Iran warns Congress it can’t stop a nuclear deal

Iran’s foreign minister issued a stern warning to Congress on Wednesday, saying the United States will isolate itself if lawmakers act to nullify a nuclear deal the administration is working to ­finalize with Iran.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking at an event at New York University, dismissed assertions by some members of Congress and presidential candidates that they would not necessarily be bound by any deal agreed to by President Obama.

“I believe the United States will risk isolating itself in the world if there is an agreement and it decides to break it,” said Zarif, who earlier this month returned to a hero’s welcome in Tehran after reaching a temporary framework agreement in Switzerland with the United States and five other world powers.

“Whether you have a Democratic or Republican president, the United States is bound by international law, whether some senators like it or not,” he added. “And international law requires the United States live up to the terms of an agreement it enters into.”

Zarif noted that most international agreements are simple executive orders that do not require Congress to ratify them.

“If the U.S. Senate wants to send a message to the rest of the world that all of these agreements that the United States has signed are invalid, then you will have chaos in your bilateral relations, although you are welcome to do it,” he said.

Zarif is in New York to attend the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference at the United Nations. On Monday, he met with Secretary of State John F. Kerry for the first time since they reached an April 2 framework agreement, which was designed to guide more negotiations on a deal to block Iran’s path to make nuclear weapons and lift sanctions. Since then, the agreement has been the subject of debate, with both Iran and the United States offering their own, competing analyses.

In his most expansive comments yet on the framework, Zarif said there remain disagreements on the phrasing of “almost everything,” but the negotiators expect to work nonstop between now and the June 30 deadline for a comprehensive deal. The talks resume Thursday in New York and will continue in Europe next week.

“We’re committed to this process,” he said. “We spent a lot of political capital on this process. This is an opportunity that should not be wasted because we’re trying to score points.”

Speaking with confidence and swagger, Zarif said Iran is willing to accept a provision in which international monitors could inspect facilities where they suspect undeclared nuclear work may be underway.

“If you’re looking for a smoking gun, you’re going to wait a long, long time before you get one,” Zarif said.

One of the most contentious, unresolved issues so far has been the pace at which international sanctions would be lifted if Iran complies with its commitments. The administration has insisted it will be gradual and can be “snapped back” into place if Iran is found to be cheating. Iran contends it is a much shorter time frame.

Zarif said he expects that the U.N. Security Council will vote to lift all sanctions “within a few days” of an agreement, and that the United States will be required to lift its sanctions, too — “whether Senator Cotton likes it or not,” Zarif said.

The remark was a jab at Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who wrote an open letter signed by 47 senators lecturing Iran’s leaders about the U.S. Constitution.

Cotton responded on Twitter, calling Zarif a coward and challenging him to a debate on the Constitution: “Here’s offer: meet in DC, @JZarif, time of your choosing to debate Iran’s record of tyranny, treachery, & terror.”

The president has the power only to suspend sanctions, and Congress would have to vote to permanently lift them. That’s a technicality for which Zarif showed no concern.

“He will have to stop implementing all the sanctions, economic and financial sanctions that have been by executive order and congressional,” he said. “However he does it, that’s his problem.”

Zarif also was critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has lobbied hard against the emerging agreement with Iran. Zarif suggested it was ironic that his country’s nuclear intentions are questioned when Israel has an undeclared nuclear weapons program.

“It’s laughable that Netanyahu has become everybody’s nonproliferation guru,” he said. “He is sitting on 400 nuclear weapons that have been acquired in direct violation” of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Saudi Arabia, Iran’s rival for power in the region, has said it wants the same deal Iran gets, and Zarif said it has the right to nuclear power for peaceful purposes.

“If there is a threat,” he said, “it comes from Israel’s arsenals, not from Saudi Arabia having a nuclear program.”

This article was written by Carol Morello for The Washington Post on April 29, 2015. Carol Morello is the diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, covering the State Department.