WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s Iran deal came under pressure on three fronts in Congress today: from the Democratic author of the sanctions bill who vowed to “not yield” under the White House’s veto threats, from Senate Republicans leaning on Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to bring that bill to the floor, and from one lawmaker asking President Obama if he planned to get Congress’ approval to undo existing sanctions law.
In a mostly desolate Senate chamber Thursday afternoon, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) propped up incendiary quotes from Iranian leaders on a large easel as he also decried rhetoric from the administration pointed at the lawmakers determined to prevent Iran from the getting a nuclear weapon.
“In allowing Iran to retain its enrichment capabilities, there will always be a risk of breakout,” Menendez said. “It may be that is the only deal we can get. The real question is whether it is a good enough deal to merit terminating sanctions.”
He laid out many of his concerns about the Joint Plan of Action interim agreement reached in Geneva, particularly that it concedes “Iran will not only retain its ability to enrich, but will be allowed a mutually agreed upon enrichment program.” And “years of obfuscation, delay, and endless negotiation has brought them to the point of having – according to the Director of National Intelligence – the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons.”
“In my view, Iran’s strategy, consistent with their past approaches that have brought them to a nuclear threshold state, is to use these negotiations to mothball its nuclear infrastructure program just long enough to undo the international sanctions regime,” Menendez continued. “Iran is insisting on keeping core elements of its programs – enrichment, the Arak heavy-water reactor, the underground Fordow facility, and the Parchin military complex. And, while they may be subject to safeguards — so they can satisfy the international community in the short-run – if they are allowed to retain their core infrastructure, they could quickly revive their program sometime in the future.”
In dismantling sanctions but not their nuclear program, Iran is already reaping the benefits of the win-win deal as the value of the rial has begun to bounce back and economic growth predictions are strong. Trade delegations from more than 20 countries have visited Iran since November. While the administration downplays the sanctions relief as minute, “the assessment that this is a drop in the bucket is simply not accurate.”
“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,” the senator said. “…The fact is Iran is simply agreeing to lock the door on its nuclear weapons program – as is – and walk away and should they later walk away from a deal as they have in the past, they can simply unlock the door and continue their nuclear weapons program from where they are today. Sounds a lot like North Korea.”
Menendez outlined the Iranian regime’s sordid history of deception and terrorism. “While smiling at our negotiators across the table, they are simultaneously plotting in the back room,” he said.
“With all of this in mind, I believe in the wisdom of the prospective sanctions I proposed. I believe in the lessons of history that tell us Iran cannot be trusted to live up to its word without external pressure. I believe that an insurance policy that guards against Iranian obfuscation and deception is the best way forward,” Menendez continued. “The legislation is not the problem. Congress is not the problem. Iran is the problem. We need to worry about Iran, not the Congress.”
“…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… Iran says it won’t negotiate with a gun to its head. Well, I would suggest it is Iran that has put a nuclear gun to the world’s head. So, at the end of the day, name-calling is not an argument, nor is it sound policy.”
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee praised Menendez’s floor speech in a statement this evening, calling it “strong and eloquent.” It came on the same day that AIPAC announced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would fly to Washington at the beginning of March to address the group’s annual policy conference.
Reid promised before Thanksgiving that he would allow a vote on tougher Iran sanctions after lawmakers returned from the holiday. The administration rushed through a deal with Iran and heaped pressure on the Senate leader to relent and keep the bill at bay, even by not allowing amendments on legislation that’s come to the floor since that time.
Forty-two Republican senators wrote to Reid yesterday to urge a vote on the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act that carries 59 co-sponsors.
“Mr. Leader, you have already taken unprecedented steps to take away the rights of the minority in the Senate,” the letter states. “Please do not take further steps to take away the rights of a bipartisan majority as well… It’s time for the elected representatives of the American people to have a say in the future of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”
One of the signatories on the letter, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), said on the floor this morning that despite the nearly filibuster-proof number of co-sponsors, “one person – one senator – is preventing a vote on it.”
“And that is wrong. In a matter of this importance, we should have a vote on this. And the use of procedural motions and the power of the Majority Leader to prevent a vote on something of this importance has long-term implications on our national security of extraordinary proportions,” Rubio said.
“…I promise you – and that’s why I’m saying this on the floor so that it’s recorded and so people know where I stood on this before it happens – I promise you, if Iran is allowed to maintain any sort of enrichment capability in our lifetime, in fact I believe before the end of this decade, God forbid, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And one day we will wake up to the news that they have tested a device, or have proven the capability of having one. And when that day comes, God help us all,” he continued.
“So I hope that we can have a vote on the Senate floor on this issue. Let’s have a debate on it. Let’s have a frank and open discussion about it. But why are we preventing that from happening? Why is the Majority Leader preventing that from happening? It is inexcusable, it is unacceptable. And so I hope we’ll have a vote on it, sooner rather than later.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told Obama that it’s unacceptable to just peel back sanctions law without coming to Congress to approve the Iran deal.
At a Foreign Relations Committee hearing this week, Paul asked Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman whether the administration felt bound to comply with the existing sanctions laws, particularly the sanctions laid out in the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), and the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (ITRA).
CISADA, as modified by ITRA, only allows for termination of sanctions after Iran has verifiably dismantled its military-nuclear, biological, chemical, ballistic missile and ballistic missile launch technology programs and is no longer acting as a state sponsor of terrorism.
“As you are aware, our existing sanctions on Iran are triggered by both statutory and executive authority. While I respect your authority regarding those sanctions lawfully initiated by Executive Order pursuant to legal authority, I would urge your Administration to use caution as you negotiate over sanctions that have been applied statutorily – that is, passed by Congress, and signed into law by the President of the United States,” Paul wrote to Obama today.
“On a foreign policy issue of this magnitude, it is my strong belief that any further agreement – be it interim or final – that lifts statutory sanctions on Iran should require approval by the Congress before taking effect. Please let me know if it is your intent to seek this approval for any subsequent interim or final deal.”
Menendez pointed out in his floor speech that the text of the Joint Plan of Action, released to members of Congress in full but not to the general public, states “the U.S. Administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions.”
“The agreement acknowledges that the Administration – not Congress – will refrain from imposing new sanctions. The Administration knew it could not bind Congress to refrain from imposing new sanctions – because Congress is a separate co-equal branch of government,” he said. “So let’s focus on what was agreed to by those at the table rather than attributing blame to those who were not.”
“We will not be the scapegoats for a bad deal if it does not take the nuclear weapons option off the table by insisting on dismantling existing capability, not simply mothballing it.”