The letter is brief, and can be read in full here. Republican lawmakers are opposed to the Obama administration's current overtures to Iran, a disagreement that was put into stark relief last week by the polarizing speech delivered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a joint meeting of Congress. This is yet another tactic to scupper a potential deal.
It starts with the patronizing premise that "you may not fully understand our Constitutional system" and goes on to explain, first, that any international treaty will need to be ratified by a two-thirds vote in both chambers of Congress and that, unlike the president of the United States, senators "may serve an unlimited number of 6-year terms." The message to the mullahs: don't get comfortable with any deal, because we're going to scrap it as soon as we can.
On the Lawfare blog, Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith describes the letter as "embarrassing," because it's technically wrong:
The letter states that “the Senate must ratify [a treaty] by a two-thirds vote.” But as the Senate’s own web page makes clear: “The Senate does not ratify treaties. Instead, the Senate takes up a resolution of ratification, by which the Senate formally gives its advice and consent, empowering the president to proceed with ratification” (my emphasis). Or, as this outstanding 2001 CRS Report on the Senate’s role in treaty-making states (at 117): “It is the President who negotiates and ultimately ratifies treaties for the United States, but only if the Senate in the intervening period gives its advice and consent.” Ratification is the formal act of the nation’s consent to be bound by the treaty on the international plane. Senate consent is a necessary but not sufficient condition of treaty ratification for the United States. As the CRS Report notes: “When a treaty to which the Senate has advised and consented … is returned to the President,” he may “simply decide not to ratify the treaty.”
Dan Drezner, writing for Post Everything, adds that the letter may "paradoxically help Obama" by persuading Iran's leaders to hatch a successful bargain now with the United States rather than further down the road after Obama has departed. Some argue that a deal pushed through by the White House will not be that easy to overturn later, especially if it appears to be working.
Whatever its effects in Washington, the letter is almost farcically condescending in word and tone. Iran's leaders are well aware of how the United States works. The country's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, spent the better part of a decade as the Iranian envoy to the United Nations; like many others in the Iranian cabinet, he was partly educated in the United States.
It reflects the willful ignorance on the part of many hawks in Washington who insist on seeing Iran purely as an irrational actor and a permanent regional threat. As WorldViews discussed earlier, Iran is problematic in many ways, and its regime plays a role in fueling proxy wars in parts of the Middle East. But one can argue that the same is true of Washington's chief Arab ally in the region, Saudi Arabia.
On Monday, Zarif issued a statement through Iran's U.N. mission in New York, saying "the letter has no legal value and is mostly a propaganda ploy." Zarif also takes the opportunity to play the pedant:
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.
The Obama administration and Israeli critics of Netanyahu seem to believe that it's possible to do business with the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Zarif's boss. Rouhani prioritized rapprochement with the United States after his surprise election in 2013. The Republican letter echoes the grimacing and stamping of feet of another set of hard-liners opposed to negotiations -- the ones in Iran.
This post was updated to incorporate Zarif's remarks.