Brendan Smialowski / Reuters U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, April 3, 2015.

Defining The Relationship

Terminology and the Iran Deal

The historic nuclear framework agreement between Iran and the P5+1 centered on the lifting of sanctions against Iran in exchange for Tehran downsizing its nuclear capabilities. Although no parties have signed on the dotted line just yet, the clarifications of the main components of a future agreement, as described through joint and individual press briefings, signaled the beginning of a new era. Even so, some immediate questions remain about how the comprehensive deal will fit into international law.

The framework agreement is the most important nuclear agreement in several decades. It was forged against a complex backdrop of sanctions from the UN Security Council, United States, and European Union, which introduced a host of international legal questions, not least whether reneging on the agreement would represent a breach of international law—dissolving the deal before it has a chance to take shape.

Iran and the United States had different things to say on that score: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has stated that the agreement is no more than a political commitment, avoiding language that would indicate that the discussions would lead to a treaty (which would need to be ratified by Congress). For its part, of course, Congress will likely push for the framework to lead to an international treaty—thus giving it a hand in the final stage of the negotiations. Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif indicated that Iran sees the deal as binding under international law, since it was made in conjunction with permanent members of the UN Security Council.

All along, the deal has been treated as if the parties will be able to back down at any time, divorcing the agreement from international law and binding obligations. For example, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), author of the controversial open letter signed by 47 Republican senators opposed to negotiations with Iran, has been vocal about the signatories’ willingness to strike down any future deal, indicating that there is little chance any future agreement will be

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