Under the Dome

North Carolina senators sign, explain controversial letter to Iran

By Renee Schoof


Both North Carolina Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis signed on to an unusual letter by freshman Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, telling Iran’s leaders that an international nuclear agreement could be torn up after President Barack Obama leaves office.

A total of 47 senators have signed the letter, including four GOP 2016 presidential hopefuls: Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida.

Cotton announced on Tuesday that Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal signed it, too.

The “open” letter tells leaders of Iran some basics on how elections in the United States work, highlighting Obama’s short tenure.

“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,” the letter says.

Burr, who is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and is up for re-election in 2016, said, “I think the Iranian leadership ought to know that if the Congress is not fully behind this, this would be an agreement that had a very short-lived life.”

Burr said senators haven’t seen what an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program looks like yet. “But it would have to be something that there weren’t any questions as to whether verification of no nuclear (weapons) program existed. We have to wait to see this one to see where the holes are,” he said on Tuesday.

Others disagreed that the Republican senators’ letter to Iran’s leaders, which explains the U.S. constitutional system to them, would amount to much. The letter argues that any agreement would have to be treated as a treaty and ratified by the Senate.

Seven Republican senators didn’t sign. One of them, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said, “Frankly I doubt very much whether the ayatollah would be moved by an explanation of our constitutional system.”

Burr disagreed.

“It already seems to have moved a lot of people in this town,” he said. “And the Iranians are already commenting on it. I think it must have hit a nerve.

“Any type of an agreement has to have to sides to it, one here and one there. If it has an impact here or has an impact there, if it has an impact, it has an impact on the overall decision,” Burr said.

Collins and other Republican dissenters, including Tennessee Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said they supported a bill by Corker that would require congressional review of any nuclear agreement with Iran.

The other Republican senators who didn’t sign the letter were Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Dan Coats of Indiana and Thad Cochran of Mississippi.

Vice President Joe Biden, who was a Democratic senator from Delaware for 36 years and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before he became vice president, issued a statement Monday night condemning the letter in harsh terms.

“I believe deeply in its (the Senate’s) traditions, in its value as an institution, and in its indispensable constitutional role in the conduct of our foreign policy. The letter sent on March 9th by forty-seven Republican Senators to the Islamic Republic of Iran, expressly designed to undercut a sitting president in the midst of sensitive international negotiations, is beneath the dignity of an institution I revere,” Biden said.

Asked about the vice president’s statement, Burr said, “Well I’m glad to see him wake up and actually have interest in something.”

Tillis said many senators were worried about a bad deal with Iran.

“When you’re talking about something as profound as this agreement, to use words to pretend it’s not subject to congressional approval, I think it’s disingenuous,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is really assert that. I can’t imagine why the president wouldn’t want the Senate, Democrats and Republicans, to take a look at this and validate it if it’s a good deal. And if it’s a bad deal let’s not have that negative effect it could have on our safety and security.”

Tillis also noted that senators don’t know what the agreement will contain yet. But he said they feared it would contain ways that would “provide Iran a fairly quick ability to no longer honor the agreement and go back to weaponizing.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said it was the 47 letter writers who needed a better understanding of how such agreements work.

“I should bring one important point to the attention of the authors and that is, the world is not the United States, and the conduct of inter-state relations is governed by international law, and not by US domestic law,” he said in a statement.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post had the incorrect state for Sen. Tom Cotton.