WASHINGTON – U.S. Secretary of State-nominee Antony Blinken said on Tuesday that it's "vitally important" that the United States consult with Israel and Gulf states regarding any potential re-entry into the Iran nuclear deal, which Presidet Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018.
Blinken also said that he considers Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel and that he commits to keeping the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.
Addressing his confirmation hearing at the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Blinken stressed U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's commitment to making sure Iran doesn't acquire a nuclear weapon, adding that the U.S. and its allies would seek a "longer and stronger" agreement.
"Iran with a nuclear weapon, or on the threshold of having one and with the capacity to build one in short order, would be in Iran that is even more dangerous than it already is when it comes to all of the other malicious activities that it's engaged in – whether it is support for terrorism, fueling and feeding proxies, or destabilizing the region," he said. "I think we have an urgent responsibility to do whatever we can to prevent Iran from acquiring or creating a weapon or getting close to the capacity to breaking out on short notice."
Blinken told the committee that the 2015 nuclear deal, "for whatever its limitations," was relatively successful in preventing Iran from producing fissile material for nuclear weapons in short order. He added that the deal created "the most intrusive inspections and monitoring regime in the history of arms control."
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"The challenge we face now is that we pulled out of the agreement. Iran is now taking steps to undo the various constraints that were imposed on it, so it has increased a stockpile of low-enriched uranium. It is now enriching at a higher level. It is deploying centrifuges in ways that were prohibited under the agreement," Blinken said.
"The time it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for one weapon has gone from beyond a year, as it was under the JCPOA to about three or four months, based at least on public reporting," he added, referring to the nuclear deal's formal name.
According to Blinken, "That brings us right back to the crisis point that we were reaching before the deal was negotiated. The president-elect believes that if Iran comes back into compliance, 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. 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, we would then have to evaluate whether they were actually making good if they say they're coming back into compliance with their obligations."
Blinken added that he would cooperate with Congress to build consensus before any potential re-entry into the nuclear deal.
Blinken played a leading role in getting the 2015 Iran nuclear deal passed by Congress, and has said throughout the Biden campaign that Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal endangered Israeli security.
He told Jewish Insider last year that even if the deal is renewed in some form and nuclear-related sanctions against Iran were suspended, the United States "will continue non-nuclear sanctions as a strong hedge against Iranian misbehavior in other areas.”
Addressing the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, Blinken said "no one is shedding a tear for his demise. I saw firsthand the blood that he had on his hands, so no one regrets the fact that he's no longer there."
When addressing Yemen, Blinken said the U.S. needs to be "clear-eyed" regarding the Iran-backed Houthi movement, though noted that the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis has led to what he deemed the world's worst humanitarian situation and critiqued the recent U.S. designation of the Houthis. "It seems to achieve nothing particularly practical in advancing the efforts against the Houthis and to bring them back to the negotiating table, while making it even more difficult to provide humanitarian assistance to people who desperately need it."
Two-state solution 'challenged'
Blinken in his Tuesday hearing also applauded the U.S.-brokered normalization agreements between Israel and several Arab countries, saying they made both Israel and the Middle East as a whole safer, and that he hopes the Biden administration can build on them. He hopes the Biden administration can build on them though that the U.S. would take a hard look at the sale of F-35 jets to the United Arab Emirates.
"Whether we like it or not, or they like it or not, it's not just going away," Blinken said.
He said it's hard to see any forward movement toward a two-state solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the near future, urging parties to refrain from any "unilateral actions that make it more challenging."
When questioned on BDS, Blinken said "the president-elect and I are both resolutely opposed to it. It unfairly and inappropriately singles out singles out Israel and creates a double standard and a standard that we do not apply to other countries. We fully respect and will always respect the First Amendment rights of Americans to say what they believe. But BDS itself is something we oppose."
He noted that he believes U.S. commitment to Israeli security is sacrosanct and highlighted that Biden's first trip as a senator was to Israel, where he met with Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin, and that he has worked with every Israeli prime minister since.
"The best way, and maybe the only way, to ensure Israel's future as a Jewish and Democratic state – and to give the Palestinians the state to which they are entitled – is through the so-called two state solution," Blinken said.
Widely respected across the aisle, Blinken is likely to have a reasonably easy ride to confirmation with Republicans potentially finding it difficult to raise credible objections to his appointment.
His message to Jewish voters during the campaign was that Donald Trump wasn’t good for Israel, because the damage he’s done to the United States' international standing adversely impacts its ally.
He also highlighted Biden's support for Israel, explicitly stating that Biden "would not tie military assistance to Israel to any political decisions Israel makes" during a call organized in May by the Democratic Majority for Israel, a centrist organization seeking to increase support for Israel within the Democratic Party.