WASHINGTON — Forty-seven Republican senators signed an open letter to Iran’s leaders warning that a potential nuclear deal won’t outlast Barack Obama’s presidency, hinting that Congress does not intend to honor it.
The letter, led by freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and first reported by Bloomberg View, comes at a highly sensitive time as the Obama administration is reportedly closing in on an agreement to lift economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for halting its nuclear program for as many as 15 years.
“It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system,” the Republican senators wrote. “First, under our Constitution, while the president negotiates international agreements, Congress plays the significant role of ratifying them. In the case of a treaty, the Senate must ratify it by a two-thirds vote. … Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement.”
(The senators erred in their description of how treaties work. As Harvard professor Jack Goldsmith pointed out, the Senate does play a key role in voting on and consenting to a treaty, but it is the president who negotiates and formally “ratifies” it, as the Congressional Research Service has explained.)
“President Obama will leave office in January 2017,” they continued, adding that they “will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. 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 signatories to the letter include three potential Republican presidential candidates — Sens. Rand Paul (KY), Ted Cruz (TX) and Marco Rubio (FL) — and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY).
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) attacked the Republican letter as a “juvenile political attack” aimed at “undermining our commander in chief.” Republicans, he said, “cannot accept the fact that this good man, Barack Obama, this man with the unusual name, was elected twice by overwhelming margins by the people of this country.”
In Senate floor remarks, he said Democrats never contemplated sending a letter to Iraq’s leaders highlighting their disagreements with President George W. Bush. “So I say to my Republican colleagues: Do you so dislike President Obama you would take this extroardinary step? Obviously so,” he said. “Why was it taken? I really don’t understand other than the dislike of the president.”
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), a close Obama ally, excoriated Republicans on Monday, calling the letter a “political stunt” that could lead to another Middle East war.
“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,” he said in a statement. “Understand that if these negotiations fail, a military response to Iran developing their nuclear capability becomes more likely. These Republican Senators should think twice about whether their political stunt is worth the threat of another war in the Middle East.”
This article has been updated.