Incoming top U.S. diplomat says Washington still ‘long way’ from stronger Iran deal


January 21, 2021



Antony J. Blinken, of New York, speaks during his confirmation hearing to be Secretary of State before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, U.S. January 19, 2021. Graeme Jennings/Pool via REUTERS


By Nick Wadhams and David Wainer | BLOOMBERG


U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to lead the State Department has said the U.S. is still a “long way” from securing a long-term deal with Tehran that improves the original Iran nuclear agreement, but insisted that the country’s ability to develop weapons of mass destruction be put “back in the box.”

Secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken reiterated the incoming administration’s desire to re-enter the 2015 accord that President Donald Trump withdrew from three years ago. But Blinken — who said the accord helped restrain Iran’s nuclear program — added that Tehran must return to compliance with the terms of the deal first, and he vowed to work closely with Congress as potential talks progress.

“If Iran comes back into compliance we would, too, but we would use that as a platform with our allies and partners who would once again be on the same side with us, to seek a longer and stronger agreement,” Blinken said in testimony Tuesday to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Having said that, I think we’re a long way from there. We would have to see once the president-elect is in office what steps Iran actually takes and is prepared to take.”

Blinken, who served as deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration and was a top aide to Biden when he was a senator, was asked to defend Obama-era foreign policy decisions in places such as Libya. That country fell into chaos and portions of it were under control of Islamic State militants after dictator Moammar Gadhafi was killed.

“We didn’t fully appreciate the fact” that Gadhafi “made sure there was no rival to his power,” said Blinken, 58. He said he had since done “a lot of hard thinking about some of the very situations you’ve mentioned.”

China emerged as another top concern among both Republican and Democratic senators. Blinken said he had “no doubt” that China wants to become the dominant global power. He said he wished the Trump administration had acted faster to punish Beijing for its increasing control of Hong Kong, which has “put in tatters the notion of real freedom and autonomy in Hong Kong.”

He also said he wanted to see a greater role for Taiwan in global organizations and he reiterated bipartisan efforts to help the island’s government defend itself from Chinese military action.

“Part of that commitment is making sure that Taiwan has the ability to defend itself against aggression, and that is a commitment that will absolutely endure in a Biden administration,” Blinken said.

The hearing was marked by a tension between Blinken’s clear intention to undo many of Trump’s signature foreign policy initiatives, such as quitting the Iran nuclear deal, while also acknowledging the world has changed so much in the past four years that reverting to the old approach is not possible.

He got a favorable response from several Republicans including Sen. James Risch of Idaho, who said he shared Democrats’ hopes that Blinken could be confirmed by Monday. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said he intended to approve the nomination.

”I think you’re an outstanding choice,” Graham said. “To me the whole point of this is to nominate qualified people and get them in place as soon as possible.”

Under questioning from Republican senators, Blinken acknowledged that Trump’s foreign policy has on some occasions led to favorable outcomes. He noted a tougher approach to China, diplomatic deals with Israel and higher defense spending from NATO partners as some examples. He committed to not reversing Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

More broadly, Blinken promised to revitalize alliances and approach the world with humility, offering a contrast with outgoing Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s embrace of “swagger” and his take-it-or-leave-it diplomatic stance.

“Humility and confidence should be the flip sides of America’s leadership coin,” Blinken said in his opening statement. “Humility because we have a great deal of work to do at home to enhance our standing abroad.”

While largely avoiding criticism of Trump and Pompeo, his comments signaled that Blinken intends to draw the curtain on four years of “America First,” in which Trump browbeat the NATO alliance, slammed staunch allies such as Germany and France, and demanded that nations such as South Korea and Japan pay more for the privilege of hosting U.S. troops.

Gone was any hint of the departing administration’s public skepticism of multilateral institutions. Already, the Biden team has signaled it will quickly rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change and reverse Trump’s plan to leave the World Health Organization.

Blinken also gave a nod to the polarization in American society and the recent rioting at the Capitol, which Republicans are increasingly blaming on rhetoric fueled by Trump.

“Our ability to be a strong leader for and defender of democracy and human rights also depends to a large extent on the strength of our own democracy here at home and as we’ve discussed we have some work to do,” Blinken said.

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