Letters to the ayatollah, the sequel: The Republican letter to Iran’s leaders reflects strategy as well as spite

In a new low for bipartisan consensus on U.S. foreign policy, 47 Republican senators have issued an “open letter” addressed to the Iranian leadership that is intended to sabotage prospects for a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran by cultivating doubt about the credibility and reliability of the American president. Although the letter has drawn wide reproach as a partisan tactic and a dangerous precedent, it might just accomplish what it was intended to do — reinforce the paranoia of the Iranian regime and scuttle long-awaited progress toward a negotiated resolution of the Iranian nuclear impasse.

The letter asserts the primacy of Congress — and, by extension, the Republicans — in determining the longevity of any nuclear agreement between Iran, the United States, and the five other world powers involved in the negotiations. “Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement,” the letter stresses, adding that “(t)he next president could invoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of an agreement at any time.” Just in case the message wasn’t clear, the letter emphasized that Obama would be out of office in a matter of months while “many of us [the 47 signatories] will remain in office well beyond then — perhaps decades.”

The letter was organized by freshman senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), a rising GOP star who only weeks ago sneered that Obama’s own letters to Iranian leaders reminded him of “a lovestruck teenager.”

Criticism of the senators’ letter to Tehran

The release of the letter provoked sharp criticism from the administration and well beyond. Obama accused the Republicans of aligning themselves with Iranian hard-liners against diplomacy and in favor of war; Vice President Joe Biden described the letter as “beneath the dignity of an institution I revere” and “highly misleading signal to friend and foe alike that that our Commander-in-Chief cannot deliver on America’s commitments-a message that is as false as it is dangerous.” 

The letter has also prompted howls of outrage and mockery on social media and among pundits, particularly after Harvard Law professor Jack Goldsmith, writing on the Brookings-affiliated blog Lawfare, pointed out the rather awkward inaccuracies in its characterization of the Constitutional prerogatives of the Congress with respect to treaty ratification. (See also Goldsmith’s follow-up post for additional nuance and interpretation.)

Brookings non-resident senior fellow Dan Drezner, international relations professor and Washington Post blogger, envisages an optimistic scenario — that the letter’s warning about the limited duration of President Obama’s tenure might actually boomerang in the administration’s favor, by persuading Tehran to get on board as quickly as possible with a deal.

I want to agree, but unfortunately I’ve long since lost most of my optimism about Iran. Instead, I tend to believe the opposite dynamic is more likely: by exacerbating Tehran’s pre-existing skepticism about the durability of President Obama’s promises, the letter could spook the Iranian leadership. This in turn could prompt Tehran to demand a higher price for any concessions, to try to stack the deal with as much early sanctions relief as possible, and to begin making its own arrangements for an early expiration date on any commitments.

And that, of course, is precisely the point. My Twitter feed is filled with derision and chortles about a presumptive Republican misstep and the acumen of its organizer, Sen. Cotton. Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) accused Cotton and his cohort of attempting to undermine the president “purely out of spite.” Unfortunately, it’s worse than spite or stupidity; it’s a strategy, and it just might work.

Spectacular misstep or savvy strategy?

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is steeped in suspicion toward Washington, and he has repeatedly expressed doubts about whether the United States will uphold its end of any bargain. He routinely reminds Iranians that “even if we accept what they dictate to us on the nuclear issue, their destructive moves and sanctions will not be stopped and lifted. They will continue to create all sorts of problems for us because they are opposed to the essence of the Revolution.” In a recent speech which received widespread attention because of his unusually explicit support for a nuclear deal, the supreme leader also decried any arrangments in which “the other side — which achieves its goals by breaking its promises and by haggling — continues to make excuses on different matters, go back on its promises and make things difficult.”

Now the Republicans in the Senate, in an echo of statements made by each of the leading contenders for the GOP nomination for the 2016 ballot, have put it in writing: the Obama administration can make no binding promises and its domestic rivals will spare no effort to nullify any sanctions relief or other concessions made to Tehran in the course of a nuclear bargain. How do you think that will play with Iran’s skeptical supreme leader?

Despite the smug Twitter takedowns, Cotton is no fool; he is an Iraq war veteran with two Harvard degrees and has been called “the future of the GOP” and “Ted Cruz with a war record, Sarah Palin with a Harvard degree, Chris Christie with a Southern accent — a force to be reckoned with.” He has cemented his rising reputation around warning against the threat from Iran; he is apparently a true believer in the latest cockamamie conspiracy theory to sweep the right wing, now that Benghazi and birth certificates are passé — the illusion that there is “an unspoken entente between the Obama administration and Iran: the U.S. won’t impose new sanctions on Iran and will allow it to develop threshold nuclear capabilities, while Iran won’t assemble a bomb till 2017.”

The feedback loop between Cotton’s letter and Khamenei’s innate mistrust is brilliantly calculated. As Cotton said earlier this year, “The end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of congressional action. It is very much an intended consequence.” In December, he promised that Congress would “put an end to these negotiations,” adding that “I think the adults in Congress need to step in early in the new year. And those are people in both parties.”

Dan Drezner is right about path dependence in U.S. foreign policy; whatever the candidates may say today, even the most ambitious Republican president will find it difficult to simply walk away from a deal if it has been successfully implemented by both sides. As Dan points out, opinion polling suggests Americans favor a deal, and certainly prefer a negotiated resolution to another military conflict in the Middle East. Irrespective of campaign rhetoric, a new president will inevitably find it difficult “to sabotage an agreement that tamped down a major stressor in the region.”

Former Obama administration official Ilan Goldenberg explains the logistical complications of a mid-course switch, noting that “[b]y the time any president goes to Congress for final removal of the sanctions, an agreement will be so far along in implementation and the whole world will be so committed to the process that it will be very hard for any Congress to sabotage it.” And if you have any doubt about how the next president might approach Iran, just look at the track record; the history of U.S. policy toward Iran is marked by fierce campaign criticism and almost absolute uniformity in policies. (On that note, Obama can thank the second-term Bush administration for his own Iran strategy.)

Of course, the expectation of continuity is another reason for the urgency that prompted this seemingly reckless letter. The Republicans on the Hill recognize the potential resilience of a comprehensive accord, and they appreciate that it would be far easier, and far more advantageous in terms of their own public positioning, for Congress to sabotage negotiations than it would be to upend a done deal. The failure of talks can always be depicted as a predictable outcome to an uncertain engagement with a long-time adversary, whereas Congressional intervention after the fact will invoke the Colin Powell Pottery Barn rule: you break it, you own it. And despite the rhetoric, no one on the Hill really wants to own the unpalatable array of U.S. policy options that will be left in the absence of negotiations.

The Republicans’ gambit comes with some risk. The immediate reaction doesn’t appear to have boosted the Congress’ battered reputation, either at home or abroad. For their part, the Iranians are reveling in what appears to be another counterproductive family feud between the two U.S. political parties. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif revived his mostly dormant Twitter account to parody Cotton’s patronizing tone, and it seems unlikely that the Republicans can salvage an advantage in the war for public perceptions over this latest wrinkle in the diplomacy.

Like the invitation to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to the Congress, the ‘open letter’ may actually impede their effort to consolidate a veto-proof majority in favor of new avenues of pressuring Tehran, either through new sanctions or a push to assert Congressional oversight over any deal. But the prospect of maintaining sufficient Democratic support for either proposition was always a bit suspect.

Ultimately, the loss of the good opinion of a few Democrats is a small price to pay if the letter hits its real target. The most reliable opponent of a nuclear deal resides in Tehran, and it is entirely possible that the Republican letter has reinforced his aversion to compromise. Washington’s pundits may jeer, but I worry that Senator Cotton & co. may yet have the last laugh.