran Task Force” defines an “acceptable agreement,” it seems fair to ask if they want any agreement at all.

One of the legislators who spoke at the forum was Brad Sherman (D-CA), who has endorsed the Iranian opposition group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, (aka MEK, MKO, PMOI and NCRI), which lobbied itself off the US terrorist organizations list in 2012, and whose desire for regime change is quite explicit.

Congressman Sherman offered some of the most colorful (or maybe terrifying) remarks. For example, he declared that Iran’s “breakout” period must be “years,” which would presumably involve subjecting all of Iran’s nuclear scientists to some kind of amnesia ray to make them unlearn what they already know about enriching uranium. He then argued that Iran’s ultimate goal was not a nuclear missile, but a device that could be smuggled into a major city and detonated without directly implicating Tehran. Most Iran hawks assume (based on questionable evidence) that Iran’s nuclear program is ipso facto a nuclear weapons program. But Sherman apparently believes that Iran doesn’t only crave a nuclear weapon, but will obviously use that weapon once it’s built to bring destruction upon the world. Sherman closed by proposing that the United States arm Israel with advanced “bunker buster” bombs and surplus B-52 bombers, which would surely ensure peace in that region.

After the legislators had their say, it was time for the expert panel, featuring FDD’s Reuel Marc Gerecht, Ray Takeyh from the Council on Foreign Relations, and Stephen Rademaker from the BPC. Gerecht argued that Iran has a “religious” need to acquire nuclear weapons, which might come as a shock to the Iranian religious establishment, and criticized the Obama administration’s unwillingness to apply “real” economic pressure to force Iranian concessions. He never got around to describing what “real” economic pressure looks like, or how much different it could be from what Iran is currently experiencing. It was also unclear why, if Iran does have such a strong need to develop a nuclear weapon, and if it hasn’t yet felt any “real” economic pressure, it agreed to, and has by all accounts complied with, the terms of the interim Joint Plan of Action reached in Geneva last year.

But it was Rademaker who came closest to openly admitting the theme that underpins the hawks’ entire approach to these talks: that no nuclear deal will ever be acceptable without regime change. He criticized last year’s historic deal for its promise that a comprehensive deal would remain in place for a specified, limited duration, and that Iran would be treated as any other Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatory at the conclusion of the deal. Rademaker later compared Iran to Brazil and Argentina, whose nuclear programs were both abandoned after their military regimes gave way to democratic governments. At that point the suggestion that regime change, which didn’t exactly work out the way the US envisioned in Iran (1953) and Iraq (2003), must precede any normalization of Iran’s nuclear program was obvious.