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Democratic Senator Pushes For More Sanctions Against Iran, Not Fewer


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. "I'm not trying to scuttle the deal" - those words earlier this week from Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, of New Jersey. He's one of several high-profile Democrats who voiced skepticism of the agreement, announced over the weekend, to curb Iran's nuclear program. His chief concern with the deal, that it lets Iran off the hook by offering some $7 billion worth of sanctions relief.

Menendez, who is chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has even talked about asking Congress to tighten those sanctions if Iran doesn't commit to a lasting deal. I'm joined now by Sen. Bob Menendez. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us.

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ: Good to be with you.

CORNISH: Now, as you've tried to make clear, your threat to tighten sanctions was meant to - in your words - strengthen the White House's hand. But President Obama has said now is not the time to move forward on new sanctions because doing so would derail this promising first step. Your response?

MENENDEZ: Well, I appreciate the essence of what the president said and in fact, that is a similar view that I've heard from the administration in the past, when we were considering previous sanctions that ultimately became the hallmark of what has brought Iran to the negotiating table. And I think that one can reconcile the administration's desire to pursue diplomacy, and give them the window to do that; but at the same time, be prospectively ready to deal with the consequences of the possibility that Iran doesn't follow through either on its interim agreement, or concludes a final agreement. And I think that creating that dual track of diplomacy and yet being ready for any possibilities that fall short if diplomacy doesn't succeed, it is a desirable goal.

CORNISH: So it sound like playing bad cop versus good cop.

MENENDEZ: Well, you know, we consistently hear about how we have to worry about the hard-liners in Iran. And it seems that the Iranians get to play good cop, bad cop; Rouhani as the good cop, the hard-liners as the bad cop. I just don't simply view a set of perfecting sanctions that don't get invoked until six months from now, a window beyond the president's stated time period for this interim agreement, a window that would also give the president waiver options; that with those two realities, it would both say to the Iranians, hey, look, you know, this is what's coming if you don't strike a deal and at the same time, the administration would say, but if we strike a deal, those sanctions will never go into effect.

CORNISH: Sen. Menendez, what would you have liked to have seen in this temporary agreement with Iran, that isn't there?

MENENDEZ: I would have liked to have seen some rolling back of its nuclear infrastructure because, in essence, if I could liken it to a metaphor, we basically have the Iranians running in place, but they're running. Their centrifuges are spinning. The extent of their centrifuges don't get reduced under the agreement. The amount of enriched uranium that gets reduced, doesn't get reduced beyond the critical threshold level that is the jumping point in which you can get enough fuel enriched to create a nuclear bomb.

CORNISH: So right now, the deal essentially freezes things in place. It says you can't build more. You can't bring more things online or into operation. You're saying that's not enough.

MENENDEZ: Well, basically, we are going to roll back some of our sanctions. But they are rolling back nothing in their program, except for reducing the 20 percent enriched uranium to 3.5 or 5. So they have really - still poised to be able to move their program forward, if they don't end up in a deal. We will have, you know, reduced not only giving them money, but we will have reduced some of our critical sanctions, such as the reduction of further petroleum purchases in Iran.

CORNISH: Senator, are you disappointed in the State Department, in Secretary Kerry, about the way that this deal has gone down?

MENENDEZ: No. Look, I get what the administration and the State Department are trying to do, and I respect what they're trying to do. What I don't appreciate is when I hear remarks out of the White House spokesman that say that it's - if we're pursuing sanctions, then we're marching the country off to war, you know. I think that that's way over the top. I think that's fear-mongering. I think that the desire to try to get a deal is something to be applauded. I may not be happy with what we gave up for what we got, but I am hopeful that they can achieve the ultimate goal.

CORNISH: Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, of New Jersey. He's head of the Foreign Relations Committee. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MENENDEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.