Opinion

Is It Really Crazy To Think Iranian Leaders Don’t Fully Understand America’s Constitutional System?

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer

Is it crazy to think that Iran’s leaders don’t understand America’s constitutional system? Despite what some liberal pundits think, the answer to that question is most assuredly “no.”

On Monday, Republican Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton released a letter addressed to Iran’s leaders signed by 46 other Republicans which details the role Congress plays in the ratification of international agreements.

“It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system,” the letter opens. “Thus, we are writing to bring to your attention two features of our Constitution—the power to make binding international agreements and the different character of federal offices—which you should seriously consider as negotiations progress.”

The letter goes on to warn Iranian leaders that if President Obama does not seek the Senate’s advice and consent on any nuclear agreement, future presidents and congresses will not be bound by its provisions.

“What these two constitutional provisions mean is that 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,” the letter reads. “The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.”

In response to the letter, liberals have called Cotton and his fellow GOP signers a lot of names, including “traitors.” Many critics have also mocked the idea that Iran’s leaders wouldn’t know how America’s constitutional system operates.

“This is a genuinely preposterous supposition,” wrote New Republic’s Brian Beutler, speaking of the letter’s premise that Iranian leaders may not be fully aware of how our constitutional system operates.

“So Iranians are supposedly savvy enough to build a nuke and keep it secret, but not to have Schoolhouse Rock-level understanding of US gov?,” MSNBC reporter Alex Seitz-Wald tweeted.

“Two possibilities: either Cotton and 46 US Senators *really believe* the Iranians aren’t sophisticated enough to be briefed on US law,” MSNBC host Chris Hayes said in a series of tweets on the subject, “which itself is embarrassing, or it was all a trash talking stunt meant for domestic consumption. Except they got served.”

Whatever you think of the Republican letter to the Iranians — and both Charles Krauthammer and The Wall Street Journal opinion page have argued it was a tactical mistake — it’s hardly outlandish to believe Iranian leaders may not be sufficiently familiar with how our constitutional republic operates.

Russian President Vladimir Putin runs a pretty sophisticated country, at least in terms of nuclear capabilities, and yet seems to have more than a few wild misconceptions about how our republic operates. As New York Times reporter Peter Baker recounted in Foreign Policy magazine, during a 2005 meeting between Putin and then-President George W. Bush, the Russian leader seemed to believe that Bush had Dan Rather fired for his inaccurate report on the president’s time in the National Guard:

Sitting down for a long, private discussion in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, in February 2005, Bush made his points about freedom, and Putin grew defensive. As he often did, Putin tried to make equivalences, justifying his actions by comparing them to situations in the United States.

“You talk about Khodorkovsky, and I talk about Enron,” Putin told Bush. “You appoint the Electoral College and I appoint governors. What’s the difference?”

At another point, Putin defended his control over media in Russia. “Don’t lecture me about the free press,” he said, “not after you fired that reporter.”

“Vladimir, are you talking about Dan Rather?” Bush asked.

Yes, replied Putin.

Rather was in the process of stepping down as anchor of the CBS Evening News after a report accusing Bush of not fulfilling his National Guard service turned out to be based on fraudulent documents. Bush explained to Putin that he had nothing to do with Rather losing his job. “I strongly suggest you not say that in public,” he added. “The American people will think you don’t understand our system.”

Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei himself as expressed bizarre views of how the U.S. operates. Khamenei, for instance, has expressed his belief that the U.S. government and “Zionist planning centers” were behind a Florida pastor’s Koran burning publicity stunt. Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji explained the Supreme Leader’s view in Foreign Affairs journal in 2013:

Another important issue for Khamenei is what he sees as actions that amount to insults to Islam. After the announcement of a possible burning of the Koran by a pastor in Florida in 2010, he asked in one of his public speeches, “What and who is behind the scenes of these evil deeds?” He went on to say that “a careful study of this evil occurrence, which came along with criminal deeds in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, and Pakistan, leaves no doubt that the planning and the operational command of these acts are in the hands of the system of hegemony and Zionist planning centers, which enjoy the greatest influence over the American government and its security and military agencies, as well as the British and some European governments.” Similarly, after the release of the film Innocence of Muslims in 2012, he published a statement citing the American and Israeli governments as “prime suspects for this crime.” He said that “if they had not supported the previous links in this rotten chain — that is, Salman Rushdie, the Danish cartoonist, the American Koran-burning pastor — and did not order dozens of anti-Islamic films from the cliques linked with Zionist capitalists, things would not have reached the point of this great and unforgivable crime.”

So is it really so irrational to believe that Khamenei is not particularly familiar with the nuances of our constitutional processes when he believes that “Zionist planning centers” are controlling the United States?

Now, you might say, “well, if Khamenei is not familiar with the details of America’s political system, some of the people briefing him must be, like Iran’s American educated foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.” Maybe, maybe not. But either way, Zarif seems to simply dismiss our constitutional process as irrelevant.

“The authors may not fully understand that in international law, governments represent the entirety of their respective states, are responsible for the conduct of foreign affairs, are required to fulfil the obligations they undertake with other states and may not invoke their internal law as justification for failure to perform their international obligations,” Zarif said in response to Senate Republicans’ Iran letter.

So whether or not you support the Republicans’ Iran letter, the idea that Ayatollah Khamenei and other Iranian leaders don’t understand or at least fully appreciate the significance of the role of Congress in the ratification process of any treaty is far from outrageous.

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