WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Wednesday he was in “utter disbelief” when he read a letter from 47 Senate Republicans to Iran threatening to unravel a nuclear arms pact being negotiated by the Obama administration. He called it an unprecedented break from centuries of congressional action and a threat to US foreign policy.
In the letter written Monday by Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, the signatories threatened to undo any deal between the two countries to curb Iran’s nuclear program if the agreement is not approved by Congress. Addressed as ”An Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,’’ it warned that any deal negotiated by the current White House could be reversed by a new president “with the stroke of a pen’’ in as little as 22 months.
Kerry called the Republicans’ argument that the agreement would be invalid without congressional approval untrue. The letter itself was inappropriate for a senator to write, Kerry added, saying he had never encountered anything comparable to the Republican letter in his almost 30 years in the Senate between 1985 and 2013.
“No matter what the issue, and no matter who was president, I would have certainly rejected it,” said Kerry during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Wednesday morning. “This letter ignores more than two centuries of precedent in the conduct of American foreign policy.”
The former Massachusetts senator also said the letter undermines American credibility in international agreements between heads of state, which he called a critical and common part of foreign policy.
“It purports to tell the world that if you want to have any confidence in your dealings with America, they have to negotiate with 535 members of Congress,” said Kerry, “and that is both untrue and profoundly a bad suggestion to make.”
Kerry and an international coalition have been negotiating with Iran a deal to prevent the country from developing a nuclear weapon. The United States has imposed economic sanctions on Iran to kick-start the talks, which focus on the country’s stores of uranium and plutonium, existing nuclear facilities, and an agreement to have thorough inspections of those facilities. After several deadline extensions, the State Department’s latest target date for the first stage of an agreement is March 31.
Cotton has defended the letter as a lesson for the Iranian leadership in constitutional law and an assertion of the Senate’s role in approving international deals. Kerry dismissed this in the hearing, claiming the agreement would not be a formal, binding treaty, and does not require Senate approval. Such executive branch agreements are routinely used to conduct US foreign policy, Kerry said.
President Obama has threatened to veto a bill that forces him to submit to Congress the agreement reached with Iran. One of the bill’s cosponsors, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, said he is concerned about the negotiation process without congressional opinion.
“The way we pass muster here is we vote,” said Corker, who was one of only seven Republican senators who did not sign the Cotton letter, “and I think all of us are very disappointed with the veto threat and the stiff-arming that has taken place.”
Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain, Republican of Arizona, one of the highest-profile senators to sign the letter, said it was important to remind Iran of the rightful place of Congress in international negotiations. He also said the letter was an unusual step, but a product of the intense partisan climate fueled by Obama’s executive actions on immigration and Cuba.
Kerry and other Democratic critics said the Republicans could make those same arguments on the Senate floor without undermining Obama. Even those who have called for more congressional oversight are upset with the message the letter sends.
“It just reflects a basic disrespect and disregard for the institution of our government,’’ said Representative Seth W. Moulton of Salem, in a Globe interview. ‘They’re playing politics with national security and at the end of the day that risks the lives of our troops.”
Moulton last week signed a bipartisan letter to Obama asking for more congressional input on the Iran deal. Though he wants more dialogue between the branches, he respects the administration’s right to decide what is appropriate, he said.
Representative Stephen F. Lynch of South Boston said he was shocked by the Senate GOP letter and believes it sets a dangerous precedent.
“There’s plenty of opportunities for them to influence agreements and influence policy,” he said.
Lynch said by telling Iran a deal would only last for two years, Republicans hurt the chances for a successful agreement.
“They do have a constitutional role, but it’s in confirmation or ratification,” said Lynch. “It’s not going out there and sabotaging the negotiations to begin with, and that’s exactly what they’re doing.”