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Congress tries to go beyond trolling on foreign policy. It won’t work.

Congressional Republicans are trying to sabotage the Iran negotiations by goading their counterpart hardliners in Iran. Here's why it won't work.

In this Feb. 27, 2014 photo, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: is a)  waving to a crowd during a meeting in Tehran; or b) raising his hand to tell someone he’s fully briefed on Article I of the U.S. Constitution? (AFP photo/HO/Iranian supreme leader Web site)

Well, if Bloomberg’s Josh Rogin is correct, Congress has really stepped up in its effort to out-troll President Obama on foreign policy:

A group of 47 Republican senators has written an open letter to Iran’s leaders warning them that any nuclear deal they sign with President Barack Obama’s administration won’t last after Obama leaves office.
Organized by freshman Senator Tom Cotton and signed by the chamber’s entire party leadership as well as potential 2016 presidential contenders Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, the letter is meant not just to discourage the Iranian regime from signing a deal but also to pressure the White House into giving Congress some authority over the process.

Now, on the one hand, I get what Senate Republicans are trying to do here. They don’t like the contours of the deal that’s being negotiated, and they really don’t like Barack Obama’s enthusiasm for bypassing a truculent Congress via executive actions on Iran. So if the Senate GOP can signal to Iranians that an executive agreement isn’t that much of a credible commitment device, maybe they can scuttle a deal they dislike with the white-hot passion of a thousand suns. It’s certainly a better gambit than, say, this ad.

That said, there are still a few confusing aspects about this. First, there’s the question of the law. I don’t think an open letter from members of the legislative branch quite rises to Logan Act violations, but if there’s ever a trolling amendment to the Logan Act, this would qualify.

That point aside, the Republican senators appear to be slightly off in their pedantic Constitutional lesson. See Jack Goldsmith’s commentary on the letter for more. I’ll just note here that if you’re a Republican, you really don’t want someone of Goldsmith’s stature to write, “It appears from the letter that the Senators do not understand our constitutional system or the power to make binding agreements.”

Second, the optics of what the senators are doing doesn’t look good. Essentially, GOP hardliners in the Senate are asking their counterpart hardliners in Tehran to scuttle a deal that neither of them like very much. Which leads one to wonder: how exactly would the GOP caucus in the Senate react if the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei listened to them? “The fact that the Iranian leadership listened to us hardliners proves that they are hardliners too! We can’t negotiate with them!!” It’s like Tom Cotton went into the GOP cloakroom and said, “Hey, guys, I just watched Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and it gave me a super-keen idea about what to do about Iran!!”

Finally, I’m growing increasingly convinced that this letter itself isn’t quite as credible as Rogin et al believe it to be. In his lead paragraph, Rogin overstates matters. If you go to the letter itself, the key part is this:

[W]e will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by 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 that paragraph is accurate. But, how likely would such modifications to the executive agreement be if a Republican won in 2016? Rogin fairly points out that both Jeb Bush and Rick Perry have come out against the agreement. I suspect that Scott Walker will oppose it just as soon as someone tells him about it.

But here’s the thing — path dependence is a powerful force in foreign policy. If — still a big if — Obama successfully negotiates a deal in the spring, that deal will have until January 2017 to marinate before the next president has the opportunity to scuttle the executive agreement. If Iran acts in a dodgy fashion, that’s one thing. If, however, they honor the terms as well as they’ve honored the interim deal, then the next president will be trying to sabotage an agreement that tamped down a major stressor in the region.

That’s going to be politically difficult. As I noted last week:

The thing about most foreign policy decision-making is that a lot of it is irrevocable. In some cases it’s literally impossible: the United States can’t un-invade Iraq, for example. In other cases, the cumulative effects of certain choices renders a particular policy essentially locked in. The United States can’t really renegotiate NAFTA or dramatically curtail its economic opening to China, for example. Instances in which a future president legally reverses course on a prior president’s commitments — like, say, the George W. Bush administration’s reversals on the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court — inevitably trigger severe diplomatic blowback.

Given that a deal with Iran is politically popular now, a successful deal will be even more politically popular two years from now. It’s certainly possible that a GOP president in 2017 could scuttle such a deal — but I’m dubious that it would actually happen.

Indeed, if anything, this letter could help bolster the Obama administration’s bargaining position:

Obama’s negotiators should intimate that whomever the president will be in 2017, they’re going to be far less likely to compromise on [Iran].
The great thing about this is that the 2016 candidates will be making Obama’s case for him. The one thing the 2016 campaign will produce in ample quantities is hawkish rhetoric. All Obama’s team has to do is point to these statements to make the case to the other side of the negotiating table about the need to deal now.

So, to sum up: Republican senators are trying to scuttle the negotiations with Iran. But not only do I think it won’t work, it might paradoxically help Obama.