The ham-fisted letter by 47 Republican Senators to Iranian leaders about the negotiation to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons program was from many perspectives ill-conceived and counter-productive. But, ironically, it might serve a very positive and constructive purpose. It all depends on how it is interpreted in Tehran.
From an American point of view, the best face that can be put on the letter was that it was motivated to persuade Iran to offer terms to President Obama that are not only acceptable to him, but also to the Senate of the United States, including members of both parties.
The worse interpretation, pounced on the the White House and some US allies, is that it was a gross attempt to scuttle the arms talks.
The letter argued that the Iranians should be put on notice that if they insist on terms that the Republicans in particular regard as contrary to US national interests, the next president and congress could easily–with the stroke of a pen–vitiate the executive agreement since it would not have the standinding of a treaty..
There is precedent for such action: A controversial arms control agreement with North Korea, negotiated by the administration of President Bill Clinton, was torn up by President George W. Bush on the basis the Pyongyand was blatantly cheating. It was not a treaty either.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatolah Ruhollah Khomeini dismissed the missive as “propaganda.”
It is anyone’s guess whether, if terms can be agreed among the parties, that the Ayatollah will accept it or reject it. Assuming the terms can be agreed, Khomeini now is in a position to blame the Republicans for his rejection.
And Obama in now in a position, should talks fail to achieve closure, to also blame Republican interference, rather than failure on the part of his negotiators to be persuasive at the bargaining table.
In either of these two cases, it might be difficult either for the Senate to impose tougher economic sanctions, or for many trading partners to observe even current sanctions.
However, recall that when President Bush sent forces into Iraq to go after Saddam Hsssein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, suddenly Iran put all of its nuclear weapons activities on hold, probably fearful that otherwise the US might put Iran next on the invasion list.
So if hardliners in Tehran interpret the Republican letter as an effort to scuttle the talks in order to open the way for a military campaign to destroy all known Iranian nuclear weapons facilities, they conceivably could decide that even a less than ideal diplomatic agreement would be preferable to facing two or three months of heavy bombing by the United States and Israel.
Sure Iran would be in a position thereafter to reconstitute the program it insists doesn’t exist. but only after having suffered colossal damage to the infrastructure that has been built, at a colst of billions of dollars, over a decade or more.
So if Iranian decision-makers, on the assumption that the Republicans might conceivably win the next Presidential election, think the GOP prefers the war option, to what they regard as a bad agreement, it might be advisable for Iran to offer an agreement that is less than ideal from its point of view.
William Beecher is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington correspondent for The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. He is also a former Assistant Secretary of Defense and is currently an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland.
This blog was also published by the World Policy Institute.