Dealing with Iran: A Primer on the President’s Options for a Nuclear Agreement
Without weighing in on the merits of any deal with Iran on nuclear matters, I’ll express some frustration over the rhetoric used in the current firestorm between the White House, 47 Senators (plus Governors Perry and Jindal), Iran’s Foreign Minister, and the 4th Estate on what kind of deal the United States might conclude with Iran and the so-called P5+1 (the UK, France, China, Russia and Germany). There seems to be a great deal of confusion and conflation of issues in terms of the legal logistics of concluding any deal. Now, maybe some of that is willful — obfuscation in service of each side’s political goals. But, on the chance that some of those weighing in are under-informed on the actual issues and options available, I thought I’d offer a (brief) primer on what the actual options are in this case and how those options may limit/shape U.S. behavior.
For starters, it’s critical to differentiate the question of how nation states can reach agreement from the question of how a domestic legal system authorizes a State to enter into agreements (let alone what effect it gives them). As such, I think the conversation needs to split off the question of (1) what kind of international deal this will be; from asking (2) what authority does the United States have (or will it need) to conclude such a deal as a matter of U.S. law. Let’s take each angle separately.
When it comes to nation States entering into an agreement (that is, a mutual commitment of shared expectations as to future behavior), there are actually three basic options States can choose: (a) a treaty; (b) a contract; or (c) a political commitment.
(a) a treaty: The treaty is a (relatively) well understood vehicle that rests on international law for its authority and effects. Article 2(a) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT) defines a treaty as
an international agreement concluded between States in written form and governed by international law, whether embodied in a single instrument or in two or more related instruments and whatever its particular designation
There’s some nuance to this definition, which I’ve explained in the Defining Treaties chapter of my book. But for our purposes, it suffices to note that the VCLT lays out who has authority to make a treaty (i.e., heads of state and government, foreign ministers and those with full powers) and how they can do so (i.e., by signature, ratification, accession, acceptance, approval or any other agreed means). Once formed, a treaty is subject to the general (and fundamental) principle of pacta sunt servanda — treaties are “binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith.” Domestic legal obligations are not recognized as a basis for breaching treaty commitments, with one exception. Article 46 provides that
1. A State may not invoke the fact that its consent to be bound by a treaty has been expressed in violation of a provision of its internal law regarding competence to conclude treaties as invalidating its consent unless that violation was manifest and concerned a rule of its internal law of fundamental importance. 2. A violation is manifest if it would be objectively evident to any State conducting itself in the matter in accordance with normal practice and in good faith.
Article 46, however, has proven relatively limited in its availability to States as an exit option; the one time it got raised before the ICJ, the Court suggested that States are not obliged to keep track of other states’ legislative and constitutional regulations on treaty-making and that a violation could not be manifest “unless at least properly publicized.” Given the varied ways the U.S. authorizes treaties (discussed in more detail below), it’s hard to imagine a later Administration being able to invoke Article 46. Indeed, if U.S. foreign relations scholars can’t agree on the ground rules for when specific treaty-making procedures are required (or prohibited), I’m hard pressed to say other countries should be able to identify a manifest violation in a case where the Executive branch pursues one specific procedure over others.
(b) a contract: Interstate commitments can also be contracts instead of treaties. Contracts, like treaties, are considered legally binding, but differ from them in that contracts rely on domestic law as the source of their “bindingness” instead of being governed by international law as treaties are. Still, governments from time to time will do deals (e.g., one State selling helicopters to another) where the agreement specifically indicates its terms are governed by, say, the “law of New York.” This doesn’t seem to be on the table with Iran though, so I’ll reserve to a latter date more detailed analysis of how contracts and treaties differ.
(c) a political commitment: The third — and final — option for agreements among States is a “political commitment.” Some scholars prefer to call it “soft law,” but for reasons Josh Newcomer and I elaborated in our article on political commitments, I think that term is a bit of a misnomer. The basic idea is simple — states can make agreements where the basis of their commitment does not rest on law, but “political” (or perhaps “moral”) forces. In a political commitment, the fact of the promise itself motivates compliance rather than importing the sanctity of law and its legitimacy to do so. Non-legally binding commitments have now been a feature of international relations for more than a century, and include some pretty high-profile agreements, including the Shanghai Communique, the Helsinki Accords, the recent US-China Deal on Climate Change, and the Comprehensive Joint Plan that started this whole set of negotiations with Iran. Moreover, as Josh and my article details, these commitments exhibit a tremendous diversity in terms of the form they take, the substantive commitments they contain, the extent to which they establish or implicate institutions, not to mention their varied relationships to other legal and non-legal commitments.
Traditionally, political commitments are seen as distinct from treaties in terms of being (i) more flexible; (ii) less credible because exit options are easier; with (iii) greater opportunities for confidentiality; and (iv) fewer domestic legal hurdles to their formation. The actual variation in political commitments suggests, however, that these differences may be over-stated — today’s practice suggests that there is some significant overlap in what political commitments and treaties do. For example, it may have been true at one time that treaties were necessarily less flexible than political commitments, but with the advent of tacit amendment procedures, treaties have gained in flexibility, while some political commitments have become more highly structured and inflexible in terms of the precision or normativity of their contents or the institutional structure in which they operate. The one area where political commitments appear to hold a distinct advantage (or disadvantage depending on your perspective) is with the relatively weak domestic law attention they receive. As Josh and I concluded in our article — a point reiterated earlier today by Jack Goldsmith and Marty Lederman, states like the United States have imposed few (if any) legal restrictions on the Executive’s ability to enter into political commitments.
Domestic Authorities to Commit the United States Internationally
In Article II, Section 2, clause 2 of the Constitution, the President has the “power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur.” If one were to take up the issue de novo, you might think this text requires that all treaties the United States wishes to conclude under international law have to proceed to the Senate. In practice, however, Senate Advice and Consent has become one of only four ways the United States may gain authority to enter into a treaty (in the international law sense of that term). Add in the possibility that the Iran deal might be a political commitment, and there are actually five options for how U.S. law might authorize a deal with Iran: (i) Senate Advice and Consent; (ii) a Congressional-Executive agreement; (iii) via an existing Senate Advice and Consent treaty; (iv) a sole Executive Agreement; or (v) a political commitment.
(i) Senate Advice and Consent Treaty. If the United States concludes a treaty (in the international law sense of the term) with Iran and the P5+1, President Obama could send that treaty to the Senate for advice and consent, and, assuming the Senate agreed (with or without reservations, understandings or declarations), the President would then clearly have constitutional authority to consent to the deal. Senate advice and consent is much less used compared to the past (less than 10% of modern treaties go through the Senate), although it should be noted that almost all past arms control agreements have received Senate advice and consent. Still, given the general stalemate that has pervaded the Senate’s role in treaty-making the last few years, this seems a complete non-starter as a path forward, particularly with 47 Senators on record against virtually any deal involving Iran.
(ii) Congressional-Executive Agreement: The President could gain authority to conclude a treaty (again, in the international law sense of that term) with Iran and the P5+1 via Congress instead of the Senate alone. A simply majority vote of both Houses could enact a bill that with the President’s signature would become federal law and thus create legal authority for the United States to conclude (and perform) an Iranian treaty. As a practical matter, congressional consent can be ex ante or ex post, but again, domestic politics in this case countenances against this being a likely option (even though today the vast, vast majority of U.S. treaty commitments under international law rely on one or more statutory authorities for their formation).
(iii) via an Existing Senate Advice and Consent Treaty: Article VI of the Constitution treats both statutes and treaties (i.e., those receiving Senate advice and consent) as the “supreme law of the land.” Thus, just as a statute could authorize President Obama to conclude an international agreement with Iran, so too could a pre-existing Senate advice and consent treaty. So far, I’m not aware of any nominations for an existing U.S. treaty that could do this (but someone might want to carefully parse the 1955 Treaty of Amity and Peace with Iran if it’s still in force (it’s not listed in Treaties in Force)). Or, this might be a way forward if, as Marty and Jack hint, the Executive branch concluded the deal with Iran as a political commitment, but then had it endorsed by the U.N. Security Council pursuant to its Chapter VII authorities. In that case, legal authority to conclude the deal might reside in the U.N. Charter itself since the Senate long ago gave consent, subject to a U.S. veto, to Security Council measures to preserve international peace and security. As such, I don’t think we can dismiss this option as much as it might seem inapplicable at first glance.
(iv) Sole Executive Agreement: The President may rely on his own Constitutional powers (e.g., as commander in chief) to authorize a U.S. treaty commitment. In practice, this is rarely done as the State Department will usually try to also locate authority in at least one federal statute (even something as bland as Congress’ authorization of State Department responsibility for foreign affairs). That said, the Supreme Court has endorsed the President’s ability to conclude certain treaties as sole executive agreements, although often in the face of congressional acquiescence, not outright opposition. So, one might imagine this option would generate some inter-branch litigation if the Republican-controlled Congress rejects reading the president’s powers to include whatever sort of commitments are contained in any agreement the United States concludes with Iran. Still, if the deal is to be a treaty under international law, this seems the most likely basis for authorizing it under U.S. law. As Fred Kaplan noted yesterday, and Secretary Kerry apparently suggested a few hours ago, all the attention on treaties may have been misplaced and an entirely different deal might be at work here, namely a political one.
(v) Political Commitment; It’s possible that the White House is looking for a political commitment with Iran and the P5+1. If so, then all the machinations about forming a treaty under international law, and, just as importantly, the relatively robust set of domestic approval options for treaty-making, are inapplicable. Although Josh and I argued that functional similarities between treaties and political commitments should require a Congressional role in the formation of at least some political commitments, I concede that Marty and Jack are correct that at present it’s hard to say this is the law of the United States. On the contrary, today, it still appears that political commitments by their very nature do not implicate any of the domestic legal, procedural hurdles associated with treaties and thus may be a path forward for the United States to do a deal with Iran without worrying about the views of either the Senate or Congress as a whole.
That said, if the United States is actually going to argue it is concluding a political commitment with Iran and not a treaty, I want to conclude with two important caveats on the international and domestic aspects of such a deal that I’ve not seen mentioned previously.
First, a political commitment must be a political commitment for all sides, not just one side. There’s much ambiguity in the U.S. and Iranian statements surrounding some of the negotiations, and it’s possible to read some of yesterday’s press briefing to suggest a deal where the United States would have only a political commitment while Iran was legally bound to perform its promises (see, for example, the carefully worded “verifiable and enforceable commitments” language used). That, however, is not an available option in international law. Either the agreement is a treaty for all parties or its a political commitment for all participants. I am unaware of any case where the nature of the agreement varies for the parties to it (that is it was a treaty for one state and a political commitment for everyone else). Certainly, there have been disputes in the past as to the status of a particular agreement, with the ICJ and international arbiters called upon to weigh in on whether the deal struck gave rise to international legal obligations or not. And it’s also possible for a treaty to contain not just legally binding commitments but also political ones (see, e.g., Article 1 of the Algiers Accords). But, a stand-alone political commitment is, by definition, mutually exclusive from the international legal commitment that defines a treaty. As such, once an agreement contains at least one commitment intended to be governed by international law, it’s a treaty not a political commitment. Indeed, unlike contracts, treaties do not require consideration. Thus, a treaty can exist where only one side (e.g., Iran) makes all the promises to do (or not do) certain things. Taken together, this suggests that, unless the United States is making some new, novel move to unsettle the existing forms of international commitment, its suggestion that it is pursuing a political commitment with Iran should mean that none of the commitments will give rise to any international legal obligations in and of themselves (there may be separate estoppel arguments, but let’s save those for another post).
Second, turning to the U.S. domestic context, it may be true that the Constitution does not require any particular approval procedure for political commitments, but it is also true that the Senate retains significant political power to pressure the President to pursue a treaty over a political commitment or even to insist on having a treaty submitted for Senate advice and consent in lieu of simply relying on Executive Power. For example, before it became the Senate-approved Moscow Treaty, President Bush had apparently considered the possibility of doing the deal with Russia as either a political commitment or a Sole Executive Agreement. But the Senate objected; and in a bipartisan push succeeded in having the deal submitted for its advice and consent. Thus, one could imagine that if the Senate (or I suppose Congress as a whole) wanted to deploy their political checks on Executive power (think appropriations or ambassadorial/cabinet approvals), the White House might have to recalculate whether and how it wants to proceed with Iran here. Nor is this entirely a U.S. problem; reports suggest that when the United States was looking to craft a strategic framework with Iraq a few years back, the Iraqis ended up concluding that the deal had to be done as a treaty (in the international law sense) since their Parliament was insisting on approving it in lieu of going to more streamlined political commitment route. Simply put, just because there may be no extant constitutional constraints on the President’s ability to conclude a political commitment with Iran does not mean that there won’t be domestic negotiations over whether and how the United States concludes any deal involving Iran and nuclear matters.
So . . . now that I have that all off my chest, I’ll get out of the way and let the various actors continue to negotiate and debate the merits of the appropriate way(s) forward here. I just hope that folks will do so with more attention to what the existing international and domestic law has to say (or not say) on these questions.