REUTERS - Senator Robert Menendez issued a scathing critique of the U.S.-led international nuclear deal with Iran on Tuesday and became the second senior lawmaker from President Barack Obama's own party to announce he would vote to kill the pact with Tehran.
- Netanyahu: Iran's goal is to destroy Israel, IDF prepared for any scenario
- WATCH: Menendez says, Iran deal is 'not about preventing nuclear Iran, but managing it'
- Why saying 'yes' to the Iran deal is safer than 'no'
- Will this top Democratic senator defy Obama on Iran?
Defying Obama and many other fellow Democrats, Menendez said in a speech in his home state of New Jersey: "I will vote to disapprove the agreement and, if called upon, would vote to override a veto" by the president.
The Senate and House of Representatives have to vote by Sept. 17 on a "resolution of disapproval" being brought by majority Republicans aiming to sink the deal. Obama is trying to gather enough support among Democrats to sustain a veto of the resolution.
Under the agreement between six major powers and Iran, new curbs would be imposed on Tehran's nuclear program in return for easing sanctions. Iran denies it wants to make a nuclear weapon.
Earlier this month, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the third-ranking Democrat in the chamber, said he would vote against the deal and would work to convince other senators to do the same, signaling deep divisions within the party.
Senator Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat, supports the deal. Democratic Leader Harry Reid will declare his position when the Senate returns from recess Sept. 7, when lobbying and debate in Congress over the deal is expected to intensify.
'Hurts U.S. security'
If the agreement were to go into effect, Menendez said, it would hurt national security while abandoning a long-held U.S. policy of preventing nuclear proliferation. Instead, he said, it would establish a policy of "managing" nuclear proliferation.
Despite his stance against the Iran deal, it is not clear how much Menendez, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would influence other Democrats.
A senior Obama administration official said the announcement had been expected and would not alter White House plans. "The strategy is the exact same today as it was yesterday," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Privately, backers of the deal say while they still hope to have enough votes in the Senate to sustain an Obama veto, they are even more confident of doing so in the House of Representatives. Success in either chamber will ensure the deal survives.
Republicans say the deal gives too much ground to Iran and threatens the security of Israel, a major U.S. ally in the Middle East.
The speech by Menendez, a strong backer of Israel, at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, contained a detailed, technical analysis of the agreement. He pointed out that throughout Obama's term in office he has mainly backed the Democratic president, voting for Wall Street and healthcare reforms and other major initiatives.
Menendez, however, has parted ways with Obama over his opening of diplomatic ties with Cuba and he questioned Obama's threats to ultimately take military action against Iran if it went ahead with making a nuclear bomb.
"We should authorize now the means for Israel to address the Iranian threat on their own in the event that Iran accelerates its program and to counter Iranian perceptions that our own threat to use force is not credible," he said.
Back to the drawing board?
He also criticized Republicans, who he said "reflexively oppose everything the president proposes."
"While I have many specific concerns about this agreement, my overarching concern is that it requires no dismantling of Iran's nuclear infrastructure and only mothballs that infrastructure for 10 years. Not even one centrifuge will be destroyed under this agreement," Menendez said.
He urged the Obama administration to go back to the negotiating table to rework the main elements, something the Obama administration says would be impossible.
Obama gained ground on some other fronts amid an aggressive White House lobbying effort.
Democrat Mazie Hirono of Hawaii became the 21st senator, all of them Democrats, to publicly support the agreement. But that is far short of the 34 Democrats Obama will need to sustain his veto and keep the deal alive.
The non-partisan Arms Control Association on Tuesday said 70 nuclear non-proliferation experts issued a statement in support, calling it "a strong, long-term and verifiable agreement that will be a net-plus for international nuclear non-proliferation efforts."
Alan Elsner, a spokesman for the U.S. based Jewish group J Street which supports the deal, said: "We remain confident that the votes will be there ultimately to sustain the president's veto in both houses" of Congress.