Not Exactly a Billet Doux

by Henry Precht

Forty-seven Republican senators, unhappy with the prospect that the Obama administration and its five international partners will sign an agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program to peaceful purposes, wrote a letter of warning addressed to “the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” The legislators declared that “any agreement without legislative approval could be reversed by the next president ‘with the stroke of a pen.’”

This initiative raises several practical, legal, and, for the Senate, wonderful new opportunities for irritating but remunerative activity.

First, note the artful address line: the “leaders” of the IRI. The senators wouldn’t want to be caught sending a note—even an unfriendly one—to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. True, he makes all the important decisions, but writing to him would be legitimating him—like joining in a “Death to America” chant.

On the other hand, they could post the envelope to President Rouhani, who, albeit freely elected, clearly ranks only in second place and is (ugh!) a cleric to boot. Probably the senators wanted to make sure that the word got around by including as addressees all the leaders of the parliament, Friday prayers, Revolutionary Guards, and bazaar merchants. But pity the poor postman who has to deliver the envelope! He could well be stoned if he dropped it off at the wrong address.

If the central post office in Tehran stamps “Return to Sender” on the envelope, the letter would certainly go directly back to the initiative organizer, freshman Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. He’s the fellow who benefitted from $1 million in advertising support from the Emergency Committee for Israel (a militaristic neocon bunch). For that kind of money, they ought to be able to afford postage for every conceivable “leader of Iran.”

Legally, the senators might ask themselves (or Iran’s foreign minister who has a Ph.D. from the University of Denver in international affairs) whether their initiative violates the Logan Act. This 1799 statue forbids unauthorized citizens from negotiating with foreign governments. The most urgent question is whether there would be cell space in the Washington jail for 47 new offenders.

If, however, the senators are ruled not to be law-breakers, they might pick up and run with this judicial fumble. For example, they might consider the following epistolary devilry:

  • A letter to the “leaders” of Canada, England, and continental European countries could warn them that if they don’t terminate their embarrassingly cheaper and highly effective socialized medicine schemes, the US will deny visas to snow birds and other tourists.
  • French leaders might be warned that if they don’t shut down their extramarital dating Internet sites, which are quite offensive to the Republican conservative base, American wives will be prohibited from vacationing in Paris.
  • A freshly elected Republican president, dutiful senators could promise, will restore all sanctions and inconveniences inflicted on Cuba before Obama established normal relations. Future exceptions for refugee status would only be made for Cubans who contribute and promise to vote Republican or, alternatively, make significant donations to the Senate cigar repository.

Finally, let’s think about how Tehran might receive the 47-signature letter. We have already seen the reaction of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif who, as a kindly but no-nonsense scholar, mildly scolded the Republicans for their ignorance of international law. An executive agreement, once entered into, cannot be canceled by “the stroke of a pen,” he instructed. Further, senators must consider the position of the five other international participants in the agreement as well as the UN Security Council.

In the old days, the US used to send Peace Corps volunteers to Iran to teach them the English language and other technical skills. Now with more US-granted Ph.Ds in the Iranian than the American cabinet, perhaps the older civilization might dispatch a contingent of lawyers and teachers of governance to Capitol Hill.

Henry Precht

Henry Precht, a retired Foreign Service Officer, worked mainly in the Middle East. His assignments included the Arab-Israel Desk after the 1967 war, four years in Tehran as political-military officer, in charge of the State Department Iran Desk during the revolution and hostage crisis, and two tours in Egypt – Alexandria in the 1960s and deputy ambassador in Cairo 1981-85. Precht speaks and writes on the region, and has published a book of short stories, A Diplomat’s Progress.



  1. This clever and humorous article is the best response to the stupid letter written by Senator Tom Cotton and his neocon colleagues to “Iranian leaders”. The more one thinks about the whole comic issue the more one is amazed at the level to which the Congress of the world’s greatest democracy has sunk. It is amazing what a debilitating effect $1 million has had on the intelligence and judgment of these esteemed senators! Did they not think that if the talks fail the whole world would hold the honourable gentlemen responsible for the consequences? Some time ago when there was talk of war between Iran and the United States, an Iranian friend pointed out that if the mullahs could not understand the consequences of a war between the two countries, surely intelligent and rational American officials should be aware of it. Now, one has really to wonder!

  2. As well as the Logan Act, I think a reasonable case can be made for a treason indictment:

    “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.”

  3. Many thanks to Ambassador Precht for this fine satire cum international law primer! A copy should go to the Jerusalem Post, the conservative and responsible English Language newspaper in Tel Aviv.

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