White House warns of 'interference' after GOP letter to Iran

Deal will not outlast Obama administration, Republican Senate caucus warns in open letter to Tehran.

March 9, 2015 19:37
3 minute read.
United States Capitol building in Washington, DC

United States Capitol building in Washington, DC.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

WASHINGTON – The White House accused Republicans in the Senate of partisan interference in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program on Monday, after 47 caucus members sent a letter to Tehran warning of their intent to undermine any future multilateral agreement.

Opposed to the deal under discussion, which would temporarily cap, restrict, roll back and monitor Iran’s nuclear work, Senate Republicans informed Iran that such a deal would be a “mere executive agreement” without a vote of congressional approval.

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“The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen,” reads the letter, written by Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), a junior senator, “and any future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest responded harshly, characterizing the letter as the “continuation of a partisan strategy to undermine the president’s authority.”

Republicans have “a long and sordid history” of choosing war over diplomacy, Earnest said.

And as negotiations with Iran enter the final stretch in Switzerland, gunning toward a March 31 deadline, this letter “certainly interferes with that effort.”

“All of this is much more likely to be successful and more enduring than the military option our Republican opponents seem to be advocating,” Earnest said. “It’s surprising to me there are some Republican senators who are seeking to establish a back channel with hard-liners in Iran to undermine an agreement with Iran and the international community.”

US President Barack Obama commented briefly on the letter later in the day, calling the “unusual coalition” of Republicans and Iranian conservatives “somewhat ironic.”

While the president has the constitutional authority to officially ratify treaties, he must first receive the approval of Congress. The Obama administration is not defining the deal under consideration with Iran as a treaty.

Nevertheless, an effort on Capitol Hill from Senate Democrats and Republicans alike would ensure congressional oversight over the deal through hearings and an up-or-down vote. The vote would not be on ratification but instead on congressional participation in any future deal through the easing, lifting or full repeal of congressionally mandated, nuclear-related sanctions.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking to Iranian press, mocked the letter as a “propaganda ploy” and questioned whether its signatories – including the upper chamber’s most senior members – fully understood their constitutional role.

“In our view, the letter has no legal value,” Zarif said. “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.”

“The world is not the United States, and the conduct of interstate relations is governed by international law – not domestic law,” he continued. “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.”

Several prominent Democratic senators involved in Iran policy criticized the letter as a “stunt,” including Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who has been critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to prevent the deal from proceeding but nevertheless publicly supports congressional oversight.

Meanwhile, Iran and the UN nuclear watchdog held talks in Tehran on Monday, the Iranian Students News Agency reported.

“We had serious technical discussions and exchanged views on two remaining issues and agreed to hold another meeting with the International Atomic Energy Agency by April 20,” said Reza Najafi, Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, as quoted by ISNA. “We agreed to continue our cooperation and reviewed ways to accelerate this cooperation.”

The IAEA says Iran has still not addressed two issues that are part of the agency’s inquiry into the possible military dimensions of the country’s nuclear program: alleged experiments on explosives that could be used for an atomic device, and neutron calculations.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is to fly to Sharm e-Sheikh this week for meetings with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and will then travel to Lausanne, Switzerland, to continue direct meetings with Zarif.

Negotiators from the US, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany hope to seal a “big-picture” political framework agreement with Iran by March 31.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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