Key Biden Cabinet nominees say US ‘a long way’ from Iran deal re-entry

Incoming administration will demand compliance with accord before returning to the deal

Antony Blinken, U.S. secretary of state nominee for U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, listens during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C. U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 19. 2021. Biden's pick to lead the State Department promised to revitalize alliances and approach the world with humility, offering a contrast with current outgoing secretary of state. Photographer: Alex Edelman/AFP/Bloomberg
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Two of US president-elect Joe Biden's Cabinet nominees said on Tuesday that the US and Iran were "a long way" from reviving the nuclear deal from which President Donald Trump withdrew in 2018.

Mr Biden's nominees for secretary of state and intelligence chief repeated during their respective Senate confirmation hearings that the incoming administration's pledge to re-enter the deal would be contingent on Iran returning to compliance with the accord.

It may take some time before that happens, they said.

“The president-elect believes that if Iran goes back into compliance, we would, too,” Antony Blinken, Mr Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, told the Senate.

“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, particularly with regard to missiles and Iran’s destabilising activities.

“Having said that, I think we’re a long way from there. We would have to see once the president is in office what steps Iran actually takes – is prepared to take.

"We would have to evaluate whether they’re actually making good if they say they’re coming back into compliance with their obligations.”

Mr Blinken's comments on the deal mirrored remarks from Avril Haines, Mr Biden's nominee for director of national intelligence, during her confirmation hearing.

"The president-elect has indicated that if Iran were to come back into compliance, then he would direct that we do so as well," she said.

"I think, frankly, we're a long way from that and I think that there's going to be an opportunity to consult with Congress and members like yourself on these issues as we look at that."

The Senate must vote to confirm Mr Blinken and Ms Haines, as well as Mr Biden’s other Cabinet nominees, before they can take their posts.

As part of that process, detractors and proponents of the nuclear deal alike are keenly pressing the nominees on the Biden administration’s Iran policies.

Mr Blinken was instrumental in crafting the nuclear deal as deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration. The deal offered Iran relief from US sanctions in exchange for limits on Tehran's nuclear programme.

Mr Trump withdrew from the accord in 2018 and added more penalties to the Obama-era sanctions. Iran, in turn, went on to breach major parts of the deal.

These breaches include resuming uranium enrichment at 20 per cent purity, increasing Tehran's low-enriched uranium stockpile by 12 times the amount allowed under the accord and testing advanced centrifuges.

"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 [nuclear deal] to about three or four months," Mr Blinken said.

“That potentially brings us right back to the crisis point that we were reaching before the deal was negotiated.”

Mr Blinken also committed to building upon the Abraham Accord, which normalised relations between the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

But he said the Biden administration would "take a hard look" at some of the commitments the Trump administration made to some of those states before they signed the accord.

Senators from both parties also grilled Mr Blinken and Mr Biden's other Cabinet nominees extensively on China.

"China had a policy for decades, as we describe it, as hiding their hand and biding their time in terms of asserting their interests beyond China's borders, leaving aside what they were doing within their borders," Mr Blinken said.

“The hiding and biding has gone away and they are much more assertive in making clear that they seek to become, in effect, the leading country in the world.

“If we’re pulling back from the world, if we’re pulling back from playing the lead role in shaping the rules and the norms, that gives them a free field to define this century more on their terms than ours.”

Mr Blinken also said that he considered China's policies towards its predominantly Muslim Uighur minority to be genocide, indicating that he would not undo the determination made by outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday.