Despite his dramatic public showdown last week with Obama administration officials over Iran policy, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) remains a staunch defender of the president.
“The president is committed to Israel as a critical ally,” Menendez told NJ Jewish News in a Dec. 6 telephone interview. “I believe he believes there is no light between us and Israel on our mutuality of interests.”
President Obama “may have a different judgment on how to secure Israel as well as helping to promote peace, but if I had a core belief that Obama is not committed to our ally, Israel, and its security, I would say so,” added Menendez.
His comments followed a stinging rebuke of the administration’s Iran sanctions policy, which he delivered on Dec. 1 at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The New Jersey Democrat ripped two administration officials, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman and Undersecretary of the Treasury David Cohen, for opposing an extension of sanctions to include the Central Bank of Iran.
Menendez said their opposition undermined a compromise he struck with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) on legislation that was eventually passed in the Senate by a vote of 100-0.
The White House countered that the Kirk-Menendez amendment could actually help the Iranian economy if foreign banks resisted American unilateral efforts.
This week Menendez stood by his approach on sanctions, which he developed in consultation with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
“We think if we really put the bite on Iran through the Central Bank we will collapse the economy that is necessary to fuel their nuclear ambitions,” Menendez told NJJN.
Before the undersecretaries testified, he said, it was his understanding that the effort he had worked on with AIPAC and Kirk “was being supported by the administration,” he added.
Menendez said the sanctions bill was written to overcome administration objections that actions against the bank could drive up the price and lower the supply of non-Iranian oil.
The Senate version is now being reviewed by a House-Senate Conference Committee.
It is the latest in an ongoing series of bills aimed at Iran and its nuclear ambitions.
“Clearly the sanctions have diminished Iran’s nuclear capability and extended the clock for ourselves,” said Menendez. “To this administration’s credit, the most sanctions imposed on Iranian and non-Iranian entities have been done by this administration.”
But, he added, “I still think they should be done more robustly.”
Outside supporters of the Kirk-Menendez amendment include Nathan Carleton, communications director for United Against Nuclear Iran.
Sanctions aimed at the Central Bank are “the most extreme measure the U.S. has for pressuring Iran. Given the recent reports that say Iran is developing a nuclear weapon, there is no better time than now to fully pressure Iran. It would totally isolate it from the world’s economy,” Carleton told NJJN.
Yet some critics on the Left disagree with imposing sanctions against Iran.
“They sound wonderful, like being against Hitler,” said Larry Lerner, an attorney from Warren who is president of the American Friends of the Meretz-Yachad Party in Israel.
“Whatever sanctions do, they don’t seem to make any difference. The more we sanction them, the less results we’ve had. I don’t think anything Obama is doing or Menendez is advocating about the way Iran operates is effective…,” he told NJJN.
Menendez dismissed the notion that the United States should negotiate with the Iranian government.
“I do not see a regime that has a willingness to negotiate,” he told NJJN. “Iran led the world to believe they were ready to negotiate, then continued their march on to uranium enrichment and seeking a nuclear weapon. Iran is an existential threat to Israel and the United States’ interests in that area of the world and to our allies in Europe.
“The clock is ticking,” said the senator. “This is why our advocacy for sanctions is so incredibly important. This is our best chance to achieve non-military success of ensuring Iran doesn’t get access to a nuclear weapon.”
Menendez also disagreed with a right-wing columnist, despite her praise for his actions at last week’s hearing.
Jennifer Rubin, who writes the “Right Turn” blog for the Washington Post, wrote that his chastising the two undersecretaries “was perhaps the most critical words spoken by any senator in recent memory.”
Yet she added that “the administration has thrown in the towel on preventing a nuclear-armed revolutionary Islamic state.”
“That statement is beyond my belief,” Menendez countered. “I do not believe the administration had thrown in the towel…. We just have a divergent view as to this particular amendment.”
Menendez said he hadn’t heard from the president since the Dec. 1 hearing, “but I have heard from the administration. I am not going to share my conversation.”
“I have said plenty of things I am sure the administration doesn’t like, at significant political capital in terms of my relationship,” he told NJJN. “Nonetheless, we may differ on strategy and tactics, but not goals.”
In 11 months Obama and Menendez will be up for reelection together on the Democratic ticket. The two have parted ways on Israel-related matters before, most notably when Menendez criticized Obama’s Cairo speech of 2009.
But, the senator told NJJN, he is unfazed about the extent of their disagreements.
“When you run with the president of your party, blind loyalty is not required and should not be required. It is not desirable,” he said.