Menendez to GOP and White House: Tone it down on sanctions fight

Sen Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), is the lead sponsor of the latest Iran sanctions bill, wants all sides to tone it down a little.

In a lengthy floor speech this afternoon, Menendez started with a swipe at Kirk and another 41 Republicans who in a letter urged Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, to bring the bill to the Senate floor. Reid is resisting in part because the Obama administration opposes the new legislation, which it says would scuttle talks with Iran.

Menendez said:

I come to the floor to speak about one of our greatest national security challenges which is a nuclear-armed Iran. And I have long thought of this as a bipartisan national security issue – not a partisan political issue. And — at the end of the day — a national security issue that we must approach in a spirit of bipartisanship and unity, which has been the spirit for which we have worked together on this matter. And 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.

But he ended the speech with a couple of direct shots at the administration for some of the rhetoric its spokesmen have deployed against the bill’s backers:

The concerns I have raised here are legitimate. 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.

The speech is notable (at least in today’s Washington) for its absence of straw men: Menendez takes on one by one the other side’s actual arguments against new sanctions, for instance, the claim that Obama’s predecessors also negotiated with formidable enemies:

Last Tuesday night, in the State of the Union, the President said: “If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.”
But I would point out to my colleagues that they did so from a position of strength. President Kennedy sent U.S. warships to face down the Soviets in Cuba, and Ronald Reagan dramatically built-up U.S. military might. We need to negotiate with Iran from a position of strength.

Menendez says his problem with the Joint Plan of Action, the deal that led to the six-month interim talks between Iran and the major powers, is that it 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. As Ali Akbar Salehi, the Head of Iran’s nuclear agency said last month on Iranian state television about the agreement, “The iceberg of sanctions is melting while our centrifuges are also still working. This is our greatest achievement.”

Notably, unlike a number of Republicans — and the Netanyahu government — Menendez does not envision a total dismantling of the Iranian nuclear program as the only acceptable outcome. His bottom line seems pretty much in line with the administration’s. (Note below his use of the phrase “large portions,” which is short of an absolute dismantling.)

He said:

Any final deal must require Iran to dismantle large portions of its illicit nuclear program. 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.

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