This time, it's personal.

Photographer: Mark Makela

Embattled Menendez Will Fight for Iran Sanctions

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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Anyone who thinks that possible charges of corruption against Sen. Robert Menendez might prompt him to shy away from the fight he has waged for more Iran sanctions has another think coming.

The Justice Department, according to multiple news agencies, is preparing corruption charges against Menendez for favors he allegedly did on behalf of a Democratic donor in exchange for gifts.

But a spokesman for the New Jersey Democrat, Adam Sharon, told me Friday that his boss still intends to press for triggered sanctions on Iran and for Congress to have a role in reviewing any Iran deal if one is reached. “The Senator will continue to push forward on the pressing foreign policy issues of the day, to include the two Iran bills he co-authored, which are poised to move forward pending the outcome of the March 24th negotiating deadline," Sharon told me.

March 24 is the deadline negotiators have set for concluding a broader political framework for a nuclear deal between Iran and six great powers -- the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany. The deal is expected to leave in place thousands of centrifuges that Iran constructed in the last decade, and to expire in at least 10 years. President Obama announced the ten-year expiration date this week in an interview with Reuters before a speech from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Congress warning that the deal would pave the way for an Iranian nuclear weapon.

While the quest for that nuclear deal has been a centerpiece of Obama's second-term foreign policy agenda, Menendez has still pressed for sanctions that Obama himself says would scuttle the delicate negotiations.

Menendez has helped author two important bills in this respect. One bill, co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Mark Kirk from Illinois, would impose new sanctions on sectors of Iran's economy if a deal is not reached by July, the latest expiration date for the nuclear talks. The other bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would give Congress a role in reviewing and approving the agreement. Obama has threatened to veto both bills.

Because Menendez is a Democrat and the ranking member of his party on the foreign relations committee, his support for more sanctions and congressional review is particularly threatening to the White House. If Menendez can convince 12 more Democrats to support this legislation and all 54 Republicans also vote to support it, the Senate would have a veto-proof majority.

Since the end of November, Menendez has tried to pick up those Democrats to support sanctions the leader of his own party has fought against. For his Republican co-sponsor Kirk, the timing of the leak about the Justice Department coming so close to the deadline for Iran talks is too much of a coincidence. "On the eve of a bad deal with Iran, the timing of leaks makes many worry that there’s a vendetta against Senator Menendez for his many years of good work on preventing the Ayatollahs from getting nuclear weapons," Kirk told me.

The feisty words coming out of Menendez at a just concluded press conference suggest that any such vendetta seems likely to have the opposite of its intended effect. "Anyone who knows me, knows I fight for the things people think are important," he said -- including, as he put it, "making certain that Iran never, never achieves the ability to make nuclear weapons."

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To contact the author on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net