Cynthia M. Allen

GOP’s letter to Iran distracts from the real issues at stake

There are plenty of good reasons to be infuriated, fearful, skeptical — insert an adjective of your choosing — over the Obama administration’s ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran.

For members of the U.S. Senate — the federal body that typically advises on and sanctions international agreements of such sweeping intention and consequence — the frustrations with the administration’s secrecy, obfuscation and refusal to invite input from lawmakers are particularly acute and completely justified.

But even armed with these valid grievances, the 47 Republican senators who this week signed and sent an open letter to the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran have probably made a strategic error.

While it’s worth noting that the single page of prose does little more than explicate the differences between executive agreements and international treaties that require ratification by the Senate, their ham-handed action is likely to help the administration and hurt their own cause.

And that’s a shame, given what’s at stake.

Over the course of the last year, members of the State Department have been pursuing what many congressional and foreign policy observers on both sides of the aisle perceive as a dangerous agreement with a nation that still tops the agency’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list.

Consider that in late February, just days before multilateral talks were about to reconvene in Geneva, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world’s nuclear watchdog, reported that Iran — in its grand tradition of evasiveness — was still shirking questions about suspected work on nuclear weapons and designs.

According to the New York Times, that prompted one European official involved in the talks to ask, “… does it make sense to lift sanctions against Iran before it satisfies the inspectors?”

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — leader of the United States’ closest regional ally — reminded anyone who would listen during his address to a joint session of Congress last week, leaked details of the agreement indicate it would leave Iran’s nuclear program largely intact.

Allowing such critical infrastructure to remain usable would enable the nation to quickly and readily produce “enough enriched uranium for an entire arsenal of nuclear weapons and this with full international legitimacy,” argued Netanyahu. And even Secretary of State John Kerry, in testimony before Congress, could not deny that possibility.

The administration says it is offering Iran an “extraordinarily reasonable deal” that would temporarily suspend the nation’s uranium enrichment program while lifting harsh economic sanctions that have devastated the oil-producing state’s economy.

But to many people, “reasonable” suggests that the U.S. is conceding too much while Iran is conceding too little, and that’s probably accurate.

What’s more is that the United States’ Arab allies, from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, have expressed great dismay over the nascent agreement. And fears any deal that would allow Iran to retain its centrifuges would spark a Middle East nuclear arms race are as terrifying as they are credible, not to mention entirely contradictory to the president’s early stated goal of achieving “a world without nuclear weapons.”

President Obama has tried to convince critics that the only alternative to the negotiations is war. But this argument is as false as it is transparent. Some members of Congress, including those in the president’s own party, have pushed for additional sanctions — an effort duly swatted down by the White House. Similarly, the president has threatened to veto a bill that would allow Congress to weigh in on the deal with Iran before it is finalized.

Members of Congress are wholly justified in their outrage. Excluding Congress from negotiations that could dramatically impact foreign policy in the Middle East for decades to come is as dangerous as it is disrespectful.

But in sending a letter to Iran’s government, the Senate signatories have made themselves the story and have taken the focus off the danger of the negotiations themselves. And they might even be inadvertently signaling to Iran just how good a deal it is getting.

Cynthia M. Allen is a Star-Telegram editorial writer/columnist. 817-390-7166.

Twitter: @cjmallen12

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