Was Congress’ “Warning” Letter to Iran an Act of Treason?

Some bloggers and twitts are calling a 47-member Congressional letter to Iran an act of treason. Some Congress members, led by freshman Tom Cotton (R-AR), informed Iran that any deal reached without Congressional approval would not necessarily be honored in the long-term.

First, let’s talk about the letter itself. There are a few things that need to be addressed about it. For one, does Congress, or its members, have the right to interface with foreign parties? Technically, yes, though they rarely do. And the push/pull between Congress and the White House on foreign policy is apparently not a defect of the Constitution, but a feature of its famous “checks and balances.” There is a long history of Congressional roadblocks to the Executive branch’s foreign aims:

“Generally speaking, Congress does not try to upstage the president on major international issues but likes to keep an oar in the water,” says Donald R. Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. But other experts point to a number of examples in which Congress has openly defied presidents, such as refusing to approve the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and 1920, the overwhelming defeat of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999, and the ongoing opposition to approving the Convention on the Law of the Sea despite support by successive U.S. presidents.

So, this is not exactly a new situation. I would say the rejection of the Treaty of Versailles and the abortion of the League of Nations were part of a far more significant foreign policy scuffle.

So, Congress has the right to talk to foreign powers. But what about the content of Congress’s letter? Was it really so inflammatory? Not really. One thing you will rarely see in any of the opinion pieces calling out Congress as “literally” treasonous is any of the text of the actual letter. At all. Go ahead. Google “Congress letter to Iran” and see what comes up. I finally found the text of the apparently “open” letter in the Wall Street Journal after some searching. Here’s that link. Go read the letter.

Notice anything? It’s polite. It’s not inflammatory. And it is really not a warning. It is informative. Everything that is said is absolutely true. In some ways, the letter might actually un-sabotage the negotiations and save us from war with Iran. Because the fact is that if Iran gets a deal from the Obama administration that they’re happy with, and then Congress were to refuse to ratify it without any warning (which is their Constitutional right), that might be a far worse outcome for US-Iranian relations.

At the end of the day, all this talk of treason is overblown rhetoric based on a strawman. Congress did not sabotage anything. They told Iran where Congress stands. Which is actually important. As much as Obama would like to operate independently of Congress, their approval of this deal is technically more important than his. Like Congress said in their letter:

. . . The president may serve only two 4-year terms, whereas senators may serve an unlimited number of 6-year terms.  As applied today, for instance, President Obama will leave office in January 2017, while most of us will remain in office well beyond then — perhaps decades.

That is true. Which means that, in real, practical terms, Iran needs to consider Congress’s opinion as more important than the President’s.

Is that sabotage? No. It’s transparency. Iran, and the White House, might not appreciate it in the short term. But, in the long term, it was a good decision. At the very least, it wasn’t treason. Give me a break.