When it comes to the nuclear talks with Iran, 47 Republican Senators want to be the referee between the Fire Department and the fire.  In an “Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” the majority of Senate Republicans informed Ayatollah Khamenei that without Congressional support, any agreement with the Obama Administration is worthless.  “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.”  The letter was authored by freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and supported by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).  Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Javid Zarif rebuked the letter.  Jack Goldsmith, a Professor at Harvard Law School who served in George W. Bush’s Justice Department, points out that the Senators’ understanding of how the Senate passes treaties is problematic.  A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 71% of the American public is skeptical the negotiations with Iran will make a difference (24% feel they will be effective).  Despite their best efforts at obstruction, Senate Republicans inadvertently made an important point: the P5+1, lead by the U.S., has a commitment problem. 


A commitment problem is when a state cannot credibly commit to follow through on its word.  More specifically, it is when one state cannot reassure another that it will not use resources gained from a bargain for military purposes.  Instead, it might break its word and attack.  This has been a main concern with respect to Iran.  It is possible Iran may renege on any agreement to demilitarize covertly.  Some fear that it will comply with any agreement long enough to strengthen its economy.  Once it gets back on its feet, it will restart its nuclear program.  Hence the heavy emphasis on intrusive inspections and measures to prevent Tehran from mastering the nuclear fuel cycle.


However, the Senate Republicans’ letter to the vilayet-e faqih raises a valid point: the U.S. has a commitment problem as well.  After all, it is impossible to predict what a future president – or congress – may or may not do. 


Some, such as Dan Drezner, have pushed back against this reasoning.  Drezner argues that even if Obama uses an Executive Agreement to end-run around Congress, future presidents and congresses have incentives to comply – even if they don’t like it.  First, abrogating such an agreement would damage the U.S.’ reputation.  Second, it would damage the next president’s ability to make effective executive agreements. 


So, how much would a president suffer for backing out of his (or her) predecessors’ agreements? 


Although this has not been explicitly tested (to the best of my knowledge), the debate over audience costs has been instructive.  Audience costs are the political sanctions leaders suffer for breaking their commitments.  Much of this literature has focused on backing down from threats to use force in crises.  Matthew Levendusky and Michael Horowitz at the University of Pennsylvania found in a survey experiment that presidents could leverage their informational advantage over the public and congress to minimize the costs of backing down.  Case study research has made similar findings. 


However, even more instructive to this debate is the case of the “Nixon Shock,” or the closing of the Gold Window in 1971.  The U.S. unilaterally pulled out of one of the pillars of the Bretton Woods system: dollars could be converted into gold.  The policy proved popular at home.  By 1973, a system of free-floating currencies had replaced the Gold Window.  The rest of the Bretton Woods system, which includes the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, remained intact. 


Although they have not offered an alternative of their own, Republicans in the U.S. Senate have (inadvertently) made a valid point: the U.S. faces a commitment problem when it comes to cutting a deal with Iran.  History and recent research demonstrate that presidents will not necessarily suffer domestic political punishments for reneging on agreements, either.  In order to reach an abiding deal, both the P5+1 and Iran need to address their respective commitment issues. 

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