Tuesday’s news that Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had withdrawn the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act from the committee’s active agenda is quite troubling. The bill, which broadened American-Israeli cooperation in areas such as defense, intelligence, energy and homeland security, had bipartisan support (it was co-sponsored by more than 60 senators) and was assured of passage in the full Senate.
It cannot, however, reach the Senate floor for consideration until a positive committee vote and it was withdrawn by Sen. Menendez at the insistence of ranking committee member Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) that an amendment be added related to the current nuclear talks with Iran. The Corker amendment, which is adamantly opposed by the White House, would have forced President Obama to submit any deal with Iran to Congress within three days and empower Congress to hold hearings on the agreement.
Sen. Menendez reportedly called off the committee vote so that Democrats running for reelection in November wouldn’t have to vote on the legislation and choose between supporting the pact with Israel and opposing the president on Iran (a not unreasonable concern on Sen. Menendez’s part).
What is particularly irritating is that it is becoming clearer by the day that the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program are mere window dressing and the Iranians are poised to emerge well ahead of the game with a nuclear weapons capacity intact. Reports on the talks almost unanimously conclude they are going nowhere with Iran openly taunting the West and ignoring key provisions of last year’s interim agreement that was supposed to lead to a final agreement later this year.
Last Friday, Iranian officials claimed the West was making “excessive demands” and cautioned that “The Iranian nation has shown that pressure…always backfires.”
One of the major Western concerns is the fate of the Arak research reactor, which the West believes is key to future Iranian nuclear development. The Iranian deputy foreign minister recently said the Arak reactor would remain a heavy water facility and continue operation with 40 megawatts of power – both critical to the production of plutonium, which is essential in the making of nuclear bombs.
Last week it was reported that Iran is exporting 1.5 million barrels of oil a day, well above the export cap Tehran agreed to last November as part of the interim agreement. The Iranian oil minister told the Wall Street Journal that Iran plans to continue to increase exports despite the agreed to cap.
And then there was the speech last week by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to a gathering of nuclear scientists. He said Iran agreed to the talks with the West to “break the hostile atmosphere” and persuade the international community that Iran was not seeking nuclear weapons. But he went on to say:
These talks need to continue but all must know that despite continuation of the talks, activities of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the field of nuclear research and development won’t be halted at all…. None of the country’s nuclear achievements can be stopped, and no one has the right to bargain over it.
Perhaps the most ominous indication of where the talks are going was the report last week that Saudi Arabia has invited the Iranian foreign minister to Riyadh in a move to settle differences between the two countries. The regional archenemies have been at each other’s throats for years and there was much talk of Saudi Arabia’s desperate secret pact with Israel to stop Iran’s march to a nuclear weapons capacity. But the Saudis have apparently concluded that Iran is on the ascendancy.
This all suggests that Sen. Corker may be on to something in seeking congressional oversight of any agreement with Iran. But the retreat on the strategic partnership legislation caused by President Obama’s outsized belief in the prospects for a real agreement with Iran raised an important question: Exactly what part of Iran’s duplicity does the president not get?