As we noted last week, there is scant merit to Iran’s claim that it is free to ignore the limits on uranium enrichment set four years ago in the nuclear deal it struck with the United States and other major powers now that the U.S. has now unilaterally withdrawn from that arrangement and reinstated economic sanctions. As we wrote, Iran was already bound to refrain from developing nuclear weapons as a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons ratified in 1970.
In recent weeks, however, Iran has been openly violating the deal (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) incrementally as a transparent effort to pressure the other major powers to help it get around the U.S. sanctions which have already devastated its economy.
Just days ago, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said Iran would continue taking steps toward enrichment in 60-day intervals unless those powers provide sanctions relief promised in the JCPOA. Those powers were, in any case, anxious to have the sanctions remain suspended so they could trade with Iran but have been prevented from doing so because they were unwilling to risk their far greater trading relations with the U.S. So they are now reportedly grumbling that the U.S. was acting high-handedly notwithstanding the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
It is time to remind everyone of a key fact that is being overlooked: Iran went into the JCPOA with the full knowledge that the U.S. had the option of unilateral withdrawal.
Thus, while the nuclear deal negotiations were nearing completion, 47 U.S. Senators sent an open letter to “leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” detailing why it would not be binding on the U.S.:
[W]e 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.
First, under our Constitution, while the president negotiates international agreements, Congress plays the significant role of ratifying them…. 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 these two constitutional provisions mean is that we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapon 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.
We hope this letter enriches your knowledge of our constitutional system and promotes mutual understanding and clarity as nuclear negotiations progress.
It will be recalled that Obama did not seek Congressional approval because he knew the votes were not there. But the bottom line is that there was no such approval as constitutionally required, and Obama’s successor could revoke the deal “with the stroke of a pen” and that was that.
Why then would the Iranians, knowing this, nevertheless commit themselves to the terms of the JCPOA? Because the inspections regime was laughable. Plus they had a possible guarantee that after little more than a decade all restraints would lapse and they would be free to build nuclear weapons. And then there was the matter of that American transfer of billions of dollars to Iran. Moreover, why would they think that the next president would even want to withdraw from the agreement. Surely, in 2015, Hillary Clinton was the odds-on favorite to be the next president. A President Trump was the furthest thing from most people’s mind.
There is nothing inequitable about Trump’s insistence that the JCPOA be renegotiated to include, among other things, a halt to Iran’s sponsorship of terror around the world and its development of long-range missiles as the conditions precedent to the lifting of U.S. sanctions.