Top Democrat’s Return Sows Uncertainty for Iran Deal

Iran hawk Bob Menendez’s reinstatement as top Democrat on Senate Foreign Relations Committee could alter politics around the nuclear deal.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) waits off stage before announcing he will not support President Barack Obama's Iran nuclear deal on Aug. 18, 2015 in South Orange, New Jersey. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) waits off stage before announcing he will not support President Barack Obama's Iran nuclear deal on Aug. 18, 2015 in South Orange, New Jersey. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

A change in leadership among Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee could alter the politics of the Iran nuclear deal in U.S. Congress, and possibly play to the advantage of the White House and its Republican allies.

Barely noticed amid a brief government shutdown and budget deal over the past week, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) quietly took back his spot as the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, nearly three years after being forced out while battling corruption charges.

An outspoken hawk on Iran, Menendez could offer a lifeline to the White House and its Republican allies in Congress eager to rewrite the deal, congressional staffers and lobbyists said.

Menendez, who at the end of last month saw years-old federal corruption charges dropped after a mistrial, resumed his senior status on the committee just as lawmakers are weighing how to “fix” the Iran deal. In October 2017, President Donald Trump demanded Congress or European allies revise the terms of the accord or he would withdraw the United States from the international agreement.

Menendez is a staunch hard-liner on both Cuba and Iran, but it’s unclear if he will break with Democratic ranks over the Iran agreement. His predecessor, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), was no fan of the 2015 nuclear agreement, but once it was in place, he opposed legislation that would have sunk the deal.

The agreement between Iran and world powers imposed limits on Tehran’s nuclear program in return for lifting an array of U.S. and international sanctions. But Trump and other critics of the deal insist the agreement needs to be amended before a mid-May deadline, with stricter curbs on Iran’s missile program and extending restrictions on the nuclear program that are due to expire over the next decade.

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) is drafting legislation that would add tougher limits on Iran’s nuclear and missile programs as a trigger for reimposing sanctions on Iran. The acid test is where Menendez comes down on the Corker proposal.

“The first indication will be, what does Sen. Menendez say about the state of discussions about legislation that would meet the president’s demands?” said a lobbyist on Middle East issues. “That will give us a first indication of whether there is a shift.”

White House officials have consulted closely with Corker’s staff on the bill, and a more cooperative approach from Menendez could help sway the votes of some Democrats in the Senate, lobbyists and experts said.

While Corker tries to work out language that can secure sufficient bipartisan support in the Senate, he also faces pressure from hard-liners within his own party.

In the House, Republican Reps. Peter Roskam (Ill.) and Liz Cheney (Wyo.) have put forward a bill with sweeping language that would reimpose sanctions on Iran for an array of activities, including if Tehran used ballistic missile technology designed to deliver nuclear weapons. Corker, who will need to secure 60 votes (Republicans hold 51 seats), is likely to propose more limited language in his bill to win votes from across the aisle.

Menendez drew the wrath of the Barack Obama administration and left-leaning activists, including advocacy group, over his fierce opposition to the Iran deal in 2015.

But when Trump informed Congress in October that he could not certify that the Iran deal was in the country’s interest, Menendez sharply criticized the president’s announcement, saying it created “uncertainty among our allies” and that it would “embolden an already belligerent Iran.” The New Jersey senator said the “United States cannot afford to ignore our international obligations.”

Menendez’s return to the high-profile spot could see him lock horns with both Democrats and Republicans, creating plenty of uncertainty over key issues such as the Iran deal, Cuba, and even the fate of the State Department under the Trump administration.

“At varying times, Menendez is likely to be a thorn in the side of both the administration and [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer [D-N.Y.],” said Daniel Vajdich, a Republican foreign-policy expert and former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer.

Menendez stepped down from the post nearly three years ago after he was indicted on federal bribery charges that included allegations of abusing his post on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Justice Department moved to drop all charges against Menendez on Jan. 31, after a drama-filled federal bribery trial ended in a mistrial last November.

Menendez is still the subject of a Senate Ethics Committee investigation into whether he violated Senate rules by accepting gifts from a friend and campaign donor. The federal bribery charges centered on allegations he intervened with the State Department to help the friend and campaign donor settle a lucrative foreign contract dispute and secure U.S. visas for several foreign girlfriends.

Throughout the trial, Menendez staunchly denied the allegations and maintained his innocence.

Sen. Cardin will take over ranking member roles on the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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