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Why 'Death To America' Isn't Going To Disappear Overnight (But in the Short Term It Doesn't Matter)

04/10/2015 08:37 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015

Political posturing is always going to be a mainstay of the relationship between the United States and Iran. And a nuclear deal isn't likely to change that, at least not anytime soon. Critics of the possible nuclear deal are using recent remarks by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as signs that Obama's deal is doomed to fail.

But they're wrong.

Let's talk about rhetoric for a minute. Khamenei has made several comments in the last few days, again calling out the U.S. for being "devilish" for putting out a fact sheet with details that he says contradicts what negotiators agreed to. But while he didn't support a deal, he did support Rouhani's report and position on the Joint Plan Of Action (known as the JPOA,) ahead of a firmer deal scheduled for June 30.

Khamenei's rhetoric -- that the U.S. is deceptive, that Westerners are duplicitous and always have been -- is nothing new. But this broken record behavior is what the hardliners in the country not only expect to hear -- but need to hear. In order for a deal to go forward, they have to perceive that the deal isn't going to upset the natural order in Iran, where hardline conservatives rule the roost. Any whiff that this deal will be throwing open the door to not just economic, but social change, could create a tidal wave of pressure that might stamp out a deal altogether.

The Ayatollah has a political base to appease, just like every political group around the world. And the base likes the slogan -- but it doesn't (and hasn't) necessitate military action against the U.S. These empty words can do damage -- a lot of it in the perception of the rest of the world against Iranians, most of whom love America and what it represents.

As Ramin Mostaghim, a reporter based in Tehran for the LA Times told me on HuffPost Live last week, 'Death to America' isn't going to end overnight. But, as Mostaghim says, "It will be like a surgery, it will be a little painful surgery, and the [leadership] will have to keep a balance between these two factions" of hardliners and moderates.

The politics here are a bit complex: Iran's more moderate (though not progressive by any stretch of the imagination -- see Jason Rezaian) and populist President Hassan Rouhani wants a deal that opens up the country beyond just a nuclear deal. Rouhani wants to begin initiating a new era for opening up the society to the West, whereas Khamanei wants to make this narrow, strictly nuclear and economic. It's now Rouhani's job to dance between the Iranian youth clamoring for more of this openness promised by a nuclear deal and the hardliners that want nothing to do with it.

Of course, seeing rhetoric as what it is -- ignorant, but words nonetheless -- isn't going to be enough for politicians like Senator Tom Cotton and Mark Kirk, who continue to insist that pursuing a hard line with Iran is the only way to bear political fruit. They see the path of diplomacy put forward by President Obama and John Kerry as the road to nowhere. But perhaps they should listen less to the garish 'Death To America' style language, and instead to some of the more encouraging signs, such as the commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, who this week praised the deal and appears to want to galvanize others to get behind it.

'Death to America' isn't going to go away overnight. There's been too much history -- too much mistrust -- and way too much paranoia built up between the two countries over the last 50 years. From the American hostage crisis at an embassy in Tehran, to the accusations of American spies infiltrating Iranian government circles, the foundations for trust are porous.

But there's a real chance for change in relations here. We shouldn't let rhetoric put a nail in the coffin of trying to work a concrete deal come June -- and Congress shouldn't either.