JERUSALEM — This week's Israel visit helped U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) determine how the Senate can intensify sanctions on Iran that are intended to prevent the Islamic Republic from becoming nuclearized, he told NJJN Tuesday night.
In an interview at Jerusalem's David Citadel Hotel, Menendez noted that he has led the passage of three rounds of sanctions on Iran. The head of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he said economic pressure on Iran could be intensified further.
“There are more sanctions on the way to tighten the noose on the Iranian economy,” Menendez said. “This trip was helpful to help me determine what to do next that can be effective while keeping the international coalition against Iran together.”
The last round of American sanctions on Iran were signed into law by President Barack Obama January 2 but only take effect July 1. The sanctions target companies that engage in a variety of new activities, including supplying goods and services to Iran's energy, shipping and insurance sectors.
In a visit to Israel that began May 25, Menendez met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, and Mossad head Tamir Pardo. He also visited Ramallah and Bethlehem and met with Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
The senator was welcomed in Israel with praise for the unanimous passage of a resolution he co-sponsored (with Sen. Lindsey Graham [R-SC]) supporting Israel’s right to self-defense and reaffirming the close security cooperation between the United States and Israel. The resolution did not authorize Israel to use force, but it said that if Israel is compelled to take military action in self-defense against Iran’s nuclear program, the U.S. should stand with Israel, using all the tools in its power.
“The bill is an expression of Israel's right to self-defense and a message to Obama that we have his back as he has Israel's back,” Menendez said. “It is an important statement to the world at a very important time. Israel will make its own decisions on its self-defense. They have the right to do whatever they need to do and I respect that right.”
The focus in Iran is currently on the country's June 14 presidential election. The last time Iran had a presidential election four years ago, protesters took to the streets to complain about it not being democratic and fair.
Menendez noted that there are no moderate candidates who were permitted to run in the election and said the international community must be ready to intervene in the race.
“The world must call for independent and free elections,” he said. “They need to know that we are monitoring their election. The Iranian people should be free to express themselves. Speaking for myself, I would be supportive of civil society expressing itself in peaceful ways that would make their desire clear; I would think the US would embrace such activities of Iranian citizens.”
While Menendez's resolution on Iran was praised, Israeli leaders have been more cautious about arming Syrian rebel groups, the subject of another bill he introduced and helped pass before he left for the Middle East. The legislation plans for a post-Assad Syria by authorizing Obama to offer humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people and limited lethal and non-lethal assistance and training to vetted Syrian rebel groups.
Prior to coming to Israel, Menendez met with Jordanian King Abdullah in Amman and visited a massive Syrian refugee camp in Jordan that he called “shocking.” He lamented the 80,000 Syrians who have lost their lives and the millions that have been displaced.
In Jordan, Menendez called a press conference with Republican senator John McCain in which they explained why they favor arming rebel groups. He also reassured people in Israel that the U.S. would know which rebels to fund.
“After two years of dealing with the opposition, we have a sense from our intelligence and our allies who that moderate opposition is [and] who if they got to power would create an inclusive Syrian society committed to democratic values,” he said.
Menendez said he was concerned about the fate of Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles, considering Hezbollah already has thousands of missiles aimed at Israel from Lebanon. He took a helicopter ride to northern Israel to visit a battery of the Iron Dome missile-defense system.
Unlike during Obama's March visit, Israel did not demonstrate the defense system for Menendez. He said he was happy Israel did not spend the $50,000 it costs for every missile to show the system to him.
“This is a challenging time and a challenging region,” said Menendez, who has also visited Israel in 1994, 1998, and 2005.
Menendez praised US secretary of state John Kerry for putting in time to try to restart diplomatic negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
“He is working incredibly hard to get them back to the negotiating table, where they can achieve the peace everyone wants that is so hard to achieve,” he said. “But the president and secretary of state can only do so much to prepare the table. There need to be leaders on both sides willing to sit at it and make hard decisions. I applaud the secretary for trying, and hope it will work.