In early March 2015, 47 Republican Senators signed and sent a letter to Iran warning that any deal made with the President regarding Iran’s nuclear program might end when the President leaves office in January 2017. The letter was a dramatic step to demand a place in negotiations, lest the President be “too soft” on Iran. Seven Republican Senators, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), refused to sign the letter.
What’s the problem with the letter? The U. S. Constitution gives the Executive Branch (the President) the power and responsibility of negotiating international agreements. The President and other world leaders are currently negotiating with Iran regarding its nuclear program to reach an informal understanding by late March before a final deal in June. Congress has a part in ratifying those international agreements but a Congressman’s direct intervention with another nation’s leaders while the President is negotiating with those leaders is deemed inappropriate at best and treasonous at worst.
Accordingly, after Bloomberg News first reported the letter, criticism came from numerous camps and some of the signing Senators publicly began questioning the wisdom of their own letter.
Some criticism was gentle. Republican Senator Jeff Flake refused to sign the letter because “I just didn’t feel that it was appropriate or productive at this point.” In addition, Republican Senator Susan Collins remarked that it is “more appropriate” to advise the President than to advise leaders of antagonistic nations. Pointing gentle criticism at themselves, Senator Ron Johnson stated, “If there was any regret, tactically, it probably would have been better just to have it be an open letter addressed to no one,” and Senator Pat Roberts said the letter “could have been addressed to other folks and gotten the message out.”
Some criticism was more pointed. Several academics believe the letter damages this President’s and future Presidents’ ability to set foreign policy. Much of the pointed criticism came in editorials newspapers that previously endorsed successful Republican candidates who signed the Iran letter. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, which endorsed Republican Senator Rob Portman’s 2010 candidacy, said, “The magnitude of this disgraceful decision shows the degree to which partisanship has gobbled up rationality on foreign policy,” and the Cincinnati Enquirer, which also endorsed Portman, stated that the letter “diminishes the dignity of the Senate by disparaging the president and presenting an amateur lesson on U.S. governance.” The Telegraph of Nashua, which endorsed Senator Kelly Ayotte in 2010, stated, “One wonders how loud and angry the Republican response would have been if a petty clan of Democratic senators had written an open letter to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev” during nuclear disarmament talks with President Reagan. Even Charles C. W. Cooke of “The National Review” wrote, “For what it is worth, I consider the letter to have been something of a political, if not a legal, blunder.”
The worst criticism by far comes from the Democrats, some of whom claim the Iran letter violates the Logan Act, passed in 1799 and codified in 18 U.S.C. § 953 (2004), which makes it a federal felony for unauthorized citizens to negotiate with foreign governments having a dispute with the U.S. In fact, there is an online petition supporting prosecution of the signing Senators. The petition, which needs merely 100,000 signatures by April 8, 2015, already has far more than that: 292,612 as of March 15, 2015. Supposedly, nobody has ever been convicted of violating the Logan Act and I doubt the signing Senators will be convicted of any offense. At worst, it seems they’ve made a political misstep that harms their cause.
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