The GOP Letter to Iran is Terrible

by Benjamin Studebaker

Recently, 47 republican senators wrote an open letter to the Iranian government implying that the senate may not ratify any agreement the Obama administration makes with Iran, claiming that a future president (presumably republican) might revoke any such agreement with “a stroke of a pen”. Here’s the letter. This is really bad–not because a deal with Iran would be wonderful (although I have argued elsewhere that it’s a good idea), but because this letter exposes the deep ignorance of 47 of our senators.

First, let’s get a handle on what precisely these senators have done. The letter condescendingly explains to the Iranian government basic elementary facets of the US constitution–the requirement that the senate ratify treaties, the difference between treaties and executive orders, the fact that senators have no term limits while presidents do, and so on. Then it makes this claim:

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.

Now, many people have pointed out that this letter shows contempt for the president–it’s a naked attempt to undermine active negotiations between the administration and a foreign government. But it’s also a serious insult to Iran, because the premise of the letter is that Iran’s foreign ministry is so incompetent that it doesn’t even understand the basics of the US constitution. As it happens, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, holds a PhD in International Law and Policy from the University of Denver:

This makes him better educated than every single US senator, none of whom possess a PhD in anything, much less a PhD in a social science or public policy field. Zarif responded to the senators’ condescending letter with some condescension of his own:

I should bring one important point to the attention of the authors and that is, the world is not the United States, and the conduct of inter-state relations is governed by international law, and not by US domestic law. The authors may not fully understand that in international law, governments represent the entirety of their respective states, are responsible for the conduct of foreign affairs, are required to fulfil the obligations they undertake with other states and may not invoke their internal law as justification for failure to perform their international obligations.

Change of administration does not in any way relieve the next administration from international obligations undertaken by its predecessor in a possible agreement about Iran`s peaceful nuclear program.

I wish to enlighten the authors that if the next administration revokes any agreement with the stroke of a pen, as they boast, it will have simply committed a blatant violation of international law.

Their letter in fact undermines the credibility of thousands of such mere executive agreements that have been or will be entered into by the US with various other governments.

Zarif also points out that the negotiations are not bilateral–all the members of the UN Security Council are involved, and if an agreement is reached, it will be sealed with a UN Security Council resolution,  which the US government cannot retroactively veto if the Obama administration votes in its favor.

The United States is a signatory of the UN charter (which was ratified by congress in 1945). The UN charter requires all UN member states to abide by Security Council resolutions under Chapter V.

Now, it’s not as if governments always necessarily obey international law. International law is notoriously difficult to enforce because the UN does not possess any independent military power–it relies on individual member states to carry out its mandates. If the next president were to decide to disregard an agreement with Iran, this would be illegal under international law, but it is doubtful that any entity would have the power necessary to hold the United States to its agreement de facto. As the most powerful state in the international system, the United States can get away with doing many things that are illegal, and it does violate international law when it thinks (rightly or wrongly) that it is in interests to do so (e.g. the Iraq War).

But while the United States does violate international law from time to time, it remains deeply committed to arguing that all of its actions are in compliance. The United States tried to get a UN resolution explicitly authorizing the War in Iraq, and when it could get no such resolution made a variety of arcane appeals to extant resolutions to justify the invasion. Even if the Bush administration violated international law, it did so while paying lip service to it. With this letter, the senate republicans appear to have departed from that–congress appears to be nakedly threatening that they or the next administration will violate international law if the UN negotiations end in a deal they do not like.

So one of two things is going on here. Either:

  1. The senators are deliberately and nakedly undermining the legitimacy of international law and of the Security Council, going out of its way to display open contempt for the idea that states are in any way limited in their legitimate action by international laws, treaties, or charters.
  2. The senators are deeply ignorant people (who, we must remember, do not have advanced degrees in anything remotely related to international relations) who have failed to realize what they appear to be saying. Urged on by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, they have flippantly participated in this letter, which is ultimately an ill-conceived mistake rather than a genuine threat.

Which sounds more plausible? We must remember that the United States is one of the architects of the current international system. Institutions like the UN, IMF, and World Bank were designed by American diplomats to protect American interests and project American power and influence. While these tools are not always effective, it is difficult to deny that the United States has gained much more than it has lost by using these institutions to impose democracy and free markets on the developing world. Even the Bush administration, which was highly suspicious of the UN and other international organizations, nonetheless recognized the utility of maintaining the legitimacy of the UN as a coercive instrument for legitimizing and imposing America’s will–why else would it bother to attempt to justify the Iraq War in reference to international law and the UN charter in the first place?

So I struggle to believe that the republican senators really do want to delegitimize the Security Council. If they do, it implies a deep ignorance of the myriad ways the United States can and does successflly manipulate international organizations for its own purposes. And if they do not, the implication is that they are so ignorant that they don’t even understand what they’re doing in the first place. Either way, it’s very clear that we have an ignorance problem in congress.

And this isn’t the only time we’ve seen evidence of profound ignorance in the legislative branch–Jim Inhofe, the new Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, recently used a profoundly flawed argument to claim that global warming is an elaborate hoax. Senate committee chairs are elected by the senate, so Inhofe’s statement tars not just himself, but the senate as a whole.

We need to think very seriously about whether or not our government can be effectively run by people who have no substantive academic training. When Iran’s foreign ministry is run by a fellow with a PhD while our Secretary of State has a BA with a C average, we’re at something of an intellectual disadvantage.