Undiplomatic cables

In their determination to prevent a nuclear agreement with Iran, Republican Senators are sacrificing their ability to direct events should negotiations fail.

Diplomatic discussions between the P5+1 Iran are taking place in Geneva this week. As the negotiators reconvene, the partisan wrangling in Washington over the administration’s diplomatic efforts is taking on an increasingly embittered tone. Last week, forty-seven Republican Senators signed an open letter to Iran, drafted by Senator Tom Cotton, which drew attention to the limited effect that a negotiated agreement will have if not supported by the US Congress. Such an intervention, which represents an increasingly assertive effort to derail any agreement ahead of the 31 March deadline, drew a hostile reaction from administration officials. Criticising the Senate signatories, Vice President Biden claimed that signatories’ actions were ‘beneath the dignity of an institution I revere’.

A missed opportunity

The detrimental effect of the letter have been largely exaggerated. For instance, accusations of constitutional overreach and violation of the Logan Act, which forbids those without official standing from negotiating with foreign governments, are greatly misplaced. The Senate’s formal constitutional powers include the right to ratify treaties, declare war, and confirm ambassadors. Moreover, in the post-Watergate era Congress has shown an increasing willingness to actively set foreign policy through use of its budgetary authority. Congress brought America’s involvement in Vietnam to a de facto end in 1975 when it refused to authorise continued financial assistance to the South. To this day, designating specific uses for authorized funds curtails the administration’s freedom in any number of arenas. A key cause of President Obama’s inability to fulfil his pledge to close Guantanamo Bay is the fact that no money has been approved for the transfer of detainees. Compared to the exercise of such formal measures, the publication of open letters is of negligible significance.

Nevertheless, a degree of logic underpinned a statement akin to the one published by the Senators. The Iranian negotiators’ belief that agreeing the terms of a comprehensive agreement should trigger wide-ranging sanctions relief – as opposed to phased elimination of its enrichment capability - proved a significant barrier to progress at the Vienna talks last November. If a deal is to be reached, Tehran must be disabused of such notions. Some statement of Congressional intent could have helped underscore the fact that President Obama is only in a position to offer so much, namely, sanctions relief in those areas in which he is afforded waiver authority by US legislation.

However, whatever benefit that might have been secured from Congressional representations has been negated by the Cotton letter’s condescending tone, which prompted an inevitably hostile reaction from Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif. Rather than seeking to prepare Tehran for the concessions it will need to make if diplomacy is to be successful, the letter was designed with the aim of positioning Republicans domestically, as the true opponents of the nuclear negotiations. Whilst Prime Minister Netanyahu Congressional address did little to change the administration’s faith in the merits of an accord, it served to galvanise the Republican Party. Most members of the caucus have come to the view that the American public shares their scepticism of any nuclear deal, raising the prospect of their firm opposition will be an electoral asset in 2016. Accordingly, being seen as the primary opponents of a deal has become as important as preventing it from being reached. Such a fact helps explain the Cotton letter’s abrasive tone – a more carefully worded text might have attracted the unwanted support of like-minded Democrats.

Counterproductive correspondence

Republican posturing of this kind is not only unnecessary, but is a disservice to their cause. Should it not prove possible to reach a mutually acceptable framework agreement by 31 March, debate will inevitably refocus on how increased pressure might lay the groundwork for a diplomatic agreement at a later date. Such debates are much more likely to be won by the advocates of pressure if a broad consensus exists on the root causes of the diplomatic failure. Yet the Republicans’ active efforts to prevent a deal from being reached open them up to the charge of having sabotaged the White House’s efforts, an accusation that will eat into the political leverage they might otherwise employed to shape a post-negotiating phase. Accordingly, their approach risks generating support for their own bête noire – a further extension in the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) – instead of a return to a policy based upon pressure.

Republican critics of the negotiations often outline their fear of being ‘out-negotiated’ by Tehran, citing Iran’s capacity to patiently endure momentary setbacks in pursuit of long term goals. Though they deploy such arguments regularly, recent developments suggest they have yet to perceive the merits of adopting such an approach themselves.


Timothy Stafford

Research Analyst, Proliferation and Nuclear Policy

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