WASHINGTON – Republican Sen. Tom Cotton’s letter to Iran accomplished a number of extraordinary things with, as he wrote, “the stroke of a pen.”
The Arkansas senator undercut US President Barack Obama’s authority on foreign policy matters, infuriating the White House; he prompted Hillary Clinton, a leading contender for the presidency, to speak out on the issue of Iran for the first time in months; and he inspired a response from Tehran suggesting that veteran Republican senators, by endorsing his letter, may not fully understand their own Constitution.
Perhaps most important, however, Cotton’s letter undermined his party’s chance to affect meaningful change on Iran policy through Congress, should Obama be successful in negotiating a deal with Iran over its nuclear program by the end of this month.
“The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen,” reads the letter, written by Cotton and sent with 46 other Republican signatures, “and any future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.”
The debate over whether this specific multilateral framework agreement – which would temporarily cap, restrict, monitor and partially roll back Iran’s nuclear work – ultimately pits hypotheticals against counterfactuals.
Hypothetically, the Obama administration says, Iran will be a different country in a decade, when key provisions of the deal will sunset. Tehran’s current leadership is old; its people are young and anxious for growth; and no matter the circumstances, it would never accept a deal that broadly dismantles its nuclear infrastructure.
Hypothetically, officials say, Iran will abide by the deal for its entire duration, putting more time on the clock than US military action against its nuclear facilities ever could.
But if only negotiations had begun with more pressure valves in place, say Israel and its allies on Capitol Hill, the Islamic Republic may have conceded more of its program in exchange for quicker sanctions relief. If only the threat of additional sanctions loomed, Iran would be negotiating under greater fear of the costs of diplomatic failure.
This policy debate is not inherently partisan.
Democrats fall on each side, and at least one Republican candidate for president, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, supports the president’s diplomatic effort in its current form and opposed additional sanctions during the negotiating period. “Reasonable people can disagree,” Clinton said in a tumultuous press conference on Tuesday in New York.
Many senators have established fierce positions on specific, highly technical provisions within the deal itself. Some of the president’s harshest critics are Senate Democrats, otherwise advocates of his White House.
So what has converted this legitimate policy debate into a partisan circus? The answer goes to the heart of US politics: In the pursuit of policy victories, partisanship benefits specific players in the debate. Partisanship is not a natural byproduct of the moment, but an intentional effort stoked by invested parties.
Republicans find themselves divided between conflicting priorities. They can engage in symbolic, instinctual and largely ineffective actions against the president on his Iran policy for grassroots and fund-raising support;
or they can engage in a longer, quieter game, building the coalition with Democrats necessary to ultimately disapprove of a deal.
One is a political goal; the other is a specific policy goal.
GOP leaders claim their policy goal is to prevent the current Iran deal from moving forward. But in order to stop it, Congress will have to overcome four difficult votes, including two guaranteed presidential vetoes requiring substantial Democratic opposition to their president as both parties enter an election year.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) has proposed a bill, with bipartisan co-sponsorship, that would allow Congress to review any deal agreed upon by the US.
Within 60 days of its passage, Congress would vote not on the deal itself, but on whether the legislature will participate by easing, lifting or repealing its own congressionally mandated nuclear sanctions against Iran.
“Corker’s focus is on getting a veto-proof majority to support his bipartisan bill for congressional review of any comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran,” one aide to the senator said.
On Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the deal under discussion would not require action from Congress for “quite some time.”
But a bipartisan vote of disapproval would make US enforcement of the deal nearly impossible, and would make it difficult for any presidential contender from either party to support the agreement.
“We all must judge any final agreement on its merits,” Clinton said on Tuesday, with emphasis on “all.”
Thus, overtly partisan actions – such as 47 Republicans penning a letter to Iran, warning against Washington’s commitment to a deal – directly undermine any prospective vote that may actually affect whether or not such a deal proceeds.
Preparing for such a debate, the White House also issued a similar warning to Cotton and his colleagues as they did to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to Washington last week.
“If talks collapse because of congressional intervention, the US will be blamed, leaving us with the worst of all worlds,” Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement on Monday night, scolding Republicans for sending the letter.
“Iran’s nuclear program, currently frozen, would race forward again,” Biden continued. “We would lack the international unity necessary just to enforce existing sanctions, let alone put in place new ones. Without diplomacy or increased pressure, the need to resort to military force becomes much more likely – at a time when our forces are already engaged in the fight against Islamic State.”
In September 2013, the Obama administration learned an important lesson: Unanimous support among Washington’s foreign policy community, in favor of a punitive strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad for the use of chemical weapons against innocents, was not enough to secure majority support for a bill authorizing the use of force.
Two years on, The White House now warns of only one alternative to their proposed deal with Tehran: A slide into real, orthodox war, with consequences beyond those experienced by the American people in several decades.
Their choice cast as war and peace, Republicans may struggle to make their case to the American people.
Democrats are more likely to hesitate before breaking with their president.
No one forced Republicans to draft, send or publish this letter – and any damage resulting from their actions is self-inflicted. But in pursuing a strategy of partisanship, division may lead the White House to the ever-rare political conquest.
Ironically, gridlock may ultimately secure Obama his most important foreign policy achievement.