Congress has a long history of criticizing the White House's handling of foreign policy, but the letter sent by 47 Republican senators to Iran's leaders this week was virtually unprecedented. Signed by all but seven Senate Republicans, it bluntly warned Tehran that any deal made with the U.S. over Iran's disputed nuclear program won't be worth the paper it's printed on. The poison pen note was a shocking example of just how far President Barack Obama's GOP critics in Congress are willing to go in an effort to undercut his foreign policy goals.
Senate Republicans were so eager to give the president a black eye they didn't even bother to wait and find out what was in the proposed framework agreement before denouncing it. That's a heck of a way to conduct the nation's foreign policy.
Iranian and U.S. negotiators are still struggling to finalize terms of a deal to constrain Tehran's nuclear ambitions by the end of the month, and until they come with something both sides can live with no one even knows whether an accord is possible. That Senate Republicans are so intent on denouncing anything that could possibly come out of the talks — even if it ultimately benefits the U.S. and its allies — suggests they are all too inclined to let the national interest take a back seat to partisan politics.
The GOP senators might just as well have put up a big sign over their chamber warning the mullahs in Tehran to prepare for war because that's the practical import of rejecting any possibility of a negotiated resolution of the two countries' differences. Republican lawmakers in effect have adopted the hard-line agenda of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who offered a similarly uncompromising view of Iranian intentions when he addressed a joint meeting of Congress last week. Not coincidentally, Mr. Netanyahu's speech was also squarely aimed at undermining President Obama's ability to address the Iranian nuclear threat by means short of military force.
Mr. Obama says a diplomatic settlement is still the best way to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon because even a successful military strike on its nuclear facilities would only set back its program by a year or so, and in the end it would make hard-liners in the government that much more determined to get a bomb. Sanctions did not stop Iran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions, but they may have brought it to the table. Should we not at least explore the possibility of a deal? The president argues that a negotiated agreement under which Iran agreed to limit the uranium enrichment that could provide fuel for a bomb and open all its nuclear sites to international inspectors would be adequate to ensure the country doesn't secretly build a bomb. In return, the U.S. and its allies would gradually lift economic sanctions that have crippled Iran's fragile economy.
Now Senate Republicans are trying to scare Tehran off any deal by implying that even if Iran holds up its side of the bargain, any U.S. promise to end sanctions could be undone with "the stroke of a pen" by the next president — though what reason a future president of either party would have for doing such a thing so long as Iran is in compliance with this hypothetical accord, we cannot fathom.
In any case, a deal with Iran reached by the Obama administration wouldn't require congressional approval, at least not right away, because the president already has the power to unilaterally lift sanctions that he imposed using his executive authority and to suspend others imposed by Congress. Eventually, permanently lifting the latter sanctions, which Iran desperately wants, would require a vote in Congress.
How the senators' letter has affected the thinking of Iran's leaders is unclear. An Iranian spokesman dismissed the message as a "propaganda ploy" by the U.S. to get better terms. The White House, for its part, warned the letter could strengthen hard-line factions in Iran opposed to a deal. And many Democrats agreed with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who said the letter showed the "pettiness" and "spite" of the GOP opposition. We would add to that a reckless disregard for the national security interests of the country that calls into question Republicans' claims that their party can be trusted to govern.