The nuclear “deal” which the United States and five other states concluded with Iran last fall was always something of an anomaly in diplomatic practice. In most cases, a complex agreement of the kind in question — it took several years to negotiate, involved a number of parties, and dealt with matters of considerable consequence — would have taken the form of an international treaty. This one did not; hence the designation “deal”. There weren’t even any signatures. It’s worth wondering why.
The parties involved have offered a number of reasons for the course they took. When the full story of the “deal” is finally told, what we’re likely to find is that the Obama administration settled for a “deal” because it simply didn’t want the agreement to take legal form. Why? Because (a) they wanted to avoid the “deal” having to be considered and approved by Congress before it could enter into force, and (b) they didn’t want to be legally bound by its provisions. Both should raise red flags for those who believe in due process and respect for international law.
Why avoid Congress? Mainly because the nature of the “deal” was sufficiently controversial that there was a strong possibility the Republican-held Senate would hold it up for months and maybe even block it altogether — leaving the administration without the “legacy” success it sought in Obama’s final year. There are precedents for administrations negotiating international agreements and never getting them ratified. Recent examples include the Clinton administration signing but not getting Congressional approval for either the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
And why not legally binding? Likely because the “deal” was hurried to a conclusion (it had already been delayed several times) and there was little inclination on the part of the Americans or the Iranians to spend any appreciable time cleaning up the text of the agreement. Since a close read-through could have uncovered problems that delayed the “success” and possibly also played into the Iranian propensity to exploit the urgency to try to extract further concessions, the US side appeared content to make do and not run the risk of certain provisions having to be renegotiated. For those involved, an agreement that was “politically” binding was good enough.
Hence the exchange of correspondence late last year between Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) and the US Department of State in which a State official acknowledges that the “deal” carries only the “political commitments” of the parties. Its success, she asserts, depends on the “extensive verification measures we have put in place”. In other words, Iran is not legally bound to do anything. Its compliance is entirely a function of the current regime’s willingness to abide by the promises it has made, the outside world’s ability to detect Iranian cheating, and the credibility of the threat Western states have made to reimpose sanctions (they are supposedly to “snap back”) if cheating is detected.
The IAEA’s report of January 16, announced by its Director General Yukiya Amano, attests to Iran having taken the actions specified in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (i.e. the deal) to assuage the world that it has given up any plans to develop nuclear weapons. With Iran having completed these necessary preparatory steps, the rest of the world has rushed to begin the process of lifting sanctions. The United States, it seems, has been slower off the mark than the other P5+1 negotiators. According to one account, the UK has lifted the ban on 22 Iranian banks and their companies which had been blacklisted because of alleged involvement in nuclear-linked deals; France has sent its foreign minister and a 100-strong delegation to negotiate big business deals; German trade with Iran is up 33 percent; Russia has commenced delivering S300 anti-aircraft missile systems and is angling to sell planes; and China has signed deals to help Iran build five more nuclear reactors. Other nations are also taking advantage. Indian trade with Iran is reportedly up 17 percent. In addition, of course, oil and financial sanctions have been lifted and Iran will be able to access frozen assets worth between $100 billion and $150 billion.
What a deal.