Foreign Policy

Obama’s Iran Deal Looms Massive in Senate Hearings for Key Biden Picks

Two Obama administration veterans face a reckoning over their work on the Iran nuclear deal this week as they seek senior national security posts in U.S. President Joe Biden’s Defense and State Departments.

Wendy Sherman, Biden’s nominee to be the deputy secretary of state, and Colin Kahl, nominee to be the Pentagon’s top policy official, both face Senate confirmation hearings this week where they are expected to be grilled on their work negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and Biden’s new approach to the United States’ top Middle Eastern rival. Some Democratic lawmakers and former Obama officials have lauded both picks, saying they are well-qualified for the jobs. Republicans, however, are signaling their skepticism of the nominees, raising the stakes in a divided Senate where there is little margin for error. 

Both hearings for the former officials who previously served under President Barack Obama will be a test of whether Congress will get a seat at the table as Biden tries to restart talks with Iran. Top congressional Republicans have made clear what they would like to see in a new agreement: addressing Iran’s ballistic missile program and proxy groups, giving Israel and Arab partners a voice in the talks, and avoiding artificial deadlines in a rush to clinch a deal. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowed to consult closely with Congress and Israel, Washington’s closest ally in the Middle East, on Iran during his confirmation hearing in January.

The Biden administration said it is ready to recommit to the agreement as a start, including sanctions relief, if Iran does the same, all with the goal of preventing the country from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Officials have dubbed the proposal “compliance for compliance.” 

“If Iran resumes full compliance with the JCPOA, we will be prepared to do the same, we will meet our commitments under JCPOA,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a press briefing on Tuesday, referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the formal name for the 2015 nuclear accord. Former President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the agreement in 2018.

Some on Capitol Hill see the effort to move ahead with new talks as a test of the Biden administration’s pledges of bipartisanship on foreign policy, and they are hoping for the president’s national security picks involved in the 2015 deal to be reflective about its perceived failings.  

“Biden should also reconsider his nomination to senior national security positions of former Obama administration officials who were directly involved in negotiating the original Iran deal, as well as those who promoted it,” Sen. Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, wrote in Foreign Policy last month. “Unless these nominees can demonstrate that they have learned from their previous mistakes, their confirmation process in the Senate will be difficult—and rightly so.”

Proponents of reopening negotiations say that Trump’s so-called “maximum pressure” strategy on Iran backfired, as Tehran is closer to producing a nuclear weapon now than when Trump first took office. 

Kahl appears set to face the sharpest opposition from Republican lawmakers, who say they are concerned over his past support of the Iran nuclear deal. In a statement last week, a spokesperson for Inhofe said that the former Trump administration ally had “serious concerns with some of the policy positions” that Kahl had taken in the past. 

Kahl, a close aide to Biden during the Obama administration, spent much of the Trump years as a professor at Stanford University and became an outspoken defender of the Iran deal in op-eds and on social media. He also took to the pages of Foreign Policy and other publications to advocate for high-level talks between the United States and Iran as Trump dialed up more political, economic, and military pressure on Tehran. 

Some question the motivations behind Republican opposition to Kahl on Capitol Hill, especially since other architects of the Iran deal, such as newly minted Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director-designate Bill Burns, sailed through their respective confirmation hearings with little pushback and few questions about their support of the nuclear pact. 

“I don’t think this has anything to do with Colin,” one former senior Trump administration official close to the Armed Services panel told Foreign Policy. “They wanted a scalp and for some reason they picked [him].” 

Sherman faces skeptical Republicans in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee but doesn’t appear to face the same levels of pushback as Kahl, Senate aides familiar with the matter said. “The concern with Sherman is not as high as the concern with Kahl,” said one. “But her confirmation is not a done deal.”

Sherman, an academic and diplomat, has been a fixture in Democratic foreign-policy circles for decades, serving in senior roles at the State Department under both Obama and President Bill Clinton. Under Clinton, she served as policy coordinator on North Korea during negotiations on the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Under Obama, Sherman was undersecretary of state for political affairs, the department’s third-ranking post, and a chief nuclear negotiator for the Iran nuclear deal. 

Sherman has many supporters in the diplomatic world as well. A group of over 100 former senior diplomats sent a letter on Monday to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee praising Sherman and urging her swift confirmation. 

“It would be hard to think of a more qualified candidate for the second-ranking position in the State Department than Ambassador Sherman,” read the letter, which was obtained by Foreign Policy. “In the State Department, she is remembered as someone who worked closely with its career employees, made good use of their talents and mentored many. She earned their loyalty and respect.”

Among those who signed the letter was James Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey and Trump’s former special envoy for Syria; former Undersecretaries of State Paula Dobriansky and Thomas Shannon; and Marie Yovanovitch, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

During the Senate hearing scheduled for Wednesday, Republican lawmakers are expected to press Sherman on how much say Congress will have on any new nuclear negotiations with Iran. 

“Congressional buy-in will ensure that a future agreement has the longevity to survive successive administrations,” five senior Republican lawmakers including Sen. James Risch, the ranking Republican on the foreign relations committee, wrote in a letter to Biden on Feb. 26. “The failure of the Obama administration to secure bipartisan consensus behind the JCPOA doomed the deal when a Republican became president,” they wrote. 

“Our first order of business in seeking to ensure we have permanent  verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear program is to consult closely with our allies, with our partners, and with members of Congress,” one State Department official said. “And we’ve been doing that almost since day one.”

Several Senate aides said that some lawmakers have already made up their mind about whether to support Sherman, but several key Republican lawmakers are on the fence—and withholding their decision until they can question her during the hearing. 

Some on the Democratic side see opposition to Sherman as less about her qualifications and more about politics.  

“There is no doubt that some Republicans are salivating at the sight of any opportunity to outflank each other in opposition to the Biden administration, particularly when it comes to Iran,” said one Democratic aide, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Being anti-Biden is a launching pad for how they do their job nowadays, and someone like Wendy Sherman gives them the perfect chance to appeal to the MAGA base.”

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