Sen. Robert Menendez isn't going to let the Obama administration forget that Congress knows better when it comes to pressuring Iran. Now, the New Jersey Democrat wants more than just new sanctions the administration is warning against — he wants a resolution to define the "endgame" for any future deal with Iran.
Menendez has proven himself an Iran hawk, ready to buck his own party in the White House. Congress has proven before — and could again — that members are a formidable force on this issue.
Flash back to December 2011, when Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen were seated — as they were again Thursday — before a Senate panel arguing against more sanctions on Iran. At the time, they argued, members' proposed sanctions targeting foreign financial institutions that do business with the Central Bank of Iran would have unintended effects. They would splinter the global alliance working to pressure Tehran and boost oil prices — which would give Iran more money to fund its nuclear ambitions.
But the Senate did not listen. The sanctions passed unanimously as an amendment to the fiscal 2012 defense policy bill days later.
"That amendment went on to pass 100 to zero, and it is one of the things the administration heralds today as the essence of what has gotten Iran to the negotiating table," said Menendez, now chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, at a Senate Banking Committee hearing Thursday. "I just want to put on the record my skepticism" — about the Obama administration's opposition to new measures now as world powers negotiate with Iran — "based on the history we've had."
Menendez has been in favor of prospective sanctions that could be imposed after the six-month window of the interim deal between world powers and Iran expires or founders. He's now calling for more. "I'm beginning to think that maybe what the Senate needs to do is define the endgame and at least what it finds as acceptable as the final status," Menendez said.
He would have help from the House, where Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., are trying to similarly outline what should be in a final agreement with Iran through a resolution.
Members are deeply suspicious about the current deal on the table, which stipulates Iran will eliminate its most dangerous stockpile of uranium enriched at 20 percent and halt enrichment of stocks above 5 percent but does not preclude Iran from keeping some enrichment capability. They are worried the interim deal would give Iran an economic lifeline just as it's beginning to compromise.
At the Banking Committee hearing, Cohen defended the interim deal, insisting that the up to $7 billion in sanctions relief will not materially improve the condition of the Iranian economy. "At the end of the six-month period, we expect that Iran will be even deeper in the hole economically than it is today," he said. Iran's economic woes — including the fact that oil exports significantly decreased, and its whole economy contracted by more than 5 percent under the crush of sanctions — "dwarf" the limited relief offered to Iran in the deal, he said. And Cohen stressed that sanctions would continue to be enforced: Just hours before the hearing, Treasury designated a slew of companies and individuals as violators of international sanctions against Iran for providing support to its nuclear program.
What's more, Sherman promised the sanctions relief would not come in a lump sum. Even the $4.2 billion in restricted assets would come in monthly allocations to keep up with verified Iranian progress on its nuclear commitments.
And there are some signs that the Obama administration's charm offensive to convince skeptical members of Congress to hold off on new sanctions is working.
The Obama administration appeared to win a key supporter in Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson, D-S.D., who, despite having negotiated a sanctions bill with his ranking member, Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, is willing to hold off — for now. "I agree the administration's request for a diplomatic pause is reasonable," Johnson said. Congress must be willing to provide the administration time, he said, since "a new round of U.S. sanctions now could rupture the unity of the international coalition against Iran's nuclear program." His sanctions bill, however, could be "finalized and moved quickly" if Iran fails to comply with the agreement or negotiations collapse.
Crapo, too, said the U.S. should vigorously enforce the core of existing sanctions and "develop a plan of action in the event that negotiations do not produce the results that diplomats want."
Sherman and Cohen were clear that they did not want the U.S. to be seen as responsible for destroying negotiations. But Iran's own actions — including its plans to launch a rocket next week, which Menendez called a cover for a military ballistic-weapons program — are "provocative" and "a sign of bad faith," he said.
Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Corker, R-Tenn., decried how companies would soon seek to do business with Iran, and the rogue state could be considered part of the international community for keeping its bargain with world powers.
"It's an outstanding agreement for them, because in six months they're going to be a normal international entity," Corker said. "I don't see any way you hold the sanctions, but, again, obviously, we're disappointed but hopeful that somehow you can put the genie back in the bottle and end up with some type of agreement that averts warfare."
But even Corker admitted that with a full docket in the Senate, and strong opposition from the Obama administration, members may not actually take the step to go through with threats to impose sanctions.
"I realize," Corker said, "we're sort of going to a rope-a-dope here in the Senate, and that we're not actually going to do anything."