Senate presses Biden’s pick for secretary of State on Iran, China, Russia and Yemen
President-elect Biden’s nominee for secretary of State, Antony Blinken, participated in a marathon confirmation hearing with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, as part of efforts to quickly put in place the administration’s national security team.
Blinken, who served as staff director of the committee between 2002 and 2008 before joining the Obama administration in senior national security roles, was praised by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for his commitment to public service and his experience in foreign policy and government.
Blinken also served as Deputy Secretary of State during the Obama administration.
Outgoing-chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator James Risch (R-Idaho), called for a Senate vote on Blinken’s confirmation as soon as possible to have Biden’s national security team in place. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) affirmed that he would vote in favor of Blinken’s confirmation.
Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the incoming chair of the Senate panel, praised Blinken’s appearance before the committee and called for a quick vote to confirm his position at the head of the State Department.
“I look forward to moving Secretary Blinken’s nomination through the full Senate as expeditiously as possible,” Menendez said in a statement.
The hearing, which lasted for more than four and a half hours, was generally agreeable and friendly, with Republican and Democratic lawmakers largely expressing consensus with Blinken’s answers to pressing foreign policy stances.
The strongest pushback came from lawmakers seeking details on Biden’s promise to rejoin the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Biden has said he will return to the deal that President Trump withdrew from in 2018 if Iran, which has breached many of the terms of the agreement, returned to compliance.
The top Republican and Democratic members on the committee spoke out against Biden’s commitment to join the deal at a starting point for negotiations, pressing Blinken on how the administration is planning to deal with Tehran’s other malign activity, including its ballistic missile program, funding of proxy fighters across the Middle East, and human rights abuses.
“Any new deal with Iran must address all the facets of Iranian bad behavior,” Sen. Risch said in his opening remarks, and called for the Biden administration to submit any new deal with Tehran as a treaty to the Senate for ratification.
Treaty ratification requires a two-thirds majority of votes in the Senate, of which the Democrats have only 51 seat majority, with Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris expected to be the tie-breaking vote amid controversial legislation.
Blinken committed to robust consultations with Congress on Iran and for engaging allies like Israel and Gulf Arab nations over Biden’s push to engage Tehran to rein in its nuclear ambitions.
But the Secretary-designate emphasized that the administration’s goal is to first constrain Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon as priority over addressing other malign activity.
“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,” he said.
Lawmakers also pressed Blinken on how the Biden administration plans to confront China.
“As we look at China, there is no doubt that it poses the most significant challenge of any nation state to the United States,” Blinken said, calling it an adversarial and competitive challenge but with areas of cooperation when it serves U.S. interests.
Blinken called for engaging allies in confronting China from a position of strength and rejoining international organizations, like the World Health Organization, to push back on China’s efforts to exert its influence. He further supported investing in the U.S. military to deter any aggression from Beijing.
Blinken said he also agreed with the assessment that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Tuesday that China is engaged in genocide against its minority-Muslim Uighur population and called for taking actions, such as blocking imports of commodities that could have been made with forced labor and blocking U.S. exports of techonlogy that could be used for the surveilance and oppression of this community in China.
On Russia, one of the first priorities of the Biden administration is to extend the New START treaty with Moscow, Blinken said, the treaty that puts a cap on nuclear missile capabilities and that is set to expire next month. The treaty allows for an extension of up to five years.
“This is something that we will have to tackle, but only when the President-elect becomes president tomorrow,” Blinken said, adding that it is his intention to come to Congress “immediately” to consult on extending the treaty.
“We will see the extension, the president-elect has to decide on the duration,” Blinken said.
The secretary-designate said that the Biden administration is committed to ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and will work on that “in very short order.”
Blinken said if confirmed he would review immediately the designation by the Trump administration of the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen as a terrorist organization, criticizing the move as achieving “nothing practical” in efforts to stop Houthi atrocities against its peoples and engage it in a diplomatic solution, while harming efforts to provide humanitarian assistance.
“We would propose to review that immediately, to make sure that what we are doing is not impeding the provision of humanitarian assistance,” Blinken said.
To lines of Republican questioning, Blinken affirmed support for the Trump administration’s delivery of lethal assistance to Ukraine that was not provided during the Obama administration, offered support for the breakthrough in relations between Serbia and Kosovo achieved last year and pledged to build upon the diplomatic agreement known as the Abraham Accords, relations between Israel and majority-Arab and Muslim-country’s that occurred throughout last year.
“No party has a monopoly on good ideas,” Blinken said. “And I hope that working together, we can pull all the good ideas from both sides of the aisle to try to advance the security and well-being of the American people abroad. I welcome doing that.”