Republicans Continue Politicizing Iran Negotiations, Offer No Constructive Alternative
Republicans Continue Politicizing Iran Negotiations, Offer No Constructive Alternative
March 16, 2015
Sen. Tom Cotton’s (R-AR) letter, signed by 46 of his Senate Republican colleagues and Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA), continued to roil the debate over the Iran nuclear negotiations this weekend. The letter, which was addressed to Iran’s leadership and condescendingly (and inaccurately) described the U.S. system of government, has been condemned as a reckless and juvenile political stunt. It has further politicized the already partisan debate at a critical moment, as P5+1 diplomats resume talks this week with Iranian negotiators in the hopes of reaching a political framework agreement. Sen. Cotton has stated that his goal is to collapse the talks, but even those who have said that they would like to play a more constructive role have offered no realistic alternatives. The legislation proposed by Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), and which some members of Congress see as a pragmatic way forward, would in fact subject an agreement to new conditions outside the scope of negotiations, compel a rushed and inconclusive review process, and delay the implementation of any agreement by two months. Congress has a critical role to play in any agreement, and some proposals for congressional oversight are reasonable, but the Republican proposals so far have been counterproductive and risk scuttling the negotiations before a deal is ever reached.
Sen. Tom Cotton’s letter was a reckless mistake but Senate Republicans are standing by it, further politicizing Congress’ efforts to weigh in on a potential agreement.
The letter, along with other recent actions by congressional Republicans, is polarizing the debate and making diplomacy an increasingly partisan issue. Editorial boards across the country have condemned the letter, and public opinion polls have found that a large plurality of Americans, as well as political insiders, think the move was inappropriate. “Since when does almost half the United States Senate pull a Dennis Rodman and engage in homebrew diplomacy with a dangerous regime behind the President’s back?” an anonymous member of the “Politico Caucus” asked. What has become increasingly clear over the past week is that the letter, in addition to being sophomoric and factually incorrect, was a partisan political stunt. As Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) said yesterday, “This was going to be a sense of the Senate…you would think it would try to be as bipartisan as possible,” but according to reports, no Democrats were asked to sign the letter. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told Politico last week that he signed as a result of his frustration after trying to form bipartisan support for Sen. Corker’s proposed legislation. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) reiterated his support for the letter yesterday, saying “I signed the letter. I don’t think it was a mistake…I thought it was entirely appropriate.” It has been framed by Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) as a litmus test for Republican presidential candidates. The Cotton letter follows on the heels of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress, another bit of cynical partisan theater by the Republican leadership. Sen. Cotton and his 46 colleagues have made clear that the Republican Party is not interested in bipartisan legislation to ensure a good deal. [Mitch McConnell, 3/15/15]
The reckless political stunt is detrimental to the talks and promotes Sen. Cotton’s stated goal of collapsing the talks. The signatories of the Cotton letter aren’t interested in ensuring a good deal; they want to prevent any deal. Sen. Cotton said so outright in January, telling a conference at the Heritage Institute, “The end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of congressional action. It is very much an intended consequence, a feature, not a bug, so to speak.” On Face the Nation yesterday, Sen. Cotton reiterated the goal of his letter, claiming the Iranians were “bluffing.” “The Iranians frequently bluff to walk away from the table,” he said. “If they bluff this week, call their bluff.” Sen. Cotton’s letter has weakened the ability of U.S. diplomats to reach an agreement, and he is pushing Iran away from negotiations and a deal that would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. He seems wholly unconcerned that his actions have strengthened the hand of Iranian hardliners who would welcome the collapse of the talks and would pin the blame on the United States, threatening to unravel the international sanctions regime. As George Perkovich, Director of Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explained recently, if diplomacy fails, “Iran could then resume the nuclear fuel-cycle activities that the world has found so threatening. If that happened, and if the Iranians could make a compelling case that the United States, not they, sabotaged diplomacy, it’s possible other key countries such as Russia, China, Turkey, and India would stop enforcing sanctions on Iran. In other words, if there is no deal, there will be a contest over who is to blame. If Iran wins that contest among key audiences, by blaming Israel and the U.S. Congress, the situation could become more dire than it has been in many years.” [Tom Cotton, 1/13/15 and 3/16/15. George Perkovich, 3/4/15]
Sen. Bob Corker’s proposed legislation would subject an agreement to new conditions and delay its implementation; it’s an unnecessary deal-killing bill, not a more pragmatic approach.
Some members of the Senate don’t seem to understand the damaging effect the Corker bill would have on a potential agreement. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), a cosponsor and outspoken defender of the bill, said on Meet the Press yesterday that “there’s no reason to wait till June on our bill. All our bill does is sets up the process under which Congress reviews a deal. And here’s what it does. If the White House gives sanctions relief under executive sanctions, they have complete authority to do that without Congress. If they want to give international sanctions relief and can convince partners to do that, they can do that without Congress. Only when they touch the congressional sanctions must Congress get involved. And we have a 60-day period either to approve the congressional sanctions relief, to disapprove it, or take no action and no action is defined as approval.” But as Edward Levine, who sits on the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation National Advisory Board, noted when Sen. Corker’s bill was proposed, the legislation goes far beyond that. In fact, it would delay the implementation of an agreement by two months, while Congress and the Administration go through a rushed process to vet the deal and Iranian compliance. It would subject an agreement to conditions that were outside the scope of the negotiations, including Iranian research and development programs and possible terrorist financing. It would also demand that the State Department submit a “verification assessment report” after five days. “Verification assessment reports simply are not completed in 5 days; you would be very lucky to get a cogent report in 5 weeks,” Levine writes. Simply put, the Corker bill is rushed and unnecessary at this point. “Congress can pass a law undoing an international agreement whenever it has the votes. It may be unwise; it may undermine the world’s respect for international law and for the United States. But Congress does not require Senator Corker’s bill to stop implementation of an Iran nuclear agreement…its major impact would be to remind the world that the United States might not fulfill its obligations under the agreement.” [Edward Levine, 3/15]
With these extreme flaws in mind, the Administration is asking senators not to support this deal-killing legislation. President Obama’s Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, wrote to Sen. Corker on Saturday night, stating that “the legislation you have introduced in the Senate goes well beyond ensuring that Congress has a role to play in any deal with Iran. Instead, the legislation would potentially prevent any deal from succeeding…We believe that the legislation would likely have a profoundly negative impact on the ongoing negotiations – emboldening Iranian hard-liners; inviting a counter-productive response from the Iranian majiles [sic]; differentiating the U.S. position from our allies in the negotiations; and once again calling into question our ability to negotiate this deal…The Administration’s request to the Congress is simple: let us complete the negotiations before the Congress acts on legislation.” [Denis McDonough, 3/14/15]
Congress can and should play a constructive role in the negotiations. In his letter, McDonough notes that the Administration expects and supports Congress’ role in considering an agreement. “The Administration is committed to sharing the details and technical documents related to a long-term comprehensive deal with Congress,” he writes. “We will aggressively seek public and congressional support for a deal – if we reach one – because we believe a good deal is far better than the alternatives available to the United States.” And as Levine noted in his analysis of the Corker bill, some congressional proposals would be a positive addition to an agreement. “[Much] of the required report makes sense,” Levine writes, and with regards to mandated reporting on Iran’s compliance with an agreement, he notes that “The mandated assumptions are good ones, commonly required when the Senate considers an arms control treaty; and the State Department and the intelligence community have been considering these questions ever since the negotiations began. But it’s not possible to answer them before the agreement’s verification provisions are agreed to, and it’s impossible to determine the verification provisions before you have agreement on what is to be verified.” There is a constructive role for Congress to play as an agreement with Iran takes shape – but the Corker bill isn’t it. [Denis McDonough, 3/14/15. Edward Levine, 3/15]