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Leading Democrat senator blasts administration’s Iran policy

Before an enthusiastic AIPAC crowd, Robert Menendez vows to stand up for Israel even when ‘political friends’ oppose him

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Robert Menendez speaks to AIPAC on March 2, 2015 (AIPAC screenshot)
Robert Menendez speaks to AIPAC on March 2, 2015 (AIPAC screenshot)

WASHINGTON – After a rocky reaction to National Security Adviser Susan Rice’s plenary address Monday evening to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual conference, Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) delivered a barn burner of a speech in which he unabashedly butted heads with the Democratic administration over Iran policy.

“When it comes to defending the US-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 said triumphantly before a crowd that applauded enthusiastically throughout his address.

“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 promised. “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.”

Menendez spoke minutes after Rice, who earlier in the week blasted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming address before both houses of Congress, and said that while the “timing” of Netanyahu’s address was “unfortunate,” he “will be proud when I escort Prime Minister Netanyahu into the Congressional chamber tomorrow.”

He continued to emphasize differences with the administration, telling AIPAC attendees that he would only support an agreement with Iran that dismantles the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. Minutes before, Rice had warned against such conditions as unrealistic ideals that interfere with the achievement of a “good deal.”

Throughout the P5+1 talks with Iran, Israel has emphasized that it supports dismantlement of Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity, while US negotiators are willing to accept a diminished enrichment capacity coupled with increased oversight. Menendez dismissed such terms as giving Iran a “pathway” to a nuclear bomb. Merely reducing enrichment, he warned “is not enough time for us to do anything other than exercise a military option.”

“Let us do all we can now to get an agreement that dismantles Iran’s illicit program and ensures that it will not have to be a military response,” he argued.

Menendez, the Ranking Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is a sponsor of both of the bills for which AIPAC activists will lobby when they take to the Hill Tuesday afternoon.

Menendez and Obama have faced off over Iran policy, and particularly over the Nuclear Free Iran Act, which Menendez sponsored together with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois).

That bill, which would impose additional sanctions should Iran and the P5+1 powers fail to reach an agreement, is at the top of AIPAC’s lobbying agenda. Obama has promised to veto the bill, and AIPAC activists will try to enlist 67 senators to form a veto-busting super-majority and ensure its passage. During her speech, Rice criticized the bill as counter-productive, but the audience responded by giving the legislation a standing ovation during Rice’s talk.

The senator accused the administration of “moving the goalposts” regarding the United States’ negotiating terms with Iran. He complained that the administration’s current assertion that Iran will have a 10-year period in which to adhere to strict oversight “is too far from the 20-year-deal we were seeking.”

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