Biden’s State pick: We’ll consult with Israel, allies before return to Iran deal

Tony Blinken says in confirmation hearing that US commitment to Israel’s security is ‘sacrosanct,’ backs two-state solution but doubts it will happen in near future

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

US Secretary of State nominee Tony Blinken testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 19, 2021. (Alex Edelman/Pool via AP)
US Secretary of State nominee Tony Blinken testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 19, 2021. (Alex Edelman/Pool via AP)

US President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Tony Blinken, said Tuesday that the incoming administration will consult with Israel and Arab allies in the Middle East before it makes decisions about reentering the Iran nuclear agreement.

Biden “believes that if Iran comes back into compliance, we would too,” Blinken said at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“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.

“It’s vitally important that we engage on the takeoff, not the landing, with our allies and partners in the region, to include Israel and to include the Gulf countries,” he said, adding that a new agreement could address Iran’s “destabilizing activities” in the region as well as its missiles.

“Having said that, I think we’re a long way from there,” Blinken said.

Biden has said that returning to the 2015 deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), would be a top priority for him in the Middle East. US President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and imposed crushing sanctions that have wreaked havoc on the Iranian economy.

Biden has said the US would return to the JCPOA so long as Iran returns to strict compliance with the deal first. Over the past several weeks, Tehran has begun enriching uranium up to 20%, in direct violation of the accord.

Biden has also said he intends to enter subsequent negotiations to reach a “longer and stronger” deal with Tehran that would also address its ballistic missile program and regional hegemony. Iran has said it is not interested in reaching subsequent agreements.

File: An Iranian technician walks through the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan 255 miles (410 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2007 (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned against the US rejoining the agreement, speaking out in November and December against the move and urging Biden to continue Trump’s maximum pressure campaign of sanctions against Iran.

However, Israel’s ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, called on Biden to consult with Israel and the Gulf states before returning to the JCPOA.

At his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Blinken assured the committee that the Biden administration would do just that and also engage with Congress before striking any deal with Iran.

Blinken was more circumspect when asked if he would be willing to discuss an alternative to the JCPOA: “I welcome talking to… the members of this committee about the way forward on Iran.”

“We are much better off if we can try and work through these issues together. You have my commitment that we intend and will do that and I look forward to the consultations that we’ll have,” he said.

Students of Iran’s Basij paramilitary force burn posters depicting US President Donald Trump (top) and President-elect Joe Biden, during a rally in front of the foreign ministry in Tehran, on November 28, 2020, to protest the killing of prominent nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh a day earlier near the capital. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

“President-elect Biden is committed to the proposition that Iran will not be permitted to acquire a nuclear weapon,” Blinken continued, while saying the Iran deal signed under former president Barack Obama, with Biden as his vice president, “was succeeding on its own terms.”

“If Iran comes back into compliance, then we would too,” Blinken said, while acknowledging that “we are a long way from there.”

As for Trump’s decision to assassinate top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani last year, Blinken argued that it made the region less safe.

Normalization deals, two-state solution

Blinken praised the Abraham Accords negotiated by the Trump administration that saw Israel normalize ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, saying such agreements make the region safer. However, he said the Biden administration would “take a hard look at” some of the “commitments” that were made in tandem with those accords.

He appeared to be referencing weapons deals made with the UAE, which was set to receive 50 F-35 advanced fighter jets from the US following the signing of the normalization agreement.

US President Donald Trump, center, with, from left, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, September 15, 2020, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)

In a November interview with The Times of Israel, Blinken panned the apparent “quid pro quo” nature of the F-35 sale that immediately followed the normalization agreement.

“The Obama-Biden administration made those planes available to Israel and only Israel in the region,” said Blinken, who served as Biden’s national security adviser, deputy national security adviser to the president and deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration.

During the Tuesday committee hearing, Blinken expressed hope that the Abraham Accords will provide Israel with a new sense of  “confidence and security” to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.

He went on to call the US commitment to Israel’s security “sacrosanct” and later said that he does not consider Israel a “racist nation” when asked by Senator Lindsey Graham.

Blinken threw his support behind a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, while expressing doubt that such a deal could be reached in the near future.

“The only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state and to give the Palestinians a state to which they are entitled is through the so-called two-state solution,” Blinken said, while adding that he opposes “unilateral” efforts by either party that make reaching such a solution more difficult.

Blinken later said he and Biden are “resolutely opposed” to the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel because it “unfairly and inappropriately singles out Israel and creates a double standard that we do not apply to other countries.”

“At the same time, I fully respect the first amendment rights of Americans to say what they believe,” he added, saying he would oppose measures backed by some US Jewish groups to sanction those who boycott Israel.

Blinken also committed to not reversing Trump’s decision to transfer the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, adding that the holy city is Israel’s capital.

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