Forty-seven Republican senators are seeking to undermine the international negotiations aimed at containing Iran’s nuclear program with an open letter to the government of Iran, warning the Persian leaders that any deal they strike with the United States and its international partners will not last past the Obama administration.
Arguing that the Senate must ratify a treaty by “a two-thirds vote,” the senators argue that they “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,” they warn.
The letter, which was organized by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), was first reported by Bloomberg’s Josh Rogin.
The administration has sought to bypass Congressional approval of the deal, noting that Republicans — and some Democrats — have attempted to scuttle an agreement even before it is reached and are not working in good faith on an issue that would be a big win for the president. If a deal is in fact reached, Obama will use executive actions and waivers to suspend some sanctions, but will ultimately need to rely on Congress for more substantial relief.
Administration officials could also argue that Congress will have a hard time derailing any agreement that is reached by the United States and its international partners — Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany — particularly if the Iranians comply with nuclear inspections. Doing so could jeopardize America’s relationships with its allies and be seen as internationally provocative towards a military conflict with Iran.
The ongoing negotiations are seeking to limit Iran’s ability to enrich weapons-grade uranium, reduce its number of operating centrifuges and advanced centrifuges, and lower its low-enriched uranium stockpiles. The emerging agreement would allow Iran to retain some parts of its nuclear infrastructure but delay the “breakout” period for developing a weapon by more than a year.
Cotton, a freshman senator from Arkansas, has a long record in trying to scuttle any deal with Iran. In 2013, Cotton labeled an interim agreement that froze Iran’s nuclear program “humiliating defeat” for the U.S. and a “total victory” for Iran and pressed for additional sanctions. He pressed Congress to supply Israel with bunker buster bombs to aid Israel in a military strike against Iran and introduced legislation to punish the family members of people who violate Iran sanctions, a measure that he later withdrew after legal experts called it unconstitutional.
Iran and its negotiating partners must agree to broad principles on limiting Iran’s nuclear capabilities no later than March 24 and reach an agreement on the technical aspects of the deal by June 30.
Harvard Law Professor Jack Goldsmith points to a glaring technical error in the senators’ letter:
The letter states that “the Senate must ratify [a treaty] by a two-thirds vote.” But as the Senate’s own web page makes clear: “The Senate does not ratify treaties. Instead, the Senate takes up a resolution of ratification, by which the Senate formally gives its advice and consent, empowering the president to proceed with ratification” (my emphasis). Or, as this outstanding 2001 CRS Report on the Senate’s role in treaty-making states (at 117): “It is the President who negotiates and ultimately ratifies treaties for the United States, but only if the Senate in the intervening period gives its advice and consent.” Ratification is the formal act of the nation’s consent to be bound by the treaty on the international plane. Senate consent is a necessary but not sufficient condition of treaty ratification for the United States. As the CRS Report notes: “When a treaty to which the Senate has advised and consented … is returned to the President,” he may “simply decide not to ratify the treaty.”