The Senate GOP’s Hail Mary Pass on Iran

Yesterday saw the publication of an open letter, signed by 47 Republican Senators and addressed to the leaders of Iran, with a simple message: any agreement you make with U.S. President Barack Obama over your nuclear program will not be worth the paper it’s written on; we can block it now or kill it once Obama is out of office.  Bloomberg journalist Josh Rogin, who broke the story, stated unequivocally that the letter is meant “to discourage the Iranian regime from signing a deal.” The letter was spearheaded by Sen. Cotton (R-AR), who has long made clear his opposition to any Iran negotiations; signers include including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

Some reports have noted that the letter is unusual or even “unprecedented.”  Others have noted that the letter may violate a U.S. law called the “Logan Act.”  That law states:

Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both. 

Back in 2007, some right-wingers accused then-House Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) of violating the Logan Act by simply meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, based on the tortuous logic that doing so represented a form of prohibited communication with a foreign government; then-House Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) wrote an article giving credence to those views while another House GOP member.

In the case of the Senate GOP letter to Iranian leaders – signed by all but 7 GOP senators – the apparent violation of the law is far clearer: The express goal of the letter is to influence the conduct of the government of Iran, in relation to the dispute with the U.S. over its nuclear program, and with the intent to defeat the White House’s effort to reach an agreement with Iran over that program.  The only “out” signers of the letter might have is that they did not actually send the letter to Iranian leaders, but rather released it as an open letter, which it could be argued does not qualify as “correspondence with” a foreign government.

There is virtually no chance GOP Senators will face legal repercussions for possibly violating U.S. law by signing this letter.  Potential political repercussions, however, are another story – at least based on the way the letter has played in the media over the past 24 hours.  It seems that even some who are skeptical about an Iran deal are appalled by the spectacle of Members of Congress openly recruiting a foreign power to undermine the U.S. president.  A case in point: The front page of today’s New York Daily News – owned by Middle East hardliner Mort Zuckerman – is dominated by one word, “TRAITORS.” The accompanying editorial, which makes clear the paper’s hostility to an Iran deal, states that, “…47 Republican U.S. senators engaged in treachery by sending a letter to the mullahs aimed at cutting the legs out from under America’s commander-in-chief… They are an embarrassment to the Senate and to the nation.”  And this morning, the list of top 10 trending topics in Twitter included: #47Traitors, #IranLetter, Logan Act, and Tom Cotton. 

Iran nuclear talks have survived numerous threats from Congressional hawks thus far.  They survived efforts backed by AIPAC and the government of Israel to impose new sanctions (efforts that started with the onset of diplomacy and re-surged in recent weeks), as well as ongoing efforts to legislate a Congressional veto of any Iran deal and impose additional conditions on Iran as a requirement for U.S. implementation of a deal.  And they survived Netanyahu’s dramatics in Congress last week.  Iranian negotiators will likely see through this letter as well – as Iran’s foreign minister indicated he did yesterday, dismissing the letter in a statement that showed a greater understanding of the U.S. constitution than the letter’s signers.

The same cannot be assumed about hardliners in the Iranian government – and it is to them that this letter is addressed. In effect, this letter is a political Hail Mary pass, aimed at goading into action Iranian hardliners who, like their U.S. counterparts, prefer continued confrontation over any deal between Iran and the West. 

This brazen effort to make common cause with those who hate the U.S. the most underscores the growing panic of some, both inside and outside Congress, over the possibility that President Obama and his P5+1 partners may be on the brink of achieving a political framework agreement with Iran that the American public and most of the world (apart from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu) will welcome as a “good.”   For all their expressed concerns about a “bad” deal, this new letter demonstrates that GOP Senate hawks and their supporters today consider a “good” deal with Iran an even greater threat – and that they are prepared to pursue increasingly rash, even legally questionable, efforts to try to prevent it.