Obama, GOP grapple over Iran

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The war of words over President Obama’s foreign policy reached a fever pitch on Monday as Democrats assailed Senate Republicans for issuing an open letter to the leaders of Iran.

The rebukes came all the way from the top of the party, with Obama hitting Republicans for making “common cause” with factions in Iran that are determined to thwart diplomacy.

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“I think it’s somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hardliners in Iran,” Obama said.

Forty-seven Senate Republicans signed onto the open letter, which warns that the next occupant of the Oval Office could scrap a nuclear deal “with the stroke of a pen” — something they said Iran should “seriously consider as negotiations progress.”

“It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system. … Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement,” they wrote.

The unusual foray into foreign policy drew a chorus of denunciations from Democrats, who by turns called the letter “appalling,” “juvenile,” “cynical,” “brazen” and “inappropriate.”

Perhaps the harshest denunciation came from Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDemocrats fear Russia interference could spoil bid to retake Senate Graham signals support for confirming a Supreme Court nominee this year Trump signals he will move to replace Ginsburg 'without delay' MORE (D-Nev.), who took to the Senate floor to accuse Republicans of “empowering the ayatollahs” in Iran.

“It’s unprecedented for one political party to directly intervene in an international negotiation with the sole goal of embarrassing the president of the United States,” Reid said.

“Republicans need to find a way to get over their animosity of President Obama,” he added.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest stressed that it is improper for Congress to interfere in foreign policy, and said any diplomatic deal with Iran would not be subject to congressional approval.

Republicans, who have sought to flex their muscle on foreign policy this year, defended the letter, saying it’s important that they prevent the administration from giving away too much in the talks.

Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonBattle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight Sunday shows - Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death dominates Chris Wallace presses Cotton on 'any hypocrisy' between comments on Supreme Court vacancy in 2016 and today MORE (R-Ark.) said the Obama administration has already conceded that Iran could maintain “robust uranium enrichment capability,” and that the pact could sunset in 10 years.

“Those two terms alone make this deal unacceptable — dangerous to the United States and dangerous to the world,” Cotton said Monday on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends.”  

Cotton tweeted the letter in Farsi to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, with the message “in case you need a translation.” 

Iran dismissed the letter as politically motivated.

“In our view, this letter has no legal value and is mostly a propaganda ploy,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

The open letter served as a clear warning to the White House that the Republican Congress will not rubber-stamp a nuclear pact with Iran, Israel’s chief adversary in the Middle East.

The threat carries real weight; more than a dozen Senate Democrats are prepared to back new sanctions legislation against Iran if the talks run off course.

One expert said the Iranians have factored the political dynamic in Washington into their calculations.

“They themselves have expressed uncertainty about the American political system,” said Robert Einhorn, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an Iran negotiator under the Obama administration. 

Monday’s letter was just the latest move by the new Republican Congress to challenge Obama on foreign policy, an area where the public has given him low marks.

House Republicans fired the opening salvo in January with their invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who last week implored Congress to help him stop a “bad deal” with Iran.

The letter also comes after an unsuccessful attempt by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOcasio-Cortez to voters: Tell McConnell 'he is playing with fire' with Ginsburg's seat McConnell locks down key GOP votes in Supreme Court fight Video shows NYC subway station renamed after Ruth Bader Ginsburg MORE (R-Ky.) to bring up legislation that would require congressional review of a nuclear deal. McConnell canceled the vote after Democrats vowed to withhold support until March 24, the deadline for reaching the “framework” of an agreement.

Redoubling their offensive, 19 Republicans on Monday fired off a letter to Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryThe Memo: Warning signs flash for Trump on debates Divided country, divided church TV ads favored Biden 2-1 in past month MORE demanding that any Iran deal be conditioned upon the release of three jailed Americans.

“It is unacceptable that as the United States engages with Iran, human rights violations at the hands of Iranian officials go unchecked, and Americans languish in Iranian jail cells,” the senators wrote.

While the GOP is rallying against the Iran negotiations, seven Republican senators chose not to sign the open letter, including Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerHas Congress captured Russia policy? Tennessee primary battle turns nasty for Republicans Cheney clashes with Trump MORE (Tenn.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

“As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Corker’s focus is on getting a veto-proof majority to support his bipartisan bill for congressional review of any comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran,” said a Corker aide. 

The other Republicans who did not sign the letter were Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsMcConnell locks down key GOP votes in Supreme Court fight Most Americans think winner of election should pick next Supreme Court justice: poll Murkowski: Supreme Court nominee should not be taken up before election MORE (Maine), Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsFBI chief says Russia is trying to interfere in election to undermine Biden The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Trump, Biden renew push for Latino support Former Intel chief had 'deep suspicions' that Putin 'had something on Trump': book MORE (Ind.), Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranEspy wins Mississippi Senate Democratic primary Bottom Line Mike Espy announces Mississippi Senate bid MORE (Miss.), Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderMcConnell locks down key GOP votes in Supreme Court fight Alexander backs vote on Trump Supreme Court nominee: What Democrats 'would do if the shoe were on the other foot' Toobin: McConnell engaging in 'greatest act of hypocrisy in American political history' with Ginsburg replacement vote MORE (Tenn.), Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeJeff Flake: Republicans 'should hold the same position' on SCOTUS vacancy as 2016 Republican former Michigan governor says he's voting for Biden Maybe they just don't like cowboys: The president is successful, some just don't like his style MORE (Ariz.) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiMcConnell locks down key GOP votes in Supreme Court fight Most Americans think winner of election should pick next Supreme Court justice: poll Murkowski: Supreme Court nominee should not be taken up before election MORE (Alaska). Murkowski and Coats are up for reelection in 2016.

-- Story updated at 9:37 a.m.

An open letter to the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran