A U.S. War With Iran: Did Republicans Just Increase the Odds?

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Before the United States sits down with Iran to discuss its nuclear program, President Barack Obama may be wise to sit down with Congress for a separate peace talk — based on the latest letter from Republicans. Unfortunately, there comes a time when this level of polarization and conflict within our two-party system makes America not just a frustrated and slow political body, but a nation that appears extremely weak to outside forces by nature of its indecision and in-fighting.

What led up to the current situation?

Iran has been the latest impetus behind squabbling between the executive and legislative branch, but hardly the first or only issue to pit the two sides against each other. On March 3, 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came and spoke to Congress on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program and the upcoming negotiations between the president’s administration and Iran. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) invited Netanyahu to speak to Congress without consulting with Obama or involving him in the process, which was the first step toward conflict. Netanyahu accepted and came to speak before Congress on behalf of Israel’s interests — in part because he’s down in the polls and has an upcoming election, and in part because he is looking for another way to foster reluctance in negotiations with Iran.

He warned that this kind of negotiation would only be harmful to international security — including the safety of his home nation — and emphasizing the historical relationship shared by Israel and America. “Iran’s goons in Gaza, its lackeys in Lebanon, its revolutionary guards on the Golan Heights are clutching Israel with three tentacles of terror,” said Netanyahu, adding that nuclear weapons in Tehran “could well threaten the survival of my country.”

Republicans’ letter to Iran

Republicans in Congress have since continued along the same lone-wolf path as seen with their invitation to Netanyahu by sending a letter to Iran just as the nuclear talks were starting to get underway. The letter, published by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and signed by 46 other Republicans, is definitively threatening and very clearly undermines the president during a difficult diplomatic process; it makes it abundantly transparent that as the undersigned see it, any agreement the more lenient Obama might make with Iran needs to be agreed to by Congress. If Republicans do not agree to the negotiated terms, Obama would be forced to act alone, and the decision would have a very short lifespan. They noted that the next president might not chose to keep to these terms.

The tone of the letter is particularly insulting and patronizing, which is an impression that will not be helpful in political discussions going forward with Iran given America’s reputation for arrogance. The senators involved in the letter wrote it under the guise of informing Iran how the U.S. system of government functions, ending with “We hope this letter enriches your knowledge of our constitutional system and promotes mutual understanding and clarity as nuclear negotiations progress.”

Of course, Iran understands how the U.S. government functions, and as with any decision that Obama makes, there is always a time limit to how long his policy will stay in effect if it has not been enacted by Congress — but that is a far more complex issue when it comes to international agreements. The letter’s intention is quite obviously to warn Iran that no deal made without their consent will have longevity, and in doing so, it delegitimizes some of Obama’s talking power. The desire is to leverage a more desirable agreement by their standards, but based on the Iranian response, that seems unlikely.

Iran’s letter to Congress

Iran’s Foreign Minister, Dr. Javad Zarif, responded with a letter very much in keeping with the underhanded and patronizing style of the senators’ letter. “In our view, this letter has no legal value and is mostly a propaganda ploy,” wrote Zarif, according to the Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The MoFA reports that “Zarif expressed astonishment that some members of U.S. Congress find it appropriate to write to leaders of another country against their own President and administration,” and that “from reading the open letter, it seems that the authors not only do not understand international law, but are not fully cognizant of the nuances of their own Constitution when it comes to presidential powers in the conduct of foreign policy.”

As to the threat that a new president (i.e. a Republican one) need not hold to Obama’s agreement, Zarif stated that “[c]hange of administration does not in any way relieve the next administration from international obligations undertaken by its predecessor in a possible agreement about Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.”

Historically, even for tough issues, when it came to national security and negotiations the U.S. had usually managed to hold back from self-sabotage. Many times a party change in the executive office has not resulted in reversal of foreign policy specifically because it would delegitimize the United States in the eyes of other nations, and would make it difficult to trust any decisions made from one president to another. If America’s system of leadership changes results in major policy reversals as often as every four years, very little confidence in America’s agreements would be possible.

Vice President Joe Biden’s letter to Congress

Unsurprisingly, the Obama administration has not taken the action of Congressional members lying down. Biden published a statement in response to the letter that focused a great deal on the risk of weakening America’s reputation and the trust of other nation’s in our countries reliability.

Biden stated that the letter was “beneath the dignity of an institution I revere” and was “expressly designed to undercut a sitting President in the midst of sensitive international negotiations.” Said Biden, “This letter sends a highly misleading signal to friend and foe alike that our Commander-in-Chief cannot deliver on America’s commitments — a message that is as false as it is dangerous.” He went on to question what possible advantage the letter could have gained by obstructing negotiations. “If talks collapse because of Congressional intervention, the United States will be blamed, leaving us with the worst of all worlds. Iran’s nuclear program, currently frozen, would race forward again … Without diplomacy or increased pressure, the need to resort to military force becomes more likely,” said Biden, adding that this is poorly timed given the conflict with ISIL.

Obama, for his part, said, “I think it’s somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hard-liners in Iran. It’s an unusual coalition,” according to CNN. Senators on the Democratic side of the aisle called out their colleagues for placing stumbling blocks before future efforts to avoid armed conflict. Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Il.) published a statement saying that Republicans’ letter “weakens America’s hand and highlights our political divisions to the rest of the world. Understand that if these negotiations fail, a military response to Iran developing their nuclear capability becomes more likely.” He questioned whether or not the “political stunt” was “worth the threat of another war in the Middle East.”

Treason charges against Republicans

On the White House’s online “We the People” petition forum, a petition was created March 9 to file charges against the 47 U.S. senators in violation of The Logan Act against “conducting foreign relations without authority.” The petition seeks to charge the involved senators with treason, and had so far accrued 7,311 signatures as of March 10, 2015, with a total of 92,689 signatures needed by April 8, 2015, in order to reach the desired number.

In the past, particularly in relations with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Republicans have voiced frustration and concerns that Obama made the United States appear weak, or impotent. The latest action succeeds in doing just that, adding one more irony to the list of messy misfortune surrounding this latest partisan tiff — a tiff that could have major consequences.

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