In the Supreme Leader We Trust

Set aside D.C.’s partisan follies and there are real questions both sides should be asking about our Iran policy.

(FILES) Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah
(FILES) Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah
Tehran, IRAN: (FILES) Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers the sermon of the weekly Friday noon prayer at Tehran University, 13 October 2006. Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is suffering from a severe bout of flu, the semi-official Fars news agency said on Wednesday, denying persistent rumours about his illness and even reports that he had died. AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

And we have a winner!

And we have a winner!

In a Congress full of partisan hacks, nitwits, and know-nothings, young Tom Cotton of Arkansas really had to do something special to have his blunder considered more awful than the prior lows, missteps, and gaffes that have come to symbolize this bleak era in the history of America’s legislative branch. But the letter he authored to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, represents the worst single example of partisan meddling in an ongoing international negotiation in modern American history.

The letter, co-signed by 46 other Republican senators, shows far more than a complete disregard for America’s long-standing tradition of having partisanship stop at the water’s edge. It represents a clear effort to undermine the constitutionally mandated responsibility of the president of the United States to conduct U.S. foreign policy. It also simultaneously damaged American credibility in the eyes of the other nations with which we are involved in the negotiating process and in the eyes of the Iranians with whom we were negotiating. Think of the precedent: If Congress simply sent out letters saying, “We will overturn whatever the president agrees to,” who would negotiate with us after that? And not just on one issue, but on anything?

Cotton and his colleagues are clearly not ready for prime time. If a young, inexperienced executive arrived at a company and made such a blunder in his first 60 days, he’d be out the door on his keister in milliseconds. But not only did Cotton decide to make this grandly stupid gesture out of a stunning surfeit of ignorance, but almost half the U.S. Senate had the bad judgment to go along with him. All of them showed not only a disregard for the Constitution, but as Leslie Gelb rightly noted on the Daily Beast, also a disregard for actually trying to make progress defanging Iran. Not secondarily, their move demonstrates a deeply flawed understanding of international law. And in a telling show of irony, no one articulated that quite so well as Iran’s canny foreign minister, Javad Zarif.

Finally, the true test of the egregiousness of this move is illustrated by the fact that it so quickly overshadowed the newly minted worst moment in the history of partisan foreign-policy meddling: the invitation extended by House Speaker John Boehner to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — an event that took place only the week before.

We’re in new territory here, folks. There has always been partisanship in Washington. There never really was a period of good old days despite what the old-timers say. After all, Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton. But what we’re seeing here now is the scorched-earth nihilism of a bunch of partisan yahoos who seem to quite literally believe that their purpose in life is to ensure nothing gets done in Washington or around the world on behalf of the American people. They unblinkingly and without pang of conscience have gone into the business of subordinating our national interests to their political agenda.

Not only is this ugly — and by ugly I mean Roger Ailes ugly; lowest-common-denominator, epithet-hurling, all-heat, no-light, cable-TV ugly — but it could not be more ill-timed. We have great challenges facing us abroad, and this is really not the moment to blow up our foreign-policy apparatus.

Furthermore, I should add that in part, the reason it is the wrong moment is that the other party in this food fight — the president of the United States — is not helping matters either with his own partisanship (and that of his team’s). And their own consistent foreign-policy bumbling isn’t helping matters either. This is a time of big challenges and complex issues that require the best in both parties to help each other help the American people find decent solutions. And what we’re getting instead are political suicide bombers who are blowing up initiatives that may have been shaky or ill-considered to begin with, but happened to be the only initiatives on the table.

It will no doubt be seen as wildly inflammatory, but let me describe the consequences of this behavior in the starkest possible language: Political dysfunction in Washington is a much greater threat to each and every one of us than the Islamic State will ever be. It is time that a concerted effort by reasonable people of both parties to restore something like a functioning bipartisan foreign policy be undertaken — with the same urgency we would require of any other effort to address a major immediate threat to our national well-being. (And save yourself the effort in the comments section: Such an effort does not begin with saying the problem is primarily the other party’s fault. These recent incidents are more the fault of the GOP on Capitol Hill. But Democrats have done their own damage in this regard. So has the president. Time to get over it and move on, or deal with more of the consequences.)

The Iran issue is a particularly good case in point because we need to strip away the partisan name-calling and reflexive positioning to fully understand it. It is too important and it is far too complex. You literally cannot see the truth of this situation through a partisan lens.

For example, I have seen smart, well-meaning defenders of the president argue that war is the only alternative to achieving a deal with the Iranians.


This is just not true. First, it is hard to imagine any circumstances under which this president will go to war with Iran. It’s just goes against his every instinct as we have seen. He is also too invested in this deal to let that happen. Frankly, that goes for circumstances in which Iran cuts a deal and then cheats. The White House can swear all options are on the table all it likes. We have six years of evidence that suggests otherwise, six years of the president being the one person on his own team most likely to block the use of force or even strong or provocative action when it is proposed. Might a breakdown produce more tension and more sanctions? Yes. But a war involving the United States? Very unlikely.

On the other hand, a deal does not guarantee that we don’t have a war. If there were a deal but certain other regional actors — the Israelis, for example — did not trust it, then they could take unilateral action. Is that likely? No. More opportune moments for that kind of action have come and gone. (Further proof that war is not a likely outcome.) But is it possible? Sure, especially if some in the region don’t feel that the deal in question really puts a nuclear Iran out of range, if they feel, as seems likely, that the deal leaves it a realistic possibility. So while engaging in an armed conflict is not likely, suggesting that a deal means the issue is completely resolved is also unrealistic.

Other rhetoric around the Iran deal issue is also open to question by critics on both sides of the aisle. The president and his team responded to Netanyahu’s critique by saying the Israeli prime minister wanted a deal that was so strong that it would be impossible to achieve. The implication was that the only alternative to what some see as a weak deal is an impossibly strong deal. This is ridiculous. Gradations exist. It is possible to fairly critique this deal by admitting it is better than no deal and weaker than it ought to be. Just not in Washington. Not in the overheated debate of today.

It is also not necessarily the case that no deal is better than a weak deal, as some of the Iran hawks suggest. It is possible that a deal that is weak but is then well administered, carefully monitored, and assiduously enforced would actually make the region considerably safer than it would be without such a deal.

But there are other levels of reasonable concerns that we ought to be debating. There is the concern of important allies that such a deal represents a new tilt toward Iran. The White House can offer all the rhetoric it wants to the contrary, but right now one of the very biggest worries about its Middle East policy ought to center on the degree to which it depends on the goodwill of not just Iran but in particular of Khamenei. He is the last word on Iran’s direction. And not only is he going to be key to whether Iran honors any deal it strikes, but he is turning out to be America’s most important real partner in the battle against the Islamic State. We can deny it, but the facts say otherwise. It was Iranian-backed Shiite militias scoring the gains in Tikrit this past week. It is Iran’s Quds Force that is the pointy end of the Iraqi spear in fighting the Islamic State. The Iranian government is really guiding the Baghdad regime. What if its intentions are not simply to get rid of the Islamic State, but to assert greater power in Iraq or even to effectively annex part of it? That is certainly the kind of fear of further Shiite overreach that led many Sunnis to accept the Islamic State’s first moves as they grew more disenchanted with the last Shiite-dominated Iraqi government. Have we really thought through the consequences of depending so heavily on them?

And it is not just with the nuclear deal or the war against the Islamic State that Iran is the critical player. It is key to the outcome in Yemen, where Shiite forces have taken control of vast parts of the country, and it is the primary ally of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Iran is in fact the one making the big gains, taking the best advantage of the Middle East’s unrest right now. And therefore the success or failure of most of the Obama administration’s efforts in the region currently depend far too heavily on Khamenei. This is a man who views the United States as an enemy. Israel too. Many of our other allies in the region as well. He has openly supported terrorist groups like Hezbollah and has been a destabilizing force in the region as long as he has been in office. Certainly it is reasonable to argue that depending on him to such a degree should be viewed with concern, especially given his precarious health. Who knows who will replace him and what that person’s views will be?

In fact, critics of the pending deal who actually seek a safer Middle East and a safer world should really focus on figuring out how to take the best deal the United States (and the other nations involved) can strike and make the most of it. They should be asking: How do you offset concerns that it might be violated? How do you offset concerns that it might make our allies uncomfortable? Clearly, a broader regional strategy is required. Working with our traditional allies in the region — all of which are wary of Iran — we should support the development of a tighter alliance and effective capabilities to deter any aggression or mischief by the Iranians. We should work with the countries that helped strike the deal to ensure that the United Nations and all appropriate agencies are tireless in their enforcement of the deal and that very clear penalties for missteps are enforced. (This especially means that as sanctions are lifted, it is clear to the most important players in places like Europe, Russia, and China that the sanctions can and will be immediately reimposed with meaningful penalties added.

In fact, what should be clear to all is that just as the interim deal for which there is a March 24 deadline looming is only a step toward a final deal this year, so too should any deal be seen as just a first step toward a major Iranian policy reversal and the ramping-up of a broad array of measures to ensure that Iran is honoring the terms of the agreement. Further, and not secondarily, it is important that we do not become so mesmerized by the prospect of this deal that we ignore the consequences either of Iran’s active efforts to gain influence in the region or of the country’s other problematic initiatives, such as its ongoing cyberwar against us. We cannot reward Iran for an express intention to change its nuclear direction with a carte blanche to destabilize the region, seek to change its character, or attack us. When Blanche DuBois depended on the kindness of strangers, there was at least the possibility they might be people of goodwill. In this instance, we are depending on the kindness of a known adversary, and that requires a special kind of steely determination and constructive skepticism that only a bipartisan U.S. foreign-policy initiative can really bring to bear. When the likes of Cotton and Boehner willfully abrogate their responsibilities in that regard, they may think they are striking out at the president, but in reality they are putting their country at ever greater risk.


David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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