By William Beecher
The ham-fisted letter by 47 Republican Senators to Iranian leaders about the negotiation to curb their nuclear weapons program was from many perspectives ill-conceived and counter-productive. But, ironically, it might serve a very positive and productive purpose. It all depends on how it is interpreted in Tehran.
From an American point of view, the best face that can be put on the letter was that it was motivated to persuade Iran to offer terms to President Obama that are not only acceptable to him, but also to the Senate of the United States, including members of both parties. The worst interpretation, pounced on by the White House and some U.S. allies, is that it was a gross attempt to scuttle the arms talks.
The letter argued that the Iranians should be put on notice that, if they insist on terms that Republicans in particular regard as contrary to U.S. national interests, then the next president and congress could easily—with the “stroke of a pen”–vitiate the executive agreement, since it would not have the constitutional standing of a treaty.
Contrary to many critics of the letter, there is precedent for such action. A controversial arms control agreement with North Korea, negotiated by the administration of President Bill Clinton, was torn up by President George W. Bush on the basis that Pyongyang was blatantly cheating. It was not a treaty either. Just as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif described the letter from Senate Republicans earlier this week, Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini dismissed the missive at the time as “propaganda.”
It is anyone’s guess whether, if terms can be agreed among the parties, that the Ayatollah will accept a nuclear deal or scotch it. Assuming terms can be agreed, Khomeini now is in a position to blame the Republicans for his rejection. Similarly, President Obama is now in a position, should talks fail to achieve closure, to also blame Republican interference, rather than failure on the part if his negotiators to be persuasive at the bargaining table.
In either of those two cases, it might be difficult either for the Senate to impose tougher economic sanctions, or for many trading partners to observe even the current sanctions. However, recall that when President Bush sent forces into Iraq to go after Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, suddenly Tehran put all of its nuclear weapons activities on hold. Assumedly, they were fearful that the U.S. might put Iran next on its invasion list.
If hardliners in Tehran interpret the Republican letter as an effort to scuttle the talks in order to open the way for military action, they conceivably could decide that even a diplomatic agreement less favorable for Iran would be preferable to facing two or three months of heavy bombing by the U.S. and Israel. Sure, Iran would be in a position thereafter to try to reconstitute the program it insists doesn’t exist, but only after having suffered colossal damage to existing infrastructure at a cost of many billions of dollars over a decade or more.
On the assumption that the Republicans might conceivably win the next presidential election and that war would be a more likely option, then it might be advisable for Iranian policy-makers to offer an agreement than is less-than-ideal from their point of view.
William Beecher is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington correspondent for The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. He is also a former Assistant Secretary of Defense and an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland.
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