On Iran, Menendez Offers Obama an Olive Branch—and a Warning

Key Democrats say they will give the administration more time to negotiate. But their patience is limited.

National Journal

A week ago, Sen. Robert Menendez compared the Obama administration's talking points on Iran to those coming "straight out of Tehran." On Tuesday, he sent an olive branch to the White House, agreeing in a letter to postpone further sanctions over the country's nuclear program until late March.

The dramatic reversal by the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was both a major concession to the White House, which has threatened to veto the sanctions bill—buying the administration more time to pursue negotiations with Tehran—and a warning. The real message of the letter from Menendez was not just in its content, but in the 10 signatures at the bottom of the page.

Those signatories—all fellow Democrats—represent extra votes to pass the sanctions bill this spring and nearly enough ayes, combined with all of the chamber's Republicans, to override a presidential veto, should a showdown come. Menendez told reporters Tuesday that in addition to those 10 Democrats, there were "others who expressed their strong interest" in the issue.

Even as they offered the administration more time for negotiations, pro-sanctions Democrats made a show of force. Implicit in the letter is that they will move forward when, as they expect, the negotiations fail and it's unlikely that President Obama will be able to do anything about it. The message: Try us.

The letter, which Menendez made public during a hearing of the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday, is just the latest episode in an ongoing game of chicken between the White House and the New Jersey Democrat,  whose committee role should make him the administration's de facto top ally on foreign affairs in Congress, over Iran.

During a question-and-answer session at the Senate Democratic retreat in Baltimore two weeks ago, Menendez and Obama got into a tense verbal altercation over the sanctions legislation. During the exchange, Obama urged senators to drop their push for sanctions, warning that if they scuttled negotiations with Iran, the U.S. would be blamed.

Despite those warnings, Menendez said during Tuesday's Banking Committee hearing that "until now, Iran has not been motivated" to come to a deal with the United States and other international negotiators over its nuclear program. "In my view," he said, "a strong bipartisan bill that outlines the consequences of failure could be the motivator that Iranian leaders need to make the hard decisions."

Menendez said he had not been lobbied by the White House to delay the sanctions bill, which he coauthored with Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, since his confrontation with the president in Baltimore. "I don't get calls [from the White House on Iran]," he said while getting into an elevator on Tuesday.

But Menendez said in a subsequent interview that he felt the White House had "made a very open, public case" for delaying the sanctions bill until after the March 24 deadline for negotiators to come up with a framework for a deal with Iran, one that he ultimately found compelling. Additionally, the delay would ensure that there will not be "any excuses for an agreement not being made," he said.

"And if they can't, then [the letter] made it very clear to the administration that it is our intention to move forward at that time," he told reporters.

"It strikes me that this is a pretty good day for those who support the [sanctions bill]," Josh Block, the CEO and president of The Israel Project, said in an interview. The letter is a "creative way" to signal to the White House that support for sanctions goes beyond the Republican conference and is gaining traction among congressional Democrats.

Those listed in support range from Menendez to Blue-Dog Sen. Joe Manchin and the Senate's No. 3 Democrat, Chuck Schumer. The other signatories are Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Ben Cardin of Maryland, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, Christopher Coons of Delaware, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and both Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

Menendez's concession to the White House on the sanctions timeline comes just a week after House Speaker John Boehner invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress without consulting with the administration. A Menendez aide said that his decision to delay the timeline for the sanctions bill had nothing to do with Netanyahu's visit.

But the move, announced just a day after Obama vowed in his State of the Union Address to veto any new Iran sanctions legislation, infuriated the White House and many congressional Democrats, some of whom told The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg that they felt humiliated and angered by Netanyahu's ploy to address Congress "behind the president's back."

Despite public fights over Cuba and Iran policy, Menendez described his relationship with the White House as "excellent" on Tuesday.

"Look, you know my friends in the press like to focus on disagreements, but if you were to look at the overwhelming universe of votes and support for presidential policies, you would find overwhelmingly that I support the president," Menendez said in an interview last week. "Where I have a policy disagreement, I will stand on my views."¦ That's the way it's always been for me."

James Oliphant contributed to this article