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Sen. Bob Menendez weighs in on protests in Iran

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

What, if anything, can the U.S. do about what is happening in Iran? Anti-regime protests there are big and getting bigger in the weeks since 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died while in the custody of Iran's so-called morality police. One human rights group says fighting between protesters and Iran's security forces has now killed at least 200 people. Well, President Biden says the U.S. stands with the protesters. Activists say the U.S. could do much more.

I want to bring in one of the most powerful voices in Congress on this. Democratic Senator Bob Menendez chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And a heads up that while we've got him, I'm going to throw in a question or two about Saudi Arabia as well. Senator Menendez, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

BOB MENENDEZ: Good to be with you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Does this moment in Iran feel different to you? And I'm asking because we've, of course, seen big anti-regime protests in Iran before. I'm thinking, perhaps most notably, of 2009.

MENENDEZ: It does. It feels somewhat like the Green Revolution, but for different reasons. And obviously, women are leading the way in the protests in Iran, which is a powerful force in any society, but certainly a statement in Iranian society based upon the role that the state allows women or not allow women to play in the state. And so this is a powerful statement to the regime in Iran that there is great discontentment. And that discontentment obviously, you know, boiled over with the loss of the life of the young lady. But the reality is it's been boiling for some time on economics and other freedoms.

KELLY: So to the question of what the U.S. can or should do, you put out a statement this week, and you said, quote, "the U.S. and the international community have an obligation to stand shoulder to shoulder with the protesters." And you added, we must use every peaceful tool at our disposal. Briefly, what are the tools?

MENENDEZ: Well, first of all, I think that there are regime officials that should be sanctioned in every way possible - on the economic sanctions, frozen accounts, travel bans - to make a clear statement. Secondly, I think we should be using our surrogate broadcasting in the region to let the Iranian people know what is going on in their country. Obviously, regime controls the ability of information to flow among Iranians themselves. I think that would be a powerful tool. And then thirdly, we should lead the international community not only in a condemnation, but in actions at the United Nations as well as in multilateralizing the sanctions I mentioned.

KELLY: And just to make sure I understand, when you talk about surrogate broadcasters, you mean ways to help Iranians get online, figure out what's going on that might get them around?

MENENDEZ: We have to our overall international broadcasting system broadcasting in the languages of the region. And so we should, in the first instance, try to penetrate as much as that to just let Iranians know what's happening. Secondly, we should look at circumvention techniques. When the regime closes down, for example, the internet, we have circumvention techniques that we have used successfully in other countries. We should get those to those activists there.

KELLY: Should the U.S. pull out of nuclear talks with Iran?

MENENDEZ: You know, I have not been a supporter of the previous agreement. I'm not a supporter of what I understand a potential agreement could be because I think it leaves a pathway for Iran to achieve a nuclear weapon. But it doesn't deal with any of Iran's other nefarious activities - their destabilization of the region, the violation of human rights of their own people, as we have seen most vividly of late, you know, their missile development that is a real threat in the region. So this is another complicating factor in that regard.

KELLY: Sure. And I'm asking about it because, as you know, there are a lot of voices questioning whether the U.S. should pull out of these talks, whether a big influx of cash to Iran would be a great idea at this point and also raising that the nuclear deal appears to be all but dead anyway.

MENENDEZ: Well, absolutely. Look, what would happen here for a very short window that we would get - we had a two-year window under the previous agreement, but the way it was outlined would still let Iran have a pathway towards nuclear power that could be converted for nuclear weapons. And now we're talking about a deal for a six-month window.

KELLY: So yes or no, should the U.S. pull out of nuclear talks with Iran?

MENENDEZ: I'm not in support of nuclear talks, at least...

KELLY: OK.

MENENDEZ: ...As they're being devised now and what's being proposed.

KELLY: One more on Iran, and then I want to turn you to Saudi Arabia, which is - we mentioned 2009. President Obama was in the White House in 2009. He got hammered for being too hesitant to support protests in Iran that were then crushed by the regime. Is there a risk now in going too far the other way? Could American support for the protesters do more harm than good?

MENENDEZ: There's always a calibration, as being seen as supportive versus being seen as the instigator. But it's clear at this point that the protests in Iran are of the making of the Iranian regime and their oppression against the Iranian people, particularly of women, and their failure in the economy that has brought suffering to the Iranian people. And so I don't think anybody can think that actually we or anybody else who would assist such a movement would be the instigators. We do this all over the world in terms of supporting human rights and democracy. I don't know why Iran should be an exclusion to that.

KELLY: Saudi Arabia slashed oil production last week. Now, President Biden says he is reevaluating the relationship, as I gather are you. You have vowed to block future weapon sales to the Saudis. And that's not an empty threat. You have veto power over foreign arms sales as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I suppose it prompts a question, though. Can the U.S. afford to cross Saudi Arabia in that way when the relationship is, of course, not just about oil, but about counterterrorism and regional security and so on?

MENENDEZ: My answer, Mary Louise, would be, can the U.S. afford not to? The reality is, is that the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has decided to side with the authoritarians in the world. He's decided to side with Putin. This is not only about Saudi Arabia making more money, which they will because the reduction in supply, the demand will still be there, and so therefore the prices will go up. So they will make more money. It's also about fueling Putin's war machine. He's decided to join with Putin and authoritarians like him. And so if that's your choice...

KELLY: Although this wasn't just the Saudis going rogue, right? This was a unanimous vote - OPEC+, every single member on board.

MENENDEZ: The Saudis lead the cartel. And if Saudi Arabia wasn't there, believe me, the others would not have been there either. So as far as I'm concerned, there are many things the president can consider. The arms sales - I led in 2019 - when the Trump administration decided to make a false emergency and send over $8 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, I led 22 separate joint resolutions of disapproval successfully to stop those sales. So arms sales is just one element of it.

But also, you know, the president has to decide whether Saudi Arabia and the crown prince are really subject to sovereign immunity. There are 9/11 families that have cases in court. The court's waiting to hear what the U.S. position on that, whether or not OPEC cannot be challenged in court as a cartel, whether we are going to continue to say to the Saudis we'll support you and defend you against Iran, which is an existential threat to them. The Russians aren't going to do that. The Russians are in bed with the Iranians, pleading with them to give them help. So I think there's a lot of things that the Saudis have to think about and recalibrate their decision-making as to whose side are you on?

KELLY: We will leave it there for today. New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator, thank you.

MENENDEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.