Key Dem impatient on Iran nuke talks

 

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert MenendezRobert MenendezBipartisan group, Netflix actress back bill for American Latino Museum The Mideast-focused Senate letter we need to see Taiwan deserves to participate in United Nations MORE (N.J.) is wary about giving Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerrySenators who have felt McCain's wrath talk of their respect for him Dems see huge field emerging to take on Trump Budowsky: Dems need council of war MORE 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.

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“If they’re not close, I’m not for extending for extension’s sake,” he said. “From all reports, they’re certainly not close to the standards that I think a majority of the Congress wants.

“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 ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonObama intel chief wonders if Trump is trying to make 'Russia great again' Trump Jr., Manafort reach deal to avoid public hearing next week House Intel panel to interview Kushner amid Russia probe MORE 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 KirkMark KirkMcConnell: Senate to try to repeal ObamaCare next week GOP senator: Not 'appropriate' to repeal ObamaCare without replacement GOP's repeal-only plan quickly collapses in Senate MORE (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 SchumerCharles SchumerOPINION | How Democrats stole the nation's lower federal courts OPINION | Hey Dems, Russia won't define 2018, so why not fix your party's problems instead? Lawmakers send McCain well wishes after cancer diagnosis MORE (D-N.Y.) and vulnerable Democrats Mark BegichMark BegichPerez creates advisory team for DNC transition The future of the Arctic 2016’s battle for the Senate: A shifting map MORE (Alaska), Mark PryorMark PryorMedicaid rollback looms for GOP senators in 2020 Cotton pitches anti-Democrat message to SC delegation Ex-Sen. Kay Hagan joins lobby firm MORE (Ark.), Mary LandrieuMary LandrieuCNN producer on new O'Keefe video: Voters are 'stupid,' Trump is 'crazy' CNN's Van Jones: O'Keefe Russia 'nothingburger' video 'a hoax' Trump posts O'Keefe videos on Instagram MORE (La.) and Kay HaganKay HaganLinking repatriation to job creation Former Sen. Kay Hagan in ICU after being rushed to hospital GOP senator floats retiring over gridlock MORE (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 ReidHarry ReidConservative Senate candidate calls on GOP to end filibuster Ex-Reid aide: McConnell's 'original sin' was casting ObamaCare as 'partisan, socialist takeover' GOP faces growing demographic nightmare in West MORE (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 FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinTrump Jr., Manafort reach deal to avoid public hearing next week Senate panel subpoenas co-founder of firm tied to controversial Trump dossier Feinstein: Trump Jr. will be subpoenaed if he refuses to testify MORE (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 ReedJack ReedArmed Services leaders appoint strategy panel members Senators ask for Syria policy study in defense bill Overnight Defense: Senate confirms Pentagon No. 2 | Uncertain future for Iran deal | Trump to visit Pentagon Thursday | Key general opposes military space corps MORE (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 CardinBen CardinOil concerns hold up Russia sanctions push Compounds’ fate raised after Trump-Putin talk Administration briefs Senate on progress against ISIS MORE (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 RubioMarco RubioBush ethics lawyer: Congress must tell Trump not to fire Mueller The private alternative to the National Flood Insurance Program  Cruz offers bill to weaken labor board's power MORE (R-Fla.). “Beyond it, I would say any deal that ignores long-range missiles, their sponsorship of terrorism doesn’t go far enough.”