Senate Republicans Go Looking for Pen Pals in Iran

The only good news about the open letter that Senator Tom Cotton (R-Mad As Hell) and forty-six other senators addressed to “the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” is that they did not post it on Hillary Clinton’s basement server (“blazing fast DNS hosting, top adult portal for bored husbands…”).

Instead, I presume, a junior Republican senator was dispatched to find an envelope and a mailing address for Iran’s leaders (“What’s the zip code for Paradise?”), if the Republican leadership can figure out exactly who is in charge in Tehran.

Although Cotton’s open letter does not indicate any carbon copies, it can be assumed that the bcc’s (blind carbon copies) included President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and Democratic colleagues nervous that their votes for Obamacare will cost them reelection.

In that sense, the letter is best understood as a ransom note. I am a little surprised the senators didn’t tell the Iranian arms negotiators: “If you want to see our President again, do as we say, and no one will get hurt,” and spell it out with letters cut from a magazine, maybe Commentary or National Review.


Earlier Iranian officials at court, receiving foreign envoys and correspondence.

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To whom is the letter addressed?

As a refresher course for those who gave up following Iranian governance after the Shah skipped bail in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran has a popularly elected president (Hassan Rouhani) and parliament (located in Tehran), but also a Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution (with its headquarters in Qom) that can reject candidates standing for office and veto legislation passed in parliament.

To make things more complicated—at least when it comes to getting the open letter in the right hands—Iran also has a Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (In his earlier life Khamenei was a government bureaucrat, so imagine former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi getting promoted to become pope.)

A wily political operative, Khamenei can overrule both the council and elected government officials, although of late he has been in and out of the hospital, suffering from cancer.

Beyond Iran’s Islamic federalism, other players who might want to take special delivery of a leadership letter include the Revolutionary Guards (think of China’s red guards, although without the same sense of humor), the military (which defeated Iraq in the war from 1980-88), business interests around the mullahs, and the voters, who in some 1000 municipal elections across the country are free to elect candidates of their own choosing, without interference from the clerics.

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Once delivered, however, I suspect that the Republican scarlet letter will meet with other obstacles.

Whoever receives the letter from Senator Cotton and his cohorts might get the same impression of the American Senate than many users of the Internet have formed about the oil ministry in Nigeria.

Read in Tehran, did the translation of Cotton’s letter sound like this?

Hello my friend from Iran. Our aim of contacting you is to seek your assistance in transferring the sum of thirty-five trillion Iranian Rials (IRR 35,000,000,000,000) that were found in President Obama’s birthing room in Kenya.

Fortunately, the President trusts all of the undersigned, forty-seven senators with handling this confidential transaction. For now the money is kept in a secret vault, awaiting your cooperation.

Because of an illness to my brother-in-law, we are not able to get pay day loans for all these money. If you would kindly wire to us the combination of your nuclear secrets, we would make promise that in the future your can welcome KFC to your shores without any meddling by the president’s.

Please rest assured that there is no risk involved since we take care of everything here in Washington.

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Another possibility that explains why forty-seven (presumably adult) U.S. senators decided to go along with a chain letter is that those toward the top of the signature list—for example, Senators Mitch M. McConnell and Joni K. Ernst—expect within “fourteen days” to receive $80 dollars from total strangers. (“If you send this letter along with five dollars to the names of the first six Republican senators on this list, your name will be added to the bottom. It will move up a notch every time the letter is re-mailed to a rogue state. When your name gets to the top, you will be deported to Iran.”)

Maybe the chain-letter gang is also hoping to receive anonymously a reprinted edition of the U.S. Constitution that includes a reference to what the Cotton letter describes as a “congressional-executive agreement” that “effectively requires a three-fifths votes in the Senate.”

The 1789 Constitution (what happened to all those copies in the breast pockets of Tea Partiers?) covers many subjects of consequence—including the slave trade (expiring in 1808), the $20 threshold for common law to kick in during commercial disputes, the quartering of soldiers in the peacetime army, and, under Article II, Section 2, that the Supreme Court has just as much right as the Senate to approve Treaties. But omitted from the founding document is any mention of the referenced “congressional-executive agreements” and other points that the Cottonites tried to slip past constitutionally challenged Iranians.

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Pity Iran’s leadership, with their nervous translators and ill Supreme Leader, trying to make sense of the letter, and especially this sentence: “What these two constitutional provisions [dealing with presidential term limits and the lack of any for senators] means 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.”

Not even my beloved fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Newton, could diagram such a convoluted sentence, although I can well imagine her asking, in bold, rounded script:

* “Who is the ‘we’ here: the full Senate or the rogue Republican minority who signed the letter? Forty-seven is a not a majority, is it?”

* “Why do you assume the American president is dealing directly with Iran’s Supreme Leader and not its president and foreign minister?”

* “Since when does the U.S. Constitution give the Senate or Congress anything more than ‘advice and consent’ when it comes to approving Treaties?”

* “I am pleased that you are trying to write a grown-up letter, but next time, please, think before you write something as tautological as: ‘Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement.’ I know you can do better.”

For the moment the only Iranian response to the letter has come from the Supreme Leader who said (showing a grasp of American politics): “The negotiating team that President has chosen for the talks are good, trustworthy and act based on the interests of the country. But I’m worried because the other side is cunning, deceitful and back-stabbing.”

Otherwise copies of the letter must have gotten a few routing stamps and will get filed in the Iranian archive near, perhaps, where they keep the Bible and cake that President Reagan sent over in 1986 with arms-former hostages negotiator, Robert C. “Bud” McFarlane.

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It’s a pity that the mullahs did not elaborate on the civics lesson Senate Republicans were offering and ask in return: If the U.S. Constitution governs the nuclear negotiations with President Obama’s team, why, then, are not the economic sanctions imposed against Iran also subject to the same constitutional safeguards?

Maybe someone in Iran could write a letter such as this one?

Thank you for “enriching” (your word, not ours) our knowledge of your constitutional system. Someone in our office has found a copy of this document, which we find most interesting, and we would like to ask you the following questions.

By imposing sanctions against Iran and its economy, are you not, by extension, applying American law into our jurisdiction? If so, should Iran not enjoy protection under your Constitution, before any penalties and sanctions are levied?

In particular, we wonder if Iran has benefited from protection under those clauses in the Constitution that promise: freedom of religion (First Amendment), the right to bear arms (Second Amendment, and which we hear is very popular among your supporters), due process (Fifth Amendment), right to a speedy trial (Sixth Amendment), and trial by jury (Seventh Amendment).

As we now know that Congress alone can declare war, can you please, by return mail, enclose a copy of the declaration of war against the Islamic Republic of Iran that has entitled your government to supply weapons to Iraq (1980-88), send armed ships in the Persian Gulf and Iranian territorial waters, and engaged in other forms of combat against our country?

Finally, regarding the Iranian nuclear program, may we remind you that it was your beloved president, Richard Nixon, who first turned a blind eye to the Shah’s “enrichment” (that word again) programs and who provided Iran with early transfers of nuclear technology (including some from your ally Pakistan) in this regard?

Yours sincerely,

PS We were very surprised to find no mention of God in your Constitution. Is this a misprint? Is our copy of out of date? We also very much approve of your article 18, abolishing the consumption of liquor.

* * *

Probably the only reason that Iran is negotiating with the United States over its nuclear future is because the petroleum market is in the doldrums and sanctions have the electorate on recession’s edge. What does it have to lose by listening to some options? (The San Francisco 49ers probably are not going to trade Quarterback Colin Kapernick, but they will always entertain offers.)

With oil below $50 a barrel and world consumption down, Iran is having a harder time subsidizing mullahnomics, which combines the efficiencies of the old Yugoslavia with the bureaucracy of India. Still it gets by, with a little help from the Chinese, and gasoline at $1 a gallon.

The sanctions mean fewer tourists, little new foreign investment, no use of credit cards, frozen international banks, isolated corporations, and a slowdown in the oil trade. Nevertheless, Coca Cola is still available everywhere across the country, and when the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs demands payment for visas, its tender of choice is American dollars. And the nuclear work is off the grid.

Without having any direct proof, I suspect also that the sanctions are a useful tool for the mullahs to keep a lid on the population, much as the trade embargo played into the captive hands of the Castro brothers in Cuba.


Sanction-free chicken in Iran.

For rejoicing Republicans, the splash of the Iranian letter must give it the feel of a winning lottery ticket. Reader’s Digest used to plaster on its junk mail the breathless news that “You may have already won a million dollars.” All that was required to collect was to subscribe to the Digest for two years, and then look forward to articles that preached from the same xenophobic prayer book as that which has Senator Cotton in rapture. (“I Am Joe’s Imam.”)

The pen-pal Republicans can only hope that with their billet-dour they will have: scuppered the Iranian nuclear deal; shown faith to the couch-surfing Benjamin Netanyahu; told Texas and petroleum patrons of the party that at no time soon will Iran flood the otherwise soft market for West Texas Intermediate; talked tough to the public face of terror; kicked desert sand in the eyes of those girly-men Messrs. Obama and Kerry; and, with luck, positioned the 2016 election as a choice between the inevitable Republican Bismarck and Lady Clinton of Benghazi-Tehran-Damascus-ISIS-and-Afghanistan, those flags of inconvenience for an administration tilted heavily toward Islamic appeasement.

Whether Senate Republicans can afford the return postage on their Iranian missive is another question—the US at or near war in Libya, Yemen, Syria, Kurdistan, Iraq, Gaza, Afghanistan, and next-up with 80 million Iranians might stretch even American exceptionalism. Nor does it help such a mournful cause that in making their ransom demands, the Lettermen reduced the literacy of the American Congress to that of a correspondence class.

All photographs by Matthew Stevenson.

Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author, recently, of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited and Whistle-Stopping America He has just returned from Iran and lives in Switzerland.



Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.