When 47 Senate Republicans on Monday released an open letter to the leadership of Iran warning that they would not honor an agreement on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program being negotiated by the Obama administration, they knew it would generate a strong response. They may not have expected that the Iranian government’s response would be the strongest of all.
The letter, authored by freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and signed by the entire Republican leadership, was structured as a miniature lesson in U.S. civics for the government in Tehran. It reminded them that, while President Obama will have to leave office in 2017, many senate Republicans will likely be in office for many years. “Perhaps decades,” the letter notes.
It said that unless a deal being negotiated by the U.S., United Kingdom, China, Russia, France and Germany is also approved by Congress, it remains a “mere executive agreement” and is not binding on future administrations or on the Congress.
“We hope this letter enriches your knowledge of our constitutional system and promotes mutual understanding and clarity as nuclear negotiations progress,” the letter concludes.
Cotton even went so far as to post a Farsi version of the letter, tweeting it directly to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “in case you need a translation.” Zarif, as it happens, moved to the U.S. at age 17 and earned a Masters degree at San Francisco State University as well as a second Masters and a Ph.D. at the University of Denver.
In a statement released through the Iranian government-owned Tasnim News Agency, Zarif did not spare the sarcasm.
In the view of the Iranian government, he said, “this letter has no legal value and is mostly a propaganda ploy.” The statement said, “I wish to enlighten the authors that if the next administration revokes any agreement with ‘the stroke of a pen,’ as they boast, it will have simply committed a blatant violation of international law.”
He continued, “[T]heir letter in fact undermines the credibility of thousands of such ‘mere executive agreements’ that have been or will be entered into by the US with various other governments.”
The statement, which remarked on the unusual decision by U.S. lawmakers to become directly involved in a negotiation being conducted by the U.S. president, included language closely mirroring the Cotton letter:
“Zarif expressed the hope that his comments ‘may enrich the knowledge of the authors to recognize that according to international law, Congress may not ‘modify the terms of the agreement at any time’ as they claim, and if Congress adopts any measure to impede its implementation, it will have committed a material breach of US obligations.’”
Democrats also reacted with anger to the letter. On Monday in the Senate, Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said, "This is not a time to undermine our commander in chief purely out of spite. We should always have robust debate about foreign policy but it's unprecedented for one political party to directly intervene in an international negotiation with the sole goal of embarrassing the president of the United States.”
In comments to reporters, President Obama pointed out that the Iranians most receptive to the message contained in the letter are likely the regime’s most adamantly anti-American elements.
“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,” he said. “I think right now what we’re going to focus on is seeing whether we can get a deal or not.”
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