(AP/Danny Johnston)

Tea Party's nuclear sabotage: Why Tom Cotton is sending Schoolhouse Rock letters to Iran

Sen. Tom Cotton and other GOPers want Iran to know that they will blow up any nuclear deal. Here's their plan


Jim Newell
March 9, 2015 8:41PM (UTC)

Congressional efforts to impose new sanctions on Iran and grant Congress review authority over a deal have been temporarily delayed until at least March 24, the deadline for negotiators to agree to a political framework. For this we can largely thank Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu for inadvertently knocking Democratic Senators back to their senses. The Obama administration and fellow P5+1 negotiators can now spend the next couple of weeks tidying up that framework without having to worry about meddling from "the most important legislative body in the world."

Just kidding, the meddling hasn't stopped. Republican Senators are now trying to scuttle nuclear negotiations with Iran by writing them hilarious letters.

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I'm so old that I can remember when writing letters to Iranian leaders was considered treason. The only communiqués that Iranian leaders deserve from the Greatest Country in the History of the World is a swift kick in the groin!, etc. etc. But that letter that President Obama sent to Ayatollah Khamenei, regarding the fight against ISIS, was a secret private letter. The one "organized" by freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Weekly Standard), as Bloomberg's Josh Rogin reports, is an "Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republican of Iran." And "open letter" is politics-speak for "stunt."

The letter, signed by 47 Republican senators and dated March 9, offers Iranian leaders a little lesson in the Constitution -- or, as it's pronounced triumphantly and constantly at places like the Conservative Political Action Conference, DA CONSTERTITION:

It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system. Thus, we are writing to bring to your attention two features of our Constitution--the power to make binding international agreements and the different character of federal offices--which you should seriously consider as negotiations progress.

First, under our Constitution, while the president negotiates international agreements, Congress plays the significant role of ratifying them. In the case of a treaty, the Senate must ratify it by a two-thirds vote. A so-called congressional-executive agreement requires a majority vote in both the House and the Senate (which, because of procedural rules, effectively means a three-fifths vote int he Senate). Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement.

I'm not sure how it "came to [their] attention" that Iran's leaders don't understand this. Iran must be perfectly aware that the United States has a Congress that is constantly punching itself in the face, and Iran's own hawks are relying on the likes of Tom Cotton & Co. to invoke their constitutional powers to push the United States out of any international agreement that's been reached. That way Iran can continue its nuclear program uninterrupted and blame the collapse of diplomacy on dysfunction within the United States government, and it will be correct.

Second, the offices of our Constitution have different characteristics. For example, the president may serve only two 4-year terms, whereas senators may serve an unlimited number of 6-year terms. 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.

Getting a little presumptuous, aren't we, senators? Unfortunately, ugh, probably not. Tom Cotton and most of the senators who signed off on this Schoolhouse Rock letter will be in the Senate for decades. That's one of the many joys of our beloved Constitution: presidents come and go, but bloviating senators are forever.

What these two constitutional provisions mean is that we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.

Again, we think that the senators underestimate Iran's knowledge of American government. Along with these basics, Iran also probably knows that another GOP presidential nominating cycle is about to begin, and those vying for the nod will be competing furiously to denounce the would-be deal in the harshest language imaginable. Not because they'll have read over the particulars or weighed pros and cons, but because "denouncing diplomacy with Iran" -- or really just "denouncing diplomacy" -- plays well in the context of GOP presidential politics. Consider just two of the many recent examples. Here is a funny video of Rick Perry denouncing any nook-ya-ler deal with Iran. He has no idea what he's talking about, but that's never stopped him before and it's not going to stop him now. Here are the experts who've been briefing Scott Walker on foreign policy openly calling Scott Walker a moron who knows nothing -- except that badmouthing any sort of engagement with Iran is a real winner in the primary focus groups.

The GOP's reflexive political hostility to the Obama administration and the concept of diplomacy offers their de facto allies, the Iranian hardliners, plenty of options. They could urge the Iranian foreign minister to go ahead with a deal, knowing that Republicans, either now in Congress or whenever they retake the presidency, will stymie it, and Iran can play the victim. Or they can use this open letter as evidence that the United States doesn't intend to follow through on a deal and walk away before a deal is reached. Either way, the hawks in both Iran and United States are making great progress together towards their millennialist goal of immanentizing a grand showdown between Iran and the West. The problem isn't that Iran doesn't understand American politics, it's that they understand it and its many incentives for dysfunction too well.

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Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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