On January 19, 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 future diplomacy
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 February 18: “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.”
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.”