47 Republican members of Congress recently signed an open letter to Iran. This move prompted outrage among Congressional Democrats and irritated the White House. Secretary of State John Kerry said that he reacted with “utter disbelief” once he heard about the open letter. The media exploded with news about the letter and the subsequent responses from Democrats in Congress along with the White House. The reaction in Congress and the media to the letter is unwarranted. Similar situations such as this have occurred before, with no long term effect on US foreign policy. This open letter brings forward important points, and was not only meant to be read by Iran, but implicitly addressed to two other parties.
First, let us talk about the legality of such a letter. When news of the letter broke, some Democrats went as far to suggest that the 47 Americans be tried under the Logan Act, a 200-year-old piece of legislation that prohibits unauthorized Americans from conducting official negotiation with foreign governments. A petition expressing this sentiment got over 200,000 signatures. Unfortunately for the signees, they have been misinformed. As Professor Monica Bower, who teaches political science at Quinnipiac University, put it, “All the stuff flying around the Internet about Republican senators violating the Logan Act is click bait. I haven’t seen a single Constitutional Law professor say this is a real thing, for good reason. I used to teach Constitutional Law. Nobody’s going to charge anybody with this.” The Logan Act is routinely used as fodder in political confrontations between the two parties. When former Speaker of the Senate Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, visited Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2007 against White House wishes, she too was threatened with prosecution under the Logan Act by Republican Representative Steve King. Her visit lead then Vice President Dick Cheney to lament the interference of Congressional members in the President’s foreign policy in almost the exact same way that current Vice President Biden responded to news of the open letter to Iran. History repeats itself, and one fact rings true: The Logan Act has never been used to prosecute anybody. The legislation is over 200 years old and likely unconstitutional.
Now let us discuss who the letter was addressed to. At first glance it’s seen apparent that the letter is meant only for Iran. However, Senate Republicans actually intended for this letter to be seen by three different parties. In fact, the letter isn’t specifically addressed to any one person, the salutation reads “Dear Sirs”.
The first party the letter is meant for is the Iranian leadership. The letter does not lie. President Obama’s time in office is temporary, and a truly solid agreement would be best built with a treaty passed through the Senate instead of an executive agreement. The letter also serves as a reminder. Once this agreement is passed, Senate Republicans will not take their eyes off of Iran. As President Reagan once said, “Trust but verify.” The letter serves as a warning to Iran that an agreement does not preclude future action by the US.
The letter was also implicitly addressed to President Obama, mainly to bring forth an important argument that has frustrated lawmakers for some time. As Harvard Law Professor Jack Goldsmith writes, “That argument, in a nutshell, is that the President lacks the authority under the U.S. Constitution to negotiate a pure Executive agreement in this context. Almost all major arms control agreements have been made as treaties that needed Senate consent, and the one major exception, the Salt I treaty, was a congressional-executive agreement.” What these 47 Senators wish to make clear to President Obama is that all international arms control agreements require the approval of the Senate, even if said agreement may not impose any stipulations on the US’s own nuclear arsenal.
The last party the letter was addressed to was Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who recently spoke before Congress. The Republicans aim to show Netanyahu that they support him despite tensions between Netanyahu and the White House. The Israeli Prime Minister has publicly criticized the nuclear deal out of fear that it will be ineffective at stopping Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. This is important because the Israeli election is only days away and Netanyahu might not win. The Republicans wish to show Netanyahu that they will continue to be mindful of his concerns even if he is not re-elected. Now here is the one sentence sum-up on the letter: Not illegal, partly political, has legitimate points.