Why Professors Ackerman and Golove Are Still Wrong About the Iran Deal

by Julian Ku

I thank Professors Ackerman and Golove for taking the time to respond to my earlier post on whether a future President could unilaterally withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal.  But I remain unconvinced by the claims they made in their original Atlantic essay that a future President’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran Deal would be “lawless”. Here’s why I still think they are wrong:

1)  Ackerman and Golove argue that the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act “authorizes” President Obama to enter into binding congressional-executive agreement with Iran.  In their sur-reply, Professors Ackerman and Golove cite two pieces of statutory text from the Iran Nuclear Agreement Act which they say is congressional authorization for the President to conclude the Iran Deal (the JCPOA).  They point out that the act “specifically defines ‘agreement’ to include any accord with Iran ‘regardless of whether it is legally binding or not.’ § 2610e(h)(1).” They then point out that the Act “authorizes the President to implement sanctions relief unless Congress enacts ‘a joint resolution stating in substance that the Congress does not favor the agreement.’ 42 U.S.C. § 2610e(c)(2)(B).”

For the purpose of this argument, it doesn’t really matter whether the agreement is legally binding or not.  The real problem is that Professors Ackerman and Golove do not (and cannot) cite statutory text “authorizing” the President to enter into an agreement with Iran.  They can’t cite this text because that language does not exist in the Act.  The Act defines an “agreement” broadly because Congress wants the President transmit everything, including supporting materials and annexes, to Congress.  The Act suspends the President’s pre-existing power to suspend or terminate sanctions on Iran while Congress “reviews” the agreement.  Congress may vote a resolution of disapproval, which would prevent the President from lifting or waiving sanctions, but it doesn’t say he can’t enter into the Agreement.  But Congress may also simply do nothing (which is what it has done), which would also allow the President to lift the sanctions after 90 days.  Nothing in the Act says the President can’t enter into the Agreement. It just says, once he does so, he has to disclose that agreement to Congress and hold off on implementation.*

Professors Ackerman and Golove somehow read this framework as an authorization of the President’s power to conclude an agreement, but a more plausible reading of the Act as a whole sees it as a suspension of the President’s pre-existing power to implement an agreement.  If you think (as I do) that the President has broad powers to conclude international agreements (especially nonbinding ones) without Congress, then this law makes a lot of sense since it requires the President to suspend implementation of the agreement for 60 or 90 days and disclose all information about the agreement.

Under the Ackerman/Golove reading of this language, Congress has authorized the President to enter into whatever agreement with Iran he wants, and the only condition it places on it is that Congress gets 90 days to review it before it automatically goes into effect. Why would  Congress bother to give the President the power to enter into an agreement without reserving for itself the power to approve it?

It is worth noting that Congress knows how to specifically authorize an executive agreement, and require its approval before going into effect.  In Section 103(b) of the Trade Promotion Authority Act (enacted about the same time as the Review Act), Congress states that:

“[w]henever the President determines that one or more existing duties or other import restrictions of any foreign country or the United States are unduly burdening and restricting the foreign trade of the United States and that the purposes, policies, priorities, and objectives of this title will be promoted thereby, the President

(A) may enter into trade agreements with foreign countries before— (i) July 1, 2018…

[Emphasis added].

Moreover, the trade agreements require approval by a separate Act of Congress.  As the TPA bill makes clear in Section 106, no agreement “entered into under section 103(b) shall enter into force with respect to the United States if (and only if)—” among other requirements — “(F) the implementing bill is enacted into law.” [Emphasis added).  Again, Congress is making clear that it ( and not the President) is the one who has authorized the agreement and that the agreement cannot have any force until Congress acts to approve and implement it.

It bears repeating: there is no language even remotely like this in Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. There is no language saying the President can enter into an agreement, nor is there language explaining when that agreement has “entered into force.”  Congress knows how to authorize an international agreement, and the most natural reading of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act is that it didn’t do so there.

2) Professors Ackerman and Golove also argue that a future President cannot legally (under U.S. law) terminate this agreement without either approval from Congress or without undermining U.S. credibility in trade agreements like NAFTA or the WTO.

I find this argument lacking for at least two reasons.

First, as I stated above, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act doesn’t follow the pattern of trade promotion authority laws  in any way so it is highly unlikely that any trading partners will worry about a President Rubio pulling out of the WTO because he pulled out of the JCPOA. (Simon Lester makes that point here)

Moreover, the Review Act does not in any way prohibit a future President from withdrawing from the JCPOA, nor does it prohibit the President from reimposing sanctions on Iran. He is perfectly free to put them back on without violating the Review Act or any other U.S. statutory law.

The contrast with trade agreements is again instructive because Congress knows how to reserve to itself the power to terminate an agreement.  Under Section 125 of the Uruguay Agreements Implementation Act, Congress can vote every five years on whether to pull out of the WTO. This suggests that Congress has reserved for itself some power to terminate the WTO agreement. And because the laws implementing the WTO agreement change all sorts of other U.S. laws, it makes sense for Congress to supervise how and when the U.S. gets out. (It bear repeating: terminating the JCPOA does NOT violate or change any U.S. domestic law).

Second, as I noted in my original post, even if the Iran Deal was a treaty approved by the Senate, there is good reason to think the President could withdraw from the Iran deal-treaty without going back to the Senate for approval.  President Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty without going to the Senate, President Carter withdrew from the U.S.-Taiwan defense treaty without going to the Senate, etc.  For this reason, a future President could withdraw from the JCPOA (even if the JCPOA is legally binding) without going back to Congress, especially where the Review Act does not reserve to Congress any termination rights.  Thus, even if Professors Ackerman and Golove are right that the Review Act authorizes the President to enter into an agreement, it doesn’t REQUIRE him to do so or REQUIRE him to stay in the JCPOA. (And he can withdraw via the JCPOA’s provisions if he chooses).

In conclusion, I am back where I started.  Professors Ackerman and Golove use the thinnest of statutory language to claim that Congress “authorized” the President to make an agreement, and further, that Congress has also prohibited the President from withdrawing from it.  That’s a lot of work for a mere definition of the word “agreement” to carry. It’s far too much, especially when one considers the way Congress goes about its business in the trade agreement context.  The next President can unilaterally withdraw from the JCPOA. And, with all due respect to Professors Ackerman and Golove, such a withdrawal will be the opposite of “lawless.”


*As a side note, the fact that the definition of an agreement includes non-binding political commitments suggests that Congress is really after review and disclosure, not authorization and approval.  Could Congress authorize the President to enter into a non-binding political commitment? And then require him and future presidents to stick to such a commitment?


2 Responses

  1. Does United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 limit the options of future US Presidents?

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