The Iran Nuclear Deal and Republican Obstructionism

Omar Khatib, JHU:

A nuclear Iran. The blocking of this exact concept has been at the forefront of American foreign policy in recent years, and the threat of this is why the United States has been and still is at the head of the negotiating table for a nuclear deal. On March 9th of this year, Republican Senator of Arkansas Tom Cotton, as well as 46 other Republican Senators, signed and addressed an open letter to the, “Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran”. This letter stated that any agreement that came to fruition between Ayatollah Khamenei and his people and Barack Obama would simply be an executive agreement between the two, and that the next President of the United States could, “revoke the agreement with the stroke of a pen”, which according to Harvard Law professor Jack Goldsmith is factually incorrect. As it’s stated on the Senate’s own website, the Senate does not have the power to ratify international treaties. In an interview with Vice News, President Obama commented on the matter saying, “I’m embarrassed for them”, adding, “For them to address a letter to the Ayatollah, the supreme leader of Iran, who they claim is our mortal enemy, and their basic argument to them is, don’t deal with our president cause you can’t trust him to follow through on an agreement. That’s close to unprecedented.” This letter was not only irrational and unprecedented, but it intentionally obfuscated one of the central principles of international law, which is that governments are obliged to hold any agreements employed by their precursors, treaties or not. And while the law has never been enforced since its introduction in 1799, the Logan Act explicitly forbids unauthorized citizens from negotiating with foreign governments, and was put in place specifically prevent people from undermining the position of the government and authorized negotiating parties.

While Senate Republicans may have seen this letter as part of a larger game of cat and mouse with President Obama, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier argued, “This is not just an issue of American domestic politics, but it affects the negotiations we are holding in Geneva.” The foreign minister added on, “suddenly Iran can say to us: “Are you actually trustworthy in the proposals you make if 47 senators say that no matter what the government agrees to, we will subsequently take that off the table again?” While these types of nefarious schemes have become commonplace in a deadlocked Congress, expanding them into the realm of foreign policy and nuclear negotiations with a supposed enemy state is beyond irrational and arguably illegal.

On the other side of the table Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif, who has a PhD in International Law and Policy from the University of Denver, has publicly stated, “We believe this letter has no legal value and is merely a propaganda ploy”, adding on mockingly, “The letter shows that not only are they not foreign to international rules, but they do not understand the intricacies of their own Constitution about the powers of the President of the United States regarding foreign policy.” While Zarif can publically ward off the implications of the letter addressed to the leaders of Iran as meaningless, its significance weighs heavily at the negotiating table. When 47% of the Senate says openly that the next President of the United States will willingly breach international law, throw years of work on a nuclear arms treaty down the drain, and still uphold sanctions against Iran against what was agreed upon, the other side starts to have a little more leverage. What a group of people elected to represent the United States basically said to the world is that the United States is untrustworthy, and should not be dealt with, in what Secretary of State John Kerry called, a breach of “more than two centuries of precedent”. Tom Cotton and the 46 other Republican Senators have come out and said that they were using this letter only to educate the leaders of Iran of what was to come, when unfortunately they’re the ones that really need the education. To not only oppose peaceful diplomacy, but to offer no other alternative besides tougher sanctions, and apparently military action is astonishingly irresponsible and naïve. Ayatollah Khamenei has said in an interview, “Isn’t this the ultimate degree of collapse of political ethics and the US system’s internal disintegration?” And the President seems to agree with him stating this is a, “good example of where the state of our politics is” and that, “it damages the country, it damages our standing, its not productive”. While these 47 Senators will certainly not be tried and jailed for violations of the Logan Act, they certainly managed to degrade the foreign standing of the United States at the nuclear negotiating table in an absolutely reckless manner. And while its one thing for a 38-year-old Senator from Arkansas to send an open letter to the Ayatollah, for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and 2008 Presidential Candidate John McCain to add their names to such a letter is indicative of a larger shoot first then aim approach the Republican Party has taken in its drive to oppose and distract President Obama.

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