Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is pushing back hard against conservative claims that the recent Republican letter to Iranian leaders, which has infuriated the White House amid delicate nuclear talks, is akin to her 2007 visit to Syria against the wishes of the Bush administration.
The office of the House minority leader issued a scathing statement Wednesday night saying her meeting with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad was part of a bipartisan effort — conducted through the Bush administration — to encourage peace in the region, and accusing Republicans of launching a "desperate" defense of their Iran letter to mask criticisms coming from both sides of the aisle.
"The desperate hyperventilation by Republicans and conservative talkers over the intense, national backlash to this letter has caused them to search for a Democratic equivalent to the dangerous precedent set by 47 Republican Senators," said Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill. "The fact is, there is simply not one."
The letter, endorsed by all but seven Senate Republicans, is an attempt to undercut a potential nuclear deal being negotiated between Iran, the Obama administration and five other world powers — a deal the Republicans fear will leave the Iranians fully capable of manufacturing nuclear weapons. The Republicans, who are pushing instead for tougher sanctions, warned Iranian leaders that any agreement could be abolished when Obama's term ends less than two years from now.
"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,” reads the letter, spearheaded by freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).
But the effort has drawn backlash from even a number of Republicans, who say it will only embolden the Iranians while leaving the United States in a tougher position to stifle Iran's nuclear program if the talks fail.
“I just didn’t feel that it was appropriate or productive at this point," said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). "These are tough enough negotiations as it stands, and introducing this kind of letter I didn’t think would be helpful."
Pushing back, Republicans on and off Capitol Hill have defended the letter by comparing it to Pelosi's 2007 trip to Syria.
"To those upset about #Iran letter, how did you feel when Pelosi went to Syria in 2007 to meet face to face with Assad, against WH wishes?" Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) tweeted Tuesday.
William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, piled on Wednesday, saying the letter is a "useful statement" and invoking Pelosi's Syria visit as a precedent.
"Nancy Pelosi went to see Bashar Assad in 2007," Kristol said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program. "I think that was questionable, but I didn't criticize her patriotism."
The 2007 meeting between Assad and then-Speaker Pelosi came as the Bush administration was opposed to direct talks with the Syrian leader, whose support for terrorist groups led to an official policy of diplomatic isolation.
The visit drew a sharp rebuke from conservatives in and out of the administration. Pat Buchanan, a former Republican presidential candidate, characterized it as a "thumb in the eye of the president of the United States." Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for Bush's National Security Council, said the "unilateral trip" was both "unfortunate" and "counterproductive." And then-Vice President Dick Cheney argued that such foreign policy issues are to be handled by the president, not congressional leaders.
"I think it is, in fact, bad behavior on her part," Cheney told Rush Limbaugh at the time. "She doesn't represent the administration. The president is the one who conducts foreign policy, not the Speaker of the House."
On Tuesday’s episode of “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart highlighted liberals — including Hillary Clinton and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) — who supported Pelosi’s 2007 trip but ripped the GOP’s Iran letter, as well as conservatives — such as John Bolton and Sean Hannity — who criticized Pelosi’s trip but praised today’s Senate Republicans.
Hammill emphasized Wednesday that Pelosi's delegation included then-Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), a senior defense appropriator; it was preceded just days earlier by a similar visit to Damascus by GOP Reps. Joe Pitts (Pa.), Robert Aderholt (Ala.) and former GOP Rep. Frank Wolf (Va.). And Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.) met with Assad just a day after Pelosi did — a meeting that led Johndroe to comment, "We just don't think this is helpful."
While Pelosi was the most senior U.S. representative, Hammill also noted that she coordinated the visit with support from the administration.
"This visit was organized by the Bush State Department, executed by the Bush Defense Department, and officials from the Bush Administration's Embassy at the time in Damascus even sat in the meeting with President Assad," Hammill said. "As Republican Congressman David Hobson said at the time about the delegation's visit to Syria, 'I think we actually helped the administration's position by showing there's not dissension.'
"The comparison between the Republican Senator letter to Iran and Leader's Pelosi bipartisan delegation to the Middle East in 2007 does not stand up to any level of scrutiny," he charged.
—This report was updated on March 12 at 9:25 a.m.