You wouldn't know it from reading their press releases, but Iowa's U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst did something unprecedented this week. Along with 45 Republican colleagues, they signed an "Open Letter to the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran," warning that any negotiated agreement with President Barack Obama's administration will not be binding unless "approved by Congress," and therefore could be revoked by the next president.
I have been trying to imagine the uproar if Congressional Democrats had sent a letter like that to Soviet leaders when President Ronald Reagan was negotiating the START arms control treaties. The Iranian foreign minister wasn't the only one to express "astonishment that some members of US Congress find it appropriate to write to leaders of another country against their own President and administration." Vice President Joe Biden's response was scathing.
Grassley and Ernst have sent out several official comments on policy issues since Monday, none of them alluding to their extraordinary step to undermine the president's negotiations with a foreign power. When asked about the letter during their weekly press calls, they feigned surprise that the matter has spawned so much controversy.
O.Kay Henderson reported on the calls for Radio Iowa.
Senator Chuck Grassley on Tuesday said he doesn't know why the letter has become controversial.
"We want the people of Iran and the government of Iran to understand that an agreement between our president and their president...that that's just an agreement and a new president can come along and that he doesn't have to abide by that agreement," Grassley said. [...] "We don't have to do just what the president tells us to do," Grassley said.
Grassley contends any deal with Iran over its nuclear ambitions should be a formal treaty rather than just an agreement and a treaty would be subject to an up or down vote in congress.
"Now there are agreements that are legitimate, but in this particular case it ought to be treated as a treaty," Grassley said. "And we don't think the president's going to do that."
Kathie Obradovich covered the senators' excuses in latest column for the Des Moines Register:
"I don't think we are undermining the president," Ernst said during a conference call with reporters. "This was a letter addressed to Iranian officials to just basically state that whatever agreements are reached between the Iranian government and the president is not something that is likely to be followed in the future, by a future Congress or a future president."
So, to be clear, she's not trying to undermine the president but just reminding Iran and other countries that any deal he makes won't last as long as a bucket of warm spit in the desert. Glad she was able to clear that up.
Grassley also cast the letter in terms of a civics lesson. "I think it is a good idea to educate the Iranian people about the difference between an agreement, quote-unquote agreement, and a treaty under the Constitution," Grassley said in a separate media call.
He added, "Let's just raise a common-sense approach to this: What harm is it going to do? ... I haven't heard of any harm yet and if there's harm, let's deal with it at the time of the harm."
Refusing to worry about potential harm until it manifests is one definition of recklessness.
Senator Tom Cotton, who spearheaded the letter, has made clear that his goal was to undermine the president. It's sad that 47 Republican senators could not see how inappropriate their intervention was. As Vice President Biden pointed out,
Since the beginning of the Republic, Presidents have addressed sensitive and high-profile matters in negotiations that culminate in commitments, both binding and non-binding, that Congress does not approve. Under Presidents of both parties, such major shifts in American foreign policy as diplomatic recognition of the People's Republic of China, the resolution of the Iran hostage crisis, and the conclusion of the Vietnam War were all conducted without Congressional approval.
In thirty-six years in the United States Senate, I cannot recall another instance in which Senators wrote directly to advise another country-much less a longtime foreign adversary- that the President does not have the constitutional authority to reach a meaningful understanding with them. This letter sends a highly misleading signal to friend and foe alike that that our Commander-in-Chief cannot deliver on America's commitments-a message that is as false as it is dangerous.
The decision to undercut our President and circumvent our constitutional system offends me as a matter of principle. As a matter of policy, the letter and its authors have also offered no viable alternative to the diplomatic resolution with Iran that their letter seeks to undermine.
There is no perfect solution to the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program. However, a diplomatic solution that puts significant and verifiable constraints on Iran's nuclear program represents the best, most sustainable chance to ensure that America, Israel, and the world will never be menaced by a nuclear-armed Iran. This letter is designed to convince Iran's leaders not to reach such an understanding with the United States.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's comments on this affair were overshadowed by the controversy surrounding her e-mails, but her reaction is worth noting:
I want to comment on a matter in the news today regarding Iran. The president and his team are in the midst of intense negotiations. Their goal is a diplomatic solution that would close off Iran's pathways to a nuclear bomb and give us unprecedented access and insight into Iran's nuclear program.
Now, reasonable people can disagree about what exactly it will take to accomplish this objective, and we all must judge any final agreement on its merits.
But the recent letter from Republican senators was out of step with the best traditions of American leadership. And one has to ask, what was the purpose of this letter?
There appear to be two logical answers. Either these senators were trying to be helpful to the Iranians or harmful to the commander- in-chief in the midst of high-stakes international diplomacy. Either answer does discredit to the letters' signatories.
Meanwhile, former GOP presidential nominee Senator John McCain downplayed the letter's significance: "I saw the letter, I saw that it looked reasonable to me and I signed it, that's all. I sign lots of letters."
Words fail me, so please share your own comments in this thread.