Secret diplomatic talks in Germany have reportedly produced a breakthrough in efforts to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. “We are ready to pursue a return to compliance with our JCPOA commitments consistent with Iran also doing the same,” said State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Thursday.
President Joe Biden campaigned on promises to revive the Iran nuclear deal, painstakingly brokered by the Obama administration only to be unceremoniously abandoned by President Trump three years later. Whatever its stipulatory merits, however, Obama’s attempt to instate a politically divisive international agreement without congressional approval was a strategic blunder, and any effort by Biden to reinstate it by presidential fiat will be an even greater disaster.
Brokered by the Obama administration on behalf of the P5+1 (United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China), and the European Union, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) lifted U.N. and most Western bilateral sanctions on Iran in exchange for the latter’s acceptance of limited restrictions on its enrichment capacity, caps on its accumulation of enriched uranium and a modest expansion of International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.
Critics complained that the agreement sanctified Tehran’s retention of sufficient enrichment infrastructure to produce a bomb in a year or less; that many of the curbs on Iran’s nuclear activity expired in 8 to 15 years; and that a range of longstanding U.S. demands were dropped, from closing a once-secret, heavily fortified underground enrichment facility to fully accounting for its past bomb-making research and development.
Obama may well have secured the best possible terms from the Iranians, who were willing only to pause their advancement toward the bomb, not to dismantle the program. However, facing widespread domestic political opposition to the agreement, he was unable to secure the requisite two-thirds support in the Senate to ratify the deal as a treaty, or even to win simple majority support for it in either the House or the Senate.
Presidents are entitled to conclude and implement agreements with other nations without congressional consent, but such commitments aren’t legally binding and can be just as easily reversed once they leave office. The founding fathers chose not to entrust the power to make binding international commitments solely to the president for good reason. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 75, “the history of human conduct does not warrant that exalted opinion of human virtue which would make it wise in a nation to commit interests of so delicate and momentous a kind as those which concern its intercourse with the rest of the world to the sole disposal of a magistrate created and circumstanced as would be a President of the United States.”
After months of negotiations, Obama faced an unsavory choice—accept that there would be no breakthrough with Iran during his time in office or move forward with an impermanent agreement that his successors would be under no obligation to honor. He chose the latter option, in large part because he wanted to have a “legacy” achievement in foreign policy and felt confident that a Democrat would succeed him in office.
In his autobiography, Theodore Roosevelt explained the importance of winning congressional ratification of his 1907 agreement with the Dominican Republic providing for U.S. administration of its customs to pay off foreign creditors: “It was far preferable that there should be action by Congress, so that we might be proceeding under a treaty which was the law of the land and not merely by a direction of the Chief Executive which would lapse when that particular executive left office.”
Well, that’s precisely what happened when Obama left office. Having campaigned on promises to abandon the JCPOA, President Trump eventually did so, to no one’s surprise, in May 2018.
Biden has claimed that re-entering the JCPOA will help “re-establish U.S. credibility, signaling to the world that America’s word and international commitments once again mean something.”
He is right that America’s international commitments should “once again mean something,” but the first step in getting there is to desist from making international commitments that mean nothing. The founding fathers clearly thought it inadvisable to enter into major international agreements that don’t enjoy support from elected representatives of the American people. The president-elect would do well to heed their wisdom.
Gary C. Gambill is general editor of the Middle East Forum.
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