By Morton A. Klein and Dr. Daniel Mandel
The Obama Administration, Vice President Joseph Biden in particular, has waxed indignant over a letter co-signed by 47 Republican senators to the Iranian leadership warning that, without Congressional approval, any agreement on the Iranian nuclear program signed by President Barack Obama will be subject to reversal by a future president.
Biden accuses the Republicans of undercutting Obama’s attempt to negotiate an agreement with Iran. A reality check is in order.
The Congress is a co-equal branch of the federal government. In addition to controlling the purse strings and advising and consenting to the appointment of Cabinet officials, it must also ratify treaties entered into by the President. Lifting of U.S. sanctions is thus, ordinarily subject to a Congressional vote. Therefore, any agreement entered into by Obama by executive order and not subject to a Congressional vote can be rendered null and void upon his departure from office in January 2017.
This is obvious from Obama’s own conduct. George W. Bush affirmed in an April 2004 letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines was unrealistic and that major Jewish population centers beyond the 1949 lines would remain within Israel. This letter was overwhelmingly endorsed by a vote of 407 to 9 in the House, and of 95 to 3 in the Senate, including by both future Obama secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Yet, Obama never affirmed it and refused to say that he was bound by it.
If a Congressionally-approved presidential commitment can be ignored by a successor president, how can Obama complain that any commitments he might give Tehran without Congressional approval might also be rescinded by his successor?
Moreover, the elephant in the room is Obama’s effort to reach just such an agreement without Congressional approval. Why is he doing so? If the agreement under negotiation is strategically sound and solid, why seek to evade Congressional endorsement? What better proof that this will be a bad deal, since any good one would readily be approved by the Congress?
Biden doesn’t tell us. Instead, he labels the Republican letter, pointing out that such a non-Congressionally ratified deal would be a “a mere executive agreement,” as threatening “to undermine the ability of any future American president, whether Democrat or Republican, to negotiate with other nations on behalf of the United States.”
What undermines a president’s ability to negotiate an agreement is seeking to achieve one that is profoundly lacking in American public and Congressional support, including within his own party, and which flies in the face of assurances he has repeatedly and publicly given.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has just shown that 71% of Americans do not expect Obama’s impending nuclear deal with Iran to stop Iran going nuclear — a startling indication of a lack of public confidence in his Iran diplomacy.
President Obama spent six years repeatedly reassuring that his policy towards the Iranian nuclear weapons program is not one of containment, nor one seeking an agreement at any price that leaves Iran capable of becoming a nuclear power. To the contrary, Obama repeatedly insisted he will do “everything, everything” to stop Iran getting the bomb. Unease with the President’s policy today arises solely from the fact that this is not the policy he is actually pursuing.
Indeed, Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said, “the more I hear from the Administration … the more it sounds like talking points that come straight out of Tehran.”
In fact, in January, the White House had to lean heavily on 10 Democratic senators to delay them bringing to a vote a bill for re-imposing sanctions on Iran, previously relaxed, in the event of Iran’s failing to conclude an agreement ending its nuclear weapons program.
Obama doesn’t want the leverage with Tehran a Congressional vote to reimpose sanctions in the absence of deal would bring him. He doesn’t want Tehran permanently estopped from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Rather, he wants a deal that lets Tehran become a threshold nuclear state, with a sunset clause that would in fact provide a pathway to nuclear weapons after a ten-year period.
Of course Senate Republicans are worried, of course Senate Democrats are worried and of course the American public is worried. But President Obama is not — except about the prospect of his agreement being neutered.
Morton A. Klein is National President of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). Dr. Daniel Mandel is author of H. V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel (London: Routledge, 2004) and Director of the ZOA’s Center for Middle East Policy.