Secretary of State John Kerry told senators that an open letter from 47 Republican lawmakers to Iran’s leaders was stunning, irresponsible and “flat wrong.”
“No one is questioning anybody’s right to dissent,” Kerry said when asked about the letter Wednesday during testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “But to write to the leaders in the middle of a negotiation -- particularly the leaders they have criticized others for even engaging with -- to write them and suggest they’re going to give a constitutional lesson, which by the way is incorrect, is quite stunning.”
The top U.S. diplomat said his reaction was “one of utter disbelief” upon learning of the letter initiated by freshman Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas that told leaders of the Islamic Republic that any agreement they struck with President Barack Obama to curb the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program may be reversed by his successor or changed by U.S. lawmakers.
The comments, during a hearing on Obama’s proposal for a measure authorizing the U.S. fight against Islamic State, underscored the growing partisan divide over foreign policy. The panel’s Republican chairman said the administration is “stiff-arming” lawmakers seeking a vote on a potential Iran accord.
Other Republicans also pushed back against Kerry.
“This indignation and breast-beating over this letter is absolutely nonsense,” said Senator James Risch, an Idaho Republican. He said that “each one of us that signed this thing is an elected official” and therefore has the responsibility and right to communicate with officials in other countries.
Risch, who asserted that any agreement with Iran would be a treaty requiring Senate approval, said that members of Congress “every single day communicate with” officials and leaders of other countries, including on congressional trips abroad. “This letter was nothing more,” Risch said.
Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican and potential 2016 presidential candidate, said the letter was meant to get the attention of the White House, which he said has ignored Congress.
“I signed the letter to Iran, but the message I was sending was to you,” Rand told the administration officials at the hearing.
Kerry said the letter “ignores 200 years of the conduct of foreign policy” in which presidents can reach executive agreements with other nations and “risks undermining the confidence” of foreign governments committing to such accords with the U.S. He also said the letter would strengthen Iranian hard-liners who oppose a nuclear deal.
Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee chided Kerry for what he said was a speech lasting five minutes and 26 seconds on the issue.
“I will say that I didn’t sign the letter,” Corker said, while adding “I’m very disappointed though that you’ve gone back on your statement that any agreement must pass muster with Congress. The way we pass muster here is we vote, and I think all of us are very disappointed with the veto threat and the stiff-arming that has taken place.”
The Obama administration has said the president would veto measures such as one Corker is sponsoring that would require congressional review of any accord reached by the U.S. and five other world powers with Iran and would give lawmakers the power to block the lifting of sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Cotton said this week on MSNBC that “we’re making sure that Iran’s leaders understand if Congress doesn’t approve a deal, Congress won’t accept a deal.”