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Eli Lake: So far, Biden’s Iran policy isn’t Trump’s — or Obama’s

9March 2021

When it comes to President Joe Biden’s Iran policy, the safest thing to say is that it’s a work in progress.

On the one hand, the Biden administration is trying to quietly induce Iran to re-enter negotiations over the 2015 nuclear accord the previous president abandoned in 2018. On the other, the administration authorized air strikes in Syria recently against facilities it said were associated with Iranian-backed militias that launched rocket attacks last month against a U.S. base in northern Iraq.

One way to divine Biden’s true intentions is to examine the records of his foreign policy nominees — specifically, Colin Kahl and Wendy Sherman. Veterans of former President Barack Obama’s administration, both played important roles in negotiating the nuclear deal. Once out of government, both predicted that the decision to withdraw from that deal would prove to be disastrous.

This is why it’s worth noting that both Kahl and Sherman — he is nominated for undersecretary of defense for policy, she for deputy secretary of state — have gone out of their way in their confirmation hearings to placate concerns about the deal from both Republicans and centrist Democrats. Both have said that Biden intends to address the deal’s many flaws, not simply to restore it.

When pressed last week by Sen. Mitt Romney on the nuclear bargain she helped negotiate, Sherman was more conciliatory than she was six years ago. Since the agreement’s limits on uranium enrichment expire over time, Romney argued, the nuclear deal does not prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon so much as delay it.

As a member of the Obama administration, Sherman might have simply brushed off this criticism. Last week, she said that while she still viewed the objective of the agreement as preventing Iran from obtaining a weapon, “I do completely understand” why many members of Congress did and do not. “If Iran continued to make fissile material, the stuff that goes inside the nuclear weapons,” she said, “having that ability gives them the option should they choose to go there.”

Sherman herself has said repeatedly since leaving government that there was no real chance of getting a better deal than the one she helped negotiate. She has now promised to work with Congress to eventually strengthen that deal.

Kahl’s hearing was also instructive. Outside of government, Kahl was a prolific tweeter. Many Republican senators reminded him of some past tweets that have aged poorly — from predicting that moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem would make Israeli-Arab cooperation much harder to his warning that the 2020 air strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani would lead to a regional war.

On Thursday, Sen. James Inhofe asked if Kahl believed the world was a better place without Soleimani in it. “I think it probably is,” Kahl responded. At the time of the strike, he explained, he “was concerned about the escalatory dynamics.” Later in the hearing, Kahl praised U.S.-Israeli cooperation and said he did not favor moving the U.S. embassy from Jerusalem.

Of course, Kahl and Sherman have an incentive to be conciliatory right now. In a 50-50 Senate, if Biden loses even a single Democrat, their nominations could be scuttled. That’s what happened to Neera Tanden, Biden’s choice to run the Office of Management and Budget.

At the same time, progressive foreign policy groups are beginning to worry about Biden’s intentions on Iran. Last week 32 progressive organizations wrote Biden and urged him to reverse course and drop his demand that Iran return to compliance before lifting nuclear sanctions. Prominent arms control analyst Joe Cirincione tweeted last week that he hoped Sherman’s response to Romney was just an effort to win confirmation and lamented that she “refuses to defend the Iran deal she negotiated.”

How much is Biden willing to defend the 2015 nuclear deal as his administration seeks to both deter Iran’s regional escalations and lure Iran back to nuclear negotiations? It will be a delicate balancing act — one that was previewed last week in Kahl and Sherman’s confirmation hearings.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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