She tussled briefly with a reporter over the matter, as he pressed her for an answer and she insisted she had already given one.
Secretary of State John Kerry raised eyebrows when he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week that the P5+1 – the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany – were negotiating a non-binding agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, prompting some critics to wonder what the point would be of a deal that Iran could simply abandon.
Kerry also told the panel that Congress would have no authority to amend the deal being negotiated by a late-March deadline, which would be an agreement “between leaders,” and not a treaty.
At Thursday’s daily briefing, Psaki said the main reason behind the decision not to pursue a treaty was the need for “flexibility.”
“The overriding reason to prefer a non-binding international arrangement to a treaty is the need to preserve the greatest possible flexibility to re-impose sanctions if we believe Iran is not meeting its commitments under a joint comprehensive plan of action,” she said.
Reuters’ Arshad Mohammed asked her whether any part of the thinking behind the decision was to avoid triggering the constitutional requirement that treaties be approved by the Senate.
“Was any part of the reasoning to prevent or to skirt the advice and consent role that is there for treaties?” he asked.
“We would not be consulting with Congress, briefing them, making clear that they have a role to play at the appropriate time if we wanted to skirt their involvement or their engagement,” Psaki replied.
Mohammed tried again: “But my question is not skirting their involvement or engagement in general, because I’m aware of the consultations and all the hearings and so on. My question is whether you were – whether there was any part of your reasoning in choosing to go for a non-binding agreement that had to do with skirting the specific advise and consent requirements.”
“The reason is as I’ve already outlined it,” Psaki said.
“But you’re not – you can’t say, ‘No, that wasn’t a reason at all?’ ”
“I just outlined what the reason was,” Psaki repeated, turning to another questioner.
“But you can’t say that that wasn’t the reason?”
“I’ve addressed the question.”
“You have not addressed the question,” he said.
“I have, thank you,” – and to another reporter, “Go ahead.”
Earlier, the reporter asked Psaki to explain the assertion that a non-binding agreement would give the U.S. greater “flexibility
“Your argument is that you have more flexibility with a non-binding agreement. And what I don’t understand is why you couldn’t have the same flexibility in a binding agreement?” he said.
“Because that’s not how these have typically worked,” she replied. “This is the path we’ve determined is the best path forward.”
Disputing that the administration was trying to circumvent congressional oversight, Psaki said it has indeed consulted with Congress over the Iran negotiations.
“We’ve done more briefings on this issue than perhaps any other issue in recent memory, more than 30 briefings with Congress on this particular issue,” she said. “That’s an appropriate place for their voices to be heard.”
Psaki argued that there was precedent for “government-to-government” agreements like the one the P5+1 is hoping to conclude with Iran. She cited several earlier initiatives, including the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), and a 2013 U.S.-Russia understanding under which Syria’s Assad regime agreed to hand over its declared chemical weapons stocks.
Unlike the pending agreement with Iran, however, those she cited were between the U.S. and countries with whom it generally enjoys cordial relations. (Russia may be an exception, although the chemical weapons deal occurred before the rift over Ukraine.)
The 34 members of the MTCR are all democracies – or were at the time they joined, despite backsliding since then by Russia and Turkey.
The PSI, a plan launched by the Bush administration in 2003 in a bid to prevent rogue states from transferring weapons of mass destruction or related material, does have wider participation – more than 100 – but it too does not include countries actively hostile to the United States, as Iran has been for the 36 years since the Islamic revolution.
Underlining that hostility, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei posted a series of Twitter messages on Thursday, excerpts from a speech to the Assembly of Experts, a top body of religious scholars, in which he accused the U.S. negotiators in the nuclear talks of employing “tricks of deception” and of having “a habit of deception and treason.”
He also accused the U.S. and its allies – not for the first time – of nurturing terrorist groups including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and of “continuing to support them.”