Menendez: A Friend or an Opponent to Iran?

Menendez: A Friend or an Opponent to Iran?
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Senior Expert Bilgehan Alagöz

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani announced on November 3 that the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the Joint Commission on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, Nuclear Deal) will resume on November 29. In this context, the attitude of Iran and the United States has become in the spotlight again. On the day when the talks were slated to resume, Ali Shamkhani, Secretary-General of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, shared a tweet on Twitter in which he underlined that the US guarantee that it will not withdraw from the JCPOA is a prerequisite for Iran.

On the US side, it is evident from the statements of both US Spokesman for Department of State Ned Price and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan that the skepticism towards Iran has gained weight. The increasing pressure of the Republican Party on the Democratic Party is the main reason for this cynism. This further sharpens the long-standing split between the progressive and moderate-conservative wings that has existed within the Democratic Party. As a matter of fact, it is seen that the progressives support the return of the United States to the JCPOA, whereas the moderates are hesitant about this issue and have collaborated with the Republicans who have opposed the deal from the outset. Thus, the Vienna talks act as a critical litmus test for this ongoing division within the Democratic Party. At this point, various initiatives in the US Senate and its pioneer Robert Menendez draw attention.

Robert Menendez's Interaction With Republicans

Democrat Senator Robert (Bob) Menendez, who was appointed chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 3, 2021, is an experienced career politician and it is not easy to define him in the category of progressive or moderate. During his tenure as a member of the US House of Representatives (1993-2006), he was one of the few who opposed President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003. However, considering that President Joe Biden and others in his team, such as Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, supported this war along with the neocons, it is possible to consider Menendez as a member of the progressive wing due to his anti-war attitude. Likewise, his breakthroughs in human rights, refugee rights, women's rights, and abortion rights and his efforts to combat systemic racism, and his struggle for LGBTQ rights support this idea.

It is noteworthy to mention that Menendez’s rhetoric towards Iran is essential in convincing somebody to think that he is a member of the moderate/conservative wing. In President Barack Obama's Era, his anti-Iran stance became evident during his chairmanship of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee between 2013-2015; even against the JCPOA, which is currently on the international agenda, he prepared the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 together with Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and Bob Corker and enabled it to pass the Senate. Today, there is a kind of historical recurrence. Bob Menendez is also the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and acts together with the Republicans on the Iran issue. This situation has made him the target of the progressive wing within the party.

It is necessary to know that in the background of Menendez's harmonious relationship with the Republicans, his recent personal experience is also influential. The fact that Menendez was indicted on federal corruption charges on April 1, 2015, is notable. Indeed, for the first time, a sitting US senator in office was accused by the administration of his own party. The senator was charged with accepting nearly USD 1 million worth in gifts from a wealthy ophthalmologist in exchange for using his power and benefitting from political donations. So much so that Menendez’s trial on bribery and corruption charges turned into a federal bribery case. The corruption trial resulted in Menendez’s favour in November 2017, and during this period, Menendez was mostly supported by the Republicans, especially Graham. Graham was called as character witnesses and testified for Menendez at the trial. In that regard, Graham's response to a question posed by Menendez's lawyer is quite remarkable: Lawyer: “The other issue is the Iranian nuclear agreement. That was very contentious. And it's on that issue about Iran and national security that you've worked closest with him?” Graham: “Yeah, Bob was, went against his own party. On the Iranian agreement, he did not go down the road most travelled for a Democrat. And I do a lot in national security with Bob, you know. On national security, he has been somebody you can go to as a Republican to see if you can find bipartisanship.” This crucial support reinforced the two senators' bipartisan positions on national security and Iran issues.

Taking into consideration, the Republicans will be in contact with Menendez with a kind of preemptive reflex towards the Biden administration's efforts to return to the JCPOA. As a matter of fact, Menendez and Graham clearly expressed this collaboration in their joint opinion piece they wrote for the Washington Post on June 3, 2021. The most basic discourse of the two senators in the article is that it is a wrong perception to interpret their opposition to the JCPOA as they are against diplomacy with Iran. Another remarkable emphasis in the same article is that countries that desire a peaceful, responsible nuclear power program to provide electricity and jobs to their people should be able to do so safely. As a concrete step toward this end, they suggested the creation of a regional nuclear fuel bank. At this point, the two senators expressed the roadmap for the Biden administration in the following words: “Why should we limit our diplomatic efforts to controlling Iran’s nuclear program? Instead, we should be seeking an approach that meaningfully constrains this behavior and the leverage Iran continues to derive from it. If we are seeking more from Iran, we should be willing to give more sanctions relief in return. The United States and the international community should capitalize on potential new regional diplomatic engagement, and encourage broader negotiations to curb malign Iranian influence in the region”.

Another example of the cooperation between Menendez and Republicans is the Strategic Competition Act that Menendez prepared with Republican Senator Jim Risch on April 21, 2021. Although this Act aims to regulate the US’s competition with China, notably, it was prepared immediately after the Iran-China 25-Year Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement, which was signed in March 2021. Indeed, the idea of restricting the elbow room of the Agreement signed by Iran and China has also been influential in the preparation process of the Act, which aims to protect America’s interests in the Indo-Pacific region and the Middle East.

Menendez’s Anti-Turkey Stance

Known for his close relationship with the Armenian lobby, Menendez was one of the first to react when Azerbaijan launched an operation in Nagorno-Karabakh on September 27, 2020, to save its lands under the occupation of Armenia. In a tweet dated September 28, 2020, Menendez wrote: “I strongly condemn Azerbaijan’s attack on Nagorno Karabakh, yet another act of aggression supported by Turkey. The Trump Administration should suspend security assistance to Azerbaijan and engage through the OSCE Minsk Group to bring about a ceasefire.” As a matter of fact, he showed a similar stance during Antony Blinken's Senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of State on January 19, 2020. He delivered the following opening remarks: "Turkey continues to be destabilizing by supporting Azerbaijan’s aggression in Nagorno-Karabakh". Lastly, on November 4, 2021, while negotiations for the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) were underway, Menendez introduced measures to put Turkey’s drone program under harsh scrutiny and deny any further aid to Azerbaijan.

What is noteworthy is that the period in which Menendez developed an anti-Turkey/Azerbaijan position coincided with the period when Iran's anti-Azerbaijan and anti-Turkey discourses increased in the context of Nagorno-Karabakh. It is paradoxical that, on the one hand, Menendez is pleased to be the flagbearer of the anti-JCPOA camp in the USA, on the other hand, he takes an attitude that creates an opportunity for Iran to have leverage in the South Caucasus. In this vein, it is significant that Menendez's anti-Turkey and anti-Azerbaijani attitude parallels the discourses of Persian nationalists in Iran. Herein, the question of whether Menendez's attitude towards Iran's nuclear program is symbolic or not comes to mind. Menendez's systematic anti-Turkey and anti-Azerbaijani stance suggest that he actually acted in coordination with Persian nationalists and encouraged Iran-Armenia strategic cooperation in the South Caucasus. Therefore, it becomes essential to ask Menendez, who is even more uncomfortable with NATO member Turkey than Iran, the question of whether he is a friend or an opponent to Iran. Being that, contradictory approaches of Menendez create the impression that he is not a politician who completely feels cautious about Iran's regional behaviours.