Podcast Special! Why the Iran Deal is Constitutional, But Could Still End Up in U.S. Court

by Julian Ku

Due to my typical mid-summer lassitude (and a family vacation among the redwoods in California), I have not participated in the excellent legal blogosphere debate over the constitutionality of the Iran Nuclear Agreement which has included contributions from Jack Goldsmith, John Yoo, Michael Ramsey, John Bellinger, David Rivkin and many others.  Luckily for me, Prof. Jeffrey Rosen and the good folks at the National Constitution Center allowed me to share my thoughts in a podcast discussion with David Rivkin, who with his co-author Lee Casey, has argued in the WSJ that the Iran Deal is unconstitutional unless submitted as a treaty under Article II of the U.S. Constitution.  The 45-minute or so podcast can be found below, and I think it is worth listening in full.
But because I may not have made myself fully clear in the podcast, I try to summarize my thoughts here on why:  1) the Iran Deal does not have to be submitted as an Article II treaty; 2) the Iran Deal may allow individual U.S. states to impose sanctions on Iran which would likely lead to U.S. litigation.  David Rivkin does a great job explaining his views on the podcast, which are worth listening to in full as well.

A) In my view, the Iran Deal (or JCPOA) does not have to be submitted as an Article II treaty for at least two reasons.

First, the terms of the agreement, which describe its obligations as “voluntary”, indicate that it is a nonbinding “political commitment”.  Even the UN Security Council Resolution which supposedly enshrined the JCPOA into international law leaves some wiggle room for the U.S. allowing it to refuse to lift sanctions on Iran without violating the SC Resolution (or at least that is how John Bellinger reads it).

To be sure, there are indications that Iran itself doesn’t think the agreement is nonbinding and it does seem odd for the U.S. administration to make all this fuss over a 10 year agreement that is not binding, but (as Duncan has explained here and elsewhere), nonbinding political commitments are not unknown in diplomatic practice.

One example that I have been studying recently is the 1972 Shanghai Communique between the U.S. and China.   This seems a classic nonbinding diplomatic agreement which nonetheless had enormous consequences for US-China and global politics.  This and two later communiques remain crucial issues with respect to U.S. “promises” about the status of Taiwan and US promises to reduce arms sales to Taiwan.  It is not exactly the same as the Iran Deal, which purports to require its parties to take certain specific actions on certain dates, but it has some of the same flavor.

For this reason, I don’t think a promise by the President to commit the U.S. to do something beyond his term of office changes this analysis much (contra Mike Ramsey).  Presidents often promise on behalf of the U.S. to do things beyond his term, but as long as they are clear that these are political commitments, not legal ones, I don’t think a treaty is required.

Second, the JCPOA does not have to be submitted as a treaty because it doesn’t require the U.S. to change its domestic laws or even to change any domestic policy that is not already within the President’s constitutional or delegated statutory powers.  Crucially, the President has delegated authority under the various sanctions statutes to waive or lift those sanctions without getting further congressional approval.  That is by far the most important U.S. obligation under the JCPOA.  The idea of giving the president these powers to lift sanctions implies that he will seek out certain changes in behavior by the sanctioned governments and then use those promised changes (by say Iran, or in the recent past Burma) as a basis to lift the sanctions.

There is a cost for the U.S. government in going the nonbinding route.  It means that Iran should not feel itself “legally” bound to abide by the agreement, or at least those parts that are not enshrined in the UN Security Council Resolution.  For U.S. constitutional purposes, it also means that any future president can withdraw from these political commitments without any requirement of legal consultation with Congress or any concerns about violating international law.  A U.S. President is also empowered to withdraw from its UN Security Council commitments as well.  (Actually, the JCPOA itself makes it pretty easy for the U.S. president to terminate the agreement according to its own terms).  This seems only fair, however, and the administration clearly seems that this is a price worth paying to avoid the Article II treaty process.

B) State-level Sanctions on Iran Are Most Likely to End Up in Court

The individual states (e.g. New York or California) could impose certain sanctions on Iran after the deal goes into effect.  Such sanctions will probably face litigation from the U.S federal government which will claim that any state-level sanctions are preempted by the JCPOA.  But because the JCPOA is a nonbinding agreement, the preemptive effect of the JCPOA is weaker than of a full-scale treaty or executive agreement.  The outcome of such a case against state-level sanctions is far from clear and may require the federal court to consider the nature of the JCPOA more carefully. My guess is that they would find it constitutional, but might be inclined to uphold the state-level sanctions. That last finding is a close call and I would love to see that case, which could very well happen in the near future.

In short, although I don’t think the Iran Deal is a very good deal for the U.S. and I hope Congress blocks it, I don’t think the JCPOA is unconstitutional.  We will hopefully get some litigation on this point in the near future when some state rolls out its anti-Iran sanctions.  But opponents of the deal should focus on the politics (getting to 67 votes in the Senate and/or a Republican President) rather than the law.

Guest Post: The Security Council Resolution on the Iran Deal–A Way around the “Reverse Veto”

by Jean Galbraith

[Jean Galbraith is an Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.] 

The Security Council’s voting procedures make it difficult to pass resolutions – and, typically, difficult to undo resolutions once passed. In an article published not long after the end of the Cold War, David Caron observed that while it is hard to address the difficulty of passing resolutions, the Security Council itself has the power to make it easier for resolutions to be undone once passed. One way, of course, is for the Security Council to put specific time limits on a resolution. But as an alternative Professor Caron suggested that the Security Council could “incorporate in any resolution taking a decision a modified voting procedure for future use in terminating the action taken.” In this way, the Security Council could get around what he described as the “reverse veto” – the default position that a resolution needs another resolution to terminate it and therefore that all P5 members must acquiesce in this termination. Professor Caron described how he had run his idea by a lawyer serving at the mission of one of the P5 but gotten a “quick and dismissive” reaction.

In the Security Council resolution endorsing the Iran deal, we now have something resembling Professor Caron’s suggestion. To see this, one must work through multiple paragraphs of Resolution 2231. To begin with, paragraph 7(a) terminates prior Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran. But the Resolution further provides that paragraph 7(a) itself can be undone – thus reinstating the prior Security Council resolutions – through what is effectively a modified voting procedure. Specifically, paragraph 11 states that if the Security Council receives a complaint from one of the parties to the Iran deal alleging that there is “significant non-performance of commitments” under the deal, then the Security Council is to “vote on a draft resolution to continue in effect the terminations in paragraph 7(a) of this resolution.” According to paragraph 12, if this draft resolution does not pass, then after a short time lag all the resolutions that had “been terminated pursuant to paragraph 7(a) shall apply in the same manner as they applied before the adoption of this resolution, and the measures contained in paragraphs 7, 8 and 16 to 20 of this resolution shall be terminated, unless the Security Council decides otherwise.” (These “snapback” provisions track the arrangement reached in the Iran deal. Also consistent with that deal, there are further related issues, including that invocation of these provisions could lead Iran to abandon the deal and also a partial limit on the reinstatement of the earlier sanctions as noted earlier on this blog by Julian Ku.)

In other words, paragraphs 7, 8, and 16-20 of Resolution 2231 will automatically terminate if a single P5 member vetoes the draft resolution that follows a complaint submitted to the Security Council by one party to the deal. This flips the usual voting procedure for terminating a resolution. Rather than needing the acquiescence of all the P5 to terminate these provisions, what is now needed is only for one P5 member to block their continuance.

Going forward, the potential for these kinds of modified voting procedures is fascinating to consider. They could increase the likelihood of getting Security Council resolutions ex ante by making it easier for these resolutions to be terminated ex post. They could also reduce the likelihood of stretched interpretations of existing resolutions. For example, if Resolution 678 authorizing the first Gulf War had provided for its own termination through a modified voting procedure, it presumably would have been so terminated before it could have been used by the United States as an asserted legal justification for the second Gulf War. On the flip side, if such modified voting procedures become part of the practice, it is possible that they could be over-used in ways that undermine the effectiveness and stability of the Security Council. It will be very interesting to see whether these kinds of mechanisms get more use in the future.

As someone who studies U.S. constitutional law as well as international law, this issue brings to mind the U.S. constitutional issue of whether a congressional statute can delegate authority to the executive branch but provide that this authority can be terminated in the future through a mere majority vote of one house of Congress (or of both houses of Congress but without Presidential signature). The first instance of this practice that I know of occurred in the Lend-Lease Act and sparked a back-and-forth between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Attorney General Robert Jackson over the constitutionality of this practice. Ultimately, a majority of the Supreme Court held in INS v. Chadha (1983) that Congress does not have the constitutional authority to develop modified voting procedures for terminating statutory delegations. Even since Chadha, however, the practice of Congress and the President has continued to make use of such procedures, albeit often in more informal ways. In addition, the United States uses modified voting procedures in other contexts, such as the practice-based approach of allowing the President alone (without needing two-thirds of the Senate) to withdraw the United States from treaties where this withdrawal is consistent with international law.

The U.N. Charter does not specify voting procedures for terminating an existing resolution (or other ways in which a resolution might terminate of its own accord). In practice, moreover, the Security Council has long had some flexibility in interpreting its procedures under the U.N. Charter, as demonstrated by its practice of concluding that a resolution can pass with abstentions rather than affirmative votes from P5 members. To me, as to Professor Caron in his article, it seems fairly straightforward that the Security Council has the power to use a modified voting procedure as a condition for the termination of a resolution, just as it can use a fixed termination date. Resolution 2231 is an example of how such modified voting procedures for termination can be useful, and the practice may become more common in the future.

In closing, I thank Opinio Juris for letting me contribute this guest blog post.

Guest Post: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Regarding Iran’s Nuclear Program

by Dan Joyner

[Dan Joyner is Professor of Law at the University of Alabama School of Law.  He is the author of the forthcoming book Iran’s Nuclear Program and International Law, which is under contract with Oxford University Press, and is expected in print in 2016.]

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreed to by the P5+1 (Germany, France, the U.K., the U.S., China, Russia) and Iran on July 14 is a major success of international diplomacy, possibly to be credited with the avoidance of war.  It is the culmination of twenty months of negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran since the initial Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) was agreed by the parties in November 2013.  See my analysis here of the JPOA when it was concluded.

The JCPOA is comprised of 159 total pages of text, consisting of 18 pages of the JCPOA itself, with a further 141 pages divided among five annexes.  All of the documents can be found at this link.  It is a carefully drafted, well organized document, and compliments are due its drafters.

That being said, it is an extremely complex document, which attempts to address all of the issues in dispute between the parties concerning Iran’s nuclear program, from how many and what type of uranium enrichment centrifuges Iran can maintain in operation, to the technical specifications of transforming the Arak heavy water reactor into an alternate less-proliferation-sensitive design, to excruciatingly detailed provisions on the precise sequencing of sanctions lifting by the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. and the E.U.

The general gist of the JCPOA is easy enough to summarize.  It is a quid pro quo agreement under which Iran agrees to significant limits on its civilian nuclear program, and to an enhanced inspection regime by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to verify the continued peaceful nature of its program.  In return, the P5+l agree to a coordinated lifting of the economic and financial sanctions that have been applied against Iran over the past six years by both the Security Council acting multilaterally, and the U.S. and E.U. in particular acting unilaterally.  The end goal of the JCPOA is stated to be that Iran will ultimately be treated as a normal nuclear energy producing state, on par with Japan, Germany and many other Non-Nuclear Weapon States party to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The precise sequencing of the implementation of the JCPOA’s commitments was one of the most difficult issues in the negotiations, and the JCPOA has one full annex, Annex V, devoted to the issue.  The implementation plan provides for approximately a 10 year timeline over which the main commitments are to be implemented by the parties.  Technically “UNSCR Termination Day,” on which all Security Council resolutions on Iran will terminate, and on which the Council will no longer be seized of the Iran nuclear issue, is set to occur 10 years from “Adoption Day,” which is scheduled for 90 days after the endorsement of the JCPOA by the Security Council.

Sanctions relief will be staggered, but will begin in earnest on “Implementation Day,” on which date the IAEA will certify that Iran has implemented its primary commitments limiting its nuclear program.  This could occur within approximately six months from “Adoption Day.”  The final, full lifting of all multilateral and unilateral sanctions is set to occur on “Transition Day,” which is defined as 8 years from “Adoption Day,” or when the IAEA reports that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful use, whichever is earlier.  So the JCPOA envisions a full lifting of all nuclear-related sanctions on Iran within the next eight years at a maximum, with significant sanctions lifting to occur hopefully within the coming year.

There are a number of important legal observations to make about the JCPOA text.  (more…)

Those “Snap-Back” Sanctions in the Iran Deal Have a Pretty Big Loophole

by Julian Ku

I don’t have a profound take on the Iran Deal (full text here) announced today between Iran and the P-5+1 leading world powers. From my understanding of this agreement, I am doubtful it will work out to benefit the U.S. and the E.U., but I don’t feel particularly strongly on this point. There are more than enough commentators out there who have strong opinions on the merits, a few of whom are even worth reading!

Here at Opinio Juris, we have concentrated on the key legal aspects of the Iran Deal in previous posts.  As Duncan has explained, the Iran Deal is not a binding international agreement.  As I have noted, the Iran Review Act does not actually require Congress to vote in order to approve the deal, and it allows the President to veto any congressional vote of disapproval.  Additionally, I think a future president could withdraw from the Iran Deal without violating either international law or the Constitution. (It’s nonbinding under international law and it’s not a treaty nor an congressional-executive agreement for U.S. constitutional purposes).

In this post, I would like to focus on another interesting legal quirk. In order to sell the bill to Congress and the U.S. public, the Obama Administration has insisted on some provisions to re-impose sanctions if Iran is caught cheating.  In earlier discussions, the President has called for “snapback” provisions in the Iran Deal.  In other words, if Iran is caught cheating, the prior UN Security Council Resolutions would be “automatically” re-imposed without going back for a new vote of the Security Council.

I have been skeptical about how this would work, as a legal matter. But the Iran Deal does indeed contain language calling for something like a “snapback” sanction.

37. Upon receipt of the notification from the complaining participant, as described above, including a description of the good-faith efforts the participant made to exhaust the dispute resolution process specified in this JCPOA, the UN Security Council, in accordance with its procedures, shall vote on a resolution to continue the sanctions lifting. If the resolution described above has not been adopted within 30 days of the notification, then the provisions of the old UN Security Council resolutions would be re-imposed, unless the UN Security Council decides otherwise….

I suppose it is theoretically possible for this mechanism to work, as long as the UN Security Council resolution lifting sanctions on Iran contains language incorporating this “snapback” process.  The Iran Deal, we should recall, is not a binding agreement and cannot bind the Security Council. I am not aware of similar instances where terminated UN Security Councils could be automatically revived upon a finding of non-compliance, but I am hardly an expert on this subject so I would welcome any readers who can offer some examples.

In any event, there is one more rather large loophole. Paragraph 37 goes on to insulate contracts with Iran that have already been made from whatever “snapback” sanctions that are imposed:

…In such event, these provisions would not apply with retroactive effect to contracts signed between any party and Iran or Iranian individuals and entities prior to the date of application, provided that the activities contemplated under and execution of such contracts are consistent with this JCPOA and the previous and current UN Security Council resolutions.

Since there is likely to be a “gold rush” of business rushing to sign deals with Iran upon lifting of sanctions, this exception might prove a pretty big hole in the “snapped-back” sanctions.   The expected Chinese and Russian deals with Iran for arms sales and oil purchases could survive any snapback, even if Iran was caught cheating.

So even if “snapback” works legally, it would have pretty limited impact practically.Or am I missing something?

The Security Council Workaround: How the Iran Deal Can Become Legally Binding Via a UN Security Council Resolution

by Julian Ku

Since the United States has made clear that its “deal” with Iran will NOT be a binding legal commitment under international law, one wonders what all the fuss over the Iran Letter from US Senators was about. As Duncan explains in his great post below, there is little doubt that the President can enter into a nonbinding “political commitment” and withdraw from it without violating international law.  Confusingly, though, Iran keeps talking as if there is going to be a binding international legal commitment.

The answer to this confusion appears to be that the US government plans to make a non-binding political commitment, and then take this commitment to the UN Security Council to get it “carved into marble” as a Security Council resolution that would be binding under international law.  Jack Goldsmith explains in detail at Lawfare how this might happen, and why this is constitutional (if also kind of sneaky).  The President gets to both avoid going to Congress AND get a binding legal obligation on Iran.

Of course, a future President could choose to withdraw or defy the UN Security Council resolution, but the legal and diplomatic costs would be much higher than withdrawing from a mere political commitment.  Congress could also, unquestionably, override any domestic legal effects of a UN Security Council Resolution by passing a statute refusing to lift sanctions on Iran, or stopping the President from doing so.  Diggs v. Shultz makes clear that a statute passed by Congress later in time than a Security Council resolution will have the force of law by operation of the last in time rule.  But the legal and diplomatic costs for doing so would also be higher than for a mere political commitment or even a bilateral executive agreement.

So the Administration has a plan to avoid Congress and get its deal sanctified by international law.  Pretty clever lawyering, although I (like Goldsmith) expect some serious political blowback from Congress.

Iran Responds to US Senators’ Letter, Shows Why Congress Should Be Involved in the First Place

by Julian Ku

I am totally swamped with various overlapping projects right now, so let me procrastinate anyway by noting that Iran took my suggestion and sent a response to the “open letter” sent them from 47 US Senators yesterday.  The letter actually shows why the President, and not the senators, is the one who is operating on the edge of constitutionality.

In the letter, Iran’s foreign minister suggested the senators were violating the US Constitution’s allocation of foreign policy conduct to the President.

[Foreign Minister] Zarif “expressed astonishment that some members of Congress find it appropriate to write leaders of another country against their own president,” a press release explained. “It seems that the authors not only do not understand international law, but are not fully cognizant of the nuances of their own Constitution when it comes to presidential powers in the conduct of foreign policy.”

As I explained yesterday, I don’t think the letter is a  violation of the Constitution, although there is a closer question under the much-cited, never used Logan Act.

What I found more interesting is the Iranian FM’s suggestion that a future president who withdrew from or amended the agreement would violate international law. This statement illustrates why I think Congress should be included in this process in the first place.

[Zarif] warned that a change of administrations would not relieve the U.S. of its obligations under an international agreement reached under the previous administration. Any attempt to change the terms of that agreement, he added, would be a “blatant violation of international law.”

“The world is not the United States, and the conduct of inter-state relations is governed by international law, and not by U.S. domestic law,” Zarif explained. “The authors may not fully understand that in international law, governments represent the entirety of their respective states, are responsible for the conduct of foreign affairs, are required to fulfil the obligations they undertake with other states and may not invoke their internal law as justification for failure to perform their international obligations.”

Zarif is no doubt right as a matter of international law (assuming there will be a binding agreement as opposed to a mere political commitment).  But think about it.  Why should a president be allowed to commit the US to binding obligations under international law that neither Congress nor a future President can withdraw from without violating international law?  Shouldn’t such a president be required to first get approval from Congress before committing the United States to this path? Isn’t that why there is a Treaty Clause in the first place? At the very least, doesn’t it make constitutional sense for Congress to have a right to weigh in?

So while lefty blogs and lefty senators are having a field day accusing the Republican senators of violating the law or exaggerating Jack Goldsmith’s pretty minor quibble with the letter’s use of the term ratification, they are ignoring the real constitutional question here.  The President seems ready to commit the United States to a pretty serious and important international obligation without seeking prior or subsequent approval from Congress.  And foreign countries are ready to denounce the United States if, say Congress, decides to pull out or refuses to carry out those obligations. Even if the President’s actions are good policy, it seems like a political and constitutional train wreck that could easily be avoided if the Administration simply agreed to send the Iran deal to Congress.

Way back in 2008, leading scholars like Oona Hathaway and Bruce Ackerman repeatedly denounced President Bush for considering executing a security agreement with Iraq without Congress. Where are the academic defenders of Congress’s foreign policy prerogatives now?

Does President Obama Need Congress’s Approval to Sign a Nuclear Deal with Iran? Can Congress Force Him to Get Their Approval?

by Julian Ku

The fight between President Obama and Congress over Cuba policy is nothing compared the brewing struggle over a U.S.-Iran agreement over Iran’s nuclear program. I noticed this little foreign affairs law nugget today from the WSJ’s report of this ongoing struggle (emphasis added):

In the Senate, Mr. Menendez, of New Jersey, is co-author of a bill that seeks to impose new, escalating sanctions on Tehran if negotiators fail to conclude an agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program before the end of June, the diplomatic deadline.

A second piece of legislation, promoted by the committee’s new chairman, Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), seeks to give Congress the power to either approve or reject any nuclear agreement reached with Tehran.

Senior administration officials who testified before the committee said the White House would oppose both bills.

Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the White House doesn’t view an agreement with Iran as a treaty that requires Senate approval, but a matter of “executive prerogative.”

In general, I think the President has broad discretion under U.S. statutes to impose or lift sanctions on Iran, and although I haven’t looked at the Iran sanctions in detail, I bet the President has broad powers to waive sanctions without going back to Congress. The White House is certainly acting like that’s the case, although the devil is in the details.

The Not Very Persuasive International Law Arguments in Favor of the Iran Visa Denial

by Julian Ku

I think it is fair to say that when Kevin and I agree on a legal question, there is a good chance there is a lunar eclipse happening or some other rare astronomical phenomenon occurring somewhere.  But since both of us think that the U.S. has no international legal basis to deny a visa to Iran’s new UN ambassador, this “fair and balanced blog” should consider the international law arguments offered in favor of the U.S. decision, especially as Iran has signaled it is going to fight this US decision, maybe by seeking an ICJ advisory opinion or an arbitral tribunal. This NYT article outlines three international law arguments that the U.S. might invoke in descending order of persuasiveness (at least to me):

Precedent and Practice Trump: Larry D. Johnson, who served as the Deputy Legal Counsel to the U.N. in the past, suggests that the U.S. and the U.N. have come to a tacit agreement to avoid disputes on visa denials.  If a visa is denied, the country facing denial must bring this matter up with the U.S.  The U.N. will not do so.  If this past practice is followed by the U.N., it effectively undermines the legal basis for Iran’s challenge.  Absent the Headquarters Agreement with the U.N., the U.S. has no obligation to issue a visa to Iran’s UN envoy, and Iran (not being a party to the Headquarters Agreement) has no international legal basis to protest.

My take: If this is current practice, and there is some evidence for this, the U.S. is really just acting consistent with its nearly sixty year pattern of practice by denying the visa in this case.  This doesn’t exactly legalize (internationally) the US act, but it does help.  

The Iranian Hostage Crisis Trumps: John Bellinger, over at Lawfare, suggests that because Iran’s UN Envoy was involved in one of the most egregious violations of diplomatic immunity rights in the past century, there will be little sympathy from other countries for Iran.

My take: This might be right, but it is not clear to me that the past violations would meet the “security exception”, and it is not even clear that the security exception is a valid international reservation to the Headquarters Agreement.  In any event, this is not really a legal argument, but a judgment on international politics.  If Iran goes to the General Assembly, the merits of this political judgment will be tested.

The UN Charter’s Human Rights Obligations Trumps: University of Houston lawprof Jordan Paust argues that because Iran’s UN Ambassador was involved in what the ICJ called a violation of human rights, the U.S. would be justified denying him a visa in reference to its U.N. Charter obligation to “respect human rights.”

My take: With all due respect to Professor Paust, I don’t think the U.N. Charter can be fairly read to require states to “respect human rights” in violation of their other international obligations.  The language of the Charter in Article I asks states to “promot[] and encourag[]” human rights. It is far from mandatory language.

Moreover, if correct, this is the exception that swallowed the UN Headquarters Agreement.  The U.S. could deny a visa to anyone whom it believes has or is likely to undermine “respect for human rights.” Past practice suggests the U.S. has not interpreted either the Charter or the Headquarters Agreement in this way.

If Iran decides to seek a General Assembly resolution, it will not require the U.S. to change its decision, but it would probably be a good test of John Bellinger’s thesis about where countries’ sympathies lie. My guess is that we are going to see tons of absentions.

If Iran gets the U.N. to demand arbitration under the Headquarters Agreement, this would be more interesting.  The U.S. might have to follow China and Russia’s example by simply refusing to participate in the arbitration. And the U.S. would probably lose that arbitration (although enforcement is another matter).   If I were Iran’s government, that would be a pretty ideal outcome. They still will not get their ambassador, but they can cause some pretty serious soft power damage before they give up.

The New Iran Deal Doesn’t Look Legally Binding. Does it Matter?

by Duncan Hollis

A flurry of news today over the announcement that Iran has cut a deal with six major world powers — the Permanent 5 members of the UN Security Council — the US, Russia, China, France and the UK — plus Germany.  The text of the ‘Joint Plan of Action’ is also widely available (see here or here).

My first reaction on looking at this ‘deal’ is that it’s not legally binding under international law.  Look at how the Preamble begins:

The goal for these negotiations is to reach a mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful. Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons….

The ‘goal’ implies something aspirational rather than required.  The big-ticket commitment that Iran won’t seek or develop nuclear weapons is also referenced as a ‘reaffirmation’ rather than an affirmative commitment via this text.

Similarly, the operative paragraphs maintain an emphasis on avoiding language of legal intent:

Elements of a first step

The first step would be time-bound, with a duration of 6 months, and renewable by mutual consent, during which all parties will work to maintain a constructive atmosphere for negotiations in good faith.

Iran would undertake the following voluntary measures:

  • From the existing uranium enriched to 20%, retain half as working stock of 20% oxide for fabrication of fuel for the TRR. Dilute the remaining 20% UF6 to no more than 5%. No reconversion line
  • Iran announces that it will not enrich uranium over 5% for the duration of the 6 months. . . . .

*********
In return, the E3/EU+3 would undertake the following voluntary measures:

  • Pause efforts to further reduce Iran’s crude oil sales, enabling Iran’s current customers to  purchase their current average amounts of crude oil. Enable the repatriation of an agreed amount of revenue held abroad. For such oil sales, suspend the EU and U.S. sanctions on associated insurance and transportation services.
  • Suspend U.S. and EU sanctions on:
    • Iran’s petrochemical exports, as well as sanctions on associated services.5
    • Gold and precious metals, as well as sanctions on associated services.
  • · Suspend U.S. sanctions on Iran’s auto industry, as well as sanctions on associated services . . .

(emphasis added)

Note the operative verb in these paragraphs is ‘would’ not ‘shall’ (which everyone would agree connotes an intention to be legally bound) or even ‘will’ (which the United States often uses to convey a legal intent even through the British and several other countries insist signals an agreement meant to have political, in lieu of legal, force).

To further emphasize the political and non-legally binding nature of this agreement, note the two sides emphasize that the measures listed are ‘voluntary’.  Moreover, the document is unsigned and lacks final clauses.  So, the bottom line for me . . . this isn’t binding under international law.  It’s a political commitment, not a legal one.

OK.  Say I’m right?  Why does it matter if this is not a treaty?  To be clear, there’s nothing entirely novel about concluding a major political document in a non-legal form — from the Atlantic Charter, to the Shanghai Communique to the Helsinki Accords, there are plenty of ‘big ticket’ precedents for doing major deals in legally non-binding texts.  Nor is it that political commitments are devoid of content — to be sure they can contain much that is aspirational or even puffery.  But, many political commitments can contain significant expectations of changes to future behavior and, at first glance, I’d say the Joint Plan of Action falls in the latter category.  The text is chock full of commitments both sides indicate they’ll be taking in the next six months on the path to a comprehensive settlement with respect to the future of Iran’s nuclear program.

That said, I think there are at least three significant implications of the choice of a non-treaty form for this deal.  First, I think it offers all sides flexibility – all seven parties are cloaking their expectations of what’s going to happen now behind terms that allow them to turn on a dime as necessary, either to back away from their ‘voluntary measures’ or to adjust them as all involved carefully monitor the other side’s performance.  Indeed, I expect that such flexibility was a key criterion for the sort of cooperation this deal envisages.  Second, by choosing a political deal rather than a legal one, I think the results are less credible than if they’d been done via a more august instrument like a treaty.  The treaty signals a level of commitment that just isn’t available with respect to an unsigned ‘joint plan’.   Now, maybe a major legal text wasn’t possible in the time frame all sides were working under, but I’d be surprised if any subsequent, final deal isn’t coached in a legal form given the greater credibility that accompanies those sorts of promises.

For the United States, though, I think the third, and most significant, implication of this deal taking a political form is the fact that the Obama Administration doesn’t have to get the Senate or the Congress as a whole to approve it.  Legally binding treaties and international agreements require the conclusion of specific domestic approval procedures.  The Constitution contemplates the Senate giving advice and consent by a 2/3rd majority to Treaties (and most arms control agreements are done as Treaties).  Modern practice meanwhile more regularly favors ‘congressional-executive’ agreements where Congress approves of the conclusion of the agreement before or after the deal is done.  In other cases, the President may invoke his sole executive powers to authorize the conclusion of a deal by himself.  But, when it comes to political commitments, there are no constitutional precedents requiring that Congress as a whole or the Senate authorize the commitment’s conclusion.  Now, together with Josh Newcomer, I’ve argued previously that this status quo is constitutionally problematic where political commitments can function in much the same way as treaties.  I fear political commitments may function as a loop-hole for the Executive to do deals that he could not do if he had to go to Congress or the Senate.  I’m not sure that this is such a case, but it’s certainly worth thinking about the consequences of having the United States pursue this major foreign policy shift where the U.S. legislature has so little say in the matter (at least until such time as any deal requires changes to U.S. law itself).

What do others think?  Am I right the Joint Plan of Action is not intended to be a treaty or an international agreement?  And do you agree that it was a means for the United States to conclude a deal without involving a Congress, at least some portion of which has been overtly hostile to any negotiations with Iran?

[Update: over at Lawfare, Ingrid Wuerth rightly calls me to task for my earlier title — referencing a ‘U.S.-Iran’ deal when there are 7 States involved — en route to discussing whether this text would’ve required congressional or Senate approval IF it was legally binding.  I’ve fixed the title accordingly and recommend readers check out Ingrid’s post.]

Can International Law Resolve the Iran Nuclear Crisis? Nope.

by Julian Ku

UK human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson has a confused, muddled, and revealing editorial in Bloomberg about how international law might help resolve the Iran nuclear crisis. While he describes the relevant law accurately, he fails to show how international law is doing much of anything to resolve the crisis.  Here is the relevant law, as he sees it: Israel has a right of self defense, but not to attack Iran even if Iran builds a nuclear weapon. The U.S. needs Security Council authorization to attack Iran (which it won’t get). Iran is allowed under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreement to develop a full nuclear cycle, and then withdraw from the NPT when its weapons are ready.  This might be correct, as a legal matter, but how does it help anything? It simply shows that existing international law permits Iran to get a nuclear weapon while preventing anyone else from doing anything about it.  So what’s his solution? Everyone else disarm.

According to the World Court — correctly this time — nuclear-armed countries have a legal obligation under Article VI of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty to negotiate a gradual disarmament, to zero. This might be done on a “first in, last out” basis, with North Korea being first to lose its bombs and a final ceremony to destroy simultaneously what is left in the Russian and U.S. arsenals — perhaps attended by the aging former U.S. and Russian leaders, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, circa 2045.

Umm…sure…that is going to happen. And that will work.  I thought lawyers were supposed to offer practical and useful solutions, not utopian fantasies.  I guess not when you are Geoffrey Robertson Q.C.

The Facts Make All the Difference on the Iran War Scenario

by Julian Ku

David French and Jay Sekulow respond to Bruce Ackerman’s legal argument about the use of force against Iran with a factual claim: Iran has already attacked the U.S.

There has, in fact, been an “armed attack” against the United States. Iran has been waging a low-intensity war against America and Israel — both directly and by proxy — for more than two decades. Iran’s Quds Force has planned and directed attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and on Israelis in Israel and abroad. Iran has directly supplied our enemies with deadly weaponry in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is responsible for hundreds of American military deaths — including the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut and the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia.  

In other words, Iran attacked us long ago, and our forbearance to this point is neither required by international law nor does it bind us to continued forbearance. In fact, when a declared and hostile enemy escalates its military capabilities dramatically, that presents a direct challenge to American security and the security of our allies.

I don’t know if this is quite right, but it builds on my argument that there is a factual disagreement that will go to the heart of a legal analysis of the use of force. I don’t know if folks on both sides will ever be able to agree on the set of facts, before they even get to legal principles.