BROOKE: This week's political Punch and Judy show comes courtesy of freshman senator Tom Cotton: an open letter to the Iranian leadership, signed by 47 Republican senators, offering a lesson on American democracy and warning them to reject President Obama's deal on nuclear power. The letter was roundly condemned in the media, even by outlets that opposed the deal. Fox's Megyn Kelly:
Megyn Kelly: But what's the point in writing to the Iranian mullahs? I mean, like, what are you gonna do? They've dismissed us already, like: "Pssh, whatever." And you've offended the Obama Administration, and you may have offended some of the Democrats would would have come over with the Republicans, if, depending on what happens with this deal, to have a stronger say in the Senate.
BROOKE: There were brief rumblings of illegality, even treason. Some, like John McCain, conceded he may have signed a little hastily. Anonymous Republican aides said the letter was intended to be "cheeky." Then the defensive strategy changed to claiming moral equivalency. The letter, one senator declared, was the same as Nancy Pelosi's meeting some years back with Syria's Bashar al-Assad, although three Republican congressmen had made that trip before her and she was accompanied by State Department officials. Then the letter signers changed tack again and dug in: they sent it and they meant it! As the world clucked, the US media duly chronicled the bathos, but according to Jamal Abdi, Policy Director for the National Iranian American Council, the impact could extend far beyond mere political theater.
JAMAL ABDI: Any sort of negotiation--if you're negotiating for a home loan or you're trying to buy a car--this is the phase where we're now going over the fine print. And Congress has effectively come in and given the United States a bad credit report. We may not be able to honor our side of the deal. So what that does is it has the potential of driving that cost up.
BROOKE: Love that analogy. [Laughter] So, do you think that Americans have gotten an accurate sense of what's gone on and what the potential impact is from our own media?
ABDI: There has been a lack of clarity on whether these negotiations are the right thing or the wrong thing. This is the entry point for a lot of media consumers of what is happening at these negotiations. There has been this tendency to treat this letter more as this superficial political stunt but not recognizing the real implications it's going to have for this very important national security and foreign policy issue.
BROOKE: And the Iranian Foreign Minister also offered a bit of snark of his own, back at Tom Cotton, did he not? And that's been covered in the press?
ABDI: Yeah. So, Tom Cotton had the letter translated in to Persian, he tweeted it at Zarif and he said, "In case you missed it: my letter to your country, translated for you." Zarif was educated in the United States, he has a PhD in International Law, he knows the American system very well, and responded shortly after with, "In case you missed it: my response, in English."
BROOKE: [Laughter] Now, you've noted that there are some marked similarities between some precincts of the American media and that of the Iranian press.
ABDI: Well, for a long time there has been a symbiotic relationship between the hardliners in Iran and the hardliners we have here in the United States. So anytime Ahmadinejad was saying some horrible thing, that was used in the US press and by Fox News and some of the more conservative outlets. And even to this day, groups like United Against Nuclear Iran or the pro-Israel groups like AIPAC are still using Ahmadinejad quotes--and the guy's not even the president any more. He's completely marginalized and does not have a lot of political power in Iran.
BROOKE: And so this symbiotic relationship you're talking about, tell me how it plays out in the hardline Iranian press.
ABDI: For instance, recently there was the Benjamin Netanyahu address to Congress. When Netanyahu came and made his speech, Rafsanjani, the former President of Iran, the moderate political figure, he accused the hardliners of having the same positions as Netanyahu. He said, "This is a bad deal and we shouldn't sign it." The hardest line of the hardline outlets, Kayhan, defended themselves and they ran one of their typical sort of blustery editorials and they said, "No. Netanyahu's speech was a ploy. He actually supports the deal."
BROOKE: [Laughter] Some Republicans do seem to be trying to walk it back...
ABDI: Now that it's been processed in the media and there's been such a harsh backlash from the White House and there's been something like 50 editorials against the letter, a lot of Republicans have not necessarily been defending it. That being said, you're starting to see them pivot a little bit. And they're saying, "OK, this was maybe not good diplomacy, but what the letter said was accurate." A lot of folks who signed on to this letter do think that there's sort of a second life for this thing and that they will be vindicated in the end if they carry it out a few steps further.
BROOKE: So you don't think, then, that this could be the moment when legislators learn to count to ten before indulging in such stunts?
ABDI: As far as Tom Cotton is concerned, look at all the media coverage he's gotten for this. I mean, he's now a superstar. You know, it reminds me of the episode a couple of years ago, during the State of the Union, with the House Republican who shouted, "You lie!" at President Obama. And a lot of people thought, "Oh, this is an embarrassment, he needs to apologize..." But he turned around and had a record-breaking fundraiser the next day! I don't know that Tom Cotton is really licking his wounds; he's probably out there raising more money.
BROOKE: Jamal, thank you very much.
ABDI: Thank you. It was my pleasure.
BROOKE: Jamal Abdi is the Policy Director for the National Iranian American Council in Washington, D.C.