Sen. Menendez says Iran deal 'preserves' pathway to nuclear weapons

Sen. Robert Menendez is coming out swinging against the nuclear agreement with Iran negotiated last month by Secretary of State John Kerry, saying that it may actually help put Iran on the path to being a nuclear power.

“I have voted with the president 98 percent of the time, but that’s based on principled agreement,” Menendez said in an interview with Fox News Latino. “But when I have a principled disagreement, I will disagree.”

On Tuesday, the New Jersey Democrat announced that he planned to vote against the accord, joining fellow senators Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Jeff Flake (R-Arizona).

Menendez said his lack of trust in Iran is rooted in his more than two decades of experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he has served on for more than 20 years and used to chair, and watching Iran consistently break agreements and be deceptive about its uranium-enrichment program and nuclear ambitions.

The senator, who traditionally has held hard line positions against Iran, Russia, Cuba and Venezuela, among others, said the accord gives the Middle Eastern nation too much leeway and contains worrisome loopholes.

“The question is, ‘If the agreement is violated, what will be our position then?’” he asked. “What will be our ability to respond to Iran’s break out toward a nuclear weapon? And I fear it will be in a worse position than better one.”

Menendez said Congress would be wise to reject the accord and at the same time authorize President Barack Obama to return to the interim agreement in which Iran received some relief from sanctions while remaining at the negotiating table.

“Let’s close the Fordow facility, this is a uranium enrichment site built deep inside of a mountain,” Menendez said referring to Iran’s Fordo facility, near the city of Qom. “If you want a peaceful, civilian program you don’t have to hide your uranium enrichment deep inside of a mountain.”

Menendez said Iran must be forced into being more transparent.

“You have to come clean … How far they ultimately militarized and weaponized their nuclear program is extremely important to know for international security,” he said. “You can’t be doing research and development that is far more than you need for a civilian program.”

The Obama administration has said the current version of the accord has the best chance of getting Iran's cooperation, and that if Congress torpedoes it, it will only push Iran to go further into developing nuclear weapons.

Menendez wants Iranians to concede to inspections of “suspect sites for the length of the agreement.”

And restrictions on Iran's nuclear program, he said, should last as long as “Iran deceived and violated [United Nations] Security Council resolutions and the international order and that’s 20 years.”

The agreement at the moment, he said, instead of preventing Iran’s pathway to a nuclear weapon, “it actually preserves it.”