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Flake: Senate GOP Letter To Iran 'Not Appropriate'


Just seven of 54 Republican senators did not sign that open letter to Iran's leaders. One of those seven is Arizona Senator Jeff Flake. He serves on the Foreign Relations Committee and he joins me now.

Welcome to the program.

SENATOR JEFF FLAKE: Thanks for having me on.

BLOCK: And Senator Flake, when your Republican Senate colleagues approached you with this letter to Iran warning that any agreement could be undone with the stroke of a pen, what did you tell them?

FLAKE: Well, I said negotiations are tough enough here and I didn't think it was appropriate to add another element that makes it more difficult.

BLOCK: Not appropriate. So you think it was wrong for them to issue this letter?

FLAKE: I just felt it was not appropriate. I'll put it that way.

BLOCK: Let me ask you about the response from Vice President Biden. He issued a long statement, called this unprecedented in his 36 years in the Senate. He said, it was beneath the dignity of an institution I revere, and he went on to say that this letter delivers a false and dangerous message expressly designed to undercut a sitting president. Do you think he's right about that?

FLAKE: Well, I don't have the, you know, the institutional memory that Joe Biden does concerning the Senate, but I do think that we ought to support negotiations that are going on. I don't think that efforts like this help those negotiations, but I do think that Congress has a role to play and will have a role once this agreement - hopefully, if it is going to come forth - once it is signed.

BLOCK: I'll ask you about that role in a second. But what about the vice president's point that this letter is expressly designed to undermine the president, that this is a partisan move to undermine President Obama?

FLAKE: Those who signed it, I know that a lot of them are very opposed to the deal or what's been described as a deal. I don't think we know what the deal is really, but I don't want to describe it that way - I just don't think it was our role to do so.

BLOCK: There's also this argument that the letter, signed by 47 of your Republican colleagues, aligns them with Iran's hard-liners who also oppose a deal, and if the talks collapse, this letter makes it harder to blame Iran for that. What do you think about that?

FLAKE: I don't know about that. I'm more concerned not with how Iran receives it, but with how our allies receive it. These sanctions have been effective and Iran is at the table because these sanctions have been multilateral. It's been Iran versus the West rather than Iran versus the U.S., and I think it's extremely important to maintain that coalition.

BLOCK: I wonder, Senator Flake, if you find yourself in a lonely spot - one of very few Republican voices who is advocating what you're saying here.

FLAKE: Oh, there are a few of us. I'm not alone. There were seven who didn't sign the letter.

BLOCK: I didn't say alone, but lonely and few.

FLAKE: Well, I just think, you know, we have no good options here and that's why I hope that the agreement comes forward. I hope it's something that we can support in Congress and I think that's our best option at this point.

BLOCK: Let's talk about Congress's options here. You are supporting a bill that requires the president to bring any agreement with Iran to Congress for a vote. That bill has also had Democratic support in the Senate, which you would need. Do you worry that this letter from Republicans will torpedo what you want to happen - would turn Democrats off from siding with you on that?

FLAKE: That is a bit of a concern. Republicans and Democrats realize that Congress has a role here. These sanctions were imposed by Congress, and only Congress can lift them permanently. So I think that's important and it's unfortunate if one party is, I think, signing any one letter here. This needs to be a bipartisan effort.

BLOCK: I'm curious, Senator Flake, if you have that conversation with your colleagues in the Senate who do think that the only acceptable deal is one that completely undoes Iran's nuclear program. Do you have that discussion with them?

FLAKE: I do. And we have, you know, hearings and Foreign Relations Committee and other discussions. There are some agreement and some disagreement. And let me just say as well, I understand the frustration that my colleagues on the Republican side have with the president. A lot of what's happening now is a manifestation of events and actions that the president has taken on other issues - immigration, or the Affordable Care Act or executive action in particular that some feel goes beyond the president's mandate. And so, it's difficult in that environment to have the level of trust that we should have.

BLOCK: Senator Flake, thanks very much for talking with us today.

FLAKE: Thanks for having me on.

BLOCK: That's Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake, one of just seven of 54 Republican senators who didn't sign the open letter to Iran's leaders. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.