Dead Letter: The Senate Intervenes in the Iranian Nuclear Negotiation

The controversial letter written by freshman Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton and signed by 46 of his colleagues to the leadership of Iran represents an unprecedented and unwelcome development in what has become yet another highly politicized issue in Washington. Yet while the direct intervention of GOP legislators into the diplomatic process may have negative implications for reaching a comprehensive negotiated settlement with Iran that prevents Tehran from building a nuclear weapon and subjects its remaining civilian program to strict international oversight, the longer-term consequences may be even more severe. The letter not only represents a clear overreach of Congressional authority into the purview of the Executive Branch, eroding prudent and useful Constitutional boundaries, but also dramatically undermines the capacity of the president and his designated representatives to effectively negotiate and bargain with foreign powers moving forward.

Throughout the history of U.S. foreign policy, the ideal that politics stops at the water's edge has never been as obvious in practice, but the Iran letter does represent something different. As the Constitution set out, the Executive Branch was responsible for negotiating treaties and agreements with other states, and Congress was empowered to approve them (or not) through the ratification process. But what was assumed in this particular separation of powers was the need for diplomacy and the delicate, complicated, and difficult negotiations that it entails, to be carried out in secrecy and with discretion. Finding political outcomes that are mutually acceptable to various relevant parties often takes a great deal of talking and the consideration of wide range of points of view, preferences, and concerns. Many of these may be politically controversial and specific domestic audiences or interest groups may recoil if they knew certain issues were under negotiation. Certainly, a bad deal on its merits would have to survive the harsh judgment of public scrutiny upon the conclusion of negotiations, and at this time, it would be wholly appropriate for Republicans in Congress to object to an agreement that they viewed as fundamentally flawed and contrary to U.S. national security.

However, rather than wait to respond to the outcome of the negotiations, the Iran letter is a direct insertion of the Senate Republicans into the negotiation process. The letter is effectively a threat: the agreement will have little effect on future U.S. policy and can be easily overturned regardless of its merits. And this is not simply some convoluted attempt to play "bad cop" in order to leverage the Iranian regime to accept stronger limitations on its nuclear program. Instead, it sends the clear signal that even major concessions by Iran may not be enough for the Republican majority in the United States Congress to accept. In fact, even a complete Iranian "surrender" on the nuclear issue (foregoing even a civilian program) may not be sufficient for a lifting of U.S. sanctions or any reduction in tensions or improvement in basic relations. In reality, most of the signatories would prefer "no deal" over any agreement that allowed even a heavily-monitored and constrained civilian nuclear program. This is their attempt to avoid such a deal from being achieved. The status quo or a world with more sanctions on Iran and the growing likelihood of a military conflict is actually their preferred outcome. They should be upfront, clear, and honest with their constituents about those preferences.

The fundamental problem with their logic, however, is that this is not a bilateral negotiation. The Obama administration, particularly Secretary of State John Kerry, has worked tirelessly on this issue along with counterparts from the so-called P5+1, or the other Permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China) and Germany. The process has been difficult, which is unsurprising given the troubled relationship between the United States and Iran and the numerous issues upon which serious disagreements remain. However, the Senate letter risks showing the United States as a bad faith actor, which may not only serve to stiffen Iranian defiance against a deal, but also may seriously undermine relations with its friends and allies. The sanctions that many Republicans assume will be in place or intensified in the wake of a breakdown in negotiations are unlikely to be effective without cooperation from America's partners. Thus the letter may actually undermine the preferred GOP policy outcome and weaken the unified front that Tehran currently faces. In the longer-term, the Senate letter sets the precedent that opposition parties can actively interfere in negotiations they dislike, introducing a troubling level of uncertainty into future negotiations that could be debilitating to American diplomacy.

While many of these same leaders have criticized the Obama administration for allowing the perception of a "weak" America to grow over the past few years, they have done more in one act to perpetuate the more appropriate and troubling perception of the United States: it is no longer able to govern itself, and partisan dysfunction has hobbled the world's greatest power. The Netanyahu speech was a troubling precursor, the Senate letter is a concrete and damaging act. While politics may not have ever truly stopped at the water's edge, it is now clear that there are no longer any issues -- even those related to the national security and well-being of the United States -- that cannot be politicized. But rather than merely undermine the good governance and development of sound policy within this country, such actions threaten to fundamentally erode the standing of the presidency and its ability to effectively conduct foreign policy, and may ultimately damage the standing of the United States in the world.