By Victor Beattie, VOA
WASHINGTON- An open letter to the leaders of Iran by 47 U.S. Senators warns any nuclear agreement reached could be modified or revoked once President Obama leaves office in early 2017. Obama said the letter aligns the lawmakers with Iranian hardliners. But a prominent political scientist pointed out that while the letter is extraordinary and unusual, it is legitimate for the lawmakers to write it.
The open letter, authored by new Republican Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton and co-signed by 46 other Republican lawmakers, seeks to inform Iran’s leaders that any nuclear agreement involving the United States could face constitutional hurdles.
It states that, while the president can negotiate international agreements, Congress plays “a significant role” in ratifying them. It says a so-called congressional-executive agreement requires a majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, where a three-fifths majority of 100 Senators is needed.
The letter also warns that any agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons program that is not approved by the Congress will be viewed as nothing more than an executive agreement that could be revoked by a future president or modified by Congress.
Asked about the letter Monday, President Obama said the U.S. lawmakers have aligned themselves with those in Iran opposed to the negotiations:
"I think it’s somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hardliners in Iran. It’s an unusual coalition. I think what we’re going to focus on now is actually seeing whether we can get a deal or not and, if we do, then we will be able to make the case to the American people, and I’m confident we’ll be able to implement," said Obama.
Sunday, Obama acknowledged gaps in the negotiating positions remain with less than a month to go before a self-imposed deadline to reach a framework agreement. He warned that he would walk away from the talks without proper transparency and verification Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapon.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the letter represents “a partisan strategy to undermine the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy” and advance U.S. national security interests.
"We have heard Republicans now, for quite some time, including the principal author of this letter, make clear that their goal is to undermine these negotiations. That is not a position I am ascribing to Senator Cotton. That is a position that he has strongly advocated. He described it as a feature of his strategy, not a bug," said Earnest.
Earnest said the letter interferes with the effort to negotiate an agreement that seeks Tehran’s commitment not to develop nuclear weapons.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the letter is designed “to score political points” and that Congress doesn’t have the power to alter the terms of international arrangements negotiated by the executive. She said any agreement reached would not be a treaty requiring Senate ratification:
"The Constitution assigns the authority to the executive to negotiate these deals with foreign partners. And so, implying that Congress has a role that was implied in this letter is inaccurate. It’s also a negotiation, it’s important for us to send this message to our partners around the world that is with not just the United States and Iran, but with France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the European Union, China and Russia," said Psaki.
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, denounced the letter as having “no legal value” and dismissed it as “mostly a propaganda ploy.” He said “the conduct of inter-state relations is governed by international law and not by U.S. domestic law.” He warned future revocation of any agreement “would be a blatant violation of international law.”
Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, said the letter by U.S. lawmakers to a foreign government is both extraordinary and unusual, and represents an escalation of the political battle started last November when Republicans took control of both houses of Congress following elections.
"They can’t pass much because they don’t control Congress. They don’t have sufficient numbers in either the House or the Senate to be able to overcome their factionalism or the Senate rules. But, what they do have is the ability to send a letter like this and affect negotiations on a major treaty or executive agreement," said Sabato.
Sabato said the letter can be criticized on the basis of judgment, but it is not outside the boundaries of the Constitution.
"In fact, because the legislature is a co-equal branch of government, it is completely legitimate for them to do this. Whether it is wise is another question," said Sabato.
Sabato added that if any agreement reached with Iran is not submitted to the Senate as a treaty, it will be treated as an executive agreement, which can be revoked by a succeeding president. He said he has no doubt Iran's leaders are making that part of their calculus.
Sabato said that if President Obama wishes any nuclear agreement with Tehran to last, he would have to submit it to the Senate for ratification.
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