There was an interesting moment on the Senate floor yesterday. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) completed his floor speech on Iran. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) followed by speaking primarily on the Israel-Gaza conflict but paused to commend Menendez. This was not mere Senate formality (as in “my good friend from New Jersey has long been working on the issue”) but an expression of respect and even surprise. It was as if Cruz had realized, “Gee, I don’t have much disagreement with this guy. I probably could have given most of that speech.“ He doesn’t, actually, differ from Menendez much when it comes to Iran.
Menendez’s remarks on Iran represent a broad, bipartisan consensus. With the exception of the far-right extremists who still muse about “containment” and the far left who think there is no difference between Iranian nukes and Israeli nukes (Hint: One set would be aimed at Europe and the United States), most members would agree with four essential points he made.
First, he aptly expressed the real anxiety on the Hill and elsewhere in the responsible foreign policy community that a bad deal may be in the offing. He said: “I am convinced that we should only relieve pressure on Iran in exchange for verifiable concessions that will fundamentally dismantle Iran’s illicit nuclear program and that any deal be structured in such a way that alarm bells will sound – from Vienna to Washington, to Moscow and Beijing – should Iran restart its program anytime in the next 20 or 30 years.” Instead Iran seems to be offering fool’s gold – a “freeze.” Menendez ably explained why this is a nonstarter:
“It is the same obfuscation – the same Iranian tactics that we have seen for years, for decades. Iran puts offers on the table that appear to be concessions but, in reality, are designed to preserve Iranian illicit nuclear infrastructure and enrichment so that the capacity, the capacity to break out and rush toward a nuclear weapon is still very much within reach. That is not an endgame. It’s a non-starter. . . . Essentially, what Zarif is offering is the same concessions as what Iran made for the interim agreement over six months ago. And in exchange, Iran gets sanction relief. Except we know that Iran is not like any other nation, and its history of cheating, lying and evading inspections proves it.”
Second, Menendez bluntly rebuked Secretary of State John Kerry, who seems to have adopted Iran’s negotiating posture on a key point. “Secretary Kerry said this morning that ‘the U.S. believes Iran has the right to a peaceful nuclear program under the NPT.’ Let’s remind ourselves of first principles here. No country has a right to enrichment. They may have the ability to enrich – the desire to enrich, but they do not have the right to enrich – and certainly not Iran given its past behavior. Let’s remember how we reached this point. Iran – over a period of decades – has deceived the international community about its nuclear program, breaching its international commitment in what everyone agrees was an attempt to make Iran a nuclear weapons state – or at least a threshold state.” In other words, don’t expect transparency and verification to be the linchpin of a deal; the linchpin is dismantling Iran’s illicit program.
Third, if Iran is to be left with any centrifuges, the number must be tiny. “Dennis Ross – one of America’s preeminent diplomats and foreign policy analysts who has served under Democratic and Republican Presidents – has said Iran should retain no more than 10 percent of its centrifuges – that’s no more than 2,000.” Whether that number is 2,200 or 100 may be a subject of debate; whether it is 2,000 or 20,000 is not. He continued, “A deal that clearly provides for a long-term verification, inspection and enforcement regime, and incentives for compliance in the form of sanctions relief – based on Iranian actions that are verifiable, not on what Iran claims to be the truth. The fact is – there is no sanctions, in my perspective, relief signing bonus. If Iran wants relief from sanctions, then it needs to tangibly demonstrate to the world that it is giving up its quest for nuclear weapons – Period!”
And finally, he’s tired of being bullied by the White House (my words, not his). He declared: “The fact is – there are those who have created a false narrative six months ago – that is now self-perpetuating – in which anyone who expresses a different opinion is a war monger. For those who now say, well if we don’t have a deal, then what I would remind them that the administration has said time and time again that no deal is better than a bad deal. I agree with that statement. But I am concerned that there are forces who would accept a deal, even if it is a bad deal.” He went on to hint at a level of distrust even among Democrats over the administration’s negotiating posture: “[A bad deal] doesn’t serve the interests of the negotiators at the table in Vienna – and it certainly doesn’t serve the interests of the American people who want to ensure that Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon. And that any deal permanently eliminates the possibility that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon that threatens the international order. At the end of the day, keeping the pressure on Iran to completely satisfy the UN’s – and the international community’s – demands to halt and reverse its illicit nuclear activities is the best way to avoid war in the first place.”
The problem, of course, is that Menendez and the White House may very well be on different pages. Moreover, with Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) at the helm, the White House imagines it can check any congressional action. Perhaps so, although I hold out hope that for once the pro-Israel-when-convenient crowd on the Democratic side will stand up to the White House. Even if that is the case, however, Menendez and other senators can withhold action — sanctions relief — if they don’t like the deal. And it is on this ground that they must defend the international community’s bottom line.
I was most struck by the degree to which a mainstream Democrat in a key leadership position shares the same qualms, distrust of the president and wariness that a bad deal is afoot as Republicans do. On this, bipartisanship prevails, and both houses of Congress should demonstrate that when it comes to a nuclear Iran, crossing a weak and failing president may be a small price to pay to prevent the greatest and most preventable national security calamity of our time.