The Letter: Top 5 Similarities of GOP and Iran Hard Liners

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

47 GOP senators sent a letter to Iran on Monday warning that country that any agreement only signed off on by President Obama might not last longer than his last day in office. This intervention of the senate in a foreign policy matter is not, as some observers are saying, “unprecedented.” Congress refused to ratify the treaty presented to it By Woodrow Wilson in 1919, that involved joining the League of Nations (the predecessor of the United Nations). In the late 19th century, Arthur Schleslinger, Jr. pointed out in a Foreign Affairs article in 1972, the Senate for twenty years declined to ratify any treaty at all, and contemporary observers became convinced that it would never do so so again.

Of course, there is a difference between refusing to sign off on a president’s treaty and inserting the legislature into the negotiation directly, while it is going on.

President Obama objected, saying, “I think it’s somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hardliners in Iran. It’s an unusual coalition . . .”

And, of course, Obama is right that the right wing of the Republican Party has things in common with hard liners in Iran.

1. Many Republicans in Congress oppose abortion even in case of rape or incest. As I observed in a classic Salon article years ago, that puts the GOP right (exemplified by Sarah Palin) in the company of the clerical Guardianship Council in Iran:

“Palin’s stance is even stricter than that of the Parliament of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In 2005, the legislature in Tehran attempted to amend the country’s antiabortion statute to permit an abortion up to four months in case of a birth defect. The conservative clerical Guardianship Council, which functions as a sort of theocratic senate, however, rejected the change. Iran’s law on abortion is therefore virtually identical to the one that Palin would like to see imposed on American women, and the rationale in both cases is the same, a literalist religious impulse that resists any compromise with the realities of biology and of women’s lives.”

2. Many Republicans in Congress say they do not believe in evolution. Actually in this regard they are closer to Saudi Arabia than to Iran. Evolutionary theory is taught in Iranian school textbooks. But the textbooks carefully avoid discussing human evolution, very likely out of fear that it would prompt a backlash from Shiite fundamentalists. Ironically, the same compromise is made in Israeli schooling, for fear of the Orthodox.

3. Both the GOP and Iran hardliners have a fascination with foreign military entanglements. Republicans in Congress mostly say that President Obama is at fault for withdrawing US troops from Iraq in December, 2011, and that he should have kept a division in that country (they ignore that the Iraqi parliament refused to allow the troops to remain and that George W. Bush had failed to gain such an agreement). Iranian hardliners also see a national interest in having troops in Iraq, and special operations forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard have been detailed to stiffen the resolve of the Iraqi army and to coordinate with Shiite militias. Ironically, since President Obama has sent 3,000 US troops back into Iraq as advisers and established a command, both the Republicans and the Iranian hardliners have gotten their wish, of forces stationed in Iraq. And ironically, the two are de facto allies in the current struggle against ISIL, though neither side would admit it.

4. Many congressional Republicans are strong partisans of nuclear energy and dismiss environmental concerns about nuclear waste. The hardliners in Iran have insisted on expanding Iran’s system of civilian nuclear reactors and enriching fuel for them in-country. Some ten reactors are now planned.

5. Both the US GOP and the Iranian hardliners are opposed to the P5 + 1 (permanent UN Security council members plus Germany) negotiations over Iran’s enrichment program. The Republicans want the unrealistic goal of no enrichment by Iran. The Iran hardliners want enrichment without international restraints, though they say they do not want a nuclear weapon. Rather, they are functioning as nationalists, insisting that Iran is an independent country and has every right to do what South Korea and Japan do every day. Like the GOP hardliners, the Iran hardliners have tried on several occasions to derail the negotiations. Last fall they accused President Hasan Rouhani of being too accommodating of the “American wolf,” saying he needed to speak to Washington “from a position of strength.” Friday prayer leaders slammed Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for talking a walk at Vienna with Secretary of State John Kerry, saying he was way too friendly with an official of a country that backed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in his 8-year aggressive war on Iran in the 1980s.

So President Obama is perfectly correct. The GOP and Iran hardliners have a great deal in common. Only, the Iran hardliners don’t deny global warming.


Related video:

AFP: “Obama criticizes Republicans’ Iran letter”

29 Responses

  1. A very fine post on todays IC by Iranian FM Zarif goes directly to this point of congressional ignorance and obstructionism, and the prospects of a deal between Iran and West:

    link to

    It gives hope to how an agreement’s implementation may yet be finessed past the yahoos. I cannot help but think that any number of congressmen are not so much stupid as spineless in the face of the AIPAC et al, and they just need a way out.

    The realities of things might provide not just the cover for a deal to stand, but for our congress to make whatever statements they need to make before moving onto other things.

  2. The letter is astonishingly ignorant, and shames those Senators who signed onto it.

    Note that the letter declares that “Congress plays the significant role of ratifying them” [where “them” = “international agreements”].

    No, that’s factually incorrect.

    Congress (actually, the Senate) plays **a** significant role in the ratification of treaties, but it is not **the** body that ratifies treaties.

    That’s the office of the President.

    The President of the United States *negotiates* treaties, and the President of the United States *ratifies* treaties, but the Constitution says that the President can’t go from the former to the latter without first gaining the “advice and consent” of 2/3 of the Senate.

    So, yes, the Senate can stop a President from ratifying a treaty. But, no, the Senate doesn’t actually have “the role of ratifying treaties”.

    But that’s just one ignorant misunderstanding of USA domestic law, shame on them.

    But their misunderstanding of international law is even worse.

    Cotton makes the mistake of claiming that only “treaties” are binding on the USA.

    Even under US Domestic Law that’s untrue: the President is perfectly entitled to negotiate an “executive agreement” that requires no Senate consent **if** the agreement pertains to an issue that is within the sole authority of the President according to the Constitution.

    Under those circumstances he doesn’t need the “advice” – much less the “consent” – of anyone, let alone the Senate.

    Sure, they don’t become “the law of the land”, but such agreements certainly are legally-binding on the USA under international law.

    According to the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties any international agreement that this President has the authority to sign is fully binding on the USA and any President who follows him.

    Think of it from the PoV of Iran and the five other members of the P5+1 i.e. their interpretation of an “international agreement” is governed by the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, and that convention makes absolutely no distinction between “treaties”, “executive agreements”, “international agreements”, or whatever.

    All get interpreted in the same way, precisely because the Convention says that a state can not use a provision in its own domestic law to evade an international obligation that it has freely entered into.

    So if a hypothetical future Republican President repudiated this agreement then – again, according to the Vienna Convention, and regardless of how many times he waves this letter about – the USA will have just committed a manifest violation of that agreement and, therefore, is in violation of international law.

    Cotton might like to think of the ramifications of that i.e. all the thousands and thousands of executive agreements that the USA has negotiated would be…. worthless.

    Let’s start with a simple example: all those Status of Force Agreements (SOFA) that result in all those hundreds of overseas US military bases would be…. worthless.

    All of them, because as far as I know not a one of them is a “treaty”.

      • Not as far as I know, precisely because US Presidents are not in the habit of repudiating executive agreements signed by their predecessor.

        Apparently Senator Cotton is determined to be the first when he becomes President-Elect Cotton.

    • The above response makes good legal points. The US Senate does not RATIFY treaties (except in popular usage, which extends to the “elite” press”). Ratification is an executive function, involving issuance of instruments of ratification and, in the case of bilateral treaties, exchanging these documents (depositing them in the case of multilateral treaties). And in international law any agreement in written form between states made under international law is defined as a treaty. A written executive agreement.IS a treaty under international law. And a basic principle of international law is that “treaties are binding.” It does not matter what they are called in domestic law.

      • And a basic principle of international law is that “treaties are binding.” It does not matter what they are called in domestic law.

        But, as with the Constitution and laws, the US government has a long history of choosing which treaties it will live up to and those it will ignore when it is politically or commercially expedient to do so. Just ask a few Native Americans for starters.

        • I quoted only a legal definition. We know that International law often is violated.
          As for non-ratification of the Vienna Convention (see RFM’s comment), most of its provisions are considered to represent codification of existing customary law. I don’t think there is any question about this particular provision.

        • Sure, and banks have a long history of being robbed, even though there are laws against bank-robbery.

          That the USA ignores treaties that it has signed is not in doubt, and the USA is not the only country that has done so.

          But Senator Cotton appears to want to make a virtue of it.

          I assume he does so because (tho’ it’s hard to tell from that letter) he is of the opinion that the USA can repudiate int’l law with impunity. That there would be no blowback. No unforseen consequences of such a cavalier attitude.

          Even in the broader scheme of things that is untrue, since this is a truism: adhering to international law adds a little bit of stability to a complex world, while acting as if int’l law doesn’t matter promotes instability.

          Do it often enough and the world as we know it becomes unstable, if not utterly unhinged.

          We’ll all end up in the world that existed pre-1939. Only this time the USA won’t be on the side of law and order.

    • Even at that, note the treaty—duly approved and incorporated into the Law of the Land by congress—having to do with Torture. See how that turned out.

    • Yeah, Right:

      A little more research, please, because your principal example blunts your thrust. First, the Vienna Convention is not binding upon the United States as it was never ratified by the U.S. Senate. That being said, the State Department considers some of its provisions as embodying “customary international law”. (See: link to
      However, State does not specify which provisions.

      Your second example, the SOFA, is also flawed. A SOFA is the essence of an executive agreement (see, for example, SecDef Gates’ testimony at 76-77, Hearings before Senate Armed Services, March-February, 2008); while it may require no congressional assent it is subject to congressional oversight as well as funding control–a future Congress can increase, sustain or reduce funding at will. Congress’ ability to alter an EA depends upon the type of EA.

      There are three categories of EAs and a full discussion is ill-suited for a blog post. However, you may find a complete lay discussion from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service here: link to

      It would appear that the EA proposed by the president falls into the “sole executive agreement” (pg. 6 of the foregoing.) Having nothing to do with the merits of the proposed-but-not-yet-disclosed Iran deal, or the political wisdom of the forty-seven GOP letter writers, those cheerleading the deal-as-binding based on the president’s legal authority should take a deep breath–the legality, in the case of the Iran deal (unlike for example, EAs dealing with only diplomatic recognition), is very unclear. Without getting too far into the weeds, I would recommend Prof. Jack Goldberg’s series of articles analyzing the enormous ambiguities inherent in Obama’s course. See link to

      The one point you make which is spot on–Cotton’s claim that the Senate “ratifies” a treaty–is the least significant element about the GOP letter as it has no bearing on the larger questions raised.

      • Thanks for the lengthy response, RFM, but if you reread my original post I think you’ll find that I stress that the Vienna Convention is important insofar as THE OTHER participants to these negotiations view Cotton’s claim.

        As far as those OTHER participants are concerned it matters not that there are “three categories of EAs”, nor that Congress pulls the money strings, nor that there are Congressional Oversight Committees.

        The only issue they have to consider is this: does the President have the legal authority to enter into an executive agreement on behalf of the United States of America?

        The answer is “Yes”, and therefore the Vienna Convention says that the deal is binding on all states who sign onto it.

        That you or Cotton or CSI all splutter “but! but! but!” as they wave the Constitution of the United States around like a talisman matters not one bit to Iran, Russia, China, Britain, France or Germany.

        That’s a “domestic” issue, and therefore as far as those other countries are concerned the Vienna Convention has already answered that objection.

        That you claim that “a future Congress can increase, sustain or reduce funding at will” a Status of Force Agreement is without doubt true.

        But this is also true: were Congress to do that would be viewed by the country that also signed that SOFA as a gross violation of a legally-binding international agreement.

        No doubt there are plenty of Americans who would just shrug the shoulders and say “so what?” but, then again, perhaps the average American might want to consider the sort of world Senator Cotton et al., is leading them into i.e. one where the signature of a Head Of State on an international agreement means…. nothing.

        • YR:

          You have my permission to misquote me; but misquoting yourself is more problematic, especially when the primary text is three inches above this entry box. You said: “According to the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties any international agreement that this President has the authority to sign is fully binding on the USA and any President who follows him.” I’m afraid when it comes to anonymous comments on websites, we’re all subject to Death of the Author doctrine.

          However, your assertion is manifestly untrue–and the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty speaks to its untruth. But there is a far less obscure source for my contention. Today, SecState Kerry stated to Senate Foreign Relations that, “we are not negotiating a legally binding plan.” I’m sure that he’s no Tom Cotton fan and probably wishes that an agreement with Iran would be binding;, but his statement only acknowledges the weight of the law.

          Kerry settled the matter (for today) as to whether the agreement is binding. The question of whether the Vienna Convention, to which we are not bound, gives other countries the right to interpret EAs (or any other agreement that fails of the senate’s advice and consent) is, thankfully, beyond the scope of this response.

          I would not shortchange Iran’s understanding of the United States: we struggle to understand their internal frictions and they struggle to understand ours. Based on results, I think they get us better, but that’s just my opinion. And far be it from me to suggest that the Iranians haven’t picked up a ConLaw textbook to figure out just exactly what they are getting.

        • RFM: “The question of whether the Vienna Convention, to which we are not bound, gives other countries the right to interpret EAs (or any other agreement that fails of the senate’s advice and consent) is, thankfully, beyond the scope of this response.”

          Then I rather fail to see why you have taken the trouble of responding to my original post, since you not only are not addressing that post, you are making a virtue of not addressing it.

          Straw man much, do you?

        • Me: “According to the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties any international agreement that this President has the authority to sign is fully binding on the USA and any President who follows him.”

          That statement is perfectly correct: the Vienna Convention invalidates any international agreement that is “agreed to” by someone who does not have the authority of the state to sign that agreement.

          There is no question – none whatsoever, and not even Senator Cotton claims otherwise – that the President of the United States has the legal authority to sign this international agreement with Iran.

          Which means that as far as the Vienna Convention is concerned the primary hurdle has been jumped i.e. is the President an imposter, or is he the “executive” who has the authority to sign an “executive agreement” with Iran?

          The answer is “Why, yes. Yes, he is”.

          RFM: “However, your assertion is manifestly untrue–and the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty speaks to its untruth.”

          Well, that’s a whole heap o’ Motherhood you are piling on there. Perhaps some mention of Apple Pie might also be handy.

          RFM: “Today, SecState Kerry stated to Senate Foreign Relations that, “we are not negotiating a legally binding plan.” ”

          Look, I’m not disputing that the AMERICANS think that they can evade international legal obligations by hanging the label “executive agreement” on a document.

          And, try as I might, I can’t see Kerry as anything other than a manifestation of AMERICAN values. He is, indeed, as Motherhood and as Apple Pie as they come.

          The point I keep returning to is that as far as All The Other International Actors in this farce are concerned Kerry and Cotton (and you) are attempting to make what they consider to be a distinction without a difference.

          As far as they are all concerned this is very simple:

          Q1: Does the President have the legal authority to represent the state in these negotiations?
          A1: Yes, he does.

          Q2: Does his signature on that agreement therefore fulfil all the requirements of the Vienna Convention in terms of being a legally-binding agreement under international law?
          A2: Yes, it does.

          Q3: Can the President evade that legal obligation by pointing to his own domestic laws?
          A3: No, he can not.

          Now, one more time, yet again, I do not dispute for a second that the Indispensable Nation insists otherwise.

          They do so insist, starting with John Kerry and going through Freshman Cotton all the way down to RFM.

          What I am saying, yet again, one more time, is that The Rest Of The World thinks otherwise, and will therefore react according if a future President-Elect Cotton ripped that document to shreds.

          They will, without doubt, react in a way that Cotton does not consider i.e. they will conclude that the USA is in serious violation of a legal obligation under international law and therefore any attempt by the Americans to ring them into continuing the sanctions against Iran will be met with a firm “Are You Stark Raving Mad?”

  3. Well, Republicans in and out of office have a long and sordid history of trying to mess up US diplomatic relations. Recall the Nixon campaign in 1968 working with the Communist government of North Vietnam to block peace talks, so LBJ and his VP Presidential candidate HHH would look bad?

    Then there’s the GOP’s long-standing affair with the mullahs of Iran, dating at least back to when the 1980 Reagan campaign convinced Iran to not release the American hostages holed up in the US embassy in Tehran on Jimmy Carter’s watch? This formed the basis of a beautiful friendship during the Reagan administration, wherein the Reaganites secretly sold arms to Iran in violation of US law.

    So now the Republican Senate is overtly getting into the sedition business. Democrats and other Americans should not just cynically accept this.

  4. This is an amazingly ill-conceived position. If the US unilaterally backs out of the P5+1 agreement, then what’s to keep another power (read Russia) from doing the same thing? I’m sure Putin would love to have an excuse to end sanctions against Iran and start shipping everything from arms and oil field equipment to more centrifuges and tractors. Not to mention it will make it next to impossible to put together any kind of coalition willing to provide support, bases or money for the war and expensive blockade that would be sure to follow an attack on Iran. (I personally suspect Russia would be the first to break ranks on sanctions if the US starts acting unilaterally, but it could just as easily be China, India or perhaps even one of the Western European powers depending on what’s going on in the world).

    • If I remember correctly, BOTH Russia and China have said there will be no additional sanctions and both appear to more than willing to drop all their existing sanctions on Iran if the USA causes the talks to fail.

      This is the problem for the USA with indirect third-party sanctions. If the third-parties decide to ignore the USA, the USA has almost no leverage to get compliance. In fact because so many USA companies are multinational, the third-parties have many ways to punish the USA.

      There are more than a few countries that would like to stop USA companies from doing business in their countries in favor of local companies.

      Yes it could ignite trade wars, but the USA is at a major disadvantage because it voluntarily gutted its manufacturing capacity and can not rebuild it overnight.

      For example, what options would Apple have if the Chinese government decided to slow the shipping of Apple products for several months for “quality inspections?” Slow delivery would quickly sink Apple’s stock and possibly the whole USA stock market.

      The USA is just as vulnerable to economic blackmail as every other country and in some cases even more vulnerable.

      BTW – China is quietly working very hard to get enough other nations on earth to build an alternative to the USA/UK/EU SWIFT banking system so the USA will not be able to control global banking any longer and the US dollar would be just one of many trading currencies. Any USA attempts to further use the SWIFT system to retaliate would just lead to its demise that much quicker.

      From what I can tell, the US administration is well aware of what is at stake and how limited USA options are, but the congress critters have no ability to understand the nuances of global interaction.

      Once the brown stuff hits the fan and USA companies are beating up on the congress critters everyday, the congress critters may figure out just how badly they screwed up. In some ways I feel sorry for the companies because they are sure not getting what they paid for.

  5. What an insane move by these senators. Talk about handing Iran everything it wants. A collapse of the sanctions caused by US government’s inability to get its act together, and no further restrictions imposed on its nuclear program.

  6. These 47 senators are, and most of them have been, a cause for concern, but the other scary part of the picture is that somewhere around half of Americans who vote elect them to their offices. Which brings up the question, “What do Obama and others mean when they talk about “American values”?

  7. In 1951, General MacArthur made a public threat to the Chinese which sabotaged a cease-fire proposal prepared by the Administration. This act of insubordination was preceded and followed by others that were aimed at widening the Korean War in dangerous ways. At one point, the House Minority Leader read to Congress a letter from MacArthur about the conduct of the war. After Truman finally fired him , Congress invited the General to speak at a joint session, where he may have gotten more ovations than Netanyahu. The country was in an uproar, but Truman stuck to his guns. Harry Truman kept the Korean War limited and affirmed presidential authority.

  8. Important petition to sign and share

    we petition the obama administration to:
    File charges against the 47 U.S. Senators in violation of The Logan Act in attempting to undermine a nuclear agreement.

    On March 9th, 2015, forty-seven United States Senators committed a treasonous offense when they decided to violate the Logan Act, a 1799 law which forbids unauthorized citizens from negotiating with foreign governments. Violation of the Logan Act is a felony, punishable under federal law with imprisonment of up to three years.

    At a time when the United States government is attempting to reach a potential nuclear agreement with the Iranian government, 47 Senators saw fit to instead issue a condescending letter to the Iranian government stating that any agreement brokered by our President would not be upheld once the president leaves office.

    This is a clear violation of federal law. In attempting to undermine our own nation, these 47 senators have committed treason.
    link to

    • This is a clear violation of federal law. In attempting to undermine our own nation, these 47 senators have committed treason.

      We are supposedly all equal before the law, but these senators will prove to be more equal than others, especially whistleblowers who expose the crimes of government.

    • It’s not “treason” to write an open letter, any more than it would be “treasonous” for Senator Cotton to have published the same argument in an op-ed column in the New York Times.

      You simply can’t make that accusation stick.

      You’d have much better luck arguing that the letter amounts to “sedition”.

  9. The dissimilarity is that one side feels justified in taking an imperial view while the other regards that as impertinent interference. The negotiators are seeking to rise above these opposing positions to a level at which they may be reconciled.

    • Are there actually some grownups involved in all of this, who are not trapped by AIPAC or suffused with their own Bubblehead importance or busy protecting the Imperial presidency and Our Exceptional Freedom of Action?

  10. Prof Cole. That petition that I linked to grew by 7000 signatures in one hour. Goal was to hit 100.000 by April 8th. All ready at 118,201

  11. Ha ha. The iranians are more sane, rational, and honest than the Repubs on AGW. Ain’t that the truth. I’m convinced we’ll see the first multi-hundred million death famine from GW drought within the next 10 years. Could have questioned OK imbecile Sen. Imhofe at press conference, but saw it too late. It would have been a memorable question.

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