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Senate Democrats Warn White House on Iran Arms Embargo

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Ending the arms embargo on Iran — something White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest refused to rule out Monday — is causing the administration trouble with Capitol Hill Democrats. One, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., a frequent critic of the administration’s Iran strategy, blasted the idea.  

“Listen, the last thing we need to do is give Iran the ability to have the wherewithal to have arms going throughout the region,” he said. “They’re already involved in Yemen, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Iraq. And there’s another reason. What is lost here is that if we lift the arms embargo, then the Russians freely can sell the S-300 to them.  

“That makes it a lot more difficult in the future — should Iran violate the agreement and move towards their nuclear capability for a nuclear weapon — of trying to strike them with the S-300 as a defensive weapon system.”  

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., another member of the Foreign Relations Committee, also said he opposes lifting the embargo.  

“That’s not something I’ve been consulted on, and I frankly think this was an Iranian gambit at the last minute to try and divide the United States and its European allies from China and Russia which have a desire to sell weapons to Iran,” he said in a CNN interview.  

“I think Iran’s behavior in the region, its support for terrorism, and its export of weapons and material and fighting men to support Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime in Syria, to support the Houthis in Yemen, and to support Hezbollah in Lebanon should be of real concern to us.  

“This was to be a negotiation about their illicit nuclear weapons program and to throw on the table at the last minute a lifting of the arms embargo strikes me as trying to broaden the scope of the negotiations.”  

However, United Nations resolutions targeting Iran’s nuclear program going back nearly a decade have imposed various arms embargoes. Lifting them would not require an act of Congress.  

But the broader deal could lead to a resolution of disapproval from Congress. Obama would ultimately need the backing of a third plus one in either chamber to avoid a veto override.  

In addition to a potential fight with Senate Democrats, the White House might have some work to do with Pentagon brass to get them on board should the embargo go by the wayside.  

Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked by Sen. Kelly Ayotte last week about lifting restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program.  

“Under no circumstances should we relieve pressure on Iran relative to ballistic missile capabilities and arms trafficking,” he told the New Hampshire Republican.

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