On the hill

Blinken says progress on Iran, peace process likely a long way away

Blinken discusses a range of Middle East issues during his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday

U.S. Embassy

Secretary of State Tony Blinken

Antony Blinken, President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for secretary of state, said that diplomatic progress on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and other provocations or on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are likely long-term goals unlikely to see significant progress in the near future during his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing Tuesday afternoon.

Blinken reiterated the Biden team’s commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and said that if Iran returns to full compliance with the JCPOA, the Biden administration would do so as well — potentially indicating that the U.S. will not unilaterally roll back the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions without initial steps from the Iranian government.

Iran’s recent moves toward enhancing its nuclear program “potentially [bring] us right back to the crisis that we were reaching before the deal was negotiated,” Blinken said. “We have an urgent responsibility to do whatever we can to prevent Iran from acquiring a weapon or getting close to the capacity to have the fissile material to break out on short notice.”

But the secretary-designate cautioned that “we’re a long way from” Iran returning to compliance with the JCPOA. “There is a lot that Iran would need to do to come back into compliance. We would then have to evaluate whether it had actually done so,” he said.

“We would have to see, once the president-elect is in office, what steps Iran actually takes and is prepared to take,” Blinken continued. “We would then have to evaluate whether they were actually making good and if they say they’re coming back into compliance with their obligations.”

Should Iran return to compliance with the deal, the U.S. could then “use that as a platform” to create a longer-term and more robust agreement with Iran that also encompassed Iran’s non-nuclear weapons and other destabilizing activities,” Blinken added.

The U.S.’s rejection of the Iran deal has also handicapped the country’s ability to respond to Iran’s terrorist activities and other provocations, Blinken added, since it caused a fracture between the U.S. and its European allies on the issue of Iran.

Blinken committed to working together with Congress on the Iran deal, although that proposition will likely be a difficult one. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who will become the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday, was an opponent of the Iran deal and expressed skepticism Tuesday about proposals to rejoin the agreement as it stood in 2015.

“I fear returning to the JCPOA without concrete efforts to address Iran’s other dangerous and destabilizing activity would be insufficient,” Menendez said. “I believe there’s bipartisan support to find a comprehensive diplomatic approach with Iran that includes working closely with our European and regional partners if we take those other issues into consideration.”

Senators on the other side of the aisle were also skeptical of the Biden team’s intended approach to Iran. Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID), the current committee chairman, said during the hearing that a new agreement must address Iran’s  nuclear and non-nuclear programs, and that Biden should submit any deal he does reach to the Senate for ratification as a treaty.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), who questioned Blinken on Iran and encouraged him to review intelligence about current conditions within Iran before making any moves, expressed positivity about Blinken’s response after leaving the hearing.

“He expressed a willingness to consider the current views of the intelligence community and fashion a policy with regards to Iran consistent with that, and not just jumping to the conclusion that what was done by the prior administration was necessarily wrong,” Romney told Jewish Insider. “I think there may well be some opportunities as a result of the current conditions in Iran, that may suggest a different approach than that was applied in the past.”

Blinken also said that he believes that the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force does not grant the president the authority to go to war with Iran without prior congressional approval, and that the Biden administration would seek congressional approval for such an action.

He added that, while “no one is shedding a tear for the demise of [Iranian General] Qassem Soleimani,” who was killed in a Trump administration drone strike, he believes that Iran’s actions since Soleimani’s death prove that Soleimani’s killing made the U.S. less safe on the whole.

During the hearing, Blinken also reiterated that the U.S.’s “commitment to Israel’s security is sacrosanct” and said the U.S. is committed to a two-state solution, but acknowledged that it is “hard to see near-term prospects for moving forward on that.”

“[A two-state solution] seems more distant than it’s ever been, at least since Oslo,” Blinken added.

He said that, in the current environment, the priority is to avoid unilateral actions that set back the peace process further, and subsequently working to rebuild confidence for peace negotiations.

The secretary-designate said later in the hearing that he sees an opportunity to build on the Abraham Accords to achieve further progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, referring to the Trump administration-brokered recent deal that normalizes relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

“I hope that also might create a greater sense of confidence and security in Israel as it considers its relationship with the Palestinians. Whether we like it or not, whether they like it or not, it’s not just going away,” Blinken said.

Blinken also reiterated his and Biden’s opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which he said “unfairly and inappropriately singles out Israel.” He also acknowledged Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and said the Biden administration did not plan to move the U.S. embassy from  Jerusalem.

While the former deputy secretary of state praised the Abraham Accords, he also said “there are certain commitments that may have been made in the context of getting those countries to normalize relations with Israel that I think we should take a hard look at” — likely referring to the sale of F-35s and other arms to the U.A.E., U.S. recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara and Sudan’s removal from the list of state sponsors of terror.

Menendez said earlier Tuesday that the committee will vote on Blinken’s nomination on Monday. Some Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), indicated during the hearing that they might support Blinken’s nomination.

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