Despite concerns that “the interim agreement did not go far enough,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward a deal that temporarily freezes Iran’s nuclear programs and somewhat eases existing sanctions.
“In six months we will need to have a deal that will not allow Iran to pursue nuclear weapons. They have to cease enrichment, and they have to submit themselves to more intrusive protocols,” he said in a Nov. 27 phone interview.
Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, butted heads with the Obama administration in the weeks before the agreement was reached in Geneva last month.
He said he backs a congressional effort to impose a series of sanctions that will kick in if Iran does not comply with agreements to limit its uranium enrichment programs and permit inspections of its nuclear facilities.
“It would hopefully be a message to the Iranians that ‘if you don’t end up with a deal that is acceptable to the West, then here is what you are facing,’” he told NJJN. “It would both incentivize the Iranians and be an insurance policy to us that if the deal doesn’t end up being consummated, we will be poised to have these sanctions put in place.”
The administration worries that new sanctions would violate the terms of the interim agreement, strengthen Iranian hardliners, and drive a wedge between the United States and its international negotiating partners.
Menendez disagrees. Not only would an even tougher clamp-down on Iranian oil trade “have real consequences for an economy that is in a tailspin, but it would strengthen the Obama administration’s hand, not weaken it,” he said.
The senator called for “a timeline for installing surveillance cameras at the Iranian nuclear facility in Natanz and an agreement as to when daily inspections begin. There must also be a scheduled access to manufacturing sites as well as uranium mines, and they will have to close down their heavy water reactor at Arak,” he said.
The Iranians “will also have to give us access to Parchin,” a military base near Tehran where inspectors believe Iran has tested nuclear triggering devices. “Six months from now we will have a new set of sanctions pending that will go into effect if all of this does not come to pass,” said Menendez.
Asked whether he believes the Iranians are acting in good faith, he said, “I know they are acting out of necessity, a necessity we created as a result of the sanctions. Otherwise we wouldn’t be at this point.”
Most of the largest Jewish organizations fear the agreement doesn’t go far enough in curbing Iran’s nuclear program and doubt the Iranian government’s sincerity.
While Anti-Defamation League officials called the agreement “an important step forward,” a statement on Nov. 24 said, “Iran’s record of noncompliance makes us skeptical of providing sanctions relief before Iran has taken tangible steps to dismantle its nuclear program…. Iran has not earned these concessions and has, in the past, used respites from international pressure to surreptitiously make progress in its nuclear program.”
Locally, the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ also said it was “cautiously hopeful,” but expressed concern that “the interim agreement provides disproportionate relief to Iran in the form of sanction relief and tacit recognition of Iran’s claimed right of enrichment.” (See sidebar)
The statement, signed by CRC chair Gordon Haas of Elizabeth, urges that “strong economic pressures on Iran continue to be used as a tool until a satisfactory final agreement is reached.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the agreement a “historic mistake” and his minister of strategic affairs, Yuval Steinitz, likened it to the broken peace treaty signed in Munich between the British government and Nazi Germany in 1938.
Conservative voices in the American-Jewish community also used the Munich analogy.
Commentary columnist Jonathan Tobin wrote that “should Iran go nuclear in the future, the deal will be thought of as being as every bit as much of a betrayal of Israel as Munich.”
Menendez told NJJN he disagreed with such appraisals.
“I am not ready to come to that conclusion,” he said. “Would I like to have seen centrifuges be reduced? Would I like to have seen a further reduction in enrichment? Yes, I would like to have seen these things, but I don’t quite view this agreement as a sellout.
“What is most important is not what the interim agreement looks like but what the final-status agreement looks like, and what we in the Congress want that final-status agreement to be. That is very important to focus on.”