Rubio, Risch block Obama nominee over 'backchannel' talks with Iran

Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and James Risch (R-Idaho) are holding up a vote on a State Department nominee over his involvement in backchannel talks with Iran that have infuriated Republicans, The Hill has learned.

The Republican lawmakers prevented the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from voting Wednesday to confirm White House Iran adviser Puneet Talwar as the new assistant secretary of State for political military affairs.

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Talwar was one of several U.S. officials who met in secret with Iranian negotiators in Oman in 2012 and 2013 before multilateral talks officially resumed following President Hassan Rouhani's election in June.

“Sen. Rubio is requesting additional information from Mr. Talwar about his role in the so-called 'backchannel' outreach to Iran,” a Rubio spokeswoman told The Hill in an email.

Risch also asked for the hold, a spokeswoman said.

"That is an issue regarding the backdoor negotiations the admin started with the Iranians months ago that Talwar helped lead from the national security staff but they haven’t been completely honest about," she said. 

Rubio grilled Talwar on the issue during his nomination hearing in December. He demanded to know if other issues, such as human rights and support for terrorism, were discussed.

“It focused exclusively on the nuclear issue, so there were no other side discussions underway,” Talwar responded. “And it was merged [with the multi-party talks] after the conversations gained traction.”

Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has accused the State Department of lying when it denied the existence of bilateral talks during a press briefing in February.

“The administration claimed not to be in negotiations with Iran, when they in fact were,” Salmon told Secretary of State John Kerry when Kerry came to brief lawmakers about the Iran deal in December. “Your department intentionally misled the American people about these negotiations taking place behind closed doors. So how can we have the confidence that the information you’re giving us now is on the level?”

Rubio and Risch also blocked the nominations of Rose Gottemoeller to be under secretary of State for arms control and international security and Frank Rose to be assistant secretary of State for verification and compliance. 

“Senator Rubio remains concerned about a number of issues related to Ms. Gottemoeller and Mr. Rose,” the Rubio spokeswoman told The Hill, “including the administration’s unwillingness to definitively pledge that militarily significant reductions to the U.S. nuclear arsenal would only be carried out through a treaty subject to the advice and consent of the Senate.”

Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) made it clear he plans to hold a vote on the nominees soon.

“We need to get these people moved,” he said. “I think some of the concerns members have, and I respect that, are necessarily beyond [the nominees'] pay grade. In any event we cannot be able to move forward on some of these critical areas of arms control and international security, and verification and compliance, without having people in those positions.”

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