The Obama-Biden administration claimed in 2015 that the Iran nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA—was a non-binding agreement requiring only executive action. Critics claimed that it was consequential enough that the U.S. Constitution required that it be submitted to the U.S Senate as a treaty. A CNN politics article at the time asked, “If it looks like a treaty, walks like a treaty, and talks like a treaty, is it a treaty? According to the White House, only if the president of the United States says it is.” The late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was blunter: “This is clearly a treaty. They can call it a banana, but it’s a treaty.”
So does it still matter that political sleight of hand was needed because the Obama-Biden White House was more than 20 Senate votes short of being able to pass it as a treaty in 2015? The answer is yes. Joe Biden, now U.S. president, intends to fast-track rejoining the JCPOA as one of his major foreign-policy priorities, only requiring Iran to return to compliance with the agreement, acting under the same executive prerogative that former President Barack Obama used.
What is not reported but must not be forgotten is that if Iran re-enters the JCPOA in 2021, it will have no limitations on uranium centrifuge use in just five years’ time (2026). It will have the ability to enrich uranium to 90 percent weapons-grade with international approval in just 10 years’ time (2031). And the pièce de résistance for the Supreme Leader is not a single U.N. nuclear inspector will be allowed at an Iranian undeclared nuclear site in just nine years’ time (2030).
That’s a far cry from the Obama-Biden administration’s promise when they said repeatedly, emphatically, they would not sign a deal that would allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Let’s leave aside the elephant in the room: that the Obama team chose not to address development of nuclear-capable missiles—one of the three pillars of a nuclear-weapons program.
Just because Republicans don’t have a majority in the Senate in 2021 and failed to stop Obama from implementing the 2015 deal by executive action doesn’t mean they should be mute. They need to follow their constitutional responsibility and point out to an uninformed American public that constitutional issues were sidestepped six years ago and are even more relevant today for our nation’s security, as we are that much closer to the dates the agreement permits the Iranian regime to become a nuclear-armed bully, immune to attack.
Republicans should ask Biden to follow the Constitution’s intent and finally submit the JCPOA for Senate ratification as a treaty. It should not outsource American security interests to the United Nations as was done in 2015, when the Obama White House used a U.N. Security Council Resolution (2231) to bind America to the agreement, which the legislative branch of the American people had not been given its proper opportunity to consider. It may not make a difference, but it will make an important point.
This is not about politics; it is about the rule of law. According to the U.S. Senate website, “the Constitution provides that the president “shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two-thirds of the Senators present concur” (Article II, section 2). The Constitution’s framers gave the Senate a share of the treaty power in order to give the president the benefit of the Senate’s advice and counsel, check presidential power, safeguard the sovereignty of the states by giving each state an equal vote in the treaty-making process,” ensuring that the arguments pro and con would be made openly.
Two wrongs never make a right. Like Obama, Biden is subverting the intent of the Constitution by not submitting the most critical American international agreement of the 21st century to the Senate as required.
So why did Obama not submit the JCPOA to the Senate? According to former Secretary of State John Kerry, answering a congressional question under oath, said that the administration did not do so because, “I spent quite a few years ago trying to get a lot of treaties through the United States Senate. … And frankly, it’s become physically impossible. That’s why. … So we thought that the easiest way to get something that … could achieve our goal was through a political agreement.”
According to Kerry, “We’ve been clear from the beginning. We’re not negotiating a ‘legally binding plan.’ ” This was outrageous then, and it still has relevance today as the Biden administration has said it will return to the same JCPOA without any plans to amend the profound flaws that have become self-evident in the past several years. Republicans should take the constitutional high road and again demand the president submit the JCPOA to the Senate. There should be no political loophole for something so crucial to American national security.
In 2021, much like as in 2015, the mainstream news media has not done their job, educating the public about the constitutional implications of the approach both administrations have chosen. Instead, they have obscured the constitutional argument because of their political sympathy for the merits of the nuclear deal.
As David Rivkin, a constitutional law expert who worked for former President George H.W. Bush, said: “Any international agreement requiring major undertakings on the part of the United States, such as the proposed Iran deal, must be sent to the Senate for advice and consent. …The Constitution is quite clear.”
In 2015, the administration outplayed the Senate leadership in not demanding a treaty vote, turning the “legislation treaty ratification process under the Constitution upside-down. Instead of 67 Senate votes to ratify a treaty, the bill would require 67 votes to block Obama from carrying out any agreement.”
That’s impressive on a political level, but at the very least, constitutionally challenged. Presidents of both parties over the years have on occasion been autocratic on foreign affairs, asking Congress to give a rubber stamp to the executive branch. However, when something as important and controversial as a nuclear agreement with a leading state sponsor of terror comes to the fore, the correct choice then and the correct choice now is submitting it to the Senate as a treaty, even if the chance to convince Biden is remote.
Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House and their foreign-policy advisers. He is a columnist for “The Jerusalem Post” and a contributor to i24TV, “The Hill,” JTA and “The Forward.”