At AIPAC, Sen. Menendez Goes Head-to-Head With the Obama Administration on Iran

The New Jersey senator, and ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, takes his Capitol Hill fight to AIPAC and vows not to back down—even from his allies.

National Journal
March 2, 2015, 3:08 p.m.

Sen. Bob Men­en­dez takes joy in be­ing on the wrong side of Tehran, and he’s not afraid of be­ing at odds with his own party’s White House.

“When it comes to de­fend­ing the U.S.-Is­rael re­la­tion­ship, I am not in­tim­id­ated by any­one—not Is­rael’s polit­ic­al en­emies and not by my polit­ic­al friends when I be­lieve they’re wrong,” Men­en­dez de­clared to an en­er­gized crowd at the AIPAC policy con­fer­ence Monday even­ing.

A call to ac­tion for his fel­low mem­bers of Con­gress, Men­en­dez vowed nev­er to back down from a brawl to de­fend the U.S. and Is­rael’s “sac­rosanct” and “un­touch­able” re­la­tion­ship.

“As long as I have an ounce of fight left in me, as long as I have a vote and a say and a chance to pro­tect the in­terest of Is­rael, the re­gion, and the na­tion­al se­cur­ity in­terests of the United States—Ir­an will nev­er have a path­way to a weapon,” Men­en­dez says. “It will nev­er threaten Is­rael or its neigh­bors, and it will nev­er be in a po­s­i­tion to start a nuc­le­ar-arms race in the Middle East. Not on my watch.”

(RE­LATED: Men­en­dez Will Give Up For­eign Re­la­tions Post)

Men­en­dez’s speech marked a cres­cendo in a long and—at times—tense re­la­tion­ship with the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. As the White House seeks to ne­go­ti­ate a nuc­le­ar deal with Ir­an, Men­en­dez has been the lead­ing Demo­crat ques­tion­ing the pro­cess. While Pres­id­ent Obama has de­man­ded co­oper­a­tion from Con­gress, the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee’s top Demo­crat sponsored le­gis­la­tion in Decem­ber that aimed to bog Ir­an down with more eco­nom­ic sanc­tions. His in­tent was to put more pres­sure on the coun­try to co­oper­ate with the United States, but the White House claimed it un­der­mined its months-long dis­cus­sions.

Men­en­dez backed off of his push for ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions in Janu­ary, say­ing he would wait un­til March 24—the ne­go­ti­ation dead­line—be­fore ad­voc­at­ing again to bring them to the Sen­ate floor. But Men­en­dez has con­tin­ued to carry the torch pub­licly against a “bad deal.”

“It is not a good deal if it leaves Ir­an as a threshold nuc­le­ar state or if Ir­an de­cides to kick out in­spect­ors,” Men­en­dez said Monday night. “It’s not a good deal if Ir­an pro­ceeds on a cov­ert path and we have no more than a year to re­spond. It’s not enough time for us to do any­thing oth­er than ex­er­cise a mil­it­ary op­tion.”

If the deal falls apart or no deal is ob­vi­ously im­min­ent, Men­en­dez has prom­ised to take ac­tion im­me­di­ately. He has also sponsored bi­par­tis­an le­gis­la­tion that al­lows Con­gress to vote on a deal if it in­cludes pro­vi­sions to roll back con­gres­sion­ally is­sued sanc­tions.

(RE­LATED: Robert Men­en­dez: “I Am Out­raged” Over Fed­er­al Cor­rup­tion Charges)

Men­en­dez has been forced to straddle the line between his two polit­ic­al al­le­gi­ances: one as Demo­crat and the oth­er as a mem­ber of the Sen­ate. Over the last sev­er­al months, Men­en­dez has made his frus­tra­tions with the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion pub­lic. Shut out of for­eign policy ne­go­ti­ations, Men­en­dez has urged the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to work closer with Con­gress. It is not just Ir­an where Men­en­dez and Obama dif­fer: He has also de­rided Pres­id­ent Obama’s de­cision to nor­mal­ize re­la­tions with Cuba. And in a sub­com­mit­tee hear­ing on the the U.S.-Cuban geo­pol­it­ic­al shift, Men­en­dez soun­ded more like Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Marco Ru­bio than an ally of the pres­id­ent’s when he said, “The deal achieved noth­ing for Amer­ic­ans.”

“How much more are we will­ing to give? How much more are we will­ing to do to help the Castro re­gime fill the cof­fers of its mil­it­ary mono­poly while the Cuban people still struggle to make ends meet?” Men­en­dez said at a Feb­ru­ary hear­ing.

When it comes to his cri­ti­cisms of Amer­ica’s in­terest in ne­go­ti­at­ing with Ir­an, Men­en­dez has been any­thing but subtle. He has ac­cused the pres­id­ent of get­ting his for­eign policy mes­saging “straight out of Tehran.” That tend­ency to­ward loud dis­ap­prov­al, Men­en­dez says, is something he is proud of.

“I know there are more than a few people here in Wash­ing­ton who say that I’m out­spoken in my de­fense of Is­rael—and, frankly, I’m not only proud of it. I’m fully pre­pared to stand on this stage today—or on any stage any­where, any­time—to carry that mes­sage to both the friends and en­emies of Is­rael around the world,” Men­en­dez said.

(RE­LATED: Sen. Robert Men­en­dez Just Got In­dicted. Here Are the Charges)

The sen­at­or also took an overt shot at Obama’s na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­viser, Susan Rice, who spoke to AIPAC just be­fore he did, say­ing, “I take is­sue with those who say the prime min­is­ter’s vis­it to the United States is ‘de­struct­ive to U.S.-Is­rael re­la­tions.’” Rice called the vis­it and the polit­ics around it “de­struct­ive” in an in­ter­view last week with PBS.

Re­pub­lic­ans in the Sen­ate say Men­en­dez has been a rare but power­ful lever­aging part­ner: someone who can take their con­cerns and find even great­er im­pact than they can at times. In­stead of cri­ti­cisms be­ing dis­missed for be­ing par­tis­an, Men­en­dez’s con­cerns make head­lines.

“He has hon­estly looked at every pro­pos­al from the stand­point of ‘Will this work? Does it make us safer? Can you trust them?’—and most times, he has come up with flaws in what has been ne­go­ti­ated by the ad­min­is­tra­tion,” says Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­man Sen. Richard Burr. “I don’t want to put Bob in a box, but I have trust that he will make an in­de­pend­ent de­cision mov­ing up to the 24th, and after that, he’ll make a de­cision that he thinks is in the best in­terest of the Amer­ic­an people.”

De­fense hawk Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C., says Men­en­dez is seen among col­leagues as someone who can go to bat for Con­gress when the ad­min­is­tra­tion isn’t listen­ing to their con­cerns.

“He stood up to his own party, his own ad­min­is­tra­tion, when he thought they were wrong,” Gra­ham says. “He is a breath of fresh air.”

Even Demo­crats who have dis­agreed with Men­en­dez’s po­s­i­tions on Ir­an sanc­tions in the past ac­know­ledge Men­en­dez’s clout.

“There are some dif­fi­cult polit­ics here,” says Demo­crat­ic Sen. Tim Kaine of Vir­gin­ia. “None of us are up here just to be in line with any­body else. We are here to do what we think is best. [Sen. Men­en­dez] has had a long stand­ing con­cern and ex­pert­ise on this is­sue, and I re­spect that.”

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