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Ex-U.S. Official: With Iran Letter, “Reckless” GOP Places Middle East Hegemony over Security

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As nuclear talks advance before a March 31 deadline, we look at the fallout from the Republican open letter warning Iran against reaching an agreement with the United States. On Monday, a group of 47 Senate Republicans told Iran the deal could be nixed by a Republican-led Congress or future Republican president. “We will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei,” they wrote. We discuss the fallout from this unprecedented letter with two guests: Hillary Mann Leverett, a former official at the National Security Council who served as a U.S. negotiator with Iran and co-authored the book “Going to Tehran: Why America Must Accept the Islamic Republic of Iran”; and Ali Gharib, a contributor to The Nation magazine.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show looking at the fallout from the open letter sent earlier this week by Republican lawmakers warning Iran against a nuclear deal with the U.S. On Monday, a group of 47 Republican senators released the letter, which reads in part, quote, “we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei.” Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, dismissed the letter as propaganda.

MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF: [translated] This is a propaganda ploy and bears no legal value. This shows how worried one group is. There is no agreement in place yet, and one group is speaking about its content. In any case, a propaganda move has begun with Netanyahu’s address to Congress, and this is also another propaganda ploy. It’s regrettable that there is a group who are against reaching a deal. Of course, we insist that if we do reach a deal, it has to be one in which the rights of our people are observed, and we are sure that there are ways to achieve this result.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Zarif went on to warn, quote, “if the next administration revokes any agreement with the stroke of a pen, as they boast, it will have simply committed a blatant violation of international law.” Secretary of State John Kerry responded to the letter on Wednesday.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: My reaction to the letter was utter disbelief. During my 29 years here in the Senate, I never heard of nor even heard of it being proposed anything comparable to this. If I had, I can guarantee you, no matter what the issue and no matter who was president, I would have certainly rejected it. I think no one is questioning anybody’s right to dissent. Any senator can go to the floor any day and raise any of the questions that were raised in that. But to write to the leaders in the middle of a negotiation, particularly the leaders that they have criticized other people for even engaging with or writing to, to write them and suggest that they’re going to give a constitutional lesson, which, by the way, was absolutely incorrect, is quite stunning. This letter ignores more than two centuries of precedent in the conduct of American foreign policy.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: According to the website LobeLog, the senator who spearheaded the letter, freshman Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton, received nearly $1 million in donations to his election campaign efforts last year from the Emergency Committee for Israel, run by neoconservative pundit Bill Kristol. The Intercept reports Cotton was set to appear at a secretive meeting of weapons contractors the day after sending the letter. Secretary of State John Kerry returns to Switzerland Sunday in a bid to reach a nuclear deal before a March 31st deadline.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the letter and what’s at stake in the nuclear negotiations, we’re joined by two guests. Hillary Mann Leverett is with us, served as National Security Council—in the National Security Council under Presidents Clinton and Bush. From 2001 to '03, she was a U.S. negotiator with Iran on Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and Iraq, in which capacity she negotiated directly with Iran's present foreign minister, Javad Zarif. She is the CEO of the political risk consultancy firm Stratega. She will join Georgetown University as a visiting scholar next month. She’s co-author of Going to Tehran: Why America Must Accept the Islamic Republic of Iran. Ali Gharib is also with us, contibutor to The Nation magazine. His most recent piece is headlined “Meet Tom Cotton, the Senator Behind the Republicans’ Letter to Iran.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Hillary Mann Leverett, let’s begin with you. Talk about the significance and the effect of this letter. How unusual is it? Where was it sent? Who sent it?

HILLARY MANN LEVERETT: It really is unprecedented, from as far as I can determine and as far as legal scholars that I’ve canvassed can determine. It is really unprecedented. It’s really tantamount, if you could imagine, during the 1960s, if the Republicans in Congress had then written to the Soviet leader Khrushchev warning him not to negotiate with Kennedy over the Cuban missile crisis because the United States would bomb the Soviet Union two years later if the Republicans won the election. It’s really tantamount to that kind of reckless interference and dangerous, reckless interference for U.S. interests. The effect here—the conventional wisdom, I think, in Washington is the effect has served to just portray the Republicans as somewhat ignorant—or really ignorant—and marginalized.

But I think it actually is having a little bit more of an effect that should be taken seriously. In that letter, the letter that Nermeen read the quote from, that specifically honed in on how the Republicans warned that this agreement would be just between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei, is very insignificant. Any agreement that would be reached between the United States and Iran, first of all, Secretary Kerry said yesterday before Congress, would not be legally binding. So, whether someone signs it, to begin with, is a question. But even if someone were to sign it, it would be Secretary Kerry, who’s been negotiating it for the United States, and it would be Foreign Minister Zarif on the Iranian side. It wouldn’t be Ayatollah Khamenei. I think that that letter was—that sentence was inserted to make this an issue of who is President Obama, really to get to the ethnic and identity issues that the Republicans, in particular, have been pressing here in Washington, that somehow this is about Islam and Islamic radicalism and Muslims, and to tie them into this package, as Prime Minister Netanyahu did when he came to Washington and made his speech equating the Islamic Republic of Iran to the Islamic State, that they are two sides of the same coin.

In that context, President Obama has been in some ways eerily silent, and I think this is a serious mistake. It behooves the president to make the case, the strategic case, to the American people why a fundamentally different relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran is in America’s interest, not that we’re doing Iran a favor to welcome them back into the international community, instead that this is critically important for the United States, that after a decade of disastrous wars in the Middle East, we need a fundamentally different policy, and that starts with a fundamentally different relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran. But I’m afraid the administration isn’t making that case, because they don’t want, in some ways, to be seen as liking the ayatollah or Islamists in Iran or elsewhere. And that’s going to be a problem going forward with any deal. Even if there is some sort of technical agreement by the end of the month, that’s going to be a problem going forward, the administration’s inability to embrace a fundamentally different relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran—and I stress the Islamic Republic of Iran.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Hillary, some have suggested—even though Iran dismissed the letter as propaganda, some have suggested the letter may have made the U.S. appear an untrustworthy negotiating partner to Iran, thereby weakening the chances of reaching an agreement. Could you comment on that?

HILLARY MANN LEVERETT: I think the chances of reaching an agreement, from the Iranian side, are actually quite high. I was in Iran in November. I went to—I was invited to address a conference at the University of Tehran—kind of funny, in a way—on the future of American executive-legislative relations in the wake of the midterm elections here and the capture of the Senate by the Republicans. So I think in Iran they have a very acute, sophisticated understanding of U.S. politics, and I think they went into these negotiations very clear-eyed. Foreign Minister Zarif, I liken him to the Kissinger, you know, of our times. He is a great statesman and a superlative strategist. The Iranians have gone into this negotiation very clear-eyed, without any mistaken wishful thinking that somehow Congress and the—particularly the pro-Israel lobby in Washington is going to embrace Iran. They went into this knowing what they were getting into. So I don’t think this is going to inhibit them in any way.

But they are certainly not going to—if there was any inclination to trust President Obama’s word or Secretary Kerry’s word, this letter certainly hurts that. They’re certainly not going to go down that road. I think they’re going to be even more focused on getting international guarantees—for example, through a United Nations Security Council resolution, through increased relations and cooperation agreements with Russia and China. Both the Russian and Chinese presidents will be visiting Iran this spring. So, Foreign Minister Zarif and, I think, the Iranian leadership, in their foreign policy and national security councils, they’re focused on getting what they want, they have a plan, and they’re not going to let these kind of Washington politics derail them.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking Wednesday, Republican lawmakers defended their decision to sign the letter. This is Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

SEN. RAND PAUL: So why do I sign this letter? I sign this letter because I sign it to an administration that doesn’t listen, to an administration that, every turn, tries to go around Congress because you think you can’t get your way. The president says, “Oh, the Congress won’t do what I want, so I’ve got to—I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got my phone. I’m going to do what I want.” The letter was to you. The letter was to Iran, but it should have been cc’d to the White House, because the White House needs to understand that any agreement that removes or changes legislation will have to be passed by us.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Hillary Mann Leverett, if you can respond to what Senator Rand Paul, one of the signatories to this letter—47 Republican senators signed this letter—has said? And he’s particularly significant given that he could be a presidential contender in 2016. And so, in Iran’s eyes, he could be a person, if he were to become president, who would do just what the Republicans are threatening, that somehow they would unsign the agreement.

HILLARY MANN LEVERETT: Yes, and also he has been somewhat of a different voice on the Republican side, certainly not someone who has been in lockstep with the neoconservatives here in Washington, something also that when I was in Iran was noticed. They understand what goes on in terms of American politics and who’s who in terms of candidates here and what they stand for. So it is particularly significant, this change, potentially, in Senator Paul’s position.

It’s also a little bit odd that you have Senator Paul not only lecturing—joining a letter to lecture Iran’s leaders, but now saying that in fact it should have been sent to the White House, where of course the president is not only a Harvard Law graduate but was a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago. And the last time I looked, you know, Senator Paul doesn’t have that kind of pedigree.

But even with that, I think what Senator Paul’s argument gets to, again, which is critically needed, is the administration has not made their case. President Obama has, at most, said, “Well, this is 50-50,” as if it’s a take-it-or-leave-it proposition to get an agreement with Iran. He has not made the case that we need it, in American interests, for a fundamentally different policy toward the Middle East that gets us off the trajectory for hegemony and dominance in the region, and instead allows a more natural balance of power in the region, where Iran can be a normal, strong state, to balance the reckless impulses of even some of our so-called allies, like the Saudis and even the Israelis. That’s critically important, but President Obama has not made that case. And so you’re seeing even someone like Senator Paul, who I think has had a more measured foreign policy approach than the neoconservatives in his party, come out to join this letter to demand, in a sense, that President Obama either make the case or come to Congress and let them do the foreign policy making.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to turn to comments made by Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton, the senator who spearheaded the letter to Iran. Just weeks into his first term in the Senate, he warned against a nuclear deal with Iran while speaking at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

SEN. TOM COTTON: First, the goal of our policy must be clear: regime change in Iran. We cannot and will not be safe as long as Islamist despots rule in Iran. The policy of the United States should therefore be to support regime opponents and promote a constitutional government at peace with the United States, Israel and the world. The United States should cease all appeasement, conciliation and concessions towards Iran, starting with the sham nuclear negotiations. Certain voices call for congressional restraint, urging Congress not to act now, lest Iran walk away from the negotiating table, undermining the fabled yet always absent moderates in Iran. But the end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of congressional action. It is very much an intended consequence, a feature, not a bug, so to speak. Third, congressional actions should start with crippling new sanctions against Iran. These sanctions should be immediate. They should not be contingent on further negotiations with Iran. On the contrary, Iran is achieving, through slow motion, all that it might want in a final deal, exploiting the Obama administration’s desperation to keep the negotiations alive and for a deal, any deal. It’s time for the responsible adults in both parties of Congress to stop this farce.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Republican Senator Tom Cotton, who led efforts to have this letter signed and sent to Iran, and authored it. So, Ali Gharib, can you talk about who Tom Cotton is? Your recent piece is called “Meet Tom Cotton, the Senator Behind the Republicans’ Letter to Iran.”

ALI GHARIB: Tom Cotton is himself a Harvard graduate and Harvard Law graduate, and he’s sort of gained conservative fame by calling in 2006 for James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times to be jailed for writing a story about how the U.S. tracks terrorism finances. And this was a sort of a young guy who’d left law school and he’d joined the military and was at the time deployed in Iraq. Now, that open letter that he wrote at the time—he’s a fan of the format—got the attention of Bill Kristol, who began meeting with Cotton when he was deployed stateside at Arlington National Cemetery in 2007. And they would, you know, according to The Atlantic, frequently go out for drinks together. And then, you know, over the next few years, they developed this relationship, years before Cotton entered politics. Eventually, he was elected to the House in 2012, spent two years there before becoming a freshman senator and immediately making a splash by distinguishing himself as the most hawkish member of an incredibly hawkish body.

And this letter is basically par for the course for him. It’s exactly what he’s trying to do, is end these—you know, you can just listen to Tom Cotton himself. He’s trying to end these negotiations. And he doesn’t quite say that the next step is military action, but it seems patently obvious that if you want U.S. policy to be regime change and you want them to have no nuclear program at all, there aren’t a lot of ways to accomplish that unless you’re going to attack them militarily. And so, this is basically the pattern. And it’s no surprise then that The Daily Beast reported that this letter was produced in conjunction with advice from Bill Kristol. Bill Kristol is a guy who’s called for attacking Iran for years now; literally maybe eight years he’s been calling for it publicly. And so, Tom Cotton has really been shepherded along. Nermeen, as you mentioned, he took in a million bucks for his campaign in ad buys from the Emergency Committee for Israel. These are exactly the type of neoconservative hawks who drove us into Iraq, and these are the people who have shepherded and really birthed Tom Cotton’s political career. It’s not a surprise that he’s here doing what he’s doing.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So could you explain why these people and these institutions are opposed to reaching a nuclear deal with Iran? What’s at stake?

ALI GHARIB: Well, I think part of it is what Hillary was hinting at before, that there’s a balance of power in the region. Especially a lot of these people are sort of ultra-pro-Israel hawks. And there’s a balance of power that they don’t want to disrupt, where Israel maintains a sort of—its dominance over its part of the region. And the Israeli hawks, especially Netanyahu, who’s in power now, but pretty much the broad spectrum of Israeli political opinion, is against any sort of détente with Iran. They think Iran should just be isolated and crippled, sort of along—

AMY GOODMAN: No matter whether Netanyahu wins or loses next week in the Israeli election.

ALI GHARIB: Yeah, I mean, there’s broad consensus there that there’s—you know, it sort of ranges from a fear of any sort of nuclear deal to Iran to outright opposition to it. There’s nobody there that—there’s nobody in the Israeli political system that’s making any sort of argument about Iran. It’s not an election issue. People don’t talk about it, even the leader of the Zionist camp, Labor leader Bougie Herzog. It just doesn’t—Iran doesn’t come up. Everybody is sort of in step with Netanyahu on it. They might say that his tactics are wrong, but not his strategy and his goals.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Bill Kristol is who said Iraq would be a cakewalk. He was the early big supporter of Sarah Palin.

ALI GHARIB: Right, this is kind of his record, is the combination of disastrous and unnecessary foreign wars and pushing sort of clownish political candidates who will help him carry out this agenda.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Hillary Mann Leverett, can you talk about who is negotiating this deal—I mean, if you read the letter from the 47 senators, it looks as if this is a deal between the United States and Iran—but in fact who the countries are, and also, interestingly, that right now Iran is helping the Iraqi military defeat the so-called Islamic State?

HILLARY MANN LEVERETT: Yes, but if I can just come back to a point that you were just discussing with Ali that I think is very important in terms of the balance of power in the region, you know, in the 1980s, the Israelis were not at all concerned about Iran’s nuclear program. They weren’t at all concerned about many of Iran’s other activities that they now profess concern about. In fact, in the 1980s, the United States wanted to impose sections on Iran for our concern about their connection to the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. And the then Israeli government, in a live interview by the then Minister Ariel Sharon, said that Israel would oppose sanctions being—they would oppose sanctions being imposed on Iran. That changes in 1990, not because of any change in Iranian behavior, but because the Iraqi military was essentially taken out after the invasion of Kuwait and the U.S. routing of Iraq from Kuwait. Literally six months after that, in early 1992, you have the first visit to Washington by then Prime Minister Rabin, who’s considered more dovish than the current prime minister, Netanyahu, and it was then that Rabin started to raise concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and the prospect of sanctions. And it was then, in 1995, that the United States first imposes its comprehensive economic embargo on Iran. So I think it’s important to understand that even though Prime Minister Netanyahu’s rhetoric is very vitriolic, there is something deeper in terms of Israeli concerns about the rise of Iran in the region, that could check Israel’s, what I would call, reckless impulses vis-à-vis its neighbors.

With that said, I think the change in the balance of power is already happening in the region, and it’s something where, to me, it seems a bit underscored by the desperation in Netanyahu’s rhetoric and the desperation in the rhetoric of this letter by Senator Cotton. The balance of power in the region has already changed, where you have Iran’s influence in Iraq is now being recognized as not a bad thing by the American general, Dempsey, yesterday before Congress. Iran’s influence in countries as far afield from Iran as Yemen is now recognized and not seen as necessarily a bad thing. Some in Washington would prefer there to be Iranian influence in Yemen than al-Qaeda controlling Yemen. So there’s already a change in the regional balance of power, and around the world, that I think the United States is perhaps, in an unacknowledged way, going—accepting in some form.

That comes into play with the negotiations with Iran. Even though they appear right now to be very focused on the U.S.-Iranian part, they do very much include the other members of the permanent—of the Security Council plus Germany. And in the Security Council, I think two of the most important players on the Iran issue are Russia and China. Now, they haven’t been very vocal in terms of what their demands are in the negotiations, but they’re going to be critically important for Iran going forward, not because of some military or nefarious reason, but because, particularly for China, as China is looking to, in a lot of ways, re-establish their Silk Road and balance against the U.S. encroachment toward them in East Asia by trying to re-establish this Silk Road, looking west into Central Asia and toward Iran, Iran is critically important. And I think we’re going to see an historic visit by China’s President Xi to Iran in May. So there certainly are a lot of other players, important players, here. And I think Secretary Kerry, in some ways, is doing a good job trying to juggle all those pieces and re-orient the United States toward a fundamentally new world, where the balance of power in the Middle East is already changing, the balance of power around the world is already changing, and the United States must accommodate itself to that.

AMY GOODMAN: And the U.S. being on the same side as Iran when it comes to the Islamic State?

HILLARY MANN LEVERETT: Yes. I mean, you know, in a different balance of power, where the United States is not seeking hegemony and dominance in the Middle East, where we’re not seeking to impose political outcomes or regimes in these various countries, in that kind of scenario, where the United States is not seeking all-out dominance and hegemony, Iran has to be an important—not just an important player, but an important partner. And, you know, I think American administrations have recognized that before. They certainly recognized that under the Shah’s Iran. But the Shah’s Iran was fundamentally unstable because it wasn’t representative.

What’s so important about Iran today as the Islamic republic, that we, many in Washington, in particular, don’t like, but is so important, is that it is pursuing an independent foreign policy, and it has an indigenously created, and therefore much more legitimate, political order—with all its flaws. It’s indigenously created, and therefore has an inherent legitimacy that a lot of the other political orders don’t. The focus on foreign policy independence, it may sound counterintuitive, but that’s precisely what the United States needs. We do not need, as Senator Cotton was advocating, yet another puppet government portending to carry forth American interests that are really contrary to America’s real interests, which would be for peace and stability in the region.

AMY GOODMAN: We are going to leave it—

HILLARY MANN LEVERETT: If a country—I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but I thank you very much, Hillary Mann Leverett, for joining us—


AMY GOODMAN: —who served on the National Security Council under Presidents Clinton and Bush. From 2001 to '03, she was U.S. negotiator with Iran. She's co-author of the book Going to Tehran: Why America Must Accept the Islamic Republic of Iran. And thanks so much to Ali Gharib, who is the contributor to The Nation magazine. We will link to your piece, “Meet Tom Cotton, the Senator Behind the Republicans’ Letter to Iran,” as well as your other articles on Iran.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’re going to Ferguson, where two police officers have been shot. They are in serious condition. It is not clear who shot them. A news conference will be held soon. Also, the police chief of Ferguson has resigned. Stay with us.

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