Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is already on record saying the current deal being discussed to limit Iran’s nuclear program would never clear the Senate. The deal would allow Iran to retain the ability to enrich small amounts of non-bomb grade uranium and would include stringent inspections.
Now a group of 47 Republican senators has released an open letter to Iran’s leaders. Sent Monday, the letter warns that any deal to limit the nuclear program that is struck without congressional approval could be undone on a whim by future presidents and future Congresses.
Signed by McConnell and his leadership team, the letter notes, “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 was masterminded by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), who was elected to the Senate in November after serving in the House of Representatives. “Many Iran experts say that Iran’s leaders don’t understand our Constitution,” Cotton told Fox News on Monday morning. “So they need to understand that under our Constitution, Congress plays a very important role in approving international agreements, and any deal that is not approved by the Congress won’t be accepted by the Congress, now or in the future.”
The letter is written in a tone that suggests the senators want to educate Iran’s leaders about the U.S. system of government. Its intent, however, seems to be to either discourage Iran from entering into a deal at all, or to pressure President Obama into accepting congressional oversight, something that would have the same effect: scuttling the agreement.
“It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system,” the letter says. “Thus, we are writing to bring to your attention two features of our Constitution—the power to make binding international agreements and the different character of federal offices—which you should seriously consider as negotiations progress.”
The letter informs the Iranian regime that Congress must ratify any treaty the U.S. enters. (However, that’s not actually true, as Harvard Law School professor and former Bush administration attorney Jack Goldsmith points out here.) It also notes that while presidents come and go, members of the Senate tend to linger.
“President Obama will leave office in January 2017, while most of us will remain in office well beyond then,” they write, adding somewhat ominously, “perhaps decades.”
The letter says, “[W]e 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 letter concludes, “We hope this letter enriches your knowledge of our constitutional system and promotes mutual understanding and clarity as nuclear negotiations progress.”
What the ultimate impact of the letter will be is up for debate. As Robert Einhorn, a former member of the State Department’s Iran negotiations team noted last week, a successful deal that has been working for nearly two years may be very difficult to undo in 2017.
“If, after a few years, the deal seems to be working well, then I think there will be a greater readiness to simply go along with the deal rather than to kick it over,” said Einhorn. “I think that could even be the case with a Republican president.”
Writing in The Washington Post Monday morning, Dan Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, argued the letter could wind up backfiring on Republicans: It could demonstrate to Iran that their best chance for a deal is in front of them now, and may not be there two years from now.
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