By Alexander Bolton - 07/16/14 06:00 AM EDT
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.) is wary about giving Secretary of State John Kerry more time to reach a nuclear deal with Iran.
Menendez, a sharp critic of Iran, could present a problem for the Obama administration, which has strongly hinted it will seek more time to negotiate.
“We want an agreement but it has to be a good agreement, not an agreement for agreement’s sake,” he said.
Menendez isn’t the only Democrat who isn’t expressing optimism about a deal. In May, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and likely 2016 White House hopeful said she was “personally skeptical” an accord would be reached.
International negotiators are only days away from a looming deadline for striking a long-term agreement with Iran to avoid sanctions from being re-imposed on the Shiite theocracy. Congress doesn’t have a say in whether the deadline can be moved.
However, Menendez has introduced an Iran sanctions bill with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).
The Menendez-Kirk bill, introduced in December, would impose sanctions such as reductions in the purchases of Iranian petroleum and penalties to Iran’s construction, engineering and mining sectors if it were to fail to reach a final nuclear deal.
Twenty-six senators initially cosponsored the measure, including Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and vulnerable Democrats Mark Begich (Alaska), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Mary Landrieu (La.) and Kay Hagan (N.C.). The legislation now has 60 backers in the upper chamber, but hasn’t received a vote in committee or on the floor.
The House last year passed an Iran sanctions measure, 400-20.
The Obama administration warned the Menendez-Kirk bill would derail the sensitive talks, and pressed the senior Democratic lawmaker to hold off while Kerry and senior ministers from other Western powers seek a longer-term framework with Iran.
A coalition of international powers forged an interim nuclear deal with Iran in January, giving Kerry a small window to craft a more permanent deal. The six-month deal eased sanctions and gave Iran incentive to pursue further talks. That pact will expire on July 20.
Only five days before the deadline, Kerry acknowledged Tuesday that “very real gaps” remain between Iran and the international coalition seeking to curtail its nuclear program.
Officials have signaled they may need another six months to hammer out an agreement, but that could be tough for Congress to swallow — especially in an intense election year where the Senate is ups for grabs.
Menendez voiced his concerns Tuesday about the prospect of a deal. He cited a speech last week by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, in which he argued his country needs greater production of enriched uranium to fulfill its energy needs.
“What we know when the time expires and where’s the negotiation at, what type of deal do they think they could get ... that will determine for me whether or not an extension is supported or not,” he said.
“Based upon what I saw the Ayatollah say the past week, it seems to me the terms the Ayatollah laid out — which I’ve always said is the guy who’s going to make the ultimate determination here — is not something that I could imagine the United States and the P5+1 could accept,” he added, referring to the coalition of six world leaders.
It remains to be seen if Menendez will push a bipartisan Iran bill through his committee, but if he does, he would face opposition from some Democrats.
In December, 10 other Senate committee chairmen sent a joint letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) warning that Menendez’s proposal could wreck the international talks.
But the chairmen also voiced support for considering new sanctions legislation if the “Joint Plan of Action” drafted last year did not yield a long-term deal.
“If Iran fails at any time to abide by the terms of the JPA, or the JPA is not succeeded by a final long-term agreement that verifiably ensures that Iran’s nuclear program is for entirely peaceful purposes, Congress should promptly consider new sanctions legislation,” the Democratic chairmen wrote.
Still, they argued that any sanctions imposed during the interim deal would “play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see the negotiations fail.”
Nearly six months later, with no broader deal at hand, Democratic lawmakers find themselves at a crossroads.
Reid on Tuesday noted that Obama does not need permission from Congress to extend the talks, but that he could face a battle with Menendez and other lawmakers sympathetic to Israel — the country most threatened by its nuclear program — over a renewed sanctions push.
He said getting a new deal is “important and that’s an understatement.
“The president has authority on his own to extend the time. He doesn’t need our permission to do that,” he added. “I hope that we would work together on a bipartisan fashion to move forward and I hope that we can get something done with the Iranians.”
In January, Reid indicated he wouldn’t move a sanctions bill, saying he wanted to “wait and see how this plays out.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who signed the letter to Reid, said that if Iran is sincere, Kerry should move ahead with an extension.
“The problem is sincerity,” she added, voicing concern about Khamenei’s demand last week that Iran be allowed 190,000 centrifuges, nearly 20 times as many as Western negotiators are willing to contemplate.
She called that number “unrealistic” but added “if the secretary evaluates and believes there is a reasonable chance for a solution to emerge, the answer is yes” to an extension.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, said negotiators need to make a compelling case to Congress as to why they need more time.
“You have to get a sense of where they are and it’s very difficult to disclose positions and differences because it undercuts their entire negotiation,” he said. “But to simply say, ‘we need more time’ is not going to be as effective as some detail about where they are.”
Reed acknowledged the public rhetoric between the two sides is quite far apart but said they might be closer to an agreement behind closed doors.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he would need to hear more about the talks before granting more time.
“I want to see what has been accomplished and what they’re asking for,” he said.
Republicans, meanwhile, argue that easing sanctions on Iran to create room for compromise is a fool’s errand because the nation cannot be trusted.
“I have zero expectation that a deal with Iran could be reached at any point that would be satisfactory to me. For me any deal with Iran begins by not recognizing the right to enrich and reprocess [uranium],” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “Beyond it, I would say any deal that ignores long-range missiles, their sponsorship of terrorism doesn’t go far enough.”