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Iran’s cryptic hard-liners are once again on the minds of US policymakers. Suspicion has most recently fallen on these nameless individuals following last week’s arrest of a number of American journalists in Tehran. The arrests, which came two days after negotiators in Vienna agreed to extend the nuclear talks with the UN Security Council, are being interpreted as a deliberate attempt to undermine President Hassan Rouhani’s overture to the United States. Responding in her congressional testimony on July 29, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman warned hawkish senators not to act in a way that might further push the hard-liners in Tehran “to the wall.”

Tehran and Washington have both expressed optimism that the next round of nuclear talks, to be completed by Nov. 24, might just be conclusive — if, that is, a give-and-take bargain acceptable to both sides can be reached. But as Sherman pointed out, not all American observers or policymakers in the US Congress share that view.

Some seem gripped by a perennial fear that the much-trumpeted hawks in Tehran will derail the diplomatic process. Months before the July arrests, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., cautioned that Washington should not put too much hope in moderates like Rouhani and Javad Zarif, his smooth foreign minister.

In fact, nothing about this nuclear stalemate has been straightforward since Iran’s nuclear program was first exposed in 2002. Intensive multilateral talks spanned more than a decade and memories remain of demands, promises and high drama on both sides. Who can forget former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boasting that Iran’s nuclear program was “a locomotive without breaks” or Washington’s frequent threat that “all options are on the table” to prevent a potential Iranian nuclear weapon?

The moderate Rouhani replaced the hard-line Ahmadinejad, leading to the signing of an interim deal, the Joint Plan of Action, in November 2013. But the distance between the negotiating parties — from how many centrifuges Iran should have to the time needed to consider its nuclear program peaceful — is still great and needs to be bridged before a permanent deal can be struck. In other words, the skeptics in Washington have reason to worry. But to point the finger at spoilers in Tehran is to misunderstand or misrepresent Iran’s nuclear policy machine.

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