ABC Radio National Between the Lines

The Republican outrage over president Barack Obama's nuclear deal with Iran has a familiar ring.

Since the nuclear deal with Iran was announced a fortnight ago, US Republicans have assailed Barack Obama's diplomatic overtures to the Islamic Republic. Mike Huckabee made international headlines this week when he invoked the Holocaust. Obama's Iran policy, chided the former Arkansas governor and Fox News host, would 'take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven'.

Extraordinary language! But he's just one of a long list of Republicans who have been lining up for a chance to condemn the Iran deal. The deal is 'one of America's worst diplomatic failures' (Scott Walker), 'a fundamental betrayal of the security of the United States' (Ted Cruz), 'one of the most destructive foreign policy decisions in my lifetime' (Rick Perry) and 'a disgrace ... ridiculous ... amateur night' (Donald Trump). And so on.

All this outrage from conservatives over the Iran nuclear deal has a very familiar ring.

Richard Nixon, a long-time opponent of 'Red China', embarked on rapprochement with the Communist mainland in early 1970s. Ronald Reagan, a long-time opponent of the 'evil empire', embraced detente with the Soviets in the mid-to-late 1980s. Both Republican presidents provoked a hostile response from conservatives.

Conservatives are flaying Obama for relaxing sanctions without serious concessions from Tehran. 'It's a deal that gives the Iranian regime $140b in return for ... effectively nothing,' wrote leading neoconservative Bill Kristol. Those same complaints hounded Nixon when he opened negotiations with Peking without any public concessions by the communist leaders, who were still fighting the Cultural Revolution at home and fomenting unrest abroad.

Not surprisingly, when Nixon announced his decision in July 1971 to visit China, conservatives lashed out. They had never forgiven Harry Truman and Dean Acheson for betraying Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, and two decades later they were in no mood to tolerate what National Review publisher William Rusher would call 'one of the greatest double crosses of all time'.

When Americans saw those incredible TV pictures of a Chinese band striking up the Star Spangled banner for Nixon, and the visiting American president dining with the Chinese Communists, National Review editor William F. Buckley, Jr. announced that the US had 'lost — irretrievably — any remaining sense of moral mission in the world'. 'It is like God and the devil having a high-level meeting,' charged Rev Carl McIntyre of the Vietnam March for Victory Committee. John Wayne, one of the few Republicans in Hollywood, lamented that the Nixon trip was 'a real shocker'.

Skip forward 15 years to Ronald Reagan's groundbreaking deal with Mikhail Gorbachev. Once again, conservatives were aghast. According to the conservative weekly Human Events, the Right was 'stunned' by its hero's 'dangerous illusions' about the 'new' Soviet Union.

Emmett Tyrell, Jr, the editor of The American Spectator, said Reagan was behaving 'arrogantly, deviously and as the classic appeaser'. Buckley's National Review headlined a special issue opposing Senate ratification of the INF treaty 'National Suicide'.

The Anti-Appeasement Alliance, a group of hard-line anti-Soviet conservatives, published anti-INF treaty advertisements comparing Reagan to Chamberlain, the gullible British prime minister who signed an accord with Hitler and predicted “peace in our time” in 1938. Howard Phillips, co-chair of the alliance, declared Reagan had become 'a useful idiot for Kremlin propaganda'.

In the Senate, meanwhile, Jesse Helms led a conservative effort to introduce amendments designed to kill the treaty. And in the run-up to the 1988 Republican presidential primaries, centre-right Heritage Foundation president Edwin J. Feulner, Jr. warned: 'Whoever Reagan's successor is will have a hard time mobilising [conservatives] because Ronald Reagan walked away from them in the end.'

In the end, the opposition failed to stop Reagan's treaty and his vice president George H. W. Bush won office later that year. Moreover, on almost any judgement, history has vindicated both Nixon's rapprochement with Communist China and Reagan's detente with the Soviets.

In the 1970s, Nixon broke a 23-year-old taboo on negotiating with the world's most populous nation. And Reagan's move in the '80s helped end a 40-year Cold War with the Kremlin.

None of this is to say how history will finally judge this new deal between the west and Tehran. After all, the mullahs still preach death to America. Iran continues to aid and abet thuggish Shia proxies across the Persian Gulf — from Iraq and Syria to Yemen and southern Lebanon.

It may be the case — as more sober sceptics of the deal such as Henry Kissinger, 92, and George Schultz, 94, have warned — that the deal does nothing to change Tehran's 'three-and-a-half decades of militant hostility to the west'. But in slamming the president in the most strident — and in Huckabee's case offensive — language, conservatives are once again indulging in absurd overstatement.

This article was originally published at ABC Radio National Between the Lines