The Republican letter to Iran draws a torrent of criticism—but was it treason?

Tom Cotton.
Tom Cotton.
Image: Reuters/Jacob Slaton
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Republican senators made an unusual foray into international diplomacy yesterday when they sent an open letter to the leaders of Iran, a move that attempted to undercut US president Barack Obama and scuttle a potential deal over Iran’s nuclear program.

The letter warned that an agreement would require Congressional approval, and that Obama’s successor “could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen.” Reaction came swiftly—from political analysts, Democrats, some Republicans, and Iran itself—condemning the move as short-sighted, misguided, and possibly even traitorous.

The Islamic Republic of Iran

Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, “expressed astonishment” at the letter, which he denounced as a “propaganda ploy”:

[I]t seems that the authors not only do not understand international law, but are not fully cognizant of the nuances of their own Constitution when it comes to presidential powers in the conduct of foreign policy. …

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 program. I wish to enlighten the authors that 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.

He pointed out the response to Tom Cotton, the Arkansas senator who organized the letter, on Twitter, in a mockery of Cotton’s own Twitter message.

The Daily News

The New York Daily News pulled no punches in its March 10 front page:

Americans calling for legal action

Whether the senators’ letter can be actually be cited as a traitorous act in the US or not is unclear, but petitions are circulating calling for the legal action to be taken against the senators, and Twitter users started #47Traitors to send messages to the senators involved:

Treason is defined by article III of the US Constitution as:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.

Some political analysts are asking whether the Logan Act, which forbids American citizens from negotiating with foreign governments without proper authority, might apply. US judges have ruled in the past that only the president, not Congress, does this negotiation, based on the act.


The Democratic opposition in Congress was, predictably, incensed by the letter.

“I can’t even imagine the uproar if Democratic senators [had been] writing to Saddam Hussein in the lead up to the Iraq War,” Sen. Chris Murphy told the National Journal. Republicans “have made it crystal clear that this has nothing to do with the merits of the deal,” he said. “This has everything to do with undermining the president.”

Vice president Joe Biden, who issued his own lengthy criticism of the letter, may have been alluding to the issue of treason or the Logan Act when he wrote, “I cannot recall another instance in which Senators wrote directly to advise another country—much less a longtime foreign adversary.”

Other Republicans

Seven Republican senators didn’t sign the letter, including Jeff Flake from Arizona. He told the Arizona Republic he “just didn’t think it was appropriate,” but added he was not optimistic about the talks. “I’m not very bullish on the chance of these negotiations resulting in a good agreement, or an agreement at all, but we ought to explore it,” Flake said. “We ought to give it every opportunity to succeed.”

Political analysts and internet bystanders

Whether any agreement with Iran will ultimately need some sort of Congressional approval remains a matter of debate.

One Australian lawyer told Iranian television he thought the letter could result in the senators’ impeachment, or worse. The “reckless and outrageous” letter provides “grounds for them to be impeached, if not actually prosecuted for treason,” he said.

Zarif’s reaction, meanwhile prompted creative interpretations, including this translation into “cat pic.”