But an Iran deal would have enforcement mechanisms, the secretary of state says.
WASHINGTON—Secretary of State John Kerry, in an often contentious Senate hearing, told lawmakers Wednesday the U.S. isn’t negotiating a “legally binding” agreement with Iran, meaning future presidents could choose not to implement the accord.
The back-and-forth between the GOP and the Obama administration over the deal has grown heated within recent weeks. On Monday, a group of 47 GOP senators sent an open letter to Iran’s leaders asserting it could quickly change or discard any agreement once President Barack Obama leaves office, further stirring discord as an end-of-month deadline approaches.
Mr. Kerry, joining other members of the Obama administration in rebuking the GOP senators, said their claims that Congress could nullify or alter a deal had the effect of undermining U.S. foreign policy.
He also said they were incorrect in their claim they could alter the terms of the deal.
“We’ve been clear from the beginning: We’re not negotiating a, quote, legally binding plan,” Mr. Kerry said, so it doesn’t have to be submitted for approval to Congress.
Treaties, because they legally bind governments to terms of the agreements, must be approved by the Senate, under the Constitution. Executive agreements can either be both legally binding or not, and Mr. Kerry said this agreement is the latter.
“They don’t have the right to modify an agreement reached, executive to executive, between countries—between leaders of a country,” Mr. Kerry said. He added the Iran plan, if reached, would contain enforcement mechanisms.
Mr. Kerry also rejected the notion put forward in the Republican senators’ letter to Iran that a future president would turn against an agreement.
While he maintained that Congress can’t alter its terms, such agreements are easier for future presidents to break. If the agreement is deemed worthwhile by the six world powers participating, future U.S. leaders are unlikely to “turn around and just nullify it,” Mr. Kerry said. “That’s not gonna happen.”
A future president could alter the policy if he or she saw fit, experts said.
“Will Jeb Bush back the agreement? Will Hillary Clinton? No one knows,” Gary Samore, a nuclear expert at Harvard University’s Belfer Center who was the top nonproliferation official in the first Obama White House, said in an interview.
A potential deal with Iran likely will also include a role for Congress, which eventually must approve the permanent easing of certain U.S. sanctions.
Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), who didn’t sign the letter, said he was upset by the Obama administration’s attitude. Mr. Corker introduced a bill recently that would give Congress an up-or-down vote on the deal, which the White House vowed to veto.
“I’m very disappointed, though, that you’ve gone back on your statement that any agreement must pass muster with Congress,” Mr. Corker said. “I think all of us are very disappointed with the veto threat and the stiff-arming that is taking place.”
Mr. Kerry will travel to Lausanne, Switzerland next week to resume negotiations with his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
There has been optimism in recent weeks that the six world powers and Iran can reach a framework agreement by March 31, though officials stress that substantial gaps remain. If negotiators agree on a framework, they will try for a more detailed accord by the end of June.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing was called to allow senators to address Mr. Obama’s request for a measure formally authorizing the use of military force against the Islamic State extremist group.
But Iran loomed large over the proceedings as its influence plays a major role in Iraq and as the nuclear talks with Tehran reach a critical stage.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Iran’s role in Iraq—particularly in support of the current Iraqi offensive to retake the city of Tikrit—has been constructive from a military perspective.
But he said the U.S. is concerned about how Iran uses its influence after Islamic State is defeated.
“There is no doubt that the combination of the popular mobilization forces and the Iraqi security forces, they’re going to run ISIL out of Tikrit,” Gen. Dempsey said, using an acronym for Islamic State. “The question is what comes after in terms of their willingness to let Sunni families move back into their neighborhoods, whether they work to restore the basic services that are going to be necessary or whether it results in atrocities and retribution.”