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Blinken: Saudi, Iran rapprochement ‘does not in any way substitute’ U.S. push to expand Abraham Accords

The secretary of state testified before the Senate Appropriations and Foreign Relations committees on Wednesday

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 22, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

Secretary of State Tony Blinken said yesterday that the recent China-brokered agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran to normalize relations has not derailed efforts to advance Saudi-Israeli normalization.

“It does not in any way substitute for our determination to pursue the deepening as well as the expansion of the Abraham Accords,” Blinken, who testified yesterday before the Senate Appropriations and Foreign Relations Committees, said. “I had a long discussion with [Israeli] Prime Minister Netanyahu about this when I was recently in Israel. We’re very focused on that. And I also don’t think it will change the interests of other countries in pursuing that.”

Much of the discussion around Saudi Arabia’s deepening ties with Israel had revolved around efforts to build joint military partnerships aimed at countering Iran, so the pact raised questions about the viability of continued normalization efforts.

Blinken downplayed the role that China had played in the Saudi-Iranian agreement, which many on Capitol Hill have warned reflects increasing Chinese influence in the Middle East. Blinken said that the talks have been ongoing and progressing for multiple years, and that China only became involved at the final stages.

“What China did… was to, at the very end of that process, take advantage of the work that these countries have done. And then basically host the conclusion of the agreement that they reached… not to bring it together themselves,” he said. “It sent a diplomatic signal — there’s no doubt about it.”

While questioning whether the agreement would last, he also reiterated comments from others in the administration that the administration views deescalation in Saudi-Iranian tensions as a positive step.

Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-TN), who questioned Blinken about the agreement, requested a classified briefing for more details on the situation and what inducements China may have offered to Saudi Arabia. Speaking to JI after the hearing, Hagerty called the situation “extraordinarily challenging” and “a very grave concern,” but declined to speculate on how the U.S. should adjust its policies in response.

Addressing lawmakers a day after simmering tensions between Israel and the U.S. came to a boiling point — Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog was summoned to the State Department on Tuesday for a meeting with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who rebuked the Israeli government for passing a law repealing Israel’s 2005 disengagement from the northern West Bank — Blinken sought to cast a positive light on the current status of U.S.-Israel ties.

Regarding the disengagement law, Blinken acknowledged that the repeal was “inconsistent… with longstanding commitments” and contrary to recent pledges to deescalate tensions, but emphasized that “Prime Minister Netanyahu has said that [the government has] no intention of actually… moving forward on the authorities that it has been apparently given.”

While applauding the repeal of the “discriminatory and humiliating law that barred Jews from living in areas in… our historic homeland” earlier this week, Netanyahu said the “government has no intention of establishing new communities in these areas.”

Responding to criticism from Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) of recent comments by Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich calling for the elimination of a Palestinian town in the West Bank, Blinken noted that Netanyahu had “insisted that the person in question walk those comments back, which he did, for what that’s worth.”

More broadly, Blinken maintained that Israel and the Palestinian Authority remain committed to deescalating tensions, despite comments from Netanyahu rejecting a recent agreement made at a summit in Aqaba, Jordan.

“I’ve heard directly from Israeli leadership — as well as the Palestinian Authority — about the desire for both sides to see the violence that has reached record levels in recent months, deescalate and to try to get a period of calm,” Blinken said. “It’s an interest that, at least Prime Minister Netanyahu has expressed directly to me… if we see steps inconsistent with that, I think it does contradict what we believe both Israelis and the Palestinian Authority are seeking to do and what they’ve said to us is in their own self-interest.”

Blinken declined to say how the U.S. might respond if either side violated recent commitments to deescalation.

Addressing Iranian threats, Blinken reiterated that a nuclear deal is not currently on the table. He said that European countries are, following Iran’s stonewalling of nuclear talks, its support of Russia and the street protests in Iran, now more prepared to coordinate with the U.S.’ sanctions regime.

“All of that has further concentrated minds in a significant way, including in Europe,” Blinken said. “We have taken increasingly coordinated actions, together with our partners, particularly with regard to sanctions.”

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who chairs the committee, said he remains skeptical of Europe’s willingness to join the U.S. sanctions. Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID), the committee’s ranking member, said he shared Menendez’s concerns, but added that he has been impressed by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s recent posture toward Iran.

“I think they’re doing a really good job,” he said. “I think that there’s a different attitude there than there’s been in years past, and they are very clear-eyed. And more importantly, they’re willing to actually talk about… what they’re finding and not finding.”

Blinken also insisted that the U.S. is “aggressively working” to cut off Iran’s supply of drones to Russia and “working every day to enforce the existing sanctions on Iran, even as we’re looking at imposing new ones” targeting Iran’s oil exports.

Pressed on why the U.S. had granted waivers allowing for civilian nuclear cooperation between Iran and Russia, Blinken insisted that “these waivers have been in the nonproliferation interests of the United States” and have been narrowed to advance these interests.

He claimed the waivers allow the U.S. “to make sure that materials that Iran could use to develop its nuclear program were shipped out of Iran, and to make sure that facilities in Iran would not be developed in a way that could lead to further proliferation or the advancement of the program.”

The secretary of state was also questioned about the U.S. response to a 2021 Iranian-backed missile attack on Abu Dhabi that killed three civilians. Emirati officials have reportedly told multiple U.S. congressional delegations that they felt slighted by what they described as an inadequate U.S. response to the incident.

Blinken said he has discussed the issue extensively with Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ), the president of the United Arab Emirates, and is “deeply sensitive to the way this was perceived by our friends.”

“My own conversations with MBZ,” Blinken continued, “made it clear that we understood and that we would be with them and stand with them against threats to their security.” He added that the U.S. has since worked to negotiate an agreement with the UAE to address Emirati security concerns and remains open to proceeding with arms sales, including of the F-35 advanced fighter jet, which the UAE put on hold.

Blinken also noted, however, that there had been high-level discussion between U.S. and Emirati officials immediately following the 2021 incident, that the Defense Department promptly deployed forces to back up Emirati forces and that U.S. technology defended the UAE against the attack. 

Blinken appeared to shoot down one avenue that some lawmakers have floated for restricting aid to Israel, affirming that he believes Israel to be in compliance with legislation barring U.S. military aid from going to any military unit involved in violations of human rights. Some lawmakers had claimed last year that the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, likely by Israeli forces during an anti-terrorism raid in the West Bank, may have been a violation of this provision.

The secretary of state also discussed continued challenges in Lebanon, describing the nation’s economy as in a “tailspin” and its concurrent economic and political crises as compounding one another.

“Parliament needs to actually elect a president — that’s long in the making — form a government, and on that basis, be able to actually implement the reforms that are necessary to secure” International Monetary Fund aid, Blinken explained. “I really think the IMF program is critical, but to get the IMF program, you’ve got to have a government in place.”

Concluding the hearing, Menendez ticked off a litany of concerns with Turkey, restating his belief that the administration should not sell Ankara F-16 fighter jets. Blinken responded by describing Turkey as “a challenging ally.”

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