The Iran Policy Clownshow

I’ve been talking about U.S.-Iran policy to groups around the United States for about eight years now. Many members of these groups—World Affairs Councils, university groups, local groups interested in Middle East policy—disagree with my general take on Iran and the Middle East, but I’ve always gotten a fair hearing and good questions.

Given that, it’s been both amusing and depressing to watch the political spectacle that’s been happening in Washington this week. It all began when Bill Kristol’s favorite senator, Tom Cotton (R-AR), got 46 of the other 53 Republican Senators to join him in signing an “open letter to the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” trying to scare the clerical leadership away from a diplomatic deal by threatening to scotch it themselves once Barack Obama is out of office. Cotton, a Harvard Law grad, was subsequently chided on his understanding of the U.S. Constitution both by the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, as well as by Jack Goldsmith, a conservative lawyer who worked on the legal aspects of the war on terror for the George W. Bush administration.

In response to media inquiries, GOP Senators gave embarrassing explanations of the letter. Most absurd was Cotton’s protestation that the letter was intended to help produce a better deal. This claim is absurd not because the causal pathway from this letter to a better deal is dubious (although it is), but because Cotton has made perfectly clear that his goal is the destruction of negotiations, not improving them. As he remarked at a January Heritage Foundation event:

the end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of Congressional action, it is very much an intended consequence. A feature, not a bug, so to speak.

Other legislators’ responses were hardly better. Signatory and presidential hopeful Rand Paul asserted that despite its salutation to “the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” and its translation into Farsi, the letter was in fact addressed to the administration. John McCain took a different interpretation, claiming the letter was intended to signal to Iran that Congress will play a role in implementing any deal, shrugging that “maybe [the letter] wasn’t the best way to do that.” Pulling back the curtain to reveal the care with which senior senators handle the high politics of national security, McCain explained his thought process in deciding to sign the letter:

I saw the letter, I saw that it looked reasonable to me and I signed it, that’s all. I sign lots of letters.

Noted.

Democrats and Obama partisans’ response was also depressing. Noted legal scholar Howard Dean declared that the letter “bordered on treason,” and the absurdity of an online petition asking the White House to prosecute the #47Traitors, as they were hash-tagged on Twitter, under the Logan Act did not stop it from garnering 150,000 signatures in under 48 hours.

It’s always a question whether the American public or the American foreign policy elite have more dangerous views on international politics, and I’m sorry to say this whole spectacle hasn’t helped resolve the question one way or the other. But there is one point that bears noting in conclusion.

The most alarming aspect of this whole spectacle—for the GOP and for the nation—has been the aftermath. In Politico’s story discussing the consequences of the letter, author Burgess Everett noted that Cotton was failing upward: “Cotton has rocketed to the top of TV bookers’ lists, and fellow Republican senators are suddenly flocking to him for counsel on foreign policy.” This is despite the fact that the letter was an embarrassment on its own terms, and perhaps even dangerous on reality-based terms.

In a world where the GOP donor class cared about the party’s stewardship on sensitive national security matters, people who dreamed up these sorts of pranks would be defenestrated. Say what you will about Jim Baker or Brent Scowcroft, they wouldn’t have put up with this sort of nonsense. But in a party where the entire foreign policy apparatus has been taken over by neoconservatives, there’s no consequence for this sort of statesmanship, if one can even call it that. Until the GOP donor class decides it’s had enough of this sort of thing and pushes for change, expect more of it.