[Click Here for the GOP Letter to Iran]
Vice President Joe Biden and a group of Democrats have accused 47 Republican senators Tuesday of undermining the president in international efforts to negotiate an agreement with Iran to curb its nuclear program.
They said an open letter to the leaders of Iran signed by 47 U.S. Senators could damage ongoing diplomatic talks, adding that it is a move tantamount to rushing to war with Tehran.
Biden, who was a senator for 36 years, said the letter threatens to undermine the ability of future presidents to negotiate international agreements and “is beneath the dignity of an institution I revere.”
“This letter sends a highly misleading signal to friend and foe alike that our commander-in-chief cannot deliver on America’s commitments — a message that is as false as it is dangerous,” Biden wrote in a statement late Monday.
He said the senators also offered “no viable alternative” to the ongoing nuclear negotiations.
The Republicans’ letter warned any nuclear agreement reached could be modified or revoked once President Barack Obama leaves office in early 2017.
A prominent political scientist said that while the letter is extraordinary and unusual, it is legitimate for the lawmakers to write it.
Authored by freshman senator
The letter, authored by freshman Republican Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton and co-signed by 46 other Republican lawmakers, seeks to inform Iran’s leaders that any nuclear agreement involving the United States could face constitutional hurdles.
It states that, while the president can negotiate international agreements, Congress plays “a significant role” in ratifying them. It says a so-called congressional-executive agreement requires a majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, where a three-fifths majority of 100 Senators is needed.
The letter also warned that any agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons program that is not approved by the Congress will be viewed as nothing more than an executive agreement that could be revoked by a future president or modified by Congress.
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, denounced the letter Tuesday as having “no legal value” and dismissed it as “mostly a propaganda ploy.” He said “the conduct of inter-state relations is governed by international law and not by U.S. domestic law.”
“This kind of communication is unprecedented and undiplomatic,” Zarif was quoted as saying by a state-run TV website. “In fact it implies that the United States is not trustworthy” if any nuclear deal could be scrapped once Obama leaves office.
Zarif warned future revocation of any agreement “would be a blatant violation of international law.”
The letter seemed to harden partisan lines in the Senate, where Republicans will need Democrats’ support to pass legislation now in the works to tighten sanctions on Iran or require congressional approval of a deal.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid spoke out against the Republican’s “unprecedented” intervention in sensitive international negotiations “with the sole goal of embarrassing the president of the United States.”
“This is a cynical effort by Republican senators to undermine sensitive international negotiations. It weakens America’s hand and highlights our political divisions to the rest of the world,” said Richard Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat.
A spokeswoman for Cotton said his office had invited several Democrats to co-sign but none had done so.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky’s signature is on the letter, as are those of several prospective presidential candidates.
One Senate Republican who did not sign was Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker. An aide said Corker is focused on getting a veto-proof majority to support his legislation, backed by both Republicans and Democrats, that would require Congress’ authorization of an Iran deal.
Aligns party with Iran hardliners
Asked about the letter Monday, Obama said the U.S. lawmakers have aligned themselves with those in Iran opposed to the negotiations.
“I think it’s somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hardliners in Iran. It’s an unusual coalition,” he said. “I think what we’re going to focus on now is actually seeing whether we can get a deal or not and, if we do, then we will be able to make the case to the American people, and I’m confident we’ll be able to implement.”
Sunday, Obama acknowledged gaps in the negotiating positions remain with less than a month to go before a self-imposed deadline to reach a framework agreement. He warned that he would walk away from the talks without proper transparency and verification Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapon.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the letter represents “a partisan strategy to undermine the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy” and advance U.S. national security interests.
“We have heard Republicans now, for quite some time, including the principal author of this letter, make clear that their goal is to undermine these negotiations,” Earnest said.
He said the letter interferes with the effort to negotiate an agreement that seeks Tehran’s commitment not to develop nuclear weapons.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the letter is designed “to score political points” and that Congress doesn’t have the power to alter the terms of international arrangements negotiated by the executive. She said any agreement reached would not be a treaty requiring Senate ratification.
Also, this is “a negotiation, it’s important for us to send this message to our partners around the world that is with not just the United States and Iran, but with France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the European Union, China and Russia,” Psaki said.
Unusual, not out of bounds
Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, said the letter by U.S. lawmakers to a foreign government is both extraordinary and unusual, and represents an escalation of the political battle started last November when Republicans took control of both houses of Congress following elections.
“They can’t pass much because they don’t control Congress. They don’t have sufficient numbers in either the House or the Senate to be able to overcome their factionalism or the Senate rules. But, what they do have is the ability to send a letter like this and affect negotiations on a major treaty or executive agreement,” Sabato said.
He said the letter can be criticized on the basis of judgment, but it is not outside the boundaries of the Constitution.
“In fact, because the Legislature is a co-equal branch of government, it is completely legitimate for them to do this. Whether it is wise is another question,” Sabato said.
He added that if any agreement reached with Iran is not submitted to the Senate as a treaty, it will be treated as an executive agreement, which can be revoked by a succeeding president. He added he has no doubt Iran’s leaders are making that part of their calculus.
Sabato said that if Obama wishes any nuclear agreement with Tehran to last, he would have to submit it to the Senate for ratification.
President Obama denounced a group of Republican senators Monday for warning Iran that any nuclear deal could be a temporary one, calling it an attempt to undermine the administration’s foreign policy.
“It’s somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hardliners in Iran,” Obama said of an open letter from Republicans who have questioned the prospect of a nuclear agreement. “It’s an unusual coalition.”
In the letter to Iran’s leaders, 47 Senate Republicans said that any deal is only an “executive agreement” that may not last beyond Obama’s presidency, which ends on Jan. 20, 2017.
“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,” said the letter pushed primarily by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.
As the United States and allies talk to Iran about a deal to block any nuclear weapons program in exchange for a reduction of sanctions, White House spokesman Josh Earnest described the Republican letter as “the continuation of a partisan strategy to undermine the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy.”
The letter is essentially designed to “throw sand in the gears” of ongoing talks, Earnest said, and is not a “role that our Founding Fathers envisioned for Congress to play when it comes to foreign policy.”
Obama, speaking after a meeting with European Council President Donald Tusk, noted there is not yet an agreement with Iran. If there is, the president said, “then we’ll be able to make the case to the American people, and I’m confident we’ll be able to implement it.”
Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, dismissed the letter as “mostly a propaganda ploy” by critics of his country.
“It is very interesting that while negotiations are still in progress — and while no agreement has been reached — some political pressure groups are so afraid even of the prospect of an agreement that they resort to unconventional methods, unprecedented in diplomatic history,” he said in a statement.
In recent weeks, the Obama administration criticized the House Republican leadership for inviting Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress about Iran.
As congressional Republicans and others applauded, Netanyahu questioned whether an agreement would deter Iran from seeking the means to make nuclear weapons.
Iran says that it is not trying to secure a nuclear weapon and that its program is designed for peaceful energy purposes.
The United States, allies and Iran are looking to establish at least the framework of an agreement by the end of the month.
Some members of Congress have objected to the prospect that Obama might not submit an Iran agreement for congressional approval. They have also discussed the possibility of increasing sanctions on Iran, though Obama administration officials have said that move would hurt negotiations.
In their open letter to Iran, the Senate Republicans told that nation’s leaders they “may not fully understand our constitutional system. … Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement.”
Criticizing that letter, Earnest noted that many signers simply oppose any nuclear agreement with Iran. The White House spokesman said that forgoing a deal risks a “military option” when it comes to the disputed Iranian nuclear deal. He said any agreement would include “intrusive inspection measures” to make sure Iran is not seeking a weapon.
“The rush to war or at least the rush to the military option that many Republicans are advocating is not at all in the best interest of the United States,” Earnest said.
Obama himself said he will sign an agreement only if it prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapons.
“I would say that over the next month or so we’re going to be able to determine whether or not their system is able to accept what would be an extraordinarily reasonable deal,” Obama told CBS News over the weekend.
He added: “If we are able to verify that in fact they are not developing weapons systems, then there’s a deal to be had. But that’s going to require them to accept the kind of verification and constraints on their program that so far, at least, they have not been willing to say yes to.”