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A.B. Stoddard: A big mistake on Iran

Torpedoing a bipartisan, veto-proof majority to cement Congress’s role in a deal with Iran, undercutting pledges of the new GOP majority in the Senate to govern and undermining a future Republican president — these probably weren’t freshman Sen. Tom Cotton’s (R-Ark.) goals with his open letter to the leaders of Iran. 

But some or all of these will be the result.

{mosads}Dissenters have now agreed publicly that the letter was a dumb idea. Even some who signed it lament that it perhaps was an error. Cotton might have realized when Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said no thanks that the letter would be counterproductive, not just controversial. Corker, working to round up enough Democratic votes to override a presidential veto of legislation requiring any deal to be submitted to Congress for a 60-day review, has spoken openly about how the letter hampers his efforts. One can only imagine what he told Cotton behind closed doors.

What the letter, signed by 46 other Republican senators but no Democrats, said was partly true. Should the White House bypass the U.S. Congress, “the next president could revoke such an executive agreement with a stroke of a pen and future congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.” Sounds like a great talking point for the Sunday shows or an op-ed in a newspaper, all of which would have been digested by every key party in Iran, from the supreme leader down to the body men of those negotiating the specifics. 

Instead, Cotton’s snarky letter sparked a backlash not only from the president, the vice president, congressional Democrats and the foreign policy community, it shifted the debate from the substance of a deal to tactics that portray the United States as so woefully divided that its leaders are willing to circumvent and embarrass one another. The letter was especially tone-deaf because it came just days after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell attempted to put Corker’s bill up for a vote — before the March 24 deadline for the framework of a deal — but pulled it after Democrats planning to vote for it accused him of using the issue for political gain.

This breach of protocol is hardly the first. Democrats, and other Republicans, have long interfered with the foreign policy moves of presidents from the opposing party. These 47 Republicans are not traitors, and probably didn’t violate the Logan Act of 1799. Moreover, President Obama’s refusal to engage Congress on the terms of the deal with Iran is wrong. Republicans concerned about the deal, and the Democrats who agree with them, are justifiably frustrated that they are being shut out. On Fox News Channel’s “On The Record,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said of the letter: “Maybe that wasn’t exactly the best way to do that, but I think that the Iranians should know that, that the Congress of the United States has to play a role.”

This cheap mistake surely, in even a small way, jeopardized the odds of getting the strongest deal possible with Iran and, more importantly, making sure Iran — not the United States — shoulders the blame for failure to reach one. Heaping wrong upon wrong cannot help our efforts to prevent a nuclear Iran. The Cotton letter not only threatens the deal but our relations with the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council that the United States is counting on to continue multilateral sanctions against Iran. It also promises to inspire the worst behavior from the left of the Democratic Party next time there is a Republican in the White House. 

Maybe Cotton the rookie didn’t know better, but many of his 46 co-signers did. They should have stopped him.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.

Tags Bob Corker Iran John McCain Mitch McConnell Republican Party Tom Cotton
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