WASHINGTON — President Obama said in his State of the Union address that he will veto any new Iran sanctions, taking direct aim at legislation championed by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ).
“There are no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran,” Obama said in prepared remarks posted online by the White House just minutes before the speech, a first.
“But new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails — alienating America from its allies and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress.”
The veto pledge earned Obama applause from the Democratic side of the room.
Despite the opposition of both Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron to new economic sanctions against Iran, Menendez said imposing such sanctions would help achieve his long-held determination “to stop Iran from achieving nuclear power for nuclear weapons.”
Although he declined to discuss private conversations he has held with the president, Menendez told reporters at a Jan. 16 news conference in Union Beach, that time is running out for negotiations to halt Iran’s nuclear development.
“We have been at this for 18 months,” he said. “The framework for any potential agreement that we could accept is well established. What has not been there so far is the Iranians’ willingness, dictated by [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei], who is the ultimate entity who is going to decide whether there will be a deal or not, 18 months later.”
Menendez said he and Obama “have a fundamental disagreement. We have a mutual goal but at the end of the day I cannot fathom for the life of me why he opposes a set of prospective sanctions….” The president is talking about March to reach an agreement, Menendez said; “I’m giving him until July. Then, if there is no deal in July, that will have been well over two years since this began.”
And yet, Menendez and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) have yet to formally launch the bill they drafted.
A draft version of the bill appeared Jan. 16 on Kirk’s website. He is the lead GOP author of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2014, but Senate staffers tracking the bill’s progress said no date had yet been set for its formal introduction to Congress.
The Senate Banking Committee has on its calendar a Jan. 22 “mark-up,” a hearing at which the committee would decide whether to refer the bill to the full Senate. Senate staffers, however, said that the mark-up date was tentative.
Obama last week sparred with the lead Democratic author of the bill, at a private meeting in Baltimore with Democratic senators, The New York Times reported.
Obama urged senators at the meeting not to pursue sanctions, saying they could jeopardize nuclear talks between Iran and the major powers aimed at trading sanctions relief for guarantees Iran will not advance toward a nuclear weapon.
In his remarks, the president said he understood senators were being pressured by donors, the Times said, and Menendez took offense, noting that his activism toward keeping Iran nuclear-free dated back decades.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee will back the bill, a source close to the lobby told JTA.
But after a Jan. 16 meeting with Cameron, both leaders agreed that further sanctions would harm the talks.
“Additional sanctions on Iran at this time would undermine that international unity and set back our chances for a diplomatic solution,” he said.
The bill, which expands existing sanctions on Iran’s energy and financial sectors, would kick in once the June 30 deadline for negotiations had passed, unless there is a deal or the major powers and Iran agree to another extension of the terms governing the talks. There have been two such extensions.
Under the bill, any deal or extension is subject to congressional review.
With reporting by NJJN staff writer Robert Wiener