Obama Goes on Attack Over Iran Letter
Policy + Politics

Obama Goes on Attack Over Iran Letter

The Obama administration stepped up its verbal assault on Congressional Republicans who seem intent on ensuring an international agreement being negotiated with Iran over its nuclear program is authorized by Congress -- even as fallout from the decision of 47 GOP Senators to write directly to the Islamic Republic’s leaders continued to spread. 

The letter, drafted by freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), who assumed office in January, took the form of a Constitutional “lesson” for the Iranian leadership, and suggested, among other things, that Congress might well “modify” the deal on its own in the future. The White House has objected to the letter on multiple levels, questioning both its propriety and its accuracy. For example, administration officials have pointed out that Congress, in fact, does not have the authority to modify an executive agreement.

Related: Blowback Continues from Tom Cotton’s Iran Letter

“I'm embarrassed for them,” the president said in an interview with Vice News. “For them to address a letter to the ayatollah — the supreme leader of Iran, who they claim is our mortal enemy — and their basic argument to them is: don't deal with our president, because you can't trust him to follow through on an agreement... That's close to unprecedented.” 

Obama also criticized the GOP for its use of what he called “a slash-and-burn approach to politics.” He reiterated the administration’s position that any deal struck with Iran would have to satisfy the U.S. – as well as the United Kingdom, Russia, China, Germany, and France, who are all participating in the talks. “I'm prepared to take all options to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon,” he said, “but the absolute best option is a diplomatic resolution.”

Iran, a State sponsor of terrorism since the fall of the Shah in 1979, supports Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad in Israel. In 2007, the U.S. Senate passed legislation by a vote of 76-22 designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization. On NBC’s Meet the Press this morning, Chuck Todd asked retired Adm. Mike Mullen if he feared Iran long term more than ISIS.

Mullen replied, “I do. I actually think Iran is a much more difficult challenge and an incredibly complex country that we don’t understand very well. We’ve had no relations with them for 35 years…. It is the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Khamenei] and his ideological group if you will in league with the judiciary, in league with respect to the military….  This whole focus on the nuclear deal is part of where President Rouhani wants to get so that he has a chance with elections next year … to possibly turn it in a more constructive reform direction and a future that’s much more integral to the international community.”

Appearing in an interview recorded for CBS News’ Face the Nation, Secretary of State John Kerry pulled no punches in accusing the 47 senators of trying to scuttle the deal.

Related: To Stop Iran Deal Sen. Tom Cotton Drops a Diplomatic Bombshell

“This letter was absolutely calculated, directly, to interfere with these negotiations,” he said. “The effect and the intent of the author was to basically say don’t do this deal.” 

He attacked the Republicans for condemning a deal, “Before there even is a deal.” He said, “It’s like giving people a grade on a test before the test is even written, let alone given. It’s wrong in unprecedented, and I hope it hasn’t made it very difficult here.”

Asked if he would apologize to his Iranian counterparts as a way of settling the issue, Kerry bristled, and took a shot at Sen. Cotton.

“Not on your life,” he snapped. “I’m not going to apologize for an unconstitutional, un-though-out action by somebody who’s been in the United States Senate for 60-some days. I will explain very clearly that Congress does not have the right to change an executive agreement.”

Related: Iran Pushes Back Against GOP Letter

On Saturday night, White house Chief of Staff Denis McDonough sent a letter to Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warning that if Congress were to pass legislation he has introduced that would limit the president’s ability to negotiate with Iran and would impose the threat of stronger sanctions, the president would veto it.

“The legislation that you have introduced in the Senate goes well beyond ensuring that Congress has a role to play in any deal with Iran,” McDonough said, pointing out that it would introduce a requirement for Congressional approval where one does not currently exist, and would strip the president of his statutory ability to temporarily waive sanctions – a key element of the negotiations.

“We believe the legislation would likely have a profoundly negative impact on the ongoing negotiations – emboldening Iranian hard-liners, inviting a counter-productive response from the Iranian [parliament]; differentiating the U.S. position from our allies in negotiations; and once again calling into question our ability to negotiate this deal…. Put simply, it would potentially make it impossible to secure international cooperation for additional sanctions, while putting at risk the existing multilateral sanctions regime.”

For their part, key Republican senators continued to stand by the letter, even as others seemed to suggest that they now wish they hadn’t signed it.

Related: GOP Senators Send Their Own Warning to Iran on Nukes

Cotton, the letter’s author, said he has “no regrets at all” in an interview with CBS, and argued that “If the president and the secretary of state were intent on driving a hard bargain” they would see the letter as helpful to their cause rather than a problem.

On CNN, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also stood firm, saying that he thought it was “entirely appropriate’ for Congress to address the Iranian regime directly. “I signed the letter. I don’t think it was a mistake,” he said.

“The president is about to make what we believe is a very bad deal…we’re worried about it,” he said. “We don’t think he ought to make a bad deal with one of the worst regimes in the world.”

Not all of the letter’s signatories continue to insist it was a good idea. Late last week, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Politico, “It was kind of a very rapid process. Everybody was looking forward to getting out of town because of the snowstorm.”

Related: As Iran Talks Reach Key Phase, Obama Would Walk Away

He added, “I think we probably should have had more discussion about it, given the blowback that there is.”

On Friday, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson said that in retrospect, it has been a “tactical error” for the senators to address the Iranian regime directly. 

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