NEW YORK -- Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed deep skepticism on Sunday that world powers would be able to forge a comprehensive agreement with Iran on its nuclear program.
The New Jersey Democrat and Senate foreign policy chief placed blame for those odds squarely on an “obfuscating” Iran – and on the international community for wanting “any deal” on the nuclear crisis “more than a good deal.”
“If past is prologue, I’m skeptical of Iran keeping its promises,” Menendez told some 1,000 participants at the third Jerusalem Post Annual Conference in New York.
“Based on the parameters described in the Joint Plan of Action, all I have heard in briefings and recent Iranian actions, I am very concerned.”
Menendez issued his support for US President Barack Obama’s efforts to forge a lasting nuclear agreement – what Obama has called one of the two greatest foreign policy goals of his presidency, alongside the achievement of a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians.
But Menendez, a veteran of the upper chamber who has worked on the Iran policy for decades, is also the author of the latest sanctions bill against Iran that would trigger new financial penalties against the Islamic Republic if negotiations expire this summer without a final deal.
Obama threatened to veto the bill in January, warning its passage might fray the international consensus at the negotiating table among the P5+1 – the US, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany – across from Iran.
Menendez defended the bill once again on Sunday. But he stopped short of renewing his call for a swift vote in the Senate. The bill has 59 co-sponsors but is unlikely to reach the floor for debate.
“Make no mistake,” he told conference participants.
“While they are smiling at our negotiators across the table, they are plotting in the back room.”
Negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran resume this week in Vienna.
The senator’s harsh words on Iran also extended beyond its nuclear program.
“Iran-like fundamentalist theocracies bent on turning the clock back 500 years” should be “relegated to the dustbin” of history, he said.
Menendez, a Democrat, made a broad case for “conservative” policies on Israel and on the policy priorities shared between Israel and the United States. That conservatism, he said, extends across party lines in Washington – most definitively on the issue of Israel’s character as the Jewish homeland.
“We are all conservative when it comes to Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state,” he said.
“We are all conservative when it comes to keeping the people of Israel safe and secure in their homes and within their borders.”
Menendez last spoke extensively on Iran and the Middle East peace process early last month at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, where he opened for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He quoted parts of Netanyahu’s AIPAC speech on Sunday, specifically where the Israeli premiere said there could be “no fantasy of flooding Israel with refugees” and “no movement to amputate parts of the Negev and the Galilee.”
At the Post conference, Menendez also questioned whether the Palestinian Authority was a “committed partner” in the peace process.
“Notwithstanding any hopes we may harbor,” he said, “one thing is certain, set in stone: President [Mahmoud] Abbas must recognize the Jewish state as a Jewish state without equivocation.”
Since taking over from US Secretary of State John Kerry – who left the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state – Menendez has put threats emanating from Syria and Iran front and center on Capitol Hill.
While he holds the respect of the Obama administration, he is keen on proving the worth of the Senate on foreign policy and considers the legislature an equal branch of government on affairs abroad.
The senator underlined that message in his Sunday address. He repeatedly backed Obama’s approach to Iran and reinforced his support for the president’s performance on Syria throughout the chemical weapons crisis that gripped the world last August.
But he also took credit for the results of that policy: Bashar Assad’s signing of the Chemical Weapons Convention and his agreeing to rid Syria of its massive stockpiles of chemical arms.
“On Syria, my committee’s authorization for the use of military force last September was the reason – and the only reason, I am convinced – Assad agreed to dismantle and destroy his regime’s arsenal of chemical weapons,” Menendez said. “Our willingness to use our military power can be a force for positive change.”
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