Rubio says lifting sanctions on Iran would threaten Israel

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and U.S. presidential candidate, speaks during a conversation at the National Review Institute 2015 Ideas Summit in Washington, D.C., on Friday, May 1, 2015.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and U.S. presidential candidate, speaks during a conversation at the National Review Institute 2015 Ideas Summit in Washington, D.C., on Friday, May 1, 2015. Bloomberg

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio on Friday defended his plan to force Iran to recognize Israel’s right to exist as part of a broader bill aimed at giving Congress a greater say in nuclear talks.

Critics call Rubio’s amendment a poison pill that could jeopardize the carefully negotiated legislation and prompt a presidential veto, but Rubio rejected that characterization. He said an agreement brokered by the Obama administration would force the U.S. to turn over billions of dollars to Iran if it lifts economic sanctions.

“They will use it to sponsor terrorism, groups like Hezbollah,” Rubio said at the National Review Institute Ideas Summit in Washington. “And what is the purpose of Hezbollah? To destroy Israel.”

Rubio, a first-term senator who has emerged as one of his party’s top-tier presidential contenders for 2016, finds himself in the middle of a growing spat over the proposed agreement, which would require any nuclear deal to be reviewed by Congress.

Last month, the bill cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a 19-0 vote. But it has encountered tough sledding on Capitol Hill this week.

When the Senate kicked things off on Tuesday, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called the debate over Iran “one of the most important issues of our time” and said he wanted to make sure senators had ample time to fully air their differences.

“I still expect to see a robust amendment process,” McConnell said.

But after the Senate sparred all week and amendments began piling up, McConnell began reconsidering his stance. He’s expected to announce Monday whether to file cloture on the bill, beginning a process that could cap the debate and set the stage for final passage.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said that he expected all Senate Democrats to back the bill. But he complained that the Iran nuclear agreement had fallen victim to “political ambitions,” referring to the GOP fight for the 2016 presidential nomination.

“This bill is too important to be a pawn in anyone’s political game,” Reid said.

Rubio has fought hard for his amendment all week, saying there should be no reason not to vote on it.

“If you don’t want to vote on things, don’t run for office. Be a columnist. Get a talk show,” he said in a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Rubio called Iran “an extraordinary threat to the world” and said he fears that a U.S. agreement would allow Iran to retain thousands of centrifuges and allow the nation to avoid dismantling its key facilities.

“This deal is going to be a dangerous deal,” he said in his speech. And on Friday, he added that a bad deal “almost guarantees war.”

Rubio’s remarks have already made the issue fodder for next year’s White House race.

One likely candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, asked about Rubio’s amendment Thursday night, called the Iran nuclear agreement “a horrific deal.” But he appeared to share concerns that the amendment might jeopardize the entire congressional review process.

“I understand the sentiment,” Bush said. “I don’t know if that kills the bill and you have no legislative oversight, no congressional work.”

Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that he expects McConnell to move to end debate next week. A top McConnell aide said Friday, however, that negotiations were still underway and that the majority leader had not yet decided how to proceed next week.

Rubio said a vote is necessary because Iran has made it clear that one of its main objectives is to end Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.

Under his amendment, Rubio said, the president would have to certify that Iranian leadership has accepted Israel’s right to exist. And he said senators who won’t vote for such an idea should offer a reason.

“There is a microphone here at your desk,” he said. “Come to the floor and give a speech and explain to the world why you are voting against a deal that requires Israel to have a right to exist.”