WASHINGTON -- Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) on Tuesday formally announced his opposition to the nuclear agreement with Iran, claiming that the Obama administration could renegotiate a better deal and wrest more concessions from Iran if Congress rejects the current accord.
“I have looked into my own soul and my devotion to principle may once again lead me to an unpopular course, but if Iran is to acquire a nuclear bomb, it will not have my name on it," Menendez told an audience of approximately 400 students, faculty, and constituents at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. “It is for these reasons that I will vote to disapprove the agreement and, if called upon, would vote to override a veto."
An ideal agreement, the senator said, would be one that required Iran to completely surrender its nuclear program, rather than simply downsizing it and opening it up to inspections. Secretary of State John Kerry has called this an unrealistic goal.
"We set out to dismantle their ability to be able to build a nuclear weapon, and we've achieved that. Nobody has ever talked about actually dismantling their entire program," Kerry said last month, adding that military action would be the only way to try to get Iran to forfeit its entire program. "They're not going to stop it otherwise. They've already proven that. They proved it during all those years."
But on Tuesday, Menendez said that the Obama administration could improve the existing agreement without scrapping it entirely. His proposals included extending the duration of the deal, requiring the Iranians to close the Fordow enrichment facility and extending some of the sanctions that will be waived under the deal.
Menendez also pushed back against the Obama administration's comparison of critics of the Iran deal to proponents of the Iraq war. "I did not vote for the war in Iraq, I opposed it, unlike the Vice President and the Secretary of State, who both supported it," Menendez said, referring to Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, who were both senators at the time of the 2002 vote. "My vote against the Iraq war was unpopular at the time, but it was one of the best decisions I have ever made."
Thanks to legislation Menendez helped draft earlier this year, lawmakers are set to vote in September on a resolution of disapproval on the Iran deal. President Barack Obama has said he will veto that resolution, which would rescind his ability to waive the sanctions on Iran that were put in place by Congress. After using his veto power, Obama will only need one-third of either the House or the Senate to back the nuclear accord.
Despite Menendez's announcement, the administration is inching towards achieving congressional approval, with the promised support of 21 of the 34 votes needed in the Senate. Menendez is the second Senate Democrat to come out against the agreement, but, as one of the most hawkish Democrats on the Iran issue, has long been considered the member of his party least likely to back Obama.
When the U.S. and five world powers reached the nuclear agreement with Iran five weeks ago, Menendez wrote in a statement, "The bottom line is: The deal doesn’t end Iran’s nuclear program -- it preserves it."
Until recently, Menendez was his party's leading member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he worked with fellow Iran hawk Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) to draft multiple iterations of legislation to sanction Iran -- even, as the Obama administration often pointed out, while nuclear negotiations were ongoing. While the most recent attempt to ramp up sanctions initially garnered wide bipartisan support, Democrats gradually fell off the bill, arguing that the administration should be given space to follow through on talks.
Facing limited support within his own party, Menendez ultimately agreed to press pause on the sanctions legislation -- a decision he said on Tuesday had been a mistake.
"My one regret throughout this process is that I did not proceed with the Menendez-Kirk prospective sanctions legislation that would have provided additional leverage during the negotiations and would have also provided additional leverage in any possible post-agreement nullification by them or by us," the senator said.
Menendez also noted his disappointment that the agreement, if implemented, would preclude Congress from re-introducing nuclear sanctions that are waived under the deal -- including the soon-to-expire Iran Sanctions Act, which Menendez and Kirk were pushing to extend for another ten years.
The New Jersey senator stepped down as ranking member of the foreign relations committee in April, pending a Justice Department investigation into charges of conspiracy and bribery, though he maintains his innocence.