Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

At least someone still writes letters these days. After President Barack Obama and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei exchanged polite but inconsequential missives, Senate Republicans decided to get in on the act. On Monday, 47 of them sent a letter to the “Iranian leadership” warning that a nuclear deal could be revoked by the next president with “the stroke of a pen”.

With negotiators getting close to the broad outline of a deal over Iran’s nuclear programme, the Republican senators have found themselves in the awkward position of warning the Ayatollah not to trust an American president.

Audacious it may be but the letter presents part of a pattern of errors by Republicans who are almost all deeply sceptical about Mr Obama’s efforts at diplomacy with Tehran. In political terms, they have a strong position and could make life extremely difficult for the White House. Yet they seem intent on throwing that advantage away.

As the argument over the nuclear talks intensifies, the Republicans have two strong cards. The first is that anxiety over doing a deal with Tehran is a bipartisan issue in a Senate where Iran sanctions bills have passed unanimously in recent years. That unease was amplified by leaks last month suggesting that an eventual deal with Iran would have a timeframe of as little as 10 years.

There are two bills before Congress that have the potential to undermine the nuclear talks: a new sanctions bill and one that calls for Congress to approve any final deal. When they were unveiled, both bills had Democratic co-sponsors — not enough to override a presidential veto but still a strong first showing.

Second, there is considerable ambiguity about Congress’s role in the talks. The administration argues that any agreement will not be a treaty and therefore does not require a Senate vote. But a deal that commits to long-term sanctions relief will ultimately require Congress to repeal sanctions that it imposed. Members from both parties worry that the president is going to bypass Congress on an issue which he himself has singled out as a second-term priority.

It is, of course, an argument as old as the Republic, where the powers of the White House over foreign policy end and those of Congress begin. But history is also full of examples, most notably the Senate rejection of the Treaty of Versailles, when failure to bring Congress on board has curtailed a president’s ability to make long-term pledges overseas.

That means Mr Obama is entering the final stage of the Iran talks in what is potentially a very vulnerable political position, with even senior figures in his own party questioning his judgment and reading of the constitution.

Yet the relentless partisanship of the Republican case against the Iran talks is hampering their cause.

The counter-productive behaviour started with the invitation to Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress last week without consulting the White House. In between slamming Mr Obama for being naive, the Israeli leader contributed to the partisan mood by refusing to meet a group of firmly pro-Israel Democratic senators.

The result has been a backlash from Democrats uncomfortable at being asked to choose between their president and a foreign leader. When Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell tried to fast-track the bill calling for congressional approval of an Iran deal, the 10 Democrats who had supported the proposal rebelled. Robert Menendez, the New Jersey senator and the party’s leading Iran hawk, said he was “outraged” by Mr McConnell’s manoeuvre.

Democrats have been even quicker to denounce the Republican approach to the Ayatollah. Mr Menendez called it a “partisan letter”.

Even some Republicans admitted that it could backfire. Bob Corker, who chairs the Senate foreign relations committee, said it could weaken the chances of getting Democratic support for the two Iran bills, both of which he co-authored.

Mr Netanyahu argued in Washington last week that the White House should push for a “better deal”. However, Tom Cotton, the Republican senator who wrote the letter, has few such illusions. Mr Cotton has admitted that his goal was to scupper Mr Obama’s “sham nuclear negotiations”.

That is not an argument likely to win many Democratic supporters. But if the talks fail, that will make it easier for Iran to pin the blame on the US Congress.

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