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White House and Top Democrat Clash Over Iran’s Nuclear Program

The long-simmering fight between the White House and the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has roared back to life over the Obama administration’s efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program. On Tuesday, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) announced his desire to pass new legislation to sanction Iran’s economy before Congress’s session ends next ...

Immigrants Become US Citizens During Naturalization Ceremony At Liberty State Park
JERSEY CITY, NJ - SEPTEMBER 19: U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) prepares to speak at a naturalization ceremony at Liberty State Park on September 19, 2014 in Jersey City, New Jersey. Forty immigrants from 18 different countries became American citizens at the event, held by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), on Constitution and Citizenship Day. This week USCIS will have naturalized more than 27,000 new citizens at 160 ceremonies nationwide. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

The long-simmering fight between the White House and the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has roared back to life over the Obama administration’s efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program.

On Tuesday, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) announced his desire to pass new legislation to sanction Iran’s economy before Congress’s session ends next week — despite the White House’s repeated warnings that such a bill would derail the fragile negotiations taking place on the international stage in Vienna.

“If we continue down this course we will weaken ourselves to a point that Iranians will think there’s no credible military threat on the table any more,” Menendez said at a Wall Street Journal event. “They will believe the sanctions will never be reimposed.”

Menendez and the White House have clashed over this issue for more than year, but the dispute is reaching new depths, with the White House planning to hold a Situation Room briefing on Wednesday with top Democrats but not Menendez, and declining to send any senior officials to Menendez’s open Iran hearing planned for the same day.

Unlike a variety of top Democrats who issued statements of support for a seven-month extension of the negotiations last month, Menendez has openly blasted administration efforts to reach a deal that would curb the size of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program in exchange for sanctions relief.

On Wednesday, Menendez scheduled a hearing on Iran’s nuclear program that is stocked with hawkish panelists who are deeply skeptical of the negotiations, including Michael Doran of the conservative Hudson Institute and Gary Samore, president of United Against Nuclear Iran. Menendez had wanted the State Department’s chief nuclear negotiator, Wendy Sherman, to attend, but Foggy Bottom did not make her available.

“We did ask for an administration witness to testify in a public setting, but a witness was not provided,” said Menendez spokesman Adam Sharon.

Although the State Department is making Sherman available to top Republicans and Democrats on Thursday, that meeting will be closed to the public — an aspect that Menendez opposes.

“Wendy Sherman testified before SFRC publicly in July following the last extension,” said one Senate aide. “Not sure why that can’t happen now too, at what was supposed to be the end of this negotiation process in the first place.”

The State Department has defended the need to brief Congress in a private setting given the extreme sensitivity of the Iran talks. “We believe it’s important to share as much information as we can with Congress about these negotiations, which necessarily means those conversations need to be in closed settings to be able to be more forthcoming while preserving the integrity of these very sensitive negotiations,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told Foreign Policy.

Menendez’s opposition may be costing him access to the White House. Tomorrow, top Democrats involved in U.S. national security are receiving a briefing at the White House about Iran and other geopolitical issues, but a source says the chairman did not receive an invitation.

An administration official said Menendez shouldn’t take the lack of an invite personally. “The administration also engages with other members who have not received the same private briefings as Senator Menendez, so they also have the opportunity to be updated,” said the official.

It’s unclear if Menendez will succeed in passing sanctions this week. At the Journal event, Menendez said he wants to add sanctions legislation as an amendment to a must-pass defense authorization bill poised for passage before the end of Congress’s scheduled session on Dec. 12. However, it’s unclear if the amendment process will allow for Iran legislation to receive a vote.

In any event, with a seven-month extension of the talks, Menendez has all the time he needs to build support for new sanctions legislation, especially as a flock of hawkish Republicans take over the Senate next year.

Putting a positive spin on its relationship with Menendez, the administration says it works closely with the chairman, and vows to continue to do so.

“The White House and State Department have frequently and robustly engaged with Senator Menendez on Iran, to include providing private briefings with a lead U.S. negotiator and phone calls from Secretary [of State John] Kerry to provide one-on-one updates on the negotiations,” said the official. “The administration looks forward to continuing our robust engagement with Senator Menendez on this issue.”

If the latest maneuverings are any indication, the two sides may have sharply different interpretations of what “robust engagement” actually means.

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