Part I: GOP Letter on Iran

March 9, 2015

On March 9, a group of 47 Republican senators warned Iran's leaders that a nuclear deal signed during President Barack Obama’s tenure could be revoked by the next president or modified by a future Congress. “We 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,” wrote the lawmakers in an open letter to Iran's leaders. All but seven Republican senators— Lamar Alexander (TN), Susan Collins (ME), Bob Corker (TN), Dan Coats (IN), Jeff Flake (AZ), Lisa Murkowski (AK), and Thad Cochran (MS)— signed the letter, organized by freshman Senator Tom Cotton (AR, left). The full text is below, followed by statements from Republican senators who both signed and did not sign the letter.

An Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran:
 
It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system.  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.
 
First, under our Constitution, while the president negotiates international agreements, Congress plays the significant role of ratifying them.  In the case of a treaty, the Senate must ratify it by a two-thirds vote.  A so-called congressional-executive agreement requires a majority vote in both the House and the Senate (which, because of procedural rules, effectively means a three-fifths vote in the Senate).  Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement.
 
Second, the offices of our Constitution have different characteristics.  For example, the president may serve only two 4-year terms, whereas senators may serve an unlimited number of 6-year terms.  As applied today, for instance, President Obama will leave office in January 2017, while most of us will remain in office well beyond then—perhaps decades.
 
What these two constitutional provisions mean is that we 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 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.
 
We hope this letter enriches your knowledge of our constitutional system and promotes mutual understanding and clarity as nuclear negotiations progress.
 
Sincerely,
 
Senator Tom Cotton, R-AR
Senator Orrin Hatch, R-UT  
Senator Charles Grassley, R-IA       
Senator Mitch McConnell, R-KY      
Senator Richard Shelby, R-AL         
Senator John McCain, R-AZ 
Senator James Inhofe, R-OK           
Senator Pat Roberts, R-KS   
Senator Jeff Sessions, R-AL  
Senator Michael Enzi, R-WY
Senator Michael Crapo, R-ID           
Senator Lindsey Graham, R-SC       
Senator John Cornyn, R-TX             
Senator Richard Burr, R-NC
Senator John Thune, R-SD  
Senator Johnny Isakson, R-GA
Senator David Vitter, R-LA  
Senator John A. Barrasso, R-WY     
Senator Roger Wicker, R-MS           
Senator Jim Risch, R-ID
Senator Mark Kirk, R-IL       
Senator Roy Blunt, R-MO     
Senator Jerry Moran, R-KS
Senator Rob Portman, R-OH           
Senator John Boozman, R-AR          
Senator Pat Toomey, R-PA  
Senator John Hoeven, R-ND
Senator Marco Rubio, R-FL  
Senator Ron Johnson, R-WI 
Senator Rand Paul, R-KY
Senator Mike Lee, R-UT       
Senator Kelly Ayotte, R-NH 
Senator Dean Heller, R-NV  
Senator Tim Scott, R-SC       
Senator Ted Cruz, R-TX       
Senator Deb Fischer, R-NE  
Senator Shelley Moore Capito, R-WV         
Senator Bill Cassidy, R-LA    
Senator Cory Gardner, R-CO           
Senator James Lankford, R-OK       
Senator Steve Daines, R-MT
Senator Mike Rounds, R-SD
Senator David Perdue, R-GA           
Senator Thom Tillis, R-NC   
Senator Joni Ernst, R-IA       
Senator Ben Sasse, R-NE     
Senator Dan Sullivan, R-AK
 
Click here for a PDF version.
 
Republicans Who Signed the Letter
 
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR)

"This [letter] is about stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”
 
"They are nothing but hardliners in Tehran...They've been killing Americans for 35 years."
March 10, 2015, according to the press
 
“We’re making sure that Iran’s leaders understand if Congress doesn’t approve a deal, Congress won’t accept a deal…Because we’re committing to stopping Iran from getting a weapon.”
March 10, 2015, according to the press
 
"The critical role of Congress in the adoption of international agreements was clearly laid out by our Founding Fathers in our Constitution. And it's a principle upon which Democrats and Republicans have largely agreed.
 
In fact, then-Sen. Joe Biden once reflected on this very topic, writing that "the president and the Senate are partners in the process by which the United States enters into, and adheres to, international obligations."
 
It's not often I agree with former senator and now Vice President Biden, but his words here are clear. The Senate must approve any deal President Obama negotiates with Iran by a two-thirds majority vote.
 
Anything less will not be considered a binding agreement when President Obama's term expires in two years. This is true of any agreement, but in particular with the nuclear deal President Obama intends to strike with Iran.
 
Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, the Obama administration has so far completely bypassed Congress in its negotiations with Iran.
 
The administration cares little about what will win congressional approval — only complete nuclear disarmament — and more about just reaching some sort of deal.
 
Regrettably, it appears the deal President Obama is negotiating with Iran will not be a good one. In fact, if reports are correct, it will be a bad one that will ultimately allow Iran to continue its nuclear program and ultimately develop a nuclear weapon.
 
That is why this week, I, along with 46 of my fellow senators, wrote Iranian leaders to inform them of the role Congress plays in approving their agreement. Our goal is simple: to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
 
I do not take my obligations as a senator lightly. Nor do those who are signatories to the letter. If the president won't share our role in the process with his negotiating partner, we won't hesitate to do it ourselves.
 
Our constituents elected us to the Senate, in part, to protect them from bad agreements like this and to help ensure their safety and security. And that is what we intend to do."
March 10, 2015, in an editorial
 
“[W]e wanted to be crystal clear that Iran's leaders got the message that, in our constitutional system, while the president negotiates deals, Congress has to approve them for them to be lasting and binding.
 
“Iran's leaders needed to hear the message loud and clear.
 
“I can tell you, they are not hearing that message from Geneva. In fact, if you look at the response of the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, it underscores the need for the letter in the first place, because he made it clear that he does not understand our constitutional system. He thinks that international law can override our Constitution.”
—March 15, 2015 in an interview with CBS News
 
Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC)

“[Sen. Tom Cotton] came to me a couple of times, and I wasn’t going to sign the letter."
“I told him I don’t think I’m going to do that, because I’m negotiating with Democrats to get on the bill. So when the president just says, ‘I’ll veto that bill,’ in the middle of us putting it together? I said ‘enough is enough.’”
March 10, 2015, according to the press

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)

“What that letter did was tell the Iranians that whatever deal they make, the Congress of the United States will play a role.”
 
“Maybe that wasn’t the best way to do that, but I think the Iranians should know that the Congress of the United States has to play a role in whether an agreement of this magnitude.”
 
“It’s also symptomatic between the total lack of trust that exists now between we Republicans and the president."
 
“This has established a poisoned environment here which sometimes causes us to react maybe in not the most effective fashion.”
March 11, 2015, according to the press
 
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL)

“In exchange for allowing Iran to maintain the capabilities to build nuclear weapons, the Administration promises to “comprehensively lift” as many as 14 Iran sanctions laws, many of which passed with bipartisan veto-proof majorities. There is no Constitutional authority granting a president unilateral power to repeal American law. Sanctions should not be weakened until Iran stops its nuclear weapons program, stops supporting and exporting terrorism, stops aggression against its neighbors, stops egregious human rights abuses, and stops threatening to annihilate Israel. A better deal, with bipartisan congressional backing, is the best insurance policy against a nuclear Iran, a destructive arms race, and war in the Middle East.”
March 10, 2015, according to the press

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK)

“On one of the most important national security issues in a generation, the idea that the president and Secretary Kerry will negotiation (sic) this deal with Iran alone -- with the largest state sponsor of terrorism -- flies in the face of the U.S. Constitution, the law, and four decades of arms control and civil nuclear agreement precedent.”
 
“Like those numerous previous agreements, whatever deal the president cuts with Iran has to be acceptable to the American people and voted on by their representatives in Congress.”

March 10, 2015, according to the press

Republicans Who Did Not Sign the Letter
 
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN)

“I didn’t think it was going to further our efforts to get to a place where Congress would play the appropriate role that it should on Iran.”
 
“I did not think that the letter was something that was going to help get us to an outcome that we’re all seeking, and that is Congress playing that appropriate role.”
 
“I immediately knew that it was not something that, for me anyway, in my particular role, was going to be constructive…I didn’t realize until this weekend that it had the kind of momentum that it had.”
March 11, 2015, according to the press
 
“I knew it was going to be only Republicans on [the letter]. I just don’t view that as where I need to be today… “My goal is to get 67 or more people on something that will affect the outcome.”
March 9, 2015, according to the press
 
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ)

There is already “a lot of animosity” between Congress and the White House and the Iranian nuclear threat is “too important to divide us among partisan lines.”
 
“I just didn’t feel that it was appropriate or productive at this point. These are tough enough negotiations as it stands, and introducing this kind of letter, I didn’t think would be helpful.”
March 9, 2015, according to the press
 
"I do think that we ought to support negotiations that are going on. I don't think that efforts like this help those negotiations, but I do think that Congress has a role to play and will have a role once this agreement - hopefully, if it is going to come forth - once it is signed."
 
"Those who signed it, I know that a lot of them are very opposed to the deal or what's been described as a deal. I don't think we know what the deal is really, but I don't want to describe it that way - I just don't think it was our role to do so."

"I'm more concerned not with how Iran receives it, but with how our allies receive it. These sanctions have been effective and Iran is at the table because these sanctions have been multilateral. It's been Iran versus the West rather than Iran versus the U.S., and I think it's extremely important to maintain that coalition."

"Republicans and Democrats realize that Congress has a role here. These sanctions were imposed by Congress, and only Congress can lift them permanently. So I think that's important and it's unfortunate if one party is, I think, signing any one letter here. This needs to be a bipartisan effort."
March 10, 2015, in an interview with NPR
 
Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME)

“It’s more appropriate for members of the Senate to give advice to the president, to Secretary Kerry and to the negotiators.”
 
“I don’t think that the ayatollah is going to be particularly convinced by a letter from members of the Senate, even one signed by a number of my distinguished and high ranking colleagues.”
March 9, 2015, according to the press

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)

“Senator Murkowski believes in congressional input on foreign affairs. As a co-sponsor of Chairman Corker's bill that would allow a 60-day evaluation of the final deal for Senate approval or disapproval, she did not see the need to also sign the Cotton letter.”
March 10, 2015, in a statement by Murkowski spokesman Matthew Felling
 

Senator Dan Coats (R-IN)

 
“The reason I did not sign the open letter to Iran is not because I disagreed with the goals of the letter. All Senate Republicans, and I believe many Senate Democrats, are in agreement on the overall objective of avoiding a bad deal with Iran. But the strategy we need to accomplish this essential goal is now in question, and we are divided in a way that makes this goal harder to achieve.
 
“Any agreement that contains a sunset clause must be rejected and any agreement with Iran that does not impose permanent restraints on their nuclear ambitions is no agreement at all. We in the Senate have it within our ability and mandate to guarantee that happens. But to do so, we need to reach consensus across the aisle and work together as Republicans and Democrats, for the future security of our nation, and for that matter, all nations.”
—March 16, 2015 in a floor statement