The Obama end-run around the Constitution could yet be blocked if states exercise their own sanctions regimes.
The Iranian nuclear agreement announced on July 14 is unconstitutional, violates international law and features commitments that President Obama could not lawfully make. However, because of the way the deal was pushed through, the states may be able to derail it by enacting their own Iran sanctions legislation.
President Obama executed the nuclear deal as an executive agreement, not as a treaty. While presidents have used executive agreements to arrange less-important or temporary matters, significant international obligations have always been established through treaties, which require Senate consent by a two-thirds majority.
The Constitution’s division of the treaty-making power between the president and Senate ensured that all major U.S. international undertakings enjoyed broad domestic support. It also enabled the states to make their voices heard through senators when considering treaties—which are constitutionally the “supreme law of the land” and pre-empt state laws.
The Obama administration had help in its end-run around the Constitution. Instead of insisting on compliance with the Senate’s treaty-making prerogatives, Congress enacted the Iran Nuclear Agreement Act of 2015. Known as Corker-Cardin, it surrenders on the constitutional requirement that the president obtain a Senate supermajority to go forward with a major international agreement. Instead, the act effectively requires a veto-proof majority in both houses of Congress to block elements of the Iran deal related to U.S. sanctions relief. The act doesn’t require congressional approval for the agreement as a whole.
Last week the U.N. Security Council endorsed the Iran deal. The resolution, adopted under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, legally binds all member states, including the U.S. Given the possibility that Congress could summon a veto-proof majority to block the president’s ability to effect sanctions relief, the administration might be unable to comply with the very international obligations it has created. This is beyond reckless.
On March 11 Secretary of State John Kerry defended the administration’s decision not to take the treaty route with Iran, saying it had “been clear from the beginning we’re not negotiating a legally binding plan.” The Security Council gambit has enabled the administration, without Senate consent, to bind the U.S. under international law.
The U.N. Charter resolution has trapped the U.S. into a position where it can renounce its obligations only at the cost of being branded an international lawbreaker. The president has thus handed the legal high ground to Tehran and made undoing the deal by his successor much more difficult and costly.
Yet the nuclear agreement’s legitimacy in international law is far from clear. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide imposes an affirmative obligation on all convention parties to prevent genocide and threats of genocide. Iran remains publicly committed to Israel’s elimination, an unequivocal threat of genocide in violation of the Convention.
Since nuclear weapons delivered by ballistic missiles are the most likely means by which Iran could implement its genocidal policy, an agreement that calls for lifting the Security Council resolutions banning the sale of ballistic missiles to Iran after eight years—as this nuclear deal does—also seems to contravene the genocide convention.
A further legal complication: Even if Congress doesn’t vote to bar President Obama from lifting sanctions on Iran, the president still wouldn’t be able to deliver fully on the deal’s unprecedented sanctions-lifting commitments. They were promised regardless of any future Iranian aggression in the region, sponsorship of terrorist acts or other misconduct.
Some of the U.S. statutes allow the president to lift certain sanctions on Iran. But many of the most important sanctions—including sanctions against Iran’s central bank—cannot be waived unless the president certifies that Iran has stopped its ballistic-missile program, ceased money-laundering and no longer sponsors international terrorism. He certainly can’t do that now, and nothing in the deal forces Iran to take either step. The Security Council’s blessing of the nuclear agreement has no bearing on these U.S. sanctions.
The administration faces another serious problem because the deal requires the removal of state and local Iran-related sanctions. That would have been all right if Mr. Obama had pursued a treaty with Iran, which would have bound the states, but his executive-agreement approach cannot pre-empt the authority of the states.
That leaves the states free to impose their own Iran-related sanctions, as they have done in the past against South Africa and Burma. The Constitution’s Commerce Clause prevents states from imposing sanctions as broadly as Congress can. Yet states can establish sanctions regimes—like banning state-controlled pension funds from investing in companies doing business with Iran—powerful enough to set off a legal clash over American domestic law and the country’s international obligations. The fallout could prompt the deal to unravel.
For now, though, we are left with another reminder from the administration that brought ObamaCare: Constitutional shortcuts almost invariably lead to bad policy outcomes.
(Originally published in The Wall Street Journal)
Messrs. Rivkin and Casey are constitutional lawyers at Baker Hostetler LLP and served in the Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Mr. Rivkin is also a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.