John Kerry: Tom Cotton's right, we're not negotiating a legally binding deal with Iran

Via the Examiner, he’s not the only State Department official to admit this within the past 24 hours. Jen Psaki also acknowledged last night that a nuclear deal with Iran wouldn’t be legally binding, with good reason. The only way to give an international agreement the force of law vis-a-vis future presidents and Congresses is to have the Senate ratify it under its treaty power. Until that happens — and it won’t happen — this is a deal between Barack Obama and the Ayatollah Khamenei. Once one of them is gone, the deal remains valid if and only if his successor feels like abiding by it.

Which raises an obvious question.

The answer, I take it, is “inspections.” Any deal with the U.S. would — I hope — insist on unrestricted access to Iran’s nuclear infrastructure for UN inspectors along with an initial scaling down of uranium enrichment. If Iran declares the deal off, kicks out the inspectors, and tries to “break out” by ramping up enrichment, that would be America’s cue to bomb. Except America’s not going to bomb, certainly not while Obama’s in charge and quite possibly not after his successor takes over. The potential costs are high and the potential benefit, halting Iran’s program for a few years while they rebuild, is relatively low. The fear of renewed sanctions is the only thing that might keep Iran honest, but it also might be an incentive to cheat: If the U.S. is this eager to bring the Iranian menace to heel now by making nice with them on enrichment and ISIS, imagine how much more eager we’ll be when Iran starts rattling a nuclear saber. Pakistan is a nominal ally of the U.S mainly because it’s easier to keep a nuclear-armed “ally” in line than a nuclear-armed enemy. The same logic will hold for Iran, even if there’s a renewed freeze between them and the U.S. for a few years after they manage to build a bomb on the sly.

Another obvious question: Why, if the deal isn’t binding on Obama’s successor, is the White House so keen to make it happen with less than two years left in Obama’s presidency? Even if he’s replaced by Hillary, there’s no guarantee that the agreement will survive. She’s more hawkish than O is and will be looking to prove it at the start of her term. One answer is “legacy.” Obama’s foreign policy is in ruins, but if he manages a detente with Iran, he’ll have a major (if dubious) “accomplishment” to point to. Another answer, I think, is simple inertia. If Iran hasn’t clearly, verifiably cheated by 2017, President Scott Walker may decide that he’s better off letting sleeping dogs lie and promising “close scrutiny” of Iran’s compliance with the deal than risking a major war in the Middle East by tossing it out the window. The third answer is blame: It’s one thing if Iran breaks the agreement, it’s another thing if the U.S. does by having an incoming administration declare Obama’s biggest international obligation null and void in the interest of some grand foreign-policy “reset.” America’s European allies might hang with us in the first scenario but not in the second. Is President Walker going to start his first term by alienating the EU? Like I said in this morning’s post, this deal is like Obama’s amnesty insofar as it’s politically binding on successors if not legally binding. President Walker won’t irritate Latino voters by torpedoing Obama’s executive amnesty outright (although he may modify it a bit to placate righties). Same with this. American voters have a heavy bias towards the status quo, and Obama’s all about establishing new status quos as he gets closer to retirement.

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