Washington – When Connecticut U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy asked Secretary of State John Kerry Wednesday about a letter sent to Iranian leaders by a group of GOP senators, the answer he received added fuel to a firestorm over the Republican move into foreign policy.
Kerry told Murphy during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he reacted with “utter disbelief” to a letter signed by 47 Republican senators warning Iran’s leaders that any deal reached with the United States could be revoked by the next president or modified by Congress.
“This letter ignores more than two centuries of precedent in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy,” Kerry said. “This risks undermining the confidence that foreign governments have in thousands of important agreements they commit to with the United States.”
A visibly angry Kerry said, “To write to a leader of the negotiations…and suggest they are going to get a constitutional lesson…is quite stunning.”
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., the author of the letter to the Iranian leadership, which was signed by 47 of 54 Republican senators, said, “We need to be crystal clear with the leaders of Iran — any deal that’s not approved by Congress won’t be accepted by Congress.”
The United State is part of a group of United Nations Security Council member nations, plus Germany, that are negotiating with Iranian officials in Switzerland over limits to Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
The hearing was held to question Kerry and Pentagon officials about President Obama’s recent request that Congress approve an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to continue operations against Islamic militants known as ISIS or ISIL.
But Murphy veered off in a different direction.
He set up Kerry’s heated reaction to the GOP letter by saying, “There is a lot of talk about sending consistent, bipartisan messages to our enemies. I agree. I don’t think there are much differences in the messages we’ve been sending ISIL, but in the last few days there have been significant divisions in the message we have been sending to Iran.”
“Secretary Kerry, you are here before us. This is a subject of great debate within the Senate today. What do you believe are the ramifications of this letter. Share with us your thoughts of whether this is helpful or hurtful in trying to divorce Iran of its nuclear ambitions,” Murphy said.
A visibly angry Kerry said he viewed the senators’ letter as a shocking, unprecedented attempt to circumvent the nation’s commander-in-chief.
“The executive agreement is a necessary tool of American foreign policy,” Kerry said.
Most Democrats have harshly condemned the GOP letter to Iranian mullahs, and Murphy has been one of the loudest critics.
Congressional Democrats are being much less helpful, however, with the White House’s attempts to win approval for a new authorization for the use of military force. While they believe a new authorization is required, Democrats like Murphy say the White House’s proposal is too open-ended, gives the president too much leeway to conduct military operations and places too few restrictions on the use of ground troops.
“We don’t know of a single Democrat who supports it,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, referring to the president’s draft authorization.
At the hearing, Murphy questioned the definition of “associate forces,” saying the draft AUMF would allow U.S. forces to pursue those who attack coalition partners. Those hostile forces could include Boko Harum, an Islamic terrorist group based in northern Nigeria.
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said the AUMF “is really focused on ISIL.”
Yet Carter also said, “I think it’s best to err on the side of flexibility.”
Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, criticize the AUMF as being too restrictive and say it would tie the hands of the next U.S. president.
Though the congressional Democrats’ disagree, Kerry and Carter stressed the administration did not need a new AUMF to continue operations against Islamic terrorists in Iraq and Syria. Obama says an AUMF approved by Congress just after the 9/11 attacks that allowed for U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Iraq also authorizes the war against ISIL. But administration officials say they would prefer Congress to back the efforts with a new AUMF, preferably one similar to the one Obama has put forward.