Iran letter lands author Tom Cotton in hot water. Is he next 'Hanoi Jane'?

Senator Cotton joins Jane Fonda on a long list of Americans who have been accused of contact with a foreign power against the interests of the US in violation of the 1799 law. How many have been found guilty?

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Freshman Sen. Tom Cotton, (R) of Arkansas, poses for photographers in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday.

Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton probably never thought he risked being placed in the same basket with Jane Fonda.

But that’s where the freshman super hawk suddenly finds himself as the brouhaha over his letter warning Iran’s leadership against striking any nuclear deal with President Obama billows like a mushroom cloud.

Senator Cotton – Democrats now prefer to call him Tehran Tom – stands accused of violating the Logan Act, a 1799 law that prohibits any US citizen from carrying on “any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government … with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government.”

The letter, co-signed by 46 Republican senators, warns the leaders of Iran that any nuclear deal they sign with Mr. Obama would only amount to an executive agreement that won’t survive past his presidency.

Turns out Ms. Fonda was once accused of violating the same law – back in the day of the Vietnam War, when the Oscar-winning actress and exercise video queen was better known as “Hanoi Jane” for traveling to North Vietnam to demonstrate her opposition to the war.

Cotton joins Fonda on a long list of Americans who have been accused of contact with a foreign power against the interests of the US in violation of the two-century-old law: Stokely Carmichael and George McGovern on the left, Richard Nixon and Ross Perot on the right.

Even House minority leader Nancy Pelosi had the Logan Act waved in her face when she met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2007, against the wishes of the Bush administration.

But as it turns out, no one has ever been found guilty of transgressing the law – indeed, no one has ever been prosecuted under it. (The act was used in the 1803 indictment of a Kentucky farmer who advocated creation of a new nation in the American West that would align itself with France rather than the US, according to the Congressional Research Service, but nothing ever came of the charge.)

Cotton and his 46 Senate Republican co-signers almost certainly have nothing to fear from the dusty old Logan Act. Perhaps the more serious charge against the letter is that it is little more than a publicity stunt that only managed to deepen the partisan divide over foreign policy for all the world to see – and exploit.

Some Democrats are crowing that the Cotton letter’s main accomplishment will have been to ruin the chances that enough Democratic senators would ever join Republicans to override a presidential veto of any legislation targeting an Iran nuclear deal.

Even fellow Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said she declined to sign the letter because she failed to see its purpose – since she does not believe for a minute that Iran’s ruling mullahs are inclined to listen to Republican senators.

Earlier this year, Fonda told Vanity Fair that displaying her sympathies for North Vietnam’s cause as it fought a war with the US was a “huge, huge mistake.”

But politicians aren’t known for deciding and declaring they were wrong or even simply imprudent about anything. So it seems unlikely that Tehran Tom will ever turn to Hanoi Jane and say, “I know how you feel.”

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