THE BLOG
01/10/2014 10:49 am ET Updated Mar 12, 2014

The Other Bully From New Jersey

Gov. Chris Christie isn't the only New Jersey politician stirring up controversy these days. The senior senator from New Jersey, Robert Menendez, has partnered with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) to push an Iran sanctions bill over the strong objections of the White House, our nation's diplomats, many of his own colleagues and the intelligence community. If passed, the Menendez-Kirk bill would violate the interim nuclear deal with Iran and cripple prospects to resolve the nuclear impasse peacefully.

The bill continues to gather cosponsors -- currently, it is up to 58. While the bill was originally split evenly between 13 Democratic and 13 Republican cosponsors, the bill's bipartisan veil is falling apart. Just two of the bill's 32 latest cosponsors have been Democrats. As a result, it is increasingly being viewed as a partisan vehicle to rebuke of one the President's signature foreign policy achievements.

Not surprisingly, Sen. Menendez has received a heavy amount of criticism for his lead role in pushing the sanctions bill. Sen. Menendez, responding to this criticism in an op-ed in the Washington Post, asserted that it was sanctions that brought Iran to the table and that his bill would provide "flexibility" for the president to negotiate a deal and and an "insurance policy" in the event that negotiations fail. Menendez also asserts that while proponents of sanctions argue that "sanctions are like a spigot, easy to turn on and easy to turn off," in reality it is far more complicated to pass sanctions legislation and turn up pressure on Iran.

Upon inspection, these assertions seem dubious at best.

First, what sanctions opponents warn is that unwinding sanctions as part of diplomatic negotiations is far more difficult than ratcheting them up. With nine separate congressional sanctions already on the books, the president's ability to offer credible sanctions relief in exchange for Iranian nuclear concessions is already in serious doubt. Add on new sanctions, which would kill the first phase deal, and we will undermine any notion in Iran that diplomacy could lead to sanctions relief because Congress has to be a partner in offering permanent sanctions relief.

Sen. Menendez also misleads when he states that his bill would create flexibility for the President. Rather, S.1881 is designed in such a way as to ensure that diplomacy fails. By demanding that Iran dismantles its entire "nuclear infrastructure, including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and facilities," S.1881 sets an unrealistic and unnecessary benchmark that would be a poison pill for future talks.

Worse still, S.1881 undermines the president's ability to offer sanctions relief. To waive the sanctions provisions included in S.1881 as part of a final deal, the president would have to certify that Iran has agreed to the zero enrichment demand and a whole host of other provisions, including some that are outside the scope of nuclear negotiations. As a result of these onerous and unattainable restrictions, the President's ability to offer sanctions relief would be permanently crippled. Rather than create flexibility, S.1881 would tie the president's hands.

Further, speaking on MSNBC, Menendez warned that "If we wait until we determine whether or not a negotiation can succeed... the timeframe that the Iranians have to produce enough fissile material for the first nuclear weapon is six to eight weeks," meaning any sanctions push would be "inconsequential."

Sanctions proponents often tout the theory that Iran must be brought to the brink of economic collapse in order to abandon its nuclear pursuits. As Sen. Menendez stated in a committee hearing in May, the U.S. must "convince the Supreme Leader that his continued pursuit of nuclear weapons is threatening the very existence of his regime."

While the six-to-eight-week timeline Sen. Menendez cites is based on a theoretical, all-out Iranian pursuit of a weapons threshold, such a push could not be halted by sanctions.

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a hawkish think tank that receives funding from Sheldon "Nuke Iran" Adelson, estimated in October that Iran likely has sufficient reserves and assets to "muddle through" economically "for at least 12 months, if not longer." While the report was intended to enhance support for sanctions, it actually undermined their case. Even if it was possible and a good idea to try to incite regime change by crashing Iran's economy (which it is not), we certainly couldn't do so in six to eight weeks with or without the Menendez-Kirk bill. On the other side of the political spectrum, Colin Kahl, a former Pentagon official under the Obama administration, testified before Congress in November that: "Even if Congress goes forward with additional harsh sanctions, economic conditions are not likely to produce enough existential angst among Iranian leaders, generate mass unrest, or otherwise implode the regime before Iran achieves a nuclear breakout capability."

As Kahl pointed out, even imprisoned Green Movement leaders have supported the country's enrichment program. As a result, pursuing plans for economic regime change would inflame nationalist sympathies and result in nuclear escalation, rather than capitulation.

In his quest to create a highly dubious "Plan B" if negotiations fail, Sen. Menendez is putting "Plan A" -- diplomacy -- directly in the crosshairs. U.S. and Iranian officials have warned that new Congressional sanctions would kill the first phase deal. Rather than take offense when officials or experts call attention to the fact that he is pushing the U.S. toward war, Sen. Menendez should ask himself what happens when his bill scuttles diplomacy and Iran's nuclear progress continues unabated -- or worse, intensifies. If we fail to pursue the critical diplomatic opportunity right in front of us and instead pursue sanctions, war is the likely outcome. Sen. Menendez -- and the colleagues that support his stubborn pursuit of sanctions -- would then shoulder the blame.