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Pushing back, Kerry says senators can’t touch Iran nuke deal

Diplomat voices ‘utter disbelief’ at Republican senators’ letter to Tehran, says prospective pact won’t be legally binding

US Secretary of State John Kerry listens to opening statements on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 11, 2015, prior to testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
US Secretary of State John Kerry listens to opening statements on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 11, 2015, prior to testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

US Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday said a prospective nuclear deal wouldn’t be legally binding, and that Congress wouldn’t be able to override the accord between Washington, Tehran and world powers.

The American diplomat spoke at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and criticized Republican lawmakers for dispatching a letter to Iran warning against the nuclear talks he’s leading, saying it threatened global trust in America.

Kerry said that the letter undermined American foreign policy and was legally incorrect.

“This risks undermining the confidence that foreign governments in thousands of important agreements commit to,” Kerry told the committee, adding he had reacted with “utter disbelief” to news of the letter, which comes as he prepares to return for further intense negotiations reaching the critical end-stage.

Kerry said that the deal he’s negotiating is not a “legally binding plan,” but will be one that has “a capacity for enforcement.”

“The senators’ letter erroneously asserts this is a legally binding plan,” he said. “It is incorrect when it says that Congress can actually modify the terms of an agreement any time. That is flat wrong.”

The letter penned by 47 Republican senators warned Tehran that an accord with President Barack Obama’s team could expire the day he leaves office.

But Kerry, who spent 29 years in the Senate, said the letter’s basic premise was untrue. Any pact would be among the executive branches of the seven governments negotiating right now — and the US Congress can’t change it, he said.

While formal treaties require the advice and consent of the US Senate, the “vast majority of international arrangements and agreements do not,” the secretary of state insisted.

“No one is questioning anybody’s right to dissent. Any senator can go to the floor any day and raise any of the questions that were raised in that,” Kerry said.

But “this letter ignores more than two centuries of precedent in the conduct of American foreign policy,” he added.

“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,” Kerry added, saying such a notion was “both untrue and profoundly a bad suggestion.”

Senator Rand Paul, who signed the letter, pushed back against Kerry’s comments, saying it should have been copied to the White House, which he argued had not listened to the objections of lawmakers about the emerging deal.

“I’m not particularly happy with being lectured to by the administration about the constitution. This is an administration who I believe has trampled the constitution at many turns,” Paul said.

Another co-signer Senator Jim Risch argued that it was “nonsense” to say senators should not communicate with Iran in the middle of negotiations because as elected officials they had “constitutional responsibilities.”

Risch argued it was a “treaty that is being negotiated” and should be treated as such — meaning it should win the approval of Senate.

Negotiators hope to reach a framework agreement by month’s end.

But the Republican letter was apparently intended to scupper talks between Western powers and the Islamic Republic over the country’s disputed nuclear program.

In their letter, the Republicans warned that any deal agreed before Obama leaves office in 2017 is “nothing more than an executive agreement” that could be struck down by Congress at a later date.

The Republican-led Congress has been pushing to be given a vote on any deal reached between global powers — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — and Iran.

But the administration of President Barack Obama has insisted it will be agreed through the president’s executive powers, although at some point Congress will have to vote on whether to lift a network of sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic.

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