Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

GOP senators don 'Kick me" sign; Iranian official obliges

Forty-seven Republican senators have signed onto a remarkable letter to Iran's leadership, in which they warn that the United States could and probably would break any deal that is reached by President Obama as soon as 2017, when a new president takes office.**

Content and motive aside, the letter itself drips with insulting condescension.

"It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system," the letter lectures right from the opening sentence. After pointing out that Obama leaves office in 2017, the senators remind Iran's leaders that "most of us will remain in office well beyond then, perhaps decades," and that they would consider a deal "nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei," rather than an agreement between countries.

The senators conclude with the hope that "this letter enriches your knowledge of our constitutional system and promotes mutual understanding and clarity as nuclear negotiations continue."

In short, the letter is a clear effort to sabotage the talks. It is an effort to make a negotiated settlement with Iran impossible, a step that would leave war and occupation as the only remaining, effective option to deny Iran a nuclear capability. For those reasons and more, it is perhaps the single most irresponsible step yet taken by this generation's Republican congressional leadership, and I say that fully cognizant of the competition for that honor.

Let's play along. Let's suppose it's 2017, an agreement with Iran is in place and working well, inspections are being carried out, Iran is living up to its end of the bargain, etc. At that point, a newly inaugurated President Cruz or President Rubio will announce "deal's off!" Suddenly, Iran is now free to resume its nuclear program? Suddenly, the other five major powers that have helped to enforce harsh sanctions against Iran and that worked hard to negotiate this deal are going to accept that the United States has broken its word?

How foolish are these people?

This afternoon, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded to the letter, and his reaction is priceless. He has dealt with hardliners in his own government who are just as avid as the Republican senators about refusing negotiation and demanding conflict, so he knows the game pretty well.

In a statement released today through the Iranians Mehr News Agency, Zarif called the letter "unprecedented in diplomatic history." ".... the authors not only do not understand international law, but are not fully cognizant of the nuances of their own Constitution when it comes to presidential powers in the conduct of foreign policy," Zarif told them.

It continues, quoting Zarif:

"I should bring one important point to the attention of the authors and that is, the world is not the United States, and the conduct of inter-state relations is governed by international law, and not by US domestic law. The authors may not fully understand that in international law, governments represent the entirety of their respective states, are responsible for the conduct of foreign affairs, are required to fulfill the obligations they undertake with other states and may not invoke their internal law as justification for failure to perform their international obligations.”

The Iranian Foreign Minister added that “change of administration does not in any way relieve the next administration from international obligations undertaken by its predecessor in a possible agreement about Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.” He continued “I wish to enlighten the authors that if the next administration revokes any agreement with ‘the stroke of a pen,’ as they boast, it will have simply committed a blatant violation of international law.” He emphasized that if the current negotiation with the 5+1 results in a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, it will not be a bilateral agreement between Iran and the US, but rather one that will be concluded with the participation of five other countries, including all permanent members of the Security Council, and will also be endorsed by a Security Council resolution.

Zarif expressed hope that his comments “may enrich the knowledge of the authors to recognize that according to international law, Congress may not ‘modify the terms of the agreement at any time’ as they claim, and if Congress adopts any measure to impede its implementation, it will have committed a material breach of US obligations.”

The Foreign Minister also informed the authors that (the) majority of US international agreements in recent decades are in fact what the signatories describe as “mere executive agreements” and not treaties ratified by the Senate. He reminded them that “their letter in fact undermines the credibility of thousands of such ‘mere executive agreements’ that have been or will be entered into by the US with various other governments.”

Zarif concluded by stating that “the Islamic Republic of Iran has entered these negotiations in good faith and with the political will to reach an agreement, and it is imperative for our counterparts to prove similar good faith and political will in order to make an agreement possible.”

Ordinarily, I wouldn't want to side with an Iranian official over American elected officials, but I'll make an exception in this case:  Those 47 senators got themselves thoroughly and deservedly schooled. This is why you don't send amateurs out to conduct diplomacy; this is why cowboys may be great at rounding up cattle, but terrible at foreign policy.


** It's important to recognize those GOP senators who refused to attach their names to such a folly, because they deserve credit for their good sense. Many if not most of them may still disagree with Obama's policies, but they are smart enough and honorable enough to know how and where those disagreements should be aired. They are:  Jeff Flake of Arizona; Lisa Murkowski of Alaska; Lamar Alexander of Tennessee; Dan Coats of Indiana; Thad Cochran of Mississippi; Susan Collins of Maine; Bob Corker of Tennessee.

No Georgians made the list.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.