by Warren L. Nelson
The heart of the Republican criticism of President Obama’s negotiations with Iran is that they believe he is more interested in signing a deal—any deal—with Iran regardless of the deal’s effectiveness in stopping Iran from ever building a nuclear weapon.
They are saying he sees an agreement with Iran as his legacy as president. (Most Democrats, however, see Obamacare as the president’s legacy. And a deal with Iran that resulted in the Islamic Republic’s abject surrender would be unlikely to change that, as national health care has been a Democratic objective for seven decades.)
And they clearly do not believe Obama when he says—as he has repeatedly—that it is US policy that “Iran will never be allowed to get a nuclear weapon.”
Sen. Ton Cotton, the Arkansas Republican who drafted the now famous letter to Iran, made much of that clear in an op-ed he wrote last week. “The administration cares little about what will win congressional approval—only complete nuclear disarmament [by Iran]—and more about just reaching some sort of deal,” he wrote. “Regrettably, it appears the deal President Obama is negotiating with Iran will not be a good one. In fact, if reports are correct, it will be a bad one that will ultimately allow Iran to continue its nuclear program and ultimately develop a nuclear weapon…. Our constituents elected us to the Senate, in part, to protect them from bad agreements like this.”
But Obama isn’t just being hit from the right by Republicans in Congress.
In the Middle East, Arab criticism of Obama for negotiating with Iran is grounded in the fear that taking Iran off the nuclear hook will allow the Islamic Republic to lord it over the Arab world.
Some go so far as to think that Obama wants to cut a deal with Iran to make it the key power in the region and America’s agent. The more sophisticated don’t embrace that conspiracy theory, but see a nuclear agreement lifting all sanctions from Iran’s back and allowing it to export more oil and amass more wealth with which to expand its reach within the Arab world.
That fear has grown immensely in recent weeks as Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have taken over the formal government—though they do not control even half the country’s geography—and as Iranian-backed militias in Iraq have succeeded in pushing the Islamic State from ground it occupied last summer. Add to that the apparent advances of Iranian-backed Syrian government forces against rebels in that country.
The picture that emerges in the Arab world is that Iran is on the move and the United States is doing nothing about it because it is preoccupied with the nuclear issue and only wants to talk about centrifuges.
The Obama Administration needs not only to counter hardliners in Washington and hardliners in Tehran, but also Arabs who see Obama as, at best, ignorant of the Middle East and naive about Iran, or, worse, in cahoots with Tehran and plotting to rely on it like Washington once did with the Shah.
In Washington, the focus has largely been on the letter to Iran signed by 47 Republicans. Politically, that has been a disaster for the GOP. Talk about the letter being “treason” or a violation of the Logan Act of 1799 is just political theater. The Logan Act—barring anyone but the president and his agents from negotiating with a foreign power—is always trotted out when someone is offended by the out-party’s foreign policy actions. But no one has ever been prosecuted under the Logan Act.
The Cotton letter made two core points: that a deal with Iran that is an executive agreement and not a treaty can a) be modified by Congress at any time and b) revoked “with a stroke of the pen” by the next president because it is simply a promise by one president and is not legally binding on anyone else.
Secretary of State John Kerry has taken angry exception to the GOP claim that it can modify any agreement. He clearly fears such talk will undermine the negotiations. And, indeed, if, as the Republican senators say in the letter, any non-treaty deal with Iran is simply a promise by Obama, then they can’t amend his personal promise. Kerry is right on that. But the Congress could vote for legislation that would have the effect of gutting any deal. (As a practical matter, however, Obama would veto such legislation and the Senate would be unlikely to be able to muster the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.) But Kerry is loudly screaming and pounding the table over the claim that Congress could modiify any agreement with Iran.
As to the claim in the letter that the next President could revoke any deal, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenehi last week condemned that part of the letter, saying it would be a violation of international law for the next president to do so. But there is no such international law. Iranian leaders have a habit of claiming that anything they want is required by “international law” while ignoring international law when it is inconvenient. Most pointedly, they have screamed loudly when foreign countries have not stopped attacks on Iranian embassies, accusing the others of violating international law, while never acknowledging any wrongdoing by Iran when the US embassy was occupied from 1979 to 1981.
The Senate letter was correct that the next president could revoke an “executive agreement” between Iran and Obama—but that is just a legal nicety. Presidents since George Washington have signed executive agreements with foreign countries. There are tens of thousands of them and none has ever been revoked unilaterally. That is for the simple reason that no president would be trusted abroad if he started revoking deals made by his predecessor. American foreign policy machinery would come to a grinding halt,
In 1981, many Republicans urged President Ronald Reagan to revoke the Algiers Accord that President Jimmy Carter signed with Iran, which freed the US embassy hostages and released the Iranian assets Carter had frozen. Reagan ignored such entreaties.
Of course, in that case the hostages had already been freed and the assets unfrozen so the key points of the agreement had been completed. In the case an Obama-Iran deal on Iran’s nuclear program, much would remain in the future when the next president is inaugurated in January 2017. But revoking any agreement would allow the Islamic Republic to do anything it wished with its nuclear program with no constraints whatsoever. If the complaint is that the (as yet non-existent) agreement doesn’t put enough constraints on Iran, the argument that the next president should remove all the constraints that do exist under an agreement fails to pass logical muster.
Obama himself said he was “embarrassed” for the signers of the letter.
One of the seven Republican senators who declined to sign was Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who said he preferred to focus on his efforts to enact legislation requiring any agreement the president signs to be submitted to Congress for approval.
The Obama Administration is now focused on that, in part because no deal with Iran could pass the House of Representatives, where the GOP has a large majority.
Dennis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, wrote Corker Saturday denouncing his bill, saying it would “embolden” hardliners in Iran and likely prompt the Majlis to pass mirroring legislation allowing it to spike any deal.
But he also complained that the bill isn’t just an effort to bring Congress into the act. McDon-ough noted that the bill removes the president’s legal right to waive sanctions temporarily, which, he noted, could also remove any incentive for Iran to make a deal.
Furthermore, McDonough wrote, Corker’s bill would pull the rug out from under the international consensus that has allowed sanctions to work. “If congressional action is perceived as preventing us from reaching a deal, it will create divisions within the international community, putting at risk the very international cooperation that has been essential to our ability to pressure Iran. Put simply, it would potentially make it impossible to secure international cooperation for additional sanctions, while putting at risk the existing multilateral sanctions.” In other words, while the GOP senators say they want more sanctions on Iran, McDonough was arguing that the result of the Corker bill would likely be fewer sanctions.