Editorials

Letter of intent

AUTHOR: Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas drafted a letter signed by 46 other Republican senators that warned that any agreement the Obama administration strikes with Iran to limit Tehran's nuclear program may be short-lived unless Congress approves the deal.
AUTHOR: Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas drafted a letter signed by 46 other Republican senators that warned that any agreement the Obama administration strikes with Iran to limit Tehran's nuclear program may be short-lived unless Congress approves the deal. AP

The open letter to Iran by 47 Republican senators questioning the value of any agreement to freeze its nuclear program is another troubling break with precedent that threatens to undermine the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy.

The letter is little more than a mischievous attempt to throw a monkey wrench into a years-long, multinational effort to obtain a secure, verifiable agreement with Iran to stop its nuclear-weapons program through diplomacy, rather than war. It’s hard to see how Republicans can reject a deal when they know little more than the outline of the proposal that is still being worked out, especially since they have no reasonable alternative to offer.

It is one thing for the Senate to demand a say in whatever deal negotiators ultimately reach. That’s a conversation that Republican and Democratic senators need to have with the White House. They can argue that giving the Senate a chance to weigh in will make the accord both more credible and more binding. But it’s quite another thing to make an end run around President Obama to reach out directly to Iran’s leaders. That represents an irresponsible intervention into diplomatic negotiations, not to mention a transparent attempt to embarrass the president and weaken his authority.

The senators signing the letter blatantly violated a principle that well served this country throughout the Cold War: Politics stops at the water’s edge. Among the seven Senate Republicans who refused to sign was the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, who has been working with Democrats on Iran legislation and doesn’t want to spoil a bipartisan effort.

If the talks break down, the challenge would be to keep up the pressure on Iran with economic sanctions, which forced Tehran to come to the table in the first place. That will require the cooperation of Europe, Russia and China. But if the United States is blamed for the breakdown, the international sanctions regime may well collapse, to Iran’s benefit.

It’s hard to see exactly what useful objective the 47 Republican signatories to the letter were trying to achieve. According to International Atomic Energy Agency, the limitations that Iran agreed to while negotiations are underway have led to a higher level of international inspections and a sharp decline — if not elimination — of enriched uranium, at least for now. If Iran is persuaded by the letter that the proposed deal has no future, what incentive does it have to abide by those limitations any longer?

The practical effect of the letter has already been dismissed as meaningless by Iran’s leaders, who well understand the political game being played inside the Beltway and also understand that Congress can’t negotiate foreign policy. But aside from setting a bad precedent, it can also have negative practical consequences, especially if it allows Iran to blame the United States for the failure of the negotiations.

The ultimate question is how to keep Iran from achieving its goal of reaching nuclear-weapons capability. The latest round of talks represents the most successful attempt to stop Iran since the international community began working toward that goal in 2003.

It may yet fail, in which case President Obama has said he is ready to resort to other means. But negotiators should be allowed to finish the process without political interference from lawmakers who have no better solution to offer and no role in negotiating agreements with foreign powers.

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