WASHINGTON – Democrat Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey plans to oppose the Iran nuclear deal when it comes up for a vote in Congress next month.
The senior lawmaker is the second Senate Democrat to announce disapproval of US President Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), clinched on July 14 in Vienna.
Republicans are roundly opposed to the agreement, and a plurality of Democrats in both houses of Congress remain publicly undeclared.
Menendez laid out his position in a speech delivered in New Jersey on the 30th day of a 60-day congressional review period. The deal, he said, legitimizes Iran as a “nuclear threshold” state – allowing Tehran to exponentially grow its nuclear program over time in exchange for temporary assurances and permanent sanctions relief.
“The question is what do we get from this agreement in terms of what we originally sought?” Menendez asked in the address. “We said we would accommodate Iran’s practical national needs, but not leave the region – and the world – facing the threat of a nuclear armed Iran at a time of its choosing.”
“In essence,” he said, “we thought the agreement would be rollback for rollback: You roll back your infrastructure, and we’ll roll back our sanctions.”
The deal fails to achieve this standard, Menendez asserted, tackling a series of arguments outlined by the Obama administration in its aggressive effort to sell the deal.
The White House argues the deal permanently prevents Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons.
The JCPOA puts in place an airtight inspections regime, it says, which allows the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor Iran’s declared facilities on a constant basis. It also enshrines a mechanism granting inspectors access to undeclared sites it finds suspicious well within enough time to detect Iranian non-compliance, according to the White House.
Iran will convert several of its nuclear facilities, disconnect much of its infrastructure and decline to install technologically advanced infrastructure for eight to 15 years, the deal reads.
In exchange, Tehran will receive tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief on the front end of the deal that, according to White House assessments, likely will fund the reconstruction of Iran’s economy.
Questions concerning past military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program would be answered through direct, private communication between the IAEA and Tehran. Standard IAEA protocol requires that these reports remain confidential between the agency and Iran, the White House says.
To Menendez, each and every one of these provisions is flawed.
He repeated a common theme throughout the extensive policy address: Iran has long been in violation of its commitments to the international community to which it now expects to be a normalized member.
He argued that the deal fails to prevent Iran from maintaining a nuclear weapons capacity, allowing it, in 15 years, to secure “breakout time” to a weapon far shorter than it currently is today. The inspections regime is flawed, he said, because Tehran will have enough time to hide its non-nuclear work in undeclared facilities; “shifts the burden” of proof for access to those facilities to Western nations; and ultimately lifts access requirements for the IAEA in just over a decade.
Menendez criticized the “procurement channel” built into the deal that, from his assessment, not only guarantees an industrial-sized Iranian nuclear program, but requires international powers assist in its construction.
He argued Iran should not be allowed sanctions relief until all past military dimensions to its nuclear program are publicly resolved; until its program is not merely limited, but dismantled; and until it allows inspections anywhere international agents feel the need to go.
“The deal enshrines for Iran and, in fact, commits the international community to assisting Iran in developing an industrial-scale nuclear power program, complete with industrial scale enrichment,” he said.
“In reality,” he concluded, “we have purchased a very expensive alarm system.”
The White House has argued that the alternative to the existing JCPOA is no deal at all, and the president has further warned that a vote of disapproval from Congress would unravel international consensus on the issue and increase the chances of war between the US and Iran.
Menendez rejected this assessment, stating: “We can disapprove this agreement, without rejecting the entire agreement.”
He laid out a seven-point plan as an alternative to the administration’s approach.
That plan includes congressionally mandated parameters on future negotiations. Menendez wants Iran to agree to cap research and development into advanced centrifuge technology, which would contribute to a shrinking break-out time if left unchecked; a strengthened mechanism for any future “snap back” of sanctions by international powers; the full ratification of the IAEA’s Additional Protocol by Iran, which has currently agreed to adopt it provisionally; and an extension of the agreement in its entirety.
Menendez formally served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and has prioritized the issue of a nuclear- armed Iran for more than a decade. He recognized his position would be unpopular in Democratic circles, but said that, similar to his vote against authorization for the use of force in Iraq in 2003, “I didn’t choose the easier path then, and I’m not going to now.
“Whether or not the supporters of the agreement admit it, this deal is based on ‘hope’ – hope that when the nuclear sunset clause expires, Iran will have succumbed to the benefits of commerce and global integration. Hope that the hard-liners will have lost their power and the revolution will end its hegemonic goals. And hope that the regime will allow the Iranian people to decide their fate,” he said.
“Hope is part of human nature, but unfortunately it is not a national security strategy,” he said, concluding: “If Iran is to acquire a nuclear bomb, it will not have my name on it.”