Why Tom Cotton’s letter to Iran is a much bigger deal than the Weekly Standard thinks

The fallout continues this week over the controversial “Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” signed by 47 Republican senators.

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The letter warns Iran that any nuclear deal not approved by Congress would be considered an executive agreement that a future president could “revoke…with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of” at any time.

Senator Tom Cotton, the letter’s author, has publicly stated he that he intends to sabotage the current nuclear negotiations with Iran. This has caused outrage on the left, with some even going so far as to call the active interference with President Obama’s negotiations treasonous.

Hawks on the right, particularly at the neoconservative Weekly Standard, have rushed to the letter’s defense. Rafael Medoff argues that its critics ignore a litany of incidents since the 1970s where Democrats undermined presidents’ official policies for their own political gain. During his Senate days, for instance, Secretary of State John Kerry met with both the Sandinistas and the Assad regime at times when Republican presidents were trying to isolate both.

But appealing to hypocrisy to distract from your own position’s dubiousness does not a defense make. Medoff can dredge up example after example of past senators going behind the president’s back, but his effort smacks more of Soviet-era whataboutism than an actual justification of the Iran letter.

The answer to these historical allusions is straightforward: sabotaging ongoing presidential diplomatic efforts from Congress was just as wrong in 1985 as it is in 2015.

Senators have constitutional authority to approve treaties the president negotiates. Senator Bob Corker is doing just that in his bill to ensure that any Iranian nuclear deal is subject to congressional approval for ratification.

But stabbing the president in the back during ongoing negotiations only weakens the power of American diplomacy by damaging our ability to coherently and credibly signal to our adversaries.

And unlike Medoff’s past examples, the “Letter of 47” isn’t merely an image-damaging faux pas. It has the potential to draw the U.S. into a war that need not be inevitable.

The Iranian regime has publicly acknowledged Ayatollah Khamenei’s poor health. In the near future, it’s likely the Islamic Republic’s Assembly of Experts will have to pick a new Supreme Leader. Iran scholar Mehdi Khalaji points out that as it stands, the Assembly looks likely to select someone as hardline, if not more so, than Khamenei, an outcome this letter is likely to encourage.

As the most powerful figure in Iranian politics with the final say on foreign and nuclear policy, any Supreme Leader could also use the letter as a pretext to withdraw from the nuclear negotiations. Iran could then bolster a narrative of the U.S. trying to subvert the talks, portraying itself as a victim and damaging our ability to get Russia, China, and our European and Asian partners onboard for tougher sanctions that make Iran return to the table.

An unrepentant Iran walking away from negotiations with no nuclear inspectors to check its progress and little pressure from sanctions would be a disaster for American policy. Our last decade of war in the Middle East has left the region with more threats to American interests than before.

For that reason, we owe it to ourselves to approach the nuclear negotiations with earnestness. We’d better make sure we try a diplomatic solution before getting immersed in another bloody quagmire.

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