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The Iran Letter: Explaining the Joke

By now everyone’s familiar with the infamous and outrageously embarrassing open letter signed by forty-seven Republican senators that condescendingly warns Iran that any nuclear agreement it reaches with the West will die once Obama is out of office. It not only seeks to undermine substantive negotiations with Iran; it may also be illegal.

The letter didn’t go over too well. Politico has reported that Republican Senators who refused to sign the letter are worried about it backfiring. There’s a petition calling for the prosecution of the people who did sign it. In an inevitable walk-back, some Republicans are even saying the whole thing was just “a ‘cheeky’ reminder of the congressional branch’s prerogatives,” complaining that “the administration has no sense of humor.” And they’re right that it’s a joke, in the colloquial sense of the word.

But the letter isn’t just damaging because it propagates an idiotic and dangerous policy; it’s also damaging, specifically, for Senate Republicans. The letter undermines their group’s credibility in at least three significant ways: it’s technically flawed, it subverts Rand Paul’s non-interventionist bona fides, and it gives the appearance of Republicans being fair-weather friends to our allies.

The tone of the letter is snide. Its organizing principal is that the Iranians “may not fully understand our constitutional system,” and then goes on to pedantically explain that the Senate has the power to craft “binding international agreements” which they must “ratify with a two-thirds vote.” The only thing is, that’s not true. The Senate does not ratify treaties. It takes up a resolution of ratification, in which it gives advice and consent to the President. Law professor Jack Goldsmith at Lawfareblog directs us to this 2001 CRS Report on the Senate’s role in crafting international treaties, which states that it is “the President who negotiates and ultimately ratifies treaties for the United States, but only if the Senate in the intervening period gives its advice and consent.” It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. And it indicates Senate Republicans don’t fully understand their jobs.

The letter also undermines the credibility of the group’s sole non-hawk presidential hopeful. As Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has gained clout and notoriety, he’s struggled to remain faithful to a foreign policy based on restraint. As The Hill recently reported, Paul’s dovish inclinations have been on the decline lately. In his rush to distance himself from being labeled an isolationist, he has supported strikes against ISIS, and has been “changing his tone on Israeli aid in the last few months.”

It may be true that in order to win the Republican nomination, you need to baptize yourself with blood, and learn to foam at the mouth a bit. But it’s sad to see this loony pol give up one of the only substantive things that set him apart from not just other Republicans, but many Democrats as well. Paul signing the Iran letter means we may have lost our chance to hear a truly diverse spectrum of foreign policy positions in the next presidential election. Barring a real progressive getting in the race as a Democrat, 2016 may be entirely composed of candidates who shoot first and ask questions later. And in signing the Iran letter, Paul has undermined his own credibility and betrayed the libertarians and conservatives who counted him as an advocate for a more level-headed foreign policy.

Perhaps the largest sense in which the Iran letter undermines Republican credibility is that it betrays our allies and international partners. Hawks love to cite “credibility” as a concern when it comes to not invading countries or selling arms or using our military—but they don’t seem to have a problem with attempting to break up an intricate treaty carefully negotiated by P5 +1. Any effort to scuttle a deal with Obama would screw over the UK, Russia, China, France, and Germany, too. A major treaty with Iran would depend on the cooperation of each of these world powers. Whatever progress that the U.S. has made with Iran so far has been a cooperative endeavor, and you can be sure that the Senate Republicans bids at undermining those efforts won’t be looked upon to kindly by foreign leadership. To people like Senators Rubio and Cotton, “credibility” might only be associated with military force, but to most people in the world, it means keeping your promises.

So, yes, the Senate Republican’s Iran letter is a joke. There simply isn’t a constitutional issue at question here. As Noah Millman writes, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), the brains behind the letter, doesn’t actually believe that President Obama doesn’t have the authority to make international agreements. Cotton supports the Budapest Memorandum, after all—which wasn’t technically a treaty, and was never formally submitted to the Senate, yet Cotton says that it obligates America to send weapons to Ukraine.

Soon, surely, the Iran letter will all blow over, and the joke will be on all the senators who signed it. But it will be one of those you-had-to-be-there kind of jokes.

*Due to a typo, in an earlier version of this post, the photo caption incorrectly identified Sen. Cotton’s home state as “AL,” rather than “AR.” It has been corrected; we regret the error.