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Sen. Menendez defends approach on Iran
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Sen. Menendez defends approach on Iran

With support for the bipartisan Iran sanctions bill he cosponsored eroding, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) issued a passionate defense of putting more pressure on the Iranian government.

His Feb. 6 speech on the Senate floor was a lengthy, point-by-point critique of the Obama administration’s handling of negotiations with Iran.

Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also criticized Republicans for turning the effort to halt a nuclear-armed Iran into a “partisan political issue.”

“It seems to me that the sanctions regime we’ve worked so hard to build is starting to unravel before we ever get a chance to conclude a final agreement with Iran,” said Menendez, defending the bill he cosponsored with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). “We should only relieve pressure on Iran in exchange for verifiable concessions that will dismantle Iran’s nuclear program.”

The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act would have imposed new sanctions if Iran breaks an interim deal under which Tehran agreed to curb its nuclear program. Backers said it would have given the United States greater leverage in its efforts to negotiate a resolution to the standoff over the nuclear program.

Of the 33 original sponsors of the bill when it was first introduced in mid-December, 15 were Democrats. In subsequent weeks, the Obama administration, which opposes new sanctions, lobbied hard against the bill, and almost no new Democrats signed on.

With that as background, Menendez said on Feb. 6 that dealing with Iran deserved “a spirit of bipartisanship and unity” and rejected bids to make it a partisan issue. “I hope that we will not find ourselves in a partisan process trying to force a vote on a national security matter before its appropriate time,” he said.

Following his lead, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee backed away from pressing for the bill’s passage, saying in a statement: “We agree with the chairman that stopping the Iranian nuclear program should rest on bipartisan support and that there should not be a vote at this time on the measure.”

Nevertheless, Menendez continued to insist in his speech that the deal that led to the six-month interim talks between Iran and the major powers gives up too much in terms of sanctions relief for little of substance. “We have placed our incredibly effective international sanctions regime on the line without clearly defining the parameters of what we expect in a final agreement,” he said.

Menendez also rejected the notion that the bill’s backers were itching for military action against Iran. “The concerns I have raised here are legitimate,” he said. “They are not — as the president’s press secretary has said — ‘war-mongering.’ This is not saber-rattling. It is not Congress wanting to ‘march to war,’ as another White House spokeswoman said — but exactly the opposite.”

Finally, Menendez — unlike a number of Republicans and the Netanyahu government — outlined a goal that would require Iran to cripple although not totally dismantle its nuclear program. “Any final deal must require Iran to dismantle large portions of its illicit nuclear program,” he said. “Any final deal must require Iran to halt its advanced centrifuge R&D activities, reduce the vast majority of its 20,000 centrifuges, close the Fordow facility, stop the heavy-water reactor at Arak from ever possibly coming on-line.

“And it should require Iran’s full disclosure of its nuclear activities — including its weaponization activities.”

‘Beginning to sway’

Opponents of new sanctions say they could scuttle talks between Iran and the major powers and rupture the international alliance that nudged Iran to the table.

Doni Remba of Westfield, cochair of the Central Jersey branch of J Street, called proposed new sanctions “a counterproductive strategy that would backfire.”

Remba said the sanctions bill carried “a very serious risk that we would be empowering the hardliners in Iran to torpedo these negotiations. We would be giving the hardliners a real basis to believe that the United States was not honoring its agreement with Iran and that we are not willing to give them the opportunity to negotiate with them in good faith. It makes no sense to follow a path that satisfies our gut need to be tough on Iran if in fact the most likely outcome of that approach would be to shoot ourselves in the foot.”

Some local observers, however, lamented the demise of the Kirk-Menendez bill, sharing the New Jersey senator’s concerns that the U.S. and Western powers are not negotiating with Iran from a position of strength.

“Because of the administration’s insistence that ‘we are all for peace’ people are beginning to sway. The people who say they are on the fence might be swaying toward the more leftist position. But the people who are pro-Israel are becoming more supportive of Menendez,” said Jim Daniels of Short Hills, the Iranian-born chair of the Stop Iran Now Task Force of the Community Relations Committee of Greater MetroWest NJ.

Daniels warned that “it is not beyond the realm of probability that Iran could get a nuclear capability in the next few months.”

“It is important to remember that firm U.S.-led global sanctions got Tehran to the table,” said John Rosen, executive director of American Jewish Committee’s NJ Area. “Consideration of additional measures should still be on the table to ensure Iran does not achieve nuclear-weapons capability.”

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