Forget the Cotton 47 letter. The new letters are where the action is.
Tensions between the White House and Congress over the Iran talks reached a boiling point over the weekend. A couple days ago, Senator Bob Corker, one of a handful of Republicans who took a pass on the open letter to Iran, sent his own letter, this time to President Obama. He asks the president if it's true that a nuclear agreement with Iran could go to the U.N. Security Council.
Corker told Obama that going to the U.N. before Congress would be "a direct affront to the American people." Senator Ted Cruz, latching on to what's a signature issue for Republican presidential contenders, chimed in that U.N. approval would be "patently unconstitutional."
Behind this concern about the U.N. is new legislation by Senator Corker and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). The bill takes the Senate Republican open letter's central thrust -- Congressional veto power over a deal -- and gives it the force of law. Given the smashmouth politics displayed by the Republicans' missive to Iran you'd be a fool not to bet that a quick up or down vote in Congress would kill the agreement. Sending the accord with Iran to the U.N. first might get in the way of some Senators' plans.
This concern about the U.N. is ironic given that President Obama's detractors had earlier touted U.N. Security Council resolutions on Iran. Senator Corker had blasted the administration for not pushing hard enough in negotiations, telling Fox News Sunday that he wanted to "hold Iran's feet to the fire to make sure they do things that are actually part of the UN Security Council agreements. " Senator Menendez, on "Face the Nation" expressed concern that the U.N. resolutions on uranium enrichment would be "ceded away" in a final deal.
Saturday night's response to Corker, signed by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, first sidesteps Corker's question about the U.N. to aim squarely at the Corker-Menendez legislation. The letter argues that bill is "likely have a profoundly negative impact on the ongoing negotiations - emboldening Iranian hard-liners, inviting a counter-productive response from the Iranian majiles [parliament]; differentiating the U.S. position from our allies in negotiations; and once again calling into question our ability to negotiate this deal."
McDonough goes on to point out that if Congress succeeded in vetoing the international agreement, Iran would lose all the constraints on its nuclear programs while sanctions could melt away. "Put simply," writes McDonough, "it would potentially make it impossible to secure international cooperation for additional sanctions, while putting at risk the existing multilateral sanctions regime."
The White House sees the Corker bill for what it is: as destructive in its own way as the Cotton 47's open letter to Iran. Columnists ridiculed the Republican open letter's efforts as a "complete goat rodeo" and "a troupe of treacherous clowns hellbent on circus-ifying anything the President tries to do." Papers throughout the country condemned the open letter to Iran calling it "shocking", "reckless", and "dangerous". But if the letter displayed a high-profile desire to torpedo delicate diplomacy, the less-blatant Corker bill has the power to bring that desire to fruition.
Any agreement is indeed likely to go to the U.N. at some point in the process. Only the U.N. can undo the U.N. sanctions. U.N. Security Council action is appropriate given that it's the permanent members of the Security Council (plus Germany) that are negotiating the agreement and that U.N. consideration would solidify the agreement agreement's international legitimacy and keep the pressure on Iran to scrupulously comply.
Senate critics of Obama's diplomacy understand that the increased legitimacy cuts both ways. That may help explain why the senators are rushing to debate their bill this month before negotiations are concluded. They want the first bite at the apple -- before U.N. action solidifies support for the agreement.
Congress will, of course, have its say. The question is when. The White House has repeatedly agreed that Congress need only vote to permanently relieve U.S. sanctions if and when Iran has a proven track record of compliance. Congress can snap back U.S. sanctions if there are verified violations. Members of Congress should support measures that develop this type of oversight while opposing the Corker bill's premature up-or-down vote.
A veto of an international deal would be unilateralism on steroids. Then what? Then the drumbeats for war will start beating, because war is the only real alternative the Iran hawks have. Those who support this "veto-diplomacy" bill will be held accountable by voters -- and by history -- if the country ends up in another avoidable war in the Middle East.