The letter to Iran, designed to undermine nuclear program negotiations between the Obama administration, Tehran and European powers, was signed by 47 of 54 Republican senators. The issue, underscored by a speech to Congress by Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu – at Republicans’ invitation – that railed against the deal, allowed Republicans to briefly unite on a policy point. The party has otherwise been riven by conservative and libertarian factions who disagree about issues such immigration, the economy and foreign intervention.
But the condescending tone of the letter, which suggested that Iranians do not understand the American political process, provoked harsh words from Iran.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Thursday during a meeting with members of Iran’s top clerical body, which includes President Hassan Rouhani. “The letter by American senators indicates the collapse of political ethics in the United States.”
“Governments are bound to their commitments by international laws and would not violate their obligations with a change of government,” he said. “They [the Republican senators] said they want to teach us their own laws but we don’t need their lessons, our officials know how to make agreements binding if there’s a deal.”
Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif called earlier the letter a “propaganda ploy” and derided Republicans for failing to understand international and US law. Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith notes that Zarif has a valid point: the letter incorrectly states that the Senate has the power to ratify treaties, which it does not – a fact stated even on the Senate’s own website.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the Republicans’ open letter’s “most profound impact” was to erode the trust of international partners and allies in the United States.
Earnest said “generations of credibility” were threatened by the actions of the Republicans, and that “that confidence in the United States of America has been undermined” as allies and other nations weighed whether the US would keep its promises.
“It’s not a laughing matter,” Earnest said.
Republicans briefly enjoyed a moment of unity by sending the letter, but their coalition cracked as several conservative congressmen and media outlets described the letter as a folly.
Corker, one of the few Republicans who did not sign the letter, told the Daily Beast that he “immediately knew that it was not something that, for me, anyway, in my particular role, was going to be constructive”.
Republican senator Jeff Flake said the letter was “not appropriate or productive”, and that the matter of Iran’s nuclear capabilities was “too important to divide us among partisan lines”.
Hawkish congressman Peter King also called the wisdom of the letter into question. King told reporters on Tuesday he thought the letter set a poor precedent: “I don’t trust the president on this, quite frankly, though I don’t know if I’d go public with it to a foreign government.”
Flake’s comments echoed those of Democrats who continued to excoriate Republicans over the letter. Senator Debbie Stabenow took to the chamber floor to quote former senator Arthur Vandenberg, a Republican during the second world war who she said “loathed” president Franklin D Roosevelt.
“‘Politics stops at the water’s edge,’” Stabenow quoted Vandenberg. “I can only imagine what senator Vandenberg would say if he were alive today,” she said, about Republicans who had “decided to throw away 70 years of wisdom and stand on the side of the ayatollahs”.
Florida Democrat Bill Nelson also urged Republicans to keep perspective: “We can disagree about the specifics but we still have to honor the institution of the presidency, and when it becomes matters of war and peace then we’ve got to unify.”
Obama said that the letter put Republican senators in an “unusual coalition”, saying: “It’s somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hardliners in Iran.” Vice-president Joe Biden said the the letter was “beneath the dignity of the institution I revere”.
Conservative media sources such as the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, both owned by Rupert Murdoch, also shied away from the letter. The Journal’s editors published an editorial calling the letter a “distraction”. Fox host Megyn Kelly asked Senator Tom Cotton, the letter’s author: “What’s the point in writing to the Iranian mullahs?”