The GOP's Letter to Iran Was Bold, But Was it Accurate?

Most Republican senators have told Iran to ignore any deal with President Obama.

Arkansas Senate Debate

U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, answers a question during a televised debate at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Ark., Monday, Oct. 13, 2014.

Photographer: Danny Johnston/AP Photos

Last month, in a packed meeting room of the Conservative Political Action Conference, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton issued a warning to Iran. 

"The president is going to be in office for two more years," said Cotton, flanked by fellow Republicans like former UN Ambassador John Bolton and Navy SEAL-turned Congressman Ryan Zinke. "My term lasts for six more years."

A hundred or so conservatives applauded the line. At the time, it seemed most notable as an echo of what Bill Clinton said the 2014 trail, warning Arkansas voters not to make the Senate race a referendum on an unpopular president. As Bloomberg's Josh Rogin reported yesterday, Cotton turned the sentiment into an open letter to Iran.

"President Obama will leave office in January 2017, while most of us will remain in office well beyond then—perhaps decades," wrote Cotton et al. (The freshman senator from Arkansas turns 38 this year.) "Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement."

Cotton, the progenitor of the argument, is a graduate of Harvard Law School, so it was modestly ironic that the first head-shaking about the letter came from Harvard Law's Jack Goldsmith. "It appears from the letter," wrote Goldsmith today, "that the Senators do not understand our constitutional system or the power to make binding agreements." Cotton and all but eight Republican senators were Senate-splaining to the Iranians, while overstating exactly what the Senate did.

That's caused plenty of garment-rending and terror in the foreign policy community, but Cotton's hardly the first member of an opposition party to lobby against the president's foreign policy. Fourteen and a half years ago, a small team of progressive Democratic members of the House traveled to Iraq to bolster their case against a military invasion. Washington Representative Jim McDermott and Michigan Representative David Bonior (who by that point had lost a primary for governor, and was retiring from active politics) returned to the United States to insist that the White House's rationale for the war had been slippery, and based on scant evidence. 

The difference between that case and the Cotton case—well, there are plenty of differences, but the key one is over numbers. McDermott and Bonior represented a small rump of Democrats who made the party's leadership nervous. Cotton, as Rogin first reported, has signed up all but a handful of the majority party's membership, including every senator now considering a presidential bid.

In a short interview after his trip to New Hampshire, South Carolina Senator explained why he signed the letter, and why in his view doing so wasn't over-stepping constitutional bounds.

"Basically, I'm trying to let the Iranians know: Don't wait us out," said Graham. "That's in our lane. We created the sanctions, so this is not being 'commander-in-chief.' This is having a say about relieving sanctions we created. Like all other nuclear agreements, this should come before the Congress. I'm not going to tell the president how to run a war, but when it comes to sanctions, I want Congress to have a role in lifting them."

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