WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that U.S. lawmakers won't be able to change the terms of any nuclear agreement with Iran because it won't be legally binding, a statement likely to inspire greater congressional opposition.
Kerry, Washington's senior representative in talks with Tehran, said he reacted with "utter disbelief" to a letter earlier this week signed by 47 Republican senators warning Iran's leaders that an accord with President Barack Obama's team could expire the day he leaves office.
He told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the letter undermined U.S. foreign policy and was legally incorrect.
"We've been clear from the beginning: We're not negotiating a, quote, legally binding plan," Kerry told the panel. "We're negotiating a plan that will have in it the capacity for enforcement. We don't even have diplomatic relations with Iran right now."
Kerry said the letter posted Monday by freshman Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas "ignores more than two centuries of precedent in the conduct of American foreign policy."
Whereas formal treaties require ratification by two-thirds of the Senate, "the vast majority of international arrangements and agreements do not," he said. "And around the world today we have all kinds of executive agreements that we deal with," he said, from protecting U.S. troops in Afghanistan to "any number of noncontroversial, broadly supported foreign policy goals."
The Obama administration and Democrats have harshly condemned Cotton's letter, signed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and several Republican presidential hopefuls. Presented as a constitutional primer to the leaders of the Islamic republic, they warned that "the next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time."
Kerry, who will meet Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, next week in Switzerland for another round of talks, said the senators' letter "erroneously asserts that this is a legally binding plan. It's not, that's number one. Number two, it's incorrect when it says that Congress could actually modify the terms of an agreement at any time. That's flat wrong. They don't have the right to modify an agreement reached executive to executive between leaders."
No side has emphasized the need for a legally binding deal because each has stronger forms of leverage. If Iran cheats, the Obama administration has spoken of re-imposing suspended sanctions. The U.S. has also held out the prospect of military action if Iran makes progress toward a nuclear weapon.
Similarly, if the U.S. doesn't live up to its side of the bargain, the Iranians can ramp up enrichment levels of uranium, taking them closer to nuclear weapons capacity.
Congress, too, wields a threat: new forms of economic punishment of Iran that would be forbidden in the agreement. But such a move would almost surely require overriding a presidential veto and could pin a diplomatic collapse on the United States.
Negotiators from the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia hope to seal a framework with Iran by month's end and a comprehensive agreement by July. Kerry scoffed at the notion that Obama's successor would discard a deal reached between so many powerful governments and adhered to by Iran.
"I'd like to see the next president, if all of those countries have said this is good and it's working, turn around and just nullify it on behalf of the United States," he said. "That's not going to happen."
Questions about the process involved in any agreement with Shiite-majority Iran are sensitive for a variety of reasons.
Israel, Sunni Arab countries and many U.S. lawmakers are concerned that international negotiators could be placing too much trust in Iran. The prospects of a "nonbinding" pact will hardly alleviate their concerns, even if none of them have professed faith in Iran abiding by the terms of an agreement that would ease sanctions in exchange for at least a decade of strict limits on the Iranian nuclear program.
Iran says its program is solely for peaceful energy and medical research purposes.
On Tuesday, Jen Psaki, Kerry's spokeswoman, raised the possibility of the deal assuming legal character through the U.N. Security Council. Psaki didn't speak definitively on the matter but cited the example of a 2013 strategy agreed to between the U.S. and Russia on Syria relinquishing its chemical weapons stockpile. That plan was then endorsed by the United Nations' top body.
"This framework was not legally binding and was not subject to congressional approval," Psaki told reporters. "It outlined steps for eliminating Syria's chemical weapons and helped lay the groundwork for successful multilateral efforts to move forward." In that case, she added, the U.S.-Russian agreement "went to the U.N. to the Security Council vote."
Zarif is the only one who has gone on record saying such a model would be followed with a nuclear deal.
U.S. negotiators have been more circumspect. Making such a declaration would amount to telling Congress that it won't have a say on the accord, because it is not a treaty, but that the United Nations will.