Defying President Obama and pressing for stronger sanctions against Iran, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and 25 other senators have earned praise from many Jewish community leaders and dismay from some powerful Democratic colleagues.
Menendez, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, joined 12 other Democrats and 13 Republicans in supporting stiff new measures that would take effect if Iran fails to live up to its end of the six-month bargain struck in Geneva intended to freeze its development of nuclear weapons.
Menendez, who told NJ Jewish News on Nov. 27 that “the interim agreement did not go far enough,” said new sanctions would strengthen the Obama administration’s hand if the Tehran government did not carry out interim measures to disable its nuclear capability in the next six months.
“Current sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table, and a credible threat of future sanctions will require Iran to cooperate and act in good faith at the negotiating table,” said Menendez in a statement on the Foreign Relations Committee’s website.
Some of the largest national Jewish organizations, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs quickly came out in favor of the “Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013.”
So did the Community Relations Committee of Greater MetroWest NJ. In a Dec. 20 e-mail statement, CRC Iran Task Force chair Jim Daniels commended Menendez and his colleagues for “moving forward legislation that will strengthen American diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability.”
The new sanctions proposal, however, prompted a White House rebuke. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the passage of such sanctions would disrupt and could even unravel talks. The deal forged in November that launched the talks with Iran guaranteed no new sanctions.
“We don’t want to see actions that would proactively undermine American diplomacy,” he said at the daily White House briefing WHEN, adding that Obama would veto the bill were it to come to his desk.
Ten of Menendez’s fellow Democrats — all chairs of other Senate committees — sent a letter to Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), urging him to prevent the sanctions bill from being voted on. Three of the 10 — Carl Levin of Michigan, Dianne Feinstein of California, and Ron Wyden of Michigan — are Jewish.
Their appeal to Reid said, “We believe that new sanctions would play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see the negotiations fail.”
Jewish organizations stand by the bill.
“AIPAC supports this vital legislation which will help bolster a peaceful and diplomatic end to the Iranian nuclear program and we appreciate the bipartisan leadership of Senators Menendez” and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann said in a statement e-mailed to JTA.
“Congress is doing the right thing, sending a strong message to Iran that it will pay a heavy price if a permanent agreement on its nuclear program is not achieved,” said American Jewish Committee executive director David Harris. Although AJC has supported negotiations with Iran, he noted that “the new sanctions should be held in reserve to underscore the seriousness of America’s determination — and the consequences of an Iranian failure to act in good faith.”
Barry Curtiss-Lusher, national chair of the Anti-Defamation League, and Abraham H. Foxman, the organization’s national director, said in a statement that “the legislation makes clear to Iran the severe economic price it will pay if it does not negotiate seriously and plays for time. It also gives the administration time to pursue negotiations to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”
The few national Jewish organizations that have come out against the new sanctions bill tend to be on the left of the political spectrum, including J Street and Americans for Peace Now.
“Adding sanctions now would likely derail negotiations as they’re about to begin in earnest,” said Craig Levine of Montclair, a member of J Street North Jersey, in a Dec. 20 e-mail. “Congress should stand down and see if the slight economic opening for Iran that the recent agreement represents will inspire Iran to want more, and to seek to obtain it by agreeing in the next stage of the process to deeper, meaningful, verifiable steps to eliminate its capacity to develop nuclear weapons. If Iran fails this crucial test, sanctions could and should be ramped up again. But doing so now would tell Iran that negotiating is futile — a conclusion in neither the United States’ nor Israel’s interest.”
Menendez rejected such warnings.
“The burden rests with Iran to negotiate in good faith and verifiably terminate its nuclear weapons program,” he said in a statement. “Prospective sanctions will influence Iran’s calculus and accelerate that process toward achieving a meaningful diplomatic resolution.”