In a letter to Iran's leaders on Monday, congressional Republicans warned that any nuclear deal with the Obama administration would be “nothing more" than an agreement that could be altered by the next president “with the stroke of a pen”.
Signed by 47 Republican senators but no Democrats, the open letter marked a rare congressional intervention into diplomatic negotiations and appeared to be aimed at undercutting the administration’s credibility as it seeks to reach a nuclear deal with Tehran.
Iran’s leaders “may not fully understand” the division of powers under the US Constitution, the letter began, underscoring that while the president “negotiates international agreements” they must then be ratified by Congress.
The Constitution gives the president the power to negotiate treaties, which must then be approved by a two-thirds majority in the Senate. But the president can also issue an executive order to finalise an accord without Senate consent; such executive agreements constitute about 90 percent of all US international treaties, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
Any deal signed by US President Barack Obama but not congressionally approved would be "nothing more than an executive agreement between President Barack Obama and [Iran’s supreme leader] Ayatollah Khamenei", the 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," they warned.
The senators went on to say that while Obama’s presidential term will end in January 2017, many of those now serving in Congress will remain in their posts “well beyond then perhaps decades”.
Republicans have held majorities in both houses of Congress since mid-term elections last November.
The letter was a departure from the longstanding US principle that partisan politics stops “at the water’s edge” to allow the United States to present a united front in international matters.
It comes less than a week after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress on the dangers of a nuclear Iran at the sole invitation of Republican leaders, who reached out to the Israeli leader without first informing either Obama or congressional Democrats. The invitation sparked a bipartisan war of words in Washington and prompted the White House spokesman to call it a “departure” from diplomatic protocol.
But if the Republicans’ letter to Tehran was aimed at driving a wedge between the Iranian leadership and the Obama administration, that plan may have backfired.
Iran's foreign minister reacted to news of the letter by dismissing it as a political “ploy”.
"In our view this letter has no legal validity and is just a propaganda ploy," said Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is due to hold a next round of nuclear talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Switzerland on March 15.
Zarif said the letter appeared to be an attempt to derail current negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries – the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China plus Germany – that are seeking to persuade Iran to scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for easing UN sanctions.
The Republican move was based on the fear of a deal, Zarif said.
“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 of even the prospect of an agreement that they resort to unconventional methods, unprecedented in diplomatic history,” he told reporters Monday in Tehran.
Echoing the arguably condescending language used in the senators' letter, Zarif said that its signatories “may not fully understand” that international agreements are governed by international law and not US law.
“The authors may not fully understand that in international law governments represent the entirety of their respective states, are responsible for the conduct of foreign affairs, are required to fulfill the obligations they undertake with other states, and may not invoke their internal laws as justification for the failure to perform their international obligations,” he said in a statement circulated by Iran's UN mission.
An 'unusual' coalition
Back in Washington, the Obama administration reacted to the Republican letter with some strong words of its own.
It is “just the latest in an ongoing strategy, a partisan strategy, to undermine the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy”, said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, Obama pointed out that it is the hardliners in Iran who are most opposed to a nuclear deal and noted that it was odd that certain Republicans were now finding themselves on the same side.
"I think it is somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hardliners in Iran," Obama said. "It is an unusual coalition."
"What we are going to focus on right now is actually seeing whether we can get a deal or not," he added.
Vice President Joe Biden was less circumspect, accusing Republican leaders of actively seeking to subvert the president during "sensitive" negotiations.
"The letter sent on March 9th by 47 Republican senators to the Islamic Republic of Iran, expressly designed to undercut a sitting president in the midst of sensitive international negotiations, is beneath the dignity of an institution I revere," Biden said in a written statement.
"This letter, in the guise of a constitutional lesson, ignores two centuries of precedent and threatens to undermine the ability of any future American president, whether Democrat or Republican, to negotiate with other nations on behalf of the United States."
Biden went on to say that the letter willfully overstated how much leverage Congress has over international agreements.
"America’s influence depends on its ability to honor its commitments. Some of these are made in international agreements approved by Congress. However, as the authors of this letter must know, the vast majority of our international commitments take effect without congressional approval," he wrote.
"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."
In comments to the Washington Post, Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas called the Democratic backlash a "significant overreaction".
Seven Republican senators declined to sign the letter, with Senator Susan Collins of Maine telling the Post that she did not think the move was appropriate while talks were continuing.
"I just felt that it was not an appropriate letter and it was not the job of the Senate to be communicating with the Iranians during such a sensitive time," she said.
Date created : 2015-03-10