Predictably, an outsized media firestorm has ensued. Dems have accused the GOP of making common cause with Iranian hard-liners in some bizarre bedfellowship; Republicans have called the Democratic braying "hysterical." For their parts, Mr. Obama and his counterparts at the table seem to have shrugged it off -- as they should. The Prez calmly called this latest unprecedented condescension something like 'Monday,' while Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif concluded the letter "has no legal value and is mostly a propaganda ploy."
So, the beat goes on, but the real import of the GOP letter depends on for whom it was actually written. Anyone who accepts at face value the notion that this was a well-meant civics lesson offered to a backward people betrays their own unfamiliarity with how Washington works.
It might be useful to recall that until 1979's Islamic revolution, Iran was considered an ally and a great place for American companies to invest [disclosure: humble scribe was part of DuPont's legal group whose task it was to seek reimbursement at The Hague for a textile plant in Isfahan). Currently, not only do they have their own diplomats at the UN and informally in DC (as well as access to our country's finest social studies texts), but DC is also lousy with global law firms eager to help clients navigate the welter of relationships among public and private interests in the international sphere. That includes foreign governments, of course.
Here's how global powerhouse Vinson & Elkins delicately characterizes its legal services offering under 'Legislative' services on the firm's website:
"As an international law firm, our attorneys have assisted the governments of foreign countries in establishing policies for their growth and development while also maintaining consistency with worldwide trends."
That's not to say that V&E actually does represent Iran, per se -- there are several hundred other large, well-heeled aggregations of attorneys eager to assist, and often populated by once-and-future senior government officials (the current AG Mr. Holder, for example, came in from the redoubtable Covington & Burling, the ultimate insiders). Unpopular regimes are often advised via front organizations, much like lawyers at Patterson Belknap once advised Iran via representation of the shadowy Alavi Foundation. The point is that the letter was clearly not intended to apprise the Persians of the sophisticated intricacies of unfamiliar democracy, American-style.
For whose consumption was the letter intended?
It was clearly meant for a domestic audience. First, it's quite brief, as befits American attention spans. It is also written to about an 8th-grade comprehension level. Of its two operative paragraphs, the first differentiates among agreements with foreigners: treaties, executive-congressional agreements, and "mere" executive agreements.
That leads to the payoff in the second stanza: Any executive agreement entered-into now could be overturned later "with the stroke of a pen," presumably, but not necessarily by a GOP heir to the Presidency. In a suggestion of Republican hegemony over the Senate, which, after all, dates from ? January, the letter reveals that a majority of that body could also dash the gestating agreement on jagged rocks, by itself. Of course, that's a bit simplistic under Senate rules that effectively require 60 votes to even bring a matter to the floor, but that's a topic for GOP Civics Letter 102, the sequel.
In other words, take heart, GOP Base, the long, dark, re-elected nightmare of the Obama presidency is nearly over! And be sure to vote ? because a new Republican Prez might cancel an agreement whose specific terms are unknown, and that doesn't exist yet.
Notably, seven GOP Senators: Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker of Tennessee, Dan Coats of Indiana, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Susan Collins of Maine, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska declined to sign-on. They have indicated that freshman Senator Cotton of Arkansas may have suffered a bout of premature documentation, going off half-considered, and making it more difficult to later rally the necessary twelve+ Dems to achieve a veto-proof opposition.
It would also be interesting to see what, in fact, a new GOP Prez might elect to do if an agreement Is reached, and if it works as well as the current, interim accord is performing, in terms of suspending Iran's nuclear ambitions. It's not at all clear that he would upset such an apple cart, because then, as now, the alternative of no agreement may be worse. Sanctions did not stop Iran's progress prior to the interim accord, and military interventions would not likely be doable practically or politically, much less successfully.
Thus, this letter is really just another volley in the ongoing Congressional campaign to marginalize this President. As such, it will pass with the news cycle. Don't bother to stay tuned on this one.