Iran's nuclear ambitions are not a game. Tehran's progress toward developing nuclear weapons capability — combined with its regional aggression, enmity toward Israel, sponsorship of terrorist groups and disregard for territorial sovereignty — poses a clear and immediate threat to America's political and security interests. Against this backdrop, it is astounding that Sen. Marco Rubio and nearly all of his fellow Republican senators would send a letter to Iran looking to scuttle a potential diplomatic deal that could freeze Iran's nuclear program for at least a decade.
This was a reckless and self-serving move by a party that has no compunction about using its majority in Congress to drive a wedge on almost any conceivable domestic issue. But taking this tactic on the road to muddy the negotiations between President Barack Obama and a foreign government sends a disturbing message to America's enemies and allies alike.
In terms of substance, the five-paragraph open letter signed by Rubio and 46 other Senate Republicans verged on the ridiculous. In schoolboy language, the letter warns Iran's leaders that any comprehensive deal lifting economic sanctions in exchange for Tehran halting its nuclear program would need congressional approval. And any executive action by Obama could be undone "with the stroke of a pen" after his successor takes office in January 2017. For good measure, the senators added that Iran's closed leadership circle could expect to deal "with most of us" for the next several decades. Rubio, who appears to be planning a run for president, defended signing the letter, saying he "would send another one tomorrow." But as the criticism built by midweek, some Republicans such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona acknowledged that they should have given it more consideration.
That would have been helpful, but the damage has been done. Iran's Foreign Ministry rightly dismissed the ploy as partisan propaganda. But as talks near the deadline this month, the move gives leverage to Iran's negotiating team and emboldens hard-liners in the government who oppose a deal. It creates an opening for Iran to shift blame if it ultimately violates any part of an agreement. It tells America's partners in the talks — Europe, China and Russia — that the United States cannot be depended on to speak in a single voice on pressing national security matters. And it invites the same brinkmanship on foreign policy that already pervades domestic issues.
The letter also masks a larger point: Republican critics refuse to acknowledge that Iran will not — with or without a deal — entirely surrender its nuclear program. And they offer no alternative for returning Iran to the bargaining table if this deal collapses. They also have no strategy for delaying the amount of time that Iran needs (even with the current sanctions) to become a nuclear power.
Congress has a role to play in foreign policy. But it's one thing for members of Congress to meet separately with world leaders and travel overseas. It's another to ignore the White House and invite a foreign leader to speak to Congress, as the House did with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the Senate Republicans' letter to Iran is improper interference with delicate negotiations between the executive branch and a foreign country. It is about scuttling an agreement before there is one and undermining the credibility of this president.
The Obama administration and its partners have what may be the last, best chance to peacefully resolve the nuclear standoff with Iran. If congressional Republicans share the goal of all involved —keeping the military option off the table as long as possible — they will stop this dangerous game of brinkmanship and hold their criticism until a deal with Iran is complete and ready for an honest evaluation.