WASHINGTON -- President-elect Joe Biden’s secretary of state nominee said the incoming administration would seek a “longer and stronger” nuclear agreement with Iran as he laid out a foreign-policy vision for the next four years.
However, Antony Blinken also said Washington is a “long way” from reaching a new accord with Tehran, echoing comments made earlier in the day by Biden’s pick to lead the nation’s spy bureaucracy, Avril Haines.
“We would have to see, once the president is in office, what steps Iran actually takes” and evaluate whether “they're coming back into compliance with their obligations,” Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing on January 19.
Biden has said he would like the United States to rejoin the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that limits Iran’s nuclear program, if Tehran returns to compliance with the deal.
Iran has gradually breached its nuclear commitments in response to President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrawing Washington from the agreement in 2018.
Blinken said the 2015 agreement would be “a platform” for a “longer and stronger agreement” that would include other issues such as Iran’s missile program and malign activities.
Iran has repeatedly said its missile program and regional policies are off the table, demanding instead the United States comply with its JCPOA commitments and reverse sanctions. Tehran says its nuclear program is strictly for civilian purposes.
Blinken is well-versed in the details of the 2015 nuclear agreement, having previously served as deputy national-security adviser from 2013 to 2015 and deputy secretary of state from 2015 to 2017 when President Barack Obama’s administration joined world powers in the JCPOA.
The 58-year-old said the Trump administration’s assassination last year of top Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani has left the United States “less safe.”
Blinken pointed to Iran’s missile attack following the assassination that left dozens of U.S. soldiers with brain injuries and the possible closure of the U.S. Embassy in Iraq due to security threats emanating from Iran.
Senators on the panel also questioned Blinken on Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, and China during the more than three-hour confirmation hearing.
Blinken condemned Russia’s arrest of Aleksei Navalny, saying it is a sign of “how frightened [President] Vladimir Putin” is of the Kremlin critic.
He said the leading opposition figure speaks for “millions and millions of Russians” and that “their voice needs to be heard.”
In other comments, Blinken said he backed inviting Georgia into the NATO military alliance, if the former Soviet republic meets the requirements. Russia adamantly opposes Georgia ever joining NATO and maintains troops in two Moscow-backed breakaway regions that comprise about 20 percent of Georgian territory, in what Tbilisi considers an occupation.
Blinken rejected the view of Senator Rand Paul (Republican-Kentucky) that expanding NATO could lead to war with Russia, saying Moscow risked invading its southern neighbor in 2008 precisely because it was not part of the Western military alliance.
He also said he backed giving Ukraine lethal weapons to defend itself against Russian aggression while serving in the Obama administration. Obama did not give the green light for deliveries of lethal weapons though, Trump did.
However, Blinken warned U.S. efforts to support Ukraine must include fighting corruption.
“We have to help the Ukrainians deal with that too because even if we're successful in at least helping them keep Russia at bay, if that threat from within continues, then it's going to be very difficult for them to build a viable democracy,” he said.
Blinken said he supported the outgoing Trump administration’s decision earlier in the day to label China’s treatment of Muslim Uyghurs and other minority groups in Xinjiang province a “genocide.”
“Forcing men, women, and children into concentration camps, trying to in effect reeducate them to be adherents to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party. All of that speaks to an effort to commit genocide,” said Blinken.