Senators Refuse to Be Obama's 'Scapegoats for a Bad Deal' with Iran

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.