TIME psychology

What Obama Could Learn About Negotiating With Iran From My $2,000 Used Car

'For Sale' sign placed in car window, outdoors, close-up
Alan Powdrill — Getty Images 'For Sale' sign placed in car window, outdoors, close-up

Eyal Winter is the author of Feeling Smart: Why Our Emotions are More Rational Than We Think.

Countries led by religious conviction always have an advantage when it comes to bargaining with their liberal, democratic counterparts

Years ago, less than a week before going on leave from Washington University, I put my car on the market. I had bought the car used for $5,000 a year earlier, but to sell fast I knew I had to be flexible. My asking price was $4,000, but the first serious buyer who got in touch smelled a bargain — he immediately offered $1,000 less than the asking price. Then, in spite of living just a couple of blocks away, he took two days to come and look at the car. “So, when are you leaving?” he asked. “Two days,” I said, giving in to the instinct to tell the truth. The remaining negotiations were short. He got the car for a mere $2,000. The reason that I got such a bad price for my car was that I had been perfectly rational: I knew I couldn’t wait long (and admitted as much), and I was unwilling to take a risk.

Volumes of research in game theory, behavioral economics, and psychology show that these two attributes are deadly when it comes to success in bargaining: honesty and rationality. These findings are relevant to all types of negotiations — from haggling in a bazaar to multi-billion dollar deals between corporations to political negotiations between states. What follows from these findings is that countries and organizations that are led by a religious conviction always have an advantage when it comes to bargaining with their liberal, democratic counterparts. This insight is hardly ever considered in regard to the US–Iran negotiations. But it should be.

Take these two findings:

  1. While common wisdom hails and praises rationality in negotiations, it is usually the more emotional party who ends up on top. Maya Tamir from Boston College brought pairs of subjects to the lab to negotiate the allocation of sums of money between them. Some of these subjects were manipulated to enter the lab slightly angrier by being made to listen to irritating music. Those who entered the lab angrier eventually left it with more money.
  2. The readiness to take a risk provides a negotiator with enhanced bargaining power. Nobel laureate Alvin Roth from Stanford University and his associates simulated negotiations in laboratory experiments after testing subjects for their propensity to take risks. Subjects who were more prone to take a risk in the test did substantially better in the negotiations. They insisted on getting a larger share of the pie and made the other party cave in.

The bargaining power of a negotiator is directly determined by his ability to make credible commitments. Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling discusses this important insight extensively in his famous book “The Strategy of Conflict.” Negotiations are a tricky game of threats and concessions. The more credible your threats are, the fewer concessions you will need to make. A credible commitment to a certain red line below which no further concessions are possible is, in a nutshell, the essence of bargaining power.

When God is on your side, or when you believe that He is, credible commitments are easy to make. Here is the brief manual that the religiously extreme negotiator typically follows: (1) If your demands aren’t met, be patient. Don’t rush to agree to anything. You don’t need to report to anyone but God. Let your counterpart sweat. (2) You don’t have to worry about taking a risk. No one you care about will blame you for relying on God to make the coin fall on the right side. (3) Allow yourself to be emotional while referring to your religious conviction. Words such as “honor,” “pride,” “insult,” and “humiliation” should rule the day.

Emotions tend to work well for negotiators because they defy rationality. An emotional negotiator is a moderate version of the insane hijacker: Any threat he makes should be taken seriously. This is precisely what led the leader of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, to publicly announce last summer during ceasefire negotiations with Israel: “We are a people that love death for the sake of Allah as much as our enemies love life.” A research paper by Marwan Sinacuer from Stanford University and Larissa Tiedens from INSEAD, entitled “Get Mad and Get More than Even,” beautifully documents this effect with laboratory experiments.

Though it might turn out to be too late for the current negotiations with Iran, Western negotiators should know that they can also draw red lines and commit to them. It requires them to be determined and to give liberal moral sentiments a weight similar to that of religion. It requires that liberal negotiators explain to their counterparts that execution of women for infidelity or persecution of ethnic minorities and homosexuals drives us liberals mad just as much as Charlie Hebdo‘s caricatures drive Muslim extremists mad. It requires that their counterparts understand that our “irrational” concern about their nuclear capability is just as serious as their irrational tendency to feel humiliated.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama Slows Troop Drawdown in Afghanistan

President Obama said the U.S. will keep about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan this year, as that country’s leaders had asked he slow the process of removing troops by 2017.

“This flexibility reflects a reinvigoration in our partnership with Afghanistan,” Obama said at a joint press conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Tuesday.

Obama had previously said he wanted to draw down the remaining 9,800 troops to about half that number by the end of the year, with the goal of having between 1,000 and 1,500 in the country when he leaves office in 2017.

Ghani and Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah have spent the past two days in Washington meeting with high-level officials and expressing gratitude for the American government’s assistance as he seeks to assert control in the country. The Afghan leaders’ trip to the U.S. have marked a bit of a new way forward between the two countries. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter on Monday referred to the relationship as “revitalized.”

Ghani said the flexibility will allow the country to accelerate reforms to ensure its security forces are better trained and focused on their fundamental mission and to ensure that they “honor human rights.”

“Tragedy brought us together, interests now unite us,” Ghani said at the press conference.

Obama noted that slowing the drawdown means more Americans will remain in Afghanistan who would have come home, but he stressed that the overall goal of returning most troops by 2017 hasn’t changed.

“Providing this additional timeframe,” he said, “… is well worth it.”

TIME White House

White House Official Pushes Netanyahu to ‘Match Words with Action’

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told a group of liberal, pro-Israel supporters the solution was fundamental to U.S. foreign policy

A top White House official doubled down on criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a speech to an American Jewish organization Monday.

Appearing before the annual conference for J Street, a pro-Israel liberal advocacy group, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said that Netanyahu’s new coalition needs to “match words with action” on the Israeli policy toward Palestine.

“An occupation that has lasted for almost 50 years must end, and the Palestinian people must have the right to live in and govern themselves in their own sovereign state,” he said.

On the eve of an election last week, Netanyahu had said that he would not allow a Palestinian state if he was re-elected, though he walked back the comments in an interview on MSNBC after he won.

In his remarks, McDonough argued that a two-state solution would benefit Israel too, allowing it to remain “both Jewish and democratic.”

“I know that you are here because you care deeply about the cause of peace,” he told the crowd. “And your voices are important too – you can help remind people that there is a great constituency for peace; that there are people who believe, as President Obama does, that peace is necessary, peace is just, and – yes – peace is possible.”

TIME Foreign Policy

White House Questions Israeli Leader’s Commitment to Peace

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington on March 2, 2015.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais—AP Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington on March 2, 2015.

Obama spokesman says the U.S. will have to "re-asses its options" after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rhetoric on a two-state solution

The White House expressed doubt Friday about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, after Netanyahu twice reversed his stance this week before and after a bitter election fight.

“The divergent comments of the Prime Minister legitimately call into question his commitment to this policy principle and his lack of commitment to what has been the foundation of our policy-making in the region,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in comments reported by the New York Times.

Netanyahu, Earnest said, had raised questions about his “true view” on a two-state solution. “Words matter,” Earnest said.

Ahead of elections this week in which it appeared Netanyahu was close to being unseated, the Prime Minister said there would be no Palestinian state if he were reelected, changing a position he had taken years earlier. He then retracted his comments later in the week.

For the United States, a Palestinian state alongside Israel has been a central element of Middle East policy, and Netanyahu’s comments soured an already tenuous relationship with the White House and with President Obama.

Earnest called on Friday for a “careful reassessment of our decision-making moving forward when it comes to Mideast policy.”

Friday was the second day in a row the White House has expressed anger at Netanyahu’s comments. On Thursday, Obama told Netanyahu that the United States would have to “re-assess our options” after the Prime Minister’s comments on the two-state solution.

Obama also appealed on Friday to Iranian youth, urging them to pressure their leaders to accept a deal over the country’s nuclear program, a deal Netanyahu opposes even as Iranian and western negotiators are still hammering out the details. The video marked the occasion of the Persian New Year, Nowruz, a celebration that Obama has used in the past to deliver message to the Iranian populace.

“For decades our nations have been separated by mistrust and fear,” Obama said. “A nuclear deal now can help open the door in the future for you, the Iranian people.”

-Additional reporting by Maya Rhodan

TIME 2016 Election

Ben Carson Traces ISIS to the Book of Genesis

Conservatives Gather For Annual CPAC Convention
Alex Wong—Getty Images Ben Carson addresses the 42nd annual Conservative Political Action Conference on February 26, 2015 in National Harbor, Maryland.

He cited the story of Jacob and Esau

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said Wednesday that the roots of radical Islam are the biblical conflict between Jacob and Esau.

In an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, the former pediatric neurosurgeon argued that the origins of groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria are the fight between two brothers described in the book of Genesis.

“Well first of all you have to recognize they go back thousands and thousands of years. Really back to the battle between Jacob and Esau,” he said. “But it has been a land issue for a very long period of time.”

Hewitt, who has a penchant for grilling Republican candidates in detail about foreign policy, pushed back at the comparison, noting that the prophet Muhammad died in 632, while the story of Jacob and Esau is from before the birth of Christ.

“The Islamic faith emanated from Esau,” Carson countered.

Another set of siblings described in the book of Genesis — Isaac and Ishmael — are more frequently described as the respective forefathers of Judaism and Islam.

Carson also said that he thinks the warring factions of Sunni and Shia Islam will one day unite against the United States.

“In the long run I think they would gladly unite against us in their attempts to destroy the United States., our way of life, and Israel,” Carson said, espousing a position viewed dimly by foreign policy experts.

Carson’s White House bid stems largely from his public speaking ability and willingness to challenge President Obama on the Affordable Care Act at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013. But he has a long history of controversial statements, being forced earlier this month to apologize for saying homosexuality is a choice and that prison makes people gay.

But his support is already eroding as other presidential contenders enter the field.

Here’s a transcript of Carson and Hewitt discussing ISIS and Islamic extremism:

Hewitt: I don’t do ambush interviews, but I do believe that the most important job of the president is national security and defense related. Are you prepared to talk about some of those issues with me today?

Carson: Absolutely.

Hewitt: First question, and I always ask every candidate. Have you had a chance to read the Lawrence Wright book called The Looming Tower, which is sort of the history of al Qaeda and where it comes from?

Carson: I’ve not read that particular one, but I’ve had a chance to look at a lot of material not only on al Qaeda but the radical Islamic movement in general. The kinds of things that motivate and drive them.

Hewitt: What do you consider to be their taproot? What is the origin of their rage in your view?

Carson: Well first of all you have to recognize they go back thousands and thousands of years. Really back to the battle between Jacob and Esau. But it has been a land issue for a very long period of time. Possession is very important to them and one of the things that we’re doing I think incorrectly right now is not recognizing that they are expanding their territory. Not only the land that they’ve taken in Iraq, but what they’ve taken in Syria. They are creating an Islamic State. And we can bomb it all we want, but unless we actually can take the land back, we’re really not doing them any damage.

Hewitt: But Dr. Carson, Muhammad lives in 632 A.D., so it’s a 1,300, 1,400 year old religion. How do you go back to Jacob and Esau, which are B.C.?

Carson: I’m just saying that the conflict has been ongoing for thousands of years. This is not anything new is what I’m saying.

Hewitt: So it’s not specific to the Islamic faith or to the Salafist offshoot of the Islamic faith?

Carson: The Islamic faith emanated from Esau.

Hewitt: I would date it to 632, but you’ve got a biblical connection here that some people may share with you, but I think scholars dispute. I gather that. Let me ask you though in the current manifestation of the Islamic State, what is driving them to act as they are acting? Is it a particular variant of the Koran? What is it that you think animates their barbarism?

Carson: I believe first of all that they believe that they are the possessors of right and because of that anything that is in disagreement with them is wrong and needs to be destroyed. And whatever mechanism they use to destroy it is okay. And that includes some of the things that appear to be very barbaric acts: chopping off people’s heads, burning them. It doesn’t matter because they are infidels.

TIME Foreign Policy

Exclusive: Netanyahu Canceled Intel Briefing for U.S. Senators on Iran Dangers

Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu attends cabinet meeting in Jerusalem
Gali Tibbon—Reuters Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem March 8, 2015.

Israeli spy chief warned Congress might blow up talks on Iranian nuke program

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to cancel a January briefing for U.S. Senators by his nation’s intelligence service that warned Congress could damage talks aimed at constraining Iran’s nuclear program, according to sources familiar with the events.

Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had requested the Jan. 19 briefing for six of his colleagues traveling to Israel so that the intelligence agency, Mossad, could warn them that a Senate proposal might inadvertently collapse the talks. After Netanyahu’s office stripped the meeting from the trip schedule, Corker threatened to cut his own Israel trip short in protest.

Netanyahu relented after the personal intervention of Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, and allowed the briefing to go forward, sources say. Attending were Corker, Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and John Barrasso, Democratic Senators Tim Kaine and Joe Donnelly, and Independent Senator Angus King.

At issue was the fate of a Nov. 2013 agreement between Iran, the U.S. and five other international powers. That temporary agreement promised no new economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for a freeze of Iran’s nuclear program, new international inspections of Iran’s nuclear sites and the removal of nearly all medium-enriched uranium from Iran’s possession. Both sides have stuck to the interim deal while talks on a long-term deal to constrain the Iranian nuclear program have dragged out.

The controversial but popular bill proposed by Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Robert Menendez would have imposed new sanctions on Iran if it didn’t agree by June 30 to a long-term deal. U.S. intelligence officials had concluded that the Kirk-Menendez bill risked collapsing the talks and taking with it the 16-month-old agreement, according to a report by Eli Lake and Josh Rogin of Bloomberg View. Corker wanted the Mossad briefing to bolster the U.S. assessment.

During the Mossad briefing, the agency’s chief, Tamir Pardo, warned that the Kirk-Menendez bill would be like “throwing a grenade” into the U.S.-Iran diplomatic process. After some of the contents of the briefing were first reported by Bloomberg View, Pardo released a statement saying he had used the phrase not to oppose new sanctions, but “as a metaphor” to describe the effect derailing current talks might have.

A spokesman for Netanyahu declined to say why the Prime Minister acted to prevent the Senators from receiving the briefing from Pardo. Since the Mossad briefing, Corker has rallied support for an alternative measure to replace the Kirk-Menendez proposal, support for which has faded. Corker’s bill, which has broad support and potentially could receive enough votes for a veto-proof majority, would only impose new sanctions if Iran walked away from the Nov. 2013 agreement.

U.S. and Iranian officials are entering a tense phase of negotiations in Switzerland this week as they attempt to reach a political deal to extend and expand the Nov. 2013 agreement for at least 10 years. As the challenges of reaching the longer-term deal have increased, some in the U.S. are trying to ensure the interim agreement that has frozen the Iranian program isn’t undermined in the process.

Some members of the Senate oppose the ongoing talks with Iran. Freshman Republican Senator Tom Cotton last week issued an open letter with 46 other GOP Senators warning the Iranian leadership that Congress could reverse parts of any deal the talks produce. Corker did not sign that letter; his bill provides for partial Congressional approval of a deal.

Cotton has said that rather than negotiate with Iran, the U.S. should adopt a policy of regime change and should arm Israel with bombers and bunker busting bombs with which it could attack Iranian nuclear sites. Authorities in both parties, including Obama’s first Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have worried that an Israeli attack could draw the U.S. into a military confrontation with Iran on unfavorable terms.

Supporters of Kirk-Menendez argue it would increase pressure on Iran to make concessions that would more effectively limit its ability to get a nuclear weapon. Republicans are concerned that the Obama administration is too eager to do a long-term deal with Iran and is making too many concessions in the current talks. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives for talks in Geneva Sunday ahead of a self-imposed Mar. 24 deadline for the political framework for a long-term deal. Final terms of a comprehensive agreement would not be worked out before June.

Netanyahu is seeking re-election in a tough vote Tuesday, with his Likud Party trailing his strongest competitor, Zionist Union, by four points in recent polls.

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama ‘Embarrassed’ for GOP Senators on Iran Letter

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the National League of Cities annual Congressional City Conference in Washington on March 9, 2015.
Pool—Getty Images U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the National League of Cities annual Congressional City Conference in Washington on March 9, 2015.

President expressed his discontent in an interview with Vice News

President Obama said he’s “embarrassed” for the 47 Republican Senators who sent a letter to Iranian leaders earlier this week making a case against a pending deal on nuclear weapons.

“For them to address a letter to the Ayatollah, who they claim is our mortal enemy, “ Obama says in a trailer for an interview with Vice News. “And their basic argument to them is ‘Don’t deal with our president cause you can’t trust him to follow through on an agreement.’ That’s close to unprecedented.”

The President’s statements are among the many that have come out in the wake of the letter organized by freshman Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called it a “propaganda ploy.” Vice President Joe Biden returned fire with a scathing letter to Congress released late Monday, saying in part “the decision to undercut our President and circumvent our constitutional system offends me as a matter of principle.”

Seven Republican Senators did not sign the letter: Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Susan Collins of Maine, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Dan Coats of Indiana, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Thad Cochran of Mississippi.

The President sat down with Shane Smith, the founder of Vice News on Tuesday while in Atlanta for an event with the Democratic National Committee and a speech at Georgia Institute of Technology. The wide-ranging interview will be released in full next Monday, but a trailer for the conversation was released Friday morning.

TIME World

Obama’s Credit Crunch

Bremmer is a foreign affairs columnist and editor-at-large at TIME.

Congress weakens the U.S. by playing politics abroad

The Obama administration and negotiators from Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China are pushing for an agreement with Iran that would freeze the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. On March 9, 47 Republican Senators sent an open letter to Iran’s leaders to warn them that the U.S. Congress had the power to rip up any deal signed with the Obama Administration. It was a clear bid to undermine the President’s credibility before any agreement could be signed.

Some of these lawmakers probably believed that urgent steps were needed to prevent a bad deal that would threaten U.S. national security. Others may simply have wanted to score political points off a President they and their constituents dislike. It’s doubtful that this letter will kill a deal that remains improbable for a host of other reasons. Obama can likely bypass the Senate by submitting any pact as an executive agreement, not a formal treaty. But there’s more to it. This move undermines the credibility of future Presidents, Democrats and Republicans, by raising fears abroad that America’s political polarization means no one is empowered to negotiate in good faith on behalf of the U.S. government.

The White House complained about the Republican letter, but the risk cuts both ways. The President has used Congress in the past in ways that have directly undercut U.S. credibility. In August 2012, Obama warned Syria’s Bashar Assad that the use of chemical weapons against his country’s rebels would cross a red line that would “change my calculus” on the use of American force in Syria. Several months later, Assad used these weapons. His bluff called–the President had shown little appetite for intervening in Syria–Obama argued that a military response was warranted but that Congress should vote to approve any air strikes.

This was disingenuous–Obama has ordered military action without congressional approval multiple times. When it appeared that Congress might not provide the authorization Obama sought, the President asked for a delay, then signed on to a Russian plan in which Assad agreed to dismantle his arsenal if Washington held its fire. Assad crossed the President’s red line, and Obama turned to Congress for political cover that lawmakers refused to provide. U.S. credibility sustained lasting damage.

A successful superpower foreign policy depends on more than just superior force and the willingness to use it. It demands deep reserves of credibility, the primary currency of power politics. If Washington asks a foreign government to compromise or to accept new costs and risks, leaders of that government must have confidence that the President can and will keep his promises. If the President’s representatives negotiate a deal, everyone at the table must know that Washington will keep up its end.

The Constitution is clear: the President sets foreign policy. Congress provides “advice and consent” for the ratification of treaties. Lawmakers should not undermine the President’s proper authority, but neither should the President cede that authority for temporary political advantage. The President and Congress score points off each other every day, but if their gamesmanship undermines Washington’s credibility, the national interest will suffer.

This trend is all the more dangerous at a time when other governments know well that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have sapped support for any long-term commitment of U.S. troops. That sharply reduces American negotiating leverage before the talking even begins.

With fewer means at Washington’s disposal to get the outcomes it wants, credibility is a resource that no U.S. elected official can afford to squander.

Foreign-affairs columnist Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME 2016 Election

Jindal, Perry Back Senate Letter to Iran

CPAC 2015
Bill Clark—CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La., speaks at CPAC in National Harbor, Md. on Feb. 26, 2015.

A pair of Republican governors eyeing the White House are supporting a controversial letter sent by Republican Senators to the Iranian government warning against an emerging nuclear deal.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal led the effort Tuesday, calling on all Republican presidential candidates to support the letter, organized by Sen. Tom Cotton, which has drawn the ire of the Obama administration.

Signed by 47 GOP Senators, including presidential contenders Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul, the Monday letter warned the Iranian government that the next president would not be bound by the agreement. He was followed shortly after by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

“Every single person thinking about running for President, on both sides, should sign on to this letter to make clear to Iran that they are negotiating with a lame duck President,” Jindal said in a statement released by his political group America Next. “Make no mistake – any Iran deal that President Obama makes is not binding on a future president.”

The White House condemned the letter, with Vice President Joe Biden penning a harsh statement Monday evening, calling it an unprecedented encroachment on the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy. “This letter sends a highly misleading signal to friend and foe alike that that our Commander-in-Chief cannot deliver on America’s commitments—a message that is as false as it is dangerous,” he said.

Later Tuesday, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said in a statement that any deal with Iran should be subject to congressional review, echoing the letter’s argument that the next president would “not be bound” by any agreement struck by President Obama. He did not directly address the letter, however.

Likewise, Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said in a statement to TIME that he understood the senators’ decision, but didn’t explicitly say if he supported it.

“The Senators are reacting to reports of a bad deal that will likely enable Iran to become a nuclear state over time,” he said in a statement. “They would not have been put in this position had the Administration consulted regularly with them rather than ignoring their input.”

A spokesperson for Chris Christie did not immediately comment on whether their likely-candidates would sign on.

TIME Foreign Policy

Why Republicans Wrote to the Ayatollahs

Senator Tom Cotton speaks during a news conference with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee about arming Ukraine in the fight against Russia in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 5, 2015.
Samuel Corum—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images Senator Tom Cotton speaks during a news conference with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee about arming Ukraine in the fight against Russia in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 5, 2015.

Two words: Regime change

The 47 Republican Senators who wrote to the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran yesterday did so, they said, “to bring to your attention two features of our Constitution” which the Senators said limit how much President Obama can commit to in nuclear negotiations between Tehran, the U.S. and its five allies.

But to judge by his past statements about those negotiations, the letter’s primary author intended it not so much to edify the Iranians about the American system of government as to completely undermine the talks themselves.

Freshman Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas strongly opposes the nuclear talks and believes they should stop immediately. In January, he told the Heritage Foundation “the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran … started out as an unwise policy [and have] now descended into a dangerous farce.”

In his Heritage speech, Cotton suggested that Obama might have cut a quiet deal to push off Iranian nuclear weapons capability until after the end of his second term. Cotton said that the President, in writing to Iran’s supreme leader over the last several years in pursuit of a diplomatic solution to the nuclear impasse, had behaved “like a love-struck teenager.”

By contrast, Cotton informed the Iranian leaders in his letter Monday that any deal Obama cut with them might not last. “We will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement,” Cotton and his fellow Senators wrote. “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,” the Republican Senators added.

Cotton has thoughts on what an alternative policy should be. In his Heritage speech, he said the U.S. should focus first and foremost on bringing down the regime in Tehran. “The goal of our policy must be clear: regime change in Iran,” Cotton said. To that end, Cotton said, the U.S. Congress should offer to transfer bombers and 30,000 pound bunker busting bombs to Israel for use should Israel decide to attack Iranian nuclear sites.

Not all the Republicans agree with that policy. Seven Republican Senators did not sign the letter, although they have not all stated their reasons. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has previously argued that Israeli military strikes against Iran could draw the U.S. unprepared into war. Cotton served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but after two long and costly wars few politicians are willing publicly to embrace policies that could drag the U.S. into another Middle East conflict.

Which may explain why Cotton and his fellow signatories ended their letter to the Iranians by saying only that, “We hope this letter enriches your knowledge of our constitutional system and promotes mutual understanding and clarity as nuclear negotiations progress.”

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