On January 19, 2021, Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State-designate, pledged that the Biden administration would reenter the 2015 Iran nuclear deal if Tehran first rolls back its recent violations, but would then “seek a longer and stronger agreement” in collaboration with the other five major powers. New diplomacy would address Iran’s ballistic missile program and its destabilizing activities in the Middle East, Blinken said during his confirmation hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He promised to consult with Congress, as well as regional allies such as Israel and the Gulf states, “on the takeoff, not the landing” of new negotiations with Tehran.
But Blinken cautioned that Tehran would have to cut back its stockpile of enriched uranium, the fuel for a nuclear weapon, and stop use of advanced centrifuges to enrich that uranium. In 2019, Iran began breaching its obligations in tit-for-tat responses to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the deal in 2018 and the “maximum pressure campaign” that included hundreds of punitive economic sanctions. Blinken reiterated Biden’s longstanding support for reentering the agreement--if Tehran came back into compliance. “We would then have to evaluate whether it had actually done so,” he told the Senate committee. “I think we're a long way from there.” Blinken was confirmed by a vote of 78 to 22 on January 26. On January 26, Blinken was approved by the Senate with a vote of 78 to 22. He gave his first press briefing on the next day. The following is a rundown of what Blinken has said on Iran in office and before becoming Secretary of State.
Remarks after taking office:
On Iran’s nuclear program and diplomacy
In remarks on June 13, 2022: “It is fundamentally up to Iran to decide whether or not it wishes to re-engage in that agreement [the JCPOA] because the work in terms of re-engaging in that agreement has for the most part been completed. But what we’ve seen is Iran continuing to try to inject extraneous issues into the conversation, into the negotiation, that simply have no place there. So they have to decide, and decide very quickly, if they wish to proceed with what has been negotiated and which could be completed quickly if Iran chose to do so.
“Separately but relatedly, of course, are Iran’s obligations under the nonproliferation regime to its commitments to the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], including commitments that it has dodged for a long period of time, to the point where it was important for the IAEA to express, through the resolution of the Board of Governors, its deep concern with Iran’s failure to comply. Now Iran has taken steps in response to the IAEA that make things even more challenging, including a return to the JCPOA as it, for example, pulls cameras out of places where the IAEA had them placed for monitoring.
“One of the great benefits of the JCPOA was the most comprehensive and complete monitoring and inspections regime of any arms control agreement yet put in place. If the Iranians are dismantling that at the same time, then I think that makes the possibilities of return to compliance even more – more remote. So fundamentally, it’s up to Iran, and we’ll see quickly, I would imagine, what it proposes to do by its actions. And the actions that we’ve seen are not encouraging.
In remarks on Jan. 24, 2022: “We have to pick up the pieces of the disastrous decision to pull out of the agreement. And for whatever it’s – any agreement has imperfections; any agreement, because it’s the product of negotiation, is going to have elements in it that people don’t like and in an ideal world would prefer to avoid. For example, of course part of the other side of the agreement was lifting sanctions on Iran, the sanctions that had been put in place and vigorously enforced by the – first by the Bush administration and then by the Obama administration, in part to get the Iranians to the table to negotiate. But mostly the sanctions that were lifted involved lifting restrictions on countries and banks that prohibited them from sending to Iran the proceeds of Iranian oil sales to those countries. And so in effect, when those were lifted, the agreement was paid for with Iran’s own money. And sure, you would prefer that they not get a dollar. But when you’re negotiating, the other side has to get something, and that was what it got.
“So now, to – excuse me – to fast-forward to today, we are looking at whether it’s possible to return to mutual compliance with this agreement, with the JCPOA, because it remains in our estimation, of all of the imperfect choices we have, the – still the best way to try to put Iran’s nuclear program back in a box and to allow us to at the same time deal with all of the other excesses in Iranian policy because nothing in the agreement in any way prohibits us from going after, sanctioning, dealing with the other things that Iran does that we profoundly object to.
“We’re very, very close to the end of the runway on the ability to get back into this agreement because what’s happened is, is Iran has been moving forward on its program. Two things. It is getting to the point where its breakout time, the time it would take to produce fissile material for a bomb, is getting down to a matter of a few weeks, and that in and of itself is something that should not be sustained over time. That’s not the kind of world that we want to live in.
“Second, it continues to acquire knowledge and build up expertise such that at some point in the relatively near future, even going back to all of the restrictions of the JCPOA will not recapture sufficient nonproliferation benefits, arguably, to justify doing that, because of everything Iran has learned that would allow it to break out, even with the JCPOA restrictions, at a much faster rate. And so we're getting very close to that point. I can't tell you as we gather this evening whether we'll get back to mutual compliance. I think that'll be decided in the next few weeks, because again, this can't – given what Iran is doing, we can't allow this to go on. Our allies and partners in Europe feel the same way.
“I'd say interestingly, the Russians, who are part of this process, also have a sense of urgency. And we'll see what happens. And if we're not able to do that, we have been immersed in working out what we will do to deal with this problem by other means.”
At a press availability on Jan. 21, 2022: “The talks with Iran about a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA have reached a decisive moment. If a deal is not reached in the next few weeks, Iran’s ongoing nuclear advances will make it impossible to return to the JCPOA.
“But right now, there’s still a window, a brief one, to bring those talks to a successful conclusion and address the remaining concerns of all sides. We didn’t expect any major breakthroughs to happen today, but I believe we are now on a clearer path in terms of understanding each other’s concerns, each other’s positions. Let’s see what the next the next days bring.”
At a press conference on Jan. 20, 2022: “We’re now in the midst of the eighth round of talks in Vienna, and as both of us have said, we have reached what is an urgent point. The longer this goes on – which is why it can’t go on much longer – the more Iran will continue to advance its nuclear program, a program that was stopped by the JCPOA, by the nuclear deal, but that was resumed by Iran when we pulled out of it, and the shorter and shorter the so-called breakout time will become that is the time it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.
“So there is real urgency, and this is really now a matter of weeks where we determine whether or not we can return to mutual compliance with the agreement. My own assessment, talking to all of our colleagues, is that returning to mutual compliance remains possible. We’ve seen, I would say, some modest progress in the last couple of weeks in the talks, but we are not where we need to be. And if we don’t get there very soon, we will have to take a different course. And yes, indeed, we discussed exactly that today with our allies and partners. We did that in the Quad with Germany, with France, with the United Kingdom, and we discussed together the steps that we would take together if Iran refuses to return to compliance with the agreement on terms that are acceptable to all of us.”
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Dec. 7, 2021: “We continue to believe that the best way, the most effective way, to resolve the nuclear challenge posed by Iran is through diplomacy and through a return to mutual compliance with the so-called JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal. Given all of the alternatives – and there are alternatives – it remains the best way to actually answer the problem.
“What is deeply, deeply unfortunate is that an agreement that was in place and was working, and it put Iran’s nuclear program in a box for a long duration with the most intrusive inspections and transparency regime of any arms control agreement, was effective, working, and of course, we pulled out of it. I think that was a terrible, terrible mistake. Iran has used that in the last couple of years, despite the maximum pressure being exerted against it, has used that as justification for turning back on the nuclear program and moving very, very deliberately toward having an incredibly dangerous nuclear capacity, spinning more sophisticated centrifuges, accumulating 20 and 60 percent enriched uranium, all the things that the – and also making it very difficult for the inspectors to do their job, all of which was prohibited by the agreement and was in force.
“So here’s the challenge. As we continue to believe that a return to compliance with the agreement is the best way forward, that is not an infinite prospect, because what we will not allow is for Iran to, in effect, tread water at talks and not come forward with any meaningful and serious propositions for finally – for resolving the outstanding issues to returning to compliance while at the same time advancing its program. So the runway is getting very, very short on that.
“We had a resumption of the talks, as you know, a week ago in Vienna, the seventh round, after this interruption of about five months. The Iranians did not come to the table with a seriousness of purpose necessary to get back into compliance. I think the talks will resume. We’ll see – having heard not just from us indirectly but directly from our European partners, as well as from Russia and even China, that this is not the way to move forward, we’ll see if they take a different approach.”
“’Hopeful’ is probably not a word I’d use based on what we’ve seen so far. And again, the runway is short.”
Briefing in Paris on June 25, 2021: "We still have significant differences with Iran... We are only going to reach an agreement with Iran if it honors its obligations under the JCPOA, and we are just not there yet."
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 8, 2021: "I would anticipate that even in the event of a return to compliance with the JCPOA, hundreds of sanctions will remain in place, including sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. If they are not inconsistent with the JCPOA, they will remain unless and until Iran's behavior changes,"
Testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on June 7, 2021: "It remains unclear whether Iran is willing and prepared to do what it needs to do come back into compliance...Meanwhile, its program is galloping forward.. The longer this goes on, the more the breakout time gets down... it's now down, by public reports, to a few months at best. And if this continues, it will get down to a matter of weeks."
Interview with Channel 12 in Jerusalem on May 25, 2021:
Question: "Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said last Thursday that his country’s close to reaching a deal. He said we have taken a big step and an agreement in principle has been achieved. Is that true? How close is the deal?"
Blinken: "Well, I think that would be news to us, because we’re now in the fifth rounds of talks in Vienna. These are – as I think you know – indirect talks. We haven’t been talking directly to the Iranians. It’s been through the European Union and our other partners. I think we’ve clarified increasingly what each side would need to do to come back into compliance with the JCPOA, but it remains an unanswered question whether Iran is actually prepared to do what it needs to do to come back into compliance. The jury is still out on that."
Question: "Israeli prime minister has been quite clear in his opposition to the Iran deal. Today during your joint statement, he said, “I hope the U.S. [does] not [return] to the old JCPOA.” So let me ask you, Mr. Secretary, are the plans indeed to return to the same terms as the JCPOA or additional safeguards, for example to ensure that Iran – Iran’s compliance?"
Blinken: "The United States and Israel are absolutely united in the proposition that Iran can never acquire a nuclear weapon. We are joined in that goal and in that commitment. It’s also no secret that over time we’ve had differences over the best way to get there, to make sure that Iran does not get a weapon. From our perspective, the JCPOA did exactly what it set out to accomplish, which was to cut off all of the pathways that Iran had to producing fissile material for a nuclear weapon on short order. And our experts verified that it was working, international experts verified that it was working, and it had the most intrusive inspections regime of any arms control agreement ever achieved. And the result was that when the agreement was in force, Iran, had it decided to try to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon, would have required at least a year to do so, which would have been plenty of time to see it and, if necessary, to do something about it.
"But here’s what happened since. Now that we’re out of the deal, Iran has started to ignore the constrains that the deal imposed. And it is closer and closer and closer to being able to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon on very short order. And so far from getting less dangerous without the deal, it’s gotten more dangerous. And I think there’s a certain amount of urgency to try to put Iran back into the nuclear box that the deal constructed.
"So having said that, what we’ve said along is if we succeed in doing that, if Iran returns to compliance with the deal, we would do the same. We would also seek to make it, as we say, longer and stronger. And we’d also work hard to engage the other issues where Iran is a very dangerous and problematic actor for us and for Israel – destabilizing activities in the region, proliferation of weapons, support for terrorist groups, et cetera. All of those things —"
Question: "So when you say 'longer' does that mean the sunset clause is extended, for example? It won’t end in 2031?"
Blinken: "Yeah, I think this is important. Of course, with the passage of time the different timelines have gotten shorter. Having said that, the two most important timelines – the level at which Iran can enrich, 3.67 percent, the limits on the stockpile of enriched uranium to 300 kilograms – those don’t expire until 2030. So if Iran were to come back into compliance, we would also have some time to seek to extend those deadlines and others."
Remarks to press in Jerusalem on May 25, 2021: "What we have done very, very resolutely, as we’ve tried to see whether a return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA is possible, is that we have regularly before, during, and after all of our engagements – indirect engagements with the Iranians in Vienna – kept our partners here in Israel informed, as well as others who are concerned. And that’s not going to stop."
"We’re working to see if we can get back into mutual compliance. We’ve said all along that that would be a first step, that we also would seek to try to make the agreement longer and stronger, and also to deal with other issues and other challenges posed by Iran, to include its support for terrorism, its support for destabilizing proxy groups in countries throughout the region, its proliferation. All of these things we’re determined to engage, but the first thing we’re trying to achieve is to, as I said, put the nuclear problem back into the box that we constructed and that was strong, solid, and doing what we needed to do.
"Now, we’re engaged or about to engage in I think the fifth round of discussions in Vienna, and we still don’t know the answer to the most important question, which is whether Iran is actually willing and able to make the decisions it needs to make to come back into full compliance. The jury is still out, and we will see whether or not Iran makes that decision."
"We said all along that if there was an opportunity, we would seek to return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA, but we also said that from day one, we would be keeping our closest allies and closest partners fully and contemporaneously informed of what we were doing and where we were going. And that’s what we’ve done and that’s what we’ll continue to do. That is how you keep faith with your partners and allies on something that, of course, is of great consequence to Israel. We understand that. And again, we have the same objective, and let’s see where things go in the next few weeks. But I can again tell you that we are fully engaged with our partners here in at least making sure that they’re fully informed of what we’re doing."
Press conference in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 25, 2021: "We had a detailed discussion about Israel’s security needs, including replenishing Iron Dome. We’ll continue to strengthen all aspects of our longstanding partnership. And that includes consulting closely with Israel, as we did today, on the ongoing negotiations in Vienna around a potential return to the Iran nuclear agreement, at the same time as we continue to work together to counter Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region."
Remarks on CNN's Fareed Zakaria GPS on May 23, 2021: "I think the steps that Iran is taking underscore the urgency of trying to get Iran back into compliance with its obligations under the nuclear deal, the deal that stopped their – the dangerous aspects of their nuclear program, the prospect that they could have fissile material for a nuclear weapon on short order. We’ve had, I think, five rounds of conversations now, of talks now, indirect in Vienna. And in fact, our team’s going back to Vienna in the coming days to pursue that. I think we’ve actually made progress in clarifying what each side needs to do to get back into full compliance.
"The outstanding question, the question that we don’t have an answer to yet, is whether Iran, at the end of the day, is willing to do what is necessary to come back into compliance with the agreement. That’s the proposition that we’re testing. But it’s getting, I think, through these rounds of discussions and talks, clearer and clearer what needs to happen. The question is: Is Iran prepared to do it?"
"We are fully prepared to go back to the original deal as it was. That’s our initial objective. And we – again, we don’t know if the Iranians are. If we do, if we succeed in that, then we can use that as a foundation both to look at how we can make the deal itself potentially longer and stronger, and also engage on these other issues, whether it’s Iran’s support for terrorism, its proliferation, its destabilizing support for different proxies throughout the Middle East."
Press conference with the Australian foreign minister on May 13, 2021: "I don’t have anything to offer on whether there is Iranian involvement or not in what’s taking place [in Gaza], but I would only say that when it comes to any of the malign activities that Iran may or may not be engaged in, whether it is support for terrorism, whether it’s efforts to destabilize other countries, whether it is other actions that we find objectionable, that only underscores the importance of doing everything we can to make sure that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. An Iran with a nuclear weapon or with the capacity to have one on very short order is an Iran that’s likely to act with even greater impunity when it comes to these other actions. So the talks go on in Vienna in an effort to see if we can return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA, and those will continue."
Interview with The Financial Times on May 3, 2021: "I don’t want to get into hypotheticals about what one outcome or another in Iran’s elections – what impact that would or wouldn’t have on any nuclear negotiations. And to your point, I think it’s clear who the decider is in the Iranian system, and that’s the supreme leader, and he’s the one who has to make the fundamental decisions about what Iran’s approach would be.
"We’ve had serious discussions in Vienna that have gone on now for several weeks. I think we’ve seen some progress at least in demonstrating the seriousness with which the United States takes the effort to return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA. We still have a long way to go if we’re going to get anywhere, and in particular, we still have to see whether Iran is willing and able to make the necessary decisions on its part for returning to compliance. And I think as one of my colleagues said the other day, there is more road yet to go than road that’s been traveled, so let’s see where we get."
Press conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on April 14, 2021: "With regard to Iran, we take very seriously its provocative announcement of an intent to begin enriching uranium at 60 percent, and the P5+1 should be unified and united in rejecting that. I have to tell you the step calls into question Iran’s seriousness with regard to the nuclear talks, just as it underscores the imperative of returning to mutual compliance with the JCPOA.
"The United States and Iran have both stated a common objective of returning to mutual compliance with the JCPOA. We’ve been engaged constructively in a diplomatic process to achieve that goal. In Vienna last week, we explored concrete approaches that we could take, the steps that Iran and the United States would take to return to compliance. And I think the United States demonstrated very clearly to the other participants in this effort and to the world our seriousness of purpose. It remains to be seen whether Iran has that same seriousness of purpose.
"But the goal – returning to compliance with the JCPOA – and the diplomatic process, which is resuming in Vienna this week – that remains the best way to limit Iran’s nuclear program in a lasting way, to verifiably ensure that Iran cannot produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon on short notice. And we’re committed to pursuing that process, but the real question is whether Iran is, and we’ll find out."
Testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Mar. 10, 2021: "There was an invitation from the European Union to all of the parties to the JCPOA, including Iran, including the United States, to come and start to talk about whether there was a way back to Iran meeting its obligations. We said we would attend. Iran has so far said no. I think the ball is in their court to see if they are serious about re-engaging or not."
"If Iran returns to compliance with its obligations and we do the same, we would use that as a platform to build a longer and stronger agreement, including dealing with some of the sunset clauses that expire in the near term. Having said that, the ones that matter most, the ones, for example, that prevent Iran or bar Iran from enriching beyond 3.67 percent, the one that caps its stockpile of enriched material at 300 kilograms - those don't expire until 2030. We've got about a decade on those, and those are the most critical ones when it comes to Iran's breakout time. Beyond that, the various inspection provisions actually go even beyond 2030. So it's not to say that the sunsets are not an issue that need to be addressed. They do. But in terms of the ones that that matter most for Iran's breakout capacity, they start to expire in 2030."
“When it comes to something like the Iran nuclear agreement, we are committed to working, consulting, and talking to our closest partners and allies, including Israel, including the Gulf States, regarding anything that we might do going forward on that agreement. We need to be engaged with them since it affects them, too, on the takeoff, not on the landing. And we're committed to doing that.”
Address to the U.N.-sponsored Conference on Disarmament on Feb. 22, 2021: “The United States remains committed to ensuring that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. Diplomacy is the best path to achieve that goal.”
“Working with allies and partners, we will also seek to lengthen and strengthen the JCPOA and address other areas of concern, including Iran's destabilizing regional behavior and ballistic missile development and proliferation.”
“Iran must comply with its safeguards agreements with the IAEA and its international obligations.”
Joint Statement with the Foreign Ministers of Britain, France and Germany on Feb. 18, 2021: “Secretary Blinken reiterated that, as President Biden has said, if Iran comes back into strict compliance with its commitments under the JCPOA, the United States will do the same and is prepared to engage in discussions with Iran toward that end.
“In this context, the E3 and the US called on Iran not to take any additional steps, in particular with respect to the suspension of the Additional Protocol and to any limitations on IAEA verification activities in Iran. The E3 and the United States are united in underlining the dangerous nature of a decision to limit IAEA access, and urge Iran to consider the consequences of such grave action, particularly at this time of renewed diplomatic opportunity. They reiterated their full support for the professional and impartial role of the IAEA and its Director General and their efforts to implement the necessary verification and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear commitments under the JCPOA.
“The E3 and the United States also expressed their shared concerns over Iran’s recent actions to produce both uranium enriched up to 20% and uranium metal. These activities have no credible civil justification. Uranium metal production is a key step in the development of a nuclear weapon.”
Interview with NPR on Feb. 16, 2021:
Blinken: “Well, at some point presumably, if there’s going to be any engagement on this, that would have to require [direct] diplomacy. That’s what we’re in the business of.”
Question: “The rocket attack yesterday across the border in Erbil. In the past, the U.S. has blamed similar attacks on Iran-backed forces. Do you see this as Iran testing a new U.S. administration?”
Blinken: “Look, it’s too soon to say. The attack itself was outrageous. As you said, Mary Louise, in Erbil it harmed civilians, it harmed coalition forces, including an American service member. I spoke with the Kurdish region’s prime minister, Masrour Barzani. I spoke with Iraq’s prime minister today. We’re focused on ensuring the safety of our folks, of government personnel, of U.S. citizens, the security of our facilities. That’s the high priority. And of course, the Iraqi people have suffered for far too long from this kind of violence, and a violation of their sovereignty. What we’re doing, what the Iraqis are doing, the Kurdish region, the central government in Baghdad, have stood up a committee to try to get to the bottom of what happened. Obviously, we’ll participate in that and try to help. So we need to find out who’s responsible. We don’t, at this point, know.
“Certainly we’ve seen these attacks in the past. We’ve seen Iraqi militia, Iranian-backed militia in many cases, be responsible. But to date, it’s too early to know who is responsible for this one.”
Tweet on Feb. 10, 2021:
.@SecBlinken: If Iran returns to compliance with its obligations under the nuclear agreement, we would do the same thing, and we would work with our allies and partners to try to build a longer and stronger agreement. pic.twitter.com/QGLmBQTSw3— Department of State (@StateDept) February 10, 2021
Interview with CNN on Feb. 8, 2021:
Question: "You’re facing a stalemate apparently when it comes to Iran, the Iran nuclear deal. Iran’s ayatollah says the U.S. needs to lift sanctions before it returns to the deal. President Biden says he won’t lift sanctions first. So what happens now?"
Blinken: "Well, look, the President’s been very clear about this
"If Iran returns to compliance with its obligations under the nuclear agreement, we would do the same thing, and then we would work with our allies and partners to try to build a longer and stronger agreement, and also bring in some of these other issues, like Iran’s missile program, like its destabilizing actions in the region that need to be addressed as well.
"The problem we face now, Wolf, is that in recent months Iran has lifted one restraint after another that was – they were being held in check by the agreement. We got out of the agreement, Iran started to lift the various restraints in the agreement, and the result is they are closer than they’ve been to having the capacity on short order to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon. The agreement had pushed that past a year. According to public reports now, it’s down to three or four months and heading in the wrong direction.
"So the first thing that’s so critical is for Iran to come back into compliance with its obligations. They’re a ways from that. But if they do that, the path of diplomacy is there, and we’re willing to walk it."
Interview with NBC on Feb. 1, 2021:
Question: “Do we have time for the negotiations? You said that they’ll take time. But if they’re that close to building a bomb?”
Blinken: “Well, there are two things, Andrea. Indeed, the time that it would take Iran – based on public reports, the time that it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon is down to, we think, a few months. And I have not seen the actual intelligence yet, but what’s been publicly reported says it’s down to a few months. The agreement, the infamous JCPOA, pushed that to beyond a year. So that’s a real problem, and it’s a problem that could get more acute, because if Iran continues to lift some of these restraints imposed by the agreement, that could get down to a matter of weeks.
“Now, the fissile material is one thing. Having a weapon that they can actually detonate and use is another. And so there has – there’s a timeline that’s probably different for that. But the bottom line is they are getting closer to the point where they would be either a threshold nuclear power, or actually a nuclear power. And that is profoundly against our interests.
“President Biden has been very clear on this. He’s said that if Iran returns to compliance with its obligations under the agreement, we would do the same thing. But then we would use that with our allies and partners. We’d once again be on the same side with our allies and partners, who were very distressed at us pulling out of the agreement. We would work with them to get something that is longer and stronger, and also deal with some of the other challenges that Iran poses, whether it’s its missile program, whether it’s its destabilizing activities in the region.”
Question: “Missiles, destabilizing activities have to be part of any new agreement?”
Blinken: “We have to deal with those. We have to make sure that whether it’s part of a new agreement, whether it’s in parallel with a new agreement, that we are contending with that challenge that Iran poses. And that’s a threat to international peace and security, it’s a threat to our allies and partners as much as it is to us.”
Question: “What about the Americans who are still imprisoned in Iran? Should they be released as part of any deal?”
Blinken: “Irrespective of any deal, those Americans need to be released, period. And I am determined, whether it is in Iran or anywhere else, that any American unjustly detained is able to come home. And we will be working on that issue wherever it may arise, every single day.”
Question: “But should that be a condition for the U.S. to enter into a new deal?”
Blinken: “We’re going to focus on making sure that they come home one way or another, and we’re also going to focus at the same time, depending on what Iran does, in working on the nuclear matter. But of course, we’re a ways from that. Iran is well out of compliance with its obligations. If it decides to come back into the agreement, that may take some time, and then it’s going to take us some time to assess whether they in fact have made good on their obligations. So let’s see what they do.”
Press briefing on Jan. 27, 2021: “With regard to Iran, President Biden has been very clear in saying that if Iran comes back into full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA, the United States would do the same thing and then we would use that as a platform to build, with our allies and partners, what we called a longer and stronger agreement and to deal with a number of other issues that are deeply problematic in the relationship with Iran.
“But we are a long ways from that point. Iran is out of compliance on a number of fronts. And it would take some time, should it make the decision to do so, for it to come back into compliance in time for us then to assess whether it was meeting its obligations. So we’re not – we’re not there yet to say the least.
“And then with regards to how we would engage this issue if Iran decides to come back into compliance, I can tell you that we will build a strong team of experts and we will bring to bear different perspectives on the issue.”
On the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps
To reporters on March 27, 2022:
Question: Is the IRGC a foreign terrorist organization?
Blinken: Yes, it is a terror organization and should be dealt as such. And also, it is – has the proxy terrorist organization like Hizballah, like the Houthis in Yemen, and Islamic Jihad in Gaza.
On negotiating a prisoner swap with Iran
2,000 days ago, Iran arrested Siamak Namazi for being a U.S. citizen. When his father, Baquer, flew to Iran to free him, he was imprisoned and is now barred from leaving. All U.S. hostages and wrongful detainees must be released and reunited with their loved ones. #FreetheNamazis pic.twitter.com/WdUhGAIl1D— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) April 3, 2021
Remarks before taking office:
On Iran’s nuclear program and future diplomacy
Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 19, 2021:
Blinken: “First, President-elect Biden is committed to the proposition that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon. And we share, I know, that goal across this committee. An Iran with a nuclear weapon or on the threshold of having one, with the capacity to build one on short order, would be an 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, whether it is fueling and feeding his proxies, whether it is destabilizing the region. An Iran with a nuclear weapon or with the threshold capacity to build one is an Iran that would act, potentially, with even greater impunity than it already is. So, I think we have an urgent responsibility to do whatever we can to prevent Iran from acquiring or getting a weapon or getting close to the capacity to having the fissile material to breakout on short notice.
“In my judgment, the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], for whatever its limitations, was succeeding on its own terms in blocking Iran's pathways to producing fissile material for a nuclear weapon on short order. It also featured a feature that continues the most intrusive inspections and monitoring regime in the history of arms control.
“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 by the agreement. And so it has increased its 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. The result is based on public reporting. The breakout time, 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. And that potentially brings us right back to the crisis point that we were reaching before the deal was negotiated.
“And so the president-elect believes that 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. And also, as you and the chairman have rightly pointed out, to capture these other issues, particularly with regard to missiles and Iran's destabilizing activities, that would be the objective. 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, we would then have to evaluate whether they were actually making good, if they say they're coming back into compliance, with their obligations, and then we would take it from there.
“But in the first instance, the last thing I'll say on this sir, is that, yes, we absolutely will consult with you and not only with you. I think, as the chairman suggested, it's also vitally important that we engage on the takeoff, not the landing, with our allies and with our partners in the region to include Israel and to include the Gulf countries.”
Senator Edward Markey (D-MA): “The bottom line is that the single greatest existential threat in the region is a nuclear Iran, and we must take that off the table before we look to making the agreement longer and stronger. Would you commit to reentering the JCPOA without any preconditions as a starting point, so long as the Iranians return to all of their commitments as well?”
Blinken: “What the president-elect has said on that, Senator, is that if Iran returns to compliance with the JCPOA, we would do the same thing and then use that as a platform working with our allies and partners to build a longer and stronger agreement to also capture some of the other issues that need to be dealt with regard to missiles, with regard to Iran's activities and destabilizing activities in the region. Having said that, I think we're some ways from even that. There is a lot that Iran would need to do to come back into compliance. We would then have to evaluate whether it had actually done so. So I don't think that's anything that's happening tomorrow or the next day.”
On Iran’s support for terrorism and proxies
Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 19, 2021:
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC): “Do you still consider Iran the largest state sponsor of terrorism?”
Blinken: “I do.”
Senator Todd Young (R-IN): “Last week, you no doubt saw that Secretary of State Pompeo made remarks pertaining to Iran in characterizing it as al Qaeda's new home. And the implications for the 2000 AUMF [Authorization for Use of Military Force] is something I'd like to explore with you. Do you believe, based on the connection that Secretary Pompeo makes between Iran and al Qaeda, that a Trump or a Biden administration would have authority to strike Iran? Or do you instead adopt the interpretation that if it's deemed necessary to engage in any sort of military action, it would be the president of the United States [who would] need to instead come before this body for authorization?”
Blinken: “It would be the latter. We would, I believe, need to and should in any event, come before the Congress in that situation. With regard to the statement the secretary made, that's something I intend to look into if confirmed very, very promptly. I haven't had a chance to see what's that what the underlying basis is for that. But obviously, that's something we'd have to take very, very seriously. Al Qaeda leadership has been in Iran for some time. At various points, it didn't have full freedom of movement. At other points it may have had the leash taken off a little bit, but what Secretary Pompeo cited publicly is something that I'd be very concerned with. But I have to look at what's underneath that.”
Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX): “In 2016, Congress overwhelmingly passed CAATSA [the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act], which imposed mandatory terrorism sanctions on Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. And we've since discovered the vast money in Iran that is intertwined with the IRGC. In particular, the financial sector, including Iran's central bank and the energy sector, including the national Iranian oil company. Both of these sectors and entities have now been sanctioned under the terrorism authorities for funneling money to the IRGC. The Pentagon also has assessed that the IRGC is responsible for killing at least 603 Americans in Iraq. Do you believe it is in America's national security interest to lift those terrorism sanctions and to allow billions of dollars to go once again to funding terrorist activities?”
Blinken: “I do not. And I think that there is nothing, as I see it, inconsistent with making sure that we are doing everything possible, including the toughest possible sanctions to deal with Iranian support for terrorism, its own engagement in that, and the nuclear agreement. And we said from the outset, and we're serious about it, that the nuclear agreement was one thing, but continuing and even strengthening our ability to push back and to deal effectively with Iran's egregious behavior, including in the terrorism realm, was something that we needed and should do.
“Part of the challenge now, I think we have, senators – because we've had this divorce to some extent from some of our allies and partners who ideally would be with us in pushing back against Iran's malicious activities as a result of disagreeing over getting out of the nuclear deal – we are less effective than we might otherwise be in those other areas if we were working together. I think one of the benefits, should Iran choose to come back into compliance, and we wound up doing the same thing, is that we would at least be back on the same page with allies and partners, and that might make us more effective in dealing with these problems.”
On Iran's human rights abuses
Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 19, 2021:
Cruz: “You mentioned it was a priority defending LGBT rights. Iran's record concerning the LGBT community is horrific. And they put to death, they execute people for the crime of being homosexual.”
Blinken: “And I agree with you.”
Cruz: “As long as they maintain that barbaric and inhumane policy. Do you think it's appropriate for a Biden administration to allow billions of dollars to go to that regime?”
Blinken: “The biggest problem that we face with Iran, and I think that we unfortunately continue to face, and it may get worse again, is that with regard to all of the egregious actions that Iran takes that you rightly point out, across all of these areas, an Iran that has a nuclear weapon or has the capacity to develop one or the material for one in very short order risks acting with even greater impunity than it already does. So, I think the first order of business has to be to get that back in the box. That puts us in a much better position to try to deal with some of these truly egregious actions.”
Risch: “We also didn't talk about bringing the American citizens home [from Iran]. I'm assuming you're all on board with that. And that's something that we that if indeed we wind up negotiating with them, that to me, that's really got to be in the first wave, I would think. So, I put that on your plate. Any comments on that?”
Blinken: “Mr. Chairman, I feel very strongly that I would have, as Secretary of State, first and foremost, the priority of making sure that our personnel, wherever they are, are safe and secure. But very high up in the in the hierarchy of things that I need to be responsible for doing is everything we possibly can to bring any American home who is being unjustly detained anywhere in the world or as a hostage, including in Iran. That has to be a priority.”
On the U.S. killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani
Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 19, 2021:
Blinken: “No one is shedding a tear for the demise of Qassem Soleimani. And certainly when I was last in office, I saw firsthand the blood that he had on his hands. So, no one regrets the fact that he's no longer there. I think from where I sat, Senator, the question is not whether taking him out was the right thing to do. It was gaming out what might be the consequences and asking ourselves whether on balance, we would be left safer or not in taking that action. Previous administrations, including the Bush administration and the Obama administration, concluded that we wouldn't be.
“And I think what we saw after his death, including attacks on our positions in Iraq that left dozens, if not hundreds of Americans with brain injuries. The fact that our forward posts in Iraq that were there to prevent the reemergence of ISIL had to pull back because of concerns that Iranian backed militia after Soleimani's death would attack them. The fact that we are talking about apparently closing our embassy in Baghdad again for fear of the actions of these militia, and the fact that we've seen Iran acting out in a whole variety of ways because we're not the only actor in this drama. I think on balance that that action actually left us less safe, not more safe.”