Supporters of Israel should speak to their elected officials about the threat of Iran, and focus on that issue alone, Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said last week.
“This issue needs a singular attention and a singular focus of advocacy,” Mr. Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a webcast sponsored by the American Jewish Congress. That means not “mentioning the other things, even though the other things are equally important,” he continued, listing BDS, Iron Dome, and Hezbollah as the “important” things that should be put aside for now.
Mr. Menendez noted his opposition to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. More commonly known as the JCPOA, and even more commonly as the Iran deal, that was the agreement that the Obama administration, its European partners, China, and Russia reached with Iran in 2015. “I did not believe it significantly constrained enough of Iran’s nuclear program for long enough or address the destabilizing activities across the region,” he said.
But he did not support “the way in which the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew with no plan for what should come next,” he continued. “Maximum pressure is a tactic, not a strategy.”
The Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018. The immediate result was a tightening of sanctions against Iran. But since then, Iran has increased its stock of enriched uranium and ended the monitoring of its centrifuges by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
“It’s fair to say that we are far worse off now. Iran has increased research and development and is working with more advanced centrifuges. It has increased both the enrichment level of its uranium stock and the size of its stock. And more immediately, Iran and its proxies continued to directly threaten Israel and U.S. interests in Iraq and Syria.”
Looking ahead, “I don’t think a return to the JCPOA is sufficient to constrain Iran’s malign activity,” Mr. Menendez said. “And increasingly I don’t even know how it’s possible. We’re so far out of compliance.”
What we need is “a comprehensive strategy one, backed with international sanctions, that our colleagues and our allies are willing to enforce, and one that constrains Iran’s malign regional behavior and its ballistic missile program,” Mr. Menendez said.
He has talked with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to focus them on this question, he added.
Mr. Menendez noted his proposal to create a regional nuclear fuel bank that Iran would be invited to join. (In June, he published an op-ed in the Washington Post on the topic, coauthored with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.) Such a fuel bank, located in a country near Iran, would offer Iran a path to peaceful use of nuclear power, and test its claims that it is not seeking nuclear weapons — a test that would be useful “most particularly for our allies,” he said.
Mr. Menendez also said that he is preparing for Senate hearings on Iran, which should take place “in a relatively short period of time.
“Hearings are a way to focus attention and get answers,” he said.
Jack Rosen, the president of the American Jewish Congress, asked what Mr. Menendez would suggest if sanctions and diplomacy fail to stop Iran’s nuclear advances. “What options would you recommend America take at that point?” Mr. Rosen asked. “Do we just allow Iran to become another North Korea?”
“I don’t believe the only option is a military one, because as we have seen, even when some things that are quasi-military have taken place, they have set back the program for a time period,” Mr. Menendez replied. “They have not eliminated the program.
“And the other reality is that Iran from the first set of attacks that took place in the past, learned to deepen and harden and diversify their overall program. So it’s just not an antiseptic single attack that is going to eliminate the program. And it isn’t without consequences for Israel, and for that fact, the United States and its interest in the region. So it’s a deeply, deeply complicated challenge.”
He said the Iranians’ apparent unwillingness to return to the negotiating table after the Biden administration indicated its desire to return to the JCPOA framework offers “a green light” to “take our allies and now create a more comprehensive ability” for multilateral sanctions “that would have a real challenge to Iran.
“I think this is the time to multilateralize our efforts, because they have shown their unwillingness to return,” he said. “This is the time to try that tactic. Because if you do that and you still don’t stop [Iran’s nuclearization], then you have, I think, a greater foundation for a military option should it be needed.”
Earlier in his remarks, he criticized without naming Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who has blocked dozens of State Department nominees because of a dispute with the Biden administration about sanctions on a Russian pipeline.
Senator Menendez likely knew that some of his listeners possibly could influence Mr. Cruz. Dr. Ben Chouake of Englewood, the president of Norpac and a longtime supporter of Mr. Menendez, was among the audience for the webinar. Norpac, the bipartisan pro-Israel political action committee, bundled more than $95,000 worth of contributions to Mr. Cruz’s 2018 campaign, according to Opensecrets.org; it was Mr. Cruz’s fourth largest donor that year. Only Mr. Menendez received more funds from Norpac donors that year; he got just shy of a quarter of a million dollars.
“We cannot fully engage our resources without a fully engaged diplomatic corps,” Mr. Menendez said. “We have a serious backlog of ambassador nominations, not just in the Middle East, but around the world.
“While I’m not particularly worried about the strength of our relationship with Israel, it would serve both countries better to have Thomas Nides” — the former Obama State Department official who was nominated in June to be the U.S. ambassador to Israel — “confirmed and on the ground. I believe we can build on the Abraham Accords and support more countries normalizing relations with Israel. But again, we need empowered diplomats in pace to drive these relationships.”
Mr. Menendez also defended the Democratic Party’s support for Israel in response to a questioner who asked him “to bring the Democratic Party back on track.”
“Overwhelmingly, the Democratic Party is in support of a strong, unwavering relationship with the State of Israel,” Mr. Menendez said. “Sometimes in our society, the loudest voices get the most attention, even though they are in the abject minority.
“Look at the votes. The votes on Iron Dome, the votes on the biggest Memorandum of Understanding ever signed between the United States and Israel, on the question of anti-Semitism, on the BDS movement — across the spectrum, overwhelmingly Democratic votes, at least in the Senate, if not in their totality, and overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives. Those are the ultimate judgement questions, because those are the things that make a difference for our relationship with the State of Israel.
“Look at that, versus the rhetoric.
“I think President Biden acted very well, when Israel was faced with a Palestinian uprising and ultimately had to defend itself,” he continued. “And I think President Biden’s stood strongly for Israel’s right to defend itself, despite incredible pressure for many different quarters, both at home and abroad, to seek to end it before Israel could complete its defensive mission. So I think that that’s a very strong statement. The administration has greenlighted a billion dollars to replace Iron Dome.”
A week earlier, the House of Representatives had approved that billion-dollar Iron Dome funding measure, with eight Democrats and one Republican voting no, and two Democrats — among them New York’s Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — voting “present.”
On Monday, Mr. Menendez’s attempt to pass the measure in the Senate by unanimous consent was obstructed by one vote, from Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.