Dear Ayatollahs: The Iran Letter from Senate Republicans that Detonated White House Heartburn

The White House is infuriated about an open letter to Iran penned by Senate Republicans, charging that lawmakers are butting into sensitive negotiations that are the purview of the executive branch for political gain.

President Obama snarked that "it's somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hard-liners in Iran. It's an unusual coalition."

But freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who spearheaded the letter, countered that "there are nothing but hard-liners in Iran, nothing but hard-line Islamic extremists who have been killing Americans around the world for 35 years."

"That's why Iran cannot be allowed to get a nuclear weapon. If they have been the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism for 35 years, imagine what they will do if they have a nuclear umbrella," Cotton told CNN.

The senator also countered charges that the GOP is trying to torpedo any deal because it involves Obama. "I support a good deal that stops Iran from getting a nuclear weapon today, tomorrow, 10 years from now and forever," he said.

Cotton's letter, signed by 46 colleagues, starts as a bit of a civics lesson for the mullahs in Tehran.

"It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system. Thus, we are writing to bring to your attention two features of our Constitution—the power to make binding international agreements and the different character of federal offices—which you should seriously consider as negotiations progress," the letter states. "First, under our Constitution, while the president negotiates international agreements, Congress plays the significant role of ratifying them. In the case of a treaty, the Senate must ratify it by a two-thirds vote. A so-called congressional-executive agreement requires a majority vote in both the House and the Senate (which, because of procedural rules, effectively means a three-fifths vote in the Senate). Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement."

"Second, the offices of our Constitution have different characteristics. For example, the president may serve only two 4-year terms, whereas senators may serve an unlimited number of 6-year terms. 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."

What that means, they wrote, "is that we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei."

"The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time," the letter concludes. "We hope this letter enriches your knowledge of our constitutional system and promotes mutual understanding and clarity as nuclear negotiations progress."

Republicans in the upper chamber who didn't sign the letter were Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Susan Collins (Maine), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Dan Coats (Ind.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Thad Cochran (Miss.), and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).

Cotton told CNN that there's no message to their effort other than "Iran cannot have a nuclear weapon."

"And Iran's leaders, whom, according to many Iran experts, don't understand America's constitutional system, need to know that a deal not approved by Congress won't be accepted by Congress now or in the future," the senator added.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told reporters in Tehran that the letter has “no legal value and is mostly a propaganda ploy," according to state-owned Press TV.

“It is very interesting that while negotiations are still in progress and while no agreement has been reached, some political pressure groups are so afraid of even the prospect of an agreement that they resort to unconventional methods, unprecedented in diplomatic history,” Zarif said.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) balked that "even at the height of our disagreements with President George W. Bush, Senate Democrats never considered sending a letter to Saddam Hussein.”

"Let’s be clear – Republicans are undermining our commander in chief while empowering the ayatollahs," Reid said on the Senate floor. "...It is unprecedented for one political party to directly intervene in an international negotiation, with the sole goal of embarrassing the president."

"We should always have a robust debate about our foreign policy. This is a hard slap in the face of not only the United States and the world. This is not a time to undermine our commander in chief purely out of spite."

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called it an "outrage" that Republicans are trying to "sabotage" negotiations.

“It appears that for most of my Republican colleagues in the Senate, a war in Afghanistan and a war in Iraq were not enough," Sanders said. "They now apparently want a war in Iran as well."

White House press secretary Josh Earnest called the letter "the continuation of a partisan strategy to undermine the president's ability to conduct foreign policy and advance our national security interests around the globe."

Earnest called the effort to "essentially throw sand in the gears here... not helpful, and is not frankly, a -- the role that our Founding Fathers envisioned for Congress to play when it comes to foreign policy."

Freshman Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), though, said he signed the letter so that "the leaders of Iran’s regime, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism" will "know that no deal with the United States will be considered permanent without the approval of the Congress.”

“The American people, through their representatives in Congress, will reject any deal that does not completely eliminate the threat of a nuclear Iran," Gardner said.

Cotton said they "invited many Democrats" to sign the letter, which is still open for anyone to sign, including presidential hopefuls outside of Congress.

"Today’s unprecedented letter, originated by a United States senator who took his oath of office merely 62 days ago, is the kind of pettiness that diminishes us as a country in the eyes of the world," Reid snapped on the Senate floor. "Republicans need to find a way to get over their animosity of President Obama. I can only hope they do it sooner rather than later."

Other outraged Dems included Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), but there wasn't comment from Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

On top of the reintroduction of sanctions legislation with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) that the administration disliked, Menendez recently introduced a bill that the White House really hates and mirrors the spirit of Cotton's letter: one that requires congressional approval of an Iran deal.

Menendez introduced the legislation with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Corker, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). The bill mandates that the president submit the text of any nuclear agreement with Iran to Congress and prohibits the administration from suspending congressional sanctions for 60 days. During that period, Congress would have the opportunity to hold hearings and approve, disapprove or take no action on the agreement.

Both the Kirk-Menendez sanctions and the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act are strongly bipartisan and likely to receive veto-proof majorities. Menendez has been absolutely critical to rallying Dem support.

Menendez's office said he's not backing down on Iran, even after news leaked Friday that the Justice Department is preparing corruption charges against him.

"On the eve of a bad deal with Iran, the timing of leaks makes many worry that there’s a vendetta against Senator Menendez for his many years of good work on preventing the ayatollahs from getting nuclear weapons," Kirk told Bloomberg News.

Earnest told reporters today he was "loathe to comment" on Menendez because "there is a principle that this administration takes very seriously, which is ensuring that criminal prosecutions are kept separate and apart from any sort of political interference, even the appearance of political interference."