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Senator Menendez is on the Iran warpath, again

He's clearly reprising his role as JCPOA saboteur and increasing the chances for diplomatic failure, and conflict.

Analysis | Middle East

Sen. Bob Menendez, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, finally broke his relative silence Tuesday over the Biden administration’s ongoing negotiations to restore the Iran nuclear deal struck under the Obama administration. In so doing, the senator took up his role from 2015 as chief Democratic saboteur of the Iran nuclear negotiations right as U.S. and Iranian diplomats are claiming that the talks in Vienna are reaching their final stages. 

According to the New Jersey Democrat, Biden should “exert more pressure on Iran to counter its nuclear program, its missile program and its dangerous behavior around the Middle East.” If that sounds familiar, it is because it is the same failed approach pursued by the Trump administration. It also promised a better deal by reimposing crushing sanctions, and instead took the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war twice and handed the Biden administration a snowballing nuclear crisis. 

Yet, like all other Iran hawks, Menendez offered no viable or realistic alternative that could achieve anything close to what would be provided by a return to the JCPOA. His proposals would be dead on arrival at the negotiating table, alienate America from the deal’s other parties, and bring the nuclear crisis to the brink of war once again.

In laying out his argument, Menendez ratchets up the fear over where Iran’s nuclear program is. Iran’s breakout threshold of a few weeks — down from a year under the JCPOA — “is not a timeline we can accept.” He claims that Iran is on “the verge” of having enough fissile material for a nuclear explosion. Yet this fearmongering ignores the fact that U.S. intelligence still does not believe Iran has made a decision to pursue a nuclear weapon, that Iran itself has vowed not to enrich uranium beyond the current 60 percent to weapons grade — at least for now — and that Iran’s enrichment facilities remain heavily monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The situation is concerning, but not as dire as Menendez claims.

Most important, a ready solution awaits — a restoration of the JCPOA. Just today, Iran’s lead negotiator, Ali Bagheri, briefed Iran’s parliament and claimed “conditions are ready for a good, win-win agreement." Likewise, U.S. officials say that negotiations are reaching the end game. If a deal is finalized, Iran’s nuclear program will be rolled back once again. More than 2,000 kilograms of enriched uranium will be shipped out of the country or downblended, Iran’s enrichment levels will be rolled back to 3.67 percent, uranium enrichment at the deeply-buried Fordow site will halt, advanced centrifuges will be taken offline, and more stringent international monitoring of the nuclear program will be restored. The Iranian “breakout” timeframe would once again be measured in months and could end up close to a year, depending on the terms. 

Yet for some reason, Sen. Menendez stands opposed to these concessions, which would mark a significant diplomatic victory for a Biden administration dealt an awful hand by its predecessor. 

What is the better deal that Menendez wants? Let’s go through them one by one.

First, Menendez calls for the immediate ratification of the Additional Protocol by Iran. A worthy goal, but it is one that could be addressed by the JCPOA. Under the deal, Iran will ratify the Additional Protocol when Congress lifts nuclear-related sanctions. If Menendez is interested in permanent intrusive inspections, he can help make this a reality — with the JCPOA.

Second, Menendez calls for a ban on advanced centrifuge research and development. Yet the JCPOA would restore important limitations on advanced centrifuges, in sharp contrast to the rapid expansion of advanced centrifuge technology that is currently underway at Iran’s enrichment facilities under Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions.

The third proposal is to close the Fordow facility, with Menendez asking “if Iran has nothing to hide, [if] it’s all for peaceful purposes, why…do you put it deep underneath a mountain?” To answer that question, one need look no further than his own prepared remarks which quotes a letter urging Biden to “restore Iran’s fear that its current nuclear path will trigger the use of force against it by the United States.” Even here, the chairman could take solace in that provision of the JCPOA which bans any uranium enrichment at Fordow through 2030. 

Fourth, Menendez calls for the IAEA to complete its inquiry into possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program before 2003. With the restoration of the JCPOA, such an inquiry is likely, as occurred in 2015 and resulted in IAEA sampling at a suspect facility at Iran’s Parchin military base. But, as before, Iran will be reluctant to come clean on past activities without a broader agreement on the nuclear file, which the JCPOA represents..

Fifth, Menendez would like the JCPOA’s nuclear restrictions to be made permanent. It might indeed be desirable to extend many of those restrictions out. Unfortunately,  Washington has proved that it could not be trusted to keep sanctions lifted for three full years. We are not exactly in a favorable position to be making permanent demands. First, let’s prove we can honor our own commitments by restoring the JCPOA.

Finally, Menendez calls for the parties to the deal to lay out what penalties will meet various Iranian violations of the agreement. Yet, as he is surely aware, it is the U.S. that breached the agreement wholesale and was met with few if any consequences. This is precisely why Tehran is reluctant to sign up to the same deal again and is instead seeking assurances that it will not be punished again for its compliance.

It is a long speech, and this analysis just scratches the surface. But it is clear that Menendez has learned nearly nothing since the days when he and former Sen. Mark Kirk tried to pass deal-killing sanctions in the middle of Obama’s nuclear negotiations and falsely accused Obama officials of using “talking points from Tehran.” 

Whether it is due to ideological devotion to Trump-era sanctions (which is also apparent in U.S. policy toward Cuba) or eagerness to satisfy pro-Israel donors, Menendez is relying on weak talking points from a fantasy land to try to sabotage diplomatic pathways that can head off the twin threats of a nuclear-armed Iran and war. It is unfortunate, but the Biden administration can’t afford to cater to hawks whose recommendations triggered the nuclear crisis. Menendez has been unhinged on this issue for years, and Biden will need to restore the JCPOA over his ill-informed objections.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). Jan. 2019 (Photo: lev radin via
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