Republican lawmakers have been railing against the Obama administration’s nuclear talks with Iran for months, but the rhetoric has abruptly degenerated into something far darker: an unprecedented congressional move to reach out to Tehran directly and try to scuttle the negotiations just weeks before a key deadline.
The push came Monday in an open letter 47 Republican senators addressed to Iran’s rulers, arguing that any deal signed by President Barack Obama without congressional approval would be a mere “executive agreement” that would expire when he left office.
“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 letter reads. The missive was organized by Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton and signed by the party’s entire Senate leadership, as well as likely 2016 GOP presidential candidates Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was notably absent from the list of signatories.
The letter, first reported by Bloomberg View, also notes that the Senate has to ratify any foreign treaty negotiated by the president by a two-thirds majority — the clear implication being that a nuclear deal has little chance of reaching that threshold in the Republican-controlled Senate. “We hope this letter enriches your knowledge of our constitutional system and promotes mutual understanding and clarity as nuclear negotiations progress,” the authors conclude.
The letter represents the second time this Congress has gone further than any of its predecessors in its efforts to kill a deal being negotiated by a sitting American president. Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued against a nuclear agreement with Iran during a speech to a joint session of Congress that was organized by House Speaker John Boehner without coordination with the White House. Senate Republicans have made history again, this time by reaching out to Tehran directly to lobby against the deal.
Norm Ornstein, a longtime observer of the U.S. Congress and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said Monday’s letter was unprecedented in the body’s history. He said the only similar episodes came in 1968, when the presidential campaign of Richard Nixon attempted to scuttle peace talks to end the Vietnam War, and in 1979, when Sen. Jesse Helms dispatched top aides to London to try undermine the talks that eventually turned Rhodesia into Zimbabwe.
“But that was on such a smaller scale,” Ornstein said. “Really, it’s the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif apparently isn’t too alarmed by these posturing Republican lawmakers. “In our view, this letter has no legal value and is mostly a propaganda ploy,” he said in comments carried by Iranian media. “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.”
Indeed, Zarif responded to Cotton and his colleagues with a lecture on international law of his own. “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 fulfil the obligations they undertake with other states and may not invoke their internal law as justification for failure to perform their international obligations,” Zarif said.
The Iranian foreign minister added that the deal is being negotiated as a multilateral agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries — the United States, China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany — and not a bilateral treaty between Washington and Tehran. Rather than go to the Senate for ratification, Zarif said the final deal will go to the Security Council for final approval.
Relatedly, Jack Goldsmith, a former Bush administration legal official and a professor at Harvard Law School, pointed out on the Lawfare blog that the senators made a slight error in their explanation of U.S. ratification procedures. While the Senate is empowered to give advice and consent to treaties, it is ultimately the president who ratifies a given agreement. “Senate consent is a necessary but not sufficient condition of treaty ratification for the United States,” Goldsmith explains.
“This is a technical point that does not detract from the letter’s message that any administration deal with Iran might not last beyond this presidency,” Goldsmith wrote. “But in a letter purporting to teach a constitutional lesson, the error is embarrassing.”
Democratic lawmakers, steaming since last week’s Netanyahu speech, reacted furiously to the GOP letter. “This is a brazen attempt by Senate Republicans to sabotage negotiations aimed at preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “This bizarre, inappropriate letter is a desperate ploy to scuttle a comprehensive agreement and the chance for a peaceful resolution, which is in the best interests of the United States, Israel and the world.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada went even further, taking to the Senate floor to accuse Republicans of “undermining our commander in chief while empowering the ayatollahs.”
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