AS the United States and Iran come close to a nuclear deal, the party of paranoia asserts itself. Forty-seven Republican Senators, led by Tom Cotton of Arizona, wrote a condescending letter to the “leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” on March 9. The letter sought to explain the constitutional niceties of the U.S. to the Iranians, and to indicate, therefore, that any deal signed by President Barack Obama was merely an “executive agreement” and not binding on future governments. In other words, the Republican Senators sent a message that the nuclear negotiations were futile, that “with the stroke of a pen” the deal could be invalidated.
Obama denounced the Republican letter as “wanting to make common cause with the hardliners in Iran”. Talk of treason wafted through liberal salons in Washington. The New York Times editors called the letter “disgraceful”. Negotiations in Geneva over the nuclear deal did not stall. The Iranian delegation, led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, stayed focussed on the deliberations. In a short note of his own on international civics, Zarif said: “I should bring one important point to the attention of the authors and that is, the world is not the United States, and the conduct of inter-state relations is governed by international law, and not by U.S. domestic law…. Change of administration does not in any way relieve the next administration from international obligations undertaken by its predecessor in a possible agreement about Iran’s peaceful nuclear programme.”
U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden said that in his 36 years in the U.S. Senate, he had not seen a minority party try to influence foreign policy and undermine the President. He is perhaps correct. But 47 years ago, Richard Nixon, as the U.S. Republican presidential candidate, sent his friend Anna Chennault to advise the South Vietnamese to refuse to attend the talks. “We are going to win,” she told Bui Diem, South Vietnam’s Ambassador to the U.S., and that the Republicans would give the South a better deal. This intercession stalled the peace talks, which lingered on until 1973, with tens of thousands more dead on the U.S., Vietnamese and Cambodian sides.
Nevertheless, exactly 36 years ago, when Biden was in the Senate, the Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan’s campaign is said to have influenced the new Iranian regime to benefit Reagan. Iran held 52 U.S. hostages, taken from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. President Jimmy Carter came close to being able to exchange them, when Reagan’s team approached a pair of Iranian arms dealers (Jamshid and Cyrus Hashmi) to open a channel to the new Iranian government. If the Iranians scuttled the deal, the new Republican administration would provide them with arms (via Israel) and unfreeze monetary assets. The Iranians were assertive, Carter looked weak, Reagan won, and Tehran freed the hostages for its arms and money.
Nixon and Reagan’s Republicans resorted to nefarious manipulation of foreign affairs to weaken sitting Democratic Presidents and their rivals for the presidency. Cotton’s manoeuvre is intended to weaken Obama, of course, but it has far greater ambitions. It is to retain the view of a dangerous Iran and a threatened Israel, to provide the emotional basis for U.S. intervention in West Asia. The Republican narrative undermines any basis for regional threat management. A nuclear deal would put pressure on Saudi Arabia, for instance, to make a bargain with Iran, and for these two regional powerhouses to dial down their mutual animosity. Peace in West Asia threatens Israel, whose occupation of Palestinian territory is best conducted when its neighbourhood is chaotic.
Israel’s Republicans Cotton is not an ordinary Senator. He is a protege of the Emergency Committee on Israel, a loyal adjutant of Washington’s Israel lobby. During the last Israeli war on the Gaza Strip, Cotton called the Israeli armed forces “the most moral, humanitarian fighting force in the world”. His view of the destruction of Gaza was utterly out of sync with that of international human rights monitors. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said of the Israeli violence that there was a “strong possibility that international law has been violated in a manner that could amount to war crimes”.
None of this bothered Cotton. His fealty to Israel means he is unwilling to look reality in the eye. Some of this is likely motivated by the three quarters of a million dollars donated to his campaign for the Senate by the Emergency Committee on Israel.
It is Cotton’s link to the Israel lobby (including funders Paul Singer and Sheldon Adelson) that led to the invitation for prime ministerial candidate Benjamin Netanyahu to address the U.S. Congress on March 3 just before Israel’s general election on March 17. If Nixon and Reagan manipulated foreign policy for electoral gains, so too has Netanyahu.
In 2012 and 2015 he came to the U.S. Congress to deliver a speech excoriating Iran and Obama, as a way to shore up support among his base in Israel. Netanyahu’s 2015 speech said nothing new, so much so that the Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi accused him of “condescending to the American people”. The point of the speech was not to actually reveal any new facts about Iran. It was to prove that Netanyahu had leverage over the Republicans, and he would, therefore, influence them to undermine the Iran nuclear deal.
Cotton’s letter to Iran suggested familiarity with the U.S. Constitution. This has not stopped him from borderline violations of the Constitution in his own legislative attempts. In 2013, Cotton sponsored an amendment to the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act. He wanted to punish not only those who violated the sanctions regime against Iran with long prison sentences, but wanted to send their entire families—“parents, children, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, grandparents, great grandparents, grandkids, great grandkids”—to prison. In other words, a family would be liable for the actions of an individual. Fortunately, this amendment was struck down. It does, however, reveal the ferocity of Cotton’s campaign against Iran and his urge to prove to the Israel lobby that he is as unyielding as it would like.
ISIS, Mexican drug gangs, Iranians The Republicans in current Congress seem driven by a view of the world that verges on comical paranoia. Hatred of immigrants is commonplace among them. It is fitting, therefore, to merge all the dangers of our time into the hatred of immigrants. Cotton said at a discussion in Arizona: “Groups like the Islamic State [ISIS] collaborate with drug cartels in Mexico who have clearly shown they’re willing to expand outside the drug trade into human trafficking and potentially even terrorism. They would infiltrate our defenceless border and attack us right here in places like Arizona.”
There is no evidence of any Islamic State activity in Mexico, and none whatsoever of collaboration of Mexican drug gangs and the Islamic State. What Cotton does, without evidence, is to link the fear of dangerous groups and manipulate anxiety and anger into political support. Such a linkage is not new. During his presidential run, Mitt Romney accused the Lebanese political and military force Hizbollah of “working throughout Latin America, in Venezuela, in Mexico, throughout Latin America, which poses a very significant and imminent threat to the United States of America”. Evidence for this is non-existent, but Cotton repeated it on NBC’s Meet the Press in 2014. (Hizbollah, he said, was “collaborating with locals in Mexico to cross our borders, attack us here”.)
In 1964, the American historian Richard Hofstadter wrote an essay called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”. Hofstadter noted that U.S. politics “has often been an arena for angry minds”. Worse than that, he wrote, was the paranoid style. The paranoid politician, Hofstadter argued, “is always manning the barricades of civilisation”. Politics, for the paranoid style, was not the art of discussion and compromise but of “a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil…. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated”. This is why Cotton says that Iran is like Nazi Germany, the cliched analogy for a power that is unappeasable. ISIS-Mexican drug gangs-immigrants: the threats are legion. Only the Republican leadership will provide enough military force to protect the country. Negotiations lead to terrorism and infiltration.
Cotton’s letter and Netanyahu’s visit pushed Democrats, who are otherwise wary of Iran, to refuse to collaborate with Republicans to undermine Obama’s negotiations. One mechanism before Cotton’s group was to push a Bill for much tighter sanctions and then garner enough Democratic votes so as to undermine an Obama veto. With the Republican paranoia and disrespect for Obama on full display, Cotton has lost his Democratic allies. The focus moved away from Tel Aviv and Washington and back to Geneva, where the nuclear negotiations are moving ahead full tilt. The U.S. has realised that animosity towards Iran is no help in a difficult West Asia.
The nuclear deal, built on compromise, is an essential first step towards a bargain for the region. It is precisely what the party of paranoia opposes.