Democrat berates Obama officials on Iran

A Democratic senator Thursday angrily accused Obama administration officials of doing an about-face on a bipartisan Senate plan designed to stifle funding for Iran’s nuclear weapons work.  

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said Obama officials initially balked at separate amendments on Iran that he and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) planned to offer to a 2012 Pentagon policy bill.   

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He said the duo worked with administration officials to address their concerns and then combined the measures into a “fair and balanced” plan to stifle Iranian oil revenues. The resulting Menendez-Kirk amendment would prohibit any U.S. financial entity from engaging in transactions with any foreign government, central bank or other financial firm that does business with the Central Bank of Iran.

The Menendez-Kirk amendment is likely to come up for a vote Thursday, and is expected to pass easily.

Obama officials were highly critical of the amendment during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Thursday, contending it would have the “opposite effect” of what is intended by driving other nations away from efforts to isolate Iran.

The officials also said the amendment would drive up the price of oil.

A visibly upset Menendez accused the officials of reneging on the agreement.

“I am extremely disappointed,” Menendez said, expressing bewilderment over why the officials in those meetings didn’t simply request that both senators scrap their amendments.

“You have rebuffed us every step of the way,” Menendez said, alleging that Congress has provided the very tools that have produced the success with sanctions against Tehran of which the White House now takes ownership.

“We need to cut off the fuel!” Menendez roared at one point.

The senator berated State and Treasury department officials for several minutes, then stewed in his seat after his allotted time had expired.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) joined Menendez in expressing concerns that the administration did not negotiate in good faith. 

“That seems highly irresponsible … on your part,” Corker said.

Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) noted that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner wrote to Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) on Thursday to formally argue against the amendment.

Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) said the administration should have come before the committee with “a strategy to make this amendment work,” rather than one to kill it.

“This amendment is going to pass” by a large margin, Risch said. “It is going to send a signal that [lawmakers] want sent.”

The Obama administration’s push to hit Iran economically and limit its ability to pay for a nuclear arms program — and ultimately persuade it to give up that effort — is an attempt to avoid a future need to use military force to take out its nuclear facilities. 

Some officials, lawmakers and experts warn that a U.S. — or Israeli — strike inside Iran could destabilize the entire Middle East.

The compromise amendment supports the administration’s goals, Menendez said. He urged the administration to support it because “the clock is ticking,” referring to a recent International Atomic Energy Agency report that found Iran is closer than ever to having a nuclear weapon.

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