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Explaining That Bizarre Letter Republican Senators Sent to Iran

Senate Republicans, desperate to stop Obama's nuclear negotiations with Iran, have resorted to sending hilarious letters to leaders of the Islamic Republic.
Illustration by Sam Taylor

By now it should be very clear that Republicans in Congress are violently allergic to any kind of nuclear negotiations with Iran, and will put on whatever diplomatic circus act they think will prevent the Obama administration from reaching a deal. Last week, they welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Capitol Hill, going behind the White House's back to invite a foreign head of state to publicly rebuke Obama's foreign policy from the floor of the US Congress. That didn't work, so this week, they went a few steps further, straight to the mailbox of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.


In what has got to be one of the most bonkers attempts at nuclear diplomacy ever, 47 Republican Senators sent an open letter to Tehran on Monday, warning the leaders of the Islamic Republic that any deal with the US will be swiftly destroyed by Congress or whatever non-Kenyan socialist wins the White House in 2016. The letter was spearheaded by junior Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, apparently as some kind of war caucus hazing initiation seemingly designed to undermine not only the Obama administration's diplomatic efforts, but US foreign policy itself. Cotton has not been shy about his desire to scuttle an Iranian nuclear deal in favor of "regime change"—a policy that would be difficult to achieve without war. All but seven Senate Republicans signed the letter,including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and 2016 hopefuls like Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz.

Democrats and other GOP dissenters predictably lost their minds, accusing the Senators of trying to undermine the president, and possibly committing treason. "Let's be very clear: Republicans are undermining our commander-in-chief while empowering the Ayatollahs," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said in a floor speech Monday.

Vice President Joe Biden was only slightly more measured. "In 36 years in the United States Senate, I cannot recall another instance in which Senators wrote directly to advise another country—much less a longtime foreign adversary—that the President does not have the constitutional authority to reach a meaningful understanding with them," he said in a statement Monday night. "The decision to undercut our President and circumvent our constitutional system offends me as a matter of principle." Even the Wall Street Journal was turned off by the letter, calling it "the security blunder of the young century." By this afternoon, #47Traitors was trending on Twitter.


All this outrage would be understandable if the letter itself weren't so ridiculous. Written in the same tone one would use to address friendly extraterrestrials, Cotton gives the unnamed "Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran" a little civics lesson.

"It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system," the letter begins. Sadly, Cotton does not explain how or when he came to this realization. He goes on to inform readers that the US Constitution requires any international treaty to gain two-thirds approval by the Senate and majority approval by both chambers of Congress. Anything else, he writes, is just an executive deal that can be overturned with "the stroke of a pen."

When explaining the idea of term limits to the term-limited Iranian president, Cotton lets Tehran know where the real power lies in Washington. "The president may serve only two 4-year terms, whereas senators may serve an unlimited number of 6-year terms," he writes. "As applied today, for instance, President Obama will leave office in January 2017, while most of us will remain in office well beyond then—perhaps decades."

(You can read the whole thing here.)

Setting aside the fact that many of Cotton's Iranian pen pals are American university graduates—and likely have a pretty good idea of how the US conducts foreign policy—it's also worth noting that Cotton's interpretation of the Constitution isn't totally accurate. As Harvard Law professor Jack Goldsmith pointed out, the Senate doesn't technically ratify treaties.And the majority of modern international agreements are actually executive orders—but contrary to Cotton's assertion, presidents usually decline to overturn deals signed under previous administrations.


Rather than run away from the bargaining table, Iranian leaders mostly just laughed at Cotton and his little note. In a statement, pointedly posted in English, Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif dismissed the letter as "mostly a propaganda ploy."

"It seems that the authors not only do not understand international law, but are not fully cognizant of the nuances of their own Constitution when it comes to presidential powers in the conduct of foreign policy," the statement reads.

Zarif then correctly points out that not only do American presidents tend to abide by international agreements entered into by their predecessors, but any nuclear deal between the US and Iran would not be bilateral. Instead, it would include all five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. It also could not be modified by Congress under international law. Cotton's letter, Zarif adds, "in fact undermines the credibility of thousands of such mere executive agreements that have been or will be entered into by the US with various other governments."

Despite the partisan outrage in the US, so far Cotton's stunt doesn't seem likely to have much of an effect on the negotiations, which are set to conclude at the end of the month. But Obama mused Monday that the move could still end up giving Iranian hawks ammunition to undercut a bargain on the grounds that the US is untrustworthy, giving them "common cause with the hardliners in Iran." Beyond that, critics have suggested that the intrusion on the White House's diplomatic power could undercut any president, Democrat or Republican, signaling that any international agreement the US enters could be undone at the slightest shift of political winds.

The GOP doesn't seem to have a problem with this. Even as the rest of the world erupted in outrage over the letter, Republicans doubled down and defended it. 2016 hopefuls Rick Perry and Rick Santorum clamored to add their names to the note Tuesday; Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal even went so far as to suggest that the letter had been his idea all along. ""I've been saying it for some time now," he told the New York Times Tuesday. He mentioned it in a secret speech at the American Enterprise Institute World Forum just this past weekend. Cotton "was in the audience," Jindal said, "when this discussion came up."

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