Heard Yesterday

Menendez says he’s ‘not comfortable’ with Senate’s lack of focus on Iran

The top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee said that his colleagues are not ‘as fully immersed… as I would like them to be’ due to tensions in Ukraine

Mark C. Olsen

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez speaks at a ceremony at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., Feb. 4, 2019.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) told an audience of AIPAC members on Thursday afternoon that, owing to the current tensions between Russia and Ukraine, his colleagues in the Senate are not currently focused on the Iranian nuclear threat and the ongoing negotiations in Vienna.

Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview published on AIPAC’s app that, with fellow senators “riveted” on the imminent threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, nuclear talks with Iran — which diplomats have indicated are nearly complete — have flown under the radar.

The New Jersey Democrat spoke on the Senate floor for nearly an hour earlier this month, warning of Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon and decrying the 2015 nuclear deal.

“I’m not sure that my colleagues are as fully immersed on the challenges of Iran as we speak, as I would like them to be,” Menendez said. “I wanted to rivet the attention of my colleagues — and for that fact also send a message to the administration and our allies abroad… about what is and is not ultimately going to pass muster here. What can get support, but what can not get support.”

On Thursday, he added that colleagues told him in the days after his floor speech that they had watched or read his remarks — which he described as significant, given that the speech ran for nearly an hour — but he is “still not comfortable” with where things stand.

“I’m happy to see that at least there’s that level of interest,” he continued. “Several have told me, ‘I learned a lot at the end of the day,’ things they didn’t quite particularly know. But still, out of 100 United States senators, that was a few.”

The Democrat also warned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine not met with strong consequences from the West could embolden Iran.

“The Ayatollah and the Iranians are looking as well and saying, ‘Is the West going to do the same thing again?’” Menendez said. “Beyond the fact of the immediacy of the issue, how we respond to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin if he invades will be critically important not just for Ukraine’s future and for the future of Eastern Europe… but also for a global message that when you violate the international order, there are real consequences.”

Menendez said “the West must make a decision” on whether to continue with talks with Iran around the end of the month. 

He added that Congress would “certainly” review any “agreed-upon document” under the terms of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which gives Congress a period to review any Iran nuclear agreement and potentially vote to block it from going into effect. Recently, some in Washington have been speculating that the administration might seek to circumvent such a review.

The New Jersey senator posited that, if the current negotiations fail to produce a nuclear agreement, the talks could help persuade the U.S.’s European allies to join in on a U.S. sanctions regime targeting Iran.