White House: GOP aims to subvert Iran nuclear talks

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. He is one of 47 Republican senators who are warning that any agreement the Obama administration strikes with Iran to limit Tehran's nuclear program may be short-lived unless Congress approves the deal.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. He is one of 47 Republican senators who are warning that any agreement the Obama administration strikes with Iran to limit Tehran's nuclear program may be short-lived unless Congress approves the deal. AP

The Obama administration on Monday accused Senate Republicans of trying to undermine nuclear talks with Iran by writing an open letter to that country’s leadership asserting that any deal without congressional approval “is a mere executive agreement” that won’t last.

Forty-seven Republican senators took the unusual step of taking their disdain for a yet-to-be-done deal with Iran that’s being negotiated by the Obama administration and representatives of five other nations directly to leaders in Tehran in the one-page letter.

In it, the senators gave Iranian leaders a lesson in U.S. civics, saying “Congress plays a significant role” in ratifying agreements and that anything not approved by Congress is “nothing more than an executive agreement between President Barack Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei.” The letter was first reported by Bloomberg View.

“A so-called congressional-executive agreement requires a majority vote in both the House and the Senate,” the letter says. “Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement.”

Asked for his reaction, during a meeting with European Council President Donald Tusk, Obama said, “I think it’s somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hard-liners in Iran. It’s an unusual coalition. I think what we’re going to focus on right now is actually seeing whether we can get a deal or not. And once we do – if we do – then we’ll be able to make the case to the American people, and I’m confident we’ll be able to implement it.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest called the letter “the continuation of a partisan strategy to undermine the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy and advance our national security interests around the globe.”

Asked whether the letter could hurt the negotiations, Earnest said, “It certainly interferes in that effort.”

Congressional Republicans have been highly critical of nuclear talks with Iran and have become even more vocal after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech last week to a joint session of Congress, in which he warned of the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Iran maintains that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, such as electricity production and medical research.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had planned a procedural vote Tuesday on a bill to require congressional approval of any nuclear accord with Iran. But he postponed the vote in the face of a Democratic filibuster.

The 47 Republican signatories of the letter – including potential presidential candidates Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky – warned that any negotiated nuclear pact isn’t likely to survive once Obama is out of office.

“President Obama will leave office in January 2017, while most of us will remain in office well beyond then – perhaps decades,” the letter says.

The letter drew outrage from the White House and congressional Democrats, who said it violated the unwritten rule that politics ends at the water’s edge on foreign affairs.

Republicans defended the letter, saying it was needed to give Iranian leaders a better understanding of how the U.S. Constitution works.

“Many Iran experts say that Iran’s leaders don’t understand our Constitution,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who organized the letter and signature effort, said on Fox News. “And any deal that is not approved by the Congress won’t be accepted by the Congress, now or in the future.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the letter was an attempt to “blow up a major effort by our country and the world powers to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear program.

“This is a highly inappropriate and unprecedented incursion into the president’s prerogative to conduct foreign affairs and is not befitting this chamber.”

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, concurred, telling MSNBC that the letter goes “so far beyond politics ending at the water’s edge.”

Anita Kumar contributed to this story.