TEHRAN, Iran — Hard-line Iranian lawmakers criticized a nuclear deal reached in Geneva last week, with one calling it a "poisoned chalice," but a majority of deputies who spoke Wednesday in a parliamentary hearing on the accord backed an initiative that appears to enjoy both wide public support and the endorsement of top clerics.
Having signed the first-stage accord that curbs Iranian nuclear activity in exchange for limited relief from sanctions, President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif now have the task of trying to convince skeptics that they are not compromising on key issues of national sovereignty.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has publically supported nuclear negotiators and opposition to the deal seems limited, but opinion can shift quickly in Iran and Rouhani's task will become more delicate as the country moves toward a final accord six months from now.
In the debate broadcast live on state radio, Zarif tried to deflect criticism by noting that some construction will continue at the planned Arak heavy water reactor, whose advancement was effectively frozen by the Geneva accord.
Zarif pointed out the building projects would not involve areas covered by the deal, including the installation of new equipment or work toward making the reactor operational. But even minor progress at Arak could bring claims by Israel and other opponents of the deal that Iran is violating its rules and spirit.
Heavy water reactors such as Arak produce a greater amount of byproduct plutonium, which can be used in nuclear weapons production if extracted by a special process. Iran has pledged not to pursue facilities that could separate the plutonium.
Speaking Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki stressed that Zarif specifically noted capacity at the Arak site is not going to increase. She said nothing Zarif said implied a violation of the agreement.
"It means no nuclear fuel will be produced and no installations will be installed, but construction will continue there," she said. "We're not sure exactly what he means by 'construction,'" Psaki told reporters. "But there will be no work on the reactor itself, no work to prepare fuel for the reactor or do additional testing of the reactor."
For their part, Iranian hard-liners said that the deal placed overly sweeping restrictions on the Islamic Republic's nuclear activities.
Lawmaker Ruhollah Hosseinian said the deal was so vague and conditional that it may finally lead to a shutting down of Iran's uranium enrichment program, which can lead to material used in nuclear weapons. Iran denies Western claims that it is pursuing weapons and says the enriched uranium is needed for peaceful purposes.
"It practically tramples on Iran's enrichment rights ... Uranium enrichment restrictions in the final stage and constraints in the first stage mean that enrichment in Iran is headed toward self shut-down," he said.
"A chalice of poison has been given to the people but (the government) is trying to show it as a sweet drink through media manipulation," Hamid Rasaei said.
Most lawmakers however supported the deal as providing much-needed economic relief.
Zarif has argued that the deal has caused serious cracks in the sanctions regime imposed over Iranian nuclear activity and prevents the U.N. Security Council and world powers from imposing new ones.
Others government supporters say the angry reaction from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called it a "historic mistake," shows it was a triumph.
Iran's ally Syria meanwhile says its President Bashar Assad telephoned Rouhani Wednesday, congratulating him for the nuclear deal.
A statement posted on Assad's official Facebook page said the Syrian president told Rouhani the agreement is a result of the Iranian leadership's "commitment to preserving Iranian sovereignty" and the "steadfastness of the Iranian people."