Menendez at AIPAC: ‘Iran cannot be trusted to live up to its word’

Menendez at AIPAC: ‘Iran cannot be trusted to live up to its word’

U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the following remarks March 3 at the AIPAC annual policy conference:

Thank you very much. I am honored to speak to so many with whom I have stood shoulder-to-shoulder for so long – sometimes against the odds, often against the broader international community and sometimes at our own political peril – but we have always, always stood together when it comes to the security of Israel. 

I’m especially honored, this morning, to share the stage with Prime Minister Netanyahu, a powerful voice for a strong, secure, and democratic Israel.  He is the personification of the sentiment John Kennedy once expressed when he said: ‘Israel was not created in order to disappear – Israel will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and the home of the brave. It carries the shield of democracy and it honors the sword of freedom.’

Like Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu was certainly not created to disappear and I know, with the shield of democracy in one hand and the sword of freedom in the other, he will inform and inspire us as he always has.

One other reflection, I’m proud to appear before AIPAC as the manifestation of what participatory democracy is about, citizens seeking to petition their government.  So, when some criticize your motives, remind them of the first three words of the preamble of the Constitution: ‘We the People.’

When I addressed this forum last year, I said that Israel and the United States have always agreed on the strategic imperative that Israel be able ‘to defend itself, no matter what blooms from the shifting sands of the Arab Spring.’ Now, one year later, I look at the world and I am deeply concerned.

The spread of radical Islamic fundamentalism from the Hindu Kush to the Maghreb and across what King Abdullah called ‘The Shia Crescent’ — the arc of unrest from the Gulf to the Mediterranean — has become a long winter of discontent that threatens the entire region, strengthens the worst players in the region and makes the regional and geopolitical outcome less predictable and increasingly dangerous for Israel and the United States.

Israel is in an increasingly dangerous, unstable, and unpredictable neighborhood, making the strategic partnership with the U.S. even more imperative. Together we are a pillar of regional stability.  Together we are a shining example of democratic values and the benefits a strategically deep partnership can bring. 

Together Israel and the United States have been much more than military allies — we have collaborated on science and technology, on economic and agricultural issues as well as on security. But when it comes to military cooperation between our two nations, I am proud to continue to take our security relationship with Israel to unprecedented levels – from the Iron Dome system that protects Israel from rocket attacks, to rigorously ensuring Israel’s qualitative military edge.  And all of us are safer and more secure because of it.

I have led the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in finding the best way forward in the region.  On Syria, my Committee’s authorization for the use of military force last September was the reason Assad agreed to dismantle and destroy his regime’s arsenal of chemical weapons.  He decided to comply with the will of the international community only when he perceived U.S. military action to be imminent – clearly demonstrating that our willingness to use our military power can be a force for positive change.

Let me say, sometimes hindsight is twenty-twenty, and we may look back on that resolution as a missed opportunity to end the violence before it metastasized into an inoperable situation. Time will tell.  Going forward, the United States must reassure its partners – particularly in the Gulf – that we will not take the military option off the table when that force can be used to achieve clearly defined national security outcomes.

At the end of the day, I have led the Committee in an effort to continue to promote political and economic reform across the region and globally, with a willingness to project the strength of our military when necessary and the power of our values wherever and whenever democracy takes hold and people embrace the rule of law and good governance policies.

I can assure you that I will continue to lead the Foreign Relations Committee on the duel tracks of military power and the power of our democratic values embedded in the U.S.-Israel strategic partnership.  In my view, both are needed if we are to protect our national security interests at home and the security of our friends around the world.

That includes the security of the Ukraine. Let me say, Russia's actions constitute a clear violation of international law and demand a swift and coordinated response from the international community to support Ukraine and counter Russian efforts to annex Ukrainian territory by force.  The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is developing a bipartisan legislative package to provide critical support to Ukraine, which is teetering on the brink of economic collapse following years of chronic government mismanagement and corruption, and pursue a menu of sanctions for those who violate international law. Say what you mean and mean what you say.

Everyone here knows me. You know what I stand for. You know what I believe in. When it comes to Iran I have stood with you and I have stood against many in my own Party.  Ladies and gentlemen, I have worked on Iran’s nuclear issues for 20 years, starting when I was a member of the House pressing for sanctions to prevent Iran from building the Bushehr nuclear power plant and to halt IAEA support for their uranium mining and enrichment programs.

For a decade I was told that my concerns had no legitimate basis, that Iran would never be able to bring the Bushehr plant on line, and that Iran’s nuclear activities were not the most major concern.  History has shown us that those assessments — about Iran’s abilities and intentions — were simply wrong then, and I believe they are wrong today.  If past is prologue, I’m skeptical of Iran keeping its promises.

Let me give you my assessment of the way forward from the Joint Plan of Action agreed to by the members of the P5+1 and Iran and what we should expect before we move from an interim to a final comprehensive agreement that verifiably and – we would hope — permanently dismantles Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

As I have said repeatedly, I support a diplomatic process that gets us to a final deal.  However, this diplomatic process must be reinforced by continuous international commitment to the sanctions regime against Iran. It is clear that only intense, punishing economic pressure influences Iranian leaders. 

We must keep the pressure up.  We must not let them obstruct.  We can’t let them obfuscate and delay their way to dismantling the sanctions.  I certainly will continue to do all I can to make sure we do not dismantle the sanctions regime until and unless Iran dismantles their ability to build a bomb.

What troubles me – and I know what troubles all of you – is that the international community seems to want any deal more than it wants a good deal.  Let’s understand that we need to ensure that Iran cannot delay-away sanctions while they retain the ability to resume their weapons program at any time.  The longer we let them delay, the swifter their Research and Development brings new, more powerful centrifuges, and the closer they get to breakout capability.  And it is that capability that must be dismantled – Period.

Then we would have a good deal.  We cannot let the international sanctions regime unravel before we have that better deal that verifiably dismantles Iran’s ability to produce highly enriched uranium.  A deal that fully addresses the weaponization aspects of Iran’s nuclear program. The problem is — the mere possibility that sanctions will be lifted has already brought a rush of business delegations to Tehran.

But let me be clear, I support the Administration’s diplomatic efforts.  I have always supported a two-track policy of diplomacy and sanctions.   At the same time, I am convinced that we should only relieve pressure on Iran in exchange for verifiable concessions that will dismantle Iran’s illicit nuclear program.  And that it be done in such a way that alarm bells will sound — from Vienna to Tel Aviv to Washington — should Iran restart its program anytime in the next 20 to 30 years.

I’m here to unequivocally state my intention – as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee – to make absolutely certain that any deal that we may reach with Iran is verifiable, effective, and prevents them from ever developing even one nuclear weapon.  But, based on the parameters described in the Joint Plan of Action, all I have heard in briefings, and recent Iranian actions — I am very concerned.

This is not a nothing-ventured-nothing-gained enterprise.  We have placed our proven, effective international sanctions on the line without clearly defining the parameters of what we expect in a final agreement.   To those who believe that — if negotiations do not result in a deal or if Iran breaks the deal — we can always impose new sanctions — let me be very clear: If negotiations fail, or if Iran breaks the deal, we won’t have time to pass new sanctions.

New sanctions are not a spigot that can be turned off-and-on as has been suggested.  Even if Congress were to take-up and pass new sanctions at the moment of Iran’s first breach of the Joint Plan of Action – or if they do not reach an agreement that is acceptable — there will be a lag time of at least 6 months to bring those sanctions on line, and at least a year for the real impact to be felt.

This would bring us, according to scientists testifying before our Committee, beyond the very short-time Iran would need to build a nuclear bomb, especially since the interim agreement does not require them to dismantle anything, and basically freezes their capability as it stands today. 

So let everyone understand, if there is no deal I don’t believe we will have sufficient time to effectively impose new sanctions before Iran can produce a nuclear weapon, leaving the west with an option either to accept a nuclear armed Iran or a military option as the only choice.  In my view, Iran’s strategy is to use these negotiations to mothball its nuclear infrastructure program just long enough to undo the international sanctions regime. 

Iran is insisting on keeping core elements of its programs – enrichment, the Arak heavy-water reactor, the underground Fordow facility, and the Parchin military complex.  And, while they may be subject to safeguards — so they can satisfy the international community in the short-run – if they are allowed to retain their core infrastructure, they could quickly revive their program sometime in the future.

Bottom line: If they get their way they dismantle nothing, and we gut the sanctions that are the one reason the Iranians are at the table at all. 

The fact is Iran is simply seeking to lock the door on its nuclear weapons program.  And should they later walk away from a deal — as they have in the past — they can simply unlock the door and continue their nuclear weapons program from where they are today.  Sound familiar? It should. It sounds a lot like North Korea.

And let us not forget that despite diplomatic entreaties to the Iranians in recent years – where hands were extended and secret talks were pursued – Iran has grown its support and advocacy for terror.  The history of Iranian terror against U.S. citizens and interests is lengthy, robust, and grounded in the view that the United States is the Great Satan. 

Its funding and support of Hezbollah that has carried out attacks against American interests continues.  241 American servicemen died in the 1983 Marine Corps barracks bombing in Lebanon, 19 in the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia.  In recent years, we’ve traced responsibility for lethal actions against American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan — as well as the planned attack on the Saudi Ambassador at a Washington restaurant in 2011 – all to Iran. 

Today, Iran is actively sponsoring the proxy war in Syria sending money, weapons and fighters every week – every day.  Simultaneously, it is sponsoring attacks against Sunnis in Iraq and promoting regional sectarian violence that could easily result in a broader regional conflict.  Make no mistake, while they are smiling at our negotiators across the table, they are plotting in the backroom.

With all of this in mind, I believe in the wisdom of the prospective sanctions I proposed.  I believe in the lessons of history that tell us Iran cannot be trusted to live up to its word without external pressure.  I believe that an insurance policy that guards against Iranian obfuscation and deception is the best way forward.

The fact is Iran’s nuclear aspirations did not materialize overnight.  Make no mistake — Iran views developing a nuclear capability as fundamental to its existence.  It sees the development of nuclear weapons as part of a regional hegemonic strategy to make Tehran the center of power throughout the region.  That is why our allies and partners in the region – not just Israelis, but the Emiratis and the Saudis among others — are so skeptical and so concerned.

So, while I welcome diplomatic efforts, and I share the hope that the Administration can achieve a final comprehensive agreement that eliminates this threat to global peace and security, I am deeply, deeply skeptical – based up on these 20 years of experience.

At a minimum, we need to send a message to Iran that our patience is not unlimited.  And a message to the international community that the sanctions regime has not weakened, that this is not an opportunity to re-engage with Tehran.

In my view, it’s time to put Iranian rhetoric to the test. If we are to take President Rouhani’s word when he said in Davos that Iran does not seek nuclear weapons — if that’s true, then the Iranian government should not have any problems with the obvious follow-up to that claim – starting with the verifiable dismantling of its illicit nuclear infrastructure. That is all the sanctions legislation seeks.  I don’t believe we should settle for anything less. Do you?

At the end of the day, we cannot know what the future will hold.  We do not know what will bloom from the shifting sands of the Middle East.  But what we do know – what we must understand – is that the United States must be the one to step up to help protect the Israeli people and counter the threat that would be posed by a nuclear Iran.

I have said many times before and will repeat again today, the Holocaust was the most sinister possible reminder that the Jewish population in exile was in constant jeopardy.  It was a definitive argument that anti-Semitism could appear anywhere, and its horrors galvanized international support for the State of Israel.   But, while the Shoah may have a central role in Israel's identity, it is not the reason behind its founding, and it is not the main reason for its existence. 

The modern reestablishment of the state of Israel has long and deep roots going back to the time of Abraham and Sarah.  There is no denying the Jewish people’s legitimate right to live in peace and security on a homeland to which they have had a connection for thousands of years and that has not changed through the centuries. 

Too often the past is, truly, prologue, and next week — March 15th — is the start of Purim, a holiday that marks the deliverance of the Jewish people in the ancient empire of Persia – now Iran.  As the story goes, a plot had been hatched to destroy all Jews in the Persian empire, but Mordecai and his adopted daughter, Esther, foiled the plot and the day of deliverance became a day of celebration and feasting – Purim. 

The parallel is all too obvious when it comes to the situation today in the Middle East, and the protection of the Israeli people from the threat posed by a nuclear Iran.  Let us pray that – if the time should come – together we will be like Mordecai and Esther, we shall foil Iran’s nuclear plot, and deliver the Jewish people again as well as protect the world from a nuclear threat.

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