Grassley and Ernst remarkably casual about remarkable Iran letter

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.

  • Act Like Nothing's Wrong

    Appears to be their strategy.

    Words may fail you Desmoinesdem but I have two: Racism and sedition.

    The two have combined to drive the Republicans insane.

    Between the Netanyahu incident and now this, we'd better awaken to the fact that President Obama has clearly driven them insane.

    However, Grassley, Ernst and the rest of them are confident that your  attention spans are too short to remember this next week, no nevermind 2016.

    Time for a poll of Ernst constituents?

    Question: Do you support her action signing this letter?

    Better question: Do you even understand what Ernst & Grassley just did?

    I'm cringing at the answers to both already. Gaah!

  • A long response

    I imagine that most people haven't actually read the letter, so let's begin by breaking it down.

    It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system.  Thus, we are writing to bring to your attention two features of our Constitution-the power to make binding international agreements and the different character of federal offices-which you should seriously consider as negotiations progress.

    OK.  The worst that you could say about this paragraph is that it's patronizing to the Iranian leaders.  Should Americans be fearful of criticizing the Ayatollah?  I'll be honest...I don't like the Ayatollah very much, so I don't really care if he is being patronized.

    First, under our Constitution, while the president negotiates international agreements, Congress plays the significant role of ratifying them.  In the case of a treaty, the Senate must ratify it by a two-thirds vote.  A so-called congressional-executive agreement requires a majority vote in both the House and the Senate (which, because of procedural rules, effectively means a three-fifths vote in the Senate).  Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement.

    A lot of words have been written about this paragraph.  First, the semantic error from Senator Cotton: The President officially ratifies the treaty AFTER Senate approval (advise and consent).  Factually, the wording of his letter is incorrect: Senator Cotton should have used the word "consent" instead of "ratify."  But to be clear, the meaning is the same.

    People much smarter than me have also concluded that there are several types of foreign agreements:

    1. Treaties - These treaties are meaningless without consent of 2/3 of the Senate.  A good example would be the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

    2. Congressional-executive agreements - These agreements are meaningless without the consent of both the House and the Senate.  For example, if President Obama worked out a deal to remove American sanctions against Iran, he would need to do so through Congress.

    3. Simple executive agreements - These agreements do not require the approval of Congress, and the President makes many of them throughout his time in office.  The reason that so many are made because they deal with relatively minor issues.

    Other than SALT I, there has never been an arms reduction agreement that has not been considered a treaty.  So, whatever President Obama and the Iranian government agree to, it will be considered a treaty, or at least a Congressional-executive agreement.  Thus, without Senate approval, the agreement that emerges will not be binding whatsoever.  In fact, a huge piece of this controversy that must be understood by all is this: No matter what nuclear deal/arms reduction deal President Obama creates, it must receive Congressional approval or else it is not in force.

    Second, the offices of our Constitution have different characteristics.  For example, the president may serve only two 4-year terms, whereas senators may serve an unlimited number of 6-year terms.  As applied today, for instance, President Obama will leave office in January 2017, while most of us will remain in office well beyond then-perhaps decades.

    As for this, it's patronizing once again. If anything, this could be considered a political attack on President Obama.

    What these two constitutional provisions mean is that we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei.  The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.

    Here is the paragraph that might be most controversial.  Most importantly, the 47 Republican senators are factually correct with this paragraph.  If the President wishes to create a substantial agreement (which of course he is), then it requires approval from Congress.  If he doesn't get that approval, then it's not a binding treaty, because it's not a treaty.

    We hope this letter enriches your knowledge of our constitutional system and promotes mutual understanding and clarity as nuclear negotiations progress.

    Perhaps this is patronizing again, but again, hurting the Ayatollah's feelings is fairly low on my list of things that I care about.  His record on human rights, particularly the rights of women, is a poor one.

    Now, there are two things to consider here: the facts of the letter, and the appropriateness of the letter.  We've gotten the facts out of the way, so now let's talk if Senator Cotton's letter was appropriate.

    Here's the short version of the message:

    Dear Iran

    Just so you know, any agreement that you make must be approved by us, the Senate.  If it's not approved by the Senate, the agreement will be irrelevant and non-binding and most likely erased in January 2017.  Just wanted to let you know, because you might not have known.

    Sincerely,

    47 U.S. Senators

    First, the word traitor has been thrown around.  To get to the crux of the matter, let's ask these questions about this shortened letter:

    1. Could a U.S. senator say this on the floor of the Senate?

    2. Could a U.S. senator tweet this?

    3. Could a U.S. senator write an open letter to Iran, saying these words?

    4. Could a U.S. senator write these words on his Congressional blog?

    5. Could a U.S. senator go on Meet the Press and say these words?

    6. Could a U.S. senator meet with the Iranian ambassador in Washington and share these words?

    7. Could a U.S. senator go to Iran and deliver this message personally to their government?

    I'm pretty sure that, with the exception of the last two, a U.S. senator is well within his/her rights to do these things.  In fact, if any U.S. senator did do any of those first five actions on this list, I don't believe that the word traitor would be the correct word to use.  I can think of a lot of other words, but treasonous is not even close to being one of them.

    Certainly, there's been some discussion of legality under the Logan Act.  However, Nancy Pelosi's trip to see President Assad in Syria in 2007 severely undercuts any questions of legality (along with the fairly obvious fact that no one has been prosecuted under the Logan Act for centuries).  So, legally, everything is fine.

    Was it appropriate?  It seems like (and some GOP senators are realizing it now) the letter wasn't the best idea.  In fact, the letter helped undercut a lot of their arguments against the deal, as it sent potential Democratic allies running back into the President arms.  One week ago, many Democrats had been criticizing the President.  So, politically, it wasn't a great move.  

    As for undermining the President, it might do that to a certain extent.  Although even more certainly, regardless of what President Obama says in public, he in no way feels undermined, and he in no way will alter course from what he was going to do anyway.  From a realistic and pragmatic standpoint, this letter had very little impact upon the negotiations.  In fact, the original subtle jab at President Obama has morphed into a political attack against the very Republicans who wrote the letter.

    Overall, the letter's effect is limited.  Just ask President Obama.  He would certainly agree with this statement.

    • The Point

      It doesn't matter that the effect of the letter is minimal to the negotiations, the intent of the letter was to undermine and embarrass the President. I can imagine how the GOP would have responded if Democrats had pulled a stunt like that with a Republican President.  Not only would the word traitor have been thrown around but multiple hearings would have been scheduled. They call the President a liar, a Muslim, an African, a non-citizen, a hater of American, an 'other'.  They are contemptible.      

      • Looking forward to links

        They call the President a liar, a Muslim, an African, a non-citizen, a hater of American, an 'other'.  They are contemptible.

        47 Republican senators signed this letter.  Please let us know when any of the 47 Republican senators called the President these names.  Of course, any instance you find of this (if any) will be countered by ample evidence of Congressional Democrats describing President Bush in a worse manner.

        As for what would have happened if the shoe were on the other foot, any statement would be an exercise in conjecture.  If this was 2007, I imagine that President Bush might call it embarrassing, and that the word traitor might be tossed around the media.  As for multiple hearings, I doubt that the Democratic Congressional leadership would have held hearings if this happened in 2007.  But again, this is all conjecture.

    • of course the president says

      he feels in no way undermined. He can hardly go out there pounding the table about Republicans messing up his diplomacy.

      Of course the senators could have said all of those things to an American audience. Which is what they should have done. Are you old enough to remember the Reagan presidency? Many people disagreed with the strategy of engaging the USSR in arms control talks. It was hotly debated. But I can't imagine members of Congress writing to the Soviet leadership with the goal of discouraging them from reaching agreement with the U.S.

      I agree with the Des Moines Register editors on this one:

      Their argument seems to be, "What's the harm in stating the obvious?"

      For the answer to that question, listen to retired Major Gen. Paul D. Eaton, who spoke to the Washington Post about the letter, which he described as "extremely dangerous, because undermining our diplomatic efforts at this moment brings us another step closer to a very costly and perilous war with Iran." Eaton said he doesn't believe the 47 senators "were trying to sell out America," but he adds, "I do believe they defied the chain of command in what could be construed as an illegal act."

      Republican members of Congress who oppose the president's efforts can, and should, voice their opposition on the floor of the House and Senate and elsewhere. But they should never directly engage with foreign leaders in this manner.

      When they do, they not only undermine the efforts of one president's negotiations with one foreign country, they damage America's credibility on the world stage and they undercut all future efforts, by all future presidents, to conduct foreign relations.

      • 2 things

        But I can't imagine members of Congress writing to the Soviet leadership with the goal of discouraging them from reaching agreement with the U.S.

        First, I posted the letter above.  There is nothing directly discouraging of any deal.  Certainly, there could be an inference.  But nothing direct.  Additionally, both Republicans and Democrats have a goal of an agreement with Iran.  They just want to ensure a good agreement.

        Second, the Soviet analogy is not the best.  The struggle between the superpowers at the height of the Cold War, who had a combined arsenal of over 60,000 nuclear warheads, is not close to being similar to the U.S. negotiations with a minor Asian power with zero nuclear warheads.

    • the letter looks like amateur hour

      which I would frankly expect from relatively inexperienced lawmakers like Cotton and Ernst but not from people like McCain and McConnell and Grassley.

      Several of the Republicans who chose not to sign the letter have warned that the tactic could backfire, because now Senate Democrats will be less likely to support a bill "that would require an up-or-down vote by Congress on any deal that Obama strikes with Iran."  

      • I agree with you, that the tactic could backfire

        as I stated in the original post.  It could politically backfire.

        Of course the senators could have said all of those things to an American audience. Which is what they should have done.

        Let's say Senator Cotton changed the title of the letter from "An open letter to Iran" to "An open letter to the President," (with the appropriate changes in grammar).  Then, it becomes a political letter (perhaps condescendingly) reminding President Obama that whatever he says, whatever he does, and whatever he signs...well, it's not legally binding without the approval of Congress.  How do I know this?  Because Secretary of State John Kerry said the following earlier this week:

        With respect to the talks, we've been clear from the beginning. We're not negotiating a legally binding plan.

        So, in this alternate letter, the only difference would be the title and addressee of the letter.  If Senator Cotton addressed this to an American and an American audience, that would be acceptable? Iran would see this letter.  They would obviously read this letter.  However, because it's directed at an American audience, rather than written as "an open letter to Iran," then it becomes what the senators should have done?

        I'm just trying to see where the line is, and the distinction seems fairly semantic.  Now, I will readily admit that this will probably have a political price, albeit minor.  I will also readily admit that it wasn't the best move.  

        However, the words spoken in the letter are accurate.  And regardless of the addressee, the message would be the same, heard loud and clear around the world.

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